Mothers and daughters have a special connection in this book through flesh and spirit. It is as though daughters and mothers share one flesh all their lives, and not just when daughters are in the womb. They take on different roles depending on cultural demands. In China, the mothers are expected to be obedient wives and to never openly challenge authority. In America, the daughters are independent, have the option of divorcing and taking most any job, and come from the baby boomer generation, which often prides itself on challenging authority. When the daughter in the prologue of Queen Mother of the Western Skies looks in the mirror, because she is sitting with one mirror in front of her and one at her back, she sees infinite reflections of her own face. This makes her realize that she is part of one multifaceted spirit that extends forever into past and future generations. While her country of residence, job, marriage, and language may be different from her mother's, they are still connected irrevocably, as will be the case with her own daughter.
Assimilation and the American Dream
The story of the swan is the ultimate symbol of the American Dream in the novel. The mothers want their daughters to have all the privileges they could not, but are disappointed that this in turn means their daughters will not truly understand them. The American Dream changes between the generations. For the mothers, it is creating a future full of privilege and success. For the daughters, it is the freedom to take their opportunities and do with them as little or as much as they want. The daughters' Americanness is reflected most strongly in their relationships with men. Ted, Harold, and especially Rich, represent the American part of their wives, which for the mothers seems frighteningly disconnected from Chinese thinking. Suyuan wants Jing-mei to be the perfect American girl like Shirley Temple, but resents how little Jing-mei understands about Chinese culture. As Lindo Jong explains, these are the perils of being "two-faced." Fitting in one place means not fitting in somewhere else, and the challenge for Chinese-American women is to find a balance that honors both cultures.
Architecture and Arrangement
Surroundings and settings represent the state of things in the characters' lives. The first example of this pattern is the caves of Kweilin. When life is peaceful, they are breathtaking and wondrous, but during wartime they represent terror. While the caves protect the citizens of Kweilin, they make them all the more aware of their confinement and lack of freedom. Ying-ying sees this dichotomy in Lena's house. Signs of an unhappy marriage are reflected in the fact that the architecture and decoration are pretty but lack function. The irony, of course, is that both husband and wife work in architecture. They have all the skills to build a strong house and a strong marriage, but they cannot seem to use them. The unstable table represents the whole house and whole marriage. Like Harold and Lena's marriage, it has sentimental value and once seemed like the best table ever built. Now its flaws are all too obvious. Like the luxuries in the Huang household, those in Harold and Lena's house are just a cover for how things have gone rotten from the inside out. There is similar symbolism in Ted and Rose's garden. The house again represents marital unhappiness. It is as though when a couple does not address their flaws, the problems seep into their homes. Rose is like the garden she lets go to ruin; she is tired of having her hopes and self-worth pruned back by Ted. She must be like the weeds that creep into the stonework and eventually tear down the house and all it represents.
Love and Marriage
The fact that many of the mothers and daughters have unhappy marriages creates a common ground on which they can relate. But marriage has different meanings for each generation. For the mothers, it is permanent and not always based on love. Especialy in their marriages in China, it is a social necessity that they must secretly undermine in order to be happy. For the daughters, marriage is supposed to be the arena where they can be their true selves. However, like their mothers, they are hard-pressed to find true love or themselves in their marriages; rather, they must break up their marriages to find themselves. The one love that remains constant in the novel is that between mothers and daughters. No matter how strained it is by cultural and generational differences, it is indestructible. Love, like heritage, goes forward and backward through generations of females.
Language As Barrier and Bridge
Reading the novel in English, we can forget that the mothers are speaking in Chinese. This fact shows how unimportant differences in language can be; mothers and daughters express themselves vividly whether in English or Chinese. However, this fact also reminds us how much of the mothers' intentions are lost to English speakers, including their daughters. They seem uneducated when they speak English, unable to pronunce words, but are really deep reservoirs of knowledge. Many things in Chinese culture have no real English equivalent, such as chunwang chihang and nengkan. These ideas seem foreign to the daughters; they understand them but often consider them specific to their mothers' generation. Thus language can be a barrier between people. Language can also be a bridge; for instance, Suyuan and Canning fall in love while learning English together, and it is the daughters' ability to understand Chinese that lets them glean their mothers' wisdom. In the end, the success of Jing-mei's journey is evident in language. Jing-mei finally learns the meaning of her own name and her mother's. She has been the key to fulfilling her mother's dream all along; her role as the ultimate bridge between the generations is encoded in her very name.
Superstition and Ghosts
Both mothers and daughters believe in spirits and in reading signs, although the daughters can be reluctant to accept what they see. Superstition can make the mothers seem strange and outmoded to their daughters, but it also makes them aware of their deep spiritual inheritance. Mothers see it necessary to teach their daughters superstition, because they think their daughters are naturally blind to the spiritual world. Lena sees ghosts and Rose believes Old Man Chou in her dreams. Rose and Lena both see themselves as having the ability to change their fate by superstition, by chunwang chihan. But superstition also makes them feel helpless; Rose has the premonition that Bing will die but cannot do anything to stop it. In the same way, Lena sees her marriage falling apart but feels helpless to prevent it. In the end, the daughters' connection to their mothers comes through the ghosts of their ancestors. When she meets her sisters, Jing-mei realizes that she has been connected to her Chinese heritage all along in spirit, even if not in her actions. When Jing-mei and her sisters look at the Polaroid, they see themselves appear like ghosts out of the mist to become the striking image of Suyuan. By the end of the book Jing-mei, like the other daughters, realizes that she is just as much a part of her mother's spirit as she is of her flesh. Furthermore, she is the only one who can save her mother from becoming a ghost, by learning from her strength and keeping her heritage alive.
Sacrifice and Suffering
Physical sacrifice expresses how a mother and daughter are so close they are like one flesh. The story of An-mei Hsu's mother is the strongest example of this expression. First, she sacrifices flesh from her arm to honor her own mother, Popo. It is as though the pain is nothing compared to her obligation to her mother. An-mei Hsu's mother also sacrifices her body to Wu Tsing so that she can have at least some status instead of becoming a beggar. She does this so that An-mei can look up to her. Her suicide, while seemingly selfish, is the ultimate sacrifice she can make for An-mei. By killing herself, she is showing An-mei that being a second-rate concubine, used and disgraced, is no way to live. In dying, she gives An-mei the strength to carve her own path in life. Lindo sacrifices her pride and happiness to keep her parents' promise to Wu Tsing. Suyuan must sacrifice her daughters, abandoning them in order for them to have a chance at life. All of the mothers make a great sacrifice in leaving China in hopes of finding a better life for their daughters. Like the duck, they must stick their necks out in order to become swans. Once they have settled in America, both mothers and daughters are faced with another form of sacrifice. As Lindo Jong says, one always sacrifices part of oneself by putting on one's "American face" or one's "Chinese face." All the women have sacrificed the chance to be "fully" of one culture in order to struggle and revel in the space between cultures. This is the ultimate sacrifice they make for one another.
The Joy Luck Club Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Joy Luck Club is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.