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

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The Parable


The novel opens with a parable presented by a Chinese woman living in America. While in China she had purchased a “swan” from a vendor, who boasted that the animal was actually a duck that had stretched itself out because of a strong desire to change. The woman bought the “swan” to take with her to America because it represented her hope for a bright future in her new country. On landing in America, the immigration officials took the swan from the woman. She managed to save one of the swan’s feathers, which she hoped to give to a future daughter.

As she had hoped, the Chinese woman had a daughter, who became very Americanized and grew up to speak fluent English. Now the two of them are unable to really communicate, for the mother speaks little English, and the daughter does not know Chinese. Additionally, they cannot understand the each other’s lifestyle. The daughter resents her mother’s traditional Chinese ways, and the mother cannot understand why her daughter does not appreciate the suffering she has endured for her sake.


This is only the first of four parables in the book, for Amy Tan effectively uses a parable to introduce each of the four sections of The Joy Luck Club. This opening parable depicts America as a land of opportunity, where people can achieve greatness. As she sails to American, clutching her “lucky swan,” the Chinese woman is filled with hope. She envisions a bright future for herself. She also envisions having a successful daughter who speaks perfect English. The woman’s wish for a daughter comes true.

The symbol of the swan is very significant; desiring to be something better than it was, the duck changed itself into the swan. As the Chinese woman leaves for America, she also wants to change herself into something better and believes her new country will offer her and her future daughter a wealth of opportunity. Upon landing in America, the woman quickly learns that all will not go smoothly or easily. Her treasured swan is stripped from her by immigration officials, and she is left with only a feather. She dreams of giving the feather to her future daughter. Ironically, the daughter becomes so Americanized that she cannot communicate with her mother, for the daughter speaks only English and the mother speaks only Chinese.

Language is not the only barrier between mother and daughter. The daughter has grown up in America, where life has been relatively easy and sorrows have been relatively few. The woman, on the other hand, has struggled greatly and remembers sorrow well. Her life has been shaped by a Chinese upbringing and a set of circumstances her daughter will never understand. The disparity of thoughts and experiences between mother and daughter is a theme that permeates the entire novel.

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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Book Notes Summary

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