Feminist and Postcolonial Critique of Le Guin’s “Sur”

April 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Sur” lends itself easily to feminist literary criticism. As a fantasy of alternate history about polar exploration, the story tells of nine women arriving at the South Pole over a year before Roald Amundsen’s all-male team gained the Pole on 14 December, 1911 (Encarta, Amundsen article). However, the women are Spanish-speaking (presumably of European rather than Native American descent, though that is implied rather than explicit in Le Guin’s text) Argentinians, Peruvians, and Chileans, which also opens up the possibility of postcolonial commentary. The feminist critical angle is interesting not only because the women felt that they were forced to conceal their expedition from the wider world, for fear of public criticism or perhaps even active prevention of the pursuit of their goal, but also because of the women’s concealment in their own private and familial spheres, the powers in which would have equally censured the journey. The public and private oppression were of differing, but equal, strength, and forced upon the women explorers a level of subterfuge that required secrecy not only before and during their expedition, but also for generations after it. The postcolonial critical approach is not quite so straightforward. Because there are few references to First People populations in this short story, the overt oppression by the conquering culture of Spain over the subjugated peoples of South America is not a subject for extensive analysis. But the fact that the women are from Argentina, Peru, and Chile, traditionally thought of as “technologically developing nations [of] … South America” (Tyson 420), makes this an example of consciously pro-colonialist but ideologically conflicted literature, in that there are references to the First World, and an obvious deference to the dominance of those countries; but there seems to be little criticism of that state of affairs. The very fact that the women are from the Third World, no matter their feeling toward the First World’s dominance, makes this a conflicted piece.1 There is a minor degree of double-consciousness (“a consciousness or a way of perceiving the world that is divided between two antagonistic cultures: that of the colonizer and that of the indigenous community” Tyson 421) between the wisdom of the indigenous culture, to which the women ostensibly do not belong but have appropriated some skills, and a greater degree of double-consciousness between their own Spanish South American culture, and the culture of the Europeans dominant in their field of exploration. What will be explored in this paper is the ways in which the South American women were oppressed, and how they privately subverted their oppressors through their secretive and wholly anti-patriarchal expedition. The principles of feminist and postcolonial criticism contain overlapping concepts: …[There are] a number of similarities in the theoretical issues that concern feminist and postcolonial critics. For example, patriarchal subjugation of women is analogous to colonial subjugation of indigenous peoples. And the resultant devaluation of women and colonized peoples poses very similar problems for both groups in terms of achieving an independent personal and group identity;…. And finding ways to think, speak, and create that are not dominated by the ideology of the oppressor. (Tyson 423) This paper will endeavor to show the ways in which the explorers’ oppression manifested itself was as tied to colonial ideology almost as much as to sexist ideology. The story begins with an example of the kind of coincidence or good fortune, rather than accepted social and economic methods, which enabled the group of women to plan and make their expedition. The nameless narrator, who we know is married, later has children, and has a cousin named Juana, manages to procure funding through a “benefactor”, who is also never named, through the networking of one of Juana’s friends in Chile. This benefactor, who we suspect is female but it is never known, gives the women the requisite money to buy expensive equipment and supplies, and procures the services of a Chilean government ship, the Yelcho. This powerful and wealthy person requires nothing of the women other than their willingness to go on the voyage, and is complicit with their mission of complete secrecy on both sides. Therefore, this expedition is completely private and, even if the benefactor is male, a completely female-networked success. This kind of “sisterhood”, binds the women together to shield them from familial disgrace (“embarrassment or unpleasant notoriety thus to be brought on unsuspecting husbands and sons” italics mine, Le Guin 377), and specifically the disgrace of the male members of their family, but also a complete shielding from the outside world. The fact that the mission had to be undertaken with the utmost secrecy is directly related to the kind of sexist oppression which would have never allowed a group of ladies in the 1900s to set off for the South Pole. There was no way that the women could have undertaken the journey otherwise. There would be no public raising of funds, as there would have been for a National Geographic expedition, or an expedition for the Royal Society, in those days. A women’s expedition, if not actively discouraged, would have attracted only derision and, possibly, even disinterest. Once resolved to go on their expedition, the women struggle with family obligations which would have not plagued Mr. Amundsen or Captain Scott’s male crew. They worry about “An ailing parent; an anxious husband beset by business cares; child at home