Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
by Rhonda Browning White
There’s a children’s game in which a sentence is passed via whisper from one child to another through the room until the last child repeats the sentence aloud. Of course, the sentence has changed. Point of view in a story works much like that whispered sentence: a story changes depending on who repeats it. Each of us—and each of our characters—has her own frame of reference, her own set of parameters, her own way of seeing the world in which we live. Thus, each of has a unique point of view.
Perhaps there is no better examination of a character’s point of view (POV) than to let that character tell the story as he sees it, as he lived it, through first-person viewpoint. Amy Tan tells the story of eight Chinese-American women (four mothers and four daughters) living in America, through each woman’s POV in The Joy Luck Club, and while this may seem a distracted and sprawling way to relate the story, instead readers are given deep and varied perspectives of what it means to be an American through the eyes of these women. Readers gain intimate insight into the workings of the mind of each woman, and we are intellectually involved in each narrator’s thoughts and actions, puzzling through her life as she lives it, ultimately piecing together the whole story from eight viewpoints.
A crucial element for telling a story through multiple first-person points of view is voice. Tan succeeds by layering the cadence of each character’s voice with the dialect and language of her time and birthplace. For example, when daughter Waverly Jong relates her mother’s anger at her for staying out too late and causing her to worry, she tells us, “Standing there waiting for my punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice. ‘We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us’ (100).” Here we see that Waverly is Americanized enough to speak and think in grammatically correct American English, but her mother still carries the rhythms and dialect of her Chinese culture.
Through first-person point of view, we experience the difference in thought and opinion of these two cultures—American and Chinese—and how the two sometimes clash, but other times mesh with such beauty as to provide striking clarity that would otherwise remain clouded without the perspective of multiple points of view. Character Ying-Ying St. Clair, a mother who suffered a mental break following a late-pregnancy miscarriage, expresses her numbness to the pain in first-person voice in a way that would be impossible were the story told by an omniscient narrator: “I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water” (67). Even though Ying-Ying is reporting her past, the experience is immediately convincing, because we feel her numbness to grief and pain through first-person point of view.
Through her use of first-person POV, Tan’s characters have the freedom to explore their thoughts, sometimes digressing, sometimes reflecting, but always coming back to the present moment, so that as readers, we experience the closeness of single consciousness with the character. We understand the character. We achieve new perspective. We are enlightened. There is no greater gift a writer can offer a reader.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. NY: Putnam, 1991. Print.