[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Shands examines the reflection of 1960s and 1970s feminism in Woman on the Edge of Time, highlighting the ways that Piercy introduces passion into a flawed society in the early stages of utopia.]
Knowledge rests not upon truth only, but upon error also.
Carl G. Jung 163
"[Telling] a tale of two cities," as Ihab Hassan puts it (104), Woman on the Edge of Time has been analyzed as a dystopia, as speculative fiction, and as realist fiction with fantastic episodes. "By her vivid and coherent descriptions of new social institutions," writes Rachel Blau du Plessis, "Piercy has answered the famous Cold War dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World which lament that there is no possibility of imagining an anti-totalitarian society" (1979 4).
In Piercy's own view it is not a utopia--"because it's accessible. There's almost nothing there except the brooder not accessible now. So it's hardly a utopia; it is very intentionally not a utopia because it is not strikingly new. The ideas are the ideas basically of the women's movement" (PCBQ [Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt] 100). Sheila Delaney concurs: "It is a compelling realistic novel with utopian interludes" or a "Utopia in transition" (173, 176), whereas Margaret Atwood opines that "none of the reviews of Woman on the Edge of Time ... seems even to have acknowledged its genre" (272). In Atwood's interpretation, it is a utopia, "with all the virtues and shortcomings of the form" (273). In Celia Betsky's view, Piercy's "utopia is more believable and moving than many renderings of contemporary reality. Like a latter-day D. H. Lawrence, she sees the future as a revival of tradition, eternal values and human ritual, heir to the primitive qualities of Connie's rural Mexican past" (1976 39). David L. Foster believes that Woman on the Edge of Time "[offers] an insight into the body, or form, or structure of feminist science fiction," one device of which, he suggests, is to "estrange" or "defamiliarize" the reader in certain passages of the novel (48, 52), a convention also pointed out by Anne Cranny-Francis (110-119). Patricia Marks finds five distinct narrative structures in this novel: aside from realism and utopian/dystopian writing, she finds a pornographic aspect in the dystopia and a "narrative of the holograph" in the utopian section (Marks 15; see also Karen C. Adams 39 and Sue Walker 138).
As of 1982, Woman on the Edge of Time was the author's favorite among her own novels (PCBQ 169). "It is primarily a novel about Connie," says Piercy. "There's a lot about social injustice in it, and about how a woman stops hating herself and becomes able to love herself enough to fight for her own survival" (PCBQ 100). American culture is here shown to be on the edge of time, as is the protagonist, in a particular way: she inhabits what Teresa de Lauretis has called "the space-off," the "spaces in the margins of hegemonic discourses" (25). Not only does Piercy place her protagonist in a muted zone, but she employs a genre which itself has been a muted zone within literary criticism (Annas 143). Despite its "doubly fictional" nature, according to Chris Ferns, utopian fiction has largely been "the antithesis of postmodernist experiment" in remaining "obstinately non-self-referential" (453-54).
Hospitalized for schizophrenia, Connie, or Consuelo Ramos, is able to get out of present, oppressive time and mind-travel into the future. A thirty-seven-year-old Latina, she is at the bottom of American society, representing a host of victims suffering under the yoke of capitalist patriarchy: women, ethnic minorities, the poor, the uneducated, the old. As Cranny-Francis puts it, "Piercy's utopian figure ... deals not only with the status of women as a group, but with the differences between women which make women of particular races or classes susceptible to different pressures, different kinds and degrees of oppression" (135). Connie's story is the story of victimization. While as a young woman she had dreams, ideas, ambitions, at the age of thirty-seven, what she valued or loved most in life has been taken from her, killed, or stolen by society: the men she has loved, her daughter, her intellectual and creative potential.
Connie's vows as a teenager not to grow up like her mother--"To suffer and serve. Never to live my own life!" draw sharp rebuke from her mother, who advises her that she will "do what women do." That is, accept that as a woman she is less valued than men--her brothers are a priority in the family--that her main concern will be raising a family and that she must therefore forget about going to college. Small wonder that Connie rejects the accouterments of womanhood: "Nothing in life but having babies and cooking and keeping the house. Mamacita, believe me--oígame, Mamá--I love you! But I'm going to travel. I'm going to be someone!" "There's nothing for a woman to see but troubles," is her mother's disheartening reply (WET [Woman on the Edge of Time] 46).
Unfortunately, her mother has assessed matters correctly. Unfortunately, too, the mother gives Consuelo less of a chance to prove her wrong. Being resigned to her plight, she has abdicated her maternal power and comes to collaborate both in her own and in her daughter's oppression. Having internalized patriarchal evaluations of sons as more valuable, she is unable to love her daughter as she needs to be loved. "[Connie] wanted her mother's comfort. She had wanted Mariana to come with her in her pursuit of knowledge and some better way to live. She had never been mothered enough and she had grown up with a hunger for mothering. To be loved as Luis had been loved" (WET 47). Taken from Connie, her own daughter, moreover, will not be mothered by her mother. According to feminist psychotherapists, it is not unusual that women live with a sense of loss of maternal nurturing that is neither conscious nor culturally acknowledged. In a review of Phyllis Chesler's Women and Madness, Piercy reflects that "in modern patriarchal culture, the mother-daughter bond is broken. Mothers have no land or money to give daughters: not pride or dignity or sense of self. Mary is easy to identify with--power through receptivity, compassion, and the suffering womb--but Mary has a son, not a daughter" ("Asking for Help Is Apt to Kill You" 26).
