(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean M. Auel 1936–

American novelist and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Auel's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Jean Auel has enjoyed uncommon commercial success since the very beginning of her literary career. The publication of her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), created a stir in the publishing world when Auel was given a $130,000 advance, at the time a record-setting amount for a first novel. The Valley of Horses (1982) followed The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the third novel, The Mammoth Hunters (1985), had an initial publication run of one million books and went to number one on the best-seller lists in the first week of sales. Readers waited five years for The Plains of Passage, published in 1990. Auel states that from the beginning she had intended Clan to be the first of a six-part series entitled "Earth's Children"; accordingly, readers expect two more "Earth's Children" novels in coming years. Each of the books is set in the last Ice Age, when the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon sub-species co-existed. Auel demonstrates this co-existence in her novels with Ayla, a Cro-Magnon orphan girl adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals. Although meticulously researched, gaps in scientific knowledge require that Auel fill in much of the details of Paleolithic life with her own speculation. Consequently, although praised by many members of the scientific world, there is debate about the probabilities of her suppositions.

Biographical Information

Jean Auel was born February 18, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the second of five children born to Neil S. Untinen and Martha (Wirtanen) Untinen. She graduated from Jones Commercial High School in Chicago, and in 1954, at age eighteen, married her childhood sweetheart, Ray B. Auel. They lived for a few years in New Mexico, where their first child was born, then moved to Oregon, where they continue to live. By 1961, the Auels had four more children. She went back to school, hoping to become a physicist, but decided that pursuing that goal by taking one or two classes a semester was impractical; instead, she transferred into a special M.B.A. program at the University of Portland in 1964. While attending school Auel worked at Tektronix, an electronics firm in Beaverton, Oregon. She worked her way to the position of credit manager, and completed her M.B.A. in 1976. Around that time, according to several interviews with the author, she found herself wondering what she really wanted to do with her life. One evening in 1977, she was struck with an idea for a short story about an orphan girl living with a group of people more primitive than herself. Auel began to write the story, but soon realized that she did not know enough about primitive cultures and began a period of extensive research. She was surprised by the "humanity" of the paleolithic cultures, the many ways in which archaeologists had discovered them to be similar to modern humankind, and decided this was the central theme of the story she wanted to tell. Auel supplemented her literary research with more "hands-on" experience, taking courses in wilderness survival and plant identification, learning how to snare animals and make clothing out of buckskin. When she completed the bulk of her research, Auel began writing, twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week. Six months later she completed a first draft, but she found the manuscript lacked the sense of enthusiasm she felt about the people of whom she was writing. Auel embarked on a second round of research, this time about the techniques of writing. As she worked her manuscript through several more drafts, she came to realize that she had more than one book. She decided to break the story into six novels, each one a self-contained story, but each also a part of the life story of Ayla, her Cro-Magnon heroine. After finishing the first novel, Auel met Jean Naggar, a literary agent, at a Portland writer's workshop. Naggar took on the novel and sold it to Crown Publications for a record advance of $130,000.

Major Works

In Auel's first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, she begins the story of Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl orphaned in her early teens. She is taken in by a tribe of Neanderthals, although they regard her with suspicion because of her fair appearance and different type of intelligence. In Auel's tale, the intellectual differences of the two sub-species are of type rather than quantity. The Neanderthals possess racial memory, containing the sum of experience of their race. When confronted with a problem he has not personally encountered before, the Neanderthal man can "remember" the experiences of his ancestors. While not sharing this instinct, the Cro-Magnons are better at cognitive adaptation and problem-solving. As the Ice Age recedes and the physical world begins to change, the evolutionary adaptation of the Neanderthals, a sort of human instinct, has ceased to be advantageous. They do not possess the necessary racial memories to deal with their changing environment. Another twist to the racial memory theme is that the memories are gender-specific: the men have a set of memories different from the ones possessed by the women. Men, for example, have no "memory" of how to cook, while women do not know how to bunt. This results in rigid sexual role definitions within the tribe, a central metaphor for the series. The Cro-Magnon become the surviving species because they have the ability to adapt to, among other things, new and less rigidly defined gender roles. Because of this plot element, many critics and readers have regarded the stories as a feminist manifesto. Auel, in several interviews, mentioned being profoundly affected by reading Betty Freidan's 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. It is the violation of role-related taboos that results in Ayla's expulsion from the Clan at the end of the book. In the second novel of the series, The Valley of Horses, Ayla wanders alone for several years. During that time she is able to domesticate a wild horse and a cave lion. As a result of traveling with these animals, she is held in awe by the tribes she encounters. In alternating chapters Auel tells the story of Jondolar, the central male protagonist and Ayla's eventual love interest. Together they set out to find Jondolar's tribe, the Zelandonii. In The Mammoth Hunters, Ayla and Jondolar become involved with the Mamutoi, a tribe of mammoth hunters. This is the first Cro-Magnon tribe Ayla has encountered, but again she is not fully accepted. Although they have high regard for her knowledge and skill, they are suspicious of her because she was raised by the Neanderthals, whom they liken to animals. Ayla's defense of the humanity of the Clan further alienates her from the Mamutoi and from Jondolar, who fears that his tribe will not accept her. When another member of the tribe seeks Ayla's affection, she finds herself romantically torn between the two men. Finally Jondolar reasserts his love for her. In The Plains of Passage Ayla and Jondolar once again set out to find the Zelandonii. They journey across Europe, from the Crimea to what is now central France. Riding horses and accompanied by a domesticated wolf, the pair are met with suspicion by the peoples they encounter. However, Ayla's skills as a healer win her the admiration and appreciation of many.

