Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1989

Part 2: "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates"

           This title turns out to refer to a real book, at least "real" in terms of what Tan will authorize in her "daughters’" voices (131, compare Woolf’s "Mary Carmichael" voice for what she isn’t able to be fully authoritative about). In many cases, these stories concern catastrophic "fallings" which could have been predicted by someone older and wiser but which could not be identified because the daughters rebelled against their mothers’ advice, or because their mothers’ advice was misguided or spoken in forms that could not be understood or acted upon. The "gates" are paths between worlds, between life and death in its original, but perhaps between Chinese and American culture or between parent and child in others.

Waverly Jong: "Rules of the Game"

        The "game" in this instance appears to be chess, but the wider implications indicate it’s American culture (vs. Chinese culture, which was also a game?). Following the rules appears to guarantee safety for immigrant mothers, but threatens identity for their daughters. Waverly’s genius (inspiration, "voice of the wind") appears to develop naturally enough, but it’s thwarted and deformed by her conflict with her mother. How does her mother come to be her "opponent" in the great psychic chess match which stands above and beyond all the other ordinary matches she has played and won?

Lena St. Clair: "The Voice from the Wall"

        Lena’s social situation almost allegorizes that of the other daughters, translating unsuccessfully, and sometimes unfaithfully, between their Chinese parent’s world and the American world. As they perform this negotiation, a third kind of thing is created, neither Chinese nor American (at least as they understand "American" as an alien culture and language). Lena’s problem is intensified by her mother’s deeply scarred personality (compare An-Mei Hsu’s physical scar?) and her father’s speaking only rudimentary Chinese. Throughout the tale, we see images of things falling which echo Ying-Ying’s fall from the floating pavilion in "The Moon Lady," and people trying unsuccessfully to prevent the fall. Like An-Mei Hsu, Lena becomes the guardian of her mother’s terrible secret, but it remains to be seen whether it will make her stronger or destroy her.  The "wall" is used metaphorically to signify death, dreaming, and identity, itself.  How do the "walls" of our personalities affect our capacity to feel others' feelings, and to remain in touch with our parents?

Rose Hsu Jordan: "Half and Half"

        Rose’s failed marriage to Ted Jordan satirizes American middle-class status-consciousness and our faith in our ability to control our upward rise to success. Ted’s family may be profoundly, insultingly ignorant of Rose’s Chinese heritage, but it’s of no concern to them as long as it doesn’t hurt their son’s career. Rose, herself, seems to have sought Ted out because he so confidently manipulates circumstances to get what he wants, never doubting his competence until the malpractice suit destroys that faith.

        Rose explains her problem as arising from her passive role in her younger brother, Bing’s death/disappearance, and its effect upon her mother’s religious faith. An-Mei Hsu was a devout Baptist until the boy’s death caused her to doubt her faith, and Rose feels responsible for explaining both losses. The title is based on her conclusion that fate is half expectation and half inattention, but it also draws our attention to the conclusion that faith becomes paramount when something loved is lost: "You have to pay attention to what you lost [and] have to undo the expectation" (140). The story’s name for such expectations of oneself is "nengkan," her father’s "ability to do anything he put his mind to" (128). In her mother, it becomes symbolically expressed in the blue sapphire ring which An-Mei offers to God and the sea in return for Bing’s life (137). In keeping with Tan’s emphasis on unexpected returns and balance, we’ll see the lost ring being given to An-Mei near the end of the book (261), so that its gift will come to us already filled with its loss. (For what Bing’s name means, see 203, but can you explain why, if his older brothers are named "Matthew, Mark, and Luke," he is not named "John"?)

        This story also provides us with an explanation for the section title, the mysterious book which describes the fates which can befall unlucky children (compare "The Five Evils" in Ying-Ying’s tale). Children’s fragility and vulnerability to sudden catastrophe places an additional stress on the chain of memory and duty the tales create between generations. Adults continually adopt bizarre strategies to attempt to thwart their children’s disasters, and the children persist in having them—does this relate to anything Aeschylus might have understood about suffering and learning?

Jing-Mei Woo: "Two Kinds"

        The "two kinds" of daughter, according to Suyuan Woo, are "obedient" and "disobedient," but June’s story so closely parallels that of Waverly St. Clair that it implies there might also be two other kinds, the "prodigies" and the "ordinary." Both kinds of daughter frustrate their mothers and neither can stand their mothers’ attempts to control their authority over what they do. Both pairs of mothers and daughters fall into a terrible argument in which the daughters deny their mothers’ authority. June’s disastrous "concert," in which the sham of her "genius" is exposed, ironically is a performance of Robert Schumann’s "Pleading Child," part of his thirteen Kinderscenen ("Childhood Scenes," Opus 15) Her own plea to be freed from the piano lessons can only be communicated by destroying the music, whose beautiful secret she only discovers late in life. Schumann’s strategy of constructing "Perfectly Contented" as a major key "double" of the rhythms and melody of "Pleading Child" musically reflects Tan’s own narrative strategy of pairing tales and events to achieve harmonious balance, a technique she arrives at by means of Chinese Confucian principles of balanced oppositions.