The Purpose of Prologues in The Joy Luck Club
In each of the four sections of her book, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan begins with parable-style anecdotes. These anecdotes closely relate to the themes presented in each section, and they are all expressive of maternal worries and warnings. Moreover, they work to provide authenticity to the “Chinese sensibility” that is prevalent throughout the book. According to Catherine Romangnolo, of Studies in the Novel, “Narrative beginnings, as suggested by the example of The Joy Luck Club, assume a symbolic primacy in relation to social identity”(90). That is, they inform the way readers are to interpret the context of the stories that follow. By outlining the themes of the following stories, the anecdotes influence the way the stories are read.
Literary critic Stephen Souris, of Texas Women’s University, examines the usefulness of the prologues even further. He explains that “They serve […] as a universalizing backdrop against which to see the particularized monologues. Each monologue can be set against the preface, and each cluster can be taken as an Iserian ‘theme’ set against the ‘horizon’ of the respective preface. The prefaces also help the reader pick up on what Tan calls the ‘emotional curve’ of each ‘quartet’” (111). The prologues not only set up the themes displayed in the following chapters, but they also work to set up the emotions that ensue throughout the section.
The story that begins the book, in the section “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” speaks closely to the mother-daughter relationships between the characters. The Chinese mothers
struggle with miscommunication between themselves and their Chinese-American daughters. The story clearly expresses this struggle.
The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum. This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!—it is too beautiful to eat.
Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America. On her journey she cooed to the swan: “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for.”
But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory. And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind.
Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow. For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, “This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.” And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English. (Tan 3, 4)
The story is representative of so many conflicts within the relationship between the Chinese mother and her Chinese-American daughter. The daughter becomes much more American than her mother had hoped, and cannot understand or appreciate her cultural background; nor can the mother adequately express this in her broken English. The story speaks not only to
miscommunication, but also to things lost, forgotten, and left behind. Each of these elements is explicitly shown with the chapters that follow.
In the first chapter, The Joy Luck Club, the story of Suyuan Woo is presented by her daughter, Jing-Mei. As she was trying to escape from China, Suyuan had to leave everything she valued behind on the side of the road, including her twin baby girls (14). Because she struggled to tell her husband and Jing-Mei about her tremendous loss, Suyuan died without ever reuniting with her long lost daughters. This is reminiscent of the preface to the chapter; the old woman was never able to adequately express herself to her daughter, so all of her efforts seem to have been in vain. The other Joy Luck mothers realize this is true of themselves, too, when Jing-Mei expresses that she knows nothing about her mother. Jing-mei realizes:
They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. […] They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds ‘joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. (31)
This is the metaphorical lost swan from the prologue. The mothers fear they will be forgotten by their daughters, and what little Chinese culture their daughters have retained will be lost before their granddaughters are born.
The next chapter, Scar, is the story of An-mei Hsu, the mother of Rose. An-mei’s mother was disowned for becoming the third wife of a man after Rose’s father passed away. An-mei’s mother lost her name, as they were forbidden to speak it, and she lost her face, because they were
supposed to forget her. But when she returns for Rose, Rose describes her voice as a “familiar sound from a forgotten dream” (37). Like the daughters’ Chinese ancestry in the prologue, she cannot forget it completely, and it is never truly gone, but put far out of mind in a distant place. An-mei explains, “The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones” (41). The American-born daughter in the preface cannot deny her heritage, but in order to appreciate her mother, she must put aside the language and cultural barriers to see their commonalities.
The story that begins the section “The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” speaks of a mother’s warning to try to keep her daughter from harm. The daughter does not heed her mother’s warning, and she fulfills her mother’s prophecy.
“Do not ride your bicycle around the corner,” the mother had told the daughter when she was seven.
“Why not!” protested the girl.
“Because then I cannot see you and you will fall down and cry and I will not hear you.”
“How do you know I’ll fall?” whined the girl.
“It is in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house.”
“I don’t believe you. Let me see the book.”
“It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me.”