Critical Reception

Critics have approached Auel's work from several perspectives. In addition to evaluating the literary merits of her work, the novels are discussed in terms of their archeological accuracy and also in terms of their value as feminist literature. From all of these perspectives, the reviews have been mixed. The style of her dialogue has been criticized by some for an inappropriate use of modern vernacular and colloquialism. Other critics feel this is an appropriate choice for Auel's underlying message that these prehistoric people are not so different from modern humans. Many reviewers classify Ayla's story as a romance. Gene Lyons, in a favorable review of The Mammoth Hunters, finds Auel's work "a shrewdly diverting mix of hard-researched fact about our prehistoric ancestors and the sheerest of romantic fantasies—a late-Pleistocene Harold Robbins epic, if you will. Early Robbins, that is, before the master became an industry and his plots grew formulaic." But Diane S. Wood asserts that Ayla's story is a classic adventure. She states: "The woman protagonist in Auel's novels faces the challenge of the wilderness and survives, conforming to the pattern expected of the male hero in adventure tales. Love remains secondary to heroic action. Ayla is not a heroine of romance, but, rather, a true hero." Later in her essay, Wood observes that Jondolar's story is the romance: "One might even say that the man's tale is the romance, since … his preoccupation is with finding the ideal woman whereas Ayla struggles to survive and passes tests of bravery typical of the adventure story." Through this role reversal of the "classic" adventure formula of the superhero and the damsel in distress, Wood says, "The novels question narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity to arrive at new answers which have implications for today's society." In a similar comment about the implications of Auel's story, Clyde Wilcox says, "Auel seems to suggest that the Neanderthals died out because they were unable to adapt to the end of the Ice Age, because their brains were wired to remember the past and not to plan for the future. Creb and Ayla see that the Cro-Magnon will triumph because of their greater flexibility and adaptability. Auel may be making a more general point that any society that uses past behavior as an invariable guide to present decisions will fail. Auel's novel implies that any society that rejects the innovations of its most creative citizens because of their gender, race or other characteristics, will ultimately perish." But other critics see the depiction of the cavemen as an unintended implication that there are inherent sexual roles. Lindsay Van Gelder says, "The margins of my books are marked with dozens of similar examples of modern sexual and domestic assumptions which, when transplanted wholesale into the Ice Age, take on the nature of eternal human verities." She goes on to suggest that the defense of the Neanderthal's humanity is in fact condescending: "The equation is rigged so that we automatically identify with the Others [Cro-Magnons] (who, we also know, are the ultimate evolutionary winners). The message that emerges is a kind of post-colonialist chauvinist liberalism: people 'like us' can be secure enough in our historic destiny to tolerate 'less evolved' cultures. But Van Gelder does credit Auel for a strong female character and a wealth of technical detail; the depth of Auel's research is favorably received by several critics. Many reviewers note that Auel has been a guest speaker for organizations such as the National Geographic Society and the Museum of Natural History. Grover Sales observes, "Even readers turned off by the gimmicky form this novel assumes may find fascination in the technique of human survival in the late Pleistocene Epoch: weapon-making, horse-taming, the invention of bow and arrow, the early science of herbal medicine, boat building, and much conjecture on primitive religion, clan structure, spirit worship, totem and taboo." Roy Bongartz says, "The verisimilitude in her writing of the details of everyday life among ancient peoples has won Auel admiration from the scientific community." Even the speculative aspects of the story are favorably received. Margot Hornblower notes, "Auel gets passing grades from archaeologists on how she interprets the facts. 'We can tell you how the paintings were made, but not why,' says American archaeologist Roy Larick, 'Jean does as good a job at speculating as anyone else.'"