National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Joy Luck Club

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

To me, imagination is the closest thing we have to compassion. To have compassion you have to be able to imagine the lives of others, including people who are suffering, and people whose lives are affected by us.


  1. June Woo begins the novel by explaining the “Joy Luck Club.” She watches the mothers and explains at the end of the section, “They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds ‘joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist.” Does the novel argue that certain cultural concepts, like “joy luck,” cannot be translated? If so, why? If not, why not? Or, could the failure to translate provide the momentum of the novel? Explain the role of language and/or translation in the novel.
  2. Research the details and circumstances of women’s life in 1930’s China, examining both poor and wealthy families. Bring this research to your reading of the novel. How do the stories of the mothers relate to the actual historical realities? Use your research to explain why Tan chose to portray the mothers through their particular stories. Decide whether this portrayal (whether historically accurate or fictionalized) enhances the power of the novel.
  3. Using the very brief stories that introduce each section of the novel, explain why Tan has chosen each of these tales to characterize the four sections. Do they serve as signposts to foreshadow the plot? Do they capture an Asian aesthetic, where figures like the Moon Lady play an indispensable role in charting human experience? How might mythic stories provide more accurate renderings of the women's experience? Is this a point of contention between the Asian and American cultures depicted in the novel?
  4. Waverly Jong and June Woo become competitive when Waverly becomes a child chess prodigy and June struggles to master the piano. How might this rivalry reflect values of success and worth depicted in the novel? How do both cultures navigate the concept of “happiness?” First, define the concept of happiness that you believe dominates the novel, then demonstrate whether it is Asian, American, or both? Should this concept be adjusted or amended? Expand this question by exploring the roles of food, body image, professional life, and marriage.
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