One must first live before he can safely know.
China in the 1920s is an ancient culture resistant to change. Things that are valued include “honour”, loyalty, class and heritage. Things that are not valued are girl children (left out to die in the cold), education (especially for girls) and new thoughts.
Madame Wu – our protagonist – would seem to epitomize the old Chinese elite. She is the powerful, intelligent and practical head of the rich, land-owning Wu family. Everyone around her respects her wisdom and knowledge, as well as her considerable personal charm.
But now, on her 40th birthday, she is about to make a strange announcement : She is set to bring into the family a “Second Wife” – a concubine for her own husband.
A concubine. For her own husband.
Everyone thinks she has gone completely insane (though no one dares say so). Even Mr Wu himself – a kind, gentle man for his time, what we’d call a nice person – is shocked by this odd decision. He begs her (though rather weakly, his wife is quick to notice) to change her mind. But Madame Wu is resolute :
The first part of her life was over and the second was about to begin…A woman who had lost her looks might have hesitated through feelings of defeat or even jealousy. But she had no need to be jealous and what she was about to do was of her own clear, calm will.
After this unconventional step – unconventional inasmuch as it was initiated by the *wife* rather than the husband, for polygamy was prevalent in China at the time – she reflects upon her life so far, and the reader begins to understand her a bit better. Remembering the way she was not allowed to read her scholarly father-in-law’s books, she ponders upon her lack of formal learning. Madame Wu had a mind of her own, even at eighteen :
‘These books, my child,’ he had said to her in his grave way,’these books are not for you.’
‘Because I am a woman?’ she had asked. He had nodded…
She had then put one of her clear questions to him. ‘Our Father, do you think my mind will never be beyond that of my lord’s at fifteen?’
Her father-in-law explains rather honestly that she’s way too smart for her husband:
‘Will my lord hate me then?’ she had asked again.
Without his putting it into words, it was clear to her that Old Gentleman knew that she was more intelligent than his son, and he was warning her.
‘My child,’ Old Gentleman said,’there is no man who can endure woman’s greater wisdom if she lives in his house and sleeps in his bed. He may say he worships at her shrine, but worship is dry fare for daily life. A man cannot make of his house a temple, nor take a goddess for his wife. He is not strong enough.’
At the time, she agrees to follow the family’s norms faithfully.But now Madame Wu is forty and secure. She has spent the last twenty-two years of her existence dissembling and solidifying her power by never overstepping her bounds. Now, at last, she wants to be free. How she delicately manages it – without going to the Himalayas or abandoning her responsibilities – and what she learns in the process – these make up the core of the novel.
The Good Earth always struck me as slightly stilted, but Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women is a wise, intelligent and lucid work. For an author to avoid falling into stereotypes while describing an alien culture is an achievement in itself, when we consider that the book was written nearly 70 years ago when racism and fear of the Other were rampant. Even though she clearly does not approve of some cultural practices, there is no judgement, only empathy. (I later found out that Pearl Buck spent her childhood in China). But more interesting is how modern – how, sadly, relevant ! – the heroine of the novel sounds. Her dilemmas regarding family, change and the eternal conflict between duty and love belong to the 21st century. The lucid prose, never overdone, never tacky, completes the novel. There is no patronizing of the protagonist. There is no unnecessary dramatization and sentimentality. And thus Buck manages to make her story of a middle-aged Chinese woman one of the most engrossing coming-of-age novels I have ever read.