Pavilion of Women – Pearl S. Buck (1946)

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After having stumbled upon an old copy of the 1946 publication of Pearl S. Buck’s “Pavilion of Women” (no “The”), I was intrigued. I might have already read this but it’s been many moons ago and so I picked this up to read last week.

Wow. Great read. It’s follows Madame Wu and how, on her 40th birthday, she informs everyone (including her husband) that now their physical (i.e. s*x) is over, she wants him to find a concubine to replace her in that way. This decision upends her whole family and it will never be the same again.

What’s unusual about this is it’s a reversal of the typical gender roles fo this time: typically, it’s the husband who wants the concubine set-up and the wife is objecting. (For Madame Wu to turn this on its head is really notable, especially for the readers 60+ years ago.)

Additionally, it’s also more typical that the husband handle the logistics of this set-up; however, since the husband is reluctant to do this arrangement, Buck turns that on its head and makes Madame Wu be the person who handles all these details. In doing so, Buck completely reverses societal norms and mores. It’s really fascinating.

So, the narrative follows Madame Wu’s efforts to arrange this for her husband. Once it is done, Madame Wu proves her independence and relishes her new-found spare time and energy to read books in her room, knowing that her husband will be occupied with the concubine. It’s a clever way of showing how strong Madame Wu and how she takes charge of her life.

I would also argue that this plot is a reflection of the change in society, both in the Western world and that of China, especially in terms of gender roles and expectations in the rather rigid Chinese culture at that time.

The process is all going smoothly when Madame Wu meets a visiting foreigner (probably in a missionary capacity) called Brother John who has been hired to teach a foreign language to Madame Wu’s youngest son to improve his marriageability. Brother John not opens door to learning for this son but also for Madame Wu and her life is never going to be the same.

“I will spend the rest of my life assembling my own mind and my own soul. I will take care of my body carefully, not that it may any more please a man, but because it houses me and therefore I am dependent upon it.”

Madame Wu in the novel, “The Good Earth” (1946).
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This is a book that reads really smoothly and I thoroughly enjoyed this. It also gives you a lot to think about once you’ve turned that final page as well, and I love that. Highly recommended.

(If you have to read this in HS and thought “meh!”, you might want to give it another read now once some years pass. You’re a whole new person, after all, so wouldn’t it make sense for it to be a different read from you were 17? :-))

The only squirmy part of this was Pearl Buck is a white person who is telling this very-Chinese story. Is it right that Buck takes the POVs of her characters and views them through the lens of a non-white country? Or is that coopting something that isn’t hers to own?

And yet, at the time of the book’s release, this received rave reviews across the book-critic world and, after having lived in China for 40 years, Buck knows her stuff about the culture and she presents the country and its citizens in a positive and respectful manner. However, is it ok for her, as a privileged white woman, to write as a Chinese peasant and tell his story?

2 thoughts on “Pavilion of Women – Pearl S. Buck (1946)

  1. It’s a knotty topic. If she knows the cultural setting and tells the story well and authentically, then I don’t see a problem particularly as this is not a contemporary book. Nowadays, this would be more problematic because we live in a world where we should be encouraging diversity and Madame Wu should be telling her own story. So I would expect this from an older book but not from one nowadays…

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