Most helpful critical review
Vivid descriptions but ambiguous storyline
on October 15, 2006
Kingston strives to weave a profound, complex story about being a Chinese-American in The Woman Warrior, but usually only succeeds in coming up with an unorganized, choppy book that doesn't consistently flow or excite. She explores the racism towards Chinese-America women with her own family's history by juxtaposing the comfortable with the unknown, the fantastic with the mundane. Some chapters are successful in portraying the characters as isolated but strong women, but others only succeed in making the reader feel confused and unconnected to the story.
The novel begins by detailing the story of Kingston's aunt, who was shamed after having an illegitimate child; the first chapter encompasses most of the themes and styles of the rest of the novel, and, like the rest of the book, it is excessively ambiguous. Kingston constantly switches between past tense and present tense truth and imagination. In a single chapter, Kingston describes both her own life and her aunt's life as she pictures it from the stories her mother tells. While these elements are used as a stylistic device for an effect of uncertainty and ambiguity, they are too overwhelming, especially in the first chapter of the story. The reader does not know who Kingston, the narrator, is yet, but the author instantly jumps into narrating two overlapping stories. This chapter does, however, have redeeming qualities. It immediately reflects Kingston's gift for vivid imagery and description, so that, even if the reader may not understand the plot, he or she may still appreciate the colorful and detailed pictures Kingston draws in her narration.
The second chapter, least connected with Kingston's own life, is the most epic and exciting, especially because of Kingston's excellent descriptions. Again, Kingston does not make clear the point of view; it is difficult to realize immediately that Kingston is actually describing the tale of Fa Mu Lan, but in a first-person perspective. This does, however, make the chapter more emotional for the reader. As for the storyline itself, it is, I think, the best one in the book. The reader does not feel obligated to relate to Kingston's struggles with racism and acceptance, because the story does not relate to Kingston. The story is a fantasy, filled with magical elements as well as intense emotions such as love, determination, and spirit. The reader feels liberated as Fa Mu Lan triumphs over boorish warriors despite her original status as a girl. Later, however, Kingston attempts to connect Fa Mu Lan's fantastic tale to her own struggles as a Chinese-American. She first describes her inability to assert herself, and then claims that her true power is in her writing. This brief conclusion feels irrelevant and stark compared to the brilliant story of Fa Mu Lan. Though Kingston tries to tie the story back to her own life, she ends up making her life seem bleak and unimportant in contrast with Fa Mu Lan's life.
Kingston draws the following story from an outside source, her mother. This chapter is another intriguing and riveting part of Kingston's novel, coincidentally, it also involves supernatural elements and follows the tale of a woman who triumphs over typical gender roles. Kingston creates a fascinating tale by using the perfect blend of dialogue and unusual descriptions. The plot of this chapter, which involves Kingston's mother's transition from a revered doctor in China to a laboring wife in America, again contains two contrasting themes. And again, the narration that involves fantasy, growth, and triumph is exciting and absorbing, while the narration of struggles of American life are dull. Kingston attempts to draw the reader into all parts of her story, but the parts that relate to the struggles of female Chinese-Americans are only dull, not profound, because they are too unfamiliar to impact the reader, and too unremarkable to entice the reader.
The final chapters of The Woman Warrior, which revert back to the ambiguous, unorganized format of sections of previous chapters, are not very satisfying. Kingston begins to describe yet another disconnected aspect of struggling as a Chinese in America, this time narrating her aunt's story from a third-person perspective. While Kingston is able to depict the conflict caused when a traditional Chinese clashes with modernized Americans, it is difficult to sympathize with her aunt. Kingston moves too quickly from one story to another, and, apart from the themes, the stories are almost completely disconnected. The last chapter is the most disorientated as Kingston quickly shifts back to narrating her own childhood. Even the themes in this chapter seem disconnected from themes from the previous chapters. Kingston portrays herself as a cruel and violent girl. This is an awful way to end the book, as the reader feels only contempt and confusion towards Kingston.
Your reaction towards the book will depend on your personal history. You are probably more likely to enjoy the book if you have experienced hardships arising from cultural differences and isolation. Though Kingston displays a gift for language- especially description and epic storytelling, her attempts to incite the reader's empathy do not succeed.