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In Maxine Hong Kingston’s semi-autobiographical memoir Woman Warrior and Alice Walker’s short essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” the mother figure, the “Woman Warrior” in each tale, plays an important role in shaping the author’s understanding of personal or racial identity. Nonetheless, although Kingston’s and Walker’s mothers do not behave similarly—in the tale “Shaman” in Woman Warrior, Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid, displays a visibly proud personality that contrasts with the more quiet character of Walker’s unnamed mother—the matriarchs in both “Shaman” and “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” are truly the epitome of the “Woman Warrior” because they find positive means by which to express themselves.
In their respective environments, both Brave Orchid and Walker’s mother wisely use their skill, not their voice, to demonstrate independence. At medical school in China, Brave Orchid, who “quickly built a reputation for being brilliant, a natural scholar who could glance at a book and know it” (Kingston 62), took pride in the fact that fellow students never saw her cramming as she “studied far in advance” (Kingston 64). Brave Orchid realizes the power and respect she is able to gain from her peers and teachers if she gracefully outperforms the others without elaborate displays of intelligence, and thus chooses to live in that way.
While Walker’s mother could not choose to use her physical voice or actions to show her self-determination as she did not have the legal right, she, like other black women, used what little she had to express herself: her creativity. Writes Walker, “even if [our grandmothers and mothers] didn’t recognize [their creativity] beyond what happened in the singing at church…they never had any intention of giving it up” (637). For black Women Warriors, including Walker’s mother, they found their identity through other non-confrontational media like singing, quilting, or, in the case of Walker’s mother, gardening.
In addition, Brave Orchid and Walker’s mother used education and gardening as a way to have utter freedom of expression in a typically male-dominated or white-dominated world, respectively. For Brave Orchid, coming home after attending medical school in Canton allowed her to return “to her home village a doctor. She was welcomed with garlands and cymbals the way people welcome the ‘barefoot doctors’ today” (Kingston 76). Kingston’s mother defies societal norms by not deferring to the male-dominant figure by being a homemaker, and instead attends school, coming back a hero.
For Walker’s mother, gardening offered respite from the racist white world because her gardens, where “whatever she planted grew as if by magic,” she was able to express her private emotions. Thus, “her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties” (Walker 639). It did not matter that she was black and a woman—the only label that defined her was “a grower of flowers.”
Indeed, praise followed Walker’s mother and Brave Orchid because they found positive ways to demonstrate their meaning of being a warrior. For the former, Walker recalls, “And I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cutting from her flowers; I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden” (Walker 639). Brave Orchid, too, was praised by her peers for being brave in the face of the Sitting Ghost because she not afraid to confront the ghost at night. By excelling in their passions as a gardener and doctor, these matriarchs also excelled at being Women Warriors.
However, due to the contrasting environments in which Walker’s mother and Brave Orchid existed—1920s America and pre-Communist China—the mothers also viewed their role as Women Warriors differently. Walker’s mother labored before sunrise and “made the clothes we wore, even my brothers’ overalls. She made all the towels and sheets we used. She spent the summers canning vegetables and fruits” (Walker 637). Walker’s mother was more discreet and was “rarely impatient,” writes Walker. For this mother, it was not yet socially acceptable for her to be an outspoken Warrior; thus, she did not show any outward pride she had in the work she did, if she actually did have some. Walker writes simply, “Our mother and grandmothers:…And they waited…” (Walker 633). Black mothers of the 1920s through 1950s could not possibly be proactive revolutionaries; they only knew how to continue with the monotony of everyday life, waiting for someone else to lift them up.
On the contrary, Brave Orchid, despite the sexism in China, was proud and sure-footed. Upon returning to the village after attending medical school, Kingston describes Brave Orchid as a woman who “had gone away ordinary and came back miraculous, like the ancient magicians who came down from the mountains” (Kingston 67). As Brave Orchid deftly treats each of her patients, making decisions about the futures of those under her care, Kingston suggests that her mother felt near-godly and aggressive, the picture of a confident, modern woman.
Both “Shaman” and ““In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” ask the question “What really is a ‘Woman Warrior’?” although perhaps not directly. For Brave Orchid and Walker’s mother, their daughters explore their own mother’s past to find a definition. There is the proud, openly defiant warrior and the undercover, more private warrior; in both cases, these daughters realize that as their mothers tended to others as a doctor or tended to flowers as a gardener, the wise matriarchs discovered freedom unattainable by usual societal boundaries.
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