The Female Man can be laugh-out-loud funny, but most of its jokes depend on our ability to recognize the novel's ironic and satirical tones. The scripted scenes that appear throughout the novel are perfect examples of the way the book combines satire, irony, and wit:
EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD MALE COLLEGE FRESHMAN (laying down the law at a party): If Marlowe had lived, he would have written very much better plays than Shakespeare's.
ME, A THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH (dazed with boredom): Gee, how clever of you to know about things that never happened.
THE FRESHMAN (bewildered): Huh?
EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL AT A PARTY: Men don't understand machinery. The gizmo goes on the whatsit and the rataplan makes contact with the fourchette in at least seventy percent of all cases.
THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD MALE PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING (awed): Gee.
(Something wrong here, I think) (5.9.2-6)
On the whole, this scene satirizes the way men are socialized to assert themselves forcefully, while women are socialized to defer to men's opinions and arguments. Nowadays, we call this "mansplaining." (And hey, why not check out a freelance linguist's thoughts on the "splaining" phenomenon here?) Overall, the scene's formal structure suggests that this kind of behavior is so regular, it may as well be "scripted." And, by holding these social scripts up for us to see, Russ gives us an opportunity to recognize them as the strange and ridiculous things they are.
On its own, the first half of the passage is satirical, but not all that funny. It's the addition of the eighteen-year-old girl and the male professor of engineering that gives us good reason to laugh, because the girl's technological know-how is about as sophisticated as Princess Ariel using her dinner fork as a comb. The obvious silliness of the girl's statement and the male professor's awed response are an ironic inversion of the first conversation, and a great way to make a point about the comparable silliness of the male freshman's thoughts about Marlowe.
The point here is that no one would expect a man with advanced degrees in engineering to be impressed by a young woman's groundless assumptions about machinery, whereas people in Joanna's world do expect a woman with advanced degrees in English literature to be impressed by a young man's groundless assumptions about Elizabethan drama. Satire, irony, and playful humor work together in many passages like this one throughout The Female Man, and give the novel its unique blend of scorn and wit.
The Female Man is a lot of things, but the genre that makes it possible for so much weirdness to come together in one place is the fantastic, the marvelous, the out-of-this-world science fiction. Without the concept of probability travel to tie everything together, the novel just couldn't compare and contrast four women's radically different lives with such ease.
As a genre, science fiction gives authors an infinite amount of room to work with so that whatever social issues or politics or questions they want to explore, they can do it through any worlds and creatures they're pleased to imagine. It would be fair to call The Female Man a feminist Bildungsroman, a utopia, a lesbian love story, a dystopia, an anti-patriarchy polemic, a scathing satire on the ways of the world, or a laugh-out-loud comedy—all of those labels fit.
Plus, it's got hovercrafts; it's got super-advanced genetic engineering; it's got reconstructive surgeons churning out women with fangs and claws; and it's got enemy lasers going pew pew pew! (Okay, not that last bit.) The point is, by establishing a fictional universe in which humans can move back and forth between different versions of Earth, Joanna Russ gives herself a whole lot of room to maneuver.
It would be hard to see the humor in The Female Man if it weren't clear that all of the terrible misogyny in the book is being ridiculed. The men in this book are laughable because they're so predictable. They condescend, they patronize, they make sexual advances with or without women's enthusiasm or consent, and they turn violent and mean when women resist them. Men like the Host of the party on Riverside Drive and the Manland Boss are particularly strong symbols of male privilege and aggression, and when they're trounced by superwomen like Janet and Jael, we're invited to take pleasure in seeing patriarchy cut down to size.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, one of the most important tools used by the new feminist movement was the consciousness-raising session. These sessions were organized meetings where women could come together to talk about their experiences at home, in the workplace, or out in the street, and where they drew on one another's support as they worked to shape a new feminist consciousness and plan for action and activism. For many women, these sessions were opportunities to learn new vocabularies and ideas that could help put words to their oppression. For some, learning to think of themselves as feminists took a lot of courage, because it could mean being vilified as an extremist, a man-hater, a ball-breaker, a lesbian, a Bad Wife and Mother, etc.
