An-mei connects to her daughter Rose’s divorce narrative by concluding her own mother’s story. Though Rose feels like she’s out of options, An-mei argues that Rose is making a choice by not speaking up. This reminds her of when her mother leaves again, following Popo’s death in “Scar.” An-mei cries at the impending abandonment, but An-mei’s mother tells her a story about a turtle who visited An-mei’s mother as a girl and ate her tears. The turtle warned her that if she kept crying, her life would always be sad. It then laid pearly eggs that immediately cracked open and released beautiful magpies. The turtle told An-mei’s mother that her tears didn’t wash away sorrow, but fed someone else’s joy.
Through storytelling, An-mei’s mother passes on wisdom to help An-mei survive the difficult circumstances. Rather than let others see her pain, An-mei learns to hold in her sadness and not let others take advantage of her. This lesson is not necessarily the healthiest however, as is also shuts people out from helping.
The next morning, An-mei wakes to her relatives screaming at An-mei’s mother, who’s kneeling pitifully in the dirt in front of the house. They refuse to let her take An-mei, yelling that she’s evil and An-mei will inherit all of her mother’s bad traits. An-mei calls out to her mother while running down the stairs, and seeing her daughter’s love, An-mei’s mother straightens herself and takes An-mei with her, ignoring the relatives’ terrible judgement.
The bond between mother and daughter is stronger than any insult or brainwashing that the relatives can instill.
After a long train ride, they arrive at the opulent Western-style mansion of Wu Tsing, An-mei’s mother’s new husband. He is a very wealthy merchant, who collects wives on a whim. Wu Tsing and the other wives are away, and An-mei’s mother is treated kindly by the servants, who respect her despite her lowly status as the fourth wife.
Though An-mei’s mother has no real power as an insignificant wife in a large household, she still has the staff’s respect, revealing her good heart. An-mei may inherit her mother’s personality like her relatives claimed, but now it is revealed that this will be a positive inheritance.
An-mei’s first few weeks in the new mansion are the happiest times in her whole life, as she connects with her mother. The peaceful bliss immediately changes when Wu Tsing returns with a new, incredibly young wife, who is nothing more than “decoration.” An-mei sees how shameful her mother’s position is, as Wu Tsing uses An-mei’s mother’s body for pleasure, then discards her for his girlish new conquest. 000001
Sexism occurs on a spectrum in the novel, from subtle jabs at characters’ femininity, to complete objectification in the case of An-mei’s mother. An-mei’s mother is stripped of all power in Wu Tsing’s presence, because he physically forces her into submission.
When winter arrives, Wu Tsing’s second and third wives return to the main house after spending the hotter months in their own houses with their children. Second Wife is clearly the dominant matriarch, and tries to win An-mei over with a beautiful strand of pearls. An-mei’s mother privately shatters the illusion by cracking a pearl in front of An-mei, revealing that the pearls are actually glass. In exchange for the fake pearls, An-mei’s mother gives An-mei a beautiful sapphire ring so An-mei can “recognize what is true.” At the same time, An-mei notices that Second Wife has a baby boy, even though she’s obviously too old to bear children.
An-mei is initially deceived into believing that her love can be bought by the gift of the false pearls, but through her mother’s gift of the ring her mother passes on essential wisdom that protects An-mei in the future.
An-mei learns more about Second Wife from a servant who’s loyal to An-mei’s mother. Second Wife gained power in the household by faking suicides over the years, scaring the very superstitious Wu Tsing. Rather than be haunted one day by her angry ghost, Wu Tsing appeases Second Wife with anything she wants. One thing she can’t give him is children, but Second Wife craftily arranges young wives for Wu Tsing. In the case of An-mei’s mother, Second Wife maliciously tricked her. An-mei’s mother fell asleep at Second Wife’s summer house on the way to a monastery, still loyal to her deceased husband. Second Wife then let Wu Tsing into the bedroom to rape An-mei’s mother. As a widow, An-mei’s mother was not allowed to remarry, yet Second Wife announced to the community that An-mei’s mother had seduced Wu Tsing, and An-mei’s mother was cast off in disgrace. Soon after, she gave birth to a son, whom Second Wife immediately adopted as her own, ensuring her role as mother to Wu Tsing’s heir.
The novel finally explains why An-mei’s mother ended up with such a disgraceful life – it was not her choice at all, and it seems ludicrous that what happened should lead to her dishonor. Yet, because women have no authority in the old Chinese culture, no one believed An-mei’s mother’s story and she was forced to make the best of a horrible situation by marrying her rapist. Though influential among the wives, Second Wife’s power is still restricted to the household. She has to operate within her husband’s desires to get what she wants, at the expense of other women. In contrast to the supportive environment of the Joy Luck Club, the community of Wu Tsing’s wives shows how women can attack and manipulate each other as a means to the limited power granted to them by men.
After learning the awful truth about Second Wife’s wickedness, An-mei starts noticing all of Second Wife’s attempts to hold power. The worst happens when Wu Tsing promises An-mei’s mother her own house for bearing him a son. Second Wife, filled with jealousy, fakes another suicide and makes Wu Tsing renege his promise. An-mei’s mother locks herself in her room, crying, as she has no choice but to accept it.
An-mei’s mother’s only chance to alter fate is to bear Wu Tsing a son. At the time, a woman’s main worth was her ability to give her husband a male heir to continue on the family legacy. However, Second Wife thwarts An-mei’s mother’s one opportunity for happiness and self-control in order to maintain her own power.
Two days before the Lunar New Year, An-mei’s mother commits suicide by overdosing on opium. Though some think it was supposed to be faked like Second Wife’s attempts, An-mei’s mother previously told An-mei that she was going to “kill her own weak spirit so she could give [An-mei] a stronger one.” The timing of her suicide is perfect, because all debts must be settled before the new year, or vengeful spirits will attack. Wu Tsing is so scared of An-mei’s mother’s ghost that he promises to raise An-mei as his most honored child and shun Second Wife for her actions. On that day, An-mei learns to shout and have her voice heard.
An-mei’s mother makes the ultimate sacrifice to give An-mei a chance for actual happiness, beyond her doomed fate as the daughter of a meaningless fourth wife. An-mei learns that she doesn’t have to accept silence as her only option, like older generations were physically forced to do. She wants Rose to realize this too.