Predictably enough, Connie's attempts to exit her blighted circumstances and to fulfill her dreams of a more rewarding life are continually thwarted, and her life becomes a catalogue of defeat. She manages to go to college for two years, but being too poor to afford a typewriter, she assents to type the term papers of a white male student, and when she gets pregnant by him, she has to leave the college. Another man she loves, Martín, is killed, possibly by the police. With a man named Eddie she has a daughter, Angelina, but Eddie leaves her. To survive, she has to commute to her brother's (Luis/Lewis) nursery in New Jersey. She meets Claud, a black saxophone player and pickpocket, but he dies after having consented to letting the prison where he is incarcerated use him in medical experiments. After this blow, Consuelo is inconsolable, taking to the bottle, using drugs, and finally, in despair, hitting her own child. The daughter unfortunately falls into a door and breaks her wrist, whereupon she has to be taken to the hospital, which must report the injury and thus leads to Connie's losing her to a foster home. Early in the novel, Connie has also learned what it means to lose one's freedom: when her niece, Dolly Campos, has sought protection at her place, and Dolly's prize pimp, the sadistic cabrón Geraldo (bringing with him a thug and a doctor) breaks in and beats her in order to force her to have an abortion, Connie attacks him with a bottle. In his resemblance to an eagle (albeit temporarily, WET 24), Geraldo recalls the "eagle" of Piercy's second novel, representing an oppressive patriarchal society, to which, despite his being a marginal person in other ways, Geraldo is linked. He punishes Connie by having her committed to the state mental hospital. "The pimp and the mad doctor," writes Judith Kegan Gardiner, "thus stand as the two exemplary villains of this society. Both profit from turning the private realms of sexuality and of mental fantasy into institutions of exploitation" (75). The pimp and the doctor, moreover, recall the "emperor" in Piercy's poem "The Emperor" (from Circles on the Water):
In her review of Chesler's treatise, Piercy concedes that it "passed instantly into [her] bloodstream and brain" ("Asking for Help" ["Asking for Help Is Apt to Kill You"] 25), and that it changed her way of seeing. In fact, Woman on the Edge of Time can be construed as a fictional account of the factual horror story that is Women and Madness. Resembling a prison, Piercy's hospital could be seen as a metaphor for women's condition. In Margaret Atwood's words: "Some reviewers treated this part of the book as a regrettable daydream or even a hallucination caused by Connie's madness. Such an interpretation undercuts the entire book" (273). In Phyllis Chesler's study, "Men dominate clinic work, while women are the majority of the clients" ("Asking for Help" 26). In the mercilessly oppressive "confined space" (WET 23) of Piercy's mental hospital, a rigid hierarchy reigns, where feminine or maternal characteristics such as empathy, caring, emotionality are denigrated, and masculine/patriarchal values such as rationality and impersonality are validated. The depiction of the hospital in Woman on the Edge of Time has been compared to that in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). The mental hospitals portrayed are similarly oppressive, yet there are distinctive differences. As Frances Bartkowski writes, "Piercy's novel adds a feminist component missing from the earlier book. Where Kesey's text is blatantly sexist and misogynist, Piercy condemns the patriarchal nature of this institution and its exploitative treatment of women and men, black and white. In Kesey's novel, the symbol of control is a grotesque character, Big Nurse, an incarnation of the terrible mother archetype" (1982 85-86).
Part of a muted world, Connie's virtues and talents are invisible to a dominant world devoid of empathy: nobody really listens to her or really sees her. She is insulted, infantilized, and incarcerated: in a passage recalling a ride in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which the heroine experiences as being enclosed in a prison van, Connie is transported to a mental hospital feeling as if she were "carried blind in the belly of the iron beast" (WET 31). The ultimate rape committed by society (after performing an unnecessary hysterectomy after Connie's being raped by Claud) is when she is chosen for experimental brain surgery, purportedly to control her 'violence.' This harrowing operation signals a final suppression not of her violence, but of a female principle: "Suddenly she thought that these men believed feeling itself a disease, something to be cut out like a rotten appendix. Cold, calculating, ambitious, believing themselves rational and superior, they chased the crouching female animal through the brain with a scalpel" (WET 282).
It is not only Connie's perspective--her observation of the three different societies outlined in Woman on the Edge of Time--that is significant. Equally notable is how these societies view her. On the 'present' time level, she is invisible: she is perceived as too insignificant to merit an effort to really see and hear her. Her particular knowledge is not seen as worthy of exploration. Society's blindness to Connie's virtues stands for an androcentric culture's incapacity to absorb, and its tendency to denigrate, a feminine principle--to make it invisible. Not even Connie's niece Dolly, a male-oriented person, is able to hear Connie even though she badly needs Connie's advice and help. Only when Connie, prompted to vengeful action, resorts to society's own deathly weapons and murders the coldly rational and inhuman doctors in self-defense, do her actions elicit a massive response.
Most of Connie's relations to men on the 'present' time level reduce her to being a service institution or a commodity to use or abuse. She tells Luciente, her guide to the alternative society:
We have a religious idea of being good--a bit like what you call good, being gentle and caring about your neighbor. But to be a good man, for instance, a man is supposed to be ... strong, hold his liquor, attractive to women, able to beat out other men, lucky, hard, tough, macho we call it, muy hombre ... not to be a fool ... not to get too involved ... to look out for number one ... to make good money. Well, to get ahead you step on people, like my brother Luis. You knuckle under to the big guys and you walk over the people underneath.
