Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
Despite its apparent objectivity as “A summary report of the Yelcho expedition to the Antarctic, 1909-1910,” the story “Sur” is a surprising piece of gently subversive fiction, narrated by an unnamed woman some years after the events of the story take place. The surprise and the subversion result from the story’s feminist stance and from the attendant replacement of the value of “achievement” by “what is large.”
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In the early paragraphs of the story, its feminism remains latent, hinted at only by the items with which the report will be kept—children’s clothes and toys, wedding shoes and finneskos—and by the atypical purpose stated for the expedition: “[T]o go, to see—no more, no less.” Further, the trouble encountered in gathering an expeditionary force hints at the narrator’s dissatisfaction with what women are or have been made to be, with the stark limits imposed on the average woman by her socially determined role: “So few of those we asked even knew what we were talking about—so many thought we were mad, or wicked, or both!” The following sentences, with their references to parents, husbands, children, and the responsibilities to family that are traditionally a woman’s concern, prepare the reader for the first explicit indication that this is to be an all-female expedition: the list of its participants. The knowledge of this expedition’s special character colors the rather ordinary story of travel and exploration that follows.
The report of the expedition itself proceeds naturally enough with accounts of the voyage to Antarctica on the Chilean vessel Yelcho, the choice of a site for base camp and the building of “Sudamerica del Sur,” the sledge-journey to the South Pole, and the return to base and, finally, to civilization. Each part of this report, however, reveals in various ways its feminist character. During the initial voyage, for example, the Yelcho is nicknamed la vaca valiente (the valiant cow) in memory of the “far more dangerous cows” of Juana’s past, and the members of the expedition find themselves “oppressed at times by the kindly but officious protectiveness of the captain and his officers.” Such details are embedded in expected surroundings: discussion of the best route for the voyage, celebration of the first iceberg sighted, descriptions of the Ross Sea and the Great Ice Barrier.
Male superiority is subverted in the report’s next stage by contrasting the slovenly housekeeping found at Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s base hut with the home built by the women of the Yelcho Expedition. Having described the surroundings of Scott’s camp as “a kind of graveyard,” the narrator details the dirtiness and “mean disorder” of the hut’s interior: an open tin of tea, empty meat tins, spilled biscuits, even “a lot of dog turds” on the floor. The narrator’s excuse for the men who have left this mess is scathing: “[H]ousekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs.” By contrast, the home created by the women provides “as much warmth and privacy as one could reasonably expect,” then becomes at the hands of Berta and Eva “a marvel of comfort and convenience,” and is the setting, finally, of the “beautiful forms” Berta sculpts from the ice.
After the Yelcho steams north, leaving the women “to ice, and silence, and the Pole,” the southern journey is a model of good planning, good practice, and amazing perseverance. The narrator meticulously details the establishment of supply depots, the superiority of the food they carry, the organization of the southern party, the pain, weariness, even craziness of the terrible trek to the Pole. Even in this account, so fact-filled, the narrator’s condescension toward men is clearly revealed: “I was glad . . . that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and know then what a fool he had been, and break his heart.”
The story draws swiftly to its close with the return to base and the laconic report of the return to civilization: “We came back safe.” Two feminist moments color these final paragraphs. The matter of Teresa’s pregnancy raises the central biological fact of femininity—menstruation and childbearing. The narrator’s response of “anger—rage—fury” is directed first at Teresa for apparently having concealed her pregnancy, but the emotions are quickly directed away from Teresa to the society that has kept her ignorant of what it means to be a woman. In the wider context of the story’s feminism, the anger is both self-directed and competitive: The narrator’s earlier frustration with female ignorance becomes anger at an unavoidable fact of normal female life, and her anger at Teresa is also recognition that the party’s womanhood could have caused the expedition to fail. The story ends, though, on a lighter note, ostensibly added as a postscript years later, but still echoing the narrator’s condescension toward other explorers; her grandchildren, she says, may enjoy the secret of her expedition, “but they must not let Mr. [Roald] Amundsen know! He would be terribly embarrassed and disappointed.”