The Unity of Opposites: Kingston’s The Mystery of Silence and Toth’s Boyfriends
Two stories analyzed are connected in a very interesting manner: it can be regarded even before the analysis of the texts. First of all, their authors are women who were both born in 1940. They also published the books included these stories (The Misery of Silence is a part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoirs while Boyfriends is a part of Susan Allen Toth’s memoirs) with a difference of one year (1980 and 1981), when both writers were 40 years old. Two female writers from the same epoch, besides, had very different problems because of their national distinctions. Susan Toth was born in her beloved native England: during her writer’s career she published many books in order to express her earnest love to Fatherland. The second writer, Maxine Kingston, was not so much happy because since her childhood she spent her life in the foreign country, USA. She was always between two cultures: Chinese and American, and both became her integral parts. Certainly, it left a trace on her whole works, especially – memoirs. That is why it is very interesting – to compare two stories from memoirs of two in so high degree different faces of one epoch. It is very difficult to overestimate the impact of cultural and social factors on a personality, besides, every culture must have something in common, not only the differences. The main goal of this work is to show through the texts of Toth’s and Kingston’s stories that in every culture and every situation people have problems with understanding each other, and they use some instruments in order to replace some difficult situation from the control of their consciousness under the control of the unconsciousness. This idea is embodied in both stories and concerns either verbal (The Misery of Silence) or nonverbal (Boyfriends) communication.
In The Misery of Silence, the author tells her miserable life in a foreign state. The story is focused on children of different nationalities, which are unified by the compulsory English language and different American cultural norms, represented by the author within the text. She tells about children and even tries to be soft speaking about childhood as is in common, besides, Kingston can not remember those times and stay calm: that hurt, which she felt during her life in foreign USA as a child, separated by her Chinese family and American unifying (oppressive in other words) culture, is still in her heart. The author can not forgive those Americans who asked her to repeat when it was difficult to understand what does she speak about. She still remembers with the thrill in her soul about those times when Japanese kids tortured her in a childish, ruthless manner. All of these problems were connected with that situation when children from different social and ethnic groups were organized in one school and those who could form the most powerful group chased and offended others. In such a situation, little Chinese girl who could not effectively communicate with anyone non-Chinese, invented her first mean, which helped her wider the borders of her peers understanding: it was humor. Humor was the instrument needed to increase Maxine’s popularity in her school: “ I drank out of a toy saucer when the water spilled out of the cup, and everybody laughed, pointing at me, so I did it some more” (Kingston 270). Another place, where she could feel herself free was Chinese school, where everyone could understand each other and Maxine with her sister “found voice” (Kingston 271). This breath of freedom lasted every day “from 5:00 to 7:30 PM” (Kingston 271). That is why it is not so much strange that the story about a girl who lived between two worlds is written in very oppressive and gray colors, hidden behind some author’s jokes.
Boyfriends opposites to this depressive story. The author did not live in any immigrant community; she was not tortured by contradictions between traditions and unification. Susan Toth is a romantic, soft woman who tells about her life and shows in the story a typical girl whose the most important wish is to kiss correctly because she is already 16 and has no experience needed. This topic concerns the inner world of every reader because everyone had some experience in this field at first at everyone was 16. Toth’s story is gorgeous: it contains many very beautiful and picturesque descriptions of nature, many names and details (in such a way, the author becomes closer to a reader, and this method makes an effect of intimacy between them. The story of Toth has a structure, its logic of narration and its light, humorous atmosphere. While Kingston tries to show through her jokes some degree of a lightheartedness, of a some freedom during mentioning her childhood, it is evidently that those events left an eternal stain on her soul. Besides, Toth, whose Boyfriends, as every story in romantic style pretends to be in some degree pensive, meditative, described just happy young people whose the most difficult problem is how to kiss correctly. There is a good example of Toth’s light, optimistic manner to write prose: “we were all in a holiday mood, lazy and happy in the warm breezes that swept through the open windows” (185). These stories have many mentioned features which can be opposed; it does not change the fact of one very important common detail: in Boyfriends also is mentioned the question of misunderstanding between people. The problem is not connected with any contradictions between native and foreign language. The problem is that people just can not understand each other because the social world with its restrictions and counterbalancing mechanisms makes their lives too complicated and uncertain. The author tells that Peter, her boyfriend, could be even gay, but she could not learn it because such a question can not be stated directly. There are some other details such of a kind: for example, when Susan, Peter and their friends danced, she “was getting a little bored” and she considered that others are too bored, but everyone danced according to the social norms, which did not allow anyone to leave the dances in order to let others still dance. In the story by Susan Toth, there are two means to feel free: guns and cars. These two categories of things were the most precious for the boyfriends of girls described indirectly in the story. According to the text, Peter’s gun helped Susan to organize the first their dating, when she could not make it by words. “Cars were our private space, a rolling parlor, the only place we could relax and be ourselves… Driving gave us a feeling of freedom” (Toth 184). Cars and guns, Chinese school and little Maxine’s jokes – these are the symbols of the inner nonverbal language, which helps people to understand each other without unification, without loss of individuality.
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As for the figurative language of The Misery of Silence, the author uses many metaphors: for example, “our cigar boxes, in which we had arranged books, brushes, and an inkbox neatly” (Kingston 271). She tries in such a way to be playful, but her tone is nevertheless too serious. Kingston tries to make her story more persuasive by use of such rhetorical instruments as pathos (she appeals to readers feeling of pity, that is why either the title, which includes the word “misery”, or multiple memoirs of difficult life of Chinese immigrant in USA) and ethos (the author shows her difficult life to a reader, and it gives her right to tell everything she wants about those times). Kingston’s attempts to make the story more readable by humor makes much more oppressive effect because in such a way the author in a paradoxical manner connects ruthless deeds and innocent state of mind of children.
As for Boyfriends, the story shows many shades and details that is why its figurative language is very rich. Toth tries to show what 16-years old girl felt, what did she speak and think about, and for this purpose she uses special words, such as “sweet-sixteen-and-never-been-kissed” (182), or as her statement that she in figurative meaning magicked Peter. With the help of mentioned details, descriptions of nature, many names and other specific features of Toth’s story, she makes an effect of intimacy between the author and the reader, so, the story is told in intimate tone. Toth uses pathos (she appeals to feelings of everyone who was 16 and who kissed at the first time), ethos (it is her memoir and she was the main character when the story took place in real life) and humor (she shows these “sorrows” of a young girl in ironical manner and in such a way she appeals to the first steps of readers in the field of romantic relations).
These two stories, as the analysis shows, are very different, but also they have many common things. Both stories tell about the first steps of a girl in some symbolical system (language of Americans or language of love) where she could not feel herself free and tried to find some place in order to save her individuality. The specifics of differences between these two stories is primarily determined by those conditions, in which the authors lived: Susan Toth lived in her native England that is why her prose is calm, beautiful and happy. Maxine Kingston lived in USA, in the family of a Chinese immigrant. It is the reason why her prose is colored in gray tones. Besides, both stories tell about such a situation, when the main character appears in some new situation and can not resolve the problems she got from it. There is only one way: to find some place (in figurative meaning), which can protect the individuality from changeable world and from social, cultural and other kinds of oppression. In such a way, two opposite texts are united by the symbolical leitmotiv of the connection between freedom and understanding.
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Kingston, Maxine Hong. “The Misery of Silence”. Life Studies: An Analytic Reader. Ed. David Cavitch. 7th ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2001. 269-272. Print.
Toth, Susan Allen. “Boyfriends”. Life Studies: An Analytic Reader. Ed. David Cavitch. 7th ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2001. 182-187. Print.