By: Taylor Karaqi, Savannah Pearson, and Madeleine Grobelny
Ghosts are a common sight in literature. This is because ghosts play at least three important roles. Ghosts convey certain emotions, such as the happiness of a passed partner or sibling, the love of a mother, the protected and safe feeling of a father, or the complete opposite depending on how an author depicts their ghost. Ghosts also stir up memories and suggests that our loved ones are always with us, even in death. But the existence of ghosts in any sense originates from the age old need to convince ourselves that there is something beyond death’s cold embrace, that we do not simply cease to exist in an instant. Ghosts are also used to scare children into believing something or impart wisdom and reason on those who do not listen.
Ghost as a noun defined through the oxford english dictionary contains multiple definitions and five of these definitions are correspondent to The Woman Warrior and Mean:
- The spirit, or immaterial part of man, as distinct from the body or material part; the seat of feeling, thought, and moral action. Also, in New Testament language, the spirit n. or higher moral nature of man; opposed to flesh. Obsolete except in nonce-uses.
- A person. Cf. the similar use of soul n., spirit n.
- An incorporeal being; a spirit. local ghost: = Latin genius loci. Obsolete.
- The soul of a deceased person, spoken of as inhabiting the unseen world. In later use only = manes n.; sometimes in plural. Obsolete.
- The soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form, or otherwise manifesting its presence, to the living. (Now the prevailing sense.)
The Etymology of ghost according to etymonline.com is that the word began with Old English and biblical use in particular, “Old English gast “breath; good or bad spirit, angel, demon; person, man, human being,” in Biblical use “soul, spirit, life” . . .” The word ghost began its use as some form of supernatural being from West Germanic, “Ghost is the English representative of the usual West Germanic word for “supernatural being”. . . [the] Sense of “disembodied spirit of a dead person,” especially imagined as wandering among the living or haunting them, is attested from late 14c. and returns the word toward its likely prehistoric sense. . .The gh- spelling appeared early 15c. in Caxton, influenced by Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest, but was rare in English before mid-16c.” (etymonline.com) It is interesting that the original Old English form of the word has multiple meanings and has over time lessened to the most popular definition of a visible supernatural apparition. The being in which was chosen to be the representation for the Old English definition means the ghost as a spirit, demon, man or even vaguely a person is what modern literature and film capitalize on. Much of the media surrounding ghosts uses them to elicit certain feelings within the audience in the way both The Woman Warrior and Mean intend to.
The Woman Warrior and Ghosts
In The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, ghosts are used to represent both the unknown, and a fear of the past, meaning fear of repercussions that occurred in past events can influence future behaviors. Kingstons memoir explores the concept of ghosts through a series of stories pertaining to the narrator’s life along with those the narrator interacts with. The most influential story told by the narrator is one about an aunt no one discusses due to her impregnation by a man other than her husband, which ruins the family’s reputation. This backlash, against the aunt whom the narrator presumes to have been raped, makes her kill her newborn baby and herself in the family well as a “spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water” (Kingston, 16). The narrator uses the definition of “a person”, the aunt being the subject, and another definition, “The soul of a deceased person, spoken of as inhabiting the unseen world” (oxford english dictionary).
The family would rather the aunt be treated as if she had never been born and leave her unspoken of as a form of punishment even after the raid the villagers partook in to punish the aunt, “Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death” (16). Because the story was neglected for so many years, and the silence concerning the aunt almost fully erased her as a part of the family’s history, the narrator had punished her as well by not speaking of the story for years. Kingston writes about never asking for any details. or even asking the aunts name, which continues to punish the aunt. When the narrator decides to finally speak of her, she tells on the aunt in a way, “My aunt haunts me– her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect. . . I do not think she always means me well, I am telling on her” (16). The family’s refusal to acknowledge the aunt as a way to punish her in death coincides with the punishment of talking about the ending of her life without knowing any more than the surface details the narrator was told.
The fear of the unknown and the past arises when the narrator states, “The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.” (16) This visible apparition of the aunt would arouse fear in those she chose to gruesomely display herself for. Ghosts are a recurring motif in the novel, representing fear and the unknown. They are mainly shunned by humans, and relate to the overall theme of storytelling. Many of the stories told in the novel involve ghosts, such as the narrator’s aunt who was shunned by her family and displaying herself forces acknowledgement of how unfair her life was and continues to be.
Ghosts are also used to describe people and their occupations, “Then, without noticing her family, Moon Orchid walked smiling over to the Suitcase Inspector Ghost, who took her boxes apart, pulling out puffs of tissue” (117). Here, the security/ TSA checking Moon Orchid’s bags is described as “suitcase inspector ghost” (117). Despite not being an actual ghost, and rather a working person of society, he represents a moral character as he is doing his job and making sure of no potential danger of the airport. Without an implication of the ghost being moral or not, the recurring motif is observable in the chapter “Shaman” where Brave Orchid comes face to face with a ghost in order to prove her bravery to her roommates and friends.