On the whole, Connie remains mistreated and misunderstood. From her powerless and forgotten corner of American society the oppressive nature of a patriarchal culture is revealed most clearly and suffered most acutely. Beleaguered by the misfortunes that befall her, Connie tells Luciente, "All my life I been pushed around by my father, by my brother Luis, by schools, by bosses, by cops, by doctors and lawyers and caseworkers and pimps and landlords. By everybody who could push" (WET 98-99). Connie "had noticed before that white men got off on descriptions of brown and black women being beaten. 'Hay que tratarlas mal,' Eddie would say" (WET 94). She is sexually exploited, seduced and abandoned, abused by cruel and indifferent doctors because men's desires and authority are prioritized before hers. Because a pimp's word weighs more heavily than hers, she is locked up in an asylum, and her noncompliance only gets her into more trouble. "She could have used some of her mother's resignation. When she fought her hard and sour destiny, she seemed only to end up worse beaten, worse humiliated, more quickly alone--after Eddie had walked out, alone with her daughter Angelina and no man, no job, no money, pregnant with the baby she must abort" (WET 44).
To be sure, men who do not conform to the masculine ideals of Connie's society also end up victims, as do the two men she has loved and lost, the portraits of whom have some feminized elements. Martín is described as follows: "He had been beautiful, his body like the molten sun, coppery and golden at once, his body in which strength and grace were balanced as in a great cat. His body had been almost girlish in its slenderness--although she would never have dared to say that in any way, for that very thought expressed would have lost him to her--and masculine in its swiftness, its muscular tight control" (WET 243). Claud, the black saxophone player and one of society's despised outcasts, encounters a senseless death in prison. From Connie's perspective, he has admirable and lovable qualities: "He was a fine saxophone player. He was a talented pickpocket and he brought home good things for her and her baby. He had been as good to Angie as if she had been his own baby daughter. He had been good to her, too, a loving man. The sweetest man she had ever had" (WET 26). Claud, too, is on a bottom level of the hierarchy, which is perhaps what makes for an equal relationship between Connie and Claud, a balance suggested by their virtually equal-length first names of identical initials, names associating, moreover, to another pair of outcasts in society: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Having chosen the way of the white 'Anglo' male, Connie's brother, Luis, by contrast, has been amply rewarded in terms of material success. "The army had changed Luis. When he had come back, he had contempt for the rest of them. His anger and unruly pride had been channeled into a desire to get ahead, to grab money, to succeed like an Anglo" (WET 363). Luis has "hardened" (WET 364), betrayed her and his own origins (switching his name to Lewis), renounced qualities like empathy, and adopted the perspective of the predominant culture; these changes mean that he cannot really see his sister or sympathize with her problems. He has alienated himself and absorbed all the attributes that have assured his ascendancy in mainstream America, but he has thereby lost Connie's affectionate admiration and has even become a stranger to her: "this middle-aged overweight businessman in the dark gray suit and the wide tie with its narrow dim stripe, the round moon face bulging into jowls, the forehead that ran well back to the middle of his scalp, the fat fingers with a lodge ring that remained braced on the table as he talked as though he feared if he let go of them they would fly up--did she know him from someplace?" (WET 352).
Among Connie's wrenching losses is the loss of her niece, Dolly, who resorts to prostitution to survive and to drugs to survive prostitution. To be able to survive mentally, Dolly, alternately spunky and spineless, must con herself into believing that she is on top, able to get "nice clothes, pretty things for my baby" (WET 219); but unlike Lewis, whose signature keeps Connie in the asylum, Dolly is powerless. Unable to explore or express her real self--"I say I'm of a Spanish mother and an Irish father. Sometimes I say my mother was a contessa" (WET 220)--she must give up keeping her daughter during the weeks, has to stay slim, dye her hair, and, as her letter to Connie indicates (169), has little opportunity for education. She, too, has had to adapt to 'Anglo' ideals: "The money is with the Anglos and they like you skinny and American-looking. It pays more if you look Anglo, you know" (WET 218). Yet, her true sentiments about her life as a prostitute are revealed in her comment to Connie: "Who can stand those assholes? They drive me crazy. They're all pigs" (WET 218). A patriarchal perspective has polluted Dolly's own and indeed made her go crazy, if that word can be used to designate her state of psychological confusion and delusion. Society has locked up Connie and declared her insane but considers Dolly sane.
Dolly's opposite is the equally appropriately named Sybil, a woman who refuses to give up her perspective and to collaborate in her own oppression. For Sybil, this has come to mean renouncing intimacy with men on the conditions offered. Feeling like "a dumb hole" (WET 85), sex is for her "futile" and "sordid," and she wishes to transcend the whole sad business: "I think we're taught we want sex when we feel unhappy or lacking something. But often what we want is something higher." Since Sybil is "telling women how to heal themselves and encouraging them to leave their husbands" (WET 84), she is perceived as dangerous and must be locked up in the asylum where Connie meets her.
For Connie, for whom groups of men impart a "sense of menace" (WET 67) and who instead "had taken to dreaming about young boys" (WET 37), the first meeting with Luciente is strange. Prima facie, Luciente appears to be a man, and Connie is apprehensive but also curious. "The face of the young Indio smiling, beckoning, curiously gentle. He lacked the macho presence of men in her own family, nor did he have Claud's massive strength, or Eddie's edgy combativeness" (WET 36). Luciente turns out to be a woman, Connie's guide to the future community of Mattapoisett (at Buzzard's Bay) in the year of 2137. Connie has been singled out as a "catcher," one of the persons who can mind-link with other times and places. Appearing first before Connie's hospitalization, Luciente then regularly aids her to escape her dreary days in the asylum. Whereas Patricia Marks finds that Luciente, "at least on one level, represents the speaking voice of Connie's own repressed unconscious" (110), and on another, "the site of a different female subject position" (151), Rachel Blau du Plessis argues that "Luciente is a character who functions like a manifesto" (1979 1), as "Connie's double, an image of her enlightenment" (3).
