Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is separated into narratives told by immigrant Chinese mothers and their first generation Chinese-American daughters. Toni Morrison’s Sula is set in Medallion, a Black community in the mountains, around the early 1900’s.
Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Morrison’s Sula both concern people living, as individuals or as a community, in an alien world. Both novels articulate the marginalized psychosocial status of collective victims of ‘isms’ (race and sex) and both address the attendant psychological damage and very real physical dangers of that status. The Chinese mothers are alienated from their own daughters by their origins in a cultural world-view that their daughters can’t share and that the mothers can’t properly articulate, or initiate, their daughters into. The Bottom is a community living in isolation; surrounded by the racism of the time and struggling “for group survival despite its vexed relationship to the universe” (Okwonkwo 659).
The narratives of the Joy Luck mothers reference Chinese culture in ways that the daughters don’t understand. Ying-Ying, very upset by the inauspicious feng-shui elements in the residence that her husband chooses for them, “…feels her surroundings are out of balance, she does everything she can to correct them” (Hamilton 137). She begins to move furniture around, which her daughter Lena sees as reflective of a growing psychological instability. However, if one is familiar with feng-shui, then it is clear that Ying-Ying is attempting feng-shui cures for places where the chi is blocked, or where it is flowing away from the house, or where it is strangled. It never occurs to Ying-Ying to explain her feng-shui anxiety to her worried husband and daughter. Perhaps, she feels too alone. Morrison’s Sula is filled also with people acting from private realities: Eva kills Plum because his heroin dependency has become graphically represented in her psyche as his attempt to crawl back into her womb, which is impossible; Plum interprets the moment when Eva douses him with kerosene as a beautiful blessing. When Sula and Shadrack interact after Chicken Little’s death, their private interpretations of what transpired between them are diametrically opposed. In Ying-Ying’s case, her feng-shui concerns are only relatively private: in China they would have made perfect sense, no need to explain.
The narratives in The Joy Luck Club, as in Sula, revolve around loss; of loved ones, of country, of self, of soul; and most heartbreaking, of connection between mother and daughter: “Each mother’s story of her China experiences eventually develops into a semiotics of loss. Hence, moving to America means to them loss of identity and the reality of existence—being reduced to ghosts in alien territory” (Yuan-Yuan 293). In Sula as well, loss is the core of experience: “She had no center, no speck around which to grow” (Morrison 119). Both Nel and Sula grew up under conditions of parental absence: “They were solitary little girls” (Morrison 51) and “Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers” (Morrison 52). Nel and Sula reacted differently; Nel by clinging to what social roles she could find, Sula by rejecting all social roles out of hand. Eva lost first her husband, then her leg, then her daughter, then her son. Chicken Little was lost by the community, Shadrack lost his future, Jude lost his vision of his manhood, and at the end of Sula, Nel was losing her children—the last and only treasure she had. The novel ends with Nel’s understanding that perhaps her greatest loss in life was the loss occasioned by her rejection of Sula; a loss that she didn’t even realize until years too late.
Both Sula and The Joy Luck Club take place over generations, and each tell of significant, and almost always traumatic, negative events which molded the lives of the characters. As such, one is able to locate the traumas of the mother as having been passed down in the lives of the children. Humans are only partly natural, that is, our “environment is both a natural and a human one…The developing human…not only interrelates with a particular natural environment, but with a specific cultural and social order which is mediated to him by the significant others who have charge of him…”(Berger, 48). While animals find order in the natural world, humans find order to a large extent in socio-cultural worlds. What happens, then, when culture is ripped away, as in The Joy Luck Club; or when it is radically threatened, as in Sula?
Many analysts of Morrison’s Sula treat Medallion as a coherent community; albeit one which operates perhaps by different rules than the surrounding White communities. However, the residents, surrounded as they are by racism, that is, institutionalized and systemic violence, are damaged to such an extent that their individual and collective coherence is radically threatened. The residents of Medallion exist in a sort of prison: when Helene leaves the Bottom to attempt to see her grandmother before she dies, she is harassed at every remove; unable to find a bathroom that isn’t for Whites Only, she is forced to relieve herself in the grass while Whites move through the world, satisfying their needs and desires as free agents. The Joy Luck Club narratives also reveal damage: “Orville Shcell’s review of The Joy Luck Club for the New York Times emphasizes that those millions of Chinese who were part of the diaspora of World War II and the fighting that resulted in the triumph of the Communists were subsequently cut off from the mainland and left to fend for themselves culturally…What each person’s story conveys is the terror of a vulnerable human consciousness torn and rent in a culture’s contortions” (Shear 193).
