The Woman Warrior, written by Maxine Hong Kingston, is a book of memoirs, an autobiography of Kingston’s life amongst ghosts. However, although this book is an autobiography, it is not solely written from one narrative point of view. Kingston’s book of memoirs realizes that a first-person singular narrative point of view provides too many limitations by which she can tell her story. Thus due to these limitations, Kingston relates her memoirs from multiple viewpoints to effectively portray her past to her readers. Most of the book is told in the first person; however, the first time the reader observes the first-person narrator, or Kingston, tell about her own life is in chapter five. Technique in Fiction warns that a first-person narrative “results in some garrulous, arch, and irrelevant narrators” with the “great temptation for self-indulgence” (Macauley, Lanning 139).
Despite this, it does not apply to Kingston because her book is memoirs, an autobiography. Instead of the nature of Kingston’s story, she reaps the benefits of the first-person singular point of view. The reader establishes “an intimacy and involvement” that gives the impression of the narrator as “being direct, candid, and trustworthy” (Macauley, Lanning 139). These qualities are embodied in Kingston’s memoirs; for example, “Not everybody thinks I’m nothing. I am not going to be a slave or a wife. Even if I am stupid and talk funny and get sick, I won’t let you turn me into a slave or a wife. I’m getting out of here.” (201). This quote comes from a rant that Kingston blurts out at the dinner table towards her mother. With the use of the particular point of view, the reader is engaged and can feel the anguish and anger felt by Kingston, not only towards her mother but also to the invisible world of Chinese customs.
There are areas within the book in which Kingston relatively disappears, and she uses the third-person singular point of view. The most prominent example is the fourth chapter which is told entirely in third-person. Keeping the first-person singular view proves too limiting as Kingston herself was not present during a climactic confrontation in this chapter. Also, the characters present limited in their knowledge and thus are oblivious. The third-person vantage point allows “the author to show…traits” or “prevalent thing about ourselves [the characters] of which we [they] are not aware.” (Macauley, Lanning 141). For example, brave Orchid and Moon Orchid on their way to see Moon Orchid’s husband concoct plans, almost comical, of what to do when they arrive; Brave Orchid says, “Scare him. Walk right into his house with your suitcases and boxes. Move right into the bedroom.
Throw her stuff out of the drawers and put yours in. Say, ‘I am the first wife, and she is our servant.’ ” (126). The third-person narrative view allows the reader to see how oblivious the two women are to this outrageous proposal, which in the readers’ mind can only end in an epic disaster. Kingston struggles throughout her book to discover and separate the truth from her imagination; however, within this image, another point of view emerges, a shape-shifter that goes through a metamorphosis. Technique in Fiction presents the idea of “Mr. Alpha,” who is “omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent” (Macauley, Lanning 142). Obviously, Kingston, a human being, cannot be this; she is limited to what she knows. However, in Kingston’s imagination, her mind and her own fantasies, she embodies some of the traits and qualities of Mr. Alpha. As Mr. Alpha, the author is “versatile, flexible, and privileged” and thus has a “variety of tactics.” One of those tactics is that Mr. Alpha “can borrow and use any one of several points of view as it suits his purpose” (Macauley, Lanning 143).
In her own world and fantasies Kingston does just this. Since her mother will not tell anymore about the “No Name Warrior” Kingston formulates scenarios to suggest how and why her ghost aunt got pregnant. In vivid detail, she explains how “When she [her aunt] closed her fingers as if she were making pair of shadow geese bite, the string twisted together catching the little hairs. Then she pulls the thread away from her skin, ripping the hairs out neatly, her eyes watering from the needles of pain” (9). Here her point of view transforms into third-person singular, while it travels to her mother’s village in China to watch how her aunt meticulously threads her eyebrows.
In a grander example, Kingston takes on the first-person singular point of view of a female avenger, who is from one of her mother’s talk stories and fabricates a whole life for herself. Kingston chooses to use multiple viewpoints to tell her memoirs relative to the situation and needs at hand. She uses the first-person singular to tell about her own experiences, while she reverts to the third-person singular in places where the first-person singular will give her too many limitations. And finally, within the corridors of her own mind, she exhibits the qualities of “The All-Knowing Mr. Alpha” (Macauley, Lanning 142). Combined, all these vantage points are used to deliver her memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts effectively.
Characterizing of Major Characters in The Woman Warrior. In Kingston’s autobiography, The Woman Warrior, the majority of its characters are female-dominated. Throughout the book, few male roles are introduced, and those mentioned are briefly characterized, if at all. However, Kingston richly characterizes many of the minor and major female roles present in her memoirs. The two of the most extensively characterized characters are Brave Orchid, Kingston’s mother, and Kingston herself. Kingston succeeds in unravelling two intricate personalities, which continue to develop as the story goes on.
Kingston is the one character the readers watch from a young child to a mature adult, and through Kinston’s writing, her personality at different times in her life comes out as well. Technique in Fiction states that the “finest accomplishment” is the “character who is gradually revealed or ‘unrolled’ but who also changes” throughout the novel (Macauley, Lanning 92). Kingston, in her autobiography, is an embodiment of this accomplishment. When we first contact Kingston, she is a shy, voiceless girl who is constantly haunted by her mother’s talk stories. After hearing a story about a defective infant Kingston “woke at night…[and] sometimes heard an infant’s grunting and weeping coming from the bathroom” (86). However, as Kingston begins to talk at the “American school” and tries to fit in as much as possible in the American society, she develops anger. She becomes a rebellious teenager (167). There are two scenic episodes in which the reader can clearly see how much that voiceless girl has changed.
