Study Guide

The Joy Luck Club Family

By Amy Tan

Family

Part 1, Chapter 1

"Your mother was a very strong woman, a good mother. She loved you very much, more than her own life. And that’s why you can understand why a mother like this could never forget her other daughters. She knew they were alive, and before she died she wanted to find her daughters in China." (I.1.121)

A mother’s love never dies, not even if she doesn’t know whether her kids are alive.

And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds "joy luck" is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. (I.1.144)

The mothers' dream of a strong connection to their daughters, and their daughters’ daughters.

Jing-mei (June) Woo

I’m shaking, trying to hold something inside. The last time I saw them, at the funeral, I had broken down and cried big gulping sobs. They must wonder how someone like me can take my mother’s place. A friend once told me that my mother and I were alike, that we had the same wispy hand gestures, the same girlish laugh and sideways look. When I shyly told my mother this, she seemed insulted and said, "You don’t even know little percent of me! How can you be me?" And she’s right. How can I be my mother at Joy Luck? (I.1.37)

Jing-mei is anxious about being a replacement for her mother.

An-mei Hsu

"Not know your own mother?" cries Auntie An-mei with disbelief. "How can you say? Your mother is in your bones!" (I.1.134)

An-mei believes in the indivisibility of the mother-daughter connection.

Part 1, Chapter 2
An-mei Hsu

My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time. She opened Popo’s mouth, already too tight from trying to keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Popo flew away with her illness. Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain.

This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh. (I.2.51)

The love that An-mei’s mother bore for her mother was really intense and unbreakable, even though Popo kicked her out and forbade her from ever coming home.

I watched my mother, seeing her for the first time, this pretty woman with her white skin and oval face, not too round like Auntie’s or sharp like Popo’s. I saw that she had a long white neck, just like the goose that had laid me. That she seemed to float back and forth like a ghost, dipping cool cloths to lay on Popo’s bloated face. As she peered into Popo’s eyes, she clucked soft worried sounds. I watched her carefully, yet it was her voice that confused me, a familiar sound from a forgotten dream. (I.2.21)

When An-mei’s mother comes, An-mei watches her carefully, trying to reacquaint herself with this unknown woman. Despite her mother’s long absence, the mother-daughter connection has not ceased; An-mei not only looks like her mother, but some part of her has not forgotten her mother’s voice.

Part 1, Chapter 3
Lindo Jong

My mother did not treat me this way because she didn’t love me. She would say this biting back her tongue, so she wouldn’t wish for something that was no longer hers. (I.3.14)

The strong mother-daughter connection is not broken, even when Lindo belongs to another family and her mother can no longer express her love in the same way.

The dowry was enough, more than enough, said my father. But he could not stop my mother from giving me her chang, a necklace made out of a tablet of red jade. When she put it around my neck, she acted very stern, so I know she was very sad. "Obey your family. Do not disgrace us," she said. "Act happy when you arrive. Really, you’re very lucky." (I.3.24)

When Lindo’s mother leaves, she acts stern and gives her daughter a necklace, believing that Lindo will be better off with the Huang family.

I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, then she no longer has a promise. (I.3.1)

Lindo believes that she has a much, much stronger sense of obligation and filial duty than her daughter Waverly.

Part 1, Chapter 4
Ying-ying St. Clair

I had truly expected my mother to come soon. I imagined her seeing my soiled clothes, the little flowers she had worked so hard to make. I thought she would come to the back of the boat and scold me in her gentle way. But she did not come. Oh, once I heard some footsteps, but I saw only the faces of my half-sisters pressed to the door window. They looked at me wide-eyes, pointed to me, and then laughed and scampered off. (I.4.73)

Ying-ying feels abandoned when her mother doesn’t come to scold her.

Part 2, Prologue

"How do you know I’ll fall?" whined the girl.

"It is in a book, The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house."

"I don’t believe you. Let me see the book."

"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me." (II.Prologue.4)

The mother is trying to protect her daughter in the best way she knows how, but the daughter is intensely dubious. This American-raised daughter is rebellious against her mother instead of listening to her guidance and obeying.

Part 2, Chapter 1
Waverly Jong

I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games. (II.1.1)

A mother is a source of life lessons.

In my head, I saw a chessboard with sixty-four black and white squares. Opposite me was my opponent, two angry black slits. She wore a triumphant smile. "Strongest wind cannot be seen," she said. (II.1.76)

Waverly conceives of her mother as an enemy.

One day I after we left a shop I said under my breath, I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling everybody I’m your daughter." My mother stopped walking. Crowds of people with heavy bags pushed past us on the sidewalk, bumping into first one shoulder, then another.