“What are they, then?” the girl demanded. “Tell me the twenty-six bad things.”
But the mother sat knitting in silence.
“What twenty-six!” shouted the girl.
The mother still did not answer her.
“You can’t tell me because you don’t know! You don’t know anything!” And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in a hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner. (87)
The story alludes to troubles the daughters will get themselves into in the proceeding chapters as a result of not listening to, or really not hearing, their mothers. Souris explains, “The preface to Part Two, “The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” helps organize the way we think about the daughters’s [sic] monologues in that section by suggesting that Chinese mothers can be overbearing in their attempts to protect and control their daughters, and that this will result in rebelliousness on the part of their daughters, as well as misfortune” (111). The story causes the reader to expect the Chinese-American daughters to bring about their own unhappiness by trying to spite their mothers.
In the first chapter of this section, Rules of the Game, Waverly, the daughter of Lindo, is a chess prodigy. However, her mother’s pride embarrasses her, so Waverly runs off to spite her mother, just as the daughter in the preface does. But, just like in the preface, Waverly really ends up hurting herself. Waverly imagines her mother, “first walking briskly down one street or another looking for me, then giving up and returning home to await my arrival” (Tan 102). However, when she returns home, Waverly is not acknowledged by her family. Waverly’s disregard for her mother only worsened her punishment, instead of guilting her mother into worrying as she’d hoped it would.
In the fourth chapter of that section, Two Kinds, Jing-Mei relates the story of how her mother pushed her to be a prodigy, and how she pushed back to teach her mother a lesson. Suyuan pushed Jing-Mei to learn piano after many attempts and failures at other talents. Her piano teacher was deaf, so Jing-Mei was able to fake her way through lessons; however, once her
mother started to brag, she devised a plan to make a fool of her. She entered a talent show, and failed miserably, but instead of the joy of retribution, Jing-Mei felt her parents’ shame. The disappointment her mother felt crushed Jing-Mei (151). Her mother tried to make her practice after the talent show fiasco, but Jing-Mei protested. When the argument escalated, Jing-Mei “remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. ‘Then I wish I’d never been born!’ I shouted. ‘I wish I were dead! Like them’” (153). This statement so devastated her mother that she could not speak, and while Jing-Mei did not have to play piano any more, her relationship with her mother was changed forever. Her attempt at hurting her mother went too far and hurt even herself.
The story that begins the third section, “American Translation,” speaks to the Chinese sensibility and superstition that the American daughters do not understand. The Chinese mother looks in the mirror and sees a grandchild she desperately wants, while her daughter looks and sees only herself; the preface is all about the different perspectives of mothers and daughters, and the power the mothers hold.
“Wah!” cried the mother upon seeing the mirrored armoire in the master suite of her daughter’s new condominium. “You cannot put mirrors at the foot of the bed. All your marriage happiness will bounce back and turn the opposite way.”
“Well, that’s the only place it fits, so that’s where it stays,” said the daughter, irritated that her mother saw bad omens in everything. She had heard these warnings all her life.
The mother frowned, reaching into her twice-used Macy’s bag. “Hunh, lucky I can fix it for you, then.” And she pulled out the gilt-edged mirror she had bought at the Price Club last week. It was her house-warming present. She leaned it against the headboard, on top of the two pillows.
“You hang it here,” said the mother, pointing to the wall above. “This mirror see that mirror—haule!—multiply your peach-blossom luck.”
“What is peach-blossom luck?”
The mother smiled, mischief in her eyes. “It is in here,” she said, pointing to the mirror. “Look inside. Tell me, am I not right? In this mirror is my future grandchild, already sitting on my lap next spring.”
