I might have been travelling for the last few weeks, but that hasn’t stopped my productivity. I’ve been able to take advantage of being stuck in moving metal containers for hours on end and read up on John Wyndham and his work Consider Her Ways, and Others (as Simone suggested).
John Wyndham was an author who produced much of his work in the 1950’s and is not someone many would likely view nowadays as a feminist. “His work is generally male orientated, his protagonists are usually professional, middle class men and he seldom addresses what we might consider female themes” (Cotterill 2015). Despite this Wyndham has often displayed feminist sympathies in his writing and challenged the notion that women should be confined to the domestic sphere of society (Cotterill 2015; Macdonald 2015).
This is especially prevalent in Consider Her Ways, which presents readers with a future in which all men have died off and women now exist in a matriarchal caste-based society. The protagonist, Jane, takes a hallucinogenic drug and awakes in an alien time and place with an all too foreign body to find herself a part of this society (having no memory of how she got there). She is a Mother, placed at the bottom of the caste system and decided as being only good for birthing babies. The real heart of the narrative, and Wyndham’s critique of his own (and our) society, comes towards the end of the novella, after Jane has challenged and disrupted this new society enough to be accused of “reactionism” and be placed in isolation. Here we experience a long conversation between Jane and Laura (an aging historian of her time).
In this long discourse between the two women, Laura explains that a terrible accident released a virus fatal only to men, and that since then women have had to learn to build a working society for themselves. We are told that in this moment of disaster, this sudden removal of men from society, everything all but collapsed:
“It was quite a dreadful state of affairs because although there were a great many women, and they had outnumbered the men, in fact, they had only really been important as consumers and spenders of money. So when the crisis came it turned out that scarcely any of them knew how to do any of the important things because they had nearly all been owned by men, and had to lead their live as pets and parasites.”
-Wyndham (1956, p. 43)
Here we can see Wyndham’s criticisms begin to emerge, and then blossom over the rest of the narrative. Through Jane and Laura’s conversation Wyndham reveals his distaste for the society which he inhabits. The society which conditions both women and men into believing that men are better suited to academic, industrial, and technical fields, and that women should remain in the domestic sphere, where they can contribute nothing to society, just their home and husband. Wyndham argues that, for centuries, the notion of the Romantic lifestyle has been used to control women and keep them below men, and that in his society (and perhaps ours) it is being wielded by commercial industries as “a weapon against [women’s] further progress and to promote consumption” (Wyndham, 1956, p. 44).
Wyndham’s use of Laura to present an analysis of his society which, although exaggerated and somewhat skewed, cuts straight to the heart of issues surrounding the treatment of women within it shows clearly the absurdity of this treatment and the need for its removal. Consider Her Ways demonstrates that a society which denies women the chance to grow and develop in all the way present t them, and instead confines them to servitor duties is not advancing in anyway and merely building to its own collapse. And indeed, although the narrative is a criticism of Wyndham’s own 1950’s society it is a sad fact that it can still be applied to today’s. Employers are more likely to hire men than women (Sunshine Coast Daily 2011; The Guardian 2014), and women are often viewed with lower expectations in academic fields than men because of their gender (Black and Islam 2014; Mason 2013). This highlights that although Feminism has taken great steps to break down the barrier between genders and promote equality throughout society, we still have some way to go.
This is also true for societies smaller than the global one. As I have discussed before, there is a large gender disparity within video-game culture and society. In the public eye, women are forced away from what some might consider the core of gaming (competitive play, AAA games, etc.) and are consider as only occupy the sphere of ‘cute’ mobile and social games. This is of course a gross misrepresentation as women make up almost 50% of gamers. But if we continue to view women in what could be argued as the domestic sphere of gaming, and do not take steps to incorporate them into the wider society what future does that bear for video games. Might they be doomed to fail like society did in Consider Her Ways? Most likely.
