Joy Luck Club and my Antonia

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In The Joy Luck Club and My Antonia, Amy Tan and Willa Cather convey the hardships of immigrants faced and labeling of gender roles through characters and symbols, while at the same time demonstrating the changes and gradual maturity of the main characters using distinct narrative structures.

The setting of The Joy Luck Club was the immigration of Chinese to the United States during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a period of time when the Japanese invaded and occupied China, killing millions of Chinese people, destroying families and homes and filling people's lives with despair. All people wanted were shelters where they could be safe and stay away from the chaos. Many people wanted to leave China, but only a few got the chance.

The Joy Luck Club accurately portrays this time period by narrating stories that uncover the darkness of the war and emphasize how valuable the opportunity was to immigrate to the United States in the mothers' perspectives. On the other hand, My Antonia took place during Westward Expansion, the time when the western frontier was said to embody the American dream and offer the possibility of independence and upward mobility for all(History), which encouraged many people to immigrate to the United States with the hope for a new beginning. However, the reality was unlike their expectation. Upon their arrival, they experienced prejudices from Americans and struggled to survive. My Antonia represents the time period well by using the story of the Shimerdas, central characters who were Bohemian immigrants, to illustrate the challenges immigrants faced.

Not only do the books fit the time period well, they also contain prominent stylistic features that contribute to their overall message. In The Joy Luck Club, symbols were an important part of the stories. In the prologue, Tan introduces the first symbol: the swan in a golden line. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look! - it is too beautiful to eat I will give her this swan - a creature that becomes more than what was hoped for(Tan 3). Every mother wants their daughters to be successful and in Chinese culture, the success means more successful than their mothers. The swan symbolizes daughter's success and the change a duck undergoes hoping to become ?a goose symbolizes how mothers wish to see their daughters turn from ugly duckling to swan; in another word, to succeed in life.

Yet, as immigrants who were bounded by language barriers, the mothers were unable to express this expectation well. Moreover, this language barrier made it hard for the mothers to share their values and stories with their daughters, which ultimately contribute to the conflicts between them. The next prominent symbol that appears in the book is the red candle. In the main character Lindo Jong's eyes, that candle was a marriage bond that was worth more than a Catholic promise not to divorce. It meant [she] couldn't divorce and [she] couldn't ever remarry, even if Tyan-yu died.

That red candle was supposed to seal me forever with [her] husband and his family, no excuses afterward(Tan 55). The red candle is the symbol of gender role in Chinese culture, where women were seen as properties who carry no values on their own. Only when they are in a relationship with men do they matter. By lighting the red candle, wives are sealed forever with their husbands and their freedom is deprived. They came to see their husbands as god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than [their] own lives(Tan 51) and themselves as servants who are supposed to sacrifice their lives to make everyone happy. With the use of symbols like the swan and red candle, Amy Tan stresses the struggles Chinese immigrants experienced and explains the way gender roles were defined in Chinese culture.

Meanwhile, in My Antonia, Cather makes prevalent use of another stylistic device, imagery, to develop her story. One of which she used to describe the coyotes: they made me think of defeated armies, retreating; or of ghosts who were trying desperately to get in for shelter, and then went moaning on. Presently, in one of those sobbing intervals between the blasts, the coyotes turned up with their whining howl; one, two, three, then altogether - to tell us that winter was coming(Cather 36). By connecting the howling of coyotes with telling people that winter was coming, Cather paralleled the howling with immigrant experiences, foreshadowing the adversities they will face in winters, which contradicts the traditional mindset that America is always great, full of hope and promises a brighter future.

Going back to the beginning of the book, Cather also utilizes imagery to depict the landscape of the west in the main character Jim's perspective: I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of buffalo were galloping, galloping(Cather 26). In creating this image, Cather shows how the land in Jim's view was always alive. And with the last repeating word, galloping, she builds the picture that everything will keep going and nothing will seem to end. In turn, this ties back to her point on immigrants' struggles by connecting to the idea that winter will be followed by another winter; doesn't matter if you survived the hardships or not, doesn't matter if you like it or not, life will continue and trials will keep challenging your life.

