Pavilion of Women

By Pearl S. Buck

12,989 ratings - 4.13* vote

On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband

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Book details

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
August 21st 2012 by Open Road Media

(first published 1946)

Original Title
Pavilion of Women
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Jo Ann

My personal belief is that some books wait for us to come along and discover them they lie quietly, patiently, waiting for years maybe for the correct moment in our lives to be found. This book is one of them for me. I'll admit if I was to have read this book say 20 years ago I probably would not have enjoyed it so much or been able to appreciate the philosophical deepness of it. This book felt like it had waited for me to pick it up at just the right moment. I don't think I have ever read a book that has touched me in such a personal way as this one has.

Madame Wu lives in two worlds one of the "old ways" and yet she is a very modern thinker of the new. When I first started reading this story I felt a little put off by Madame Wu and how she strived to be so perfect so in control of everything she did. For the first time ever I actually felt a little jealous over a fictional character. I have read a lot of books that made me feel many emotions but never envy. She had me stopping and thinking as to how I measured up as a wife and mother and maybe as a human being in general. As the story progresses we begin to see the real person that Madame Wu is she has reached the age of 40 and now she feels that she wants her time to do what she wants to do. She's done with bearing children and keeping her husband entertained and happy she's done her duty running a household and keeping everything in order and everyone satisfied. She wants a life of her own she wants to feel free to read books and to be herself and do the things she was never able to do.

And so begins her plan if I can make everybody happy in the family then they will all go off into their own worlds and leave me alone to be in mine. Madame Wu was torn with a tough decision as to what to do about her husband if she continued to have sex with him she could find herself pregnant past forty. She also knew that if she refused him he'd just go down to the local flower house and take care of it himself so she makes a drastic decision against her friends and family's opinions and decides on a concubine. Will just fix Mr. Wu up with a nice girl of my choosing and then after everything settles down I can start my life or at least that's how the plan was suppose to work out.

Slowly disaster after disaster arises and the family is thrown into chaos. She starts to study with Brother Andre a tutor she hired for her third son and he opens up her mind to a whole new way of thinking. Madame Wu comes to fully realize the complicated bonds between men and women are not so easily arranged and maybe in a way men and women are not so different, that we all need to feel love and be happy to achieve our highest potential.

With wit, humor and layer upon layer of thought provoking dialogue author Pearl S. Buck is able to transcend time between the past and the present. This story makes you look at the relationships between men and women with a whole new appreciation.


I was surprised to get so drawn into Pearl S. Buck's "Pavilion of Women." Buck has a subtle writing style that transcends time, making you forget that the book was written in 1946. Though I was intrigued to read it, given that Buck received both a Nobel and Pulitzer prize.

"Pavilion of Women" follows a mother and wife "Madame Wu" who, on her 40th birthday, chooses to provide her husband with a concubine instead of ever allowing him back into her physical world. There is absolutely nothing bad I can say about the first 3/4 of this book. It is incredibly well-written and even the unlikeable characters are given a certain charm that draws you into their lives and circumstances.

But Buck's own fascination with religion (her father was a missionary), mixed with her only daughter's predicament of being born disabled weighed too heavy on this book. Unless you are fully prepared to be preached to, do not step into "Pavilion of Women" lightly. Madame Wu's entire character development comes to a crux during her friendship with a Christian monk whose Christian charity not only changes her life but changes the entire exposition of the novel. Suddenly the relationships between men and women which pepper the book with realism and humour are laid out as relationships of the flesh that have no comparison to one's relationship with God. If you are an atheist, a teeter-totterer or just plainly not Christian, it can be a little hard to take. But with a little bit of a guard up, Buck's story has something to offer all of those groups, without really risking a fear of coversion to Buck's side.

So many insights into life are offered that it is easy to see why Buck deserved the honour of the Pulitzer.

