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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Playing with Pronouns

by Eric S. Rabkin
Copyright © 1996, Eric S. Rabkin

Since the 1920's, the literary fantastic has exploited two related stratagems to illuminate the confusion between the biological category of sex and the socially constructed category of gender: invent new pronouns and explore existing ones. Let us consider both.

Maskull, protagonist of David Lindsay's marvelous A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), meets someone of "a positive third sex." "[I]n order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull's mind by the stranger's physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of 'he,' 'she,' or 'it,' therefore, 'ae' will be used" for "she/he" as well as "aer" for "her/him" and "aes" for "her/hers/his." Every occurrence of these new pronouns reminds us that existing English pronouns inevitably mark the physical (sex) as a mental (gender) category. Thus Lindsay helps undercut the blithe acceptance of a "generic 'he'" for, say, Man. But the fundamental sex/gender confusion remains unexamined.Virginia Woolf does much better in Orlando (1928) by exploring existing pronouns rather than inventing new ones. When Orlando awakens to discover a change of personal plumbing, a mirror confirms that "Orlando had become a woman--there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained ... practically the same. His memory--for in future we must, for convention's sake, say 'her' for 'his,' and 'she' for 'he'--her memory, then, went back through all the events of her life without encountering any obstacle." In transforming "his" to "her," Woolf stops across a threshold marked by "their." The plural indicates not only Orlando's face and its mirror image but a conflation of categories, of how one is and how one is seen, in the "mind," as Lindsay writes, or in a mirror. Although the novel never abandons its femininized pronouns, the unperturbed consciousness of Orlando, who simply will not fulfill the masculine or feminine part, brilliantly sustains our sensitivity to the cultural construction of what we usually take to be biological categories.Ursula K. LeGuin uses both stratagems, and with the same powerful story. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) features androgynes who are usually sexually inactive but periodically sexualized as sometimes male, sometimes female. Because any individual can be father and mother to different offspring, the cultural parenting categories, among others, decouple from a biological substrate. Although the novel uses masculine pronouns throughout, it did much to disentangle the sex/gender confusion."When I wrote the book..." LeGuin notes in a special "Afterword" to the novel's Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (1994), "I believed ... that the masculine pronoun in English was genuinely generic ... [but] some years after the book was published, I lapsed from the faith, and have remained unregenerate ever since." Enjoying her apostasy, LeGuin offers her "Afterword," a retelling of the first chapter "with invented pronouns," another retelling "with shifted pronouns" (using "she" where "he" had been), and an excerpt "with altered pronouns" (using "she" when someone is sexualized as female). I find the first retelling, which uses "e" for "she/he," "en" for "her/him," "es" for "her/hers/his," and "enself" for "herself/himself," most successful, but, unfortunately, LeGuin just "do[es]n't like any invented pronouns in the long run" (292), and so has reverted to the more common periphrases.LeGuin specifically rejects the invented pronoun system I find most powerful, Marge Piercy's from Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In this forceful social novel which is also a subtle character study, the protagonist, an oppressed Chicana, journeys either in reality or in her imagination to a sexually egalitarian future that uses "person" for "she/he," "per" for "her/him," "pers" for "her/hers/his," and "perself" for "herself/himself." One need not read long before these coinages become familiar, effectively effacing the connection between sex and gender. Unfortunately, that very effacement, were the novel not so rooted in the protagonist's dire experience, would leave behind the reality of gender construction in our own world. Adopting Piercy's pronouns might inch us toward that utopian state, but, as it is, we use English.Michael Blumlein tries to use Woolf's pronoun switch, which occurs only once in Orlando, to highlight consistently both the sexualizing that pronouns imply and the sex/gender confusion. In X,Y (1993), Frankie, a female stripper, faints only to revive as a man. Although we see the same body, it is inhabited by a different, mostly amnesiac, mind, knowing only per gender, and its misfit with per body. Per lover, Terry, whom person does not know but on whom per comes to depend, tries to care for per while resisting per self-knowledge. At one point, long before the book plummets into grotesque S/M, "Frankie was content to stay at home and drift in the sea of Terry's pills. He took to taking them two and three times a day, which Terry did not discourage. He liked knowing that Frankie was taking care of herself, and he liked knowing where she was." By this use of free indirect style, the reader unerstands that "He" in the second sentence is Frankie thought of by Terry while "He" in the third sentence is Terry who thinks of Frankie as "she." Even in this exploitative novel, these rhetorical gymnastics succeed.Gwyneth Jones succeeds to greater effect in White Queen (1991) precisely by making gymnastics much harder to follow. Her novel features aliens who are apparently male or female but when aroused evert or invert as need be to become functionally hermaphroditic. Through rapid switches of free indirect style, Jones sends our own sense of pronominalization--and of sexual certainty--reeling. "The alien's [Clavel's] determination to enter the service of humanity's God ... was intimately connected with his tragic love for Johnny. ... Clavel was reading Marx as part of her studies" (310). Who is thinking "his," who "her"? Jones uses her aliens--and the stylistic pyrotechnics they warrant--to pry us from our unconscious sexual conceits. We are all aliens to each other, aliens who must all work harder to meet on mutually acceptable grounds. This is the literary fantastic.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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