Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Discovering the Ethnic Name and the Genealogical Tie in Amy Tan's the Joy Luck Club. (Articles)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Discovering the Ethnic Name and the Genealogical Tie in Amy Tan's the Joy Luck Club. (Articles)

Article excerpt

In researching recent ideas in American Studies and ethnic literature, I have been struck by the work of William Boelhower and Werner Sollors, among others. In this essay, I would like to apply some of these ideas to thematic and structural elements in the ethnic American short story sequence as it relates to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Using Boelhower and Sollors's work, I propose to examine the tale of The Joy Luck Club's June/Jing mei Woo, who becomes the axis for this short story cycle. June Woo's story acts a leitmotif in these tales of Chinese mothers and their American daughters who are unable to understand their mothers and their twin heritage. Boelhower's Through a Glass Darkly: An Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature provides a semiotic analysis of ethnicity that can be useful in understanding ethnic literature and is appropriate for this story sequence. Examining The Joy Luck Club using these approaches augments our understanding of this Chinese American story cycle and, in turn, permits the reader to see how ethnic semiosis can augment discussions of writers from different cultures.

Amy Tan's short story sequence, The Joy Luck Club, focuses on four Chinese mothers and their American daughters who are at odds with their mothers, their inheritance, and the power of their mothers' wisdom and strength. Interestingly, none of these mothers longs for her daughter to be Chinese following nothing but Chinese ways, for each woman has come to America with the intent of making a better life in which her family would know the fabled American successes. Each mother has her own powerful story of overcoming odds, of having learned the lesson of becoming strong through seeing her own mother suffer or by suffering herself. Each mother feels the anguish of the cultural separation between herself and her daughter. Each mother wants her daughter to know the power and advantage of joining the strengths of two cultures instead of embracing only one--the American; and importantly, each mother rescues her daughter from the specific danger that threatens her.

The structure of this short story sequence becomes a central metaphor for the thematic elements that link these stories to each other, involving an implicit conversation among the four mothers and their daughters as they tell their stories. The sequence is divided into four sections, each having four stories. Although the stories are about four mothers and their four daughters, only three mothers and four daughters tell their stories in these sections, for June Woo takes her dead mother's place in the first and last sections of the book. She alone has a story in each of the four sections, thus forming the central axis of the book; the first and last sections contain the mothers' stories. The second and third sections are given to the four daughters. Although we read the work sequentially, we continually look back. In theorizing on the short story sequence as opposed to the short story cycle and the implications of the former, Robert Luscher explains:

   ... we continually cast a backward glance to formulate the relationships of
   the past to the evolving whole. Such narrative organization is primarily
   spatial rather then temporal, since it subverts strict chronological
   progression. (Luscher 166)

The Joy Luck Club works spatially rather than chronologically. We discover pieces of the mothers' childhoods in China as we read their individual stories; we see the breach in the daughters' relationships with their mothers as we read their stories. We understand the repeated symbols, which expand with each use as the stories hold hands at crucial junctures. The theme rounds out with each mother's pain as it expands with each daughter's fear of disappointing her mother. We understand that the cultural divide causes these walls. Each story fits a space on the map that develops for us as we begin to observe the developing and continually shifting picture. …

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