The first of which is when Kingston tortures the “sissy-girl” at her school (175). Alone in a bathroom, Kingston squeezed and pinched her cheek, “pulled the hair at her temples, pulled the tear out of her eyes,” all to get her to talk (178). This scene emphasizes and illustrates the anger Kingston was building up inside. This anger led to another, almost climactic scene of Kingston lashing out at her mother. Out of nowhere, Kingston’s “throat burst open,” screaming, “I’m going away. I’m going away anyway. I am. Do you hear me?” (201). In both these scenes, the “Speech” and Kingston’s “’ Behavior Towards Others” are used as “conventional way of characterization” (Macauley, Lanning 93). Lastly, towards the end of the book, Kingston shows a mature side of her, one that has found a voice in writing and can reflect on her past. Kingston writes, “here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also am a story-talker. The beginning is hers, the ending, mine.” (206). In this quotation, it is evident to the reader that Kingston has changed and is now taking pride in also being a story-talker.
Unusually, an autobiography written by Kingston is so dominated by her mother’s talk stories and experiences. However, this provides us with another complex character that evolves during the course of the book. The readers see Brave Orchid’s personality mostly through the eyes of Kingston. Thus it would make sense that as Kingston’s herself changes, the reader will see Brave Orchid in a new light. Kingston presents her mother as a brave, strong and hard woman, the living example of a woman warrior. However, as shown through Brave Orchid’s attitude, she can be cruel and unaffectionate. Brave Orchid loathes that “during the war…many people gave older girls away for free” and “here I [Brave Orchid] was in the United States paying two hundred dollars for you” (83). However, when Kingston is an adult and visits her mother, we are shocked to see whole different women. Brave Orchid sits by Kingston’s bed and says, “how can I bear to have you leave me again?” (100).
Kinston observes that her mother’s “varicose veins stood out” on her legs. This newly painted picture of Brave Orchids details a weak, vulnerable and lonely woman not seen in the book. While leaving, she calls Kingston “Little Dog,” a “name to fool the gods” (109). This shows the love Brave Orchid truly has for her “first daughter” (109). The reader watches the personalities and characters of Kingston and her mother grow and change as they are gradually shown to the reader. Kinston truly “produces a many-sided character whom we get to know encounter after encounter,” which is emerging, “being changed by the events of life” (Macauley, Lanning 92). These characters are “more than a great technical feat” but also “the center of the art” in a novel” (Macauley, Lanning 92).
Kingston’s Beginning in The Woman Warrior. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a common idiom known to anyone acquainted with the English language. This metaphorical phrase can be applied to almost anything, but readers generally judge its contents through the first few pages when picking up a novel. If the beginning of a book appears dull or irrelevant, more times than not, the reader will not finish the book cover to cover. For an author to succeed, he must “hook” their “fishlike readers” right from the outset (Macauley, Lanning 22). However, the beginning must also be relevant to the novel itself and not only be there for the sole purpose of capturing the readers’ attention. Kingston can grasp her reader’s eyes while still making her beginning meaningful by presenting themes that echo through her memoirs.
Kingston, straight out of the outset, uses a technique that guarantees her success in grabbing her readers, that technique being “in media res” (Macauley, Lanning 31). This means to begin one’s story “in the middle of things,” which Kingston does in the telling of the “No Name Warrior” (Macauley, Lanning 31). In the first few pages, the reader is presented with a dramatic story shrouded in mystery. Kingston writes, “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said” (3). This adds an element of secrecy to the talk story Kingston’s mother is relaying. Since Kingston herself is not given all the details surrounding the incident in which her aunt, who has “never been born,” jumps in a well with her child, neither is the reader. This keeping the reader at bay, guessing, jumping to conclusions and anticipating circumstances leading up to the fatality. The atmosphere created by this talk story leaves the reader gripping the book and looking for answers.
Kingston’s dramatic story also is relevant and has significance to the autobiography as a whole. Technique in Fiction warns that a “writer must discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes fairly irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story” (Macauley, Lanning 22). Kingston’s beginning the latter is that many themes presented in the talk story are present and constantly reappearing throughout the autobiography. One visibly present theme is the position, role, and use of women in traditional Chinese society. This theme is introduced when Kingston’s non-existent aunt kills herself and her child; Kingston comments that the infant is “probably is a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys (15). This theme is forever looming in Kingston’s life; for example, when her mother resents paying for Kingston’s birth, when numerous characters call her and the other Chinese-American girls useless, and when Kingston thinks that her parents will marry her off as a solution. Another theme is brought up in the very first sentence, in which Kingston’s mother tells her no to tell anybody about what she is about to say.
This theme of secrecy and silence has a deep impact on Kingston’s life. She was often told to “lie to Americans” and to “tell them we have no crimes and no poverty” (185). The silence also affects Kingston at school, in which she has to voice to talk. She says, “my silence was thickest” and that she “spoke to no one at school” (165). These factors influenced her to the point where she flunked kindergarten and recorded an IQ score of zero. Nevertheless, Kingston successfully creates a beginning that is both meaningful and one that will clench the readers’ attention. She uses the age-old and trustworthy “in media res” technique that puts the reader in an enticing talk story, one of many to come. Within the talk, the story echoes those themes that glare at readers as they read. One is sure that Kingston’s book of memoirs is always read from cover to cover.