"Aii-ya. So shame be with mother?" She grasped my hand even tighter as she glared at me.

I looked down. "It’s not that, it’s just so obvious. It’s just so embarrassing."

"Embarrass you be my daughter?" Her voice was cracking with anger.

"That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I said." (II.1.58)

Waverly hurts Lindo when she tries to curtail her mother’s practice of showing her off. To Lindo, one of her worst fears is that Waverly is ashamed of her. This sentiment comes up again when Waverly is an adult and taking her mom to the beauty parlor (see Part Four’s "Double Face"). Lindo thinks to herself, "I am ashamed she is ashamed. Because she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me."

In my head, I saw a chessboard with sixty-four black and white squares. Opposite me was my opponent, two angry black slits. She wore a triumphant smile. "Strongest wind cannot be seen," she said. (II.1.76)

Waverly conceives of her mother as an enemy.

Part 2, Chapter 2
Lena St. Clair

I lay down on my bed waiting to hear the screams and the shouts. And late at night I was still awake when I heard the loud voices next door. Mrs. Sorci was shouting and crying, You stupida girl. You almost gave me a heart attack. And Teresa was yelling back, I coulda been killed. I almost fell and broke my neck. And then I heard them laughing and crying, crying and laughing, shouting with love. (II.2.99)

The Sorcis’ love for each other manifests itself very differently than in the St. Clair household. This leaves Lena in doubt about her own family. She had always assumed that Teresa’s life was awful, and used it as proof that he own life wasn’t so bad. Now Lena realizes that the opposite might be true.

At home, my mother looked at everything around her with empty eyes. My father would come home from work, patting my head, saying, "How’s my big girl, but always looking past me, toward my mother. I had such fears inside, not in my head but in my stomach. I could no longer see what was so scary, but I could feel it. I could feel every little movement in our silent house. And at night, I could feel the crashing loud fights on the other side of my bedroom wall, this girl being beaten to death. In bed, with the blanket edge lying across my neck, I used to wonder which was worse, our side or theirs? And after thinking about this for a while, after feeling sorry for myself, it comforted me somewhat to think that this girl next door had a more unhappy life." (II.2.81)

The juxtaposition of one silent family next to a noisy family allows Lena to speculate that her life could be much worse.

I saw a girl complaining that the pain of not being seen was unbearable. I saw the mother lying in bed in her long flowing robes. Then the girl pulled out a sharp sword and told her mother, "Then you must die the death of a thousand cuts. It is the only way to save you." The mother accepted this and closed her eyes. The sword came down and sliced back and forth, up and down, whish! whish! whish! And the mother screamed and shouted, cried out in terror and pain. But when she opened her eyes, she saw no blood, no shredded flesh.

The girl said, "Do you see now?"

The mother nodded: "Now I have perfect understanding. I have already experienced the worst. After this, there is no worst possible thing." (II.2.102)

This passage relates to Ying-ying’s passage about piercing her daughter’s hide, in that both passages are about experiencing pain in order to be saved. Lena dreams of making her mother go through the worst possible thing in order for her to no longer live in fear.

Part 2, Chapter 3
An-mei Hsu

It would have been enough to think that even one of these dangers could befall a child. And even though the birthdates corresponded to only one danger, my mother worried about them all. This was because she couldn’t figure out how the Chinese dates, based on the lunar calendar, translated into American dates. So by taking them all into account, she had absolute faith she could prevent every one of them. (II.3.53)

An-mei sees her duty as a mother to protect her children at all costs. Unable to figure out which dangers she should look out for, An-mei tries to protect her children by guarding against every possible hazard.

Part 3, Chapter 1
Ying-ying St. Clair

"Lena cannot eat ice cream," says my mother.

"So it seems. She’s always on a diet."

"No, she never eat it. She doesn’t like."

"And now Harold smiles and looks at me puzzled, expecting me tot translate what my mother has said.

"It’s true," I say evenly. "I’ve hated ice cream almost all my life."

Harold looks at me, as if I too, were speaking Chinese and he could not understand. I guess I assumed you were just trying to lose weight…oh well."

"She become so thin now you cannot see her," says my mother. "She like a ghost, disappear."

That’s right! Christ, that’s great," exclaims Harold, laughing, relieved in thinking my mother is graciously trying to rescue him. (III.1.90)

Ying-ying knows her daughter far better than her daughter’s husband does. Lena can’t hide from her mom the deterioration of her spirit as a result of the bad marriage. In the marriage, Ying-ying also sees her own influence on her daughter: Ying-ying became a ghost in her marriage and has passed that bad example on to her daughter.

