The Power Themes

The main themes in The Power are the relationship between biology and destiny, the meaning of power, and the nature of revolution.

  • Biology determines destiny: Society is turned upside down when women use a minor biological advantage to dominate men.
  • The meaning of power: "The power" alone is not what allows women to rise up—rather it is the way this ability is perceived and coveted by society as a whole.
  • The necessity and complexity of revolution: Women don't aim to create a more just society when they revolt; instead, they use their power to ensure that their past suffering is now felt by men.

Themes

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Last Updated on December 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Biology Determines Destiny

The Power turns a long-debated idea—that “biology is destiny”—on its head, examining a world in which women, not men, are granted biological advantages. This power flip is closely related to the idea of symbolic inversion (the world turned upside down) and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. In taking Sigmund Freud’s controversial claim about anatomy—which has often been used to justify the oppression of women on the basis of their physical characteristics—and inverting it, Naomi Alderman creates a complex scenario in which women rule the world because of one biological factor. Significantly, Alderman does not turn females into males by endowing them with penises. Rather, she suggests re-imagining the nature of power from its fundamental bases; thus, another important theme emerges as readers are forced to question the very definition of power.

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The Meaning of Power

In this upside-down world, female power is closely linked to electrical power. In granting women an ability that, on its face, isn’t necessarily very significant or useful—the ability to generate a charge—Alderman shows how value is often arbitrarily attached to particular abilities. While it may be easy to see how having a built in zapper is more advantageous than having a penis, Alderman is careful not to attribute too much of the sudden rise of women to the inherent power of the biological feature itself. Rather, human perceptions of the applicability of that feature are what serve to empower those who have it and those who desire it—in other words, it is the perception of this ability, rather than the ability itself, which grants women power. In making this distinction, Alderman asks the reader to ponder what makes some people want to dominate others, how they achieve domination, and, in contrast, what the nature of conquest and submission is.

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The Necessity and Complexity of Revolution

A central idea expressed throughout The Power is the persistent need for social revolution, particularly with respect to women's rights. The novel refutes the idea that contemporary gender politics exemplify equality. In fact, it refutes the entire notion that true equality will ever emerge and thus make social revolution unnecessary. Alderman looks at the history of the abuse and marginalization of women, taking the view that every instance of oppression is yet one more pinprick in our deteriorating social fabric. Allie, for instance, faces sexual abuse at the hands of her foster father, while Margot, a politician, struggles against the contempt of her male colleagues.

Though the novel suggests that social rebellion is inevitable, Alderman doesn’t romanticize the after-effects of such a revolution and instead critically examines what might happen in a world where the oppressed gain power. Alderman contends that no individual or institution is immune to corruption, such as when Tatiana’s leadership in Moldova proves itself just as violent and exploitative as her husband’s had been. In fact, corruption emerges in many more moments than we commonly believe, and most of them are very subtle—as illustrated by the subtle shocks of electricity with which Margot torments her male colleagues. An action as seemingly innocuous as holding onto power in the interest of a "greater good" invites corruption, as it asserts one's conception of "goodness" over others. Only someone with a trained eye can spot the subtlest instances of corruption and see their signals before they occur.

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