Memories in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior”

It is important to acknowledge that the past and the present can coexist in a single work to remarkable effect. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior”, memories are so closely associated with the present and with legends that it becomes difficult to distinguish reality from fiction; indeed, the subtitle of Kingston’s work is “Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts”, implying that the author did not intend for one to make such distinctions. Kingston does this in order to suspend the reader’s disbelief just long enough to supply credibility to her own thoughts.

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In the poetry of Sylvia Plath, however, the past and the present commingle with a far less overt purpose. Although readers do not doubt Plath’s thoughts, they may question her motives. Some of her poetry is written in the present tense, some take place in the past, and still, others jump from one tense to the other. Though it may appear that Kingston’s and Plath’s dramatically different writing styles command equally opposing results, their usage of memory to explain present events is strikingly similar. In both Kingston’s and Plath’s work, memories integrated with present events help to bridge the gap two different ways of life, urging readers to consider whether or not the two ways can coexist at one time.

In “Woman Warrior”, Kingston begins most chapters with a memory of her mother telling a story. The chapter begins by flashing back to the past, but by following the story, we are brought to the present day. Through this simple formula, the reader is able to connect the Chinese way of life and the American way of life that the author spent her entire childhood attempting to reconcile. For example, Kingston tells the Chinese legend of how white crane boxing was invented by a woman who was taught by the spirit of the crane. This precedes the tale of a girl living in the mountains (told in the first-person narrative, as a memory), where she is taught to be a woman warrior. Kingston finishes off this chapter by offering memories of the years she spent at Berkeley during the Vietnam conflict. While the movement from one tale to the next appears deceptively simple, the transition that Kingston is, in fact, trying to relate is far more strenuous: the movement from the traditional Chinese culture to the more modern perspective of the Chinese-American.

Kingston also utilizes memory to inform the reader of the stark differences between the Chinese and the American ways of life. Rather than simply inserting tidbits of Chinese culture into the narrative, she uses talk-stories and memories to reveal the contrasts. In the story of Brave Orchid and her sister Moon Orchid, one sister talks to another about her husband’s second wife’s sons: “He’s got, two sons. You have two sons. You take them away from her. You become their mother” (Kingston 125). The assumption that one can take another’s children is offset several pages later when the attempt is half-heartedly made. The result is insanity – Kingston is subtly conveying to the reader the difficulty of abruptly meshing two disparate cultures. The transition takes place over the course of her entire girlhood. There are a great many places in “Woman Warrior” where Kingston uses this method to educate the reader about traditional Chinese culture; in fact, the contrast between Chinese culture and American culture is found in every story and every memory.

Plath’s transition is a bit more complicated. She struggles to come to terms with many issues; among them, how to live following the death of her father. Many of her poems deal with this struggle: “Electra on Azalea Path”, for example, reveals how she felt when her father died, how she coped with the aftermath, and how she continues to live with the effects of his passing. The complexity is remarkable, as she combines tenses and mingles memories throughout the work:

Another kind of redness bothers me:

  • The day your slack sail drank my sister’s breath
  • The flat see purpled like that evil cloth
  • My mother unrolled at your last homecoming

Plath begins with the present tense, noting what bothers her now, and flashes back to the event that caused this discomfort. Within that memory of her father’s “sail” and her sister, she incorporates another memory, this one of her mother; it is clear that many elements of her past play a role in how she feels at present. It is, in fact, this very complexity that allows for such an in-depth understanding. Because she is able to reflect upon her memories, Plath gains a deeper insight into what plagues her.

In her poem “Daddy,” Plath recalls numerous moments with her father, and how she attempted to “get back, back, back to [him]” (Plath 193), after his death through her own suicide. Now, in the throes of her negative memories, she realizes that she is ready to move on with her life; indeed, that she can. It appears as if only now can she come to grips with her past; years after his death, she is finally able to say, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath 194). Kingston uses memory to relay to the reader how she passed from the traditional Chinese way of life to the Chinese-American way of life, and Plath uses memory for a similar purpose: to pass from a harmful childhood spent dealing with “daddy” into the present, where she is finally able to move on.

