Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women Challenges The Meaning of Mother

Hello, everyone! Life is terrible, no one can be trusted, and honestly, it’s all overrated. I really want to crawl into a cave right now and sleep for 500 years. Why was Sleeping Beauty so upset about her extended coma? Centuries of blissful ignorance seem like heaven at the moment. But I digress. The subject that I most ardently want to discuss, dear reader, is a wonderful novel called Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. This review will be short, as it’s mostly a mental reprieve from my current anguish, but at least I’m writing it. I’m trying to be normal. I know that you don’t know me, and you don’t care what is happening in my life right now, but here on my blog I write, you read, and that’s enough for me. Let’s continue, shall we?

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I miss you.

Synopsis: On the brink of WW2, Madame Wu, an esteemed noble-woman presiding over a rural Chinese estate, celebrates her 40th birthday and decides it’s time to find her husband a concubine. Her unorthodox choice throws the estate into turmoil, upsetting her passive husband, her three headstrong sons, and their wives. Determined to finally claim her life as her own, Madame Wu charges forward with her plan, only to throw the house into more chaos. It’s only when she meets Brother Andre, a foreign priest, that she realizes  the flaws in her plans and must reconcile her ideas of freedom with her responsibility as the matriarch of the family.

My take: Madame Wu embodies the trope of a brilliant, ambitious woman encaged by a man’s world. Throughout her life, Wu has always had to play second-fiddle to her husband, forbidden from reading certain books so that she wouldn’t outshine her husband’s meager intellect, forced to bear children with whom she feels no true bond, and burdened with the responsibility of maintaining an ideal Chinese household. Her perspective is a rare one; hardly, if ever (especially in the 1930s) do we get to hear the viewpoint of a middle-aged woman whose primary wish in life is to escape the duties of womanhood. But Madame Wu does exactly this, a revolutionary concept for the time. It’s revolutionary even for today. When Madame Wu found a concubine for her husband, she removed herself from sexuality, when she detached herself from her sons, she removed herself from motherhood. With almost all of literature defining women in exactly those terms, it’s a novel concept to read about a woman who chooses to defy them.

Pavilion of Women, however, is not a revolutionary feminist story like The Awakening. Wu begins the story as the disrupter, but ends it as an agent of reconciliation. Her journey is not towards self fulfillment through personal ideals, but through charity and empathy for others. This complexity creates a clash between two themes in which Madame Wu is at once  a picture of atypical womanhood and a picture of virtuous sainthood. I much preferred the former picture, but I understood how Buck, with her background as a Presbyterian Missionary, would have thought it most honorable to have Wu’s character arc lead towards the attainment of traditional Christian values. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch to hope that a writer in the 1930s could write about a woman who is able to live a content life without having to care for the needs of her family, but then again, such an idea isn’t very realistic, especially in early 20th century China.

Buck’s novel is gracefully and simply written. She has an acute understanding of the inner workings of her characters, never disdaining to empathize with even those the reader is meant to dislike. Through the eyes of Madame Wu, who is already wise and empathetic, we can gaze deeply into the souls of characters like Master Wu, a man who can never outgrow his childhood indulgences, or Little Sister Hsa, a foolish, lonely missionary, and learn not to judge them as failures of character, but to sympathize with them as struggling human beings. And by placing Madame Wu in a house full of turmoil, in a period of historical change, we get a sense of thematic growth. The book is not content to let tradition be tradition. China is on the verge of change, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the microcosm of Madame Wu’s home.

Final Consensus: Pavilion of Women is an understated, yet moving novel about one woman’s transformation from ideal mother, to unorthodox trailblazer, and back again. It focuses on emotional growth, on spiritual fulfillment, and on the role of motherhood in a changing China. Sparse and elegant, Pavilion may not be Buck’s most famous novel, but it’s still worth a read.

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