In The Woman Warrior, what specifically about the aunt's context makes her transgression so severe?

Strict traditions, gender expectations, social roles, and poverty all make the aunt's transgression of adultery in The Woman Warrior so severe. In poor rural China during the early twentieth century, a woman married into—and became property of—her husband’s family. Therefore, her infidelity not only brings shame to the in-laws but also wastes her in-laws’ resources. Also, the aunt’s affair (if she was not raped) affronts the community by demonstrating her individual will.

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The titular character of The Woman Warrior’s first chapter is “No-Name Woman,” the sister-in-law of the narrator’s father; she is a woman whose identity is erased due to the shame she brought onto her family. Hastily wed to the narrator’s uncle in a “hurry-up” wedding ceremony, she enters her in-laws’ household in order to make sure the husband returns home after seeking his fortune in the San Francisco. Traditionally (and certainly in rural China in 1924), a married woman became the property of her husband’s family and was supposed to remain faithful to him, even during his long absence. Everyone is expected to conform to strict gender roles and social rules.

The aunt’s transgression is adultery, as evinced by a baby born years after her husband leaves their village. Whether she was raped or pursued a love affair, she has humiliated her husband, his family, and her own family (to whom she no longer belongs). Even worse, all the clothing and food provided to her by her in-laws are now considered a waste if she was taken by another man.

Adultery is extravagance … To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough. My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil.

On the other hand, if she willingly took a lover, her free will is viewed as abnormal and selfish. In fact, her attention to her looks would be seen as frivolous and deviant:

a woman who tended her appearance reaped a reputation for eccentricity. All the married women blunt-cut their hair in flaps about their ears or pulled it back in tight buns. No nonsense.

This married aunt, however, expends energy and attention to make herself attractive to her lover,

guessing at the colors and shapes that would interest him, changing them frequently in order to hit on the right combination. She wanted him to look back.

Instead of tying her hair tightly into a conservative bun, she

combed individuality into her bob. A bun could have been contrived to escape into black streamers blowing in the wind or in quiet wisps about her face.

In doing this, she creates a loose style that would be considered wild by her community. Even worse, the aunt choses to stand apart from others; her true transgression is her rebellion against socially defined gender norms. As a daughter among sons, she is supposed

to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. The heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning. But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space.

Instead, she sleeps with a man that is not her husband. Her behavior disturbs her fellow villagers, who notice her pregnancy and calculate that the baby is not fathered by her long-absent husband. To them, her adultery is not only shameful, but also frightening, because it challenges social order, community, and gender roles. The aunt no longer blends in, but stands apart as an individual with free will. The villagers violently attack her home in order to

show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the “roundness.”… The villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.

Even worse, her infidelity, “perhaps only a mistake during good times, became a crime when the village needed food.”

In the end, the aunt’s ultimate punishment is her family’s intentional erasure of her identity and denial of her existence.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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