The “I” That Binds “Joy Luck Club”

The stories of the four mothers and four daughters in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club are all told through first-person point of view. This approach could be confusing, but Tan accomplishes her feat because she uses, actually, not eight points of view, but two: Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters. The reader recognizes each narrator not so much through her distinctive voice as through the details of her life: the mothers are attached to their traditions; the daughters are 100% American.

The elder women have their Joy Luck, a mah jong become stock-market club. Suyuan Woo, who started the club, has died, and her daughter, Jing-mei “June,” begins the many-storied book by relating her mothers’ tale. Suyuan’s life was scarred; fleeing the Japanese invasion of Kweilin, she left her baby girls by the side of the road. This first story where June joins their club one night, initiates the narrative pull-through, introduces the other mothers, and mentions the daughters.

Lesson: Cohere your first person narrators

The glue that joins the stories comes from the deep misunderstandings and love that binds mother to daughter, old world to new. The older women dream of evocative past lives, and they chatter about discarded ambitions for their daughters. The daughters are not all best friends. There is rivalry, instilled by their mothers’ competition to have the best daughters. The daughters muddle through their contemporary marriages, careers, and divorces, unable to discard their heritage, always disappointing their mothers. June’s story weaves throughout and ends the novel. She goes back to China and finds the left-behind sisters. “Together we look like our mother.”

The American Heritage dictionary defines cohere as “To have internal elements or parts logically connected so that aesthetic consistency results. To cause to form a united, orderly, and aesthetically consistent whole. Interesting, cohere comes from the Latin “to cling.” In Tan’s narrative structure, the binding “I” is, ultimately, a hallmark of the book’s artistic integrity and the book’s gestalt. 

Together, Tan’s stories paint a vivid picture of clashing cultures and generations. The “I” that could have been confusing deepens the understanding between them all.