"Only Two Kinds of Daughters": Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in 'The Joy Luck Club.'(Theory, Culture and Criticism)

Article excerpt

"Only two kinds of daughters," she shouted in Chinese.

"Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind!

Only one kind of daughter can live in this house.

Obedient daughter!" (142)

My mother and I never really understood one another.

We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear

less than what was said, while my mother heard more. (37)

Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan has said that she never intended The Joy Luck Club to be a novel. Instead, she thought of it as a collection of stories. But she did plan on having the stories cohere around a central theme, and she did plan the prefaces from the start, although they were written last ("Interview").(1) More importantly, her collection of first-person monologues participates in and contributes to a tradition of multiple monologue narratives. Since the precedent-setting experiments of Woolf and Faulkner--The Waves, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!--a number of interesting novels written in the decentered, multiple monologue mode have been published. Louise Erdrich's Tracks, Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson, Louis Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet, and Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman are just a few of the contemporary examples of this compelling genre.(2)

Because of its decentered, multi-perspectival form, The Joy Luck Club invites analysis from critical perspectives that theorize and valorize fragmented, discontinuous texts and the possibilities of connection across segments. Mikhail Bakhtin may come to mind first because of his emphasis on and celebration of texts flaunting a diversity of fully valid and autonomous voices with relativistic and centrifugal consequences as well as counter-centrifugal tendencies such as the active intermingling of perspectives within single consciousnesses (what I call "intra-monologue dialogicity"). Tan's "novel" offers a heteroglot collection of very different, fully valid voices each presented from its own perspective, with relativistic and centrifugal implications.(3) Moreover, its unique theme--mothers from China and their American-born daughters struggling to understand each other--allows for a rich array of dialogized perspectives within single utterances: the Chinese, the American, and the Chines-American, all three of which can be discerned, to varying degrees, in the monologues.(4)

My concern in this essay, however, will not be with the counter-centrifugal phenomenon of "intra-monologue dialogicity." Rather, it will be with what I call "inter-monologue dialogicity," or the potential for active intermingling of perspectives across utterances, with the site of the dialogicity located in the reader's experience of the narrative. Although Bakhtin has some provocative things to say about the dialogic potential of textual segments set side by side and even hints at the role a reader would have to play in establishing that dialogicity, his theory does not fully allow for a reader's moment-by-moment processing of a text. Wolfgang Iser picks up where Bakhtin leaves off regarding the counter-centrifugal dialogicity that can be said to exist between textual elements in a multiple narrator novel. It is with his narrative model that I propose to uncover and articulate the dialogic potential across monologues in The Joy Luck Club.(5)

Iser's phenomenologically rigorous model of the act of reading is ideally suited to the pursuit and articulation of inter-monologue dialogicity in narratives modeled more or less after The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, or The Waves. Although The Act of Reading is a classic text in the reader-response school, a brief summary of the main points of Iser's theory will establish the context for my analysis of the potentially interacting structures of The Joy Luck Club.

Like other reader-response critics, Iser emphasizes the active involvement of the reader in the creation of meaning. …