In a series of visits to Mattapoisett, Connie is familiarized with the ideals and aspirations of its inhabitants. However, without being a hallucination, this future scenario is not yet a certainty; it is a possible alternative society where different values have been pursued. In depicting three types of societies, Piercy holds up three ideological choices for Connie, and the reader, to consider; and as Natalie Rosinsky comments, "the possibility of narratological unreliability does not invalidate the text's insights. Instead, it is further evidence of their affective authenticity" (188). The values and ideas governing the future communities can be traced back to the present time, the 'edge of time,' in which important choices must be made, and Luciente urges Connie to join their fight for the right choices. According to Barbara Hill Rigney,
Piercy's intention in Woman on the Edge of Time is perhaps not so much to create Eden as to mourn the lack of it. Her utopian vision, while more practical and politically viable than many depicted in contemporary literature, is nonetheless a vision, a nostalgic trip through the values of the 1960s, a kind of summer camp for adults where the entertainment includes hallucinogens and free sex, neither of which entails responsibility or consequence. Piercy's emphasis, then, is a criticism of the real and present world. We must know and experience its fallen state before we can create a garden.
In this alternate future, reached through psychism--the existence of which Piercy grew up taking for granted because of her mother's psychism (PCBQ 104)--it is the ideas of feminism, at a height at the time when Woman on the Edge of Time was written, that are realized. Ecological concerns are also paramount. "In a technological age in which women are still not trained in technology, correctly regarding it as a male domain, nature as female principle becomes an even more prominent and vital literary image" (Rigney 72). In Mattapoisett technology is used, but with discrimination; people live together within the community but each person has 'per' own space; everybody lives in close communion with nature and contributes to the prosperity of the village. Possessiveness, both in terms of material belongings and in terms of relationships, is considered negative and is something one consciously works to diminish. The elderly are respected, as are children. Most people are part artists, and every seven years they get a sabbatical to pursue whatever interests they like--programmatic, collective, institutionalized arrangements that may seem offputting, but which are none the less part of a serious attempt to transgress contemporary cultural boundaries and envision something different.
The most important change accomplished in Mattapoisett is a transformation in terms of power, a key issue in all of Piercy's work and linked to her vision of balance. In Mattapoisett, both men and women have given up a certain kind of power they alone had, and traditional parental power has been done away with. In the women's house in Small Changes, the children have five mothers who share in raising them. In Woman on the Edge of Time, children have three mothers, and upon reaching their teens the children go through a process of self-definition and of self-naming. While people strive to be spiritual and pure in heart, it is no longer a patriarchal god that is revered (WET 104). Racism has ceased to exist even though they do "hold on to separate cultural identities"--a multicultural and pluralist utopian ideal. For Connie, the most outlandish, almost repulsive, idea is the "brooder." There, the embryos of the next generation are floating, "like fish in the aquarium at Coney Island" (WET 102). This extrauterine production of babies is more than Connie can stomach, but her friendly guides proffer rational explanations:
It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers.
The similarities to Shulamith Firestone's 1970 critique of motherhood within the nuclear family are obvious, but with decisive divergences, since reproduction is actually presented as a privilege women have surrendered in order to allow men to participate on absolutely equal terms. In Firestone's discussion children are burdens, not bonuses, and she even doubts if there is any innate maternal instinct. Since Firestone sees children as a burden, this burden should be shared to avoid one person having to shoulder it by herself.
In Mattapoisett, by contrast, the maternal is an entirely positive force. "Romance, sex, birth, children--that's what you fasten on," Luciente tells Connie. "Yet that isn't women's business anymore. It's everybody's" (WET 251). By making men more maternal, women are freed for a wider range of pursuits and no longer seek their identities solely in motherhood. Comparing Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Ann Snitow finds that "In Surfacing, for example, Margaret Atwood sacrifices sexual pleasure to motherhood as the more profound experience and source of female identity. In Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy examines the opposite choice, showing a society of the future in which mothering has been diffused into the life of the community freeing sexuality to become an area of both play and profound feeling" (718; for a further discussion of the brooder see also Keinhorst, Utopien von Frauen 99-101).
In Mattapoisett, the binary hierarchy of Connie's capitalist patriarchal world is in the process of being reversed. The imbuing of life into the embryos in the brooder corresponds to the instilling of a female principle of maternal, life-enhancing, and life-giving properties throughout the culture. In the minds of Mattapoisett's denizens this is the infusion of a healing impulse to counteract earlier destructive divisions of mind/body and to erase the distinctions between power and powerlessness. To realize this ideal, it is men who must change the most, having had more power than women in the earlier society, that is, Connie's present, and therefore more responsibility, as the following quotation suggests:
"Our history isn't a set of axioms." Bolivar spoke slowly, firmly. "I guess I see the original division of labor, that first dichotomy, as enabling later divvies into haves and have-nots, powerful and powerless, enjoyers and workers, rapists and victims. The patriarchal mind/body split turned the body to machine and the rest of the universe into booty on which the will could run rampant, using, discarding, destroying."Luciente nodded. "Yet I can't see male and female as equally to blame, for one had power and the other was property."
Piercy's scenario critiques the slotting of women into either tainted bodily flesh or pure madonna-like spirituality, both of which negate female sexuality. In Mattapoisett, this dichotomy has been transcended. Motherhood, a source of joy and power, is everyone's prerogative. Celibacy, in Connie's culture despised since a woman's value comes through a man, is entirely respected (WET 137). Whether mothers or not, whether part of a couple or celibate, women in Mattapoisett are both spiritual and sexual beings. Their philosophy, a realization of feminist ideals, could be seen as an echo of the feminist debate from the 1960s and onward, one focus of which has been the study of women's alienation from their bodies. Feminist theologians have examined a division of body and soul that dates back to Plato, a division that has been particularly harmful to women, but in extension also to society as a whole. The devaluation of the body has been linked to a problematic stance towards nature, in which dominance and exploitation are creating a disharmony ultimately dangerous to human survival.
