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Major Theme of The Joy Luck Club

The Changing Legacy of Women


Mothers and daughters have a special connection in this book through fesh and
spirit. It is as though daughters and mothers share one fesh all their lives, and
not just when daughters are in the womb. They take on diferent roles depending
on cultural demands. In China, the mothers are epected to be obedient wives
and to never openly challenge authority. In !merica, the daughters are
independent, have the option o" divorcing and taking most any job, and come
"rom the baby boomer generation, which o"ten prides itsel" on challenging
authority. #hen the daughter in the prologue o" Queen Mother of the Western
Skies looks in the mirror, because she is sitting with one mirror in "ront o" her and
one at her back, she sees in$nite refections o" her own "ace. This makes her
reali%e that she is part o" one multi"aceted spirit that etends "orever into past
and "uture generations. #hile her country o" residence, job, marriage, and
language may be diferent "rom her mother&s, they are still connected
irrevocably, as will be the case with her own daughter.
Assimilation and the American Dream
The story o" the swan is the ultimate symbol o" the !merican 'ream 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 !merican 'ream changes between the generations. (or the mothers, it
is creating a "uture "ull o" privilege and success. (or the daughters, it is the
"reedom to take their opportunities and do with them as little or as much as they
want. The daughters& !mericanness is refected most strongly in their
relationships with men. Ted, )arold, and especially *ich, represent the !merican
part o" their wives, which "or the mothers seems "righteningly disconnected "rom
Chinese thinking. +uyuan wants ,ing-mei to be the per"ect !merican girl like
+hirley Temple, but resents how little ,ing-mei understands about Chinese culture.
!s .indo ,ong eplains, these are the perils o" being /two-"aced./ (itting in one
place means not $tting in somewhere else, and the challenge "or Chinese-
!merican women is to $nd a balance that honors both cultures.
Architecture and Arrangement
+urroundings and settings represent the state o" things in the characters& lives.
The $rst eample o" this pattern is the caves o" 0weilin. #hen li"e is peace"ul,
they are breathtaking and wondrous, but during wartime they represent terror.
#hile the caves protect the citi%ens o" 0weilin, they make them all the more
aware o" their con$nement and lack o" "reedom. 1ing-ying sees this dichotomy in
.ena&s house. +igns o" an unhappy marriage are refected in the "act that the
architecture and decoration are pretty but lack "unction. The irony, o" course, is
that both husband and wi"e 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. .ike )arold and
.ena&s marriage, it has sentimental value and once seemed like the best table
ever built. 2ow its faws are all too obvious. .ike the luuries in the )uang
household, those in )arold and .ena&s house are just a cover "or how things have
gone rotten "rom the inside out. There is similar symbolism in Ted and *ose&s
garden. The house again represents marital unhappiness. It is as though when a
couple does not address their faws, the problems seep into their homes. *ose is
like the garden she lets go to ruin3 she is tired o" having her hopes and sel"-worth
pruned back by Ted. +he must be like the weeds that creep into the stonework
and eventually tear down the house and all it represents.
Love and Marriage
The "act that many o" the mothers and daughters have unhappy marriages
creates a common ground on which they can relate. 4ut marriage has diferent
meanings "or each generation. (or the mothers, it is permanent and not always
based on love. 5specialy in their marriages in China, it is a social necessity that
they must secretly undermine in order to be happy. (or the daughters, marriage
is supposed to be the arena where they can be their true selves. )owever, like
their mothers, they are hard-pressed to $nd true love or themselves in their
marriages3 rather, they must break up their marriages to $nd themselves. The
one love that remains constant in the novel is that between mothers and
daughters. 2o matter how strained it is by cultural and generational diferences,
it is indestructible. .ove, like heritage, goes "orward and backward through
generations o" "emales.
Language As Barrier and Bridge
*eading the novel in 5nglish, we can "orget that the mothers are speaking in
Chinese. This "act shows how unimportant diferences in language can be3
mothers and daughters epress themselves vividly whether in 5nglish or Chinese.
)owever, this "act also reminds us how much o" the mothers& intentions are lost
to 5nglish speakers, including their daughters. They seem uneducated when they
speak 5nglish, unable to pronunce words, but are really deep reservoirs o"
knowledge. Many things in Chinese culture have no real 5nglish e6uivalent, such
as chunwang chihang and nengkan. These ideas seem "oreign to the daughters3
they understand them but o"ten consider them speci$c to their mothers&
generation. Thus language can be a barrier between people. .anguage can also
be a bridge3 "or instance, +uyuan and Canning "all in love while learning 5nglish
together, and it is the daughters& ability to understand Chinese that lets them
glean their mothers& wisdom. In the end, the success o" ,ing-mei&s journey is
evident in language. ,ing-mei $nally learns the meaning o" her own name and her
mother&s. +he has been the key to "ul$lling her mother&s dream all along3 her role
as the ultimate bridge between the generations is encoded in her very name.
u!erstition and "hosts
4oth mothers and daughters believe in spirits and in reading signs, although the
daughters can be reluctant to accept what they see. +uperstition can make the
mothers seem strange and outmoded to their daughters, but it also makes them
aware o" 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. .ena sees ghosts and *ose believes 7ld Man Chou in her
dreams. *ose and .ena both see themselves as having the ability to change their
"ate by superstition, by chunwang chihan. 4ut superstition also makes them "eel
helpless3 *ose has the premonition that 4ing will die but cannot do anything to
stop it. In the same way, .ena sees her marriage "alling apart but "eels helpless
to prevent it. In the end, the daughters& connection to their mothers comes
through the ghosts o" their ancestors. #hen she meets her sisters, ,ing-mei
reali%es that she has been connected to her Chinese heritage all along in spirit,
even i" not in her actions. #hen ,ing-mei and her sisters look at the 8olaroid, they
see themselves appear like ghosts out o" the mist to become the striking image
o" +uyuan. 4y the end o" the book ,ing-mei, like the other daughters, reali%es that
she is just as much a part o" her mother&s spirit as she is o" her fesh.
(urthermore, she is the only one who can save her mother "rom becoming a
ghost, by learning "rom her strength and keeping her heritage alive.
acri#ce and u$ering
8hysical sacri$ce epresses how a mother and daughter are so close they are like
one fesh. The story o" !n-mei )su&s mother is the strongest eample o" this
epression. (irst, she sacri$ces fesh "rom her arm to honor her own mother,
8opo. It is as though the pain is nothing compared to her obligation to her
mother. !n-mei )su&s mother also sacri$ces her body to #u Tsing so that she can
have at least some status instead o" becoming a beggar. +he does this so that
!n-mei can look up to her. )er suicide, while seemingly sel$sh, is the ultimate
sacri$ce she can make "or !n-mei. 4y killing hersel", she is showing !n-mei that
being a second-rate concubine, used and disgraced, is no way to live. In dying,
she gives !n-mei the strength to carve her own path in li"e. .indo sacri$ces her
pride and happiness to keep her parents& promise to #u Tsing. +uyuan must
sacri$ce her daughters, abandoning them in order "or them to have a chance at
li"e. !ll o" the mothers make a great sacri$ce in leaving China in hopes o" $nding
a better li"e "or their daughters. .ike the duck, they must stick their necks out in
order to become swans. 7nce they have settled in !merica, both mothers and
daughters are "aced with another "orm o" sacri$ce. !s .indo ,ong says, one
always sacri$ces part o" onesel" by putting on one&s /!merican "ace/ or one&s
/Chinese "ace./ !ll the women have sacri$ced the chance to be /"ully/ o" one
culture in order to struggle and revel in the space between cultures. This is the
ultimate sacri$ce they make "or one another.

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