The Cloning of Joanna May

by Franklin Birkinshaw
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

Weldon creates a world fraught with unusual elements that illustrate the conflicts between men and women. Weldon has written more than a dozen novels, and her focus and skill are well honed. Like her earlier novels Puffball (1980) and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1984), The Cloning of Joanna May makes use of unearthly and unlikely devices to advance the plot. Her narrative is stylized rather than realistic.

Although Weldon employs scientific elements of cloning and nuclear power in the story, the novel is perhaps more fantasy than science fiction. The “real world,” however mundane, is affected by supernatural forces that form a backdrop for Joanna’s discovery. The ill wind that appears in the opening chapter creates a spirit of unrest that foreshadows later events.

In addition, hints of Egyptian curses and tarot cards become part of the plot. Joanna’s unfortunate affair with an Egyptologist brings disaster: Carl discovers the truth, divorces Joanna, and murders the lover. Before he dies, the Egyptologist tells Joanna’s fortune in tarot cards, cryptically identifying her clones. Joanna’s card is the Empress, and the surrounding queens dealt from the deck—the four suits of Wands, Pentacles, Swords, and Cups—are designations for Jane, Julie, Gina, and Alice.

The evils of science and technology are portrayed through Carl May’s character and through his assistant, Dr. Holly. Their use of cloning and nuclear power seem driven by dangerous, selfish motives rather than by a desire to improve the lot of humankind. Ironically, Carl’s own technology turns against him.

Weldon’s story is a modern account of a woman’s search for identity that explores the question of nature versus nurture. Each of the clones, genetically like Joanna, has been influenced by environmental factors. Gina, the shortest in stature, self-confidence, and achievement, was born seven weeks prematurely. Alice, born one week past term, is taller and self-absorbed, almost overdone. Each is involved in a marriage gone bad or an unsatisfying affair. The younger women, like Joanna, are seeking happiness and fulfillment.

The “nature versus nurture” question is raised in relation to Carl. Is his personality a result of genetics or of his treatment by abusive parents? The women attempt to find an answer by cloning Carl at the close of the novel. Joanna seems optimistic that she can produce a better Carl now that she controls Carl’s destiny rather than being controlled by him. Thus, Weldon links the men in her novel with science and the women with fate and intuition. Collectively, the women seem to overcome.

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