Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck (1946)

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck (1946) is a gem of a novel telling the story of the spiritual and intellectual awakening of Madame Wu, a pampered wife of the wealthy House of Wu. She announces to her husband that on the occasion of her fortieth birthday, she wishes to withdraw from their physical life as a couple.

Madame Wu beseeches her husband to take a second wife to serve him as the patriarch of one of the oldest and most prestigious households in China. She herself carries out the arrangement, and withdraws to her own rooms to read books and live a life of the mind, something she never had the luxury to do as her sons grew up. 

The household spins into chaos, and when a foreign priest  comes to teach their youngest son English, her heart is in turmoil as well. It’s a book that will have you thinking about the meaning of marriage, motherhood, and family, the value of self-discipline, and the constraints of gender roles long after you turn the last page.

The critical response to Pavilion of Women was quite positive; here’s one such review from the waning days of 1946, when the novel came out:

 

A 1946 review of Pavilion of Women

From the original review by Laura Scott Meyers in the El Paso Herald-Post, December 1946: Anyone who has read a considerable number of Pearl Buck’s books approaches each new one with a definite expectation that it will be excellent if it is about China, but only mediocre if its setting is elsewhere.

Pavilion of Women is in the happy tradition of Mrs. Buck’s Chinese novels, and so it may be recommended for its pithy observations upon human actions and motives, for its quiet restrained humor, its detailed and faithful depiction of a phase of Chinese life.

For whether Mrs. Buck writes of the rich or the poor, the humble or thereat, her books have authenticity, and the reader is richer in knowledge of a people with every volume he reads. The secret of this integrity in her writing is doubtless her love and respect for the Chinese people.

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Three daughters of Madame Liang

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Relationships in an aristocratic Chinese family

Pavilion of Women is about Chinese women in their relationships with men, and specifically about Madame Wu and her sons’ wives and her husband’s concubines. The story opens upon the celebration of Madame Wu’s 40th birthday, a day which finds the lady as dainty and exquisite as upon her marriage day 24 years earlier.

Her four sons are devoted, her husband a model of faithfulness, the 60 odd members of the great house respectful and admiring. But into this quiet pool of domestic happiness Madame Wu throws a little pebble that makes a great splash.

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pavilion of women by Pearl S. Buck

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck on Amazon*
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Madame Wu relinquishes her marital duties

Madame Wu announces that her marital duties have been fully accomplished and that henceforth she will live separately from Mr. Wu, for whom she will choose a concubine. This plan is met with consternation, mystification, or revolt by the various members of the family, nevertheless is carried forward.

It is around this plot that Mrs. Buck weaves her analysis of the meaning of marriage and the nature of love, the growth of spiritual values, Chinese family life. She speaks with such felicity of phrase, such perceptiveness and wisdom, that however sharpened the critical faculties, the reader can find no major fault with Mrs. Buck’s novel.

Possibly it is a little more earthy and sensual than some of the previous ones, and it introduces a new note of mysticism, through a heretical foreign priest.

Mrs. Buck, essentially religious but still critical of Protestant mission work in China, points up its ruthlessness through the Little Sister Hsia, a plain friendless woman whose desire to “read a little gospel” to the great lady is kindly tolerated, but no more.

She is indeed a foil for Brother Andre, whose teaching, though not religious in a sectarian sense, brought about the spiritual rebirth of a woman.

 

Quotes from Pavilion of Women

“Do not test the measure of his love for you by the way he expresses his body’s heat. He is not thinking of you at those times. He is thinking of himself.”

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“I will spend the rest of my life assembling my own mind and my own soul. I will take care of my body carefully, not that it may any more please a man, but because it houses me and therefore I am dependent upon it.”

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“You are free when you gain back yourself,” Madame Wu said. “You can be as free within these walls as you could be in the whole world. And how could you be free if, however far you wander, you still carry inside yourself the constant thought of him? See where you belong in the stream of life. Let it flow through you, cool and strong.”

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“Yet there were times when he did love her with all the kindness she demanded, and how was she to know what were those times? Alone she raged against his cheerfulness and put herself at the mercy of her own love and longed to be free of it because it made her less than he and dependent on him. But how could she be free of chains she had put upon herself? Her soul was all tempest. The dreams she had once had of her life were dead. She was in prison in the house. And yet who was her jailer except herself?”

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“Long ago she had learned that to seem to yield is always stronger than to show resistance, and to acknowledge a fault quickly is always to show an invincible rectitude.” 

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“Yes, she now believed that when her body died, her soul would go on. Gods she did not worship, and faith she had none, but love she had and forever. Love alone had awakened her sleeping soul and had made it deathless. She knew she was immortal.” 

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More about Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

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