In Women of the Silk, there is great significance placed on expectations of women, specifically in China circa 1920’s, including pressures to live a certain lifestyle and behave in an appropriate manner at all times. The differences between how women react to these pressures is first depicted by the contrast between Pei and her older sister Li. While from my modern American perspective Pei is clearly the stronger, more admirable of the two, this is quite opposite from the traditional Chinese perspective of the time.
Li is a principal example of the ideal woman from the Chinese culture perspective. She is, by nature, a dutiful and submissive girl, who wishes to please others and stick to the status quo. This is evident throughout childhood, and continues as she gets older and is expected to marry. In contrast, Pei is curious by nature, always asking questions and seeking answers, despite being reprimanded frequently for doing so. Li’s passive nature and Pei’s bold, defiant manner are revealed throughout the novel, beginning with their childhood. For example, whenever the two girls play together, Pei is always the one running ahead and then stopping to wait on her sister. Pei asks questions which Li calmly answers, and while Pei explores her surroundings, Li is content to sit still and quietly. One passage on page 19 of the text reads, “…Next to [Pei], she could hear Li’s even breathing and feel her calmness. Li’s hands rested quietly on her knees, while Pei’s felt the ground beside them for anything that would make the water splash.” This example depicts the dissimilarity between the two girls’ personalities and contrasts Pei’s curiosity with Li’s contentment.
This difference between the sisters is significant in that it is the factor that ultimately dictates which of them their father, Pao, will decide to send to work in the silk factory. After visiting a fortune teller, who predicts that Li will get married but is unsure of Pei’s fate, Pao decides that Pei is better suited to work at the factory, as there is no guarantee of being able to marry her off and lighten the family’s financial burden. Consequently, Pei’s life is set in motion on an unusual path, and one that certainly does not conform to the standards and expectations of women at the time.
Li’s subservient nature is further proven later in the novel, when she marries a much older farmer simply because she thinks it is what is expected of her. While her father does not force her to marry the farmer, she does anyway because it is what she is “supposed” to do, and she assumes it will please her family. Likewise, she still does not go back to her family when she finds out that her new husband is violent and abusive, as women are expected to be loyal to their husbands no matter what. Although this trait of being passive and obedient is considered to be a positive attribute within her culture, it is one that seems to come at a much larger price than it is worth. While Pei may not be overjoyed to be sent to the factory, I would consider her fate far less tragic than that of Li’s marriage to the farmer.
Just as Li’s compliance stays with her as she matures out of childhood, so does Pei’s curiosity. At the silk factory, Pei asks questions primarily to Lin, who answers them with a kind of patience and willingness that Pei is not accustomed to. Pei’s impulsive nature is exposed once again when she decides, on a whim, that she wants to go through the hair dressing ceremony with Lin.
Pei and Li’s mother, Yu-sung, grew up in a family that allowed her to forego social expectations for women and instead encouraged her lively spirit and curiosity. However, when she marries, she faces much heavier social pressure to become quiet and submissive. Rather than refusing to conform to these expectations, she adapts to the fullest extent. Now, as we see by her obedience to Pao, her entire disposition has changed drastically since her childhood. Yu-sung never states her thoughts if they conflict with those of her husband. For example, although she does not necessarily agree that Pei should be sent to work, she would never utter a single word of protest, especially to Pao. While in our culture it is expected that a married couple make important decisions together, Yu-sung does not get involved in any critical family decisions throughout the novel, no matter how strongly she feels. This isn’t to say she is apathetic by any means, as it is revealed upon Pei’s return how much she truly cares. However, it does show the high priority she places on fulfilling her roles as a woman and a wife properly and in the way anticipated of her.
Another example of a character that, like Pei, refuses to conform to social norms and expectations is Auntie Yee’s daughter, Chen Ling. Chen Ling is portrayed as a charismatic leader among the girls at the silk factory, and it is made evident that she lives according to her own expectations of herself rather than pressure she feels from others and/or society in general. For example, Chen Ling is the first to decide to go through a hair dressing ceremony, clearly showing that she likes to pave her own path in life rather than taking a trail someone else has already paved. For this reason, although Chen Ling is not a particularly sociable character, she captures my respect and admiration throughout the novel.
The intensity of the pressure placed on women in this culture is difficult to comprehend in this day and age. However, the character in the novel that helps me develop a better understanding of the true force behind these pressures is Mei-li. Mei-li faces her family’s expectation of her to marry the man they chose for her, whether love exists between the two or not. She also faces society’s expectations, which dictate that sex outside of marriage is inexcusable. All of the stress and weight of these pressures are what ultimately drive Mei-li to commit suicide. In this instance, it seems to me that Mei-li’s actions are less representative of her own character, but rather say more about the society as a whole. Her suicide calls attention to the injustice in the existence of such extreme pressure and inequality that is capable of causing someone to end their own life.
In Jasmine, the main character, Jasmine, shows characteristics of both strength and weakness. The expectations she faces are somewhat different between the Indian background she comes from and the American culture circa 1980’s in which she becomes immersed, and she handles them in different ways as well.
The first time we see Jasmine refusing to follow the “gender rules” of society is when she kills Half Face in chapter 17 of the novel. She mentions that this is not her first time being raped; it has happened on many other accounts before. However, this time, rather than act in a submissive manner again as one would expect of an Indian woman, especially one so badly frightened, Jasmine loses control of her calm facade and brutally kills her rapist, referred to as Half Face. The second instance I notice in which Jasmine is nonconforming in regards to social norms is when she stays at the house of the Vadhera family. Rather than keeping her thoughts to herself, she takes matters into her own hands and is open about being unhappy there, which ultimately leads to her moving to New York. If she had not made anyone else aware of her depressed feelings, Jasmine would have stayed true to her role as a traditional Indian woman, at the expense of her true hopes and dreams.
In contrast to these examples and to what we had learned throughout the book of Jasmine’s somewhat rebellious nature, one might argue that she “settles” when moves to Iowa and stays with Bud. Although she is not in love with Bud, she stays at first because he is good to her and because she feels pity for him. However, when Taylor shows up to bring her back with him, Jasmine’s true colors shine through again, as she is unwilling to refuse herself happiness to convenience others or satisfy their expectations of her. While it may be mistaken as selfishness that leads her to behave this way, I think of it more as a strength. Jasmine is able to claim her own life by refusing to conform to the social expectations of her Indian culture or of American culture.
While characters from these two novels approach societal expectations in different manners, I think the same is true in every culture. There will always be a large contrast between those who go after what they want and refuse to be deterred by social pressure versus those who would rather fold to authority and please everyone around them. While there are assets to be found in both types of women, it is the “Chen Ling’s” and “Jasmine’s” that the world seems to remember and adore. Everyone has fears, and when we see someone able to throw fear to the wind and behave as they wish rather than as they believe they should, it is hard not to admire that person. From my perspective, people like Jasmine, Pei, and Chen Ling, who chase happiness and refuse to abide by social dictations, should not be ashamed in the least. Rather, those such as Li and Yu-sung, who conform to their roles so completely that they deny themselves of happiness in the process, need to learn their self-worth and realize that they are smart and capable of thinking for themselves.