Historically, throughout literature, there has been a genre in the way that authors portray the roles of women, a genre that has almost no association with women playing the role of the hero.
Through further analysis of some stereotypical female roles from Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman it will become evident that the females in these two novels are themselves heroes. Some stereotypical roles that women will often fulfill in literary works are, what I will be naming, the passive female, the unsympathetic woman, and the new woman.All of these oles, when considered more thoughtfully, are admirable in some sense or another and therefore heroic. Although both readers and writers of literature have failed to give heroines the recognition they deserve, this does not mean that the heroine does not exist.
What this simply means is that within literature men have historically played the role if the hero and therefore society is unfamiliar with the idea of a heroine. This is explained in Nadya Aisenberg’s Ordinary Heroines, “…
the hero has nonetheless been our culture’s central symbol.Hence within our male-dominated culture we experience great trouble conceiving heroine”(10). Therefore, in order to examine the heroines in The Edible Woman and The Jade Peony we need to know what heroine-like qualities to look for. First, it is essential that a distinction is made between the qualities that define a hero and the qualities that define a heroine.
As Aisenberg states, “women’s voices and developmental experiences differ from those of men. The heroine substitutes moral courage and a moral voice for the hero’s physical courage and sense of predestination”(13).As Norma Lorre Goodrich points out, in her novel entitled Heroines, a heroine must be an individual, a urvivor, magnanimous and most of all she must posses and demonstrate an admirable personality(3-8). The three female roles, the passive female, unsympathetic woman and new woman, all incorporate some of these heroic qualities into the creation of the characters.
The role of the “passive female” is one played by Marian, from Atwood’s The Edible Woman, and by Lily, from Choy’s The Jade Peony.Both of these women are similarly passive in that they don”t play an active part in the stories; in other words they receive actions from characters . Marian is consumed by the people around her and we can ee this by the title, The Edible Woman, and through the text. “She(Marian) had been so thoroughly taken in”(Atwood,310).
When Marian is speaking to Duncan about her relationship with her fiancee she says, “I realized Peter was trying to destroy me”(326). Lily could also be considered as a character who is consumed and she is absorbed by her culture’s definition of what it means to be “appropriate wifely company”(Choy,14).Even though she is the mother to two of the four children and has played mother for all of them, Poh-Poh decides that they will all refer to her as “Stepmother” and she, the submissive Chinese wife, does not object. Poh-Poh, the elder, believes that it “keeps things simple, orderly.
That was the order of things in China”(14). Marian and Lily are two characters that fulfill the stereotypical role of the passive female and in doing so, they both give something up. Although Marian and Lily have both given up some of their needs and desires by playing non-active roles in their own lives there is still something to be admired about both of them.Marian eventually overcomes her fear of life and she takes an active role in it.
She bakes a cake, decorates it to look just like herself, and consumes it. Marian says of eating again, “It was miraculous to me that I had attempted anything so daring”(Atwood,329). Norma Goodrich maintains that “Any true heroine must have proven herself more or less indifferent to danger and at some point able to triumph over it”(Goodrich, 8). Marian has done this; she faced what consequences could have come from her actions and she refused to be consumed by the people around her any longer.
Lily is admirable because she is a strong survivor. In the first opening paragraphs of the book it states, “She was barely twenty when she came to Canada. She came with no ducation..
. was a seven-year-old girl in war-torn China when bandits killed most of her family”(Choy,13). Lily had been through so much yet she is still able to love her family and be strong for them; her character is worthy of the readers respect and approval. Marian and Lily may have played passive, relatively non-active roles in the novels but they were also strong characters and overcame great triumphs.
Another stereotypical, female role found in literature is that of the “unsympathetic woman”. This character is usually older, lacks affection and seems rather rigid towards he other characters but usually they are really very caring and usually act as the pillar holding the family together. The elderly, Chinese grandmother, Poh-Poh, from Choy’s The Jade Peony fits this role. Initially, Poh-Poh’s key impact seems negative but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that her negativity stems from the fact that she cares about her family very much.
