The notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is central to the way in which characters in The Joy Luck Club interact and share life experiences. It recalls the ancient Chinese tradition of storytelling, which gives the book its impetus and sense of timeless wisdom. The aunts in the club are, in a very real sense, examining their own lives on behalf of their daughters, seeking to pass on their wisdom in hope that the younger generation will learn and embrace time-honored Chinese values and gain strength from what they have to teach. In so doing, not only do the mothers examine their own lives; they impart to their daughters a strength that can come from honest self-reflection. Along the way, the mothers find themselves learning from the younger generation.
In The Joy Luck Club, self-reflection, the ability to look inward, is an important quality in the struggle between two vibrant but not always compatible cultural traditions. Understanding ones nature, ones strengths and weaknesses, is essential in such a conflicted scenario, one in which Chinese and American beliefs and practices are awkwardly, sometimes painfully fused. Lindo experiences an epiphany of sorts as she gazes into the mirror, trying to find some way to accommodate her devotion and sense of duty to her parents while she tries to find a source of strength within herself.
“I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror…I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind. I threw back my head and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face nd covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes but I would never forget myself” (Tan 58).
Lindo’s self-realization, coming as it does as she faces the prospect of a loveless, arranged marriage, provides her a sense of balance and self-worth that is crucial if she is to survive the future. She determines not to dishonor her parents, not to turn away from her heritage. But reflecting on her own nature arms her with the knowledge that she has an inner reserve of strength and courage from which she can always draw.
The characters in The Joy Luck Club, both young and old, face moral issues arising from the conflict between Chinese traditions and a more modern American lifestyle. Personal revelations are integral to the story and frequently confront the characters as they tread often difficult cultural paths. Ying-ying’s revelation shows her that the daughter with whom she feels such a strong connection has, after all, not benefited from lessons she has learned, lessons she feels she must pass on.
“She and I have shared the same body…but when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way…” (Tan, 242).
Mired in an unhappy marriage, Lena is incapable of standing up for herself, of maintaining her own identity. Ying-ying reflects that the quiescent example she has set has made a victim of her daughter. She determines to help in the only way she can. She will turn to storytelling in the hope that it will help Lena find strength by encouraging her to examine her own life and look inward for strength.
One of the most poignant subplots in The Joy Luck Club is Jing-mei’s attempt to come to terms with her mother’s memory, to learn from her heritage and, by reflecting on Suyuan’s story, hopefully gain insight into her own life. As discussed, the book is suffused with storytelling, through which mothers seek to protect their daughters by teaching them lessons they can use to better understand themselves and the world around them. It is here that we learn how important storytelling can be and how important it is to the “teller” as well as the “hearer.” Jing-mei acts as a kind of link between old and young, becoming the custodian of Suyuan’s memory for the two Chinese daughters she left behind.
In the book’s final chapter, Tan uses a kind of symbolism to make an important point about insight and personal reflection. When Jing-mei meets her two half-sisters at the airport in Shanghai, she is struck by the relative lack of resemblance her sisters bear to Suyuan. However, after she sees the photograph showing them together, it is as if she sees her mother’s spirit expressed through all of them. Sometimes, in examining a photo, expressions, character, resemblances and even personal qualities not evident in person can be discerned. So it is with Jing-mei. She gains a spiritual, emotional sense of her mother from the photo in much the same way personal examination, which transcends the transitory and superficial, can offer an understanding that goes far beyond anything eyes and ears can convey.