The two books are not unrelated, however. When examining the two works side by side, similarities can be found. For example, both works have a setting of people from different cultures moving to the United States for a new start, described how cultures define and label gender roles and distinct narrative structures that emphasize the changes that happened to the character and their gradual maturation. In terms of immigration, both books describe the struggles immigrants encountered, like language barriers, misunderstandings and prejudice. However, despite similar settings of immigration, each book illustrates different struggles immigrants experienced. In The Joy Luck Club, the struggles were between mothers and daughters and specifically about how language barriers limited the communication and created gaps between them.

On the other hand, in My Antonia, the struggles illustrated were mainly on the immigrants' struggles with the new environment and the prejudice they faced, which was a result of the natives' lack of understanding for immigrants and the belief that the reason why immigrants came to the United States were to take advantage of the American people and the opportunities. In addition to immigrant struggles, both books talk about defining and labeling of gender roles, but they present totally different perspectives about it. Amy Tan approached the labeling of gender roles in Chinese perspectives because her whole book is centered around mothers who were Chinese immigrants. In her book, women were labeled as weak and unable to stand on their own.

They were given a few options and treated unequally. And even when the pains women had to endure in the Chinese culture were already hurting them, they were still passing it down, like what one of the character, A-Mei Hsu, explained you must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh(Tan 41). In contrast, in My Antonia, women were much more independent like the character, Lena, who doesn't want to be married because she doesn't want to have to ask life of anybody(Cather 105). Moreover, many women in the book were portrayed as not limiting themselves with the traditional gender roles: the girls out there usually got rough and mannish after they went to herding(Cather 107).

Other than gender roles, both authors also use different story structures to show the changes that happened to the characters which include their gradual realization and maturation. For instance, Willa Cather splits My Antonia into books to show Jim's maturation. One of the turning points of Jim happens in Book II, where Cather writes the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if said: ?This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath(Cather 112). This is the point when Jim realized that the frivolities of summer were only lies; more importantly, life is not about the fun and the easy days, but about the times you overcome the hardships and learn from them.

At this point, he made a jump in his life and thus became more mature. In comparison, Amy Tan divides her novel into sixteen stories and four parts to contrast the experiences and values of the mothers to those of the daughters. In doing so, she points out the conflict between Chinese immigrant mothers and American-born daughters. But, fortunately, as the stories progress, the daughters gradually realized their mother's intentions and understand their stories, so they started to embody their Chinese identity and worked together with their mothers. Just like Jim in My Antonia, they matured.

By telling these stories, the authors express their opinions on immigration struggles and gender roles. For Amy Tan, she doesn't seem to agree on the labeling of gender roles described in her book and having misunderstandings and disconnections between daughters and mothers. The reason is she was once like the daughters in her book: not listening to her mother, discarding Chinese beliefs and disconnecting in language. But in the end, she realized that she didn't have to choose from being Chinese or American and there shouldn't be any labelings, so she started to embody Chinese as her identity, learned to embrace Chinese culture again and tried to listen and understand her mother. Ultimately, she believes that there should not be any defining or labeling of things; we should all search for things that work best for us.

For Willa Cather, she tries to use the story of an immigrant family to correct the misunderstanding that most Americans have about immigrants: they came here to take advantage of everything. She believes that the reason why immigrants moved was that they desperately needed the opportunities and a new start. The ultimate message she wants to convey is that we shouldn't judge people from the surface, just like how Americans judge immigrants.

What is more important is the inside, the spirit, which goes beyond physical appearance. When you take everything away - immigrants or natives, poor or rich, female or male - everyone is the same and share the same path. For me personally, I disagree with the traditional ideas of Americans on the immigrants presented in My Antonia and the Chinese cultural labeling of gender roles presented in The Joy Luck Club, but I do agree with both authors' values because I also think that after taking everything off, we are all human beings who are trying to live and that's what binds us all together. Therefore, we should not try to define or label anyone by their appearance; what's inside is the most important.

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Joy Luck Club and My Antonia. (2019, Jul 19). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from
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