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Like the journeys concealing journeys Jordan wishes to record, the narratives contain narratives and the meditations meditations in Sexing the Cherry, and, in the tradition of all fables, their true meanings seem viscerally obvious while remaining literally elusive. In outline a kind of picaresque search for an idealized, heterosexual love, the novel ultimately questions the possibility of such a union and seems to posit instead self-realization as a rather melancholy bonding with a community of self-made, parentless individuals.

Nowhere in its many tales is there an example of a happy traditional marriage. It is as if by this time in human history it is already too late for men and women to be together. By the time Jordan finds Fortunata on her island, she is past hoping to belong to someone else; she has learned to dance alone, and she recounts for him the myth of Artemis as if to argue that this has always been the way for strong women. The stories of the Twelve Dancing Princesses reiterate this point. In this feminist revision of the traditional fairy tale, the princesses create their own happy endings by escaping marriage to live alone or with other women. Their tales read like a catalog of the ways in which men are unworthy; men are unloving, unfaithful, untrusting, unattractive, distracted, depressed, intolerant, and simply pale in comparison to the women with whom three of the princesses are in love. When the novel leaps to the late twentieth century, the strong female is still unmarried and alone, passionately involved in her own work, not hating men, just wishing they would try harder.

Against this emerging litany of bad male behavior, which includes the antics of Puritans Preacher Scroggs and Neighbour Firebrace, the god Orion, and the polluting captains of industry, stands the sweet, poetic soul of the male protagonist. Jordan, who loves his Rabelaisian freak of a mother, employs great compassion and a philosophic diction in his consideration of all things and exhibits an especially high regard for women. From his earliest memory of slowly being engulfed in a fog to his finally running into himself in the smoke of burning London, Jordan is a guileless seeker of the sense of existence, whose narration captures the sympathy of the reader and helps exonerate his gender. He only wants the women he loves to ask him to stay; that they never do lends the story a tragic cast.

Educated and metaphysically minded, Jordan tests the accepted notions of his time against his gathered experiences. Discussing the nature of time itself, he notes the difference between an outward perception of linear progression and the inward sense of moving freely between memory and precognition. Indeed, Jordan himself seems to move beyond his time when he describes matter as empty space and light, and when he uses peculiarly modern phrases such as “out-of-body”’ and “superconductivity.” For all his precocious understanding, however, by novel’s end he is more certain about the shifting nature of reality than he is about the proper stance toward love.

Inside his story is that of his mother. Uneducated and of limited experience, the Dog-Woman reaches more pragmatic and more definitive conclusions. Her language is more medieval and is infused with biblical allusion. Describing being in love as “that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us they are closed for ever,” she resigns herself to knowing only the loyal love of her dogs and her boy. She intuitively rejects the inflexibility and narrowness of the Puritan doctrine, but she considers grafting an unnatural practice that goes...

(This entire section contains 758 words.)

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against the Bible, and she refuses to believe that the earth is anything but flat. Her practicality and self-acceptance efface her fantastic girth, but it is her exceptional dimension that ultimately makes her the model of the self-sufficient woman. Men persecute her at their peril; their muskets are impotent against her.

Throughout the novel, women are granted special powers that level the playing field for them in their dealings with societies defined by men. The size of the Dog-Woman, the sorcery of the crone, the hunting skills of Artemis, the intellectual prowess of the chemist, the lightness of Fortunata, and the individual cunning of each of Fortunata’s sisters give these women the edge that allows them to make their own decisions. Given the chance to live as they will, they seem to be smarting from the ways men act and not ready at novel’s end to let them do more than help them achieve their goals.