Many of the residents of Medallion are entirely geared towards survival. When Sula’s mother asks Eva if she ever played with them, Eva answers, “Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895…Niggers was dying like flies…(Morrison 68); “No time. They wasn’t no time. Not none. Soon as I got one day done here come a night” (Morrison 69). Boy-Boy left Eva with three children, and when he left, “the demands of feeding her [Eva’s] three children were so acute that she had to postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and the energy for it” (Morrison 32). The men of the Bottom’s work lives are hindered by racism; Nel’s husband married her in an attempt to do something in honor of his manhood in lieu of a real job: “So it was rage, rage and determination to take on a man’s role anyhow that made him press Nel about settling down. He needed…some posture of adulthood recognized” (Morrison 82). And then, like many men of the Bottom, he too abandons Nel with their children, “Connections severed, the men roam, the women remain and the children react” (Mayberry 524). The events of Sula take place decades before the Civil Rights movement, and we are decades still from that and racism is still alive and where it is not, its effects are. The mothers of The Joy Luck Club grew up in China at a time when women had no power, and predictable abuses occurred; and they, too, are geared towards survival: “The disposition for many first generation Chinese immigrants in America to see life as a constant test of survival…is a complex mentality. It is deeply rooted in China’s past of hardship and numerous famines and wars. The word in Chinese that denotes ‘making a living in the world’ is quisheng—seeking survival, or mousheng—managing survival” (Xu 8). “Competition…now centers not so much on the desire to excel as on the struggle to avoid a crushing defeat” (Xu 10).
The pariah status of the residents of the Bottom, and the past experiences of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, manifests mostly as a lack of power. An-mei Hsu, talking about her mother, says: “I wanted my mother to shout at Wu Tsing, to shout at Second Wife, to shout at Yan Chang and say she was wrong to tell me these stories. But my mother did not even have the right to do this. She had no choice” (Morrison 238). Powerlessness has real effects: Shadrack comes back damaged from the war, but because he is Black, he is shooed out of the hospital at the earliest opportunity and no further help is forthcoming. No help is forthcoming for the women and female children of the community either. Throughout Sula, we see the men of Medallion leaving their families because they do not have the ability to provide for them. Morrison speaks of how the residents of Medallion fully recognize “the legitimacy of forces other than good ones” (Morrison 90) in life. But, is this a function of the local culture of Medallion, or is it a function of simply not having access to enough of those things (healthcare, transportation, hospitals, adult education, psychological education and care) which would ameliorate these hazards of physical existence? The Dewey’s might well have needed medical care, Plum had no access to medical help for addiction, Eva is widely believed to have sacrificed her leg in order to get funds to raise her children; murders occur and no official investigates, neither is anybody ever “brought to justice”, work is hard to come by, Whites treat Medallion residents abusively and there is no recourse whatsoever. Similarly, the women of The Joy Luck Club’s powerlessness left them prey to events that traumatized them for life: Ying-Ying aborted her baby, out of revenge she said, but is that not partly because being left a single mother is so much more horrible than being simply left, in a culture where women are powerless. Suyuan’s lack of resources forced her to abandon her beloved twin daughters, else they all died.
Psychological stability is often the price of cultural instability and we see psychological instability in both novels. Aside from the acute cases of Shadrack and Ying-Ying, there is a low-level hum of psychological instability everywhere: dysfunctional relationships, personal anxiety, an inability to communicate; in Sula is found poverty, unemployment, parental abandonment, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, alienated (casual or for-profit) sex. Disturbing, also, are the reactions of Nel and Sula to the deaths of Chicken Little and Hannah, to which they both responded positively: “it felt so good” (Morrison 170) to Nel when Chicken Little fell; Sula was “interested” (and here there is no reason to doubt Eva’s assessment) at Hannah’s burning (Morrison 78).
Both The Joy Luck Club and Sula show individuals and communities which are victimized by racism and/or sexism, and both graphically illustrate the real danger that people and communities face when there are unequal power relationships in a society. The Joy Luck Club is more wry and positive in tone than Sula; where one sees the potential for empowerment in The Joy Luck Club, successive failure has already occurred in Sula. Other analysts have seen empowerment in the person of Sula, but Sula (and everyone who knows her) is as much at the mercy of her asocial worldview as Nel is of her overly socialized one. If there is empowerment in Sula, it lies perhaps in Sula’s after-death continuity of awareness, flinging the entire endeavor of self-realization and of whole-ness out of this world entirely.
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