Although coming-of-age stories usually follow a young person as they enter into adulthood and learn how to behave as a grown-up human being, The Female Man is a feminist coming-of-age story in the sense that it follows a woman who slowly grows into feminism in the same way that characters like David Copperfield or Jane Eyre grow into mature adults. As the novel's "female man," Joanna is the real center of focus. The metamorphosis that takes her from being a mixed-up Manhattanite living for The Man to being a woman who can shut a door on a man's thumb (and fantasize about erotic play with other women too) is really pretty spectacular.
Together, Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael form a consciousness-raising foursome, and although they part ways at the end of the novel, their personalities are reconciled in Joanna—the "spirit of the author" herself.
The Female Man's title is our biggest clue that this book is about Joanna, first and foremost: after all, she's the one who tells us about the time she turned into a "female man." Like the book itself, this moniker points us toward some pretty heavy questions, like: what defines femininity, and what defines masculinity? If a woman wants to get respect in a man's world, does she have to turn into a man herself? If she does turn into a man, is she taking feminism forward, or moving it two steps back? Can the word "man" really stand for all of humanity?
In the final chapter of The Female Man, the distinctions that separate Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, the omniscient narrator, and Jael from one another are shaken off once and for all. As the four alter-egos gather together to share a Thanksgiving dinner at Schrafft's, Russ invokes the symbolic meaning that Thanksgiving has for many Americans, as the celebration of new life and new potential in a brave new world.
As the women part ways, Joanna bids farewell to The Female Man itself, and sends it out into the world where it can do its part to make change:
Go, little book, trot through Texas and Vermont and Alaska and Maryland and Washington and Florida and Canada and England and France; bob a curtsey at the shrines of Friedan, Millet, Greer, Firestone, and all the rest; behave yourself in people's living rooms, neither looking ostentatious on the coffee table nor failing to persuade due to the dullness of your style [...] Live merrily, little daughter-book, even if I can't and we can't; recite yourself to all who will listen; stay hopeful and wise. Wash your face and take your place in the Library of Congress, for all books end up there eventually, both little and big. Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned [...] Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses.
Rejoice, little book!
For on that day, we will be free. (9.7.29)
More optimistic than she's been at any other point in the novel, Joanna's instructions to her "little daughter book" invoke a long literary tradition in which parents offer advice and blessings to their children as they set off on their own. Polonius's farewell speech to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet is an example that Joanna Russ and many of her early readers would surely have known, and it's safe to say that she's invoking it here.
Full of hope and promise, the novel's ending suggests that someday, however far in the future it may be, The Female Man will seem antiquated and quaint to readers because women's oppression under patriarchy will have ceased to exist. That's an idealistic ending if we've ever seen one, so what do you think? Has The Female Man passed its expiration date, or are the conditions it satirizes still relevant today?
The Female Man has four distinct settings, each of them an alternate version of our very own Earth.
Joanna's Earth is ours, more or less. The events of the novel take place between 1969 and 1970, and her Manhattan is a city of skyscrapers, hustle and bustle, and all the social to-ing and fro-ing that any good tourist expects from New York. Joanna owns a house, though she doesn't spend much time there. Soon after Janet arrives in her world, she moves in with her into a swanky hotel suite. The city foots the bill for that one, since Janet is their first emissary from another world.
Anytown, U.S.A., where Janet and Joanna relocate after living in the hotel suite for six and a half months, may as well be the Riverdale of Archie Comics, it's so wholesome and full of white-picket fences. As you can guess from its name, Anytown is no one place in particular, but an archetypal small-town, all-American community. If Bruce Springsteen or Josh Ritter wrote songs about this place, they would surely break our hearts. Says Joanna:
"And I like Anytown; I like going out on the porch at night to look at the lights of the town: fireflies in the blue gloaming, across the valley, up the hill, white homes where children played and rested, where wives made potato salad, home from a day in the autumn leaves chasing sticks with the family dog, families in the firelight, thousands upon thousand of identical, cozy days." (4.7.1)
Sounds idyllic, no? Just keep in mind that along with Anytown's family values comes a strong resistance to difference. Racism is taken for granted here, and Laura Rose Wilding seems visibly out of place in baggy trousers and oversized shirts.
Jeannine's Earth is similar to Joanna's, but represents what literary types like to call an alternate history. Jeannine lives in New York City in 1969, just like Joanna, but Jeannine's NYC is still struggling through the Great Depression. Work and food are scarce, so both are carefully regulated. Jeannine keeps careful tabs on her groceries with the government ration book she's been issued, and most of the food in her cupboards is from the government store. Because World War II never happened in Jeannine's world, the social movements that followed after it—like the Civil Rights movement or the rise of second wave feminism—never happened either. For these reasons, her world feels much more old-fashioned than Joanna's.
