No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012/44: A Princess of Mars -- Edgar Rice Burroughs

I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I actually don't think I've ever read Burroughs' 'John Carter' books before, though I'm familiar with the basic premise and with some of the criticism. That strong sense of familiarity that I experienced must come from having read so many books influenced by Burroughs' Mars.

(I've also been trying to track down a short story I remember reading years ago, in which John Carter wakes up -- naked, of course -- in modern-day America, possibly hallucinating, yelling about 'the cry of a distant thoat' and so on. Narrated by an observer. Any answers? I have a vague feeling it was Sturgeon but Google cannot confirm.)

A Princess of Mars displays the common prejudices of its time. Dejah Thoris is beautiful and helpless; Mars is dry, with ancient canals criss-crossing the desert; John Carter is braver / stronger / more honourable than any Martian, etc. It's an enjoyable romp and a fascinating fragment of SF history -- though really it's more science fantasy, in that the mechanism of Carter's interplanetary trip is never explained. Swords and not-quite-sorcery-honest-just-telepathy!

I wrote about rape culture in A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkin Gilman's Herland for my Coursera essay:

Sexual desire is atavistic in both Herland and the Martian societies encountered by John Carter in A Princess of Mars. In Herland, 'sex-feeling' has been deliberately bred out of the descendants of an oppressed harem. "[t]hose who had at times manifested it as atavistic exceptions were often, by that very fact, denied motherhood". On Mars, the rationale for the weakened sexual urge is not explicitly discussed, though a connection with environmental factors is implied: "the waning demands for procreation upon their dying planet". Although these societies continue to produce progeny, reproduction is driven more by 'community interest' than the combination of physical desire and emotional attachment -- 'sex-love', as Herland's narrator puts it -- that the male protagonists of these novels have been socialised to regard as natural.

The responses of those protagonists demonstrate different aspects of masculinity. When John Carter is told that Dejah Thoris is likely to be raped by Tal Hajus, he breaks into a cold sweat of revulsion, comparing Dejah's predicament with "those brave frontier women of my lost land, who took their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the Indian braves." Carter's role is that of the 'white knight', rescuing the helpless princess from a traditional 'fate worse than death'.

In Herland, by contrast, Terry attempts to rape Alina, and is violently rejected. "Terry put in practice his pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered, and by sheer brute force, in all the pride and passion of his intense masculinity, he tried to master this woman ... it did not work." In contrast with Dejah Thoris' passivity, Alina rescues herself.

Gilman's Alina repulses Terry, who believes he has the right to have sex with her: Burrough's Dejah is a helpless pawn who needs the protection of John Carter to save her from sexual violence at the hands of an enemy. In both instances, sexual desire is a 'brutish' masculine instinct that threatens the female characters, who are unmoved by any comparable urge.

1 comment:

  1. Tamaranth, this is a great essay. It's a shame I didn't get it in the peer reviews! All of your posts on the course are really fun to read. It's a shame I didn't find your blog at the start of the course rather than at the end.