Concepts of masculinity and femininity, spirituality and sexuality, are thus being transfigured in Mattapoisett. Delaney finds that "Piercy's new society is surely one of the more attractive and sophisticated in imaginative literature, a heady blend of late 1960s and early 1970s countercultures"--"deurbanized," "decentralized," "nonhierarchical and classless, multiracial and multicultural, industrial, agricultural, highly aesthetic, and sexually liberated" (175). But the values of Mattapoisett are still being struggled for, victory being far from certain. There is another, far less enchanting possibility of a conflicting future version, and a war is raging between these two worlds. This could be seen as a reenactment of a primordial, mythical battle between God and Satan, or between matriarchal and patriarchal principles (a battle in fact posited by some radical feminists who contend that, historically, the outcome of this battle was the ousting of matriarchy and the defeat of a feminine principle), or, as a battle between an impulse of connection and repair and an impulse of division and hierarchy.
According to C. G. Jung, "Knowledge rests not upon truth only, but upon error also" (163). In chapter 15, Connie time travels to the wrong future. In this tableau of terror, New York is a megacity not unlike that created in the film Brazil, a nightmare version where all the negative elements of corporate America have been grotesquely reinforced. Connie meets Gildina, a silicone-sculpted prostitute on a contract to Cash, isolated in a windowless apartment where she never sees the sun. As Cranny-Francis has observed, both Luciente and Gildina have names that associate to light, "but with Gildina it is a garish, tinsel light" (136). It can also be noted that Luciente is light producing while Gildina is light reflecting.
A claustrophobic, compartmentalized, artificial world is divided into strictly separated classes of people, defended by men like Cash--"a fighting machine" (WET 298), a "supercop" (WET 299) who has "been through mind control" and can switch off annoying human feelings or needs like "fear and pain and fatigue and sleep" (WET 297). Like everybody else, he belongs to a "multi" (the governing class, a concept that occurs again in He, She and It) (WET 300). Freedom and equality do not exist here, old people are sent to "Geri" (WET 290), and nature is out of Gildina's touch. Food comes from "big corporate factory-farms" (WET 296). Gildina's special powers--her ability to physically connect with Connie--are denied and invisible even to herself. Cash, immediately assuming an authoritarian stance, asserts that "There is no such thing as time travel" (WET 299). From his perspective, Connie is a puzzling anomaly that he is unable to classify.
While the dystopian 'error' world is thus constructed upon extreme hierarchical polarizations between men and women, between rich and poor, between old and young, between city and nature, the world Luciente takes Connie to is, at first glance, an androgynous one, where polarizations between men and women as well as between humans and nature have collapsed. In Thielmann's evaluation, "people are androgynous, biologically as well as psychologically. But this androgyny is not an 'elevating' of woman to the level of man, but rather a meeting of former 'female' and 'male' characteristics. Women are no longer 'feminine' in its (present) social implications. Men are not machos but are as nurturant as women" (126). Critics such as Kathryn Seidel, Natalie R. Rosinsky, Pamela Annas, Libby Falk Jones, and Jocye R. Ladenson see Piercy as an advocate of androgyny. Piercy herself sees her vision in Woman on the Edge of Time as "truly an androgynous society--one in which women's values and what women represent are respected as much as the more traditional patriarchal ideas" (PCBQ 103). In this instance, I think that Piercy's own assessment is somewhat misleading. As I interpret Woman on the Edge of Time, women's values are in fact valued more. The trend is toward androgyny, a term which is far from unproblematic for feminists, as Patricia Marks points out (107-09), but, during the particular time stretch described in the novel, a war is raging between a patriarchal and a feminine or maternal impulse. Mattapoisett is "Utopia in transition" (Delaney 176), and traditional patriarchal ideas are not valued as much as women's values. Men are actually changing more than women, and they are adopting feminine characteristics, even physically, if they are mothers. Dorothy Berkson finds that in Woman on the Edge of Time "the most fundamental structural change that must take place is in the 'maternalizing' of men" (111), and in Patrocinio Schweickart's view, "It is noteworthy that the Mattapoisettian mode of reproduction nullifies the role of the father as it universalizes that of the mother" (328). Assessing the male characters, Schweickart is "tempted to call them male women, except that they are marked more by the absence of masculinity than the positive presence of femininity" (341). Moreover, as Schweickart points out, not only is Piercy's protagonist a woman, but "the primary model for human fellowship is female-bonding" (338), or, as Libby Falk Jones puts it: "Piercy creates fusion through the web of character relationships radiating from Connie" (123). The operating principle might be called 'gynandric' rather than gynocentric or androgynous, if such a morphological switch can suggest the prevailing ideological priority. As Lyman Tower Sargent points out, "while Marge Piercy wants both women and men closer to nature, she stresses the special role of women in healing" (31). From a gynandric impulse of nurturing and healing comes the repair of a war-torn, dichotomous world.
Consider, for example, the infusion of a maternal impulse in the extension of mothering to include men. Contrary to Firestone's proposal of extracorporeal reproduction, motherhood is here exulted, a privilege to be shared. On a physical level, men even assume female characteristics such as being able to nurse, as in this passage, in which nursing is rendered in images of liquified, free-floating spatiality: "He had breasts. Not large ones. Small breasts, like a flat-chested woman temporarily swollen with milk. Then with his red beard, his face of a sunburnt forty-five-year-old man, stern-visaged, long-nosed, thin-lipped, he began to nurse. The baby stopped wailing and began to suck greedily. An expression of serene enjoyment spread over Barbarossa's intellectual schoolmaster's face. He let go of the room, of everything, and floated" (WET 134).
