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Shakespeare's Sister," and Maxine Hong Kingston's story, "No Name Woman," reveal the theme of silencing women within literature, resurrection by the female author, while the lives of the authors' provide a dramatic contrast to the suppression of women depicted in their works. Ultimately, female writers like Hong Kingston are the fulfillment of Woolf's dream for Shakespeare's sister, and represent the death of the tradition of silencing women's voices within the Western world.
The Silencing of Women Depicted in Woolf and Hong Kingston
Woolf's essay, "Shakespeare's Sister" is a clear portrait of the silencing of women by larger society. Within "Shakespeare's Sister," Virginia Woolf describes the fictional life of Judith, the sister of Shakespeare. She begins this analysis by noting the lack of women's presence in either history books or within literature. Writes Woolf, "what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century." She goes on to consider the role of women in that period of time, their subservience to the men in their lives, and the silencing of women's voices, and goes on to declare, "it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare."
In large part, Woolf attributes the lack of women's presence within literature to the silencing of women's voices. In musing on the lack of a work by Judith, Woolf notes that anonymity was central to women's place in the world. Writes Woolf, "undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned. That refuge she would have sought certainly. It was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century. "
No Name Woman" by Maxine Hong Kingston also reveals the silencing women by the larger world. Set within the 20th century, Kingston's story tells of the shaming and silencing of a Chinese woman (the aunt) who becomes pregnant by a man who is not her husband. To Ling, No Name Woman is the "cautionary tale of woman as victim."
In Hong Kingston's story, the aunt is silenced not so much by the overt actions of her family and friends. Writes Hong Kingston, "The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family's deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death."
In both "No Name Woman" and "Shakespeare's Sister" women are silenced not by society as a whole, but by the actions of their family and loved ones. The aunt in "No Name Woman" is silenced by the shunning of her family. Similarly, Judith is constrained by her family. Writes Woolf, "She (Judith) cried out that the marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father." The women in these stories are often unthinking in their obedience, and virtually powerless to resist. Writes Kingston of the aunt's sexual relations with the man who impregnated her, "She obeyed him; she always did as she was told." Woolf also notes Judith's obedience to her father's demands.
Resurrection by the Female Author
Woolf's "Shakespeare's Sister" and Hong Kingston's "No Name Woman" both use the literary device of the resurrection of the "disappeared" woman. In "Shakespeare's Sister," Woolf deliberately recreates the fictional life of Judith, the sister of famed playwright William Shakespeare. Woolf's recreation of Judith's life is detailed and aimed at getting the reader to understand why Judith disappeared from history. From the beginning, Judith, though talented and imaginative does not have the resources of her brother. Writes Woolf, "she (Judith) was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil." Later, Judith disobeys her father and goes to London in the hope of joining the theatre, where she meets terrible resistance. Woolf writes, "She (Judith) stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager - a fat, loose-lipped man - guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting - no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted - you can imagine what." Woolf's tale of the "disappeared" Judith ends tragically, who "killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses stop outside the Elephant and Castle!"
Within "No Name Woman," Maxine Hong Kingston also depicts the resurrection of the "disappeared" woman. The narrator, a young Chinese-American woman, tells the story of her aunt, who was ostracized by her family for the crime of giving birth to an illegitimate child. Ling notes, "The author... breaks the family silence by writing about this rebel whom she calls 'my forebear'."
In Kingston's story, the narrator has participated in the silencing of her aunt, causing her aunt to "disappear." Kingston writes, "there is more to this silence: they want me to participate in her punishment. And I have. In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt's name; 1 do not know it." Yet the narrator breaks this silence, and causes the story of the "disappeared" aunt to once again be told. Writes Hong Kingston, "My aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her"
Interestingly, the stories of the "disappeared" women in both "Shakespeare's Sister" and "No Name Woman" end in tragedy. Both women die of suicide, victims of the silencing of their lives and stories. The aunt in "No Name Woman" even goes farther to "haunt" the niece who dares tell her story. Writes Hong Kingston, "I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water."
Hong Kingston, Woolf, and Women in Literature comparison between the lives and opportunities of Shakespeare's sister and Woolf herself, and between the aunt in "No Name Woman" and Maxine Hong Kingston reveals a great deal about the ongoing struggle for women's recognition in literature. Hong Kingston's work emerges from the women's liberation movement, and shows Hong Kingston to be a woman whose voice is recognized and heard. In contrast, the aunt in "No Name Woman" is easily silenced by the misogynist Chinese society, revealing the profound difference in women's roles in the two eras. Similarly, Virginia Woolf was one of the most influential women writers of the early 1900s, and the popularity of her work parallels the real emergence of women's voices in the literary world in force. In contrast, Shakespeare's sister, Judith, is a woman whose voice is silenced even before it has a chance to develop.
No Name Women was the first section of Maxine Hong Kingston's first book, titled The Woman Warrior, published in 1976. Understanding "No Name Woman" in the larger context of the Woman Warrior is important in revealing the relationship between the aunt in No Name Woman and Maxine Hong Kingston herself. The aunt in No Name Woman is depicted as the victim of larger forces, and yet the following story, "White Tigers" woman is seen as the victor and a model to emulate. Notes Ling, "This pattern, woman as victim then victor, is repeated through-out the text." In many instances, Hong Kingston turns what are traditionally viewed as misogynist practices in their head by turning them. Notes Ling, "Kingston inverts historical misogynist Chinese practices, such as foot binding and female infanticide, by claiming that perhaps women's feet were bound because women were so strong. Victory over handicaps, over racial and sexual devaluation is Kingston's purpose."
In short, Maxine Hong Kingston's ability to transform misogynist myth into a powerful message reveals her as a strong and powerful figure, almost diametrically opposed to the suppressed and victimized aunt in "No Name Woman." Notes Ling, "The Woman Warrior is decidedly a product of the sixties, of the civil rights and women's liberation movements." As such, the writing of Hong Kingston herself reveals a great deal about the changing roles of women in the larger world. While the aunt in "No Name Woman" is captive and easily silenced, Hong Kingston's novel reveals Hong Kingston herself to be a powerful literary figure that is not so easily silenced.
A comparison between the life of Judith and Woolf herself tells us a great deal about the ongoing struggle for women's recognition in literature. Written by Virginia Woolf in 1929, "Shakespeare's Sister" was penned barely after the United States itself passed the 19th amendment, which allowed women to vote. "Shakespeare's Sister" itself was part of the larger essay, a Room of One's Own, where Woolf argued that female writers required liberty and equality to create great work. Equality for women in education and opportunity was a long way away, even in 1929. Despite…[continue]
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