Women in Literature

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Mother/daughter relationships are hardly ever simple, and the relationships in Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Woman Warrior are no exception. Breath, Eyes, Memory’s Martine and Sophie begin with a rocky start. Sophie is thrown into the Bronx head first after spending the first part of her childhood with her aunt in her homeland of Haiti. She must develop and deepen her relationship with her mother, Martine.

In contrast, The Woman Warrior’s Maxine and Brave Orchid have always lived in the same household, but rather than growing closer together from the sharing of Chinese culture, their cultural differences, such as Maxine being more “Americanized,” drive them apart and alienate the two in separate corners of the cultural spectrum. In both novels the daughter is raised to conform to her native country’s, and thus her mother’s, idea of what role a respectable woman should play in the community. Usually this role involves submitting to a male-dominated society.

The end result of this type of rearing is the inevitable desertion of, in Sophie’s case, Haitian or, in Maxine’s case, Chinese values and traditions. Sophie and Maxine are left confused in trying to define themselves as women in their multicultural worlds because of each mother’s insistence on maintaining Haitian and Chinese traditions, respectively. Sophie and Maxine are both raised by their mothers to become strong, dignified women. They do become this, but only after a roller coaster of fallouts and reconciliations between Sophie and Martine in Breathe, Eyes, Memory and Maxine and Brave Orchid in The Woman Warrior.

The two girls’ childhoods are seemingly altogether unalike and unrelated. Sophie, in a sense, has two mothers. Tante Atie cares for her until the age of 12, when Sophie is flown to New York to live with her biological mother and Atie’s sister, Martine. Sophie even makes Tante Atie a Mother’s Day card, insisting that the card is rightfully hers rather than Martine’s. Atie, however, dismisses this notion: “‘It is your card,’ I [Sophie] insisted. ‘It is for a mother, your mother. ‘ She [Atie] motioned me away with a wave of her hand. When it is Aunt’s Day, you can make me one” (9). When Sophie is flown to the U. S. , it is as though she is being torn away from her real mother rather than flying to be with her. This in itself makes the growth of Martine and Sophie’s mother/daughter relationship more difficult because Sophie must adjust to her “new” mother. In contrast, Maxine has always lived with Brave Orchid. This, however, does not mean their relationship is any closer than that of Sophie and Martine. Emanating the stereotype, Blue Orchid resents the fact that Maxine is a girl.

She reinforces the negative standards that Chinese women are useless and a disappointment. This deeply hurts Maxine, so much that “when one of my [Maxine’s] parents or the emigrant villagers said ‘”Feeding girls is feeding cowbirds,”‘ I would trash on the floor and scream so hard I couldn’t talk” (46). Growing up in an environment that completely degrades the female population surely can not be a positive aspect of Maxine’s relationship with her mother. Brave Orchid is never appreciative of the straight A’s Maxine receives in school; straight A’s do not put food on the table.

As a child the author recalls that her mother’s enthusiasm for her was duller than that for the slave girl her mother had cherished back in China. Brave Orchid makes Maxine feels shame in not having any “true” skills and costing her money rather than earning it for her. Thus, whereas Sophie is never given the chance to experience her mother’s affection, and faults, until the age of 12, Maxine has always had to live with her own mother’s demeaning manner. Brave Orchid’s negative feelings toward Maxine are deeper than simply the stereotypical disdain reserved for girls in Chinese culture.

IN Chine Brave Orchid was a successful, strong woman as a doctor. In coming to America, she is forced to abandon her profession and fame to open a laundromat. Maxine is viewed by her as a hindrance to becoming a woman warrior, and is made to feel guilty by Brave Orchid for this. The negative attitude that is shown towards Maxine sees its opposite in the gratefulness exhibited by Martine towards Sophie in Breath. Sophie hears “that same voice screaming as though someone was trying to kill her. [Sophie] rushed over, but [her] mother was alone thrashing against the sheets. Sophie] shook her and finally woke her up” (48). For this action of waking her from the nightmare, Martine views Sophie as her savior. Gratitude emanates from Martine towards Sophie for this. Further, in contrast to Maxine, Sophie’s good grades are encouraged and appreciated. Martine tells Sophie that her only chance in life is in academic success. Sophie thrives on and is content with this pushing and strict academic schedule her mother puts upon her. She accepts that she is not allowed to “see men” until the age of 18, if only to please Martine.

In conclusion, the relationship between Sophie and Martine is one of encouragement, and the relationship between Maxine and Brave Orchid is one of disappointment and inappeasablility. There is another side to the preciously states assertions, however. Brave Orchid may harbor resent towards Maxine, but she nonetheless acts as an inspiration for Maxine. Brave Orchid is a woman of great power and abilities that go beyond the traditional roles of a woman-something to aspire to be. Additionally, the blatant resent is removed at the end of The Woman Warrior when Brave Orchid and Maxine reconcile their differences in their old age.

Orchid calls Maxine the affectionate term of “Little Dog” (109) when telling her that it is okay that she does not want to stay in California with her. These acts of kindness, however, are overshadowed by the mother’s previously described, more prominent coldness towards her daughter. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, too, there is another side. Martine’s encouragement to succeed in academics becomes overbearing and suffocating, and her obsession with keeping Sophie “pure,” a virgin, traumatizes Sophie for the rest of her life through “testing. As Maxine’s mother gives “pictures to dream-nightmare babies that recur again and again” (86), Sophie’s mother leaves her scarred with the memories of the “testing. ” In addition to the horrible memories of the testing, Martine’s frequent nightmares of rape seem to be contagious; Sophie has these nightmares herself after marrying Joseph. All these characteristics of the two mother/daughter relationships compound to create disastrous results, in terms of the daughters’ ability to understand themselves as women and live their lives normally.

Both mothers are also infatuated with enforcing their own cultural riles and traditions onto their daughters. As said, Martine “tests” Sophie for virginity. A tradition passed fown from previous Haitian generations, “testing” is the supreme violation of Sophie’s bodily privacy. In fact, Sophie eventually uncovers a family history of abuse of this type, and “nightmares are passed on through generations” (234). It pouts a powerful strain on the relationship between Martine and Sophie.

Not unlike, but not entirely the same as, Sophie, Maxine must also endure her mother’s relentless attempts to maintain the traditions and values of Chinese culture in her household. In addition to attending regular (American) school, Maxine attends Chinese school, which is a throwback to any typical school in Chine. There she is surrounded by fellow Chinese students, making it more difficult to assimilate into American society. In addition to this, Brave Orchid, continually revives Chinese culture to Maxine with her “talk stories. Though Maxine eventually comes to appreciate these stories, at the time of their telling Maxine sees them as a way for her mother to bypass the truth as well as give a lesson in life and values to her, was which was hardly ever appreciated at the time. In total, the constant infliction of Chinese and Haitian traditions onto the daughter causes rifts in their relationships with their mothers. The mother/daughter relationships in Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Woman Warrior are both tainted by the insistency of culture. Sophie rebels against Martine when she leaves to be with Joseph, and Maxine leaves California to pursue an American life.

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