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The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Study Questions

Kingston is frequently frustrated by the ambiguity of her mother's talk-stories. In what ways, however, might she be said to use talk-story to her advantage?

Part real and part fantastical, Brave Orchid's talk-stories are designed more to teach Kingston Chinese traditions and customs than to accurately represent the "truth." As a result, Kingston is both confused and frustrated in her attempts to decipher the stories her mother tells her. At the same time, it is arguably this very ambiguity of the stories that allows Kingston the most freedom. In "No-Name Woman," for instance, Kingston has no information with which to describe her unnamed aunt, so she simply invents her own scenarios. She rejects personality traits that give her "no ancestral help" and imagines those with which she can most closely identify—almost as if she is creating an imaginary friend across ancestral lines. "White Tigers" is another example: based on her mother's talk-story, Kingston is able to imagine herself as the female warrior Fa Mu Lan and to change the myth to suit her needs. She imagines, for example, that it was actually Fa Mu Lan and not a male warrior (as the traditional myth was told) who had the words cut in her back. Furthermore, in the final chapter, Kingston questions many of her own "talk-stories" throughout the memoir, wondering if people like her mentally retarded suitor perhaps existed outside her imagination. The blurring of lines between imaginary and real may be frustrating, but it also liberates the author from the difficulty of fitting her memories into the traditional categories or restraints of a memoir.

Discuss the changing role of food in The Woman Warrior.

Food appears as an important motif throughout the book, but its significance changes from chapter to chapter. In "No-Name Woman," the Chinese villagers have little food, and their desperate need for food motivates many of their actions. Kingston speculates that, had she transgressed in times of plenty, No-Name Woman might not have been cast out; as it was, she posed a threat to a society in times of want and added the burden of another child to the village. This idea of food as need is echoed in the final chapter, in which Brave Orchid talks about how she has become used to eating well in America. In "Shaman," food represents power—the power that Brave Orchid acquires, in her daughter's eyes, in her ability to eat all manner of fish or fowl. Food also becomes a frightening element of Brave Orchid's talk-stories; Kingston is haunted by visions of the Chinese villagers eating monkey brains. It is interesting, then, that in "White Tigers" it is the lack of food that is most powerful. Kingston, as Fa Mu Lan, starves herself and begins to have revelations about the world, eating only when a rabbit jumps into the fire as a self-sacrifice. It is almost as if Kingston, through her fantasy, is freeing herself from the necessity of food that has affected her family in so many ways.

What is the significance of death in The Woman Warrior?

Death—especially sudden death—makes for some of the most shocking and disturbing moments in The Woman Warrior. No-Name Woman jumps into the well with her newborn baby; Moon Orchid dies alone in a California state mental asylum; Brave Orchid witnesses the stoning of a Chinese woman by villagers who think she is a spy. Each of these deaths is especially shocking because of the mental state of each of the victims. Each person is driven insane or nearly insane because of traumatic experiences that involve being outcast or set apart in some way from the village or community. These stories of death haunt Kingston, no doubt in part because she too feels like an outcast and faces the similar conflicting pressures of Chinese and American customs. Because Kingston seems to identify with these figures, we might call her act of writing a sort of triumph over death, a means of avoiding the fate of others caught in a similar predicament. Another important aspect of the memoir's treatment of death is the prominence of "ghosts" in the text. Those in China who die never really go away, but continue, through talk-story, to haunt generations to come.

Suggested Essay Topics

Compare and contrast the role of reproduction in "No-Name Woman" and "White Tigers."

Discuss the portrayal of Chinese Communists in the book and how they are woven into the narrative.

Choose three examples of the theme of silence in the book and compare and contrast them.

Compare and contrast the figures of Ts'ai Yen and Fa Mu Lan. Which character forms a more useful talk-story for Kingston?

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