Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989

Part 1: "Feathers from a Thousand Li Away"

        The section title, like all of them, arises from a "talk story" which encapsulates some central understanding about the tale cluster. This one involves an immigrant mother and her wish to communicate her complex hopes for the immigration to her daughter in "perfect American English" (3). However, her ambitions might be parodied in the story told her by the market vendor about the swan that "was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose" but became "too beautiful to eat" (3). The ambiguity of the duck/swan’s fate means that its beautiful achievement is not nourishing, nor is its transport to America successful save for one feather—a word, a memory, a hope?  Think about authors' "muses" being like Amy Tan's mother, real people whose stories create connections between generations and between uncommunicative classes or ethnic groups.  For whom do you bear a "feather"?

Jing-Mei Woo: "The Joy Luck Club"

        The "Kweilin babies" story puts us through June’s relationship with her mother in an intensely compressed form because it has two endings within fifteen pages of each other (14, 29). The truth keeps evolving. How does that reflect the shape of our experience of previous generations’ attempts to communicate with us? Woolf realized her ideas might be obsolete within 100 years ("A Room"). Lanyer’s dedication poems and Finch’s coy fables may seem odd or oppressive to us now. If we were to treat them like our ancestors, whose stories’ meanings have been changed by changing times, how are we to recover the truth of what their authors really meant, to become "inspired" with their meaning?

        The story also introduces quietly some important character traits and concepts you’ll need to understand later stories. An-Mei Hsu seems to have angered June’s mother for some reason that June doesn’t understand. June once played with Rose Hsu (Jordan) but now they are far apart. Lindo Jong and June’s mother used to compete with each other by bragging about their daughters’ successes, especially Waverly Jong’s chess skill, and June was forced to learn to play piano to keep up the competition. Finally, Ying-Ying St. Clair seems "odd," "from another world," though she is the one who reveals to June the truth about her sisters, and June can’t explain what has made Ying-Ying so disturbed and withdrawn. Also, June briefly summarizes her mother’s use of traditional "elemental psychology" to explain character while revealing that she and her mother never got along, never seemed to understand each other (19-20).

An-Mei Hsu: "Scar"

        The "ghost mother" whose story is recalled in the tale of An-Mei’s grandmother Popo’s death will be explained the fourth section’s "Magpies," but for now tale illustrates Tan’s use of incomplete memories to recover the truth of the past. The mother’s presence remained for years a kind of "speaking dream" until her mother returned to tend Popo in the grandmother’s last illness. The definition of "shou" or filial duty involves a kind of self-sacrifice that also is reflected in the apparently cruel lie Popo tells the badly burned child, An-Mei, to rouse her spirit to recovery (39, 41).

Lindo Jong: "The Red Candle"

        Lindo Jong’s lecture to her daughter about promises helps to link together An-Mei Hsu’s connection to the "ghost" mother and June Woo’s connection to her mother and to her lost sisters. Relationships among the generations of women are built of promises and sacrifices required by shou. This tale is the first to confront the cultural differences between the American children and their mothers who grew up in rural China, especially regarding arranged marriages. Her birthmother’s injunction when they parted sets up Lindo Jong’s understanding of the way the world works: "Obey your family. Do not disgrace us" (48). The "family" she refers to are the Huangs, to whose youngest son she was betrothed at two. What do we owe the families of those we marry, and how do we calculate that debt, especially given differences of race, class, or gender? Equally important is her corollary realization that she "was like the wind" in her invisible inner identity if she could just keep her promise that "I would not forget myself" in serving her husband (53). What is this invisible "self" that we try to remember, and what makes us forget it? How is "forgetting ourselves" different from "learning"?

        The title’s "red candle" constitutes a crucial kind of symbol of marital relations that is mocked by her husband’s treatment of her on the wedding night. Does Lindo’s attempt to manipulate the "omen" represent a real rebellion against the system or is she still contained within it? More importantly, how does it relate to her use of the "dream" and the prophecy of the servant girl’s "imperial ancestry" to end the marriage, and what do both mean about her religious values? Note especially the relationship between "metal" and thinking clearly.

Ying-Ying St. Clair: "The Moon Lady"

        Unlike Lindo Jong, who learned young "never to forget" herself, Ying-Ying has "lost" herself. Her story is something she shares with us, but not with her daughter, at least at first. Her tale will be completed (like Lindo’s) in the last quartet of mothers’ tales, but that tale’s final events will already have happened at the end of her daughter’s first tale. In effect, we will approach the same, apparently trivial household accident from two different direction,s and its significance will pass from one character to the other through us.

        The "Moon Lady" perfectly symbolizes the kind of problem Ying-Ying sees within herself and in her daughter’s life—the "Lady" is not a woman at all, nor is almost anything Ying-Ying remembers from that night really what it seemed to be. The experience of wishing "to be found" seems to have fused itself with her immigrant experience and her sense of distance from her daughter. What is it "to be found" and by what can one "be found"? How might one "be found by creative inspiration"?