The Many Meanings of Ghosts in The Woman Warrior

Ghosts can be found in every chapter of The Woman Warrior. They permeate all parts of the book. These ghosts have many different meanings and take many different forms. They can appear as malevolent spirits, such as the ‘Sitting Ghost’ that Brave Orchid encounters in her years at the To Keung School of Midwifery. Kingston writes that “This Sitting Ghost has many wide black mouths. It is dangerous. It is real” (74). Yet there are other ghosts that seem to do no harm, that just exist, such as “Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts. Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts” (97). Kingston says that “America has been full of machines and ghosts…” (96). These ghosts that are mentioned so many times have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning throughout the story. They represent the confusion Kingston feels about her life, never knowing if the stories that her mother tells her are reality or fiction. She cannot tell what parts of her past are true memories or a ‘ghost’ of a memory, a fiction she created. The ghosts also literally represent people that surround them in their daily lives. To Brave Orchid and her children, the ghosts are the people in America who are not Chinese, who live a life filled with traditions and culture they do not understand. But China is also a ghost story to Kingston. When her mother talks to her about returning to China, Kingston thinks “I am to return to China where I have never been” (76). Though her mother “funnelled China into their ears,” China is a foreign land she has never been to, another story in which she does not know which parts are true and which are fantasy.  Though the ghosts change through the perspective of different characters, they tend to represent things that are unknown. 

In the chapter “At the Western Palace,” Brave Orchid brings her sister, Moon Orchid, to the United States to live with her family. Moon Orchid’s husband has remarried an American woman. Brave Orchid believes that her sister should go to her husband and retake what is rightfully hers. When the estranged husband first sees Moon Orchid and Brave Orchid, he refers to them as “grandmothers” and thinks that “these women had such awful faces” (152). His inability to recognize them separates them from himself. There is a divide between the two worlds these different characters inhabit and that turns them all into ghosts to each other. Kingston writes “Her husband looked like one of the ghosts passing the car windows, and she must look like a ghost from China. They had indeed entered the land of ghosts, and they had become ghosts” (153). America is the land of ghosts, filled with the ‘white ghosts’ that are repeatedly mentioned by both the narrator and her mother. Moon Orchid’s husband has been here so long, and becomes so ingrained in the American way of life that he has become synonymous with these ‘white ghosts.’ China has now become a ghost land to him, similar to how it is for the narrator, and so he sees these two old women as ghosts from a life that once belonged to him but no longer does. This is extremely powerful due to the fact that Brave Orchid has been surrounded by ghosts her whole life, and has worked hard to defeat many of them. She now lives her life in a land full of ghosts that she must deal with daily. Her move to this new place and her inability to accept american customs has led to her becoming a ghost in all the places she has known. She is a ghost floating between worlds, with no real home. She has become something that she learned about, and worked against, her whole life. 

Discussion Questions 

  1. What is the importance of having both Moon Orchid and her husband seen as ghosts in “At the Western Palace?” 
  2. How do the many ghosts throughout the story affect the lives of the narrator and her relatives? 

6 Replies to “The Many Meanings of Ghosts in The Woman Warrior”

  1. Hey Melissa,
    I think that the many ghosts throughout the story loom over the narrator and her family but mostly I believe they have a much larger impact on the women of the family. The one ghost is specific that has the impact is the narrator’s aunt who committed suicide. An example of this is when the narrator’s mother tells the story and the story puts a sense of fear and control on the narrator. The story also puts fear and control on the mother as she is worried that the narrator will tell her father and would in turn get her in trouble with the head male of their household. A quote that shows this best is when the narrator is talking about the fear that her aunt may have felt after she conceived the child, “The fear did not stop but permeated everywhere (pg.7).” This story continues to show how woman in her culture are accustomed to fearing men.

  2. Hi Melissa,
    I’m so happy you made your blog post discussing this because I like it it super important for the narrator’s story. I think that the main ghost that has so much impact and almost holds a “power” over the narrator’s family is the ghost of her aunt who killed herself. Kingston says, “Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born” (page 15). I think this quotation distinctly shows how much impact the ghost of her aunt has had on her family, to the point that her mother says that her aunt was never even born. This idea, and this story is the first thing that Kingston shares, becasye it has had such a huge impact on her family.

  3. Hey Melissa,
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I thought it was super thought provoking and it personally made me think a lot and reread some of the pieces that you had mentioned. I especially liked when you brought up how these ghosts can be seen as metaphorical too. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it. I think in adding to the confusion of her life, when Kingston writes “Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one, a story to grow up on.” (5) It really makes you think. When the mother tells her daughter the story of her aunt, does she mean to tell her because she wants her to succeed in life, or because she wants to warn her if that happens what effect it will have on her and how her family will treat her. I think this ambiguous meaning really helps in bringing more confusion to her life and plays a part in showing how ghosts can be seen as metaphors or symbols for confusion.

  4. Hi Melissa, I enjoyed reading your blog post cause you bring up the topic of ghosts and what they mean for the authors story. I liked how you brought up the fact that some ghosts are literal ghosts like her aunt that took her own life. And some of those ghosts have a metaphorical meaning behind them and represent how she doesn’t quite know what was in her past and what she made up in her head. I liked how you pointed out that the people that get affected the most by these “ghosts” is not only just the narrator but her mother as well. Both her and her mother are effected by the ghost of her aunt but in different ways.

  5. Hi Melissa! In regard to you second question, the ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, can have a profound effect on the narrator and her family. As we read in “Shaman”, Brave Orchid bravely faces the haunted room at To Keung School, but is quite shaken come the morning. She tells her classmates “I was afraid, and fear may have driven me out of my body and mind” (71). Although this sitting ghost may have been nothing more than a figment of her imagination (perhaps prompted by sleep paralysis, hence her inability to move), she still feels the negative effects because it was real in her mind. On the other hand, the other ghosts mentioned, like “taxi ghosts” are real people that are different from the narrator’s family. And although most of these “white ghosts” travel in and out of the lives without any trouble, they still hold destructive powers that could harm them. In the world of paranormal activity, there are ghosts who don’t harm the people who visit their haunted places, and then there are ghosts who do. This is reflected in Kingston’s narrative, especially because the narrator and her family never know what kind of ghost they are going to be faced with.

  6. Hey Melissa,

    I really liked how you centered your blog post around the meaning of ghosts throughout the story. I especially like how you mention that China and the history of Kingston’s ancestors, as well as her mother’s past are ghosts to her.
    Adding on, to answer your second question, I think this is why Kingston wrote this novel. I believe she wrote to understand the ghosts that have been around her throughout her life. I think the stories she’s heard from her mom about her past, her ancestor’s past and China itself leads her to question “what should I believe”. I think the truth has been haunting her, and has haunted her enough to even write this novel.
    Kingston herself said that she believed she owed it to her aunt to commemorate her death and life. in the first chapter she writes, “Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born” (page 15).
    I think we can even go as far to say that this saying in something that has haunted her from childhood, and her childhood memories are what led her to write this.

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