Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Titles, Names, and Gender in "The Women Men Don’t See”

Tags: Titles, names, blindness, projection of preconceptions, gender

Seth points out that one of the highlights of “The Women Men Don’t See” is that the reader is inclines to think that the great mystery of the story must have something to do with the Parsons. Of course, some of this inclination comes from Tiptree’s clever manipulation of the title. One of the conventions of the science fiction genre is to refer to the main element of novelty in their story (the “part that’s sci-fi”) in the title itself – “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, for example. The title “The Women Men Don’t See” is an example of Tiptree’s clever manipulation of convention that ultimately reflects the structure of the entire storyand causes us to project our preconceptions about science fiction onto the story in the same way that Don Fenton projects his preconceptions about women onto Ruth and Althea.
            After all, we as readers never truly see Ruth Parsons and Althea Parsons – the great irony of this story is that it is told from the point of view of a man, whose narrative is made unreliable by virtue of the title alone, as emphasized by the first line of the story - “I see her first” (115). We soon discover that in this act of “seeing” Don does not “see” very well at all – only a “double female blur” (115) – thus the very first act of seeing in the story is rendered myopic at best.
Don continues this myopia later on, up until the end of the story with the example Arlyn points out – Don’s total obliviousness and blindness to the fact that the world Ruth is leaving is in not her own, which is why she’s leaving it – but also earlier, with his insistence in using the title “Mrs” with Ruth even after he has found out her true marital status (132). The title of “Mrs” is one which he himself projected on her after learning her surname was Parsons – and even learning the truth about Ruth does not allow him to get rid of his former preconceptions of her, which are formed almost the moment he first sees Ruth and Althea for the second time – “It’s the woman and her young companion – daughter?- picking….” He describes the two women. Less than three sentences later, when he mentions Ruth again, she is referred to simply as “the mother” – in such a way, his initial speculation immediately becomes fact in his own mind, without any confirmation by the women themselves (not yet anyway) – this is the beginning of Don’s projections onto Ruth and Althea.
As might be expected in a story by Tiptree, names seem to play a significant role, even beyond the use of titles. Ruth and Althea’s names are marked by the influence that men have on their lives. Parsons is a surname, and surnames indicate either the influence of a man somehow, whether as father or husband, or emphasize the absence of a husband. The fact that Ruth and Althea initially use it as their only name (118) strips them of the individualizing power of their first names, and their whole being briefly becomes a reflection of either the influence of a man or the emphasis of the absence of a husband.
Paradoxically, both interpretations seem to fit Ruth and Althea equally well – especially when we do learn their first names, for both the names Ruth and Althea refer to Biblical and Greek mythological women whose stories and fates are heavily dependent on the influence of the men in their lives:

Ruth’s name is particularly interesting because of the other traits it associates with her (both loyalty and love and a foreignness). Ruth has great success assimilating into a foreign land in the Old Testament – will Ruth Parsons share her success in a foreign world? 

(This stuff is not part of my blog post, it's just for fun - so don't feel obliged to read any further!) 

Another reference to the Bible and how it paradoxically renders Ruth a victim of the hunt while projecting on her the role of Jesus:

The Biblical reference:

Whoso List to Hunt by Thomas Wyatt:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

(Scroll down for a version of the poem with some helpful definitions)


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