Views on Society and Gender in The Woman Warrior: Analytical Essay

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Compare Rhys’s narrator to Kingston’s with a view to society and gender. How is social critique related to point of view?

What is the uniqueness of a female narrator? Why is important that the narrator has to be a female? Prior to reading Jean Rhys’ short story and Maxine Hong Kingston’s autobiography, it would appear to me that most intriguing part would be their narrative forms. Therefore, this essay will present those different views on female narrators relate to their society and identity.

In the twentieth century, women's writing travels a long journey. They have been through loads of traditional restrictions, and eventually have the freedom to explore their powerful and independent lives, especially some ‘mixed races’ female writers. They always carry a rich sensation and the knowledge of their cross-cultural heritage because the society creates them an unusual perspective. After reading The Day They Burned the Books and Woman Warrior, it can be seen that they have similar interpretation and concept, such as feminism, colonialism and cultural conflicts.

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In Jean Rhys’ short story, one of the noticeable things is the narrator, a young female immigrant of the Caribbean, which indicates the writer herself. Rhys is one of the influential female writers in twentieth century, focusing on its unmarking of the social attitudes and identity. While in Woman Warrior, Kingston portrays Chinese-Americans’ lives differently according to the Chinese myths and legends. As the first generation grew up in American, she takes on distinctive voices and personas for retelling her family history which all based on female characters like her mother, aunt and herself.

Even both stories are in different backgrounds and cultures, the narrative forms indicate the main theme of woman and femininity. For Rhys, she has the similar life experience as the narrator, she concerns more on woman’s childhood rather than the cold adulthood. She uses the angle of a child as an outsider to observe the struggles between Eddie’s family and actions that Mrs. Sawyer made. Unlike in Woman Warrior, the narrator is ‘moving’ from her childhood to early development ‘I continue to sort out what’s just my childhood, my imagination, my family…”( Kingston, 205). The structure shifts in different voices. Kingston herself is the narrator, she is creative to combine different kinds of worlds and cultures in order to perform a harmony of her own expression. She does not follow the normal structure, for instance, the narrator is very direct in ‘No name woman’, but in the mythical story of Fa Mu Lan in ‘White Tigers’, she just pretends like someone else. Sometimes she also disappears completely in the story of ‘At the Western Palace’, not containing a single word ‘I’. Then she finally talks about her own position in the last chapter of the memoir.

What is the effect of the focus on women in these stories? Both stories have all mentioned about the role of women in their society. In The Day They Burned the Books, the narrator is an English-descending child growing up in the Caribbean, presenting the mixed race and the clashing cultures. She is the representative of the Rhys. During the narrative form, this little girl is purporting her gender and racial expectation on Mrs. Sawyer, one of the most significant female character in the story. Mrs. Sawyer is regarded subordinate and voiceless when compares to her husband. Because of the colonial background, the power of her in society is diminished. She hates the books in an attempt to get rid of the English heritage, hates the female writer like Christina Rossetti, ‘Woman must be tortured’ (Rhys, 2759). At that time, woman who writes books will be considered ‘worse’ and inappropriate. The role she takes under the Western notion that women should not write or go against tradition. The narrator sees Mrs. Sawyer as a revengeful woman. Rhys puts the central consciousness on this girl who only understands part of the painful involvements of race and inequality, and her sense of identity allows her to oppose the voice of a society that represses women.

On the other hand, Kingston chooses women as the protagonists of this book, it is not only including her own gender identity, but also consisting the guidance from some female Eastern historical characters like Mulan. Kingston describes her no name aunt’s story in the first chapter, to further condemns the women’s lack of choice in feudal society and the tragic life of rebellion. She’s trying to express the influence under Chinese patriarchy, marriage likes a rope that bundles a woman’s life and fate. ‘There is a Chinese word for the female, which is 'slave'’ (Kingston, 9). The role of Chinese woman is considered as the victim of hierarchy, powerless and obedient. Besides, she compares two sisters in ‘At the Western Palace’, the differences between new and old world. Perhaps by the influence of her mother’s previous life experience, which motivates Kingston to portray the story in a female voice, to show the way how women were treated and understood at that time. For Kingston, the role of woman, such as wife and mother, should be a warrior and able to lead her people to victory in battle, not being controlled by men.

