The Symbolic Role of the Ghost in Morrison's Beloved and Kingston's No Name Woman
The eponymous ghosts which haunt Toni Morrison's Beloved and Maxine Hong Kingston's "No Name Woman" (excerpted from The Woman Warrior) embody the consequence of transgressing societal boundaries through adultery and murder. While the wider thematic concerns of both books differ, however both authors use the ghost figure to represent a repressed historical past that is awakened in their narrative retelling of the stories. The ghosts facilitate this retelling of stories that give voice to that which has been silenced, challenging this repression and ultimately reversing it.
The patriarchal repression of Chinese women is illustrated by Kingston's story of No Name Woman, whose adulterous pregnancy is punished when the villagers raid the family home. Cast out by her humiliated family, she births the baby and then drowns herself and her child. Her family exile her from memory by acting as if "she had never been born" (3) -- indeed, when the narrator's mother tells the story, she prefaces it with a strict injunction to secrecy so as not to upset the narrator's father, who "denies her" (3). By denying No Name Woman a name and place in history, leaving her "forever hungry," (16) the patriarchy exerts the ultimate repression in its attempt to banish the transgressor from history. Yet her ghost continues to exist in a liminal space, remaining on the fringes of memory as a cautionary tale passed down by women, but is denied full existence by the men who "do not want to hear her name" (15).
Kingston's narrator tackles this repression when she sympathetically frames No Name Woman's story as one of subjugation, pointing out that "women in the old China did not choose." (6) The very telling of this hushed-up story boldly challenges the patriarchally-imposed silence -- Gayle K. Fujita Sato asserts that "the ghost of No Name Woman has given the narrator 'ancestral help' to become a word warrior" (Sato, 140). The narrator honours the ghost with paper -- not in the Chinese "origamied" (16) style, but through the American words and writing. This articulation itself is a betrayal by "telling on [the ghost]," but in her reversal of repression, the narrator tries to negotiate between two "antithetical" (Sato, 139) worlds of her culture and find a "newly articulated home ground" (Sato, 146).
Morrison's ghost, Beloved, symbolizes the repressed horrors of slavery. Sethe's desire to "put [her] babies where they'd be safe" (164) manifests violently when she kills her daughter, Beloved, rather than have her caught by the slave-catchers. This transgression is repressed for eighteen years as Sethe is ostracized by her own community, who cannot understand her actions. The ghost of Beloved haunts 124 with a "baby's venom" (3) but later takes the concrete form of a young girl who shows up on Sethe's doorstep. Beloved establishes a debilitating relationship of guilt: "Beloved was...