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The Joy Luck Club | Themes

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Mother-Daughter Relationships

The mother-daughter relationships in The Joy Luck Club are fraught with high expectations and many misunderstandings. These conflicts are typical of the struggle for control that underlies many mother-daughter relationships. The mothers push their daughters to improve their lives and the daughters push back, feeling that their mothers simply wish to control them.

However, the misunderstandings and miscommunications between the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club are also complicated by cultural differences. All of the mothers in the novel came to the United States to give their children better lives than the mothers had in China—as Lindo Jong says, they want to give their children "American circumstances and Chinese character." The mothers know it is possible to aspire to be anything in America no matter one's ancestry or social position. Yet not having experienced life in China, the daughters don't understand how good they have it in comparison to the sufferings their mothers endured. They also don't understand the value of their mothers' Chinese heritage and how many aspects of it could help them in their own lives. In fact the daughters often look down on their mothers for speaking in broken English or relying on Chinese traditions and beliefs that their daughters do not value or understand.

The daughters are more concerned with their own individuality and independence than with trying to understand how their mothers want to help them, or that their mothers are three-dimensional people with complex histories. Instead of appreciating their mothers' attempts to help them, the daughters think their mothers are living vicariously through them or want to control them. The mothers, in turn, feel dismissed and rejected by their daughters. Arguments ensue, and each party feels misunderstood.

The breaks in the mother-daughter relationships in The Joy Luck Club have somewhat healed by the end of the novel. All of the mothers who are still alive make a conscious effort to reach out to their daughters during their times of need, and for the first times in their lives the daughters are receptive. Age and perspective help them understand their mothers have never been their enemies. They are just "getting a little crabby" as they "[wait] patiently for [their] daughter[s] to invite [them] in."

Cultural Identity

The mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club are linked by genetics and heritage, but they vary greatly in how they view their cultural identity. The mothers, all born in China to Chinese parents, consider themselves Chinese. The daughters, who all have at least one Chinese parent, were born in the United States. They consider themselves to be American, and indeed their mothers want them to have the better life they believe the country affords them. It is a difficult balance to keep the Chinese traditions alive by passing them down to the offspring while also allowing the children to embrace the new culture. Often the old culture is neglected in favor of the new. So the daughters in the novel are often ignorant about or contemptuous of their mothers' heritage or their lives in China.

The mothers, however, are the product of this heritage, and their roots in China are deeply meaningful to them and to their identities. The women often have feelings of guilt related to their own ancestry and a sense of American superiority that they have perhaps subconsciously conveyed to their daughters. While the novel specifically deals with such feelings in the context of Chinese immigrants, mixed feelings about personal heritage, identity, pride, guilt, shame, and hope are common to many women in the latter part of the 20th century when their cultural roles and expectations are changing rapidly. These cultural differences frequently cause strife between the mothers and daughters in the novel that many readers respond to with great understanding.

There are also instances in which one's culture, rather than a clash of different cultures, creates personal turmoil. All of the mothers suffer from the expectations of traditional Chinese culture for women. A few of the mothers, for example, feel pressure to be "perfect" Chinese women. Others, like Lindo Jong, are married off at a young age to questionable men who mistreat or abandon them. All of the women are taught it is better to repress one's true self and be obedient than to question one's circumstances or act to change them. However, the daughters also struggle with the pressures of culture. In many cases they are in limbo, trapped between the culture of their families and the culture of their homeland. Uninterested in their parents' heritage as children, the daughters become adults who have only a few loose connections to what it means to be Chinese. Nor does being American prevent the women from struggling to deal with their own problems or from needing their mothers' help to resolve them.

Sacrifice

The mothers in The Joy Luck Club make enormous sacrifices for their children, most of whom don't appreciate these sacrifices until later in life. All the members of the Joy Luck Club left their homes in China so their offspring could have better lives than they themselves had. They left their language, their traditions, and their families. Suyuan Woo actually left two of Jing-mei's half-sisters behind. The women came to an unfamiliar country where they knew no one and could communicate with just a small subsection of the population. Acclimatizing themselves to a new way of life wasn't easy, and though they have all lived in the United States for 40 or so years, it still doesn't entirely feel like home.

Sacrifices come in many different forms. An-mei's mother makes the ultimate physical sacrifice for her children—she kills herself to ensure An-mei and Syaudi have a better life than she could provide were she to remain alive. An-mei revisits her own painful marital history to reconnect with her "tiger spirit" and pass that spirit on to her daughter, Rose, so she can assert herself and recognize her self-worth. Suyuan has to leave her twin baby daughters behind in hope of saving their lives, never to see them again. Lindo Jong supports her daughter Waverly's rise to become a successful chess champion, an unusual pursuit for a young girl, only to have Waverly reject her as interfering and then lose her chess career. These sacrifices are all made without a complaint, even when they aren't received well. Those sacrificing of themselves see their actions as a duty of motherhood and the ultimate display of affection. As the recipients age and gain a greater understanding of their mothers, they realize what a powerful sign of love the mothers' sacrifices really are.

Legacy

Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club in response to her mother's question, "If I die, what will you remember?" The mothers of the Joy Luck Club wonder the same thing of their daughters. When the remaining members tell Jing-mei Woo they want her to go to China to meet her half-sisters and tell them all about her mother, she protests, "I don't know anything. She was my mother." The aunts are distressed. Jing-mei could have been any of their daughters, "just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America." The mothers' greatest wishes are for their daughters to know them—their struggles, their joys, and their pains—so the daughters themselves understand where they came from and how to get further in life than their parents did. Their lives are their legacies, and each story told within the novel adds to their daughters' understanding of their mothers as well as themselves.

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