The Joy Luck Club

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Sexism and Power Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mother-Daughter Relationships Theme Icon
Storytelling and Tradition Theme Icon
Immigration, Language, and Mistranslation Theme Icon
Fate and Autonomy Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sexism and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Joy Luck Club, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sexism and Power Theme Icon

As a novel centered entirely on women’s points of view, The Joy Luck Club grapples with the nuances of sexism. On an explicit scale, the forced marriage of Lindo to her childish husband, Tyan-yu, shows the powerlessness of being a woman in pre-modern China. Without any say in her future, Lindo is used as barter to please a more powerful family. Sexual assault and domestic abuse feature in each of the mothers’ personal histories. However, Tan does not only highlight blatant acts of sexism, but also carefully considers smaller aggressions against her female characters in daily life, which add up to life-altering problems. Lena’s husband Harold, who is also her boss, repeatedly denies Lena a raise, saying that it’d be awkward to reward his wife in front of other employees. Even though she has earned the company the most profit, she remains passive to maintain peace in her marriage. This power imbalance ultimately ruins her, as she grows resentful of Harold’s unwillingness to listen and cherish her. Similar instances of small, but constant, devaluations of all the protagonists show that sexism is not singular to one cultural experience, but universally shared as an oppressive force in their lives.

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Sexism and Power Quotes in The Joy Luck Club

Below you will find the important quotes in The Joy Luck Club related to the theme of Sexism and Power.
Part 1, Prologue Quotes

In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to part one of the novel, Tan sets up one of the book's key themes: the importance of family. The unnamed woman in the parable told here could stand for any one of the novel's main characters: she wants to move to the United States in the hopes of building a new life for her child. Furthermore, the woman's decision to travel to America reflects her exasperation with Chinese culture: she doesn't like that in China, women are measured by their husbands, not their own personalities. The woman in the story wants the best for her child, even if achieving "the best" involves schooling the child harshly and giving up parts of her own culture--forcing her to speak only American English, for example. The women in the novel, as we'll see, sometimes treat their children severely, but only because they want their children to be successful and happy as they can never be.


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“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

When the unnamed woman comes to America, her prized swan is confiscated by the Americans who let her into the country: a metaphor for the way that immigration procedures and American society neuters immigrants of their native culture and forces them to "assimilate." The woman wanted to come to America to build a better life for her child, but she didn't count on having to surrender her dreams and ambitions as well. Here, the woman hangs onto a single feather from the swan, which she plans to present to her child one day, when she can express her feelings in American English. The woman's dilemma is that she wants the best for her child, and yet fails to communicate her message, due to cultural barriers. The woman makes a difficult decision: she raises her child to be an Asian-American, and yet the woman herself is still very much Asian, meaning that she'll never be able to understand her child completely.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise.

Related Characters: Lindo Jong (speaker), Waverly Jong
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage begins on an aggressive note: the parent, Lindo Jong, speaks about her child, Waverley Jong. Lindo thinks of herself as being a faithful, respectful daughter--i.e., one who honors her promises to her parents at all costs. Lindo's own daughter, by contrast, is flighty and unpredictable--sometimes she keeps her promises, and sometimes she doesn't. According to Lindo, anything is wrong with Waverley (a headache, for example), Waverly breaks her word.

Lindo's tone is clearly frustrated: she weighs her daughter's loyalty to her against her own loyalty to her own parents, and concludes that Waverly is somehow an inferior daughter. Lindo's speech shows the strengths, but also the limits, of the mother-daughter relationship. Daughters show incredible loyalty to their parents, and vice-versa, but sometimes, such loyalty can fade away, or be placed behind other priorities--and perhaps it's irrational for a parent to demand total loyalty of her daughter.

I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs. In other cities already, a man could choose his own wife, with his parents’ permission of course. But we were cut off from this new type of thought. You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse.

Related Characters: Lindo Jong (speaker)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, Lindo tells us about her betrothal. It may be surprising for some readers to hear that Lindo was betrothed to another man, Tyan-Yu, when she was only two years old. In her part of China at the time, Lindo explains, betrothals and marriages were usually determined by Zodiac signs, rather than love between two adults. Lindo acknowledges that there were many more forward-thinking communities in China where adults could choose their partners (but only men, never women). However, in Lindo's community, the old-fashioned Zodiac method was still popular.

