Multiple Techniques and Points of View
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.