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Literature / The Joy Luck Club

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The Joy Luck Club is an 1989 novel by Amy Tan.

The book centers around four mother-daughter pairs living in San Francisco. The mothers are Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair. The daughters are, respectively, Jing-Mei (June) Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. All of the mothers immigrated from China during their lives, and much of the book talks about their relationships with their mothers, with the exception of Suyuan Woo. The book is structured in sixteen chapters, each narrated in first person by one of the characters; the first four are told by the mothers, the next eight are told by the daughters, and the last four are told by the mothers, all with the exception of Suyuan Woo, who is dead at the beginning of the novel, so Jing-Mei takes her chapters. Most of each chapter is dedicated to a flashback of the narrator's childhood, usually regarding a particular incident or series of events involving that character's mother.

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The novel was adapted into a 1993 film, directed by Wayne Wang. It starred Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, and Rosalind Chao as the daughters, and Lisa Lu, Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, and France Nguyen as the mothers.

In 2020, the 1993 film adaptation got inducted into National Film Registry preservation list by the Library of Congress.


Film and book The Joy Luck Club provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Abusive aunt and uncle in young An-Mei's case.
    • Lena thinks she encounters one in the apartment next to her as a child, but it turns out the mother and daughter are only playing.
    • In Lindo's case, a forceful abusive mother-in-law puts a lot of pressure on her son and Lindo to conceive a child.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film kept most of the stories (with some changes), but trimmed some parts.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Some parts were added to the film.
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  • Adaptation Personality Change: Ted in the film is depicted as redeemable, thus being attentive enough to save his marriage with Rose. Harold is a more blatant emotional abuser in the film, whereas the book counterpart is just unintentionally condescending.
  • Adult Fear:
    • Being forced to abandon your baby girls to the elements in the desperate hope someone will find and take care of them because you simply can't carry them anymore.
    • Waverly running away from her mother in a busy street as a child.
    • 4-year-old Bing's death. While at the beach, he is left unattended for a moment and ends up accidentally drowning.
    • Having to make a bargain that when your four-year-old child turns 15, she will leave and marry a Spoiled Brat, and you will never see her again.
  • Ambiguous Situation: In the book, the state of Lena's relationship with Harold is up in the air. Also, while it hints that Rose will get the upper-hand in her divorce with Ted, Rose's arc ends abstractly enough. The film avoids these by showing in the present day Lena is with a new man she’s visibly happier with and Ted, who was written as less of a jerk, was able to reconcile with Rose.
  • Arranged Marriage: Lindo's first marriage, to a Spoiled Brat.
  • Artistic License – Biology: (In-Universe) Lindo's mother-in-law cannot understand why her son hasn't sired any children yet. It's because he hasn't hit puberty; in other words, he's physically too young to be a father.
  • Artistic License – Music: At the end of the section Two Kinds, she mentions playing two songs from Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, Pleading Child and Perfectly Contented, thereafter realizing that the two songs are actually two halves of the same song. The two songs, actually known as Bittendes Kind and Glückes genug, are actually separate songs from the same book, Kinderszenen, only that they are beside each other. At least the German names were translated into the English names properly.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Rose admits she got pregnant "for the worst reason" in order to keep Ted from straying. It doesn't work, though they both do love their daughter.
  • Bald of Evil: Lena's boyfriend Harold's baldness is a visual cue to his cold soullessness, along with the grey clothing and furniture. His replacement in the film version is notable for having thick, luxurious hair, symbolic of his warmth and goodness.
  • Batman Gambit: Lindo's plan of getting out of her first marriage.
  • Break the Cutie: Varying cases between this and Break the Haughty through all of the characters.
  • Breather Episode: After the heartbreaking story of An-Mei's new family in "Magpies" and Ying-Ying's rather troubling young adulthood in "Waiting Between The Trees" and before Jing-mei's trip to China in "A Pair of Tickets," "Double Face" is a lighthearted and rather humorous tale detailing how Lindo and Tin met and overcame a language barrier to fall in love and get married so they could have a child and become citizens.
