Mothers and daughters have a special connection in this book through flesh and spirit. It is as though daughters and mothers share one flesh all their lives, and not just when daughters are in the womb. They take on different roles depending on cultural demands. In China, the mothers are expected to be obedient wives and to never openly challenge authority. In America, the daughters are independent, have the option of divorcing and taking most any job, and come from the baby boomer generation, which often prides itself on challenging authority. When the daughter in the prologue of Queen Mother of the Western Skies looks in the mirror, because she is sitting with one mirror in front of her and one at her back, she sees infinite reflections of her own face. This makes her realize that she is part of one multifaceted spirit that extends forever into past and future generations. While her country of residence, job, marriage, and language may be different from her mother's, they are still connected irrevocably, as will be the case with her own daughter.
The story of the swan is the ultimate symbol of the American Dream in the novel. The mothers want their daughters to have all the privileges they could not, but are disappointed that this in turn means their daughters will not truly understand them. The American Dream changes between the generations. For the mothers, it is creating a future full of privilege and success. For the daughters, it is the freedom to take their opportunities and do with them as little or as much as they want. The daughters' Americanness is reflected most strongly in their relationships with men. Ted, Harold, and especially Rich, represent the American part of their wives, which for the mothers seems frighteningly disconnected from Chinese thinking. Suyuan wants Jing-mei to be the perfect American girl like Shirley Temple, but resents how little Jing-mei understands about Chinese culture. As Lindo Jong explains, these are the perils of being "two-faced." Fitting in one place means not fitting in somewhere else, and the challenge for Chinese-American women is to find a balance that honors both cultures.
Surroundings and settings represent the state of things in the characters' lives. The first example of this pattern is the caves of Kweilin. When life is peaceful, they are breathtaking and wondrous, but during wartime they represent terror. While the caves protect the citizens of Kweilin, they make them all the more aware of their confinement and lack of freedom. Ying-ying sees this dichotomy in Lena's house. Signs of an unhappy marriage are reflected in the fact that the architecture and decoration are pretty but lack function. The irony, of course, is that both husband and wife work in architecture. They have all the skills to build a strong house and a strong marriage, but they cannot seem to use them. The unstable table represents the whole house and whole marriage. Like Harold and Lena's marriage, it has sentimental value and once seemed like the best table ever built. Now its flaws are all too obvious. Like the luxuries in the Huang household, those in Harold and Lena's house are just a cover for how things have gone rotten from the inside out. There is similar symbolism in Ted and Rose's garden. The house again represents marital unhappiness. It is as though when a couple does not address their flaws, the problems seep into their homes. Rose is like the garden she lets go to ruin; she is tired of having her hopes and self-worth pruned back by Ted. She must be like the weeds that creep into the stonework and eventually tear down the house and all it represents.
The fact that many of the mothers and daughters have unhappy marriages creates a common ground on which they can relate. But marriage has different meanings for each generation. For the mothers, it is permanent and not always based on love. Especialy in their marriages in China, it is a social necessity that they must secretly undermine in order to be happy. For the daughters, marriage is supposed to be the arena where they can be their true selves. However, like their mothers, they are hard-pressed to find true love or themselves in their marriages; rather, they must break up their marriages to find themselves. The one love that remains constant in the novel is that between mothers and daughters. No matter how strained it is by cultural and generational differences, it is indestructible. Love, like heritage, goes forward and backward through generations of females.
Reading the novel in English, we can forget that the mothers are speaking in Chinese. This fact shows how unimportant differences in language can be; mothers and daughters express themselves vividly whether in English or Chinese. However, this fact also reminds us how much of the mothers' intentions are lost to English speakers, including their daughters. They seem uneducated when they speak English, unable to pronunce words, but are really deep reservoirs of knowledge. Many things in Chinese culture have no real English equivalent, such as chunwang chihang and nengkan. These ideas seem foreign to the daughters; they understand them but often consider them specific to their mothers' generation. Thus language can be a barrier between people. Language can also be a bridge; for instance, Suyuan and Canning fall in love while learning English together, and it is the daughters' ability to understand Chinese that lets them glean their mothers' wisdom. In the end, the success of Jing-mei's journey is evident in language. Jing-mei finally learns the meaning of her own name and her mother's. She has been the key to fulfilling her mother's dream all along; her role as the ultimate bridge between the generations is encoded in her very name.
Both mothers and daughters believe in spirits and in reading signs, although the daughters can be reluctant to accept what they see. Superstition can make the mothers seem strange and outmoded to their daughters, but it also makes them aware of their deep spiritual inheritance. Mothers see it necessary to teach their daughters superstition, because they think their daughters are naturally blind to the spiritual world. Lena sees ghosts and Rose believes Old Man Chou in her dreams. Rose and Lena both see themselves as having the ability to change their fate by superstition, by chunwang chihan. But superstition also makes them feel helpless; Rose has the premonition that Bing will die but cannot do anything to stop it. In the same way, Lena sees her marriage falling apart but feels helpless to prevent it. In the end, the daughters' connection to their mothers comes through the ghosts of their ancestors. When she meets her sisters, Jing-mei realizes that she has been connected to her Chinese heritage all along in spirit, even if not in her actions. When Jing-mei and her sisters look at the Polaroid, they see themselves appear like ghosts out of the mist to become the striking image of Suyuan. By the end of the book Jing-mei, like the other daughters, realizes that she is just as much a part of her mother's spirit as she is of her flesh. Furthermore, she is the only one who can save her mother from becoming a ghost, by learning from her strength and keeping her heritage alive.