And the daughter looked—and haule! There it was: her own reflection looking back at her. (159)
This story illustrates, again, the miscommunication between the mothers and daughters. The daughters cannot understand the meaning behind their mother’s words, while the mothers cannot express their meaning any better in English so their daughters could understand them. This is a result of their different cultural backgrounds, and in turn, their different perspectives. Souris expands on this point:
Mothers see one thing; daughters see something completely different. But the metaphor here is actually only relevant to the daughter’s perspective: it suggests that mothers project their own subjective preferences upon what they see whereas daughters see objectively, which is itself is a distorted notion. From the mother’s perspective, they see clearly and daughters distort reality. Because this preface is designed to make us sympathetic to the daughters, it is slanted towards them; the ‘emotional curve’ is with the daughters. (112)
The purpose of the story is to concentrate on the daughters’ confusion of their mothers’ superstitions, and to sympathize with it throughout the section.
In the chapter, Without Wood, in that section of the book, Rose struggles with the dissolution of her marriage. She said that she used to believe everything her mother told her, regardless of whether or not she understood her meaning. She said, “All of these things seemed true to me.
The power of her words was that strong” (Tan 206). When she later ponders Chinese terms her mother uses, Rose comes to the conclusion that, “the words mean much more than that. Maybe they can’t easily be translated because they refer to a sensation that only Chinese people have” (210). This shows that perhaps Rose is starting to understand the superstitions her mother had been telling her all along. And when Rose thinks her mother is going to urge her to save her marriage, An-Mei instead says, “’I am not telling you to save your marriage,’ she protested. ‘I only say you should speak up’” (216). This leads Rose to the realization that her mother’s power was not in the words she said, but in the fact that she said them at all. Regardless of the superstitions, the maternal power and encouragement is what influences the daughters’ lives. Only if the daughters realize the willpower and influence they can have, will they be in control as their mothers are.
The prologue to the final section of the book, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” deals with the Chinese mother’s lament in her old age. She wonders what she would do differently if she had the chance to raise another daughter.
“O! Hwai dungsyi”—You bad little thing—said the woman, teasing her baby granddaughter. “Is Buddha teaching you to laugh for no reason?” As the baby continued to gurgle, the woman felt a deep wish stirring in her heart.
“Even if I could live forever,” she said to the baby, “I still don’t know which way I would teach you. I was once so free and innocent. I too laughed for no reason.
“But later I threw away my foolish innocence to protect myself. And then I taught my daughter, your mother, to shed her innocence so she would not be hurt as well.
“Hwai dungsyi, was this kind of thinking wrong? If I now recognize evil in other people, is I not because I have become evil too? If I see someone has a suspicious nose, have I not smelled the same bad things?”
The baby laughed, listening to her grandmother’s laments.
“O! O! You say you are laughing because you have already lived forever, over and over again? You say you are Syi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, now come back to give me the answer! Good, good, I am listening….
“Thank you, Little Queen. Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.” (239)
Souris describes the mother as “self-critical and hopeful for her daughter” (112), and that she is; but, moreover, the story prompts the reader to have sympathy to a mother who feels she has failed.
In the following chapter, Magpies, An-Mei laments just as the mother in the preface does. She feels she has failed to teach her daughter to be more assertive than she was, because Rose claims to have no choice in her divorce. She laments:
She doesn’t know. If she doesn’t speak, she is making a choice. If she doesn’t try, she can lose her chance forever. I know this, because I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way. (Tan 241)
She sees her daughter making the same mistakes she had made, and wonders how she could have prevented them. She wonders what she could have done differently to spare her daughter the pain of divorce and indecision.
All of the prefaces speak directly to the maternal desire that one’s child has a better, easier, happier life than oneself. They examine the struggles of miscommunication between mothers and
daughters, as well as the conflict of daughters trying to assert their independence while their mothers try to protect them. The prefaces speak not only to the relationships between Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters, but more broadly to the universal struggles between all mothers and daughters.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Random House. New York, NY. 1989. Print.
Romangnolo, Catherine. “Narrative Beginnings in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club: A Feminist
Study.” Studies in the Novel. 2003. 35.1. 89-108. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12-05-11.
Souris, Stephen. “’Only two kinds of daughters’: Inter-monologue dialogicity in The Joy Luck
Club.” MELUS. 1994. 19.2. 99-124. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12-05-11.