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

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The plot of The Joy Luck Club is both loose and complex. It is really a group of separate stories woven around the members of a ladiesí club, located in San Franciscoís Chinatown. The disparate stories are held together by the fact that all four of the women have daughters of approximately the same age and background. Although each of the daughters is Chinese by heritage, they were all born in the United States and have become very Americanized. Each of the mothers has difficulty trying to understand her modernized daughter and struggles to instill in each of them Chinese traditions and values. In addition, each of the four mothers in the novel suffered greatly in their previous life in China and feels bonded to each other by the struggles. Each, however, handles the suffering in a different way.

The novel, which is about four mothers and their four daughters, is appropriately divided into four sections, each of which is divided into four parts. Each of the sections is introduced by a parable that relates to the four parts that follow it. Then each of the four parts is told by a different mother or daughter. The parts (or chapters) are always narrated in first person in the present tense; but each part is filled with flashbacks. The mothers usually look back to their experiences in China, and the daughters reflect on their childhoods.

Since the book is really a series of stories, the plot is not unified by time, place, or character. Since much of the book consists of flashbacks, the time of the novel spans several decades. Although the current tale is all set in or around San Francisco, there are diverse locations, including the homes of the mothers and their adult daughters. The setting also encompasses China, for the flashbacks are often set there, and Jing-Mei and her father travel there in the last chapter of the book. Additionally, the book is not unified by character. Instead, it is a complex tale of four mothers and four daughters, most of whom narrate at least two of the chapters; therefore, even the point of view changes throughout the book.

In spite of the looseness of the plot, Amy Tan does a marvelous job of weaving the separate stories into a whole. The book begins and ends with Jing-Mei telling the story of her mother, Suyuan; she also narrates two additional chapters within the novel. Jing-Meiís story becomes related to all the others in the novel, for she takes the place of Suyuan in the Joy Luck Club and learns about the past of An-Mei, Ying-ying, and Lindo. Jing-Mei also knows the other daughters. In fact, when Jing-Mei was a young girl, Suyuan constantly held Waverly up to her as a model to emulate.

The novel is further unified by theme. Each of the mothers strives to instill in her daughter their Chinese heritage and customs. Each of the daughters, who want to be Americans, resists being Chinese. By the end of the novel, however, Jing-Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose all have a better appreciation of their mothers and the tradition in which they were raised. The similarity of their experiences is the final unifying factor that holds the loose plot together into a complex whole.


Major Theme

The major theme in the novel is the difficulty of preserving oneís heritage and culture when one immigrates to a foreign country. Although all four of the mothers (Suyuan, Ying-ying, An-Mei, and Lindo) have terrible experiences in China, they love their native land even after they come to America. When they have children, they try to teach them about China and its customs and traditions. The children, however, are not really interested in the past. Born in America, Jing-Mei, Lena, Rose, and Waverly all want to minimize their Chinese appearance and heritage. They all want to look like and be accepted as Americans. During the course of the novel, each of the daughters realizes the strength and dignity of her mother and, to differing degrees, learns to appreciate her Chinese heritage.

The four mothers all want the best for their daughters. They want them to have all the advantages that America has to offer, but they also want them to live their Chinese heritage and exemplify the Chinese values. All four mothers, however, feel that their daughters have become so Americanized that they have lost their ways. The mothers realize that the daughters struggle with who they are because they have never had to fight or suffer. Life has been easy for them; as a result, they have not built the strength or character that Suyuan, An-Mei, Ying-ying, and Lindo were forced to build because of what they endured in China and what they had to endure as first generation immigrants to America.

The mothers finally tell their daughters about their suffering in hopes of inspiring them and giving them strength. When the daughters begin to appreciate the spirits of their mothers and their Chinese heritage, they become stronger and happier women. In accepting their past and blending it with their present identify, Jing-Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose all become more whole people.

Minor Theme

Appearance vs. reality is the main minor theme of the novel. All the daughters appear educated and enlightened, completely Americanized; but underneath the appearance, each of them is incomplete and unfulfilled. Although they appear to be happy and content, the reality is that they are all unhappy. Jing-Mei is unmarried and works at an unfulfilling copywriting job. Waverly is divorced from her first husband and is planning to soon remarry. Lena and Harold live together as husband and wife, but he is totally insensitive to her and displays no affection or love. Roseís husband, Ted, has announced that he wants a divorce, for he is in love with another woman. All of them lead lives that are somewhat shallow. They also live artificial lives as they try to downplay their Chinese appearance and heritage.

Because the daughters want to appear American rather than Chinese, there is conflict between them and their mothers. Suyuan, An-Mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying all want their daughters to be proud of their Chinese heritage and practice their values and traditions. When the daughters refuse, the mothers are frustrated and appear to be failures. In reality, each of the mothers teaches her daughter a great deal about the Chinese way of thinking and living. By the end of the book, Jing-Mei, Waverly, Lena, and Rose have all successfully blended some part of their motherís Chinese spirit into themselves.

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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Book Notes Summary

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