Monday, December 28, 2009

Women as Mirrors: Thomas Covenant, Reflected

Virginia Woolf claimed that a woman is forced to function as a mirror to reflect back the image of a man, usually at twice his physical size, like a funhouse mirror. Throughout years of feminist literary criticism, this idea rises over and over again, and it's evident in the Chronicles of Sir Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Lena and his ex-wife Joan are primary examples that I shall explore.

Joan is presented primarily in a retrospective light, framed by the hazy glow of Covenant's memories: at the onset of the first book in the trilogy, Joan has already left her husband, taking their only child with her. Covenant's leprosy diagnosis catalyzes her departure: they learn that children are more susceptible to his illness, and Joan chooses to leave the state with their child, in order to protect the boy from potential contracting Covenant's disease.

Thomas is crippled by her disappearance. His memories of Joan haunt and sustain him, simultaneously, since they are used as evidence of how stable and pleasant his life was before the leprosy arrived. His wife was a primary source of support, as evidenced by the situation where she firmly instructed her husband to isolate himself in their cabin and get some writing done on his next book. Both Covenant and Joan know that he writes best (and can move through his writer's block) when all distractions are absent, but she takes the step of lovingly insisting that he remain undisturbed. (This is before the leprosy attack's Covenant's body.) Covenant acknowledges his wife's correct assumptions and willingly isolates himself with his writing, and the words immediately begin to flow: as his book rapidly takes form, it is clear that Joan's prognosis for his writer's block was correct, and that she does know what is best for her husband, and is willing to act on it.

However, she is also willing and able to act on what she feels is best for their newborn son, too, and does so when Covenant is diagnosed with leprosy. Obliterated by grief and loneliness, the protagonist Covenant sinks into depression. Not long after, he is ushered into the other-world of the Land and begins his journey there, yet still, the memories of Joan haunt him just as clearly and painfully as they did in his own world: when Lena, his guide and first friend in the Land, presses him for details about his marriage and past loves, Covenant is riddled with emotional pain and is momentarily paralyzed by memories of Joan, and it is these emotions which feed his anger and rage, which are all directed at Lena as he rapes her.

In this pivotal moment, everything we learn about Covenant's character is defined by the women around him, past and present. From Lena, a sweet, innocent teenage girl lacking in guile and full of optimism, we learn that Covenant is capable of violently inflicting pain upon innocent people around him, even those to whom he owes his life and his companionship, in Lena's case (she found him and helped him descend from the watchtower where Covenant first was deposited when he was transported to the Land, and informed him about his entirely alien surroundings as she took him back to her hometown for shelter and sustenance). This episode also characterizes Covenant as highly sexualized, erratic, and unstable. His uncontrollable rage is thrown into high relief by Lena's uninformed fear - she is frightened, but doesn't even understand what Covenant is going to do to her until it is too late. Her innocence, so prevalent and so entirely destroyed, make his crime all the worse. Joan's presence in his mind and therefore the rape itself reflects back on Covenant, too - it shows that the wounds her departure left are still raw, and capable of inspiring incredible rage and destructive actions, emphasizing how important Joan was to her husband in the dramatic nature of his reactions.

Joan is occasionally present in Covenant's present, too. At the beginning of the second book, she calls him at their old home. Covenant has been transported back from the Land and is available to answer the phone, but is completely immobilized by the sound of a voice he has desperately missed. Overcome with powerful emotions, Covenant stumbles around his home and trips (again, his actions show how quickly these strong, women-inspired emotions manifest themselves in his physical capabilities and reactions). The subsequent fall and blow to the head contribute to his second trip to the Land. As soon as he arrives, Covenant is furious, beside himself: he demands to go back. He screams at everyone around him that "my wife" was in contact with him, that he has to go back, needs to. He begs and pleads. All dignity and reticence in a character previously marked by a surly lack of speech and short, abrupt sentences are thrown to the wind as he desperately babbles, trying to convince the council that he must return to the world where Joan exists and is reaching out to him.

This moment humanizes Covenant in a way that I never saw before: suddenly, his emotional range grows: beyond the bitterness, regret and apathy that solely ran his character in the first book, he suddenly displays a passionate grief, dedication, and desperate love. The remarkable absence of apathy in this moment shows the impact that Joan has on him, even now, and would not have been visible had her character not arrived in the narrative's present to contact the protagonist.

Without Lena and Joan, Thomas Covenant would be an apathetic ball of self-centered bitterness, defined solely by his disease and his constant battle with it. These two women and his thoughts and interactions with them emphasize other aspects of his personality: rage, violence, grief, and love. Without these aspects, there would be very little for the reader to relate to, in my opinion. Through the mirrored reflections of Covenant that we receive from his interactions with these characters - who seem to exist solely for this purpose - his character would lack depth and emotional complexity.

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