An important reason for the use of memory in a text is to reveal how what has happened in the past molds who one is in the present. Plath does an excellent job of conveying this idea in the poem “The Disquieting Muses”. In this wonderfully descriptive poem, Plath accuses her mother of not protecting her sanity as a child by speaking of three ladies that have followed her from infancy, hovering to the left of her crib. She recalls bedtime stories that were of no comfort, chanting, and Ovaltine that was not strong enough to keep the three eerie ladies at bay. She remembers when the three “aunts” began to replace her mother’s maternal duties; they taught her to dance, and to play the piano as they did, woodenly and emptily. “I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere, / From muses unhired by you, dear mother” (Plath 55). At the conclusion of the poem, set in the present, Plath has become one of them: faceless, unable even to frown to show her presence.

While the idea is simple, the effect of memory is imperative to the theme of both Plath’s work and Kingston’s. Kingston’s entire text, in fact, is a collection of memories that explain to the reader how she has become her present-day self. It is a compilation of remembered events, legends, talk-stories, people, and dreams; when the narrator’s mother cuts her frenum (Kingston 164), it changes who she will become. When she screams at her schoolmate for being silent and gets sick for the following eighteen months (Kingston 176), it alters her future. In reflecting on these memories, Kingston enables the reader to see how she has been shaped and changed by each past event, just as Plath was.

Another integral reason for the use of memory in each woman’s work is to create a sense of carefully-constructed chaos. Kingston jumps from memory to story, from present to past: at some times we are outsiders, hearing the story through the author’s mother, at other times we hear the author’s own words, and at still other times we witness the author living out her own stories and legends, such as in the case of the warrior woman. This chaotic effect is important because Kingston herself felt a sense of identity confusion while growing up. She was unsure of whether she was or wanted to be either Chinese or Chinese-American. In elementary school, she told her teacher that “‘We Chinese can’t sing “land where our fathers died”. “She argued with me about politics, while I meant because of curses” (Kingston 167). The conflict between the two cultures was so strong that Kingston often felt unsure of what to do. She wanted to be American-pretty as a child but opted for Chinese-sisterly because it was easier. By scattering about the memories within the reality and dispersing the fiction, Kingston cleverly helps the reader to understand the confusion she felt while growing up.

Plath felt a similar identity confusion. She questioned who she was on the outside, who she was on the inside, and who she saw in herself. The poem “Mirror” reflects how Plath views self- image: in a mirror, which can tell no lies, there has “drowned a young girl… an old woman / Rises” (Plath 122). Plath conveys our reliance on mirrors and the resultant reliance on self- image. Here, the self-image directly influences how one acts. The woman looking into the mirror responds with “tears and an agitation of hands” (Plath 122). This poem is written in the present tense; there are no memories interfering with how she feels at that moment.

In her poem “In Plaster” Plath is similarly conflicted; “There are two of me now: / This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one” (Plath 110). She begins the poem by remembering the arrival of the newer version of herself, and how she could not understand it but grew to patronize it and even like it. When the newer version began to take over, Plath becomes contemptible, but still cannot control it. She says that she “still depended on her, though [she] did it regretfully” (Plath 112). Both Kingston and Plath eventually come to grips with their identities – perhaps not with who they are, but with who they want to become. Plath writes determinedly about the new, white, controlling version of herself. “I’m collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her, / And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me” (Plath 112). She realizes that she wants to be who she was, the colorful one that is now hidden by plaster. Likewise, Kingston announces at the end of her text what she has set out to become. She bursts into dinner one evening and shouts at her parents, the controlling factors in her life: “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” (Kingston 201). Both women are resolute in their decisions, and each of them has made their way to this resoluteness by wading through a river of troubling memories.

Memory plays an imperative role in both Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. In both works, memory serves to bridge gaps between important life transitions, show changes in the writers’ personalities, and portray the emotions of the writers through their placement. These works are fraught with the past and colored by the authors’ interpretations of past events. They are filled with the memories of lessons taught and lessons learned, of what was expected and what was received. It is the placement of these memories in the texts that make the works so crisp and so revealing to the reader.

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