Physical sacrifice expresses how a mother and daughter are so close they are like one flesh. The story of An-mei Hsu's mother is the strongest example of this expression. First, she sacrifices flesh from her arm to honor her own mother, Popo. It is as though the pain is nothing compared to her obligation to her mother. An-mei Hsu's mother also sacrifices her body to Wu Tsing so that she can have at least some status instead of becoming a beggar. She does this so that An-mei can look up to her. Her suicide, while seemingly selfish, is the ultimate sacrifice she can make for An-mei. By killing herself, she is showing An-mei that being a second-rate concubine, used and disgraced, is no way to live. In dying, she gives An-mei the strength to carve her own path in life. Lindo sacrifices her pride and happiness to keep her parents' promise to Wu Tsing. Suyuan must sacrifice her daughters, abandoning them in order for them to have a chance at life. All of the mothers make a great sacrifice in leaving China in hopes of finding a better life for their daughters. Like the duck, they must stick their necks out in order to become swans. Once they have settled in America, both mothers and daughters are faced with another form of sacrifice. As Lindo Jong says, one always sacrifices part of oneself by putting on one's "American face" or one's "Chinese face." All the women have sacrificed the chance to be "fully" of one culture in order to struggle and revel in the space between cultures. This is the ultimate sacrifice they make for one another.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Challenges of Cultural Translation
Throughout The Joy Luck Club, the various narrators meditate on their inability to translate concepts and sentiments from one culture to another. The incomplete cultural understanding of both the mothers and the daughters owes to their incomplete knowledge of language. Additionally, the barriers that exist between the mothers and the daughters are often due to their inability to communicate with one another. Although the daughters know some Chinese words and the mothers speak some English, communication often becomes a matter of translation, of words whose intended meaning and accepted meaning are in fact quite separate, leading to subtle misunderstandings.
The first mention of this difficulty with translation occurs when Jing-mei relates the story of her mother’s founding of the Joy Luck Club. After attempting to explain the significance of the club’s name, Jing-mei recognizes that the concept is not something that can be translated. She points out that the daughters think their mothers are stupid because of their fractured English, while the mothers are impatient with their daughters who don’t understand the cultural nuances of their language and who do not intend to pass along their Chinese heritage to their own children. Throughout the book, characters bring up one Chinese concept after another, only to accept the frustrating fact that an understanding of Chinese culture is a prerequisite to understanding its meaning.
The Power of Storytelling
Because the barriers between the Chinese and the American cultures are exacerbated by imperfect translation of language, the mothers use storytelling to circumvent these barriers and communicate with their daughters. The stories they tell are often educational, warning against certain mistakes or giving advice based on past successes. For instance, Ying-ying’s decision to tell Lena about her past is motivated by her desire to warn Lena against the passivity and fatalism that Ying-ying suffered. Storytelling is also employed to communicate messages of love and pride, and to illumine one’s inner self for others.
Another use of storytelling concerns historical legacy. By telling their daughters about their family histories, the mothers ensure that their lives are remembered and understood by subsequent generations, so that the characters who acted in the story never die away completely. In telling their stories to their daughters, the mothers try to instill them with respect for their Chinese ancestors and their Chinese pasts. Suyuan hopes that by finding her long-lost daughters and telling them her story, she can assure them of her love, despite her apparent abandonment of them. When Jing-mei sets out to tell her half-sisters Suyuan’s story, she also has this goal in mind, as well as her own goal of letting the twins know who their mother was and what she was like.
Storytelling is also used as a way of controlling one’s own fate. In many ways, the original purpose of the Joy Luck Club was to create a place to exchange stories. Faced with pain and hardship, Suyuan decided to take control of the plot of her life. The Joy Luck Club did not simply serve as a distraction; it also enabled transformation—of community, of love and support, of circumstance. Stories work to encourage a certain sense of independence. They are a way of forging one’s own identity and gaining autonomy. Waverly understands this: while Lindo believes that her daughter’s crooked nose means that she is ill-fated, Waverly dismisses this passive interpretation and changes her identity and her fate by reinventing the story that is told about a crooked nose.
The Problem of Immigrant Identity
At some point in the novel, each of the major characters expresses anxiety over her inability to reconcile her Chinese heritage with her American surroundings. Indeed, this reconciliation is the very aim of Jing-mei’s journey to China. While the daughters in the novel are genetically Chinese (except for Lena, who is half Chinese) and have been raised in mostly Chinese households, they also identify with and feel at home in modern American culture. Waverly, Rose, and Lena all have white boyfriends or husbands, and they regard many of their mothers’ customs and tastes as old-fashioned or even ridiculous. Most of them have spent their childhoods trying to escape their Chinese identities: Lena would walk around the house with her eyes opened as far as possible so as to make them look European. Jing-mei denied during adolescence that she had any internal Chinese aspects, insisting that her Chinese identity was limited only to her external features. Lindo meditates that Waverly would have clapped her hands for joy during her teen years if her mother had told her that she did not look Chinese.
More main ideas from The Joy Luck Club