Janet's Earth is called Whileaway, and it exists nine centuries ahead of Joanna's and Jeannine's times. It's "in the future," "[b]ut not our future," as the novel's omniscient narrator puts it (1.6.3-4). Whileawayan history is divided into two major periods: P.C. (Preceding Catastrophe) and A.C. (After Catastrophe). Between P.C. 17 and A.C. 03, a twenty-year plague killed off half of Whileaway's human population—all of the men, as luck would have it. Most of the rest of Whileawayan history after that tells of one long, slow struggle to regain stability as a species.
Geographically speaking, Whileawayans live mainly in the areas that we call North and South America, although they've also established colonies on Mars, Ganymede, and in the asteroids. Although their sciences and technologies are far more advanced than those in either Joanna's or Jael's worlds (and Jeannine's world really can't compare), Whileawayans have opted not to build large, futuristic cities. For the most part, Whileaway is pastoral. Families tend to live on farms, and Whileawayans regulate population control so that there is more than enough space to go around. Dotted through the landscape here, there, and everywhere are empty caves, houses, and eyries where Whileawayan travellers can come and go as they please. In this world, there's absolutely no fighting over territories or borders.
While Whileawayan farmers frolic in the fields, women in Jael's world are confined to Womanland territory. It's not entirely clear how men and women have divvied up the Earth during the four decades of their war. Some Womanland cities are clearly underground, but other areas occupied by women, like Jael's property in Vermont, are out in the open. The territorial segregation of women and men seems to have started well before the real war began. When Jael describes her childhood, she speaks of being born "in the last years before the war, in one of the few mixed towns still left" (8.9.12). When war broke out, she and her mother were moved to a refugee camp. In the years that followed, women fought to gain and hold territories against the men.
However the boundary lines are drawn, when Jael takes the other three J's with her to meet the Manland Boss, they see a landscape that looks as war-torn and shell-shocked as it did after World Wars I and II in Joanna's world.
If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.
Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on "bringing it up." He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: "It's all in your imagination." Further still, he can invalidate the content: "It never happened that way." Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.
This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done by ascriptions such as "How can you think such a thing?" "You must be paranoid." And so on.—R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (1967)
R.D. Laing was a British psychiatrist and author whose clinical practice focused on schizophrenia, and, more specifically, on schizophrenic perceptions of the world. Laing believed that "sanity" was merely a symptom of conformity to a narrow view of reality, and he was fascinated by the kinds of experiences that could let someone see beyond the restrictions of "normality."
The Politics of Experience includes a number of essays and conference papers by Laing, and the epigraph to The Female Man is lifted from a chapter that explores the "negation of experience." In it, Laing discusses how facts and truths can be made to seem like fictions when a person's experience is invalidated or denied.
"Jack" and "Jill" are well-known figures from nursery rhyme ("Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water…"), and Laing's discussion of their relationship isn't specifically feminist. In Joanna Russ's hands, however, the passage takes on new significance.
In The Female Man, women's anger is invalidated by those who benefit from patriarchy. Women who are vocal about their opinions and experience are labeled "extremists" by men like Ewing, and because they're made out to be nothing more than man-haters, bra-burners, ball-breakers, shrews, harpies, and bitter spinster lesbians who couldn't catch men if they tried, the reality of their experience is denied and the patriarchy can keep on keepin' on with the status quo.
Even tougher to get through than the music video for Katy Perry's "Birthday" (yeah, we went there), The Female Man is a challenging read for sure. The intersecting personalities of the omniscient narrator, Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael can be really disorienting. Sometimes it's perfectly clear who is speaking; other times, it's mud.
Dealing with four (or is it five?) protagonists who both are and aren't the same person isn't easy, especially when you're being jerked back and forth between multiple versions of the present, past, and future. But hey, all of that confusion is also what makes the novel so much fun! If you're willing to go along with things even when you're not sure what's going on, we guarantee you'll get through to the other side just fine.
Reading The Female Man can feel a lot like trying to discover the picture on a puzzle without having the box to go by, and without actually putting the pieces together. But what better way for an author to convey multiple parallel realities and the complex mechanics of probability travel than by flitting her readers back and forth between different worlds every chance she gets?