Alice Poon

This novel deeply moved me, not only because Pearl Buck illustrates in it her sweeping knowledge and sympathetic views of the Chinese society in early- to mid-20th century, but also because of the humanistic attitudes and nuanced philosophies that color and enliven her characters.

This particular époque in China is one of East-West cultural clashes coming to the surface as the younger generations begin to seriously contemplate a clean break from the yoke of old Chinese traditions and customs and embrace freedom of the mind and soul. This nascent way of thinking is particularly manifest in man-woman relationships and in the values and belief system. Christian missionaries play an important part in brewing social changes, but even among these, there are the dogmatic and the more liberal streams of preaching.

The protagonist Madam Wu is first portrayed as the beautiful, all-wise, fastidious and capable mistress of the wealthy Wu household (which brings to mind the character Xue Baochai in Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin). With diplomacy, tact and intelligence, she manages her large household of sixty with success and accolades from within and without the family. Yet in the depths of her soul, she is a lonely creature yearning to be freed from her duties. She feels no one understands her and views herself superior to all those who surround her, including her sons and daughters-in-law, whose marriages she feels compelled to arrange for their own good. She even arranges for her husband to take a concubine, hoping to gain her own freedom. Eventually she comes to discover that none of her family members is happy.

Then a renegade foreign missionary enters her life and lights up her soul. Using a liberal approach to religion, he wins her admiration where another dogmatic Catholic nun fails, shining a whole new light on the meaning of love and freedom. She begins to understand that to love is to not judge others harshly and that self-fulfillment is the key to setting one’s soul free, and that this applies to all man-woman relationships. Shortly thereafter, something vile happens to him, which devastates her, and she realizes that she is in love with this foreigner, and that the single most important thing that she always lacked is the capacity to love. With that epiphany, she sets out to follow the foreigner’s selfless example and to remedy her past mistakes.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounded up.

Ivana Books Are Magic

This book has touched me so deeply, that I cannot help feeling a strike of destiny in the way it came into my hands. I started reading it, blissfully unaware of both the plot and what it might be like. Pavilion of Women has proven to be such a beautiful reading surprise. I must have read it in one breath, or at least, that is what reading it felt like. Once I started it, I just couldn't stop reading. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this novel. It is a truly remarkable portrayal of a woman's soul. It's pure magic. Pavilion of Women has even managed to comfort me during a difficult hospital stay and I'm sure it's a novel I'll never forget.

But enough with the praises for now. Let's talk a bit about what this novel is about and what it is like. The novel's protagonist is Madam Wu. The subtitle of this novel is : A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters, and that is what this book it about. The terms 'women's quarters' sounds historical, and indeed this book is set in the past, in a remote part of China before the outbreak of WW2. Besides following the life of Madam Wu, the protagonist, this novel also follows the life stories of other women who are close to her. The introduction of the novel describes both Madam Wu and her family dynamics. As she turns 40, Madam Wu longs for some 'me time'. On the surface, Madam Wu has everything she might want. A husband and children who love her, servants who worship her, a respected place in a community. Everyone seems to either admire or respect her. Madam Wu's family is the wealthiest in the area, and it seems to be a happy family. Madam Wu's sons are either married or too young to be married, but either way they seem respectable of their parents. One of Madam Wu's sons has married a girl older than himself, which poses technical problems in the selection of the daughter-in-law who will be in charge of the household once she turns 40, but there are no major problems, or so it seems.

Madam Wu, however, has quite a surprise prepared for everyone. She has decided to find her husband a concubine. When Madam Wu discloses this to her servant and later on friend, she received a hocked reaction. It is known to everyone that Madam Wu is beloved by her husband. What could possibly drive her to such a decision. Now, at the time book happens, concubines are still present but they are started to be seen as something better left to the past times. The historical reasons for concubines are interesting. As Madam Wu rationally explains, a concubine ensures that a man can have more children without endangering his wife. Having a baby after you turn 4o was a dangerous feet in those days. Many women have lost their lives that way. Some of them, or so it seems, have been relieved when a concubine came to take their place.

