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Jing-Mei Woo is the narrator who opens and closes the novel. While she is only one of four young women whose stories constitute the novel, the positioning of her story makes her seem to be the primary character, especially since her tales strongly develop the theme and plot of the entire book. Jing-Mei’s journeys are also complete within the novel. By the end of the book, she comes to understand her mother and her Chinese heritage, and she travels to China to fulfill her deceased mother’s dream. Among all the daughters in the novel, Jing-Mei is the one who best realizes her true identity, for she retains her Chinese values along with her American character.
As a person, Jing-Mei is simple in her tastes and manners. She is happy leading the life of a middle class woman and pursuing the career of a copywriter. She neither aims high nor envies others who hold high positions in life. Like her mother, she believes in “simple living and high thinking.” She also possesses her mother’s goodness and generosity. She is courteous to everyone and respects the wishes of her elders. When her father asks her to take the place of her mother in the Joy Luck Club, she agrees to do so. Later, when An-Mei persuades her to undertake the journey to China to fulfill Suyuan’s dream, Jing-Mei consents.
Although Jing-Mei is sensible, she is also sensitive. When Waverly Jong insults her in front of every one, she is devastated and can barely hold back her tears. Later in China, when she witnesses the reunion of her father and his aunt, she bites her lips “trying not to cry.” Then when she meets her half-sisters in Shanghai, they laugh and wipe “the tears from each other’s eyes.”
During the course of the novel, Jing-Mei transforms herself from an immature young girl who tries to assert her rights by defying her mother to a responsible woman who takes the place of her mother in the Joy Luck Club. As a child Jing-Mei had rebelled against her mother, who wanted her to be a brilliant student or a concert pianist. Jing-Mei, however, just wanted to be herself. Although her mother saved to buy her daughter a piano, Jing-Mei refused to practice. After she made a miserable performance at her recital, she never played the piano again. Only as an adult does she take an interest in the piano once again.
When Jing-Mei learns that her mother had left behind two infant twin daughters in China, she was shocked. Not understanding how much Suyuan suffered over the incident, Jing-Mei treats the situation lightly. Later, after her mother’s death, Jing-Mei learns from the women at the Joy Luck Club and from her father, Tin, the whole story of her mother’s sufferings in China. The knowledge helps to appreciate all that Suyuan has done for her. It also teaches her to appreciate her Chinese heritage. As a result, when she learns that the twins have been located, she is willing to go to China and meet them in order to share Suyuan’s story with them. The journey to her native land makes Jing-Mei proud to be a Chinese.
By the end of the book, she lives up to the meaning of her name; she has become the “pure essence” of goodness and Chinese values that her mother had longed for her to be.
Unlike Jing-Mei who finds maturity and peace within the novel, Waverly constantly struggles. As a child, she became a chess prodigy and champion, who is featured in Life Magazine. She gave up the game, however, to spite her mother, who seemed overly proud of her daughter’s accomplishments. Surprising, Lindo Jong does not seem to mind that Waverly no longer wins at chess; Waverly, however, misses the game terribly and beings to play again. Once she ceases to win all the time, Waverly finally quits the game forever.
Throughout life, Waverly has been a driven woman. Intelligent, ambitious, proud, arrogant, and sometimes cruel, she commands attention. Because she is a successful tax accountant, she becomes wealthy. She wears fashionable clothes and patronizes fancy salons; but she laughs at those beneath her. She is cruel to Jing-Mei at dinner when she criticizes her hair stylist and her copywriting skills. It is like she has to put down others to lift herself up.
Waverly always struggles with her Chinese heritage. She tries to make herself act very American and look less oriental. She often seems embarrassed by her mother, Lindo, and refuses to adopt the traits of humility and respect Lindo has tried to teach her. Concerned about appearances, Waverly takes her mother to see Rory, her hair stylist, so that Lindo’s hair can be properly styled when she meets the family of her fiancé, Rich Shields. At the hairdresser, Waverly becomes upset when Rory says that she looks like Lindo, for she does not want to appear Chinese.
Although Waverly projects a tough exterior, it is clear that she has some insecurities. Although she constantly argues with her mother and refutes her traditional Chinese views and values, Waverly also seeks her approval. She dreads telling Lindo that she is going to marry Rich, but she desperately wants her mother’s blessing. When her mother gives her approval, Waverly is greatly relieved.
Although Waverly struggles internally through most of the novel, she is developed as one of the most powerful characters, who has a zest for living, a drive to succeed, and a commanding personality. Completely opposite in nature from her mother, Waverly does come to understand Lindo better and fear her less by the end of the novel. She even begins to appreciate some of the Chinese heritage that her mother has tried to instill in her.