But my mother sighed. "Yesterday, you not finish rice either." I thought of those unfinished mouthfuls of rice, and then the grains that lined my bowl the day before, and the day before that. By the minute, my eight-year-old heart grew more and more terror-stricken over the growing possibility that my future husband was fated to be this mean boy Arnold. (III.1.21)

A mother’s words can have a lot of power. In this case, Lena takes her mom too seriously and it eventually leads to unintended consequences.

Part 3, Chapter 2
Waverly Jong

And looking at the coat in the mirror, I couldn’t fend off the strength of her will anymore, her ability to make me see black where there was once white, white where there was once black. The coat looked shabby, an imitation of romance. (III.2.34)

Waverly is looking for comfort and approval from her mother, not guidance or opinions. Lindo, however, seems to feel the need to provide brutal honesty.

I didn’t know what to do or say. In a matter of seconds it seemed, I had gone from being angered by her strength, to being amazed by her innocence, and then frightened by her vulnerability. And now I felt numb, strangely weak, as if someone had unplugged me and the current running through me had stopped. (III.2.123)

In one moment Waverly realizes that her mom is just a simple human being, leading Waverly to feel a ridiculous amount of different emotions towards her mother. It’s also important to notice that Waverly feels scared when she sees vulnerability in her mother; though she gets angry and frustrated with her mom, it’s somehow important that her mother should be invulnerable.

I saw what I had been fighting for: It was for me, a scared child, who had run away long ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant that I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in. (III.2.164)

Waverly finally realizes that the enemy she has been fighting all her life is hardly an enemy, but a mother who simply cares for her daughter.

And my mother loved to show me off, like one of the many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies.

"I told my daughter, Use your horses to run over the enemy," she informed one shopkeeper. "She won very quickly this way. And of course, she had said this before the game – that a hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning. (III.2.12)

Lindo is very proud of her daughter and likes to feel as though she had a hand in her daughter’s success – and likely she has. Waverly, however, doesn’t appreciate her mom’s claims on her success – she wants to feel like her victories are completely her own.

Part 3, Chapter 3
An-mei Hsu

"A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you," she said above the singing voices. "A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong." (III.3.33)

An-mei firmly believes that mothers are able to understand their daughters better than fancy psychiatrists can.

Part 4, Chapter 1
An-mei Hsu

And I would stare at my mother. She did not look evil. I wanted to touch her face, the one that looked like mine.

It is true, she wore strange foreign clothes. But she did not speak back when my aunt cursed her. Her head bowed even lower when my uncle slapped her for calling him Brother. She cried from the heart when Popo died, even though Popo, her mother, had sent her away so many years before. (IV.1.9)

An-mei is fascinated by her mother, and notes that her mother’s love for her grandmother never died, even after her mother would have every reason to start hating her grandmother.

I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.

And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way. (IV.1.4)

Despite An-mei’s best efforts, her daughter still followed in the footsteps of voiceless Chinese practice women who shoulder all the emotional burdens. An-mei speculates that the long matrilineal line is like a staircase that: although each step is in a new place, they are all going the same direction.

Part 4, Chapter 2
Ying-ying St. Clair

I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter. (IV.2.80)

Ying-ying believes that she must give Lena her spirit. A mother must sometimes cause her daughter pain, but it is borne out of great love and intended to help her daughter have a better future. This is similar to how An-mei’s mother killed herself, causing her daughter pain, but ultimately giving An-mei a better life.

Part 4, Chapter 3
Waverly Jong

"Don’t be so old-fashioned, Ma," she told me, finishing her coffee down the sink. "I’m my own person."

And I think, How can she be her own person? When did I give her up? (IV.3.12)

Lindo still feels a proprietary claim over her daughter, and that her daughter is still a part of her.

Lindo Jong

"But if he is not a citizen, you should immediately do number two. See here, you should have a baby. Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter in the United States. Neither will take care of you in your old age, isn’t that true?" And we both laughed. (IV.3.44)

The joke is that, unlike Chinese children, American children don’t take care of their parents.

Part 4, Chapter 4
Jing-mei (June) Woo

"You don’t understand," I protested.

"What I don’t understand?" she said.

And then I whispered, "They’ll think I’m responsible, that she died because I didn’t appreciate her."

And Auntie Lindo looked satisfied and sad at the same time, as if this were true and I had finally realized it. (IV.4.29)

Jing-mei is experiencing a lot of guilt for not being a Good Daughter while her mother was alive – and even more guilt because her half-sisters never even got the chance to be Good Daughters.

And although we don’t speak, I know we all see it: Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish. (IV.4.146)

Jing-mei fulfills her mother’s greatest desire. She also realizes that between the three sisters, they look like, and are like, their mother; so the mother is alive in her daughters even after her death.