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Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is about Chinese immigrant mothers and their daughters who struggle in keeping balance in their lives. Waverly, a chess prodigy, struggles to fulfill the wishes of the people around her while also trying to fulfill her own wishes. Waverly gets hooked onto chess and practices by expanding her field of knowledge, making sacrifices along the way, which ultimately makes her a childhood star. However, as she becomes more and more focused on winning games, the losses started to weigh heavily on her and eventually cause her to quit. Waverly is originally driven by her passion to play chess, which allows her to become famous; however, once she becomes well-known, the pressure others put on her to perform exceptionally eventually causes her to break under pressure.
When Waverly starts playing chess, winning isn’t her main focus, learning is, which leads to her success. Waverly’s brother gets a chess set, which piques her interest in the game; she asks questions about the rules of the game that her brother can’t answer, so she goes to find out the answers for herself. When she goes to the library, she says that “I studied each chess piece, trying to absorb the power each contained. I learned about opening moves… I learned about the middle game… I learned…in the endgame… I loved the secrets I found within the sixty-four black and white squares,” (Tan 94). The repeated use of the phrase “I learned…” emphasizes that she gains knowledge about chess on her own, showing that she wants to learn about chess. She “loved the secrets [she] found within the sixty-four black and white squares,” implying that she’s motivated to study because she wants to learn more about the game, rather than studying because it would help her win. She then seeks out Lau Po, an old man who plays chess: “But over the weeks, with each diminishing roll of candies, [she] added new secrets…By the end of the summer, [she] had become a better chess player” (95-96). Waverly loses candies when she doesn’t win. However, to her, gaining knowledge vastly outweighs the cost of losing countless rolls of candies, pushing her to keep playing regardless of the sacrifices she needs to make; whereas if she is only focused on winning, she would’ve given up playing because there’s no immediate return from her sacrifice. At the end of the day, Waverly’s eagerness to learn more about chess because of her interest leads to her successful chess career as a child.
After Waverly starts playing purely to win, it eventually causes her to give up when she loses. She confronts her mother and stops playing chess to spite her mother because she thinks her mother cares about her winning, but her mother doesn’t care. When she starts to play again after making up with her mother, she finds that she can’t win anymore. When she starts to play again, “[she] fought hard, with fear and desperation. When [she] won, [she] was grateful, relieved…When [she] lost twice to the boy whom [she] had so easily defeated years before, [she] stopped playing chess altogether” (173). She fights with “fear and desperation” to win; the word choice shows that she doesn’t want to win because she enjoys winning in itself, she has to win because if she loses, she wouldn’t be viewed as a prodigy by the people around her, especially her mother. When she wins, she’s “grateful, relieved”; winning doesn’t directly bring her joy, but instead relieves her from the terrifying possibility that she lost. After she “lost twice to the boy whom she had so easily defeated years before,” she quit chess. The person that Waverly is before the argument would have tried to learn from this experience, and improve. However, the pressure that Waverly and the people around her put on her causes her to emphasize not losing so much that when she loses to this boy she once beat, she quits chess entirely. When Waverly plays chess to learn more, she loses game after game without complaint; however, when she starts to focus on not losing, her losses quickly cause her to quit.
The change in Waverly’s source of motivation causes her to give up. Originally, she’s motivated from within herself and succeeds. However, the fear of being seen as mediocre or normal by others ultimately causes her to quit. Had Waverly not cared so much about what others thought of her, she likely would be able to pick herself up from her defeat and walk away stronger, learning from her losses. Waverly rising to fame is a prime example of someone doing their job, and enjoying it, creating a positive environment where they achieve their goal and also enjoy the process. However, most people are motivated to do their jobs because of monetary rewards or peer pressure. It’s important to realize that motivation from within oneself is more helpful in accomplishing a goal because it makes the process enjoyable, which will make achieving one’s end goal more painless.
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