An inconvenient woman - The character of Madame Wu from 'Pavilion of Women' by Pearl S. Buck

Essay, 2006

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0


In 1946, Pearl S. Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1938, published Pavilion of Women, a novel about a Chinese woman who withdraws from married life by ordering a concubine for her husband. The inspiring work deals with Chinese traditions in particular as well as with general questions of individual freedom and existence, possession, love, religion, (female) psychology, gender issues and human interrelations. Although critics tend to complain especially about the story’s sentimentalism,[1] there are, however, many colourful descriptions of Chinese habits and customs, which may not only teach Western readers a great deal about the exotic culture but also about divergent philosophical and psychological issues. This essay is, above all, to concentrate on the extraordinary female protagonist, Madame Wu, the matron of an influential aristocratic Chinese family. At this, focuses on questions like the following: How is the specific woman presented with regard to her (outer) physical appearance and body features, but also concerning her (inner) characteristic attributes, in other words, her mind? In what way are symbols employed to undermine her characteristics? And, how is the character development – from the indifferent rationalist to the woman capable for love – underlined?[2]

Right from the start Madame Wu’s attractive and delicate appearance is distinctly emphasized. She, a woman who is blessed with both fertile wits and a blemishless body, has got a “calm face”, a “delicate nose”, a “small red mouth”, “shining, straight hair” (which reveals to be a Chinese beau ideal),[3] a “beautiful face” and a “gentle voice”[4] (1).[5] All these features of stereotyped fine beauty appear again and again to stress the woman’s outer perfection, which seems to quasi impinge on her inner self.[6] Due to her faultless appearance, Madame Wu does not know what it is like to envy something – “she had no need to be jealous” (6). Similarly, others do not really affect her, the epitome of an “unapproachable” being (13). Although she really manages everything in the court with ultimate perfection, starting with financial matters through to love affairs of children[7] – and finally also of her husband –, she appears to be emotionally deaf and blind for others. Indeed, the threefold mother “was so beautiful, so perfect, that she was beyond the reach of all anger, all reproach.” (45) Maybe this rational calmness of an intelligent but rather equal mind is also to be seen as the secret of the protagonist’s exceeding reasonability.

Especially in the first part of the novel, Madame Wu reveals to be a decent, rather quiet woman, which e.g. becomes apparent in the fact that she abandons scarcely anything about her marriage when speaking with her friend Madame Kang: They “had never talked of Mr. Wu”. (8) And also when the concubine has arrived, Madame Wu’s reply to her Madame Kang’s curious questions just is, “I feel I have nothing to tell.” (98) So her fundamental taciturnity becomes apparent.

However, especially her voice – “so feminine that it concealed everything” (2) – is a striking indicator of Madame Wu’s actual state of mind – and, moreover, of her gradually changing temper. The very female virtue of her voice and her manner-of-speaking is obviously pointed out at her significant fortieth birthday party, when she speaks with a “voice always pretty and smooth and gentle as water slipping over stones.” (25) This metaphor not only conveys the imagination of a highly melodious and, thus, pleasant sound, the complex symbol of water, furthermore, stands for mental purification and renewing in Buddhism; and it is subordinated to the female system of “yin”, expressing fertility.[8] Accordingly, it is connected with motherhood, being the wellspring of every life.[9]

Yet, her voice also reveals that the Madame Wu, at the beginning of the novel, is an extremely moderate, astonishingly cold person. This is, for instance, indicated in her first conversation with Rulan, her second dauther-in-law, when Madame Wu’s “cool voice conveyed no interest” (43). Appropriately, “her pretty smile […] was neither sad nor gay” (26), which already suggests a certain lifelessness.

In accordance to this emotional deadness and apathy, the protagonist never screams, nor giggles, nor yells. Likewise, she never cries or shows tears, since all this would presuppose a condition of emotiveness – and this Madame Wu obviously cannot reach until her frequent encounters with André, the Western priest, make her learn many valuable lessons and sentiments.


[1] Cf. e.g. Doyle (1965), 133.

[2] To answer this questions I am going to focus on symbolism as well as on the protagonist’s thoughts and interrelations.

[3] Especially Meng, who is very curly, envies her mother-in-law for her ‘perfect’ hair.

[4] Her voice can even be considered as an indication for her character development.

[5] All page numbers in brackets refer to the primary source (cf. bibliography).

[6] In this context, Naomi Weisstein (1976) cites an interesting theory of Erik Erikson (1965), who proceeds on the assumption that “much of a young woman’s identity is already defined in her kind of attractiveness and in the selectivity of her search or the man (or men) by whom she wishes to be sought.” (91ff.)

[7] She has for instance chosen the wife for her first son Liangmo (cf. 15).

[8] Cf. Becker (1998), 323.

[9] Ibid., 325

Excerpt out of 11 pages


An inconvenient woman - The character of Madame Wu from 'Pavilion of Women' by Pearl S. Buck
University of Siegen  (FB 3: Literatur-, Sprach- und Medienwissenschaften)
Nobel Prize Winners in English: Instantly Canonized?
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Madame, Pavilion, Women, Pearl, Buck, Nobel, Prize, Winners, English, Instantly, Canonized
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Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2006, An inconvenient woman - The character of Madame Wu from 'Pavilion of Women' by Pearl S. Buck, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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