Language, rather than characterization, is at the heart of Woman on the Edge of Time, according to Kathryn Seidel (1976 101). The deconstruction of power structures is continued on a linguistic level, where Piercy deletes the dimorphism of the objective and possessive pronouns 'his' and 'her,' which have been replaced with the unisex 'per.' The single personal pronoun is 'person.' Phonematically, however, 'per' sounds more like 'her' than 'his.' In Cranny-Francis's view, "The initial clumsiness of these neologisms is an indication to the reader of the pervasiveness of the gender ideologies which structure our society. Again their function is not predictive or a blueprint for the future, but an analysis of contemporary constructions of gender" (135). Integral to the novel's impetus (and far from being just a "lingo," as Roger Sale glosses it in his review), Piercy's neologism is her contribution to a counteracting of what H. Lee Gershuny has called "linguistic sexism" (191): Piercy's neologisms, in this novel and in He, She and It, are not only there to dismantle sexist language, but to argue for an overhaul of society. This is underlined in stanza seven of Piercy's poem "Doing it differently" (Circles on the Water):
Nancy Walker, who finds "a re-ordering of the relationship to language itself" a pervasive force in contemporary literature by women, writes that
Recognizing the power of language to confine and define, to claim power, to coerce and subjugate, these novelists suggest not merely the need for a non-sexist language, but more importantly women's full participation in the determination of meaning. And it is here that the devices of irony and fantasy come into full play, for it is the purpose of irony to cast doubt on assumed meaning and of fantasy to reformulate meaning in accordance with a new reality--an alternate world which, once imagined, becomes a possible, a potential place to live.
Linked to the linguistic considerations are the politics of naming. While "Consuelo Camacho Alvarez Ramos trails a string of irrelevant father's and husband's surnames," writes Rosinsky, people in Mattapoisett only have one name, and one which is subject to change--a "sense of evolving selfhood, mirrored and reinforced by culturally accepted, fluid name change" (202). (For a further discussion of the importance of language in Woman on the Edge of Time see Patricia Hartman's "Politics of Language in Feminist Utopias.")
Furthermore, that patriarchal ideas are less valued in Woman on the Edge of Time is also suggested by Piercy's use of time--the "nearly continuous shifting of time and place that is close to stream-of-consciousness technique" (Khanna 132). Thielmann argues, in my view correctly, that time can be seen as a patriarchal concept, and she refers to Small Changes, where it is explained that 'doing time' means being locked up in jail and deprived of one's personal freedom, as Phil experienced it, and to Dance the Eagle to Sleep, in which the Indians perceive time as a threat because of the time they are expected to serve the state (114-15). Connie might as well be in prison, Thielmann continues, since her "time in the hospital is strictly regulated as a means to discipline her and make her aware of her powerlessness" (115); but Connie's time-traveling is actually a way to get out of "the system time of the present" and to enter a place where "time has a different content. In Mattapoisett time is an organic process as opposed to being divided into artificial units" (116). Moreover, as Thielmann observes, "On the structural level, the use of time reflects Connie's personal development through the novel" (117). C. R., Connie Ramos's initials, as Rachel Blau du Plessis has pointed out (1985 185), could stand for Consciousness Raising, but "Her consciousness does not flower yet, as her last name, Ramos, indicates in Spanish" (Thielmann 118). Ramos means a branch or bouquet of flowers, at the same time as it could, I think, associate to Spanish ramera, meaning 'whore,' and thus allude to Piercy's collapsing of the dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' women, madonnas and whores. Rachel Blau du Plessis has commented on Piercy's choice of a name for her protagonist: "words from knowing and learning (canny, conning, consciousness, kenning), words that suggest victimization (conned) and critique (con--oppositional--and cunning). Indeed, Connie Ramos's initials, CR, offer almost as fine a hint of possibilities as Charlotte Brontë's JE" (1985 185).
The structuring of different time levels of the novel thus mirrors Connie's own development and her expanding comprehension of Mattapoisett's ideology. Piercy's use of time in Woman on the Edge of Time could be compared to Julia Kristeva's discussion of concepts of time. Kristeva's "future perfect" is, in Alice Jardine's words,
a modality that implies neither that we are helpless before some inevitable destiny nor that we can somehow, given enough time and thought, engineer an ultimately perfect future. She often uses this term herself, particularly in reference to the poetic text; a literary text is always before or after its time (because of the negativity forcing the rejection of all thesis) but also of its own time to the extent that it represents a certain linguistic and ideological configuration.
In "Women's time," Kristeva situates the development within the women's movement in different concepts of time: the earlier generations of feminists "aspired to gain a place in linear time" which meant a "rejection, when necessary, of the attributes traditionally considered feminine or maternal insofar as they are deemed incompatible with insertion in that history"; after 1968, "linear temporality has been almost totally refused" for a type of time seen as linked with female subjectivity, the 'cyclical' and the 'monumental,' the former being linked with "cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm" and the latter "All-encompassing and infinite like imaginary space" (18-19, 16).
Libby Falk Jones remarks that "Rather than establish past, present and future as a logical continuum, the novel blends them in Connie's consciousness. The movement is not linear, but spiraling; the novel rounds through memory (what has been), fantasy (what might be), and dream (blending both past and future) to suggest that wholeness can be achieved only when all times of the self are integrated" (123). Piercy herself has conceded that "to [her] time seems not entirely linear, so that at moments different times touch and you feel something now gone" ("The Dark Thread in the Weave" 188). The time in Connie's mind-linking episodes subverts the linear time and world of the hospital, where Connie is "caught in a moment that had fallen out of time" (WET 20), to the point that the reader sometimes wonders whether the protagonist is hallucinating. A patriarchal concept of time is being sabotaged by a kind of 'women's time' (see also Franziska Gygax 52).