I also want to take this opportunity to discuss Wyndham’s writing of female characters, not just his discourse on society. Representing female characters fairly will, for a time, always be harder for me than with male characters due to my own gender. Eventually I may learn how to approach the issues society presents them with (to which I have no experience) in a better manner, but until then I need to learn. John Wyndham, although often favouring male protagonists, is known for writing well developed female characters in an attempt to show “the need for women to throw off their socialisation and be able to cope, and thrive in science” (Cotterill 2015). But unlike some writers of today he does not simply write characters who are men in a woman’s skin, or physically strong women, or ‘strong’ women who object to every notion of femininity whilst striving towards the masculine ideals of their writer. Instead, Wyndham seems well versed in the idea of ‘equal but different’ (in which characters are presented as being equally capable to one and other for different reasons, with no one skill-set or mentality being described as superior or perfect).
Take Jane from Consider Her Ways, for instance. Whilst many within the matriarchal caste system in which she finds herself are disgusted by the notion of love between man and woman, and believe that they have become stronger in its absence, Jane is shown to be under its spell. In her discussions with the historian Laura her main argument against the state of the new world is the absence of love from it, describing it as “a dreary kind of nightmare” (Wyndham 1956, p. 58). Now of course Wyndham is using Jane’s arguments as a way of demonstrating the conditioning of women by commerce to keep them domesticated, but it is my interpretation that he intended both Jane’s ideal world and the matriarchy she found herself in to be two extremes of the scale; showing the equal horrors of the weaponisation of romance to subjugate women, and the clinical sterility of its absence. Instead the idea of an equal society would lie in between these extremes, with men and women able to choose how they explore romance (and other walks of life) without it confining them.
But I digress, the point I am trying to make is that in Jane we are presented with a strong and compassionate character who is multifaceted and driven by many things. Too often in fiction (especially fantasy and science fiction) we find that the characters (especially the women) who promote and idealise the notion of love and romance within the narrative are very singular in this drive and found to be quite 2 dimensional and useless beyond it. But Jane breaks this mould and we find her to be more than a simple advocate for finding true love and settling down. She is smart and intelligent: in the life she leads outside of her matriarchal hallucination she is a Bachelor of Medicine and a doctor. Not only that but she is clearly a women driven by progress, both societal and academic. This is shown by her refusal to accept the regimental and confining caste system she finds herself in (which frees women from the oppression of commercially weaponised Romance but confines them in different ways) and also in how she ended up there. She takes the hallucinogenic drug which fuels her nightmare voluntarily in an effort to develop and advance both it and the medicinal field.
So, not only does Wyndham present a female protagonist and almost entirely female character list (2 men appear in the final closing of the story), but we have a woman who is intelligent, romantic, defensive, aggressive, and progressive. She is not the flat personality of a woman in love with romance, waiting for her hero to turn her life into something bigger; she is not the clinical coldness of an intellectual, scoffing at such fantasy notions as romance; nor is she the masculine woman filling the mould left by a male lead, bursting with bravado and chest hair (I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these character stereotypes, but they can be quite lackluster and restrictive when overused). She has depth and personality. She is more than a character, she is a person whom the reader can identify and emote with.
And Wyndham manages to do this in as little as 68 pages.
Black, C. and Islam, A. 2014. Women in academia: what does it take to reach the top? [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/feb/24/women-academia-promotion-cambridge [Accessed 14 February 2016].
Cotterill, S. 2015. John Wyndham: an Accidental Feminist? [online]. Available from: http://shoresofnight.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/john-wyndham-accidental-feminist.html [Accessed 14 February 2016].
Macdonald, K. 2015. John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen. [online]. Available from: http://katemacdonald.net/2015/03/30/john-wyndhams-trouble-with-lichen/ [Accessed 14 February 2016].
Mason, M. A. 2013. In the ivory tower, men only. [online]. Available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/06/female_academics_pay_a_heavy_baby_penalty.html [Accessed 14 February 2016].
Sunshine Coast Daily. 2011. Bosses prefer men over women? [online]. Available from: http://www.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/bosses-prefer-men-over-women/1157756/ [Accessed 14 February 2016].
The Guardian. 2014. 40% of managers avoid hiring younger women to get around maternity leave. [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/aug/12/managers-avoid-hiring-younger-women-maternity-leave [Accessed 14 February 2016].
Wyndham, J. 1956. Consider her ways and others. London: Penguin Books.