Kingston’s purpose, presented at the beginning of the book, is to unravel her mother’s stories and in the process to understand herself. Her method of unraveling these stories is to retell them, retracing both her actual and her mythic ancestry. Because the author’s identity and self-expression are determined by the position of women in traditional Chinese and Chinese-American cultures, the major figures in this autobiographical work are the women who have surrounded Kingston in her everyday life and the women who have dominated in her rich dream life. The style of the work, therefore, is partly direct and factual, partly poetic. The Woman Warrior’s endurance in a beautiful, harsh, imaginary landscape attests her superhuman strength. No Name Woman, the facts of whose life are sparse, is described in the romantic cliches that Kingston derived in her childhood from both Eastern and Western culture.
The figures of Kingston’s dream life, No Name Woman and the Woman Warrior, are painted in broad strokes and function as symbols of female impotence on the one hand and female empowerment on the other. The style of the sections in which Kingston writes about these characters is poetic.
Unlike the dream figures, the factual figures are drawn in realistic detail. Moon Orchid, for example, is described in a complete and laconic account of her life in Hong Kong as a well-off “widow,” her awkward but well-intentioned attempts to fit into her sister’s family, her timidity when she faces the husband who abandoned her, and finally her madness, which Kingston presents in almost clinical detail.
The most important figures in the work, Brave Orchid and Kingston herself, are depicted in both mythical terms and realistic detail. The narrative of Brave Orchid’s life in China has a tone of mystery and distance. In China, Brave Orchid is the hero of any situation in which she finds herself. Beautiful, intelligent, and brave, she is not only the star of her class at the medical college but also its savior from the “sitting ghost,” which she exorcises from the dormitory at great personal risk. When she returns to her village as a physician, Brave Orchid is known for both her sophisticated beauty and her skill. She never loses a patient, because her instincts always tell her which patients are doomed, and she refuses to treat them. In contrast, when she moves to the Gold Mountain, she can no longer practice medicine; she becomes an ordinary woman, a foreigner who never...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)