Frances Bartkowski has compared the use of time in Joanna Russ' The Female Man with Woman on the Edge of Time, and she writes: "Rather than Russ' version of a multiplicity of time frames colliding and coinciding, Piercy's rougher but simpler rhythm moves the reader back and forth, increasingly disturbed by the dystopian present, and, with Connie, soon preferring the unfamiliarity of the future" (1982 69). She adds: "Russ' twisted braid is a more treacherous and more exhilarating form of time travel, and further estranges the reader" (70).
Also along the lines of a kind of "women's time" is the displacement of normative, institutionalized heterosexuality. If Adrienne Rich is right in her view that heterosexuality can be termed "a political institution" that constitutes an oppressive force in patriarchy--"a beach-head of male dominance" that obscures a strong female tradition or, what Rich calls a "lesbian continuum" by which she means a "range--through each woman's life and throughout history--of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman" (Rich 637, 633, 648). The bisexuality of Mattapoisett could, from this perspective, be viewed as a transgression of the heterosexual paradigm.
Meaning "shining, brilliant, full of light" (WET 36), the name Luciente associates to light as well as to daybreak, la madrugada. Herself associated with birds at first, Connie, moreover, calls Luciente a "crazy loon," but is reminded that loons only sound crazy and that they are graceful water birds who "swim low" just like turtles (WET 43). In Small Changes, Beth is associated with a turtle. Associated with low levels rather than with heights and with water, the turtle and the loon are part of a significant bird imagery in Piercy's work that is integral to the maternal impulse of healing and connection, while the eagle, as in Dance the Eagle to Sleep, is linked to an opposing, oppressive patriarchal principle. It is also significant that a woman is chosen to visit Mattapoisett. Her guide into the future is also a woman, even in the 'wrong' future. This suggests that women are a vanguard worth listening to, that insights from women--in particular from Third World and working class women now struggling on a present frontier for a concept of freedom and equality that includes them--must be incorporated into any true vision of democracy, and society, if dedicated to progress, would do well to follow a gynandric impulse of healing and repair during "crux-time." Despite the predictable drawbacks of utopian fables, "The moral intent of such fables," in Margaret Atwood's view, "is to point out to us that our own undesirable conditions are not necessary: if things can be imagined differently, they can be done differently" (274). Critics have noted the similarities between Connie and Luciente; in a better society, Connie might have a better script; the contrasts between them are, in Cranny-Francis's opinion, "a terrible indictment of Connie's world, which is contemporary US society" (130).
An androcentric culture's bias suppresses and distorts the female perspective, as shown in the impersonal, 'objective,' medical reports on Connie with which her story is closed, "Excerpts from the Official History of Consuelo Ramos," which, as pointed out by Nancy Walker, resembles the "Historical Notes" that conclude Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and which "[present the heroine] as a problem in historical verification rather than an actual person" (Walker 156). As Patricia Marks observes, Connie is objectified as Other (148). But her story is impossible to dismiss. After the dual-level narrative in Woman on the Edge of Time, the reader is led to perceive this distortion and to question the validity or 'objectivity' of the authoritative-sounding reports. The reports "require evaluative choice from the reader," argues Rosinsky, and the fact that they contain actual errors suggests "that 'official' observers [sic] may be as biased, as narratorially unreliable as a potentially insane woman's" (194). The subversion of the male-dominated and male-oriented perspective prevalent in Connie's story prepares the reader to see what is missing in the clinical summary. Connie's invisibility has become visibility. On the surface, her rebellion is squelched, but, subversively, it continues beyond the ending. As Bee advises Connie: "There's always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-opting. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power" (WET 328).
In Nancy Walker's view, "The central activity of reading speculative fiction is constant comparison between two sets of realities, and feminist fantasies, by refusing to be confined to the reader's observable world, force a revision of that world through the medium of ironic drama" (184). Woman on the Edge of Time could be placed within a genre of feminist utopian fiction or science fiction (with links back to earlier utopias such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland) built on shared ideological assumptions and with similar building blocks, which illumine what the authors find glaringly missing in contemporary society. As Joanna Russ has pointed out, in this sense all utopias are reactive. A fear and dislike of big cities, for example, can be transformed into pastoral dreams. Russ argues that "perhaps the dislike of urban environments realistically reflects women's experience of such places--women do not own city streets, not even in fantasy. Nor do they have much say in the kind of business that makes, sustains and goes on in cities" (81). Visions of a different female sexuality are also reactive to contemporary aspects of sexual codes. As a reaction to women's sense of confinement there is a vision of freedom and mobility in the feminist utopia, with physical mobility being "a direct comment on the physical and psychological threats that bar women from physical mobility in the real world" (82). As a part of this "reactive" writing one often finds didactic elements, which can signify pitfalls leading to the "slightly sanctimonious and preachy," tedious tones that harken back to Thomas More (Atwood 275).
Despite differences in political opinions, most of us are united in a wish for a world where peace and stability reign, where there are no more wars, no unsettling discord, no violence or oppression. But in order to eradicate suffering, do we have to erase passion as well? In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, for example, the Savage's expostulations seem to imply that if we retain passion, suffering will be unavoidable. Some other utopias or dystopias seem to follow this pattern. In Gulliver's Travels, Lemuel Gulliver finds a rational and harmonious utopia in the land of the horses, a society that resembles Brave New World in its lack of passion. The horses are eminently but boringly practical and even-tempered. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) depicts another rational and rather passionless society, this time consisting of women only. Jean-Luc Godard's film Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) features a future society in which emotions and passions have been done away with; the atmosphere here is one of nightmarish oppression, and as in Brave New World, the citizens are kept going on drugs. The question that arises from a reading of many of these utopias and dystopias, then, is whether a world of peace and harmony has to be stagnated, boring, and passionless. To be sure, Atwood opines, "all utopias suffer from the reader's secret conviction that a perfect world would be dull" (275). Chris Ferns comments that "because the traditional utopia imposes a perfect pattern on society, the possibility of growth and change is virtually eliminated" (459).
In Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy has attempted to counteract dullness by introducing conflict and passion, even criminality and madness (see Thielmann 133-39). Piercy's novel, moreover, differs from traditional utopia in its "dialectic between the ideal and the actual which generates a very different narrative dynamic from that found in traditional utopian fiction" (Ferns 462). For Piercy, it suffices to point to the process toward harmony, equality, balance between humans and nature, union without unity: a process that entails struggle and effort. As Patricia Waugh observes, "the novel throughout emphasizes the importance of human struggle, will, agency, and establishment of relationship as acts in the world, in order that the utopian vision may be achieved through the release of repressed desire" (211). In Piercy's view,
Fiction works no miracles of conversion, but I guess I believe any white reader who spends a reasonable proportion of time consuming Black novels and poetry is less likely to be as comfortably racist in large and small ways; and any man who reads enough of current women's literature is less likely to be ignorant of what women want and need and don't want and don't need, and what patriarchy costs us in blood and energy day and night.
Even though Woman on the Edge of Time may not work "miracles of conversion," Piercy's contraposition of three different types of social arrangements does encourage the reader to ponder problems and possibilities inherent in contemporary American society, with the glimpses into the future societies being a way of (to use du Plessis' phrase) "writing beyond the ending."
GDF Going Down Fast
DES Dance the Eagle to Sleep
SC Small Changes
WET Woman on the Edge of Time
HCL The High Cost of Living
BL Braided Lives
FAH Fly Away Home
GTS Gone to Soldiers
SP Summer People
HSI He, She and It
LOW The Longings of Women
PCBQ Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt
Writings by Marge Piercy
Novels, Chronologically Listed
Going Down Fast. 1969. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1984.
Dance the Eagle to Sleep. 1970. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1982.
Small Changes. 1973. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1974.
Woman on the Edge of Time. 1976. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.
The High Cost of Living. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1978.
Vida. 1979. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.
Braided Lives. 1982. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1983.
Fly Away Home. 1984. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.
Gone to Soldiers. 1987. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1988.
Summer People. 1989. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1990.
He, She and It. 1991. Rpt. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1993.
The Longings of Women. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
Writings About Marge Piercy's Work
Atwood, Margaret. "Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time, Living in the Open" (1976). In Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. Toronto: Anansi, 1982, 272-78.
Bartkowski, Frances. "Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time." In Feminist Utopias. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1989, 41-80.
Berkson, Dorothy. "So We All Became Mothers." In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990, 100-15.
Betsky, Celia. "Talk With Marge Piercy." New York Times Book Review, Feb 24, 1980, 36-37.
Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fictions: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge, Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.
Delaney, Sheila. Writing Woman. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
Ferns, Chris. "Dreams of Freedom: Ideology and Narrative Structure in the Utopian Fictions of Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin." English Studies in Canada 14, no. 4 (December 1988), 453-66.
Foster, David L. "Woman on the Edge of Narrative: Language in Marge Piercy's Utopia." In Patterns of the Fantastic. Ed. Donald M. Hassler. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1983, 47-56.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. "Evil, Apocalypse, and Feminist Fiction." Frontiers 7, no. 2 (1983), 74-80.
Gygax, Franziska. "Demur--You're Straightways Dangerous: Woman on the Edge of Time." Walker, Ways of Knowing, 51-59.
Hartman, Patricia L. "The Politics of Language in Feminist Utopias." Diss. Ohio U, 1986.
Hassan, Ihab. "Cities of the Mind, Urban Worlds: The Dematerialization of Metropolis in Contemporary American Fiction." In Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. Ed. Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts. New Brunswick, NJ.: Rutgers UP, 1981, 93-112.
Jones, Libby Falk. "Gilman, Bradley, Piercy, and the Evolving Rhetoric of Feminist Utopias." In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990, 116-29.
Keinhorst, Annette. Utopien von Frauen in der zeitgenössischen Literatur der USA. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1985.
Khanna, Lee Cullen. "Women's Utopias: New Worlds, New Texts." In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990, 130-40.
Rigney, Barbara Hill. Lilith's Daughters: Women and Religion in Contemporary Fiction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1982.
Sargent, Lyman Tower. "A New Anarchism: Social and Political Ideas in Some Recent Feminist Eutopias." In Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations. Ed. Marleen Barr and Nicholas D. Smith. Lanham, New York, and London: UP of America, 1983, 3-33.
Seidel, Kathryn. "Envisioning the Androgynous Future." Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature and Art 3 (1976), 98-101.
Thielmann, Pia. Marge Piercy's Women: Visions Captured and Subdued. Frankfurt (Main): R. G. Fischer, 1986.
Walker, Nancy A. Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women. Jackson and London: UP of Mississippi, 1990.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Additional Works Consulted
Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness. 1972. Rpt. New York: Avon, 1983.
Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. "For the Etruscans." In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, 271-91.
Gershuny, Lee H. "The Linguistic Transformation of Womanhood." In Women in Search of Utopia: Maverics and Mythmakers. Ed. and introd. Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch. New York: Schocken Books, 1984, 189-99.
Jardine, Alice. "Introduction to Julia Kristeva's 'Women's Time.'" SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7, no. 1 (1981), 5-12.
Jung, Carl G. Psychological Reflections: An Anthology of the Writings of C. G. Jung. Ed. Jolande Jacobi. New York: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series 41, 1953.
Kristeva, Julia. "Women's Time." Trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7, no. 1 (1981), 13-35.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4, 1980, 631-60. Also in Adrienne Rich. Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, 23-75.