A Review of Hillary Jordan's 'When She Woke'
By: Sherry Early|Published: December 1, 2011 4:22 PM
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, and readers and critics have been arguing ever since about the accuracy of his portrayal of Puritan culture and morals. Were the Puritans really as repressed and oppressive as Hawthorne’s book would have us believe? Or were they strong, godly heroes of the Reformation who attempted to live out their faith and to create a safe and orderly society for those who lived in Puritan New England?
Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke takes its inspiration from Hawthorne, and gives us a twenty-first century theocracy in which the adulterous woman is branded with red skin instead of a scarlet letter. Hannah Payne, the twenty-something protagonist of When She Woke, has not only committed adultery; she has also had an abortion and refuses to name the abortionist or her partner in adultery.
In this dystopian future set in my own state of Texas, abortion is illegal, and religious (Christian) legalism reigns supreme. Hannnah is infected with a virus that “melachromes” her skin bright red as a punishment for her crimes. Other crimes are punished with other hues: green, yellow, blue, a veritable rainbow of correctional colors.
Of course, paralleling the plot and characters of Hawthorne’s novel, the father of Hannah’s baby is her married pastor, Aidan Dale, who has become a prominent political figure as well as a beloved preacher and doer of good works. Hannah cannot bring herself to name her lover even though a full confession might bring her a reduction in sentence. So after her melachroming is complete, Hannah must find a safe place to live, and a way to come to terms with her crimes, in a society that hates and persecutes Chromes.
Hannah at first tries to comply with the rules of her society and bring herself back into community and harmony with her family and with her fellow citizens. However, as she lives in virtual imprisonment in a halfway house where the program is designed to bring her to repentance, she realizes that it is society’s rules that are disordered, hypocritical, and wrong. She escapes her “prison” and finds the opposition, a group of outlaws who are members of an underground resistance trying to bring down the oppressive government and subvert its draconian laws.
If this plotline sounds like a hundred other dystopian novels that are out there preaching the gospel of freedom from the rules of a repressive regime, it’s because it is the same plot. Only the names and some of the circumstances have been changed. Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale are rife on the Internet, though I can’t speak to their validity, as I haven’t read Atwood’s very popular tale of feminist dystopian fiction.
I can say, however, that the novel doesn’t fully track with Hawthorne’s classic story, since Hannah doesn’t really live a life of repentance and good works as Hester Prynne did in long-ago New England. Instead, Hannah transcends her guilt by realizing that it is false guilt. She hasn’t really done anything wrong, and besides, “she had no choice.” Both the abortion and the liaison with a married man are acts that Hannah felt compelled to commit, and therefore, she is not culpable. The underground group Hannah joins has a motto: “It’s personal.” In other words, morality and religion are matters of personal opinion shaped by our individual experiences.
The writing in When She Woke is adequate, but sometimes dips into the realm of ludicrous. Hannah and her paramour, Rev. Dale, have a conversation about their affair that sounds as if it could be taken from the pages of a very cheap romance novel or a bad soap opera script.
“I’m not the man you think I am,” he said. “I’m a sinner. Weak, faithless.”
But at other times the writing is good enough to carry the story into the territory of decent popular fiction, at least.
Nevertheless, it’s not too long before a passage jolts the reader into the realization that this dystopian novel is a Novel of Big Ideas, or propaganda, as the case may be. It’s a novel about abortion, sexuality, feminism, fundamentalism, free will, determinism, crime, punishment, all the hot button issues. But it’s also a novel without too much new to say about any of those topics. The tired conclusion calls for universalism, pantheism, and a god made in our own image who resides inside ourselves.
As one character puts it: “If God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God. God is the earth and the sky, and the tree planted in the earth under the sky, and the bird in the tree, and the worm in the beak of the bird, and the dirt in the stomach of the worm. God is He and She, straight and gay, black and white and red -- yes, even that . . . and green and blue and all the rest. And so to despise me for loving women or you for being a Red . . . would be not only to despise His own creations but also to hate Himself. My God is not so stupid as that.”
In short, Hannah very quickly drops her religious upbringing and comes to a feminist awakening in which she sheds the restrictive rules of the past and understands that she can make or become her own god. She awakens to a new life that’s all about self-actualization. That’s just not a “gospel” that is worth the three hundred plus pages it took to get there.
Image copyright Algonquin Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
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