Take, for example, these back-to-back passages from Part 1:
XIEtsuko Belin, stretched cruciform on a glider, shifted her weight and went into a slow turn, seeing fifteen hundred feet below her the rising sun of Whileaway reflected in the glacial-scaur lakes of Mount Strom. She flipped the glider over, and sailing on her back, passed a hawk. (1.11.1)
XIISix months ago at the Chinese New Year, Jeannine had stood in the cold, holding her mittens over her ears to keep out the awful sound of firecrackers. Cal, next to her, watched the dragon dance around in the street. (1.12.1)
At this point in the novel, we still don't know very much about either Whileaway or Jeannine's Earth. It'll be a little while before we learn that, in Jeannine's world, mainland China is occupied by Japan. And it'll be even longer before we learn that some Whileawayans live in makeshift eyries at high altitudes. Even though we don't have many details, though, these passages serve to emphasize some significant differences between two strikingly different worlds: one where women's athletic skills are valued and death-defying feats are commonplace, and another where women's meekness and timidity are the norm.
Exposition gets a bad rap in the literary world, because writers and critics tend to agree that authors should show us, not tell us, what's going on. But showing-not-telling can get pretty tricky when an author is inventing whole new worlds, and science fiction and fantasy novels usually rely on someone or something—a narrator, a character, or facsimiles of historical records, for instance—to bring readers up to speed.
In The Female Man, most of what we learn about Janet's and Jael's worlds comes from exposition, usually through Joanna/the omniscient narrator. Here she is on Whileaway's child-rearing practices:
"On Whileaway they have a saying: When the mother and child are separated they both howl, the child because it is separated from the mother, the mother because she has to go back to work. Whileawayans bear their children at about thirty—singletons or twins as the demographic pressures require. These children have as one genotypic parent the biological mother (the 'body mother') while the non-bearing parent contributes the other ovum ('other mother')." (3.4.1)
The only way we could deduce this information for ourselves would be if the novel included passages like this,
Walking into the common room, I saw that Evaine and Hiroki were in tears. "You know what they say," I said: "When the mother and child are separated..."
Working quickly, Meredith Graeye spliced Cynthy's ovum and Pavarti's, using the same laser scalpel that had been used to design her own DNA forty-six years ago…
In the end, if an author has a lot of new information to pack into a medium-sized novel, shortcuts can sure come in handy.
When we say that the writing style of The Female Man is dramatic, we don't mean that it reads like an episode of Grey's Anatomy. What we do mean is that several passages in the novel are scripted like scenes in a play.
HE: Is your dog drinking cold fountain water?
SHE: I guess so.
HE: If your dog drinks cold water, he'll get colic.
SHE: It's a she. And I don't care about the colic. You know, what I really worry about is bringing her out in public when she's in heat like this. I'm not afraid she'll get colic, but that she might get pregnant.
HE: They're the same thing aren't they? Har har har. (6.5.21-25)
One of the effects of passages like this is that they add variety to the narrative styles used throughout the novel, and mixing it up a little helps to keep things lively. But, more importantly, they serve to illustrate the novel's argument that social interactions between men and women in North America are so bound up by conventions and norms that they may as well be scripted. Joanna Russ may have written The Female Man roughly twenty years before Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity rocked the feminist world, but the two were totally on the same page.
Janet and Jael are complex characters in their own right, but both of them have symbolic significance in the novel too. As an emissary of Whileaway—the feminist utopia that Joanna the character visits, but to which Joanna Russ the real-life author has never actually been—Janet is a manifestation of hope for a feminist future. Jael, on the other hand, is a ruthless assassin with claws and fangs, and even the women and children of Womanland think she's terrifying. Apart from her complexities, she's a parodic symbol of every stereotype out there about monstrous, evil, feminist women and their lust for bloooood.
The party on Riverside Drive is a scene full of archetypal characters and witty symbolism. The Host's little blue book, called "WHAT TO DO IN EVERY SITUATION" (3.2.167), symbolizes patriarchal ideology and the expectations that a patriarchal society sets for men. Since The Female Man is a cutting, no-holds-barred satire, it's no surprise that the little blue book is packed full of degrading insults and actions to use against any woman who steps out of line. Joanna's little pink book, on the other hand, symbolizes the expectations that a patriarchal society sets for women like her.