Lindo's comments are important because they clarify the fact that Chinese culture isn't one monolithic object: China encompasses an incredible variety of traditions and cultures, and it's wrong to lump them all together, as so many Americans do.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: we are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others

Related Characters: Ying-ying St. Clair (speaker), Lena St. Clair
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this strange story, we learn that Ying-ying has acted meek, quiet, and lost for most of her life. Furthermore, for many years, Ying-ying didn't even remember why she felt so lost. As a result, Ying-ying never really connected with her daughter, Lena. Instead of feeling a deep connection with her mother, Lena acted aloof and distant, and focused on material things like shopping lists instead of her almost-invisible mother.

The passage conveys the tragedy of broken down communication: Ying-ying loves her daughter, and yet she can't fully express her feelings, for reasons she can barely recall. The divide between Ying-ying and Lena is cultural as well as psychological: it's her past experiences in China, experiences that Lena knows nothing about, that have kept Ying-ying feeling so lost and secretive.

“What is a secret wish?”
“It is what you want but cannot ask,” said Amah.
"Why can’t I ask?"
"This is because…because if you ask it…it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire," said Amah. "Haven’t I taught you – that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen."

Related Characters: Ying-ying St. Clair (speaker), Amah (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ying-ying remembers an episode from her childhood in which her nurse, Amah, told her not to openly ask for anything in life. Ying-ying was a young, impressionable child, and Amah told her that she shouldn't "disgrace" herself by voicing her own desires. Instead, Amah explained, Ying-ying should limit herself to secret wishes; i.e., wishes that she never actually expressed.

The passage shows the way that Chinese culture sometimes encourages people, especially women, to be meek and submissive instead of expressing their true feelings. Authority figures like Amah mean well, and yet they perpetuate sexism by ordering children to swallow their desires--a surefire recipe for unhappiness later on in life.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

And my mother loved to show me off, like one of the many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies… and a hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning.

Related Characters: Waverly Jong (speaker), Lindo Jong
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Waverly becomes deeply resentful of her mother's pride in her chess victories. Although Waverly is happy with her victories, she's worried that her mother isn't really concerned with Waverly's happiness or success; Lindo is more concerned about taking the credit for her daughter's games. Waverly begins to think of herself as a mere object for her mother's gratification: a "trophy" to be shown off to Lindo's friends and associates.

The passage shows the extent of the rift between Waverly and Lindo. Waverly is a talented person, but her interest in her chess games is second to her obsession with her own mother. Waverly can't stop thinking about Lindo--she's fixated on Lindo to the point where she can't concentrate on strategy anymore. Thus, the passage could be considered an example of a mother-daughter relationship that's self-destructive, rather than mutually beneficial. 

Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better. It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.

Related Characters: Rose Hsu Jordan (speaker)
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rose spells out one of the limitations of life in American culture, versus life in a Chinese culture. Americans have a huge array of options available to them: they can choose any school, any career, any spouse, etc. In China, one's options in life are determined by birth, family, money, etc. While one could potentially conclude that American culture is "better" than Chinese culture insofar as it offers more options for happiness, it's also true that American life has its downsides.  It can be dizzying to have to choose between so many different options, with the result that sometimes, Americans become obsessed with the choices they didn't make, rather than enjoying their current lives.

The passage is one of the most eloquent expressions of the strength of Chinese culture--a culture that limits personal freedom, especially for women, and yet offers a kind of solidarity and comfort that American society cannot match.

Ted pulled out the divorce papers and stared at them. His x’s were still there, the blanks were still blank. "What do you think you’re doing? Exactly what?" he said.
And the answer, the one that was important above everything else, ran through my body and fell from my lips: "You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away."

Related Characters: Rose Hsu Jordan (speaker), Ted Jordan (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Rose stands up to her husband, Ted, and refuses to just comply with his wishes and sign the divorce papers, allowing him to immediately marry someone else. Ted is surprised to see Rose standing up for herself--she's been a relatively calm, meek wife, and Ted has taken advantage of her meekness by cheating on her with other women. Here, though, Rose seems to find inspiration in her mother's example. Just as An-Mei's voice inspired Rose when Rose was a child, Rose fills her own voice with confidence and assuredness, with the result that she at least gets acknowledgment and respect from Ted.

The passage gives us another good example of the positive relationships between mothers and their daughters. Based on the first half of the novel, it would be easy to conclude that Chinese mothers pass on nothing but submissiveness and suffering to their children, but as the novel approaches an ending it becomes clear that the characters have also learned inner strength and confidence from their parents.