Desexing the Male: A Study Of Aritha Van Herk’s Judith
Dr. N. Kavidha, Assistant Professor, Alagappa Govt Arts College, Karaikudi
A woman’s unique exploration of independence written by a woman is the essence of the novel Judith. Aritha Van Herk, the well known Canadian writer of this century, creates a strong woman in Judith, a pig farmer named Judith, who converts a barn into a pig farm. She undergoes a metamorphosis into a man by indulging in an occupation that is totally restricted to the world of men. Herk takes a strident feminist stance in presenting Judith as a woman with androgynous power, searching for her identity in the midst of the male oriented society. It is a world full of blinded, androcentric women who are lost in a society that only prides itself on economic gain.
Judith in the city has been a victim – a victim to male aggression, whereas Judith as a ladylove has been a failure – a failure induced by male predation. Judith as a pig farmer offers her the fulfilment of being a human being. In it, she finds solace from nature that once nurtured her and from the nostalgic feelings that sustain her. It is this solitude and anonymity that helps Judith to reconstruct herself after its devastation in the city. It is for this that she abandons her sophisticated career, her sexy wardrobe and fashionable lifestyle to appease the quench in her to fulfil her dead father’s dream of running a pig farm. Nature gives the identity that she requires as a woman and Judith seeks it again after her bruising experiences in the city.
There is a will in Judith to shed off the callous, urban pragmatism around her and this leads her to the inclination to marginalize, to decenter, to exile” herself (Atwood 27). Throughout the novel, the character of Judith is marked by the apotheosis of freedom and the quintessence of self-reliance and to add to it, Herk herself defines Judith: “…Her name will always be synonymous with activism” (www.thememoryproject.com/heroes-famous.cfmID=Herk). As a pig farmer, Judith recreates her childhood arena, but for her parents. She fully well discovers that being a woman of energy, of independent spirit and gusto, will not help her fit into a society that does not recognize her type. Judith breaks out of the role of a woman in captivity and strives to be a woman with undefined boundaries.
Survival is a key concept in Canadian literature. That the Canadian heroines are surviving is accepted, but what is notable is not only that Judith survives, but also the way she gets on to the survival – through a transformation. She boards on a psychological voyage of self-realization and the attempted transformation lands her on a transcendental plane. Her transformation from being a docile secretary of the city to a woman who achieves power by imbibing the traditional symbols of men’s power, moves the readers to understand what Herk points out in her thesis:
It is possible to transcend established reality by considering not the mundane aspects of the world around us, but the unexposed and the unexplainable. Still where Atwood’s women or Munro’s older women bred out of the older world of Ontario – Often express such a fatalistic view of transformation, as if survival were one’s purpose, Van Herk’s energetic women make the effort to change, even take the risk of inducing change in others. (v)
Judith is a woman of substance who questions the patriarchal restraints imposed on a woman. Why should a woman expect equality with a man? – She can overfly anyone in the society – a man or a woman or an animal. It is her life and she can live it as it pleases her. Judith feels that she need not reflect a man in her life or make herself superior to man or aspire to equalize herself with a man. She does not want to inherit anything from anybody, nor does she want to inherit anything from the past. That’s why Judith symbolically castrates the pigs. Castration is an action that is metaphorically meant to prevent inheritance or rather to disinherit the patriarchy-fed views of women subordination.
In addition, castration is desexing the species. Judith carries out desexing in order to humanize the dehumanized species of the human race, ie, man. Man has been socialized with the concept that he is superior to woman and this has dehumanized him of his human attributes. Judith through the act of castration wishes to humanize man and free him from the patriarchal thinking in him, so that he treats woman as a human being just like him. Van Herk through this scene asserts that nature has no part in the formulation of sex roles.
Gender discrimination is entirely socially constructed and the patriarchal culture imposes its restrictive values on women in the name of tradition. Some women writers show their resistance to gender bias by creating utopias. But Herk plunges directly into the issue of gender relationships and gender identity and proves the true identity of women through a faithful presentation of a nature-bred woman. The castration scene pointedly challenges the polarized dualities of gender. Clamouring for equality is not the quest in the novel. It is the daring womanpower glorified. Judith is able to relish this glory only when she is able to gratify herself with the act of unmanning the piglets. She is able to feel the indomitable potentiality in a woman that has been so far manipulated and deformed by the effect of phallocentric preoccupation.