One example is that Poh-Poh “liked to whisper blessings in his(Sekky’s) ear, always whispering softly, so that the gods could not hear”(Choy, 42). If the gods knew that she loved Sekky more than she loved them, she believed, they would ring bad luck to her and her family. Another example of Poh-Poh’s “tough love” is shown through her resistance to show Liang how to tie the red ribbons. Liang doesn”t realize that Poh-Poh resists because tying those ribbons once caused her great pain and she does not wish for Liang to ever go through such pain.
“… ut all her womanly skills she would keep away from me, keep to herself until she died”(Choy, 35).
Poh-Poh is a great example of the “unsympathetic woman”. Much as in life, we first see this character as cold and unforgiving but in reality Poh-Poh is just loving the children and keeping them rom harm the only way she knows how. It is through Poh-Poh’s “tough love” that she is disliked at times but this quality also leads us to appreciate her. In her strength, or some would say lack of sympathy, she keeps her family strong, both culturally and emotionally.
Norma Goodrich states that heroines “give us one lesson after another in how to survive humiliation and discrimination”(Goodrich, 2). Poh-Poh is certainly a survivor of humiliation which we can see through her experiences as a child. “Grandmother was born with a misshapen birth skull..
. when the village midwife pronounced…
Poh-Poh hideous, the judgment stayed”(Choy, 42). She delt with a life time of discrimination because of the simple fact that she was a “girl-child” born into the Chinese culture.We can see the extreme extent to which sexual inequality existed in China in Keith M. May’s Chinese Women Characters.
“Women were victims of discrimination from the very moment of their birth… an infant girl could be smothered to death at birth or sold at a very early age.
Women were the sexual object and possession of the man, the childbearing tool, and the servant to the whole family”(May, 34). Poh-Poh survived this discrimination, brought up a son, and helped to raise her four grandchildren. She was a very admirable woman and a heroic woman as well.There has always been a rebel in literature.
A character who is defiant, an individual, a crusader. This role, in terms of a female, is often referred to as the “new woman” and this term is also considered to be a type of heroine. Meiying, from Choy’s The Jade Peony takes on this role of the new woman. Keith M.
May gives a good sketch as to the type to whom the term “new woman” refers. “Such a woman was dissatisfied ith ordinary society. The woman was forced into becoming some sort of crusader or pioneer”(May, 105).Even though her people, the Chinese, are at war with the Japanese, Meiying refuses to dismiss her love for her Japanese boyfriend, Kazuo, and she breaks the “unspoken law: Never betray your own kind”(Choy, 214).
Sekky first describes Meiying as being “involved in something shameful, something treasonable”(214). Meiying puts aside what society deems as “right and wrong” and she follows her heart. She, the individual, follows what she believes is right despite the possible consequences. If her mother.
.. found out about Kazuo, she would spit at Meiying,..
. and disown her.If Chinatown found out, Meiying would be cursed and shamed publicly as a traitor”(220). Her struggle represents communities at war with each other and she is a pioneer in uniting the two communities.
Meiying fulfills the role of the “new woman” in The Jade Peony and she also fulfills the role of the heroine. A heroine ” Must have proven fearless before strictures which she has adjudged unfair or wrong”(Goodrich, 8). Meiying has proven fearless; she has proven courageous. Throughout literature women have generally taken on some fairly stereotypical roles.
These roles are usually well constructed and true to women but there is one thing that authors fail, more than they should, to shed light on. Many of these female roles whether the “passive female”, the “unsympathetic woman”, or the “new woman” are heroines in hiding. We see this through the characters of Marian, Lily, Poh-Poh, and Meiying. Women are brilliant beings who have more to be admired for than their sensitivity and intuition.
Woman are admirable in that they are morally courageous individuals who have survived and will triumph.