In The Sound of a Voice by David Henry Hwang a mystical tale of love unfolds in the midst of insecurity and repression. If we look past the mystical elements of this story we find two characters who are isolated by their fears. Both characters share a fear of being truly known. They are repressed by the expectations of their genders. This leads the man to hide his weaknesses while the woman hides her strengths. The theme of this story rests in the conflict between gender roles and one’s true identity. This idea is expressed through the exclusion of character names and each character’s individual struggle of conforming to gender based behavioral standards.
The conflict between gender roles and identity is drawn to the forefront of this piece by the absence of names. Each character is referred to as “man” or “woman”. This may or may not have been done intentionally by the author. In either case, it ensures that each character’s sex is easily referenced in comparison to their dialogue and actions. In certain cases it makes the contrast between gender and behavior much more pronounced, for example, when the man displays his intentions of suicide.
“Man: No! I can do what I want! Don’t come any closer!
Woman: Then release your sword.
Man: Come any closer and I’ll drop my head.”
In this excerpt the man’s weakness and the woman’s strength are highlighted much more vividly by the inclusion of their gender being stated before each phrase. This scene is in stark contrast to the notion that men are logically driven whereas women are more emotionally compelled. It may be an attempt to disperse these damaging gender stereotypes by demonstrating how love can be found only through the alleviation of emotional repression.
Gender conflict is also expressed in the man’s struggle to be perceived as manly. His intentions for visiting this woman are not to find a lover. Instead this lone samurai aims to claim an honorable status by killing the reclusive witch who steals men’s souls. By failing to achieve this endeavor, he is exposed as being lonely, insecure and sensitive. While the woman watches the man chop wood, he pokes fun at his own belly. He believes his fat makes him appear soft and weak. By poking fun at himself he is attempting to give the impression that he is not insecure about his body. He makes his inferiority complex quite clear when he accuses the woman of laughing at his body. It is inconceivable to him that a woman would find him attractive. Men are not supposed to be insecure about their bodies. Confidence is idealized in male personalities. The man also has an issue accepting gifts or comforting gestures from others. At first the man requests the woman to play her shakuhachi for him. This is a glimpse into his genuine need for comfort and affection. Realizing that these requests for love do not align with his idealized vision of manhood, he quickly retracts them. The woman offers to play for him every night and he backpedals. “No- I don’t- I don’t want you to treat me like a baby.” The man’s frailty is most transparent in his feelings towards the woman. His intentions of murdering the woman are thwarted by his blossoming affection. He identifies this as weakness. When he falls in love with her, he is emasculated and brought to the brink of suicide. This man is much more sensitive than men, especially samurais, are expected to be.
The woman’s identity struggles have an even stronger tie to the theme of gender conflict. The woman has been isolated by her manly traits. The people in surrounding villages gossip that she is a witch merely because she lives alone. Self-sufficiency is an attractive trait for a man, but it has only caused the woman ostracization. She claims that as soon as she shows he true self to these men, they leave her. “They say they’ll stay. And they do. For a while. Until they see too much. Or they learn something new. There are boundaries outside of which visitors do not want to see me step.” These boundaries mentioned by the woman are the expectations that visitors hold on acceptable female behavior. Unlike the man, the woman’s gender struggles are not within herself. She is in a conflict with the outside world’s perception of her. Her physical isolation from others causes her to be ignorant of gender norms. She is only made aware of the social rules imposed on women through the reactions that visitors have when she steps outside of these boundaries. The woman’s fear of solitude is reflected in her attempts to take on the role of the archetypal female. Upon the man’s arrival, the woman is the ideal nurturer. She has an almost motherly quality. She feeds, shelters and, most importantly, flatters her male visitor. She puts on these meek and compliant airs to avoid abandonment. It is not her true nature. We see the woman’s true self in the wooden-sword fighting scene. She demonstrates her deft ability to defeat even a samurai. After the woman bests the man at sword practice, “Her movements end. She regains her submissive manner.” Based on previous visitors’ reactions she knows that this was a mistake. It may not be the case that she imprisons these visitors like the villagers claim. It is conceivable that they run and hide in shame after being outskilled by the woman or even falling in love with her.
The Sound of a Voice is a reflection of a repressed society where people’s self-images are perverted by arbitrary gender standards. These enculturated gender models cast a negative shadow on individuals who fail to fit within them. The characters in this play have had their self-worth tarnished by an inability to adhere to male/female standards. They face the dilemma of wanting others to love them for who they are but never allow others to know them. This is the reason for their loneliness. In this work David Henry Hwang creates a theme of inner conflict between one’s gender and their true self. He accomplishes this by referring to characters solely as “man” or “woman” and through each character’s struggle against the expectations of their sex.