Taking a knife is a symbol of male power. In the novel, Judith takes a knife and tries to castrate the piglets for the first time in her life. Yet she performs it with utmost confidence and skill that alarms Jim. Before starting the act, on being asked about her experience with castration, Judith tells Jim:
Don’t be silly. When I was thirteen I helped the vet do an emergency Caesarian section on a sow. Can you imagine what that was like? We did it in my father’s barn and we had to tie her upside down! This is nothing! She neglected to tell him that she had never even seen a pig castrated. (163)
The castration scene is a powerful scene that brings out the innate, terrible power in Judith. The blood red organs of the pigs do not in any way restrict or resent her, as it does with Jim. The remark that produces stuns the readers: “If you bit into one of them, she thought, they would be crunchy, they would have the grainy texture of apples” (165). When Jim clumsily cuts the testicles, Judith is able to swiftly preside over the task of emasculation like a savage witch of pragmatism that she was” (166).
What stifles Jim, liberates Judith. Judith is able to find answers to the desperate questions that thronged her mind about the mystery of life and about the ways of life destined to a woman in a male dominated world. After witnessing this event, she is able to explore aspects of gender performance and defy conventional standards of feminine decorum. She deconstructs the acquired, false images of womanhood received from the city lover and the image of passivity and obedience received from her father. Judith, identifying her marginal position seeks to disrupt it. Being displeased with the desire of her father to make her a typical man-made woman, she intends to avenge her father by castrating the male gender of the pigs. She narrates how her father had debarred her from watching the pigs being castrated.
. . . her father always hiring a neighbour to help, refusing even when she was eighteen to let her near the barn while they were castrating. Perhaps he did not want her to witness a male emasculating a male, the castration of his own species, and so saved himself from her discovery of his common humanity, saved himself from her discovery of his own sexuality. (167)
She castrates the male-influenced desire in her for traditional femininity that led to pursue the drudgery - filled existence of the city, where she had undertaken frivolous acts with the view to please her male-chauvinistic lover of the city. Judith had fallen a victim to the strategies of patriarchy, to the corruptive power that men wielded over women and it had caged her within the confined ambience created by the patriarchal culture and its limiting dictums. She finds atonement for all these previous activities by depriving men of the so-called virtue, the power of masculinity and by creating for herself a new ideological role. Herk narrates the significance of this scene:
Perhaps it was atonement for the acts of barbarity she had committed on herself for him: plucking her sleek eyebrows, rolling her straight hair into curls, thrusting golden posts through the holes in her ears. . . . Recognized too late the change he had orchestrated in her, the loss of her unstudied awkwardness resulting from his sand paper polishing, his careful honing of her salient features into his special mold. And then she was ashamed. She castrated them all. (166)
Her attempts to resist the cult of womanhood – the cultural mechanisms that reduce individual women to stereotypes by repressing their sense of individuality, leads to her total rejection of the social world in favour of the alternative available to her – her retreat into the farm to the vocation of a pig farmer. The wisdom that the city life failed to bring her, dawns on her after emasculating the pigs. Judith finds a redeemed figure in herself after castrating the pigs with her own hands. Having proved her mettle by cutting open the piglets’ scrotums, having asserted herself in a male oriented world and having affirmed her equality with men, Judith finds a rebirth within her.
The sexual encounter between Judith and Jim is followed by a sexual encounter between two pigs. When Mina asks Judith about naming the boar, she replies: “I haven’t thought about it yet. May be.” (176). While the sow has acquired a name for itself, Marie Antionette, the male pig bears its identity only as a boar. Only the exalted ‘virtue’ in a man, masculinity offers it the identity of a male and preserves it in the patriarchal, hierarchical structure. Again Judith and Mina are pleased with the sow’s discarding of the boar after the sexual union. “His necessity dispensed with, she wanted no more of him. And at that the two women clapped again” (178). Both Judith and Mina agree that the male role in the life process is minimally significant – “And after all . . . that’s all he gets to do. Only limited usefulness!” (186).
The subversive use of symbols and imagery from the text usually signifies the imperialism behind confining a woman, and here castration is a way of desexing man and his sense of superiority over women. This gives a chance for Judith to prove her identity and power over man. A woman’s achievement in the male dominated world is an idea that pervades in this work of Herk. A woman is always scorned in a male dominated sphere and the patriarchal view on women is that – “ . . . It is men who make art, who make books; women make babies (Juhasz 1). Van Herk deconstructs this patriarchal statement and proves that it is the female who is also capable of overcoming the male, and in a way even destroying and destructing the power of the male. Only women who are shattered and mutilated by men realize the “limited usefulness” of the male gender. Judith attains a balance of mind and her mental fulfillment through her singular tool of desexing the male community that has significantly set out to demolish the identity and sexuality of the female community as a whole.
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Van Herk. Judith. New York: Bantam Books,1978. Print.
. . . “When Pigs Fly”, M.A. Thesis, the University of Alberta, Fall 1978. London: Puffin Books, 1997. Print.
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