GHOSTS, THE HAUNTING PAST AND PRESENT IN MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’S THE WOMAN WARRIOR AND TONI MORRISON’S BELOVED

Not many people want to see ghost, but ironically like to tell ghost stories over and over again. Terrible memories of the past are just like ghost stories, we do not want them to happen, but keep remembering and retell them throughout the present life. This irruption of past into the present is one common theme we can trace in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In these two works, the ghosts of the past entrap the characters’ present life and give them hard times before they can free themselves to enter the future.

The Woman Warrior consists of stories full of ghosts throughout the entire work. The ghosts can be divided into two sets. The first set of ghosts belongs to Chinese legends, folktales and nostalgic events of family life. As early as the first part entitled “No Name Woman”, we have been introduced to the narrator’s aunt who belongs to the invisible world like the world of ghost. The narrator’s mother keeps reminding her, “Don’t tell anybody, what I am about to tell you” (3). As the title suggests, the aunt will not bear any name due to her suspected adultery. She drowns herself and takes the baby with her because she sees no better choice but to commit suicide because her adulterous affair and the baby girl will not be forgiven by her male-dominated society. The narrator recalls the memory about the aunt, who might have been aware of the cloudy future that her child will face. To her, there would be no hope for her child with a “no name” mother, as she would bear no name either. The narrator imagines what her aunt may have thought: “But how would this tiny child without family find her grave when there would be no marker for her anywhere, neither in the earth nor the family hall? …A child with no decent line would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike, begging to give it purpose” (15). Thus, both the aunt and the baby remain as ghosts bearing no names. The narrator knows that “the Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute” (16). As the narrator is forever haunted by her aunt, so is her life which is entangled with the Chinese past, while trying very hard not to be a ghost to substitute her ghost aunt.

The stories of the aunt, Fa Mu Lan, the Sitting Ghost, and other demons of Chinese legend are repeatedly told by the narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid. In the third section, “Shaman”, Brave Orchid bravely fights against the Sitting Ghost. Alone in the haunted room of her medical school, Brave Orchid speaks to the ghost, “I do not give in…There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure. You’re wrong if you think I’m afraid of you. You’re no mystery to me…You kill babies, you cowards. You have no power over a strong woman. You are no more dangerous than a nesting cat” (70). Later, with her medical friends, Brave Orchid conducts a ritual to get rid of the Sitting Ghosts. Brave Orchid chants, “We told you, Ghost, that we would come after you…and we are winning. Run, Ghost, run from this school. Only good medical people belong here. Go back, dark creature, to your native country” (75). This suggests that Brave Orchid understands that a woman should be strong to win the battle with ghosts. This belief in courage also lays the foundation of the way she brings us her children to be strong people as they live in America, the ghost country, as she calls it.

Meanwhile, there is another set of ghosts which have to be encountered in their everyday American life. To the narrator, “America has been full of machines and ghosts-Taxi Ghost, Bust Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts,…One upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (97). To them, the American people they meet everyday are as invisible and therefore mysterious as the ghosts in the Chinese past. While her mother succeeded in her battle against the Sitting ghost, the narrator is frustrated to fight against the present ghost. She has been fed by the invisible world of ghosts, repeatedly told by her mother not tell anybody, so that she grows accustomed with the ghost of silence. Trapped between the past and the present, Chinese tradition and American culture, the narrator has a hard time making herself visible and audible, as she is already a half-ghost to her mother.  Being an American-born Chinese, it is like crossing a bridge of two cultures she is not familiar with but cannot help but being a part of both. The narrator attributes an identity to herself through the modulation of voice: “Normal Chinese women’s voices are strong and bossy. We American-Chinese girls had to whisper to make ourselves American-feminine. Apparently we whispered even more softly than the Americans” (172). She even hates “the ghosts for not letting (them) talk” (183).

Courage is what it takes to fight against the ghost. In contrast to her mother’s expectation of her becoming a slave or a wife, the narrator wants to be a woman warrior like Fa Mu Lan. In the last part of The Woman Warrior, “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe”, the narrator dares to confront her mother for confusing her with Chinese ghost stories, myths, and legends. She screams as her throat bursts open:

…I can do ghost things even better than ghosts can…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. I can’t stand living here anymore. It’s your fault I talk weird…I’m going     to get scholarships, and I’m going away…And I don’t want to listen to any more    of your stories; they have no logic (201-2).

Although this confrontation is painful to Brave Orchid, the narrator manages to move away from the family. Only at this point does the ghost of silence disappear. She tells herself, “I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation…Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghost” (204). Through painful mother/daughter relationship which somehow reflects that of love and hate, she eventually tells her mother that she has found “some places in this country that are ghost-free” and it’s where she belongs (108). The narrator grows to be a woman as strong as her mother and finally wins the ghost battle, and she admits now, “I am really a Dragon, as she is a Dragon, both us born in dragon years” (109). Starting as a girl struggling to speak out, now she has become an outspoken woman.

While different sets of ghosts represent the past and the present in The Woman Warrior, the ghosts of past and present are united into one being in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This is a story of an ex-slavewoman, Sethe, who succeeded in escaping from slavery but had to kill her baby girl. Sethe sees no other reason why she has to cut her baby’s throat. To her, this crime is justified to save her baby from a worse fate. In other words, only death can give freedom when someone like her has to face the institution of slavery. In addition, Sethe’s mother has done the same thing for the same reason to her children, leaving Sethe as the only one alive. Sethe’s grandmother tells her, “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them (62). Yet, this brings Sethe to a never-ending haunted life. They have to live in a house which has been haunted for so many years, isolating them from the community, and making Denver suffer from it. As Paul D enters her mother’s life, Denver bursts out,” I can’t live here. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I can’t live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don’t like me. Girls don’t either” (14).