“Wall Ghost and Frog Spirit” (65), are examples of the abundance of ghosts utilized in the novel, with each ghost representing a person or a thing. The narrator utilizes ghosts to put a label on things unfamiliar to her, or even American people. The abundance of ghosts is apparent in each chapter as the narrator involves them frequently in her narrations. Brave Orchid, the narrator’s mother, is confronted by the ghost Boulder on pages 67-75, in her college dormitory. She courageously lures it out by volunteering to spend the night in the school’s haunted room; telling her friends that she wants to prove there are no ghosts. Once Boulder arrives, she voluntarily faces it, alone. She wards him off, proving her strength and courage.
Mean and Ghosts
Mean by Myriam Gurba contains conversation regarding meanness, sexual assault, and ghosts through the life of the narrator. The narrator and a woman, named Sophia Torres, unfortunately share having the same man sexually assault them and this intertwines the women’s lives in both life and death. Within the first chapter, Gurba uses the word ghost as she opens the book imagining how Sophia Torres was assaulted and killed after being raped. Sophia is compared to a ghost of guilt and later on Gurba continues to assert that ghosts use the living for emotions and even action Sophia is imagined as, “always with me [the narrator]. She haunts me. Guilt is a ghost,” which opens up the claim of her ghost containing a “seat of feeling” (Gurba, 3). Attesting that ghosts use the living, Gurba continues, “Some ghosts listen to the radio through the bodies of the living. They use us to conduct pain, pleasure, music, and meaning. They burden us with feelings that are both ours and theirs” (Gurba, 3). This statement aligns with the definition of, “the seat of feeling, thought . . . ” as ghosts project and manipulate feelings of the living.
Much later Gurba uses ghost again but instead of referring to a literal ghost she speaks on a memory of a person, “Her absence was haunting the house, and I didn’t want to be there. I ran away from her ghost.” (53) The absence of the person and yet her unseen presence of the house combines two definitions of, “A person” and, “The soul of a deceased person, spoken of as inhabiting the unseen world. . .” (Oxford English Dictionary) While she is indeed talking about a living person, the prolonged period of this person’s absence makes them feel like a memory rather than a still existing person. And so the feeling of absence turns the person into a ghost in the narrator’s life.
Gurba repeats the phrase “guilt is a ghost” more than once in her work, Mean. After getting caught partying on the grave of Sophia, the narrator says, “Guilt is a ghost. Guilt interrupts narratives. It does so impolitely. Ghosts have no etiquette. What do they need it for? There is no Emily Post for ghosts” (55). This use of ghost can be drawn to the definitions “the seat of feeling, thought, and moral action. Also, in New Testament language, the spirit n. or higher moral nature of man; opposed to flesh” (Oxford English Dictionary) and “the spirit, or immaterial part of man, as distinct from the body or material part” (Oxford English Dictionary). In this instance, ghost is firstly addressed as a memory or a feeling rather a material being. Then about halfway through the quote the narrator starts to use ghost in its literal sense of a spirit. In doing so the narrator is first telling us that she feels guilty about partying on graves but quickly dismissed her own feelings with the excuse that ghosts have no etiquette of their own so she should feel nothing for lacking etiquette herself.
The narrator always quite often refers to caucasian people by the term ghost as seen in this quote, “I still hang out with white girls. I still hang out with ghosts.” (Gurba, 60) This usage of ghost uses the definition “a person” (Oxford English Dictionary) and appropriately uses the term to refer to people she spends her time with.
The ability to convey emotions, stir up memories, and suggest that our loved ones are always with us, allows the word ghost to influence the relationship readers have with literature. In The Woman Warrior, ghosts are used as symbols to represent a plethora of things and people through the narrator’s eyes. She uses the term ghost to represent people and things that are unknown or unfamiliar to her, as well as people whose stories could never be told, such as her own aunt’s. Ghosts in literature assess the reality of people’s relationships and interactions with others. Rather than describing people she doesn’t know as simply people, she utilizes the term ghost to describe them, which accentuates her feelings towards the unknown.
In Mean, similar usages of ghosts can be seen throughout the book. However the narrator also uses ghosts to show that she not only sees death and those that have passed but she fears them as well. Ghosts are used as name to call the American’s around her at the same time that she speaks of Sophie’s spirit and those of other deceased people she encounters under the same name. She uses ghosts to convey that she fears death in some sense but she is no stranger to it. In a way as she learns to accept the ghosts she sees she has become “friends with death”. In yet another plethora of instances she uses ghosts as a symbol to convey emotions sure as loss and emptiness in the absence of a person. By not outrightly telling us about the absence of her friend she gave the story depth and the ability to be interpreted as the reader sees fit. This allows for the reader to feel not simply read.
“ghost, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/78064. Accessed 2 May 2019.
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.
Kingston, Maxine H. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood among Ghosts. Vintage, 1989.
“Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, History and Meaning of English Words.” Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, History and Meaning of English Words, www.etymonline.com/.