Disclaimer: This is not a book or movie review of Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. Here are some of my thoughts and feelings after reading this book. If you really need to know how this book fared, I’d say it’s definitely worth five sparkling stars.
The story is set in pre-World War II China. It begins with Madame Wu, who decides to retire from her duties on her fortieth birthday. At the top of her list was the physical duty to her spouse to consummate. She thus decides, to find a concubine for her husband for it makes more sense that she chooses one of both her and Mr. Wu’s liking than for Mr. Wu to bring home another which only he approves of.
Upon hearing Madame Wu’s plan, I was intrigued that perhaps such a woman did exist in those days. Firstly, it is unbecoming of a woman of that era to have such a radical idea. Concubines, though still common was steadily frowned upon as the country rids itself of its Manchurian ways. To invite one in out of one’s free will seems unthinkable. Moreover, I cannot fathom a day which I can retire from my womanly responsibilities and duties. What’s more, at 40 years old?! Indeed, it never did cross my mind to see it as an option like Madame Wu. In my present world, I’ve only known about retirement from work. With the retirement age gradually held back year after year, there seemed to be a missing light at the end of the tunnel. As women fight for equality in status, roles are piled one after another. Relinquishing one role only means your absolute dedication and contribution to another. Perhaps I am traditionally minded, for when I started this child rearing business of my own, I felt a woman’s business should first and foremost be her family. It is counter-intuitive to think that one can juggle it all, to have the work-life balance that one desires. Truth bespeak, a balance is a fallacy for how can there be one when there is a lack of commitment to either. One finds it extremely difficult to safeguard this balance when one’s soul is extracted in multiple directions.
Madame Wu’s Performance Appraisal
Madame Wu choreographed the entire event with resoluteness and efficiency. I find myself drawn to Madame Wu. I desire the qualities in her. I admire her for giving birth to such a radical idea. I love her independence, her fair-mindedness, her composed nature, her beauty and her intelligence (both IQ and EQ). In the household of 60 which she manages, she is both feared and revered. She has the prowess of the mind, but yet the execution of her thoughts are delicate and non-compelling. She is what sages say a woman should be – like water. Self-giving, nurturing and life supporting. Fluid and adaptable. To bring forth hail when necessary and appropriate. I yearn to have her strength of the mind, and her capabilities. Madame Wu was, in fact, all I wanted to be.
The story then unfolded with her meeting a foreign priest who is the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. She discovers a life beyond the four walls, and for once, she felt her soul released. She felt trapped in her time and space. She desires to soar and in order to do so, she realizes she needs to ensure everyone’s happiness so that one by one, their dependence on her will slowly recede. She saw to herself to arrange for her third son’s marriage, to salvage her second son’s failing marriage and of course, to ensure that the newly found concubine is well liked by her man. She believes that with her duties fulfilled, she can then be free of them.
As the author slowly revealed, her collectiveness arises due to her lack of love for the people she calls family. Even when her children were born, she didn’t feel like a part of her was estranged from her. Instead, she felt whole again. As I read this, I felt that Madame Wu’s feelings speak of my personal childbirth experience. I was not the mother who cries with the birth of her child. I never felt compelled to do so. I wondered why. It made me question the Love I have for them. Sometimes I wonder if I am a lesser mother.
Do I then, like Madame Wu, is a person devoid of love and thinks always and only of herself?
“How shall I be rid of myself?” she asked Brother Andre.
“Think only of others, ” he replied.
“Does that mean I am always to yield to others?” she asked.
“If not to yield means that you are thinking of yourself, then you must yield,” he said.
It may be so. When I was young, an aunt commented that I was selfish. I have worked hard to correct this in my growing years, and I certainly do not have any issue parting with material belongings. I am selfish for I put the sanctity of my mind above others. Madame Wu found the freedom of her mind through the love for Brother Andre. Alas, the answer to the serenity of my mind does not lie in love. Admittedly, I do not believe that love frees a person.
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I too seek the thing that will uplift my spirits and transcend my soul to higher grounds.