The ghost that has haunted Sethe and Denver for years may symbolize the guilty feeling Sethe has. Yet, Sethe has no intention to move, as she says to Paul D, “No moving. No leaving. It’s all right the way it is” (15). Her reluctance to move may suggest that while she feels so much intruded, she cannot escape from the past. Meanwhile, Denver, who belongs to the present, is pulled to her mother’s past. When she was seven, Denver chose not to ask for an explanation why her mother killed the baby. This suggests that she cannot escape from the past’s dwelling in her mother. Trapped between her love for and fear of her mother, Denver is victimized for not being able to proceed to the future.

Then there is a teenage girl, Beloved, who comes out of nowhere. Beloved may represent the incarnation of the ghost, which intrudes upon Sethe’s present life. She is the living presence of both Sethe’s love for her children that she could never wholly feel as a slave, and also the guilt she feels for the act of infanticide. Denver is the one who recognizes Beloved as the incarnation of the ghost that has haunted 124 when Beloved tells her, “She (Sethe) left me behind. By myself…She is the one I need. You can go but she is the one I have to have…I belong here” (75-6). Denver feels that Beloved “was (her) secret company until Paul D came” (205). Meanwhile, Sethe also sees in Beloved her reborn baby girl whom she killed and never wants to lose again. Sethe asks Beloved, “Do you forgive me? Will you stay? You safe here now” (215). Later on, Denver is also the one who recognizes the danger of Beloved’s presence to her mother. Denver accuses Beloved of choking her mother, and this scene reminds us of  Sethe’s infanticide. Denver says to Beloved, “You did it, I saw you…I saw you face. You made her choke” (101). Now Denver feels it is her responsibility to save her mother. “When (she) came back to 124, there she was, Beloved…Ready to be taken care of; ready for me to protect her. This time (she has) to keep (her) mother away from (Beloved)…(Denver) thought she was trying to kill (her mother) in the Clearing…” (206). Denver remembers that her grandmother has warned her of the danger of ghost to her mother, but that ghost is a part of her life too. Baby Suggs tells her “that (she) shouldn’t be afraid of the ghost. It wouldn’t harm (her) because (she) tasted its blood when Ma’am nursed (her). Baby Suggs says that “the ghost was after Ma’am…(She) just had to watch out for it because it was a greedy ghost and needed a lot of love…(209)”

Here, we can say that Denver sees the danger of the past’s taking over the present. But to see how the past is successfully dealt with, readers have to follow the process of Denver’s maturity. As she grows more mature, she realizes that the only way to escape from the past is to leave the dwelling and to move to a larger community. This takes a lot of courage as Denver is imprisoned within Sethe’s time, and she steps out only when her grandmother speaks out, “You mean I never told you…nothing about how come I walk the way I do and about your mother’s feet, not to speak of her back? I never told you that? Is that why you can’t walk down the steps?” (244). However, this larger community also presents a wider history of suffering in slavery. This means that Denver must find the justification of her mother’s murder. By visiting her family history, Denver comes to acknowledge the forces of the institution of slavery that compelled her mother’s crime. It is only up to this point that Denver can free herself from the past and return to life. Her “outside life improved, her home life deteriorated” (250), and Denver knows she has to ask for help to save someone or there would be “no one to come home to” (252).

Eventually, as Denver has some sense to step out the door, Sethe manages to be washed clean of her sin and guilt of infanticide by the black community. One neighbor, Ella, sees the need to help Sethe get rid of the occupying ghost in 124. Ella thinks that “whatever Sethe had done, (she) didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present” (256). The scene of exorcising the ghost of Beloved by the neighboring women shows the supportive community, who share similar past themselves. Their commonly shared will of freedom from the past is represented by the disappearance of the ghost. Their singing “broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (261).  Eventually, Sethe also succeeds in handling her past and return to life, after she is able to reclaim and recover herself in Paul D’s life. They finally share a narrative and have hope for the future, when Paul says “Sethe, me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (273).

The above analysis shows that the characters in The Woman Warrior and Beloved share similar experiences. Both stories employ ghosts to represent the past which irrupt to the present. The narrator of The Woman Warrior and Denver in Beloved live out the unspeakable for quite a long period of time before finally have the courage to enter a world of verbal exchange. Both recognize the danger of the ghost in intruding their present life, and also see the only way to proceed to the future is to get rid of the ghost, symbolizing their effort to forget the past. The narrator of The Woman Warrior takes her courage to confront her mother, leave the family so that there would be no ghost. In Beloved, Denver has to leave the village to find an explanation of her mother’s past so that she could free herself from it and enter future life. The efforts done by the narrator of The Woman Warrior and Denver entail painful mother/daughter confrontation more or less like a love/hate relationship, but at the end they manage to reconcile. It also takes cooperation of the community to get rid of the ghost. Brave Orchid and her medical friends chant to send the Sitting Ghosts away, while Ella and the neighboring women exorcise the ghost of Beloved to free Sethe from being possessed by her past.

The two novels (if The Woman Warrior can be called such) do not really ask us to judge the characters. What we do have is a development of sympathy which implies acceptance of complexities, contradictions and social influences. We are invited to participate emotionally in how to live in bicultural society, with origins entailing a dark side of the past, and how hard it is to find one’s place to conform into the present life and seek one’s own identity both as an individual and a member of the minorities. What we need to believe is, as the narrator of The Woman Warrior tells her mother, “we belong to the planet now…wherever we happen to be standing, that spot belongs to us as much as any other spot” (107).

WORKS CITED

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage, 1975.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

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