However, a concubine was always known to present a risk. Why risk disrupting a happy family? Why bring a stranger into a well functioning family? Madam Wu stubbornly clings to her decision, confident that she will able to make her husband see the benefit of her decision. Slowly, we learn more about their marriage. Mister Wu protests but finally agrees with this wife's decision. Madam Wu is known to be a flawless, capable and intelligent lady. Even in the traditional society of the time, Madam Wu commands respect. Moreover, in her home, this lady's word is the law. Madam Wu spends her first night alone. She has chosen a room close to her mother in law, on the pretext of being able to better take care of her, but in reality because it's the most private place in the house. Madam Wu speaks of tradition and fulfilling her role of a good wife, but it seems that what she is really interested in is independence. As I said, Madam Wu, needs some 'me time', she wakes up in the morning feeling happy, knowing that nobody will ever disturb her sleep by reaching up to her. It seems Madam Wu has planned everything in detail, she will select a suitable concubine, a simple village girl who will be grateful to be a part of such a rich and respected family. Her sons and daughters in laws are appealed by her decision. One of her son's wives tells Madam Wu how she had even protested and marched against the concubine tradition and urges her to give up on her decision.

Madam Wu chooses an orphaned village girl, feels a bit guilty by the fact that she had bought her like a cattle, but ensures herself she is actually doing her a favour. For a while, it seems that things might run smoothly. Madam Wu concentrates on marrying another soon to her neighbour's daughter. Madam Wu's intelligence and sophistication allow her to be one step of a time. As she manages to secure more time for herself, Madam Wu reflects on her life. Her father in law loved and respected her, but warned her not to read certain books while she is young. Her late father in law saw that an intelligence of her sort might make her unhappy, and urged her to have patience with his son, who was spoiled by his mother and ended up being less intelligent that Madam Wu. Madam Wu has lived her life fulfilling her duty, but now she wants the freedom to be by herself, to devote herself to learning, to have time to read those book. What she doesn't realize is that she cannot be free while others around her are not free. In other words, Madam Wu will have to pay a price for buying that poor village orphan girl who now turns to be unhappy with the new arrangement and begs to leave. One after another, family crisis take place, and Madam Wu realizes that for all her sophisticated and intelligence, she has much to learn. Madam Wu will not be able to help her family until the managed to help herself, and vice versa.

“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. Do not dam it with your two hands, lest he break the dam and so escape you. Let him go free, and you will be free.”


My thoughts on Pavilion of Women:

At the beginning I found myself strangely interested in this book; its really not my cup of tea. I was shocked, and I was thinking to myself, “is this really going to be a four star book?” I had trouble putting the book down. Then, at about three-quarters through I realized that what I liked about the book didn’t really have anything in particular to do with the book itself or the author.

I liked all the parts about the Chinese culture, everything was surprising to me as I am really not very well acquainted with anything “Eastern”. To be honest, I’m not that very well acquainted with anything modern either, I kind of focus on the Romans up to the Medieval Age so everything else is just a little surprising and interesting. So I enjoyed hearing about the silk robes, and the family celebrations, and the sense of honor, and while these things were well told by the author, they were what kept me reading not the characters, the philosophical discourse, or the plot, which was quaint but not really enough for me.

The end was very bland, drawn out, and I was unresponsive to it. The philosophical ideas of the author as related by the characters had started out as insightful and interesting, but by the end their placement in the narrative seemed forced and jarring.

So in the end, there was nothing about this particular book that was special, that I don’t feel I could have gotten anywhere else- so three stars. I would definitely read more by the author though, I think I could really enjoy some of the books that she is more well known for, such as the one that she received the Nobel Prize for.

