Free Study Guide: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan - BookNotes

Previous Page | Table of Contents | Next Page
Downloadable / Printable Version



Major Theme

The major theme of the novel is the difficulty of maintaining their native culture and a sense of their heritage when immigrants settle in America. They find that it is even more difficult to pass the culture and heritage down to their second-generation children, who are born and brought up in America. Although the Chinese mothers in the book struggle to retain their heritage, their Chinese-American daughters have little interest in things of the homeland. They want to be a part of the modern, liberal American society in which they have been raised; however, as they learn about their mothers’ varied experiences in China, the daughters begin to understand and accept their dual heritage.

Minor Theme

In developing the major theme, Tan develops and intertwines some important minor themes. The most important is the positive influence that a mother can have on her daughter. This is seen in the relationship between all four sets of Chinese women and their Americanized children. There is also a conflict between appearance and reality and a conflict between tradition and modernity.


Since much of the novel is written in flashback, the key mood of the book is nostalgic. As the mothers reflect on their lives in China and their early days in America, they share their emotions with their daughters, hoping to teach them about their heritage. In giving the histories of the mothers, the narrative is often sad and tragic, as it details incidents of rape, suicide, accidental death, and war.

The tales of the daughters also contain struggles for love, acceptance, and happiness. In spite of the predominance of sad emotions, there are many lights moments in the book, especially those having to do with language barriers and cultural gulfs. The mood of the book is also brightened by the hopes and dreams that the mothers have for their Chinese-American daughters.

Amy Tan - The Joy Luck Club Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
Amy Tan


Amy Tan, also known as An-Mei Tan, was born in Oakland, California, in 1952. She was the second of three children and the only daughter born to John and Daisy Tan. During her early years, Amy’s family moved from place to place, finally settling down in Santa Clara, California. Amy’s parents were quiet people, who kept largely to themselves. Amy, however, eagerly sought to mix and merge with the American society around her. She learned to resent her Chinese appearance, heritage, and customs, for she felt they kept her from being in mainstream America. Throughout her youth, she struggled to erase her Chinese identity. Life grew even more difficult for her when her father and her brother, Peter, died of brain tumors when she was only fifteen years old. Her mother moved her and her remaining brother, John, to Switzerland. The move simply made Amy more rebellious.

Amy was always a good student. When she was eight years old, she won an essay contest, which marked the beginning of her desire to become a writer. Her mother, however, wanted her to become a concert pianist or a neurosurgeon. The independent Amy followed her own desires. After graduating from high school in 1969, Amy enrolled in Linfield College in Oregon to study medicine. The next year she returned to California and pursued her studies at San Jose City College, where she changed her major to English and linguistics and began to write in earnest. She later transferred to San Jose State University and received a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters degree in Linguistics. Amy went on complete a doctoral program in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While still a student, she married Louis De Mattei, a tax attorney.

In 1976, Amy became a language-development consultant for the Alameda County Association for Retarded Citizens. Although she also spent time writing business publications, she wanted to write fiction. In 1986, after her mother was hospitalized following a heart attack, Amy wrote a short story called “End Game”. The story deals with a child prodigy and her strained relationship with her mother. Later, Amy expanded the story into a collection of tales and named it The Joy Luck Club. In May 1986, the book was published and was received with overwhelming response, including rave reviews; it was soon on the best-seller list. For the book, Amy was nominated for the National Book Award for fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award. She was honored with the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for fiction and the Commonwealth Club Gold Award.

After the resounding success of her first novel, in 1991 Amy wrote The Kitchen God’s Wife, which is based on the life of her mother. In 1992, Amy published The Moon Lady, a children’s book expanding on an episode from The Joy Luck Club. Amy next wrote China’s Boxer Rebellion; and The Hundred Secret Senses is her latest offering. Today she is acknowledged as one of the most successful writers in blending the old world and the new world into effective fiction.


The Joy Luck Club is a masterpiece that blends aspects of autobiography, fairy tale, history, and religion. Amy Tan uses and expands upon events from her own life, from her mother’s past, from Chinese tradition, from her religious upbringing, and from history to create her piece of fiction. She further adds elements of the fairy tale by the introducing the concepts of “good and evil” and “poetic justice” in stories like “The Red Candle,” “The Moon-Lady” and the “Scar.” Throughout the novel, there are also little parables and vignettes, included to teach a moral.

Amy’s parents came to America in 1940 in order to escape war-torn China. Settling in California, they lived in a Chinese community, largely isolating themselves from real American society. When they had children, they wanted them to become Americanized, while retaining their Chinese culture and character. They also stressed the importance of education, wanting their children to be successful. This upbringing is clearly captured in The Joy Luck Club. The Chinese mothers in the novel are very traditional themselves, but they want their daughters to be educated and successful. They also want them to possess a modern outlook and attitude, without abandoning their heritage. In essence, the mothers in the novel reflect the character of Daisy Tan, and the daughters exhibit the rebellious attitude of Amy Tan.

Previous Page | Table of Contents | Next Page
Downloadable / Printable Version

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Book Notes Summary

Cite this page: Staff. "TheBestNotes on The Joy Luck Club". . <% varLocale = SetLocale(2057) file = Request.ServerVariables("PATH_TRANSLATED") Set fs = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject") Set f = fs.GetFile(file) LastModified = f.datelastmodified response.write FormatDateTime(LastModified, 1) Set f = Nothing Set fs = Nothing %>