with only ignorant or incompetent servants to look after it: these are not responsibilities lightly to be set aside” (Le Guin 379). The fact that the women are required to put family concerns first, rather than their own desire for accomplishment or self-aggrandizement, is a direct form of sexist oppression. Even when they have selected their crew ready for “hard work, risk, and privation” (379), one, Maria, must stay at home and care for an ailing husband. One would wonder if Maria’s husband, if the situations were reversed, would have given up a trip to the Pole if his wife were ill.2 The private nature of the expedition, (for which the women used the excuse either of going to a Bolivian convent, or Paris for the six months required – two acceptable female activities; praying and shopping!) was kept by the explorers, also, out of a strange kind of ego-protection for male European explorers they had never met. They protect “Mr. Amundsen” by not making footprints at the Pole, and not leaving anything behind. They know that “he would be terribly embarrassed and disappointed” (392) not only to know, it is implied, that someone reached the Pole before him, but also a group of women who sledged there without aid of dogs or charters from any Royal Societies. The male scientific and exploratory ego, it is held by these intrepid female polar voyagers, is such a fragile and easily broken thing, that they daren’t trumpet their stunning achievement to what would be, they probably fear, a disappointed and possibly even disbelieving world. “But then, the backside of heroism is often rather sad; women and servants know that. They know also that the heroism may be no less real for that. But achievement is smaller than men think. What is large is the sky, the earth, the sea, the soul.” (Le Guin 383). Here the narrator is explaining her feelings about the “achievement” of her band of women first setting foot on Antarctic soil. The group did not start out, as did Amundsen’s and Scott’s parties did, with the goal of reaching the South Pole. In fact, when the women reach it (and not all of them did – Zoe turned back because her friends were ill, though she was fit enough to go on – another example of how women are other-centered rather than self-centered, as Beauvoir said the “inessential [being] which never becomes essential” Tyson 97) they were unimpressed rather than jubilant over their achievement. The women were more interested in the journey, the beauty and strangeness of the land, and their friendship in adversity, than in an empty geographic accomplishment. Whether that other-centered-ness is in fact a strength innately found in womankind, and a virtue to which all human beings should strive, or is a negative inessentiality produced by generations of patriarchal ideology which strips women of their right to put themselves first, is a question left up to the reader. But in this story, the cooperative nature of the women, and their lack of vanity and desire for notoriety are what propels them first to the Pole, and brings them all home alive. There is a less obvious colonial oppression going on in “Sur”, however. The indigenous people of South America, on whose continent these (again, presumably, for it is implied by their social status and names, but it is never actually asserted, European and not First People or mestizos) women live in such proximity to the South Pole are referred to in passing a few times. But the difference between the “Indians”, the indigenous people of South America, who pilot Zoe’s tiny pirogue (Le Guin 379) and the British, whom the narrator describes when attributing to Florence Nightingale as an inspiration “that very brave and very peculiar lady seemed to represent so much that is best, and strangest, in the island race” is very great, with the South American colonizer women as a separate group between them. This is an example of “othering,” (Tyson 427) both up and down, between the women and the two different groups. The women use British-made instruments, for those were the best available and are a testament to the dominance of that country in this field, and are admiring of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen – all European male explorers who have mapped and named parts of the Antarctic that the female sledgers ultimately conquer with far fewer resources and no deaths – and these same women are ostensibly disdainful of their “ignorant or incompetent servants” (Le Guin 379) back at home, whom we assume to be indigenous or mestizos. But there is an underhanded kind of admiration for the indigenous peoples going on here – as well as discomfort with the dominance of the Europeans. When the women decide who will be in charge of the expedition, they dub the leader “Supreme Inca” in honor of the great First People nation of the narrator’s homeland, Peru. To name a Spanish lady that, at that time and place, must either have been a joke, or to have been a mark, among the women in private, of particular distinction. The second-in-command was named, comically, a native South American chicken, La Araucana. That this might have been a reference to the usefulness of that native fowl, with a funny undertone from the amount of wine the women had drunk that night, speaks to the complicated attitude the women had to native South American ideas and people. In addition, one of the ways which the women have an advantage over the Europeans was “the quantity and quality of our food made a very considerable difference. I am sure that the fifteen percent of dried fruits in our pemmican helped prevent scurvy; and the potatoes, frozen and dried according to an ancient Andean Indian method, were very nourishing yet very light