Rebellion in “No Name Woman” by Maxine Kingston Essay
Updated: Aug 9th, 2020
The story of a woman with no name is supposed to be kept secret; the very fact that this story is related in a published memoir is a rebellious act. A powerful beginning, the “No Name Woman” mocks all attempts to silence the voices of women who rebelled – either passively or actively – against the sadistic patriarchal Chinese society of the 1930s that subjugated them. Rethinking and remastering her mother’s talk-stories, the author bears witness to the oppression of women’s bodies, minds, and spirits that they managed to withstand.
Bodily oppression is probably the easiest and most obvious means of subjugation a society can practice, yet the author portrays a brave and self-defying response from the No Name Woman. As a woman reconsidering the story of her aunt, she creates fantasies depicting whatever could possibly happen to her aunt, what she had suffered for and why. In one such fantasy, the author is creating an image of rape: “The other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders…” (Kingston 26). Such imagery and the wording serves to represent the lack of control over their bodies which were regarded as sources of physical pleasure and machines for producing children. The uncontrollability is also evident in other fantasies where the woman is in pain from labor, starvation or beatings. However, in a more optimistic fantasy involving the unnamed woman’s affair, she follows her bodily passion – an act of rebellion wherein she rejects the societal control and dispenses with her body as she chooses to.
If bodily control brings physical pain, the oppression of the mind brings angst, insecurity, and humiliation, which makes it another effective means of subjugation women had to experience. Women were in the state of constant surveillance, which is a scary truth best illustrated by a short yet agoraphobic phrase: “Villagers are watchful” (Kingston 24). A parallel with the notorious Big Brother can be easily drawn here, as can be the dystopian expectations and obligations Chinese society imposed on women as workers – and little else. Doing what was expected of them, women knew that a single wrong step would be noticed at once by the watchdog villagers, and that would mean inevitable disgrace. Following one’s feelings as the author’s aunt did was an abomination, especially if it involved adultery. Yet, the nameless fantasy aunt not only follows her feelings, she also decorates herself to appear attractive to the one she supposedly loves in a society where most women looked like “great sea-snails” (Kingston 27). If anything, it is a barefaced mockery of the standards of a society where women are shamed for wanting to be beautiful.
After her body and mind were so atrociously broken, the No Name Woman has little to rely on but her spirit of a human being standing alone against the evil. By taking control of their bodies and squeezing them into the frames of faulty expectations, the society was trying to pump the idea of their uselessness into women’s heads – and thus take over their willpower, as the following illustrates: “To be a woman, to have a daughter in starvation time was a waste enough” (Kingston 25). It can be argued that by taking her own and her child’s lives the woman was trying to escape the disgrace and further punishment, which makes it a display of weakness. This, however, is not the case as the act of ending one’s life is something that takes much courage. At that, her suicide is the last and probably the most powerful rebellious act, the climax of her misery and the evidence of her might. Realizing that she was doomed as well as her child (who possible turned out to be a daughter), she showed the world and the stagnant society that she was, after all, the one in control.
A story within a story, the memoir speculates on the issue of subjugation and rebellion – which, as it were, turns out to be a success in the long run. Indeed, the logical conclusion to the No Name Woman’s life would be complete forgetfulness, as her relatives hoped. The author’s mother, on the other hand, regarded her experience as a tell-tale warning against disgraceful behaviors. Still, the message that a girl and further – a woman gets from her aunt’s story is quite the opposite to what was intended: “Attraction eludes control so stubbornly that whole societies designed to organize relationships among people cannot keep order” (Kingston 28). Seeing the inconsistency of the oppressive society’s ways, the author admires her forerunner’s courage and regards her rebellion as a pattern to follow rather than a scarecrow to shun.
Half a century had to pass before the No Name Woman’s story was told. The author muses that she is the only one tending to that ghost of a woman. Yet, dead and broken as she might be, she lived a life of a rebel whose courage and willpower was invincible even with the whole world against her.
Kingston, Maxine. “No Name Woman.” The Blair Reader: Exploring Issues and Ideas. Eds.
Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Eighth edition. New York: Pearson, 2011. 23-33. Print.
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