In one of the passages following the party on Riverside Drive, a nameless, faceless male voice laughs and asks: "Burned any bras lately"? (3.5.1). For the feminist activists who really did burn bras in the 1960s and '70s, women's undergarments were useful symbols of patriarchal restriction and confinement. Sure, those suckers help to hold the girls in place, but they're also designed to make women's bodies conform to certain social conventions. And on top of all that, they pinch!
Thinking back to her young adulthood, the novel's omniscient narrator lists a stream of women's fashions that were designed for visual appeal instead of practicality or comfort:
Petticoats, waist-cinchers, boned strapless brassières with torturous nodes where the bones began or ended, modestly high-heeled shoes, double-circle skirts, felt appliquéd with sequins, bangle bracelets that always fell off, winter coats with no buttons to hold them shut, rhinestone sunburst brooches that caught on everything. (5.1.3)
Some of this stuff, like the waist-cinchers and boned brassières, could literally change the shape of a woman's body over time. Other articles are just useless. Question: who needs a winter coat that won't close up? Answer: someone who understands that she's supposed to be showing off the dress she's wearing underneath, and who laughs in the face of pneumonia, that's who.
Symbolic clothing appears a fair bit throughout the novel, like when Janet sifts through piles of gauzy, transparent garments with total confusion written all over her face (3.1.36), when Joanna shows up the party on Riverside Drive feeling ridiculous and uncomfortable in her poorly-fitting bra and pantyhose (3.2.1), when Jael dresses the other three J's in quarantine outfits that Joanna associates with burkas (8.7.1), when Anna is called "a monument of irrelevancy on high heels" (8.7.24), and when Natalie walks in with a tray of drinks, wearing scarlet, skin-tight clothing, no underwear, and Cinderella shoes (8.8.1). Make no mistake about it: the clothes women wear in The Female Man have a lot to say about the power of patriarchal conventions over their lives.
"My love is like a red, red rose," writes the eighteenth-century poet Robert Burns, and Laura Rose Wilding knows exactly what he means. Flowers have been artistic symbols of femininity and female sexuality for centuries. Want an example? Why not take a look at the painting Black Iris by Georgia O'Keeffe and tell us what you see.
Another of the novel's many examples of symbolic clothing, the red, red rose embroidered on the crotch of Laura's jeans isn't just a symbol of femininity and female sexuality in general. Rose is Laura's middle name, so it has a particularly intimate meaning for her. Laura's love affair with Janet gives her an opportunity to explore her sexuality on her own terms for the first time in her life. Those strategically embroidered petals testify that Laura has claimed her body and her sexuality for herself in a world that's been telling her to give them to men.
Okay folks, let's get through this without snickering. If you've seen any of the ten million American Pie movies that have been made, you can certainly handle this. The Whileawayan dingus is a… vibrator. There, we said it. Not that anyone in The Female Man ever admits it—when Jeannine finds it and asks Joanna what it is, Joanna tells her that it's a communications device that will blow her up:
"What it does to your body," said I, choosing my words with extreme care, "is nothing compared to what it does to your mind, Jeannine. It will ruin your mind. It will explode in your brains and drive you crazy. You will never be the same again. You will be lost to respectability and decency and decorum and dependency and all sorts of other nice, normal things beginning with a D. It will kill you, Jeannine. you will be dead, dead, dead." (7.4.47)
Like the red, red rose that Laura Rose Wilding sews into the crotch of her jeans, the Whileawayan dingus symbolizes
women's sexual pleasure and expression as it occurs independently from men. When Joanna tells Jeannine that the dingus will blow her up, she's speaking euphemistically. What she means is that it would give her so much pleasure, she'd never again be satisfied by her hum-drum love life with her boyfriend Cal, or by any other man who valued his satisfaction more than her own.
It's also interesting to mention that back in the day, doctors actually used vibrators to treat patients who struggled with hysteria. Don't believe us? Check it out.
If you've ever seen The Da Vinci Code (not the best source of trustworthy information, we know), you'll have heard that, historically, some abstract shapes have tended to be associated with masculinity and some, like that upside-down triangle that Robert Langdon is always going on about, have tended to be associated with femininity.
