Free «The Theme of Identity in Maxine Hong Kingston’s "No Name Woman"» Essay
Maxine Hong Kingston opens a book of her memoirs The Woman Warrior with a blood-cringing story called “No Name Woman” about her aunt, who committed adultery and was condemned by her fellow villagers and her family for her actions. As the first generation of Chinese Americans, Kingston learns about her home country from the stories provided by her relatives and information from mass media. Therefore, she needs to digest what she learns and understand how and what Chinese traditions she can follow while living in the US. Although Kingston discusses both the role of family in people’s lives and women’s submissive position in the Chinese society, the theme of identity and the attempt to reconcile her new American self with her traditional Chinese self are central to the story “No Name Woman.”
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Chinese and American cultures are diametrically opposite. While the Chinese value collectiveness, the Americans tend to appreciate individuality. Chinese women are conditioned to be submissive and quiet, while American ladies are expected to assert themselves and know what they want. Knowing about significant differences in lifestyles, religion, family values, etc., Kingston muses how she can reconcile her present as an American and her past as a Chinese. It is a difficult task to unite freedom and tradition, like combining oil and water. However, it is crucial for Kingston, who says, “Those in the emigrant generations who could not reassert brute survival died young and far from home” (Kingston).
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Kingston wants to survive; thus, she wishes to grasp who she is and where she is from. The culture she is from, however, does not provide ready-made answers for her. Kingston’s mother teaches her wisdom through stories; but the author cannot ask questions and get answers. Therefore, she ruminates on her mother’s stories and supplements them with her details and interpretations. The story of her No Name Aunt is one of them. Kingston does not fully comprehend the aunt’s reasons behind her adultery. However, she understands that in the culture where women did not have their own voice and were expected to obey men unquestioningly, a young and pretty woman like her aunt did not have a choice. Her aunt’s husband had gone to America to provide for his family; and she was simply caught between the community rules of propriety and a man’s demand for intimacy.
However, Kingston does not agree to comply with her aunt’s victimhood. In patriarchal societies, women often become victims of many: falling prey to a lewd man, a woman simultaneously is taken accountable for a possible pregnancy and disgrace she draws on herself and her family. As the author does not have much information about her aunt, Kingston strengthens the story told by her mother with her own interpretations. She presumes that her aunt had some feelings and desires broiling in her in the absence of her husband.
As a woman raised in the independent-spirited America, Kingston refuses to think that her aunt had absolutely no power over her fate. The author sees her No Name aunt as her predecessor. Therefore, in order to understand herself, Kingston wants to understand her aunt’s motifs. In her aunt’s behavior Kingston sees sprouts of independent thinking and can relate to them. Her aunt’s sin reveals that “her villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them” (Kingston). As very communal people, the villagers were not going to forgive one’s “betrayal” of them – that is how they viewed woman’s adultery. None had any right to have a life different from the rest of the community members.
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Furthermore, Kingston sees that her aunt was fully aware of her deeds and committed suicide to save her child from the humiliation she had lived through. All Chinese women know that boys are treasures for the family, while girls are a “waste” (Kingston). Therefore, No Name Woman was aware of her daughter being doomed to have a life even more difficult than usually Chinese girls would have, so she took her to the grave in an act of mercy. At the same time, it was a kind of the last revenge for the villagers. Chinese are afraid of the drowned; and Kingston’s aunt drowned herself in the family well. It was like a farewell blow to her family from a woman who could not talk back and dispute while she was alive.
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Thus, Kingston finds an unexpected strength in a woman, who was suppressed by the patriarchal tradition and her own family and community.