The theme of alienation is clearly expressed in the Asian-American literature of the 20th century. Asian writers who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century lived a challenging life. Most Korean-American and Chinese-American authors were formed in cultural isolation, which influenced their worldview to find their identity. Therefore, such topics as finding one’s self in the world, alienation from the immediate environment and its ideas about life, and the search for love and recognition are popular. In both stories, The Wings by Yi Sang and No Name Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston, the protagonists suffer from social isolation, and their namelessness finds its reflection in alienation from their communities.
As it is shown in the short story No Name Woman, having a child without being married in the early 20th century in the Chinese community was socially condemned and led to isolation. Kingston begins her narration with the story of a woman without a name, introducing the reader to the position of women in traditional China. The namelessness of the protagonist, her aunt, speaks of the social alienation of a woman and the impossibility of perceiving herself as an individual in a patriarchal society. When Maxine’s aunt becomes pregnant, the townspeople insult her and the entire family. When it is time for her to deliver a child, she is completely alone (Kingston 233). After realizing how limited the baby’s prospects are, the woman jumps into the well, committing suicide. After that, her family has been pretending that she never existed.
The scene of birth in No Name Woman symbolizes the scale of the protagonist’s alienation from the community. She goes to the field to run away from the curses of her family and neighbors. She is alone during labor, delivering a child in darkness and total isolation. The woman feels that only a boundless sky with the stars is her companion: “She was one of the stars, a bright dot in blackness, without a home, without a companion” (Kingston 234). The Chinese cultural tradition, based on nepotism and patriarchal values, attached great importance to marital status and the stability of marriage. That is why persistent negative stereotypes have been formed in Chinese society towards a single mother. In traditional society, being born out of wedlock was a dishonor not only for a woman, but also for her entire family, and became a lifelong stigma for a child.
In this short story, loneliness is presented as the loss of two relationships: connection with oneself and connection with the social world. Alienation reflects the disharmony of relations between “I” and “they”, discord with the world and oneself, accompanied by suffering and crises. The motive of isolation of the no-name woman is displayed by her falling out of accepted norms, customs, and traditions (Kingston 233). Single mothers were marginalized due to cultural prejudices; thus, as demonstrated in the story, social isolation at the individual level could lead to the exclusion of a person from meaningful participation in society. The historically established contemptuous attitude towards single mothers and their children contradicts the modern model of society and especially the model of a harmonious society that China is building.
Similarly, in Yi Sang’s novel The Wings, the problem of the protagonist’s alienation is one of the main themes. It is perceived not only in the socio-historical aspect but is brought to a new psychological level. The protagonist’s life is characterized by abandonment in an alien and hostile world and the tragedy of irresistible loneliness and complete insecurity. The narrator is a speechless, child-like man, partly autistic or with some psychological problems. He lives a marginalized life in one room with her wife who works as a prostitute. Her wife gives sleeping pills to him while she accepts men in their room (Sang et al. 67). The author highlights the alienation, isolation, and even schizophrenia of the protagonist to isolate him from the society in which he lives.
The Wings can be understood as an allegorical appeal against the colonial oppression of Korea under Japanese rule. The author explores the destructive effects of existential withdrawal from the insanity of modern realities. The feelings of a loner are transmitted in the scene when he touches and sniffs his wife’s things. “I take out my wife’s hand mirror and play with it in various ways. A mirror is of practical use only when it reflects one’s face. At all other times, it is nothing but a toy” (Sang et al. 69). While her wife was satisfying other men, he was playing with her mirror, touching, and sniffing her clothes.
The inner state of an outsider here is used as a metaphor. Like other Korean people under Japanese rule, he suffered from isolation and self-imposed slavery. This story can be also understood as a decline of a man who has lost his relationship with his wife, society, the world, and, most important, with himself (Sang et al. 70). Narrated from the point of view of a childish man who is isolated in the dark part of a room while his wife receives clients, the story is a modernist work about total alienation.
In both The Wings and No Name Woman, protagonists are forcedly isolated from others, trying to protect the boundaries of their selves, but they fail. It would seem that the loss of self, in this case, should not occur. However, its cognition does not happen directly; it becomes possible only in the process of relationships with the world and the dynamics of these relationships. It is impossible to designate the properties of one’s self outside of some social categories, nominations, and situations that define them. Having become isolated, a person deprives himself or herself of situations of active interaction with the world. Therefore the properties of his or her self-remain close and unknown to him. Thus, there is a gradual loss of the sense of one’s self, as shown in both stories.
The state of loneliness, seen in both works of Asian-American authors, always occurs with a long-term imbalance of the processes of identification and isolation. The experience of loneliness is preceded by the disproportion of the mechanisms of identification and alienation, which inevitably affects the mental well-being of a person. In particular, this manifests itself in the loss of a sense of one’s self and, consequently, in the inability to adequately assess oneself in a particular social role. Therefore, readers can see how both protagonists cannot make conscious choices or take a certain position in various life situations.
Comparing the positions of the two protagonists in The Wings and No Name Woman, it can be concluded that the seemingly different people are quite similar characters, typical for the twentieth century. They are nameless, alien to the world, society, and themselves. Awareness of his loneliness and rejection connects Yi Sang’s character with the image of a nameless Maxine Hong Kingston’s aunt. Both authors create dynamic, psychologically complex, and contradictory characters. Their wish to resist emptiness, deceit and contempt of the surrounding world finds expression in the desire to leave this world.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. No Name Woman. ABC, 1981.
Sang, Yi, et al. The Wings. Jimoondang Publishing Company, 2001.