Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is an autobiographical novel of Maxine Hong Kingston’s life, illuminated by references to the women whose histories influenced her. In the United States, the meager opportunities available to Chinese immigrants force her parents to earn a living by running a small laundry. Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, a mid-wife in China, is a forceful character who admonishes her daughter with ever-changing renditions of Chinese legends and myths as well as tales about women who have been driven to madness or death by a culture that has traditionally viewed girls and women as subordinate to boys and men.
In “No Name Woman,” Kingston recalls the haunting story of her aunt, who gave birth to a child years after her husband had gone to America. Driven to madness by the persecution of vengeful neighbors, a disgrace to her kin, she drowns herself and the baby in the family well. “Now that you have started to menstruate what happened to her could happen to you,” Brave Orchid cautions. It is one of many frightening lessons for the young Kingston as she becomes increasingly aware of the different expectations placed upon women by the Chinese traditions that continue to dominate the attitudes of immigrants.
The book takes its title, however, from Fa Mu Lan, the legendary woman warrior who, disguised as a man, sword in hand, goes forth to fight for justice. Kingston takes inspiration from...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts focuses on Chinese and American female identities by blending mythology, history, and poetry. She explores these identities by reconstructing her mother’s (Brave Orchid’s) life for fifteen years in China during the 1920’s and 1930’s and through her own experiences growing up in Stockton, California, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A second book, China Men (1980), a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, tells the story of the Chinese men in Kingston’s family. Both books span continents and generations, the first focusing on the women, the second on the men, although China Men has a female storyteller.
Kingston, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, received her first great acclaim after the publication of The Woman Warrior. Although her work continues to be well received, her later books moved in other directions. Kingston published Hawai’i One Summer in 1987, exploring the Chinese American history of Hawaii. The novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989) tells the story of twenty-three-year-old Berkeley graduate Wittman Ah Sing. In the early 1990’s, Kingston’s only copy of a recent novel was destroyed by fire, and she had to start over from scratch. (The story was later published in 2003 in a memoir-novel hybrid titled The Fifth Book of Peace.)
The Woman Warrior is divided into five sections, each of which can be easily anthologized. “No Name Woman” and “Tongue-Tied,” for example, may be read alone. Despite the stories’ ability to be separate and remain powerful, they tie together into a coherent whole. The second and fifth sections focus on Kingston, who identifies herself as a “legendary warrior woman.” The other three sections focus on Kingston’s mother’s stories and Kingston’s retelling of them. The complex narrative patterns of The Woman Warrior are intertwined; the first three stories are about the mother, and the final two stories are about the daughter.
“No Name Woman,” the first and shortest section, begins with the voice of Kingston’s mother warning the young Kingston, “You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you.” In telling the story of her father’s nameless sister, Kingston, as narrator, breaks the taboos and the silence of tradition. The breaking of the silence begins Kingston’s war on traditions that have destroyed people, women in particular. Once Kingston breaks the silence by repeating her mother’s story, she tries to fill in the gaps.
Her mother tells her what Kingston calls only a “story to grow up on,” the parts necessary to guide a growing adolescent, so that she will not humiliate her parents. The nameless aunt has a child two years after her husband’s departure for America. The villagers, to punish the family for their daughter’s impropriety, come to the home when the child is due. Disguised, they kill livestock, stone the house, and destroy everything inside the home. The disgraced family stands together in the middle of the room and looks straight ahead. They neither lock their doors against the attack nor resist it. During the night, the aunt gives birth, unattended, in the pigsty. Kingston’s mother concludes, “The next morning when I went for the water, I found her and the baby plugging up the family well.” The story is meant to introduce Kingston to the dangers that accompany the beginning of menstruation. Kingston, however, hungers for the details of the aunt’s story, details that she cannot get from her mother because the details are not necessary to make her point: “Adultery is extravagance.”
Kingston fills in the gaps in the story through various retellings of it. In these retellings, she explores gender inequality in her speculations about the lives of the men who leave their wives behind and the life of the man who fathered her aunt’s child. Kingston acknowledges her guilt for participating in the punishment of the aunt for twenty years. She says that she still does not know her aunt’s name, but at least she breaks the silence, an act that ends her participation.
“White Tigers,” the second section, retells Kingston’s mother’s story of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior who takes her father’s place in battle. Kingston becomes the woman warrior, doing battle against the devaluation of girl children, especially in Chinese culture. Fa Mu Lan is led away from her family by a white crane who teaches her boxing and then delivers her to an “old brown man” and an “old gray...
(The entire section is 1896 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Upon reflection over time, Kingston concluded that her title The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts has perhaps misled critics. She wanted to project the idea of strong women, capable of enduring hard times, violence, and deaths, and surviving; she did not mean to advocate violence as an answer to social ills. The phrase “girlhood among ghosts” has a double meaning, for she grows up with her mother’s moralistic tales from China, stories of the long dead whose lives haunt the narrator’s childhood and serve as her mother’s tools to intimidate her daughter into conformity. However, since her mother calls all Caucasians “ghosts,” that phrase is also a reference to growing up in America, in a culture and amid a people that her mother rejects. The novel seeks to resolve this conflict in cultural perspectives by examining her relationship with her mother. The five sections of the book are vignettes, separate memories culled from Kingston’s past and fictionalized. They depict terror at being an emotional outsider and describe her own life, as well as serving as a collective biography of suppressed women and ethnic minorities. Kingston’s personal identity is central to the second and fifth sections, in both cases connected with a legendary warrior woman, and the remaining three sections are devoted to stories of her female ancestors. Although chronologically organized, the book is plotless in the conventional sense; each segment can be read and appreciated separately.
The first section, “No Name Woman,” is the most anthologized as a short story, for it is a universal study of mother-daughter conflict and the means by which parents and children fight for dominance. None of the three major female characters—the adolescent girl narrator, her mother who tells her a family secret, or her deceased aunt who is the subject of the story—is named. Such namelessness gives the story permanence and wide relevance but also brings with it a sense of alienation and anonymity, a mood mysterious and slightly sinister. The title articulates the human struggle to find self-identity and self-articulation. At the same time, Kingston takes on the negatives of Chinese tradition—the greed, the obsession with gold, the superstition, the disdain for and ill-treatment of women, the denial of individuality, group marriage of women to émigrés leaving to work abroad, enforced conformity, and family punishment for the “sins” of family members. The story of secret family shame the mother confides in her daughter (who spitefully broadcasts it to the world) concerns the girl’s aunt, who became pregnant years after her husband had departed to America to seek his fortune; perhaps envisioning lives as outcasts for herself and her newborn daughter, she drowns herself and her baby in the family well. The daughter mulls over the bare details her mother gives her but speculates about the empty facts, questioning whether the woman was raped by a relative, was profligate in an attempt to assert some personal identity, or was genuinely in love. There are no answers, only the cruel will of the village, which would deny her, her child, and her family a future.
At once more metaphorical and more personal is the second section of the book, “White Tigers,” where the concept of warrior suggested by the book’s title is...
(The entire section is 1369 words.)