Besides, the social conditions rely heavily on female perspectives within both works. Having lived during the colonial era, Rhys explores the social demarcations between English and Creole cultural identities, it can be seen that Caribbean creole is the outcome of the new world. When the story begins, the English root is already structured in the Caribbean family in terms of patriarchal society: the books are the barriers between Britain and Caribbean. Those tensions between two cultures are exemplified and taking many shapes through the story. Furthermore, the story is more than just colonialism, but more on gender and race: The narrator, a young girl appears on a sense of desolation, she admires that ‘Eddie had been very bold’ when they are seen as ‘different’ (Rhys, 2758). In addition, Mrs. Sawyer represents the past of colonialism and slavery that wants to be erased. How does a Caribbean woman gain power through Western masculine oppression? There is no solution at that time. She is a female who under that men-dominated society, the action of her to burn the books actually is a way to protect her own Caribbean heritage.

On the contrary, the eastern culture is always shaped as a feminine image, such as introverted, peaceful, shy and quiet, whereas the west is extroverted, enthusiastic and out-going. Kingston’s Chinese-American voice has also been considered an integral part of the cross-cultural landscape. In ‘At the Western Palace’, Brave Orchid and Moon Orchid can be regarded as a representative of Western culture and Eastern culture. In twentieth-century China, there are a lot of limitations for women, such as foot binding, widow chastity or concubinage. Woman under the Confucian social system has been considered powerless, as well as her no name aunt and Moon Orchid, the cultural clash causes terrible effects. However, the narrator develops the legend from Fa Mu Lan (a Chinese heroine) to establish her view of woman fighter, which contradicts to Brave Orchid’s negative attitude and also challenges China’s traditional devaluation of girls and women.

By telling those stories, Kingston’s narrator criticizes the patriarchal traditions of Chinese culture while also indicts America's racism as having a devastating effect on Chinese-American woman like Kingston herself. Some critics have considered that Kingston’s use of Chinese literary sources in her work are ‘irrelevant, exotic, remote from American reality’. Frank Chin, a Chinese-American writer, describes Kingston’s work as ‘simply a device for destroying history and literature.’ (Yan 4) It is not surprising that her use of Chinese materials may not be reliable since she doesn’t know the root of when she grew up, she archives a lot of traditions by her double identity. By contrast, some commentators have often discussed this in the fields of postcolonial and feminist literary theory in Rhys’s work, her narrator composes the status of races and portrays the cultural struggle within her surroundings and within the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

Last but not least, the language they use shows a powerful gender distinction. Even the narrator is young and naïve in Rhys’s work, she represents the pure childhood that everyone can access to it easily. She develops with her central consciousness through dialogues, ‘when Mr. Sawyer was drunk—he used to be very rude to her’ (Rhys 2757). It is obvious that the relationship is imbalance in that society, the mulatto wife has to embittered by her husband’s racism. Likewise, in Woman Warrior, some words that stand for girls like ‘pig’ or ’stink’, ‘there is an outward tendency in females’ (Kingston 160), shows the discrimination of female.

In conclusion, these two female narrators from both texts allow me to understand more deep-set gender statuses and how the struggle for identity affects relationships and society. Kingston’s narrator foregrounds the instability of moral and social positions by several talk stories instead of emphasizing the martial image of woman, she encourages that the society should contain both qualities for man and woman, woman can also takes on social responsibility and become the fighter for their lives, whereas Rhys’s one gives us a chance to look more about race sentimentally, the gender issue within the female characters, brings out the oppression and domination of a colonial and patriarchal society. To be born as a mix-raced individual is not ridiculous, alternately, this specific community factors may gain a new understanding and strength for their future.

Works Cited

  1. Barrett, M. Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics. In: Robinson, H. (ed.), Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968–2000. Blackwell, pp. 308–12.
  2. Deborah L. Madsen. Literary Masters: Maxine Hong Kingston. Gale Group, 2000, pp4-22,40,89.
  3. Karen, R. & Carolyn, M.B. Woman and Media: International perspectives. Blackwell, 2004.
  4. Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. Vintage International, 1989.
  5. Rhys, Jean. “The Day They Burned the Books.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, the Major Authors. 9th ed. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. W.W. Norton, 2013. pp.2757-2761.
  6. Savory, Elaine. Jean Rhys. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  7. Tseen, K.& Kam, editor. L. Culture, Identity, Commodity: Diasporic Chinese Literatures in English. Hong Kong University Press, 2005.
  8. Yan, Gao. The Art of Parody: Maxine Hong Kingston’s use of Chinese source. Peter Lang publishing, 1996, pp. 9-15.
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