The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan
Tools of Characterization
Direct Characterization: The Five Elements
The five elements – wood, fire, earth, water, and metal – are used throughout the novel as a unique tactic for telling us something upfront about the personalities of the characters we’re dealing with. An-mei and her daughter Rose, for instance, lack wood in their characters, meaning that they "bend too easily" to others’ opinions. Lindo has plenty of wood but doesn’t become a free thinker until she removes metal from her life which is weighing down her spirit. Canning, Jing-mei’s father, apparently has too much fire in his character, meaning that he has a strong temper. Lastly, Jing-mei has too much water in her character, so she "flows in too many directions" and is inconsistent in her pursuits.
Although not all characters have symbolic names, for those that do, the names can have quite a bit of meaning and value for illuminating the person’s character. For example, Waverly is named after the street her family lives on. Her mom chose this name so that Waverly would feel that she belonged in America. Fortunately or unfortunately, Waverly does feel like she belongs and turned out quite American in her personality, so much so that her mom believes that Waverly lacks a "Chinese character." Suyuan also has a name with a ton of significance. Her name means "long-cherished wish." Therefore it is in her nature to holds dear an important hope: to be reunited with her lost twin daughters.
Thoughts and Opinions
Since we get the stories of eight different women, seven of them told from their own perspectives, we get a lot of the women’s thoughts and opinions. Some of the most important opinions surround what it is to be Chinese or American and what is the appropriate relationship between a mother and daughter. For example, An-mei thinks that daughters should talk to their mothers, not psychiatrists, because mothers know their daughters and are in their daughters’ bones. Basically she believes in a very close, permanent, and unbreakable connection. Rose, An-mei’s daughter, thinks of a mother as someone who tries to force her to perform the impossible, like attempt to save her marriage. Rose does not initially see her mother as a source of guidance and wisdom. For Lindo, a mother is a person to whom you do not break your promises, you listen to, and are proud of. But Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, often thinks of her mother as an opponent who tries to mount sneak attacks on her. Waverly’s vision of a mother is someone that you need to break away from and assert yourself to. These are just a few examples, but essentially, with the exception of the four prologues, the book is all thoughts, which allows us to form our own opinions on the characters.
Type of Being: Year of Birth in the Chinese Calendar
For four of the primary characters, we learn the year of their birth, and the corresponding animal, in the Chinese calendar. The type of animal they are according to their birth year says a lot about their actual personality. For example, Lindo was born in the year of the horse. As a horse, she is strong, a hard worker, determined, and brutally honest. Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, however is a rabbit, skittish, thin-skinned, and sensitive. Ying-ying and her daughter, Lena, are both tigers. As tigers, they can be both fierce and cunning.
Speech and Dialogue
When the story is being told from a daughter’s point of view, the mother always speaks in incorrect English. This highlights the distance between the younger and older generations, as the mothers and daughters frequently misinterpret or misunderstand each other. A prime example is when Waverly confuses Taiyuan, her mother’s birthplace, with Taiwan, which is a different place altogether. Poor English is also cause for a joke, like calling Social Security "so-so security," because, hey, it really only does provide so-so security in your old age. Or when Ying-ying describes her daughter as an "arty-tecky" (architect). The difference is like Americans and Brits. We may be speaking the same language, but we’re still pretty foreign to each other.
Wisdom’s vehicle is a story. The mothers in The Joy Luck Club use stories to instruct, warn, talk to, or entertain their daughters. The stories tend not to require perfect English to get the point across, which is important since there is a language barrier between the mothers and daughters. Many of these stories are flights of fancy, or built around superstitions brought over from or acted out in China. The mothers feel that telling their own personal stories is essential in order for their daughters to understand the mothers’ motivations and hopes, and to prevent the daughters from making the same life mistakes as their mothers made.