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The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston

Chapter One: No Name Woman

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter Two: White Tigers

Summary

Kingston learns from her mother that she once had an aunt who killed herself and her newborn baby by jumping into the family well in China. The woman's husband had left the country years before, so the villagers knew that the child was illegitimate. The night that the baby was born, the villagers raided and destroyed the family house, and the woman gave birth in a pigsty. The next morning the mother found her sister-in-law and the baby plugging up the well. The woman had brought such disgrace upon her family that they decided to pretend that she had never been born.

Kingston's mother tells her the story as a cautionary tale, in the years Kingston begins to menstruate. Her mother warns her to be careful lest the same fate fall upon her. Kingston, looking back on the story later, thinks about the world in which she was raised, an "invisible world" of ghosts transposed from Chinese rural life into the emigrants' new homes in America.

Because Kingston cannot ask about her unnamed aunt—who is referred to only as "No-Name Woman"—she invents her own fantasies about why her aunt gave in to her forbidden passions. In one such scenario, her aunt is a timid woman ordered into submission by a rapist. In another, her aunt harbors a slowly blossoming passion, attempting to attract a man's attention by carefully tending to her appearance. Kingston's fantasies must have direct bearing on her own life: she rejects, for example, the idea that her aunt was a wild woman of loose morals. Instead, her aunt's greatest crime—one with which Kingston identifies—was acting on her private interests, stepping out of the role Chinese society and traditions had proscribed for her. Such traditions, Kingston says, were thought of as necessary to ensure village stability, especially when the villagers were all related in some way. Any sexual passion could lead to adultery or incest and therefore threatened the social order.

In a particularly vivid section of the chapter, Kingston imagines the time when her aunt's family casts her aunt out. Alone, her aunt is lost in the wilderness, and when the baby comes, she resorts to giving birth in a pigsty. Kingston believes that her aunt decides to kill herself and her baby together in order to spare the child a life without family or purpose. Kingston also notes that the baby was probably a girl, and as such would already have been considered practically useless to society—a theme that reappears throughout The Woman Warrior. At the end of the chapter, Kingston imagines her aunt as a lonely, wandering ghost, begging for scraps from the gifts given other ghosts by their loving relatives.

Analysis

"No-Name Woman" is one of the more frequently anthologized sections of The Woman Warrior because it encapsulates so many of the rest of the text's themes: the ambiguity and complexity of "talk-story," the place of women in traditional Chinese society, and the difficulty of growing up as a Chinese- American. The struggle of Kingston's aunt—a woman who gives into a dangerous sexual passion and then is cast out by her village—is likened to the struggle of Kingston herself, who is attempting to make sense of the old customs and traditions—which she knows only from her mother—in a vastly different country.

Kingston, to illustrate this struggle, sets up a number of dichotomies and conflicts: between private and public, frivolity and necessity, the individual's need for expression and society's need for control. As she imagines what old world China was like, she paints a picture of a repressive, strictly ordered society in which people were essentially unable to have private lives. Everything had to be done for the sake of the family's or village's well- being—what Kingston calls "the Necessary." In such a world, Kingston's aunt represents the worst kind of transgressor, one whose private lusts—made public by her illegitimate child—disrupted the social order and threatened the very existence of the village. In times of plenty, notes Kingston, adultery might have been "only a mistake"; when the villagers needed everyone to work together to provide food, however, it became a crime.

The story of No-Name Woman serves as a backdrop for Kingston's own experience growing up as a Chinese-American, torn between the world of Chinese customs and traditions that surround her like "ghosts" and her new, permissive American environment. (Note that for Kingston's mother, the word "ghost" is used in the opposite sense, to refer to the Americans themselves.) Kingston's struggle is especially difficult because she is effectively forbidden from talking about it with anyone. "You must not tell anyone," her mother tells her—a powerful, ironic opening sentence to a memoir. As the subject is forbidden, Kingston knows nothing about her aunt beyond the broad details of the story, and instead must make up her own stories and scenarios about her aunt. This forced fabrication presents us with another dichotomy, that of fiction versus truth. Is Kingston probing what really happened to her aunt, or is she simply making up stories to satisfy herself? Is she doing justice to her aunt's memory or harming it? The ambiguous nature of "talk-story," a blend of the real and fantastic, surfaces again and again throughout the book. How is Kingston, in trying to make sense of her own life, able to tell from these talk-stories what is peculiar to her own family and what is true for all Chinese—or, more importantly, what is Chinese and what is "the movies"?

Stylistically, "No-Name Woman" is a blend of imaginative detail, rich metaphor, and personal musings. The "narrative" jumps back forth between past and present, fact and fiction, Kingston's life and the society in which her aunt lived. A description of how it was vital in the village to eliminate sexual attraction among kinsmen segues into Kingston's own peculiarities about making herself attractive to boys. The most vivid parts of the chapter are those in which Kingston lets her imagination about her aunt run free. She depicts in exquisite detail the careful manner in which her aunt—in Kingston's imagination, of course—plucked hairs from her forehead to attract a suitor. She also imagines her aunt's sufferings in heartbreaking detail, first as a mother giving birth and then as a ghost begging for scraps. The most interesting and imaginative stylistic techniques of the chapter are Kingston's metaphors, such as the round cakes and doorways meant to represent the "circle" or "roundness" of Chinese life—the idea that all the villagers are connected and responsible for one another's lives.

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