  • Broken Bird: Young An-Mei, Lena's mother, Ying-ying.
  • Cheerful Child: 4-year-old Ying-Ying in "The Moon Lady."
  • Child by Rape: The film adaptation directly indicates An-Mei's half-brother is a product of this.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Most of the mothers.
  • Darker and Edgier: Arguably, the fate of Ying-Ying's first baby in the movie. In the book, Ying-Ying gets an abortion. In the movie, Ying-Ying carries it to term but later drowns it, acting listless the whole time.
  • Death of a Child: Four-year-old Bing Hsu (drowned) and Ying-Ying's sons (the first one was aborted because it belonged to her awful first husband and the second one was born with a hole in its head and no brain).
  • Defiled Forever: An-mei's widowed mother is raped by a strange man, and is then forced to marry him because she is considered defiled. Even worse, the Second Wife spreads a rumor that the intercourse was consensual.
  • Destructive Romance: Rose comes to realize that she's living in one.
  • Domestic Abuse: Lena's husband is of the financial abuse variety. Ted grows into an emotional abuser to Rose.
  • Dull Eyes of Unhappiness: Poor Ying-ying.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Second Wife fakes these constantly to gain the favor of her superstitious husband.
    • Well... it's a long story in the case of An-Mei's mother.
  • The '80s: The novel's set time.
  • Extreme Doormat: Tan makes it pretty clear just how terrible the consequences can be if a woman acts as such and the book is quite critical of a culture that encourages such.
  • Evil Matriarch: Huang Taitai in "The Red Candle" is pushy and demanding toward not only a young Lindo but her own son in an effort to gain a coveted grandson despite them being too young to have children, especially Tyan-yu. Second Wife in "Magpies" makes her look like a saint in comparison with her manipulative behavior and bouts of pretend suicide to get what she wants and making sure no one else can get the benefits that she does. Both of them do get humbled in their own ways by the end of each story.
  • Flashback: All the mother and daughter stories up to the present.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the book, the first sign that Ted is a terrible person is when Rose tells him about his mother's racist statements and he's angrier at Rose for not standing up for herself than at his mother's racism. Notably, due to his nicer and redeemable portrayal in the movie, he is present when said racism is directed at Rose, and he rightfully calls his mother out and he and Rose are eventually able to reconcile their marriage.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: This is more emphasized in the film version with Waverly. In the book, although she outgrows her petty rivalry with June in adulthood, she does compliment June for her writing work but tries to explain to her what didn't work out about it and unintentionally opens June's emotional wounds (due to this scene being told in June's point-of-view, Waverly is never aware of this). In the film version, the same scene happens, but the framing device shows that June and Waverly are on better terms and Waverly sincerely wishes June well in meeting her long-lost family.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Rose grows to realize that Ted is self-centered, often blames the brunt of his issues on her, and ultimately tries to kick her out of her house, expecting her to react well to the news of his cheating and divorce.
  • Like Brother and Sister: The extent of Lindo's relationship with her first husband.
  • Love Martyr: Rose believes that her submissiveness respects her husband Ted. Of course, she outgrows this mindset.
  • Meaningful Name: Loads. "Rose," in reference to her demureness in her marriage. And Lindo's intentionally invokes this with "Waverly."
    • Lindo does it with all three of her children. Her first child, a son, is named Winston because it sounds like "wins ton" and he helped get Lindo and Tin their citizenship (though he dies at sixteen in a car accident). Her second son is named Vincent because it sounds like "win cent" and sons were considered quite prosperous. Waverly's full name is Waverly Place Jong after the street they were living on at the time to give her a sense of belonging so she would never regret anything.
    • Jing-Mei's name also has a deep meaning to it that her father explains to her the night before they're expected to meet her older sisters. "Jing" refers to something of good quality after washing away imperfections and "Mei" is short for "meimei," a term for "little sister" as a shout-out to her older sisters.
    • Suyuan's name can translate to "long-cherished wish" which, in her case, was to see her daughters again and though she wasn't able to do so, Jing-Mei is able to fulfill that wish for her and see her sisters.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The jade necklaces.
