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Caught between Scylla and Charybdis of Race and Gender: the Characters in Hwang's ''M. Butterfly'' and Hughes's ''Soul Gone Home''
Human identity is not a solid undivided entity that always functions as one single agent. It consists of numerous parts, while each of them represents a certain sphere of human existence. When defining human identity, it is necessary to take into account the age of the person, his/her profession, education, earnings, etc. However, in most cases the greatest role is played by such parameters as race and gender. They appear to be so strong and powerful while creating the frames of the human activity that sometimes it becomes almost impossible to change the established norms. Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” and Hughes’s “Soul Gone Home” depict the people who have to deal with the consequences of their race and gender. Song in Hwang’s play and Mother in Hughes’s work are not free to live the lives they choose, but forced to comply with the norms and stereotypes of their race and gender.
Although Song in “M. Butterfly” is not actually a woman, the essay is devoted to the analysis of the concept of femininity and its characteristics as they are designed by the governing society. Moreover, it aims at studying the intersections of race and gender, precisely the attitude of the strong to the weak. Current paper highlights the two manifestations of the issue – the relations between the ruling white society and the oppressed social groups, and the relations between the men and the women functioning on the same basis.
Discrimination and oppression on the grounds of race and gender is one of the most significant themes in Hwang’s “M. Butterfly”. The character of Song is the embodiment of such crucial social problems. Gallimard, a low-level French diplomat, dreams of a perfect Oriental woman whose only goal in life is to satisfy all needs of a white man. He is so obsessed with his idea that he, both consciously and subconsciously, refuses to notice that Song is not a woman, but a man called “nan dan”, an actor who plays female roles in traditional Chinese opera. They had been close and had sexual relations for several years, but Gallimard still insisted on Song’s being his perfect Madame Butterfly.
By exaggerating the situation and making it so grotesque, Hwang highlights that the scale of misunderstandings both between male / female and East / West is enormous. Song is a character that is supposed to give the readers a chance to think of such two types of discrimination simultaneously. He says, “The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor...but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom – the feminine mystique” (Hwang 2866). Hwang makes Gallimard naive, morally weak and self-centered to highlight the ignorance of the majority of Western people who arrive to the Eastern countries to explore or even conquer them. Gallimard believes that “veni, vedi, vici” method of behavior is the best option to deal with any eastern state and the people who live there, especially women. It can be proved by the advice about the Vietnam War he gave to American diplomats. Gallimard is absolutely sure in the fact that all non-white ethnicities would be happy to serve the representatives of the white race both politically, economically, and sexually.
The aim of many Hwang’s works can be described in the following way – “to denaturalize whiteness by incorporating a constructivist perspective and unmasking the ideological parameters of whiteness: to make visible an invisible norm” – and “M. Butterfly” is not an exception (Shin 177). The intersection of race and gender issues analyzed in the text can be perfectly described by Song’s phrase that he used to characterize the “white” understanding of “Madame Butterfly” – “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (Hwang 2826). It is clear that in reality such stereotypes do not work or bring anything positive to the individual. They damage the person’s perception of the outside world and make him/her live in the darkness of ignorance.
Moreover, they force people who use them to “measure” the world to neglect the real feelings and emotions of other people. "I am pure imagination," Song says. "And in imagination I will remain" (Hwang 2868). Song argues that Gallimard is happy to choose fantasy and avoid reality. He only knows what Song must do according to his vision of a perfect Eastern woman, but has no idea about what Song actually wants to do. However, at the end of the play Hwang shows that if the person has enough inner strength, as Song had, he can break the fetters and even revenge.
In “Soul Gone Home” the situation is not as clear as in Hwang’s play. Mother in Hughes’s text cannot be called perfect. She obviously paid too little attention to her son and many of his accusations are just. Their conversation starts with Son characterizing his Mother’s behavior only from the negative perspective. He is very angry with her and calls her “a hell of a mama” and “a no-good mama” (Hughes 267). However, the play is not as simple as it may seem. It is not just a story of a child accusing a parent who used to neglect him. As Hughes says in one of his letters, both of the characters in the play are “hard-boiled marginal people, slum-shocked products of the rip tides of life” (Hughes 266).
Son has his own vision of how Mother should behave and how she should influence his life. In many aspects such situation is similar to the relations between Gallimard and Song. Both Gallimard and Son from “Soul Gone Home” did not want to refuse their own stereotypes about the female behavior. Although Son has much more grounds for his claims, certain stereotyping and unwillingness to listen to the female point of view are, nevertheless, obvious. When Son tries to explain the reasons why he considers his Mother to be a bad parent, he always puts the emphasis on the economic conditions of his life. He says “we never had no money” and claims that Mother could not even buy him milk and eggs (Hughes 268).
The audience, of course, feels much sympathy to Son as Mother’s grief is in some cases exaggerated and probably even faked, but Hughes exerts every effort to make the theme of the play deep and multidimensional. The author implicitly asks the question whether it was Mother’s own choice or it was forced onto her by the society and the economic reality that she was unable to combat effectively. Mother’s tone is always strongly defensive. She keeps asking her Son, “when I had money, ain’t I fed you”, but her arguments are always beaten by Son’s words (Hughes 268). Mother tells her Son, “I been worried with you for sixteen years” and mentions that her life was ruined by the man who was Ronnie’s father. Anyway, Son does not consider her contribution to his life and her explanations satisfactory (Hughes 269). Moreover, he blames her for trying to use him as an additional source of income making him sell the papers in the streets. Similar situations were described in many other Hughes’s works. He often claims that black women faced even more hardships than men as they suffered the burden of both the “weak” sex and the “uncivilized” ethnic group. Some of black women had enough inner strength and courage to counteract such impact, but it is not the case of Mother in “Soul Gone Home”.
Mother is undeniably a weak character who lost many positive human features of character in the course of her hardships that were primarily caused by her belongingness to the black race. She, being a black woman at the first decades of the twentieth century, had almost no chances to break the never-ending circle of poverty and starvation. Hughes often criticizes the American society for its inability to grant equality to all people regardless their gender and race. Westover writes, “Hughes expresses his ambivalent attitudes toward his country through the repeated motifs of the Middle Passage, slavery, African American culture, and a diasporan "pan-Africanism"” (1207). The play “Soul Gone Home” explores nearly all the above-mentioned themes though they are rather subdued and compressed than deeply analyzed and developed. Here, Hughes studies the relations between ethnicity, gender, and the economic status of the person and all other above-mentioned issues become revealed due to further individual insights of the readers as the play contains many indirect references to them.
To conclude, both “M. Butterfly” and “Soul Gone Home” explore the themes of gender and race. Both works focus on the analysis of the inner world and behavioral patterns of the characters that belong to the oppressed race. In addition, both Song and Mother are supposed to have had much less opportunities in their lives than men, as they were stereotypically put into the category of “weak” females that should correspond to the norms and standards established by the society. Such intersection makes the characters of Song and Mother very dramatic and allows the readers to study them from different angles and perspectives.
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