Posted: March 18th, 2023
Maxine Hong Kingston’s short story “No Name Woman” approaches the silencing of women and the potential for their expression in younger generations through the story of the narrator’s unnamed, possibly fictional aunt. In particular, the story highlights the way in which women can actually work to reinforce the social standards which keep them silenced and relatively powerless, because the narrator’s mother uses the story of the nameless aunt in order to scare the narrator into hewing more closely to cultural norms. However, the narrator is critical enough to see through this ideological imposition, and works to undermine not only her mother’s method of control through fear but also the underlying societal assumptions which motivates her mother in the first place. By examining the motivations of the narrator’s mother in conjunction with the critical perspective of the narrator, one is able to see how breaking the silence of women’s voices necessarily stems from confronting those women actively engaged in maintaining that silence.
The narrator identifies her mother’s goal in telling the story of her nameless aunt immediately after it concludes when she notes that “the emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names,” and thus “must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways — always trying to get things straight, always to name the unspeakable” (Kingston 5). Because “those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America,” emigrants are necessarily confronted by the children regarding the social structures and norms transferred from one country to another (Kingston 5). In the act of trying “to understand what things in you are Chinese,” the narrator implicitly criticizes any and all preexisting standards of behavior and thought given to her by her parents because there is no way to accurately understand the different elements of her identity (Kingston 5). This presents a conflict between “those carrying traditional female social roles [and] those whose experience and values have been shaped by the new possibilities [â€¦] of the late twentieth century” (Machin 110). The former group represents an attempt to maintain preexisting social standards not by arguing for the logical validity of those standards, but rather by precluding any criticism of them. Thus, the purpose of her mother’s story is not only to instill a sense of fear regarding sexual relationships outside the strict boundaries dictated by traditional society, but also to preclude any questioning of those boundaries.
This is why the narrator’s mother begins and ends the story of the nameless aunt by telling the narrator that she “must not tell anyone,” and especially must not “let [her[ father know that” she told her (Kingston 1, 5). While this entreaty is obviously born out of a sense of propriety and a dedication to the social standards which condemned the aunt in the first place, its most important function is to preclude questioning or investigation, because the narrator is supposed to take it as truth without any opportunity for finding corroborating evidence. This is why she is especially forbidden from discussing it with her father, because he would be the one best suited to reveal whether or not he actually had a sister.
In a sense, the narrator’s mother is “succeeding” where the nameless aunt failed, because the narrator notes that her aunt’s parents “expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection” (Kingston 8). The lie which serves to justify this requirement for women to maintain traditional standards of behavior is based on a claim towards “assign[ing] to women an ethical high ground” by pretending that women represent something more essentially “pure” than men, and thus must work extra hard at remaining pure, whether sexually or culturally (Smith & Watson 30).
This assumption that the aunt would be the one solely responsible for maintaining the traditional ways is merely a specific example of the phenomenon present in nearly all patriarchal societies, in which men are generally not expected to conform to the same set of rules applied to women, especially in regards to sexual promiscuity and fidelity. The narrator recognizes this double standard when she wonders about the man who impregnated her aunt, asking “whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family” (Kingston 7). Although the claim was that “the heavy, deep-rooter women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning,” in reality this assumption that the women would maintain the traditional standards while the men explored the world is merely a continuation of unspoken traditional standards of behavior for men and women, standards that ultimately serve to control and disempower women (Kingston 8).
Where the narrator’s aunt ultimately fails in maintaining these traditional ways by becoming pregnant, her mother succeeds (at least partially) by attempting to maintain these traditions by imposing them on her daughter in the form of stories “to grow up on” (Kingston 5). This demonstrates one of the crucial observations of the story, because it reveals the way in women often serve to silence their own voices far more effectively than men by internalizing patriarchal assumptions and delivering them to the next generation in the form of “motherly advice.” This is not to lay the blame for the historical and ongoing oppression of women on women in general, but rather to acknowledge that this oppression would be largely impossible without the acquiescence of female authority figures. Specifically, the story seems to suggest that the role women play in silencing women’s voices is not through the prescription of laws and explicit standards of behavior (a duty often reserved for men in patriarchal societies, something revealed simply by looking at the disproportionate representation of men in many contemporary legislatures), but rather through a secondary form of control that serves to make the questioning of these laws and standards taboo. This may be seen more clearly when one considers the punishment meted out on the narrator’s aunt.
