Study Guide

Serena Gender

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Pemberton's partners appeared incapable of further speech. Their eyes shifted to the leather chaps Serena wore, the beige oxford shirt and black jodhpurs. Serena's proper diction and erect carriage confirmed that she'd attended finishing school in New England, as had their wives. But Serena had been born in Colorado and lived there until sixteen, child of a timber man who'd taught his daughter to shake hands firmly and look men in the eye as well as ride and shoot. (1.20)

Our introduction to Serena happens alongside the business partners meeting her. Right away, she's set up in opposition to the gender norms of the day: She wears pants instead of skirts, hunts instead of drinking tea, and always speaks her mind. She's a woman way ahead of her time.

Incapable of coyness, as always, even the first time they'd met. Pemberton felt again what he'd never known with another woman—a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility, limitless though at the same time somehow contained within the two of them. (1.67)

Pemberton's description of Serena is spot on. She is assertive, aggressive, and bold, all things her society deems "masculine." Early on in the book, we get a lot of descriptions of her in contrast to the typical gender stereotypes so we don't confuse the two—though we're pretty sure Serena would set us straight if we did.

That morning at the club two women had come out on the veranda and sat nearby, dressed, unlike Serena, in red swallowtail hunting blazers and black derbies, hot tea set before them to ward against the morning's chill. I suppose she imagines riding without a coat and cap de rigueur, the younger of the women had said, to which the other replied that it probably was in Colorado. (2.23)

There aren't many women in the book that we get to know well (aside from Rachel and Serena), but here we see how other women are behaving. Just like we suspected, it's nothing like Serena. Check out what they think of her, too—it's not just the men who don't take kindly to her sass.

"Them pants," McIntyre proclaimed. "It's in the Revelations. Says the whore of Babylon will come forth in the last days wearing pants." (2.74)

Leave it to McIntyre to predict the end times because of Serena's pants. This might be taking things to the extreme, but it certainly shows us some of the ideas about women and power floating around the society.

"I'm asking your husband's opinion, Mrs. Pemberton, not yours." Serena stared at Buchanan a few moments. […] "My opinion is the same as my wife's," Pemberton said. "We don't sell unless we make a good profit." (6.21)

Unsurprisingly, Serena doesn't take kindly to Buchanan's verbal slap in the face. He's sick of her sticking her nose in men's affairs, and tells her so. It's too bad for him that she has more of a backbone (and a dark side) than he does, even though she's a woman.

"I've never seen a woman shoot a bear before," he said, "and I've known but a couple of men with the sand to have gone right at him the way you done." (6.67)

Galloway is surprised when Serena kills the bear attacking Pemberton. Okay, that's an understatement—everyone is surprised when she has the guts to do it. This scene makes the dudes think twice about whether a woman can hunt. Answer: She can.

It ought not be like that, Rachel told herself, and she knew that for a few folks it wasn't. They could make a wrong choice and be on their way with no more bother than a cow swishing a fly with its tail. That wasn't right either. Her anger made it easier to go to the shed and get the axe. When Rachel stepped into the stall, the raccoon didn't move. (7.44)

When Rachel catches a raccoon stealing her eggs, she kills it right then and there. While she's kinder than Serena, there is a toughness and perseverance to her as well. We like the fact that Rachel can be nurturing and loving to Jacob and Widow Jenkins while still slaughtering an intruder when she needs to. Mad props, girl.

"Physical strength is your gender's sole advantage." (14.36)

Oh, snap. With this zinger, Serena points out that men aren't as perceptive as women. We have to hand it to her—she was right about Buchanan and Wilkie trying to sell their land (which is what they are debating here). It's important to note that she frames this in terms of gender, showing off what men can and can't do.

Serena's coat had been left in the woods, and Pemberton noticed several men stared at her stomach in amazement. He suspected the workers thought of Serena as beyond gender, the same as they might some phenomenon of nature such as rain or lightning. (18.41)

We love the idea that someone can be beyond gender. Everyone has assumptions about Serena simply because she's a woman, but here she gets a chance to show off a different side to herself. One that is not as cold and manipulative, perhaps.

"She said to tell you she thought you the one man ever strong and pure enough to be her equaling, but you wanting that child alive showed the otherwise of that." (37.84)

Finally the truth comes out. We know Serena is up to no good when she questions Pemberton before his birthday party, and we get confirmation of that here. It turns out that Pemberton is the weaker of the two, which reverses gender roles for the time when the book is set.

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