In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores mother-daughter relationships, and at a lower level, relationships between friends, lovers, and even enemies. The mother-daughter relationships are most likely different aspects of Tan’s relationship with her mother, and perhaps some parts are entirely figments of her imagination. In this book, she presents the conflicting views and the stories of both sides, providing the reader–and ultimately, the characters–with an understanding of the mentalities of both mother and daughter, and why each one is the way she is.
The book is organized into four sections, two devoted to the mothers and two devoted to the daughters, with the exception of June. The first section, logically, is about the mothers’ childhoods in China, the period of time during which their personalities were molded, giving the reader a better sense of their “true” selves, since later in the book the daughters view their mothers in a different and unflattering light. Tan does this so the reader can see the stories behind both sides and so as not to judge either side unfairly.
This section, titled Feathers From a Thousand Li Away, is aptly named, since it describes the heritage of the mothers in China, a legacy that they wished to bestow on their daughters, as the little story in the beginning signifies. For many years, the mothers did not tell their daughters their stories until they were sure that their wayward offspring would listen, and by then, it is almost too late to make them understand their heritage that their mothers left behind, long ago, when they left China. The second and third sections are about the daughters’ lives, and the vignettes in each section trace their personality growth and development.
Through the eyes of the daughters, we can also see the continuation of the mothers’ stories, how they learned to cope in America. In these sections, Amy Tan explores the difficulties in growing up as a Chinese-American and the problems assimilating into modern society. The Chinese-American daughters try their best to become “Americanized,” at the same time casting off their heritage while their mothers watch on, dismayed. Social pressures to become like everyone else, and not to be different are what motivate the daughters to resent their nationality.
This was a greater problem for Chinese-American daughters that grew up in the 50’s, when it was not well accepted to be of an “ethnic” background. Today it is almost fashionable to be “ethnic”. Nevertheless, there is still pressure to belong, to fit in with other classmates, the majority of whom are still Caucasian. Certainly, many Chinese-American students still feel that they don’t quite “fit in” with Caucasian students, as Tan’s characters had, and that’s partly why so many schools have an “Chinese clique” – students that look similar and come from similar Asian backgrounds.
Chinese parents are very strict and typically demand more from their children — the best that the children can perform often isn’t satisfactory. Constantly feeling this tremendous parental pressure, many Chinese-American students feel as if they don’t belong in a group that is all Caucasian. They often grow up feeling rather out of place among non-Asian peers because vast difference between the Chinese and American cultures. Amy Tan does an excellent job of portraying this problem of assimilation through her characters.
The second section of the book is named The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates because in this section, the problem of communication and lack of understanding between mothers and daughters is emphasized. This section is rife with mother-daughter conflicts, as the story in the beginning foreshadows. The third section is named American Translation because when the mothers give advice regarding their daughters’ problems, the daughters either take the advice to mean something other than the mothers had intended, or they simply ignore it.
At the end of each vignette in this section, the daughters, finally heeding their mothers’ advice and exhortations, realize that their mothers had been right about everything all along. The fourth and final section wraps up the book with the mothers’ stories of what happened after their childhood. The title, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, signifies that the mothers were the Queen Mothers of the daughters, and that they were the mystical wise ones whom their daughters should have heeded.
Here, the mothers conclude their stories and the daughters finally realized the pain, heartaches, and happiness of their forbears, and that they should have revered their mothers from the beginning as the traditional Chinese would have revered the Queen Mother. As the story in the beginning of the section suggests, the mothers watch as their daughters grow, feeling the desire to protect them, to teach them “how to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever. ” To the mothers, the daughters are themselves reborn, a chance for the mothers to give them a better life than they had had in China.