We readers are introduced to the narrator, who we might assume is the author Maxine Hong Kingston since the subtitle of the book calls itself a memoir.
The book opens with the narrator's mother telling a secret. She reveals the scandalous life and death of the sister of the narrator's father (Kingston's aunt). You still following? As you might have noticed, talking about this book gets kind of tricky since Kingston refers to relatives by relation, not names.
Up to this moment, the narrator knew nothing of this aunt's existence because the family treated her "as if she had never been born" (1.1).
Kingston's mother says that the men of the family, including the narrator's dad, had sailed to California not long before the incident. At home with her husband's family, Kingston's mom noticed that her sister-in-law was getting a belly – a pregnant belly. The sister-in-law's husband had been gone two years, so Kingston's mom knew that she must have done the deed with someone other than her husband. You got it, give this woman an A for adultery. But actually, the social pressure takes on a more hideous form.
The narrator's mother tells: On the night the baby was due, loads of villagers came out with lanterns and white masks to raid the family home.
The neighbors throw rocks and food at the home. They kill all of the family's livestock. Their blood-stained hands break down the unlocked doors. They smear blood all over the house. They ransack each room, ripping apart everything of the sister-in-law's. They destroy all of their food and pantry. While leaving, the villagers steal the unbroken remains and take sugar and orange "to bless themselves" (1.8).
Before you think you've missed a crucial step in the book already, don't worry, Shmoop reader. What the villagers are doing is ridiculous. Really dark. Why are they doing this, you ask? Read on to find out.
Kingston's mother tells: her sister-in-law (remember: this unnamed woman is Kingston's aunt) gives birth that night in the pigsty.
Kingston's mother divulges that she found her sister-in-law and the newborn baby drowned in the well the next morning (1.8).
We learn that Kingston is only being told this information because she started menstruating (1.9). Her mother is warning her not to humiliate the family like her aunt did. In other words, don't get pregnant, or else you will shame our entire family and die a social (if not actual) death. As Kingston's mom warns: "The villagers are watchful" (1.9). And you thought the ole birds-and-the-bees talk was bad?
We learn that the narrator's mom often tells her these sorts of morbid guilt-ridden stories. They function as stories "to grow up on," so the narrator can figure out what lives have come before her and the paths they have left (1.10).
The narrator theorizes that Chinese emigrants in America try to mislead the gods by changing their names. This protects their "real names with silence" (1.11).
Kingston busts out her famous pair of questions in paragraph 12 of Chapter 1, so be sure to take note of this. She basically asks, with all this story telling and name changing, how do Chinese Americans know what is actually Chinese tradition versus what is fiction turned into real life? This idea of fiction versus reality is a key theme to watch out for as you read.
The narrator knows that she cannot ask about her nameless aunt. When her mom told her about her aunt's death, she gave her all the information about her life that she felt was worth telling. We learn that the mom is a practical storyteller; she is "powered by Necessity" (1.13).
The narrator tells us that her mom's sense of economy is characteristic of traditional Chinese principles. Being born a woman was seen as a waste. The narrator figures that her aunt did not have an affair by choice. Some male villager must have forced her to have sex. The narrator believes she wouldn't have said no. She would've done as any male villager wished. The narrator believes he participated in the raid (1.15).
The narrator continues to make up a story for her aunt's life: She figures her aunt had an arranged marriage and had spent one night with her husband before he left for America (1.17). Then someone who sold her oil or fabric for clothes threatened to kill her if she didn't have sex with him. Since she had to deal with him for everyday business, rape continued even though she was afraid. Then she got pregnant, and the man organized the raid (1.18).
The narrator figures that her aunt sat at the "outcast table" at home. By not allowing her to eat with the respectable members, the family shamed here. (1.19). Traditionally, Chinese women move in with their husbands' families. The fact that the aunt lived with her birth family is a mystery that the narrator doesn't know more about (1.19).
The aunt was the only girl in a family of four sons. She was the one expected to continue the family and cultural traditions, since her brothers had all gone to America.
The author figures that her aunt had so many secrets that it made her hopes for life very small (1.21). Kingston imagines that her aunt took to liking little things about the father of her baby.
Kingston looks at a family portrait and notices how her aunt combed her hair differently. This is remarkable since paying too much attention to your looks was looked down upon. Women were expected to wear their hair in regular bobs or tight buns. The author imagines her aunt threading (a form of plucking with strings) the baby hairs on her forehead, like her mom used to do to her.
Kingston imagines that her grandparents favored their only daughter. She writes that her grandpa wanted a daughter and traded Kingston's dad for a girl before his wife made him trade back. Kingston figures that her dad always held a grudge for being traded for a girl.
We're told that people in the same village are considered kinsmen, so whether or not the aunt's lover was in the family wouldn't make adultery any better or worse (1.33).
Marriage was a way of connecting strangers, Kingston writes. The villagers who raided her aunt's house were punishing her for messing up the order of relationships.
Living conditions were bad at this time. The village was contending with a bad planting season, disease, and the many repercussions of a war with Japan. If things were not so bad, Kingston figures, maybe the adultery would not have been punished so severely.
Kingston writes that the neatness in how lives are organized is seen as a roundness (1.39). The villagers punished her aunt for breaking this roundness by destroying her family's home. When the villagers left, the aunt's family turned against her, calling her a ghost and saying she'd never been born (1.40).
Kingston imagines her aunt running out into the fields in the black night. She imagines her aunt looking desperately up at the sky, in more pain from the shaming than from the baby that was about to be born. The aunt experiences a pattern of out-of-body experiences, feeling like a star in the sky, like space. When she feels the baby coming, she runs to the pigsty (some women used to give birth in pigsties to confuse jealous gods who did not steal piglets).
Kingston figures that her aunt might have wanted to protect the baby, so that someone would look after her spirit when she was gone. But then, Kingston thinks, the aunt remembered that the family wouldn't recognize that she ever existed, so the child wouldn't even know to take care of her spirit.
Kingston believes that her aunt's decision to die with her child was an honorable act that showed how much she loved her baby. She knew the child would also live a disgraced life and did not want her baby to suffer (1.46). Kingston figures her baby was a girl since boys were more likely to be forgiven.
Kingston pulls out from her aunt's story and speaks again of the time when her mom was having this conversation with her. Her mom reminds her not to tell anyone that she knows any of this. Kingston remarks on how silly she was to have believed her mom's words. It would shame her dad to have his dead sister brought up.
Kingston laments having taken part in this punishment of her aunt in the twenty years since she learned of her existence. She does not even know her name.
Kingston writes that her aunt's worst punishment was not the villager's raid but her family's deliberate forgetting of her.
Kingston imagines her aunt now existing as a ghost who has no ancestors pay respect to her, no prayers spoken for her, or fruit left out to feed her spirit.
Kingston feels her aunt haunting her, since she is the only one who has dedicated anything to her aunt. She has written these pages for her.