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.
The Joy Luck Club is set in two places. The mothers’ stories take place mostly in pre-World War II China, just before and during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The daughters’ stories occur primarily in contemporary San Francisco, although June does visit contemporary China in the final section.
C Point of View and Narration
Tan uses several first-person narrators in the novel, narrators who directly speak to the reader by using “I said”/“I did” to express events. Because three of the mothers and all of the daughters tell their own stories, the narrative shifts from a mother’s point of view to a daughter’s point of view. Except for Suyuan Woo, each mother speaks for herself in the first and final sections of the book; the daughters each speak for themselves in the second and third sections of the book. Since Suyuan has already died when the story opens, Jing-Mei speaks for her.
Conflicts arise between each mother and her daughter as the result of generational and cultural differences. The mothers and daughters experience the typical difficulties in understanding each others’ viewpoints. Daughters try to establish their personal identities by being like their mothers, yet different in response to contemporary pressures. These generational differences are compounded by the mothers’ culture-driven views of tradition. The mothers want their daughters to be Americanized, yet they also want their daughters to honor the Chinese way of life. In Asian culture, women’s identities are more often defined by their relationships to others than by their occupational success, as scholar Tracy Robinson has observed. For example, while Waverly Jong is different enough from her mother to have established herself as a successful tax attorney, she is enough like her mother that she worries that her mother will not accept her Caucasian fiance. The mothers’ basic concern is that their daughters will turn their backs on their culture and their Chinese heritage will be forgotten.
Suyuan Woo’s stories tell about a woman whose allegiances were divided between her American daughter and the Chinese daughters she had lost. Suyuan’s Chinese and American souls are resurrected and reunited when the daughters meet at the end of the novel. The daughters’ names symbolize this rebirth and reunion. Chwun Yu (Spring Rain), Chwun Hwa (Spring Flower), and Jing-Mei (June) represent the renewing force that is connected to the seasons of spring and summer. Even Suyuan’s name, meaning Long-Cherished Wish, alludes to the resolution of the conflicts she and Jing-Mei shared. Finally, the Chinese interpretation of Jing-Mei’s name, “pure essence and best quality,” represents Jing-Mei’s learning to appreciate and coming to terms with her Chinese heritage.