Study Guide

The Joy Luck Club Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Amy Tan

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Swan and the Swan Feather

So the woman bought a swan who used to be a duck – also known as "a creature that became more than what was hoped for." The swan gets pulled away by immigration officials, and the old lady is left only with a swan feather that she hopes to one day give to her daughter. What does this all mean? Well, we would argue that Tan is making a really strong case for the swan/swan feather to represent all the best wishes and hope for a better life in the new world. Obviously the woman has hopes for her daughter (for her worth not to be "measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch" – yikes), but what the duck/swan represents is something greater than hope, something that exceeds the wildest imagination.

The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates

In the novel, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates is a Chinese book detailing all of the dangers that could befall a child. So the book symbolizes a mother’s desire to protect her children against any and all dangers they face. The mother in the parable starting off Part II is worried that her daughter will fall while bike riding. Later, we learn that An-mei reads The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates in hope of protecting her children from all possible hazards. But, by identifying the dangers, does it help a mother save her children, or does it make her paranoid, possibly bringing about the mother’s worst fears?

This parable also points out that there are perils that children can’t always see, so you have to trust their mother, as exemplified by the fact that The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates is in Chinese, so the daughter can’t read it.

Queen Mother of the Western Skies

The Queen Mother of the Western Skies appears in the parable that is the prologue to the fourth part of the novel. In this parable, a grandmother thinks that her baby granddaughter must be the Queen Mother of the Western Skies, a mother reincarnated many times over and therefore holding much wisdom about life. From the Queen Mother/baby granddaughter, the grandmother realizes that she has lived an aspect of her own life wrongly, and passed on that same false wisdom to her daughter. This shows that mothers aren’t always right in what they teach their daughters. It also implies that wisdom can come from age and learning over your lifetime, but can also be found in youth.


The women of the Joy Luck Club feast every week in order to forget their sorrow. Waverly describes cooking as "how my mother expressed her love, her pride, her power, her proof that she knew more than Auntie Su." Similarly, Jing-mei says that Chinese mothers show their love "not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab." Basic takeaway here? Food = love. Food = hope. Food = happiness.

The Red Candle

The red candle with two ends for lighting (one representing Lindo and one representing her husband) is a symbol of marriage in China, "[…] a marriage bond that was worth more than a Catholic promise not to divorce." The marriage bond can’t be broken by a divorce or by death; a widow could not remarry. If the two ends of the candle remained burning during the entire marriage night, the marriage was bond was complete. That’s why there was supposed to be a servant guarding the candle all night. But Lindo blew the candle out, asserting herself for the first time, and deciding for herself that she was not permanently married. When Lindo later revealed to her mother-in-law that the candle went out, that was another indicator to Huang Taitai that the marriage wasn’t a true one.

Marble End Table/Black Vase

This is perhaps the most blatant metaphor ever. There is a poorly designed (by Harold) marble end table in Lena’s guest bedroom with a black vase on it. The table starts to tip over if you barely touch it – it’s destined to fall. In fact, it does fall, and the vase breaks. Lena says she knew it was going to happen. Her mother asks why she didn’t do anything to prevent it.

So this table falling and vase is a metaphor for…Lena's marriage. The marriage is the vase. It’s fragile, but also sitting on a really rickety foundation – the table designed by Harold (a.k.a. the foundation of their marriage, which is the idea of equality and balance sheets, also designed by Harold). So when the foundation gets the slightest nudge, the marriage shatters. Notice that the table falls and the vase breaks just as Lena starts questioning the foundation of their marriage: "We need to think of what our marriage is really based on…not this balance sheet, who owes who what." So that’s the nudge to the foundation. Lena can see that their marriage is heading to disaster. The question is: will she do anything to prevent it?

The Jade Pendant, Jing-mei’s "Life’s Importance"

The green jade pendant was a gift from Suyuan to her daughter, which Suyuan called Jing-mei’s "life importance." If you’re thinking, "What on earth does that mean?" then you’re not alone, Jing-mei is wondering the same thing. The pendant doesn't necessarily have just one meaning.

Suyuan gives the pendant to her daughter at a point when Jing-mei is feeling terrible about herself. Waverly has just humiliated Jing-mei in over dinner in front of their families, and top it all off, Jing-mei clearly doesn’t know a good crab when she sees one (gasp!). What this boils down to is that Jing-mei doesn’t have a strong eye for quality. So when she’s feeling bad about herself, and thinking that Waverly is better than her, it’s likely that she just can’t recognize her own value. This indicates that the pendant has something to do with Jing-mei’s self-worth, and clearly a lot to do with her life’s importance.

Another hint that the pendant has something to do with Jing-mei’s value is that she meets another guy who’s wearing a similar pendant. He says, "she [his mom] gave it to me after I got divorced. I guess my mother’s telling me I’m still worth something."

Suyuan also says that the pendant’s jade isn’t of very good quality, "This is young jade. It is very light color now, but if you wear it every day it will become more green." The jade could symbolize Jing-mei herself. She is still young and doesn’t have a good sense of her personal worth. But if she keeps acknowledging her value, she will improve with time because she has the ability to change. This is in contrast to Waverly, who is like a crab, "Always walking sideways, moving crooked. You [Jing-me] can make your legs go the other way." So Jing-mei has the ability to change and thus improve herself, whereas Waverly not so much.

Also on the note of changing, we know that the color of the jade will change and deepen over time. Well other things change too, like Jing-mei’s perception and understanding of the pendant. At first she sees it as a tacky necklace which she hides in her jewelry box. But after her mother dies, Jing-mei starts to wear it. It no longer is just an ugly necklace; now it reminds her of Suyuan. As Jing-mei seeks to find out what on earth this pendant is supposed to mean, she’s also seeking to grasp her own life’s importance, and trying to understand her mother. As Jing-mei learns more about herself and her mother, the meaning the pendant has for her deepens, just as the color of the jade will deepen.

Can we possibly gather anything more from this darn pendant? The answer is yes. We also think that Suyuan intended it to serve as a kind of connection between herself and her daughter. Suyuan says to Jing-mei, "See, I wore this on my skin, so when you put it on your skin, then you know my meaning." Jing-mei doesn’t begin to understand that her mom really loved her until after Suyuan's death – coincidentally also the point when Jing-mei started wearing the pedant every day.

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