While the raid on the house and the destruction of the family’s property and livestock may be seen as the patriarchal, explicit punishment meted out for the breaking of strict social boundaries, “Maxine’s mother makes it clear that the aunt’s greatest punishment is not the raid but her ‘family’s deliberately forgetting her'” (Petit 482, Kingston 16). The physical punishment, though “economically and brutally [reducing] the aunt to a set of perpetually unfulfilled desires” by punishing her sexual desire with a subsequent desire for the destroyed food and livestock, pales in comparison to the almost eternal punishment in the form of erasing the aunt from memory and thought, a punishment only possible if the other women agree to reduce her to a cautionary tale (Outka 453). Of course, this eternal punishment is metaphorically discussed in the same terms as the physical punishment, because “always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg for food from other ghosts,” but this only serves to reinforce the fact that the intentional disavowal of the aunt is the true punishment (Kingston 16). This is why the narrator notes that “if my aunt had betrayed the family at a time of large grain yields and peace, when many boys were born, and wings were being built on many houses, perhaps she might have escaped such severe punishment” from the men, she nonetheless would have been ostracized and eternally punished, because “instead of letting them start separate new lives like the Japanese, who could become samurais and geishas, the Chinese family, faces averted by eyes glowering sideways, hung on to the offenders and fed them leftovers” (Kingston 13, 8).
The narrator very clearly realizes the role women play in silencing other women’s voices, because she feels guilt at having participated in the punishment of her aunt (and even if the aunt never existed except for in her mother’s story, it nonetheless contributes to the larger oppression of women). The narrator initially believes that “[her] family, having settled among immigrants who had also been their neighbors in the ancestral land, needed to clean their name, and a wrong word would incite the kinspeople even here,” but she gradually realizes that “there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have” (Kingston 15-16). The narrator seeks to rectify her complicity in her aunt’s punishment so that “after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes” (Kingston 17). Recognizing that the silencing of women’s voices and desires may only successfully progress with the complicity of other women, the narrator seeks to finally give her aunt a means of expression through the telling of her story, a story that according to the narrator’s mother must never be told.
The critical work done by the narrator of the story cannot be understated, because her decision to tell her aunt’s story represents a twofold challenge to the power structure which serves to subvert women’s desire and preclude them from expressing independent thought or asserting power. Firstly, telling the aunt’s story is a direct challenge to her mother and the entire social structure which demands that the aunt be simultaneously forgotten and despised, because the narrator finally refuses to remain complicit in the subjugation of women through silence. However, this refusal does not just confront the dominant power structure, but artfully reveals the means by which it asserts that power, so that the narrator’s resistance becomes all the more effective. By recognizing women’s complicity in the subjugation of female expression, the narrator reveals one of the most effective means by which the leaders of a patriarchal society reinforce their power and dominance. Thus, the story of the aunt becomes a kind of implicit critical theory which serves to define the hidden avenues of patriarchal control, which is ultimately the first step towards disrupting and destroying those avenues.
Physical resistance is relatively easy compared to the critical dismantling of the hidden structures of power, and indeed, the aunt’s suicide may be seen as an example of physical resistance, as “she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water” and thus depriving her family and the villagers of the same kind of physical sustenance denied her through the raid. However, this physical resistance may only go so far, because it does nothing to actually dismantle the power structure it is oriented against, such that the aunt’s resistance is easily forgotten and her memory discarded. In fact, one may view the aunt’s suicide and its relative ineffectiveness in motivating change as a perfect example of the need to critically evaluate given standards of behavior and thought, because only then can physical resistance be directed towards the most crucial targets. This is why the narrator repeatedly makes mention of the traditional means of honoring the dead and compares them to her own physical act of writing; the narrator’s physical resistance to the dominant power structure in the act of writing is far more effective in challenging that power structure than the aunt’s suicide, because it is informed by a critical perspective on that power structure born out of the narrator’s need to understand her own identity as the American child of Chinese immigrants.
In “No Name Woman,” Maxine Hong Kingston uses the story of her nameless aunt in order to confront the means by which women’s voices are silenced, and specifically the way in which women often work to silence other women through the uncritical reinforcement of traditional standards of behavior and thought. Recognizing her own complicity in this repression of women through her silence regarding her nameless aunt, the narrator seeks to identify and confront this repression by breaking her silence, finally giving some small portion of expression to a woman who was condemned for having her own desires and thoughts while simultaneously confronting the very means by which that condemnation was conducted and sustained even after her death.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. Vintage International Ed. New York: Random
Manchin, Linda. Ed. Women ageing: changing identities, challenging myths. New York:
Routledge, 2000. Print.
Outka, Paul. “Publish Or Perish: Food, Hunger, and Self-Construction in Maxine Hong
Kingston’s the Woman Warrior.” Contemporary Literature 38.3 (1997): 447-82.
Petit, Angela. “Words so Strong”: Maxine Hong Kingston’s “no Name Woman” Introduces
Students to the Power of Words.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46.6 (2003):
Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Women, autobiography, theory: a reader. Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
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