Abstract representations of masculinity and femininity are all over the place—so much so that we learn to associate certain shapes and forms with masculine energy and female energy without ever thinking too much about it. Tall, narrow skyscrapers—like the Empire State Building, or the apartment complex that Joanna and Janet enter when they attend the party on Riverside Drive—are examples of masculine architectural form. (Insert joke about penis envy here.) Rounder, more curved enclosures—like the caves that many Whileawayans inhabit—are typically associated with femininity. In some feminist writings, like the literary criticism of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, caves are even read as symbols of the womb.
On top of its skyscrapers and caves, The Female Man is jam-packed with other examples of this kind of symbolism. Take, for example, one of the sculptures of the female Whileawayan God: an abstract piece made up of "three silver hoops welded to a silver cube" (3.8.1). Or, think about the joke that Joanna Russ is making when she writes that the Whileawayan symbol representing male genitalia ("the sideways eight that means infinity" with "straight line" running "down from the middle") is also the Whileawayan "mathematical symbol for self-contradiction" (5.12.4).
One of the neatest examples of abstract symbolism we find in the novel is Jael's home. We aren't told much about it, but Jael calls the house her "old round lollipop-on-a-stick," and it's clear that it's at least a little bit convex (8.9.1). Rounded architecture doesn't necessarily make for a feminine vibe, but certain elements of Jael's description definitely suggest that this is a female space. The biggie is that she compares it to Baba Yaga's hut (8.9.1), an allusion that prompts us to associate both the house and Jael herself with the ambiguous old crone who appears in Slavic folklore.
Pinning down the narrative techniques and points of view in The Female Man can be tricky, what with four protagonists and one omniscient narrator who both are and aren't the same person. But the unstable boundaries that both separate these characters from one another and at other times allow them to bleed together are a big part of what makes this novel so fascinating.
Janet and Jael each get a chance to narrate some parts of the novel, and when they do, we get a first-person central point of view. In these moments, the protagonist tells her own story, as in the opening lines of the novel, where Janet speaks:
"I was born on a farm on Whileaway. When I was five I was sent to a school on South Continent (like everybody else) and when I turned twelve I rejoined my family. My mother's name was Eva, my other mother's name Alicia; I am Janet Evason." (1.1.1)
Along with first-person central narration, The Female Man also uses an unusual combination of a first-person peripheral narrator and a third-person omniscient narrator. A first-person peripheral narrator is usually someone who knows the protagonist and has a lot to say about them, but who is also limited in their ability to speak about the protagonists' innermost thoughts and feelings. A third-person omniscient narrator, on the other hand, is usually not involved in the story's action and can tell us what any character is thinking and feeling at any time.
Because Joanna and the novel's omniscient narrator seem at times to be one and the same person, Joanna has a lot more knowledge and power than first-person peripheral narrators typically do. So, when she's telling us about the actions of other characters like Janet and Laura, she doesn't just say what they're doing, but also what they're thinking and feeling:
"Janet dreamed that she was skating backwards, Laura that a beautiful stranger was teaching her how to shoot. In dreams begin responsibilities. Laura came down to the breakfast table after everybody had gone except Miss Evason." (4.10.1)
As if that weren't confusing enough, the novel also asks us to entertain the possibility that the omniscient narrator could be Janet, Jeannine, or Jael, too. There are multiple moments throughout the novel where the lines between Joanna the character, the omniscient narrator, and each of the other three J's become extraordinarily blurry, as they do in the novel's final chapter:
"We got up and paid our quintuple bill; then we went out into the street. I said goodbye and went off with Laur, I, Janet; I also watched them go, I, Joanna; moreover I went off to show Jael the city, I Jeannine, I Jael, I myself." (9.7.26)
Feeling overwhelmed? Don't sweat it. Just try to keep in mind that it's not always possible to nail down precisely who is speaking when. And, if you need a break from trying to figure out all of this narrator business, you can always skip around to the multiple sections of the novel that have no narrator at all. The transcripts of Janet's television interviews and the debriefing interview at the Pentagon, the scenes that are scripted like plays, the passages where nameless, faceless voices speak from nowhere in particular—the list goes on.
If you've already taken a look at our other plot analyses for The Female Man, you'll know that it's not easy to match this novel up with conventional forms. Not only is it all over the place, its subject matter depends on it being hard to follow.
