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Introduction

The Joy Luck Club, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1989, presents the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. Each of the four Chinese women has her own view of the world based on her experiences in China and wants to share that vision with her daughter. The daughters try to understand and appreciate their mothers’ pasts, adapt to the American way of life, and win their mothers’ acceptance. The book’s name comes from the club formed in China by one of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, in order to lift her friends’ spirits and distract them from their problems during the Japanese invasion. Suyuan continued the club when she came to the United States-hoping to bring luck to her family and friends and finding joy in that hope.

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Amy Tan

Amy Tan began writing fiction as a distraction from her work as a technical writer. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Tan wanted to find a way to relax. She soon discovered that not only did she enjoy writing fiction as a hobby, she liked that it provided a way for her to think about and understand her life.

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Plot Summary

The Joy Luck Club consists of sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters. In 1949, the four immigrants meet at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco and agree to continue to meet to play mah jong. They call their mah jong group the Joy Luck Club. The stories told in this novel revolve around the Joy Luck Club women and their daughters.

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Characters

A Jing-Mei Woo

Jing-Mei, daughter of Suyuan Woo, takes her mother’s place in the Joy Luck Club when her mother dies. Jing-Mei searches for her own identity, lacks confidence, and wonders how she will fill her mother’s shoes.

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Themes

A Choices and Consequences

The Joy Luck Club presents the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. All of their lives, the Chinese mothers in The Joy Luck Club have struggled to make their own decisions and establish their own identities in a culture where obedience and conformity are expected. For example, when Suyuan Woo is a refugee during the Japanese invasion, she decides that she will not be a passive victim and will choose her own happiness. She forms the Joy Luck Club to provide a distraction for herself and her friends. Thus, in a situation where there appears to be no room for disobedience, Suyuan creates an identity that she and her friends assume in order to survive. The continuation of the club in the United States helps Suyuan and her friends redefine themselves in a new culture.

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Construction

A Structure

In presenting the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters in The Joy Luck Club, Tan uses “cradling,” a formal literary device that can be thought of as telling a story within a story, or nesting. In other words, Tan embeds the daughters’ stories within the mothers’ narratives. The Joy Luck Club is divided into four main segments that contain sixteen stories. The first and last sections tell eight stories-two for each mother-while the middle two sections each tell a story for each of the four daughters. The entire novel revolves primarily around the stories of Suyuan Woo and her daughter, Jing-Mei (“June”). Jing-Mei takes her mother’s place in the Joy Luck Club, a club her mother created when she was in China and that she continued for her Chinese friends in America. Jing-Mei learns from her “aunties,” the women who are members of the club, that they will fund her trip to China to meet with her “lost” sisters.

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Historical Perspective

A Historical China

While The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, it is set in pre-World War II China and contemporary San Francisco. The two Settings strengthen the contrast between the cultures that Tan depicts through her Characters and their relationships. Pre-World War II China was a country heavily embroiled in conflict. San Francisco, however, offered freedom and peace. In writing the novel, Tan wanted to portray not only the importance of mother/daughter relationships but also the dignity of the Chinese people.

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Questions

In an interview with Elaine Woo for the Los Angeles Times (March 12, 1989), Amy Tan said that her parents wanted their children “to have American circumstances and Chinese character.” Write an essay that explains what her parents may have meant. Give specific examples to illustrate the “circumstances” and “character.”

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Compare and Contrast

1930s and 1940s: The Japanese occupied China. Full war erupted in 1945 in Beijing between the Chinese and Japanese. After the war, civil war breaks out and Communists take over the government in 1949, led by Mao Zedong. Today: In 1989, a pro-democracy demonstration by Chinese university students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is put down by the Communist government. A 1993 constitutional revision, while not reforming the political system, calls for the development of a socialist market economy.

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