The Power

by Naomi Alderman

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This feminist dystopian novel has both won literary awards and been labeled (or dismissed) as The Handmaid's Tale for millennials. It has also been contrasted to the matriarchy in the imagined Herland. These comparisons may be helpful to envision the surrounding context of The Power. Naomi Alderman conjures a society in which women are neither oppressed so that men control them and their reproduction, nor collectively nurturing madonnas. Instead, females gain a power—electrical in nature—which in turn gives them the power: dominance in all areas of life.

Alderman spreads the action among different global locations, as the advent of this current-generating feature occurs in all females post-puberty. The trickiest part of her satire is creating scenarios that seem plausible but do not slip into reinforcing stereotypes of existing gender and race relations. In this, she largely succeeds by making the characters in the overdeveloped world as appallingly power-mad as those in less industrialized nations.

The fundamental premise is that power is power, and is thus a corrupting influence regardless of which gender wields it. This gives the book a dark tone to which some readers and critics have objected. The author succeeds in making us rethink our cherished beliefs about morality and biology, as the scenarios she envisions reject any safe retreat into assumptions of female virtue. While some characters take active roles in reining in the power, the dangers of overregulation of any natural attribute are also considered: as women become dominant and control social institutions, they must police each other. The author does not shy away from the hardest questions but confronts the abuses, including sexual violence, that would accompany a power shift. The full integration of the central concept gives the novel thematic and structural integrity needed to sustain the episodic aspect of moving among several main characters' stories.

There are several techniques that Naomi Alderman utilizes throughout the novel that are crucial to analyze. For one, the novel opens with a letter between two authors—one of which is Naomi Alderman while the other is the “author” of The Power, a man named Neil Adam Armon. This breaks up the actual action of the novel, contributing to the surreal effect. It also contributes to the plausibility of a female-dominated world. Naomi Alderman—in the introductory letter—suggests that Neil Adam Armon publish his work under a female pseudonym. Readers will recognize that this is a norm of our own society flipped on its head. For many years, women wrote under male pseudonyms so as to have their work published and respected. Science fiction in particular was notorious for excluding female authors in its beginning. Alderman is playing with this idea of swapping places in the power dynamic.

At its core, The Power forces us to reckon with, unsurprisingly, power. When one group of people has all the control—or a major upper hand—corruption will ensue. For even though women have been majorly disadvantaged and are finally taking back their own power, some of the women treat the newly disadvantaged as poorly as they were treated. Tatiana is a prime example of this. She uses her power to kill her husband so she can assume the presidency. Even when she is ousted, she creates a nation called Bessapara where women are in oppressive power. Men are forbidden from driving, are sexually assaulted on the streets, and are threatened with jail time for being without a female guardian. Of course, Alderman is estranging the cruel, patriarchal ways women are treated in many societies. The point, however, is that no one should be treated this way: it is a result of a power imbalance and is not a positive outcome for women. Alderman’s novel emphasizes that excess power can and will be exploited, leaving at least one party at a disadvantage. Turning the patriarchal narrative on its head still reinforces it.

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