Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Ishiguro and Tan portray women of the last generation as obedient, exemplifying the kind of submissiveness expected of them by mainstream society. Etsuko in A Pale View of Hills, for one, does all the housework and serves Jiro, her husband, and Ogata, her father-in-law. Although she takes care of the entire family, she has no right to speak for herself or anyone else. Being a wife, her responsibilities are to keep the house tidy and to cook because Jiro sees women do not have any sense for serious matters. His colleague demonstrates an equally patronizing attitude towards women when he criticizes his own wife for being an ignorant voter in elections. "My wife votes for Yoshida just because he looks like her uncle," he says. "That's typical of women. They don't understand politics. They think they can choose the country's leaders the same way they choose dresses" (Ishiguro, 63).
In The Joy Luck Club, women's submissiveness can be attributed to their lack of self-determination. Lindo Jong, one of the mothers, is forced to marry a boy younger than she. An-mei Hsu, another mother, is taught by her mother not to speak up and to bear whatever that is bestowed upon her. It is fate that one cannot resist, according to an old Chinese saying. In that historical period, a woman was seldom allowed to exercise her free will.
Women of the last generation, however, have changed with the times and have learned to be brave survivors of human tragedies. Although Mrs. Fujiwara in A Pale View of Hills has lost her son and husband in the war, she manages to forget the pain. "But that's all in the past now," she tells Etsuko. "We've all had to put things behind us. . . ." (Ishiguro, 76). She always teaches Etsuko to be optimistic about the future as people could not reclaim what has been lost. Although nothing could compensate for her loss, Fujiwara's stoicism helps her look forward.
In The Joy Luck Club, the mothers were once passive, but they learned to be optimistic during the war and to resist what is supposedly their destiny. Suyuan Woo, for example, brings cheer to her peers during the war by forming a club to play mahjong and hold parties. We may think that she is escaping into a world of fancy, but "to despair was to wish back for something already lost," she says. "What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with sombre faces? Or to choose our own happiness?" (Tan, 25). She knows perfectly well that she could not change the course of the war, but she could take control of her attitude toward her life.
As for Lindo Jong , she succeeds in devising a clever scheme to annul her "blind marriage" to a child husband. Meanwhile, An-mei Hsu, having learned from her mother's suicide, rejects the self-destructive path she has taken. She comes to realize that bearing one's suffering quietly only intensifies the pain, and decides to speak up, claiming what she deserves.
Independent and self-assured, Niki in A Pale View of Hills is irritated by whatever she perceives as an intrusion into her private life or infringement on her freedom. She would chastise her mother, Etsuko, for asking such an innocuous question as what her boyfriend's name is. She frankly challenges the concept of marriage as a respectable institution and does not think there is any problem having children born out of wedlock.
The daughters in The Joy Luck Club lack the confidence and to shape their own lives as Niki does. Therefore, they turn to their mothers for advice and emotional support in their struggle against the forces of a patriarchal society. A mother may serve as a marriage counselor, advising her daughter to assert her right to speak or to leave her husband if that is the only option left. Rose, for example, finally discovers the power of her words (Tan, 196) and claims what she deserves in her marriage while Lena decides to lead a new life without her spouse.
The women characters in The Joy Luck Club and A Pale View of Hills demonstrate a change of attitude towards the subservient status assigned to them. They have learned to be assertive, claiming their rights of speech and of self-determination. They strive to shape their own lives, challenge unjust practices, or at least dodge them.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1989.
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.