Academic journal article MELUS

Of Monkeys and Butterflies: Transformation in M.H. Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey' and D.H. Hwang's 'M. Butterfly.' (Asian Perspectives)

Academic journal article MELUS

Of Monkeys and Butterflies: Transformation in M.H. Kingston's 'Tripmaster Monkey' and D.H. Hwang's 'M. Butterfly.' (Asian Perspectives)

Article excerpt

Deliberate and conscious transformation of character ret against cultural stereotyping in both Tripmaster Monkey (TM) and M. Butterfly (MB) is a key strategy that contributes to much of the strength and appeal of these works. The transformation of the protagonists is largely psychological but also peculiarly physical (a variation on t:he appearance versus reality theme). These drastic changes are occasioned not only by how the protagonists are perceived by and react to the other (especially in TM), but also how they themselves perceive others (as in MB). On the one hand, they are made to feel alien by external forces; on the other hand, in combating these constraining notions of their real identity, they attempt to transform themselves so that they will be acknowledged for what they are.

Unfortunately, in the case of TM and MB, there is little evidence that the efforts of the protagonists to transform themselves into something less alien have been successful. In the end, they confront seeming defeat, comically for Wittman, tragically for Gallimard.

In the first two sections below, the transformation struggle in these works win be illustrated by an investigation of the tensions that are built up in TM and MB as the protagonists attempt to come to grips with the expectations of others as well as expectations entangled in their own personal psyches. The final section highlights another kind of otherness when it surveys readers's responses to these works from different ethnic backgrounds, especially Chinese readers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. TM and MB are re-viewed through a wide variety of subjectivities which reveal a surprising number of reactions, complementing our understanding about aspects of the works we might otherwise have missed.

Feelings of otherness and alienation are the occasion if not the cause of the transformation process in TM. Alterity can be traced most obviously within the text itself, but before discussing these tensions among Americans of Chinese ancestry versus Americans of European ancestry, it is instructive to place the problem in a larger literary context by comparing some aspects of TM with Joyce's Ulysses. As Le Anne Schreiber puts it,

Wittman is Maxine Hong Kingston's Stephen Dedalus, who wants to "forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." But unlike Stephen Dedalus, he needs an actual cast of thousands to fulfill his dreams, and much of the novel is the story of how Wittman meets people and fits them to his purposes.(9)

Comparing TM and Ulysses adds a special particularity to the universal phenomenon of alterity and contributes a certain poignancy to our appreciation of each work. The Dublin journey of the Jew/Christian, Bloom, is paralleled by the urban journey of the Asian/American, Wittman, in San Francisco. Although Bloom and Wittman do a considerable amount of moving about, in both cases their journeys are also mental/emotional treks, described in a variety of styles, particularly stream-of-consciousness.

The mental condition is not so much caused by schizophrenic doubts about personal ethnic self-understanding as by external factors which will not allow them simply to be themselves and to feel at home. Neither Bloom nor Wittman are faced so much with serious identity problems as with problems of the other, struggling not only for acceptance as authentic members of their respective societies but also, in a more intimate and personal way, with members of the opposite sex. In singing their respective songs of themselves, they never really seem to gain full acceptance in their societies. They remain important but marginal "minorities."

Still, much of their alienation does seem self-inflicted, simply because they, too, find it difficult to accept the uncomprehending other. In other words, their searches for a place in contemporary society are conditioned not only by external, alienating societal factors, but also by a certain internal - almost innate - collective unconsciousness of being different, of being other. …

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