In the novel, The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, the characters Suyuan and Jing-Mei Woo have a mother-daughter relationship confused with scattered conflict, but ultimately composed of deep love and commitment for one another. Because of drastic differences in the environments in which they were raised and in their life experiences, these two women have some opposing ideas and beliefs. This, and their lack of communication are responsible for many of the problems they face in their relationship.
These conflicts are only resolved when June learns about her mother’s past. The way that their relationship develops, and the conflicts June and Suyuan face, reveal some of the themes that Amy Tan intends for the readers to learn. These themes concern such topics as finding our life’s importance, making choices, and understanding ourselves and our families.
Most of the conflicts that June and her mother face are based on misunderstandings and negligence concerning each other’s feelings and beliefs. June does not understand or even fully know her mother because she does not know about her tragic past and the pain she still feels from the memory of it. Because Suyuan lost two daughters in China, and her entire family was killed in the war, she leaves this place behind her and places all of her hopes in America and her family there. She wants the very best for her daughter June. Even her name, Suyuan, meaning “long-cherished wish,” speaks of this hope for Jing-Mei, meaning “the pure, essential, best quality younger sister.” Suyuan tells her daughter June that she can be anything she wants to be, and that she has great talent. At first June is excited and dreams about what she will become: “In all my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect. My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to sulk for anything.” (p. 143) Suyuan pushes June to be successful in many different areas such as dance, academics, trivia, and piano.
After failing to excel at each task set before her, June begins to feel more and more resentment towards her mother. She sees her mother’s hopes as expectations, and when she does not live up to these, she feels like a failure. The final incident, when June performs a piano piece filled with mistakes at a talent show, makes June believe that her mother is completely ashamed and disappointed with her. June looked through the crowd to her mother’s face. She thought to herself, “…my mother’s expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything.” (p. 143) What June did not realize, was that the real reason why her mother was upset was not because she had not lived up to her expectations. She was unhappy because June did not care about having the best for herself. She did not have high hopes or a passion to be successful at anything. She failed because she did not try and she did not care. This is in strong opposition to Suyuan’s high hopes that originate from the stron g love she has for her daughter. It is not until much later in her life, after Suyuan’s death, that June realizes just how much her mother loved her and how proud she was of her.
After Suyuan’s death, and after June learns more of the details about her mother’s past, June’s eyes open to the good intentions her mother always had for her in all of the ways that she acted. She realizes that her mother was proud of her even though she was not a great genius at anything. After Waverly humiliated June at the dinner table by stating that the work she had done for her firm was not good enough, Suyuan attempted to display her pride in June by giving her the jade pendent she always wore, which symbolized her life’s importance. She wanted June to know that her life had value and that she just needed to develop and use her talents in order to discover this. After her mother’s death, June begins wearing this necklace every day. She also thinks back to her job and decides, “I was very good at what I did, succeeding at something small like that.” (p. 233) Because June does not make many of these discoveries until after her mother’s death, she fears that she did not appreciate her enough during her life: ‘Right after my mother died, I asked myself a lot of things, things that couldn’t be answered, to force myself to grieve more. It seemed as if I wanted to sustain my grief, to assure myself I had cared deeply enough. But now I ask the question s mostly because I want to know the answers.” (p. 320) Suyuan loved her daughter more than her own life, but June did not realize this until her questions were answered and she began to understand her mother’s intentions in life, and where her hopes originated from.
The stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei Woo reveal some of Amy Tan’s main themes in the novel. One important theme is that we must get to know and understand our parents in order to fully understand ourselves. June spends the first half of her life believing that she is a disappointment to her mother and has been unsuccessful in life. However, when she learns more about her mother’s past and discovers that her mother is proud of her good heart and concern for others, she realizes that she has accomplished something by doing small things to the best of her ability. She learns that one does not have to be famous, or a genius, or greatly wealthy in order to be successful. Another important theme is that we need to make our own choices in life and find our own life’s importance. When June was a child, her mother was constantly pushing her to try different things that she had no interest in. Because she did not care about any of these things, she did not really try to be successful, and therefore, would never accomplish anything great. We build our own importance in life by deeply caring about something that we choose and putting all of our effort into developing or accomplishing this.
The relationship between June and her mother, Suyuan, is far from flawless, yet has the foundation of love that can never be destroyed. There are many misunderstandings between these two women that are unfortunately left unresolved until after Suyuan’s death. Amy Tan uses this relationship and all of its complications to teach the readers important themes about life. Ultimately, love between this mother and daughter prevails through all conflict, and even beyond Suyuan’s death, when her long-cherished wish of uniting her daughters is fulfilled.