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Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, depicts the lives of four mothers who were born in China but eventually immigrated to America. They hoped to live better lives for themselves and for their daughters. A major portion of the novel focuses on the relationship between one mother, Suyuan Woo, and her daughter Jing-mei. In the beginning of the book, Suyuan Woo’s journey in China from Kweilin to Chungking and eventually to America holds much symbolism in her search for meaning. Amy Tan employs a tragic journey with symbolism, irony, and a concrete structure to convey the message that one can discover his or her own identity in accepting one’s origins.
The novel opens with Suyuan’s physical journey in China. During the Japanese invasion, Suyuan escapes along the road from Kweilin to Chungking. However, she grows weak and abandons her twin babies next to a road. In addition, upon returning to Chungking, she soon finds out that her husband has died in the war. Yet, her tragic journey takes an ironic turn when she decides to create the Joy Luck Club: “What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths..Or to choose our own happiness?” (Tan 35). One would expect Suyuan’s journey to bring her suffering and hopelessness; however, Amy Tan uses irony to bring about the opposite effect, showing how the acceptance of one’s suffering can lead to hope.
Suyuan’s physical journey from Kweilin to Chungking further extends when she immigrated from China to America. In the novel, America and China become two different symbols. China represents the east, and America the west. The novel, which is split into four sections, mirrors the symbolic cardinal direction. It is no coincidence that the mah-jong table is also divided into the north, south, east, and west, each one occupied by a different character. Amy Tan’s structural creation of the novel allows for a deeper, symbolic meaning of her theme. For Suyuan Woo, the mother of Jing-mei, her place was in the “East … where everything begins” (Tan 50). Suyuan had originally founded the Joy Luck Club in China (the East) where she began her life and physical journey. Amy Tan uses the symbolism of the east to represent one’s origins. The quote shows how Suyuan has acknowledged her origins, stemming from her culture and beginnings in China.
While Suyuan and the three other mothers have found their true selves in China, their daughters, in America, are confused and frustrated. Jing-mei, the daughter of Suyuan, for most of the novel, feels that she never knew her mother or herself. But eventually, Suyuan’s journey is extended to Jing-mei. The three other mothers reveal that Suyuan had been searching for her twin babies throughout her life. She does find them, but she dies before she can meet them. Thus, her journey is passed on to Jing-mei, who is told to be “loyal to her [mother]” (Tan 39) and to go find her sisters. Jing-mei, who has never been loyal to her mother in America, now does the opposite. Here, Amy Tan uses the symbolism of America (the west) to represent adventure and restlessness — the American Dream, where individuality, but also ambiguity, persists. Yet, by having Jing-mei return to China, Tan shows that one’s origins are key to self-understanding and identity. Ultimately, Jing-mei fully understands herself and her mother when she goes back to China itself.
Amy Tan, through the use of a tragic journey, symbolism, irony, and structure shows how accepting one’s origins is imperative to self-actualization and growth as an individual. Fully embracing one’s heritage may lead to a greater understanding.
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