  • My Death Is Just the Beginning: An-mei's mother, trapped into a horrific marriage to her rapist, commits suicide by poison, but does so two days before the new year. Folklore states that the third day after death is when a spirit returns to settle old scores — and you do not want a spirit angry with you on New Year's Day. An-mei's mother ensures her daughter and son will be cared for.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the film, Ying's reaction after she kills her child.
  • Odd Name Out: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Entirely unwillingly, on Suyuan's part.
    • An-Mei's mother, due to her circumstances. She takes An-Mei so she could live a better life in a wealthier household, ironically committing this again by abandoning An-Mei's younger brother (it's implied that taking her son to a house where she served as a concubine would be frowned upon).
  • Pet the Dog: The introduction of Second Wife seems to be this. She gives An-Mei a "genuine" pearl necklace as a welcoming offer. Then An-Mei's mother exposes the necklace as fake to An-Mei, hinting at Second Wife's conniving and manipulative nature...
  • Poor Communication Kills: Mr. St. Clair could never understand his wife fully because of this, resulting in a marriage run mostly by tolerance than true love. Even Lena realizes that her father can merely "put words in her mother's mouth." Also a common case between the mothers and daughters.
    • This is played tragically in the case of Canning and Suyuan Woo just before her death. Suyuan discovered that her abandoned daughters were still alive and a friend found them shopping together and wrote her a letter about this which reignites the hope that had faded away over decades. She tries to encourage Canning to go to China but neglects to mention the reason why she wants to go and he refuses because he thought she just wanted to go on a vacation at the time and they were getting too old to be tourists in their seventies. Not long after this, she dies from an aneurysm and only too late does Canning realize the meaning of the words when he receives a letter from his wife's daughters. He confesses to his aunt and Jing-Mei that it's one of the biggest regrets of his life.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the film adaptation, Ted gives this to his own mother after she makes remarks towards Rose. Likewise, Rose later gives Ted this when calling out on his emotional neglect of her.
  • Pretty in Mink: Waverly's fiancé giving her a mink coat.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: While the novel mentions Robert Schumann and his Kindersczenen as the piano piece that June was playing badly as a child, the film adaptation replaces it with "Humoresque Opus 101 No. 7" by Antonín Dvořák, which the child June messes up on at the piano.
  • Rape as Backstory: An-Mei's mother in "Magpies."
  • Rape as Drama: Tyan-yu and Lindo in "The Red Candle." Huang Taitai enables and condones this because she wants an heir. However, nothing happens anyway. In the film, Tyan-yu thrusts something at Lindo and makes her scream — but it's only his pet lizard! His mom is in Selective Obliviousness.
  • "Rediscovering Roots" Trip: Jing-Mei/June goes to China after her mother's death. In experiencing life in China and telling her two half-sisters about their mother, she is finally able to make peace with her Chinese heritage and her tumultuous relationship with her mom.
  • Rich Bitch: Ying-ying in her youth before she was broken by her terrible first marriage. The Second Wife in An-mei's story is this to a T.
  • The Roaring '20s: In the sequences with the mothers' childhoods. More evident in An-mei and Ying-ying's stories, given how they were raised in wealthy families with some Western influence.
  • Rounded Character: A specifically-praised aspect of the novel is that it was among the most prominent to portray Chinese-American women as such.
  • Sexless Marriage: Lindo's and Tyan-yu's marriage, being he has no interest in her and is downright terrified at the idea of consummating the marriage. Also, there's the fact they're children when they're married.
  • Stage Mom: Suyuan and Lindo in regards to their daughters' piano playing and chess playing. Suyuan especially counts since the only reason Jing-Mei picked up the piano in the first place was that Suyuan was trying to force her into being a child star.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: "Together we look like our mother." Jing-Mei, finding her lost sisters.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: When Suyuan scolds little June for playing the piano badly, she tries telling the little girl that there are “Only two kinds of daughter: obedient or follow-own-mind. Only one kind of daughter could live in this house: obedient kind."
  • Trophy Wife: Wu-Tsing engages in concubinage to attain a few of them.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Waverly and Jing-Mei feel this about their mothers, who constantly compared each of their daughters to the other's.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Implied by Ted's mother Mrs. Jordan when she speaks to Rose at an outdoor barbecue.
  • You Know What They Say About X...: Again implied by Mrs. Jordan to Rose.

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