and compact – perfect sledging rations.” Not only the traditionally gender-specific womanly art of food preparation saved the women (a feminist victory), but a native South American method for preservation of food gave them considerable advantage over the food the Europeans brought. To make a particular note of this would mean that the narrator was giving the First People who invented it credit – and contrasting it with the presumably more knowledgeable British explorers’ methods.The terms in which the narrator speaks of the “brave” Mr. Amundsen (Le Guin 392) and the “dashing” Captain Scott have the element of irony to them. Who could be braver than the narrator, and Juana, and Zoe, and even young Teresa, who gave birth on the Antarctic continent? Who could be more dashing than the nine women, without motorized machinery or dogs, and in complete secrecy, gained the Pole and came back, every one of them alive? The narrator, who “reread a thousand times” the account of Captain Scott’s 1902-1904 expedition, and assumed that she could not add to the “body of scientific knowledge” (Le Guin 377) because of her lack of training, was so indoctrinated in the ideology of Eurocentrism, that she would not think of her accomplishment as worthy or proper to be put up with accomplishments of European men. Her simple words and emotionally restrained, yet beautiful, account of the journey treat it as an entirely personal voyage, and not one to be considered the property of science and the world, as Amundsen’s and Scott’s expeditions were. While Ms Le Guin, an American, writing in the guise of a South American woman of a hundred years ago, could not have directly experienced the kind of sexist and colonial oppression that the narrator of “Sur” would have experienced, she carefully writes of a woman who balanced the limitations her sex and national origin placed on her with her desire for adventure. This kind of story, the sexist and Eurocentric ideologies would insist, could only take place in a fantasy – which, indeed “Sur” certainly is. But Ms Le Guin writes in such a factual way, with the highly plausible excuse of the narrator’s modest desire for secrecy for the protection of herself and her companions from the censure of their families. The author makes it seem highly likely that, while wholly able to successfully complete a truly epic polar journey and reach the South Pole before anyone else, a group of South American women would hardly be accepted by the world as the discovers of the southernmost point on earth. In this setup of the story, the author both accepts and attempts to subvert the very ideologies of female and Third World oppression. That this story couldn’t have been written as a fantasy in which the women are encouraged by their menfolk, and lauded by the male polar explorers whom they beat to the Pole, is an example of how the patriarchal and colonial ideals were still holding sway when Ms Le Guin first published this in 1982. If it were written that way, it might have been described “fantastic” (read: unbelievable) rather than “fantasy”. Perhaps if a similar story were published as fantasy today, with the advances in both feminist and postcolonial thought, it would be better accepted. The narrator of the story has that hope, when she writes “I think it would be nice if a grandchild of mine, or somebody’s grandchild, happened to find it (the account of the journey) some day” (Le Guin, 376, parentheses mine). . Works CitedLe Guin, Ursula K. “Sur.” 1982. The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women. Ed. A. Susan Williams. London: Viking/Penguin, 1995. 376-92.”Roald Amundsen,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation.Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Routledge, 2006.”Ursula Le Guin,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. Notes1Ursula K. Le Guin, an American who grew up in Berkeley, California, is a European non-Hispanic American who cannot in any way be construed as a member of a colonially oppressed group. She writes, however, in “Sur” in the person of a Spanish-speaking Peruvian woman, a member of an oppressor class over the Native Inca population of her country. Also, as stated in this paper, the Hispanic South Americans, no matter their race, ethnicity, or appearance, are considered Third World (or in the case of the indigenous people, possibly Fourth World, Tyson 422) people by the traditional colonial hierarchy, thus there are two layers of oppressing classes, and possibly a two-way double-consciousness possible in such a person (Hispanic European non-indigenous person, oppressing an indigenous population, but in turn oppressed by the First and Second World nations.) (Encarta, Le Guin Article)2This is a feminist reading. There could be an entirely different reading, which might assume that Maria and her husband had a particularly close marriage, and neither would consider leaving the other in illness (but in such a close marriage, would secrecy be kept between husband and wife? This is another feminist critique.) There also could be a counter-feminist reading that the women, acting as upholders of patriarchy, should they have had husbands who were bound for the Pole, would have despised them as womanly and weak if they had stayed at home in favor of caring for family members, but rather required “manliness” of their men to go out and prove themselves by a dangerous journey. There is not enough evidence from the text to explain the motivations of these characters fully. This paper concerns itself with feminist and postcolonial readings; but the writer does not assert that other readings are not possible or incorrect.

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