That said, there are enough distinguishing features of Booker's basic Voyage and Return plot to let us draw some comparisons. First off, we have three different characters who suddenly find themselves in strange new worlds, whether by choice or by accident. As in our classic plot analysis, where there are no clear distinctions between the Exposition and the Rising Action throughout much of the novel, Booker's Anticipation Stage continues (or begins and ends multiple times) until the very last chapter of the novel.
The Female Man throws a wrench into Booker's Initial Fascination and Frustration stages, too. Just as the Anticipation Stage is ongoing (in ups and downs) over the course of the novel, so too do characters' feelings of fascination, interest, frustration, and fear get mixed up together as they're pulled back and forth between worlds.
Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna are shuttled back and forth between worlds in such confusing and unexpected ways that they rarely have time to go through gradual processes of exploration, frustration, and concern. Janet's visit to Joanna's world is the only one that lasts long enough for her to slowly recognize that things in this world aren't so pleasant after all. For her, the party on Riverside Drive is an important turning point. When she heads in, she's giddy with the excitement of interacting with men and women together for the first time; by the time she leaves, she's been patronized, condescended to, and assaulted, and she's had to break the Host's arm—bad times.
In the Nightmare Stage, our heroine usually discovers that there's something about this strange new world that seriously threatens her safety. Janet experiences a moment like this at the party on Riverside Drive, but it's not nightmarish enough to make her want to leave. The Female Man turns the conventional Nightmare Stage on its head by having characters like Joanna and Jeannine realize that their own worlds pose serious threats to their wellbeing. For Joanna, the events at the party on Riverside Drive make this clear; for Jeannine, it's her visit to the Poconos (where she is pressured into marriage) that clinches it.
There are no thrilling escapes in The Female Man, and even the concept of "return" doesn't quite apply. In the novel's final chapter, the omniscient narrator/Joanna makes it clear once and for all that the other protagonists are aspects of herself as much as characters in their own right, and so it doesn't really matter whether they return to their own homeworlds or not. In fact, it seems likely that they will continue to move between one another's worlds, as the omniscient narrator/Joanna learns to call on them when she needs them. As they part ways, each woman is a small seed of feminist revolution scattered on the wind.
The Female Man doesn't fit neatly into a classic plot analysis, because the novel actively resists a clear-cut narrative. On top of that, the Exposition and the Rising Action work hand-in-hand throughout the novel. Think of it this way: the Initial Situation when the novel begins is that Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna are popping in and out of one another's worlds. Although we learn a lot more about each of these characters over the course of the next nine chapters, the situation that we start out with never really changes—that is, not until the end of Part 7, when they're whisked into Womanland by Jael.
If the Rising Action and the Exposition are working hand-in-hand throughout The Female Man, what does that tell us about the novel's most significant conflicts and complications? For one thing, they happen differently for each of the novel's protagonists, and there's no single moment or single situation that drives the plot forward—that is, again, apart from our Initial Situation of three women being shuttled in and out of one another's worlds.
The clearest Turning Point in The Female Man comes at the very end of Part 7, when Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna are whisked into Womanland by Jael. The news that Jael is the one who has been orchestrating all of this probability travelling comes as a big surprise to the other J's, and it introduces some crucial questions. For instance: why has Jael brought them together? What's her master plan? Just what in the Sam Hill is going on?
It's hard to sustain an atmosphere of crisis and tension for very long, and the Falling Action in The Female Man begins as soon as Jael assassinates the Manland Boss. By the time she gets
the other three J's to her home in Vermont, we're back to business as usual. We get to hear about Jael's childhood and see her hanging out at home, just as we've been able to do with each of the other protagonists, too.
The novel's denouement begins as Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael get together for Thanksgiving dinner at Schrafft's. When their meal is over and they part ways, the novel's omniscient narrator/Joanna bids them adieu as she sends The Female Man—the book—out into the world.
Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna are brought into and out of one another's worlds, without knowing how or why. Although they slowly come to learn a lot about one another, things are very muddled and confused.
Jael succeeds in bringing Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna to her world. The women begin to understand how they are all related, and what Jael is up to. Confronted with the war in Jael's world, they're faced with a choice: to help, or not to help?
The characters get together one last time, then part ways. Janet has denied Jael's request for support; Jeannine has agreed. As she says goodbye to them, the omniscient narrator/Joanna bids farewell to The Female Man, and sends it (the book) out into the world with her blessing.