The Woman Warrior
Analysis of Major Characters
Kingston is an elusive, multi-faceted narrator in The Woman Warrior. Sometimes she disappears entirely into the story of someone else, as in the mythical story of Fa Mu Lan in "White Tigers." At other times she just disappears completely, as in the story of her aunt Moon Orchid in "At the Western Palace," a chapter that does not contain a single instance of the word "I"—obviously very unusual for an autobiographical work. It is worth noting that when Kingston discusses The Woman Warrior elsewhere, she puts quotes around the "I." This underscores the fact that the narrator is in many ways just as made-up as a character in a work of fiction.
It is important to realize just how different The Woman Warrior is from traditional memoirs and autobiographies, in which we can count on the stability and reliability of the "I" as a guide to the text. Because the "I" changes in The Woman Warrior, we cannot rely on the author to provide a truthful account in the strictest sense of the word. We learn, for instance, that the entire confrontation episode in "At the Western Palace" was told to Kingston second- or even third-hand. We wonder, therefore, just how much of this episode is true. At the end of the text, Kingston admits that even she cannot tell what is fact from fiction. Her point, however, is that the truth does not really matter. What is important are Kingston's memories and how she comes to terms with them.
Kingston takes on so many voices and personas that it is difficult to pin down a list of character traits. Throughout the memoir she is at times rebellious, verbally lashing out against her mother as a teenager; curious and imaginative, inventing scenarios about her unnamed aunt in "No-Name Woman"; meek, allowing her racist bosses walk all over her in "White Tigers"; and cruel, tormenting a poor silent girl in her school. We do see, however, broad changes in Kingston's character—personal growth that does make the text seem, at times, more like a traditional autobiography. Kingston grows from a girl who can barely speak to a woman who finds outlet for her words on paper. She grows from someone scared by the ghosts of her mother's talk-stories to a person who can peer into the dark corners of her past. Perhaps most important, she grows from a frustrated and anguished daughter to an independent adult who can compose a poetic memoir about her heritage.
Brave Orchid is as much the protagonist of The Woman Warrior as Kingston is, and her character is nearly as elusive. Brave Orchid is a bundle of contradictions: fiercely intelligent but rarely perceptive, misguided about Moon Orchid's husband; proud of her heritage but also guarded about much of her past, such as the suicide of No-Name Woman; and gentle at times to her family but also capable of incredible coldness and cruelty, as in her constant demeaning of her daughter's achievements. In many ways Brave Orchid is representative of the emigrant Chinese, who fiercely guard the customs and traditions of their people and consider all Americans to be "ghosts" on the outside. The emigrant Chinese attitude to the American-born Chinese—their own sons and daughters—comes across as a mixture of fear, resentment, and disappointment.
It is clear in the narrative that Brave Orchid has suffered considerable culture shock coming to America, particularly in making the transition from being an independent and well-respected doctor in China to slaving at a laundry and picking tomatoes in California. Throughout most of the memoir she seems to harbor the notion that the family will one day return to China, and she is often quite ignorant—perhaps purposefully so—of the killings that are going on in her home country during the Communist revolution. In one of the more poignant moments of the book, Brave Orchid tells Kingston—after they have been in America for more than thirty years—that they have finally given away the land back in China and that she must resign herself to living in America.
For all of the frustration and anguish behind it, Kingston's portrayal of her mother is also comic. Brave Orchid is a fish out of water in America, and a number of her culture clashes are hilarious. She takes Kingston's cold pill, thinking that it is LSD; she invents wild scenarios in which she helps Moon Orchid reclaim her lost husband; she makes Kingston demand free candy from the pharmacist when he delivers a wrong prescription; she cuts—or so she claims—part of Kingston's tongue in order to loosen up her speech. There is something ridiculous to the extremes of Brave Orchid's behavior, and Kingston seems to realize this in hindsight. The humor of the situation thus allows Kingston to take a much kinder view of her mother as an adult than perhaps she could have as a child.
Moon Orchid is probably the only other fully realized character in The Woman Warrior, although she appears in only one chapter. Pretty, weak and uncoordinated—in her sister's words, "useless"—Moon Orchid plays foil to Brave Orchid's force of personality, determination, and ability. Moon Orchid is also an effective contrast to her Chinese-American nieces and nephews, whom she follows around the house observing their everyday actions and foibles. She and the children are so different from each other in language and age and culture that they almost appear to each other like different species.
Like her sister, Moon Orchid represents the ridiculousness of clinging to Chinese customs and traditions in California. The scene in which she and Brave Orchid hatch plans to surprise her husband is as funny as it is sad, and the outcome of the encounter is disastrous. Afterward, when Moon Orchid tries to live on her own in Los Angeles, she proves wholly unable to adjust to American life and slowly goes insane, having paranoid delusions about Mexicans trying to kill her. Moon Orchid's disintegration in America is of course partly a function of her age, but it is also clear that she is inherently not as strong as her sister. Moon Orchid's story reminds us that the cultural clash can have terrible effects on those who are not equipped to deal with it.
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