Rereading Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

In 1985, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist novel about a United States dominated by a fervent Christian culture in which women play a subservient role, and in which the protagonist, one of the dwindling number of fertile women, becomes a “handmaid” for a man so that she can conceive a child for him and his wife.

The Handmaid’s Tale became very well known, winning several awards and nominated for several others; it was placed in school curricula and in general gained a reputation as a core feminist work.

I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was a fine novel, but I had already read Suzette Haden Elgin’s 1984 novel Native Tongue, and as far as I was concerned, The Handmaid’s Tale had nothing on Elgin’s dystopia. Now, almost 30 years later, I’ve just finished rereading Native Tongue, and it was even more biting and unforgiving than I remembered it.

As with The Handmaid’s Tale, Native Tongue takes place in a future in which Christianity has dominated society, and has been used to place women in a completely helpless and subservient role, with no rights outside of what they are accorded by their fathers and husbands. In this story, however, things have been complicated by the discovering of many worlds in which there are alien races; it is necessary to be able to communicate with these aliens — some of whom are humanoid, and many of whom are not. To help cope with that, large extended families of linguists have developed; their children are exposed to at least one alien language (and several human ones) starting from birth, so that they can serve as interpreters.

The women, like the men, spend their days interpreting; in order to reconcile their ideas of women as helpless and rather stupid children, the men tell the women (and themselves) that simply learning languages is not a matter of intelligence. In fact, the men tell themselves quite a lot of things about women (including how women in the 20th century were allowed to be doctors, lawyers and professionals because the men thought they were cute).

In the end, Native Tongue is really about language and the realities that it creates. While the men delude themselves about both women’s needs and their own behavior toward their wives, mothers and daughters, the women in the Barren House — the place where older women in the linguist families go when they’re past childbearing years — have been, for years, working on a true woman’s language in which ideas that have no words in the English (or any other) language can be expressed. The idea (which Elgin apparently supported) is that language affects our perception of reality — and in fact, can affect reality itself.

It’s a concept that I could easily buy into. For example, before I became interested in bird watching, most birds (as far as I was concerned) fell into the category of: small birds, big birds, and pigeons. (Well, I’m a New Yorker, after all.) Once I started birding, and started to apply names to birds, I had to also start seeing the differences, both obvious and subtle — a Chipping Sparrow is not the same thing as an American Tree Sparrow, even though they are both little brown birds. And now, even if I see a bird I can’t name (or can’t remember the name for off-hand), I still notice the details of its physical features and its behavior. The process of naming birds changed my perception of them and the environment that contains them.

One thing I didn’t recall about Native Tongue is how unforgiving the novel is toward its men. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is, in the beginning, married to a good man, and she escapes (possibly) through the offices of other good men. In Native Tongue, there are no good men — or at least, no men who do not buy into the idea of the innate inferiority of women. As a result, even the kindest of them end up being cruel.

It shouldn’t have startled me as much as it did. There were several very angry novels and short stories written in the 1980s and beyond which give no concession to the male reader — The Female Man by Joanna Russ and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) immediately come to mind.

I hasten to add that the women in Native Tongue are neither all good, nor all victims. One of the women in the Barren House, impatient and impulsive, ends up ruining the life of one woman and making things a lot worse for another. Another woman, a non-linguist, sets out on a course of revenge for her lost child and realizes later that her revenge has included innocent lives.

But one thing the women in Native Tongue are not: passive victims. Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale, does her best to survive in a highly oppressive society, but she depends on others for rescue. Nazareth, the main protagonist of Native Tongue, survives a variety of personal disasters, including being wed to a psychologically abusive husband, but eventually helps push forward the development of the women’s language in a way that begins a chain reaction toward real change. Despite her circumstances, despite years of hard work, imposed powerlessness and continual attempts to convince her that she was worthless, she still retains her sense of self and her ability to initiate change.

Perhaps that, as well as its insights about the power of language, is why I preferred Native Tongue.

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