Many literary devices are used throughout Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. The Joy Luck Club is filled with separate stories that focus on a women’s club, called the Joy Luck Club. Tan describes the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Generational and cultural conflicts contribute to these complex relationships. The novel tells stories of four mothers, with three living and one deceased, and four daughters. Tan portrays these mother-daughter relationships in a variety of ways. Three literary tools that Tan uses are symbolism, point of view, and flashback.
One literary tool that Tan uses is symbolism. Tan uses symbolism throughout the entire novel to further show the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. The novel begins with a parable about a woman and a swan. The woman and swan then journey to America. The swan symbolizes the hope that all four mothers have for their daughters in America. The woman tells the swan:
In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. Over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan”a creature that became more than what was hoped for. (Tan 17)
Upon arriving in America, immigration officials take the swan away from the woman. The woman is left with only one feather from the swan. The feather symbolizes these failed hopes and dreams that the mothers had for their America-born daughters. As the story progresses it is found that the daughters are judged by their husbands and looked down upon. The mothers do not accept that these things are happening to their daughters because their daughters speak only perfect American English (Tan 17). Jewelry is another symbol used to show mothers and daughters unique relationships. In the novel, jewelry is passed down from the mothers to the daughters. The jewelry symbolizes the bond between the mothers and daughters. Suyuan gives Jing-mei a jade pendant. Jing-mei does not appreciate the pendant when it is initially given to her, but after her mother’s death she understands its importance. The pendant Suyuan gives her daughter symbolizes her hope. When giving Jing-mei the pendant, Suyuan says, This is young jade. It is a very light color now, but if you wear it every day it will become more green (Tan 208-209).
Tan also uses point of view to portray mother and daughter relationships. Point of view is used to show each character’s perspective. Tan divided her novel into four sections with four stories each. The stories are told in first person, changing narrators with each story. There is a parable before each of the four sections that is an introduction to the four parts that follow it. The parables are told in third person. There is a total of seven narrators, three mothers and four daughters, with one of the daughters telling her mother’s story. Half of the stories are told by the mothers and half are told by the daughters.
While the different narrators tell their stories they mainly focus on themselves and their feelings. By doing this a more personal connection is felt with each story and narrator. Many instances throughout the novel are narrated twice. A mother will narrate an occurrence and then a daughter will narrate the same occurrence, or vice versa. This gives multiple perspectives to the same story, showing that mother and daughter relationships are filled with so many misunderstandings. Jing-mei hated piano lessons and trying to become a child prodigy, which were her mother’s wishes. Jing-mei felt that her mother was just too overbearing and forceful. Jing-mei is shocked when she learns of the choice her mother was forced to make in China regarding Jing-mei’s sisters. Jing-mei realizes that she is too late for her mother has already passed and says, I think about this. My mother’s long-cherished wish. Me, the younger sister who was supposed to be the essence of the others. I feed myself with old grief, wondering how disappointed my mother must have been (Tan 281).
Flashbacks are used all throughout The Joy Luck Club. Tan’s use of flashback further reveals the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. In Waverly Jong’s story she describes her childhood in America and her conflict with her mother, Lindo Jong. Waverly felt that her mother was selfish for pushing her in chess, but her mother was doing everything for Waverly out of love. Lindo Jong flashes back to her own childhood and her upbringing in a Chinese cultured society. Lindo grew up being unhappy with an arranged marriage. Lindo says, I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise (Tan 49).
Using flashback to describe Lindo’s unhappy childhood reveals why she parents Waverly so strictly. Lindo does everything for her daughter Waverly out of love. When describing experiences that the mothers had in China, Yuan Yuan says, sometimes, they turn their China experiences into a disciplinary lesson that reinforces restrictive cultural values (para. ), but this is something that the daughters do not initially understand. Flashbacks through the novel reveal the differences in how the mothers were brought up in China and how the daughters were brought up in America.
The novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan presents many literary devices. Symbolism, point of view, and flashback all are used throughout the entire novel. Their struggles of high expectations, psychological trauma, and cultural differences (Chow para. 13) are prevalent through each individual story. The novel shares with the reader various stories from seven narrators. Disagreements and misunderstandings between mothers and daughters are the basis of each story. The mothers, according to critic Gloria Shen, are possessively trying to hold onto their daughters, and the daughters are battling to get away from their mothers (qtd. in Henrickson para. 7). The novel leaves each daughter with a better understanding of their mothers.
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