Rachel Terry

Rarely have I read a book that has made me think so deeply about relationships and ideas that I take for granted every day. Andre, the foreign priest, is surprised that Madame Wu has learned so much about the world within her small sphere of daily life, the high walls of her compound. Andre has seen much of the world and speaks many languages, but Madame Wu keeps up with his intellect and ideas, and this is surprising to him. She explains that everything that happens out in the world happens in the walls of the compound: birth, conflict, joy, sorrow, marriage, death. No sphere is so small that a person cannot learn all that the human experience has to offer.

Pearl Buck allows her characters to be dynamic, and this is one of the things that makes her writing so satisfying. Madame Wu isn't terribly likable at the beginning of the story. Although she's admirable, she doesn't seem quite real because she's so cold and calculating. Buck allows her protagonist to mess up bigtime, which can be tough for an author to do. And because Madame Wu wields so much power, she can really mess things up for other people.

So when she begins to change and her steely exterior starts to crumble, it's mesmerizing to see what happens. This is what we all hope for: the ability to overcome weaknesses (even when our weaknesses appear to be strengths) and have the wisdom and courage to try and right the wrongs of our former ignorance.

Madame Wu has always respected learning, but she has felt that some learning is dangerous and that it will ultimately ruin the family life she has so carefully orchestrated for her husband and children. The world of new ideas and learning, introduced to the Wu household through a foreigner, impacts everyone, whether they embrace the new ideas or not, and one of the sons really catches on to the possibilities for common people when they have the skills and power to read and write.

The subtitle on my library copy says, "A novel of traditional China," but it's really, "a novel of human wisdom," for any and all.


>spoiler alert<

Very good, but sad. A book of striking contrasts, Madame Wu married for many years to a man in the traditional Chinese way, living in Victorian China, that she feels distant and in a sense, isolated from. The way of life does not do much for the feeling of intimacy with one's spouse-- all interactions are basically formal. She in a sense doesn't feel a connection with her husband-- oh, she honors, respects and is completely loyal to him, but she has a deep desire to learn, has a hunger for knowledge and in some senses, her husband just doesn't "get it". Madame Wu meets an American missionary who is the complete opposite of her husband. At first, she is kind of disgusted by him.... his ways are so much different to the traditional Chinese way of doing things; he is not as genteel, refined, he doesn't care about the strictly defined class structure.... but she is intrigued by him to. He loves to learn as well, loves books, loves talking about them, and she looks forward to his visits. They never get romantically involved or anything, but she feels more connected to him than really anyone else in her life. When he dies, it is really sad. I cried. The only person that really ever understood her was gone. I adore Pearl Buck as ++an author and have many of her books. Her writing is always so thought provoking.


A warm and interesting story. Madame Wu is a thoughtful, interesting woman and she runs her household with care and ability.
I liked the insight into upper Chinese culture and lifestyle. Madame Wu takes an unconventional path when on her 40th birthday she reclaims her life and walks away from her marriage bed, freeing herself from her wifely duties and intending to spend the rest of her days in study and contemplation.
The teachings of Father Andre are simple and respectful of all life forms and all human beings, regardless of station.
When Madame Wu becomes spiritually motivated, I found the story slowed down but still remained enjoyable. However, the story became a bit preachy as well. Love for self, family, life, community is important; it does make Life worthwhile; yet I feel that Pearl Buck didn't convey the greatness of this life path well at times.
I have to ponder this a bit more. I enjoyed this book but the second half didn't resonate as much with me as the first. Well told but I prefer The Good Earth.


I have read some of Pearl Buck novels when I was much younger, but I don't remember them being so... exhausting? tedious? annoying? I think the fault is with the main character, who is pretty much the most unrelatable character I have ever come across. She is so self-righteous, so full of herself, so narcissistic, so judgmental, so controlling, I couldn't stop cringing with annoyance. The greatest value of this book lies in the depiction of life in a traditional Chinese household, but you can get that from an anthropology/history school book without Madame Wu irritating you beyond reason.