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The major theme of the novel is the difficulty of maintaining their native culture and a sense of their heritage when immigrants settle in America. They find that it is even more difficult to pass the culture and heritage down to their second-generation children, who are born and brought up in America. Although the Chinese mothers in the book struggle to retain their heritage, their Chinese-American daughters have little interest in things of the homeland. They want to be a part of the modern, liberal American society in which they have been raised; however, as they learn about their mothers’ varied experiences in China, the daughters begin to understand and accept their dual heritage.
In developing the major theme, Tan develops and intertwines some important minor Themes. The most important is the positive influence that a mother can have on her daughter. This is seen in the relationship between all four sets of Chinese women and their Americanized children. There is also a conflict between appearance and reality and a conflict between tradition and modernity.
Since much of the novel is written in flashback, the key mood of the book is nostalgic. As the mothers reflect on their lives in China and their early days in America, they share their emotions with their daughters, hoping to teach them about their heritage. In giving the histories of the mothers, the narrative is often sad and tragic, as it details incidents of rape, suicide, accidental death, and war.
The tales of the daughters also contain struggles for love, acceptance, and happiness. In spite of the predominance of sad emotions, there are many lights moments in the book, especially those having to do with language barriers and cultural gulfs. The mood of the book is also brightened by the hopes and dreams that the mothers have for their Chinese-American daughters.