“The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston Essay
“The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston
This paper will discuss the value of secrets for the narrator’s understanding of growing up as a Chinese-American woman in The Woman Warrior. It will also cover the hardships faced in the way growing and surviving in the male dominant society.
Maxine Kingston’s mother is shown to be an impeccably strong woman throughout this novel. For instance, her ascetic qualities are displayed when Maxine states, “She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home from the fields and eats food left for the gods (6).”
The planting of vegetable gardens instead of lawns symbolizes the “Necessity” for food instead of beauty; much how Maxine herself doesn’t want to be “American-pretty (12)” but instead follows “sisterliness, dignified and honorable, [which] made much more sense (12).” In both cases “Necessity” is held at utmost importance. The family’s entire way of living is based upon “Necessity,” thus constituting the reason for this word’s capitalization. It takes an incredible amount of strength to follow an ascetic lifestyle without luxury. Thus, the title of this book, “The Woman Warrior” fits perfectly considering the incredible strength of these women who must disregard temptation and base their lives solely on “Necessity.”
It is quite intriguing that Maxine Kingston portrays women as strong “warriors” who sacrifice themselves for the social commonwealth, yet depicts men as selfish brutes. Men are only mentioned three times, and each time is negatively depicted. For instance, men are first depicted as vicious barbarians who “threw mud and rocks at the house (4).” Secondly, men are shown to be irresponsible sexual perverts who don’t care for their newborn children, as shown with the “no name woman” and her lover.
“She told the man, ‘I think I’m pregnant.’ He organized the raid against her (7).” Finally, men are portrayed as philandering pigs that care only about the outer physical appearance of women instead of their inner personalities. “If I made myself American-pretty so that the five or six Chinese boys in the class fell in love with me, everyone else…would too (12).” Thus, as seen through these three instances, men are ultimately vicious and irresponsible perverts, while women are strong-willed, benevolent paragons. In this way, women are depicted as self-sacrificing, caring individuals while men are portrayed as selfish, power-hungry brutes.
She becomes one of the first women doctors to her village and doesn’t allow men to crush her. She is further shown to be a brave woman warrior by sleeping in the haunted room while the other women cowardly went about their own ways. Intriguingly the sitting ghost symbolizes the domineering patriarchs of society that crush women with their weight and prevent them from their God-given rights. The sitting ghost, symbolizing men, was attempting to crush Brave Orchid’s strength both physically and mentally.
However, Brave Orchid stood up to the tyrannical ghost, shouting, “I do not give in (70),” symbolizing her defeat of patriarchal society. Brave Orchid is yet another true woman warrior, standing up to the constraints that society inflicts upon her and overcoming them. Ironically, however, Brave Orchid buys a slave, which completely contradicts every value she tries to uphold earlier.
Why would Maxine Kingston create such a perplexing predicament? One could think that by bringing the slave under her care, Brave Orchid was trying to protect her from starvation and prostitution on the streets. However, by saying “When she felt like it, my mother would leave the nurse-slave to watch the office and would take the white dog with her (83),” it is as if the slave girl is no better than a dog. The dog can take the slave girl’s place, thus showing that Brave Orchid thinks of the girl slave as nothing better than a measly mutt. All of these perplexing personas of Brave Orchid are quite intriguing, considering “my mother’s face will not change anymore, except to age (59).”
The most plausible reason for Brave Orchid’s drastic transformation can be seen as her gaining of freedom. Right after she started gaining independence by going to medical school, Brave Orchid seemed to become more kind and benevolent. She realized that women don’t have to be cooped up in the house all day, learning that there is a whole world out there for her to see.
Furthermore, she is now in America, where women are treated equally. A final reason for Brave Orchid’s drastic development can be seen as her struggle with the sitting ghost – a symbol of man. She stood up to the sitting ghost, or rather, men, and kept them from crushing her hopes and dreams. She realized that she has the strength to be her own individual and become a “woman warrior.” If this is the case, then Brave Orchid took in the slave girl as an apprentice, not a slave. Furthermore, the comparison between the dog and the slave girl can be seen as a complement.
The land she lived in was made distant by her mother’s talk-stories, which draw on both Chinese myths and life. There is at least one talk-story in each chapter. The memoirs also begin and end with an important talk-story. Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, used her words to the maximum effect, often to teach a life lesson or tell of a Chinese tradition.
Certain talk-stories, however, were told to make Kingston act a certain way. Because of this, Kingston was both liberated and smothered by her mother’s stories. This was the case in No-Name Woman, a chapter dedicated to secrets and forgotten pasts. A talk story is told about a woman; she was Kingston’s aunt who killed herself after giving birth to a baby born out of wedlock. The social order of the town was disrupted, so the townspeople attacked the woman’s house, forcing her to give birth in a pigsty. When she was found plugging up a well the next morning, it was agreed that she would be forgotten. It is made very apparent that when something in the Chinese culture is not wanted, it is simply not talked about.
Kingston often jumped between fact and fiction. Frequently it became difficult to discern the false from the true. Kingston would make up stories to fill the gaps in her mother’s talk-stories, such as in No-Name Woman; or completely alter a story to fit her imagination. She does the latter in White Tigers, in which she alters a talk-story to portrait the life of Fu Mu Lan, a warrior burdened with the blight of her village.
Kingston creates the characters to represent herself from many points of view. She writes of the connection: “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs. The idioms for revenge are ‘report a crime’ and ‘report to five families.’ The reporting is the vengeance–not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words. And I have so many words–“chink” words and “gook” words too–that they do not fit on my skin” (53).
The final chapter, A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, is an ode to voice. The entire chapter focused on Kingston finding her voice, beginning with a confession from Kingston’s mother explaining that she had her tongue cut when Kingston was a baby, to allow her to speak easier. Kingston immediately believed that her mother did so for the opposite reason. Kingston soon expressed paranoid thoughts about her mother and her “tricks” which told Kingston to fall into the silent, submissive, female Chinese role.
She described her difficulty communicating with others as a little girl, beginning in grade school when she would draw over her pictures with thick black paint. She told how she attempted to speak as little as possible, in an effort to appear American-Feminine. In the same chapter, she became fixated on a silent Chinese girl who battles her for the lowest position on the classes’ popularity scale. Once the two were left alone, Kingston begins to torment the girl in a violent attempt to make her speak. The girl does not, and begins to cry for what seems a very long time. Kingston believed that she was punished for this because soon after the attack, she becomes bed-ridden for a year with a mysterious illness.
This novel not only focuses on finding voice, but also outlines the major portions of Kingston’s life. From the time she was in grade school, trying to “silence” her art with black paint, to the teenager who puts blame to her mother for her inability to fit in, to the adult who reflects upon her life with a mature eye. Kingston believed that her mother was the cause for her silence, and began to build up a mental list of things she yearned to tell her mother. In response to this, Kingston resolved to tell her mother one thing a day for a year.
Not long after she began this, Brave Orchid told Kingston that she did not want to hear her whispering her craziness. Kingston describes her attempt to keep quiet after being told this: “My throat hurt constantly, vocal cords taut to snapping. One night when the laundry was so busy that the whole family was eating dinner there, crowded around the little round table, my throat burst open.” (201). The verb “burst” gives a very descriptive addition to the scene. Kingston reflects upon her past. She proudly ends the book with a combined talk story of hers and her mother’s about her grandmother.
Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Vintage; Reissue edition (April 23, 1989)