The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan
Lena St. Clair
Lena’s marriage is a balance sheet. No, really. She and her husband owe each other money, keep track of what they spend, and "split everything down the middle." It’s ostensibly to keep their marriage pure, but it’s obviously infected it instead. It’s also obvious that Lena is getting the raw deal, and worse, that she knows she’s getting the raw deal. But she’s too passive to do anything about it.
It might be that Lena is passive in her awful marriage because she feels like she’s getting what she deserves, karmic payback. If you recall, Lena was worried that she would have to marry awful Arnold, and wished him dead when she was eight-years-old. Since Arnold did die, Lena seems to feel that she’s getting what she deserved by being married to Harold.
Another take on their relationship is through the lens of communication. Growing up, Lena was often played the role of interpreter for her parents because her mom spoke little English and her father didn’t speak Chinese. But because the things Lena’s mother would say might be harmful to Lena’s dad, Lena would purposefully mistranslate to preserve the peace. Lena’s father would also often just make guesses as to what his wife meant, and put words in her mouth.
Lena and her husband seem to have the same communication problem, but they speak the same language. Lena says something, which isn’t quite what she means (she’s still playing mediator role), and Harold reinterprets and puts his own words in her mouth. A classic example is the ice cream episode. Lena thinks: I hate ice cream. Lena says: I’m full. Harold reinterprets: I’m dieting and don’t want ice cream. Lena and Harold are clearly not on the same page, but Lena sure doesn’t try to correct Harold. She only tells Harold that she doesn’t like ice cream because her mom lets the cat out of the bag first.
Lena and Ying-ying
As a child, Lena had a difficult life, in large part because of her mother. Ying-ying was clearly emotionally disturbed and extremely fearful, always concerned that terrible things would happen to her and her daughter. Lena could see that her mom had problems, and wanted to save her. She wanted her mother to confront the worst possible terrors the world has, and then not have to fear the "worst possible" thing that could happen. Lena, however, never saved her mother.
When Lena is an adult, the tables are turned and Ying-ying wants to save Lena. Though Lena tries to hide her marriage problems from her mother, Ying-ying couldn’t possibly not see that her daughter is making the same mistakes as she herself did. Lena’s marriage is in many ways a recreation of her parents’ marriage, with Lena practically mimicking the way her mother acted as a wife.
Lena’s father, St. Clair, was in charge of her parents’ relationship, making all of the important decisions, including the decision to bring Ying-ying to America, to change her name to Betty, and even selecting the apartment they lived in. Ying-ying yielded to her husband because of the language barrier, but also because she wasn’t so interested in living – she called herself a ghost, and become more and more ghostlike as the marriage progressed. Lena also yields to her husband, but with different justification: money. Lena makes less money than her husband, so he owns a larger percentage of their house, pays for the vacations, etc. He takes this a justification for making all of the home decorating decisions, deciding where their vacations will be, and so on. Because her marriage mimics her parents’, Lena is becoming a ghost, just like her mother.
Lena’s story ends with her mother attempting to show Lena the danger that she is in. Whether Lena will learn from her mother’s mistakes is unclear. Lena can see disaster coming in her marriage, but will she do anything to prevent it?