Written by Sania Malik
for Prof. Neil Hartlen
In society, adolescents and adults constantly find themselves feeling confused, or as though they do not belong. It is difficult to establish and maintain a space for yourself, especially when you do not know who you are. It is a known fact that the concept of gender is placed upon us by society, so that we can be pushed towards a specific role. Women are pushed towards being mothers and housewives, whereas men are pushed towards being the breadwinners of the family. These roles can be a source of stability and normality in a society. However, they can also cause people to feel confused and forced, and unsure of where they truly belong. But what happens when these roles are reversed—or even eradicated? “Options” by John Varley and “Coming of Age in Karhide” by Ursula Le Guin are two short stories that demonstrate that when the concept of gender is a flexible and changeable concept, one will have a greater chance at finding their true self. The authors use the techniques of dialogue, characterization, and novum to illustrate this idea. Though both stories center on the same theme, Varley’s “Options” develops the theme more convincingly because of the convincing use of literary techniques.
The theme is more convincingly developed in “Options” than in “Coming of Age in Karhide” because of Varley’s use of characterization. The story starts off with Cleo, the main character, being assertive in telling her children to go to school without complaining about clothes: “Cleo raised her voice, something she tried never to do” (413). This passage tells the reader that Cleo is usually quiet and not assertive, things a conventional woman should be. At work, Cleo thinks to herself that she actually enjoys her work. She believes that “the best part had always been being there on site when things were happening, actually supervising construction instead of running a desk” (415). Cleo is active in her work and enjoys being part of something bigger, rather than being given the responsibility of hiding behind the scenes. Her character is illustrated as someone who wants to take charge, rather than be a part of the audience. Cleo is interested in changing her sex, and she is curious to see how life would be with the roles reversed. After sharing this interest, her husband, Jules, dismisses her curiosity. As she lies in bed, Varley writes, “No, she had no complaints about being female, no sexual dissatisfactions. It was nothing as simple as that” (417). Cleo is unsatisfied with her life and does not enjoy it to its full extent. She feels as though something is missing, and she knows it has more to do with her gender than it does with anything else. When she reduces her breast size, she wishes that “the feeling of confusion and uncertainty would pass” (420). Her character is curious as to how it would be if her gender was suddenly changeable and she feels restless until it does. Once Cleo ends up having the sex change, she changes her name to Leo. Jules and Leo both try to continue maintaining their relationship, even though it is extremely challenging. As they continue to spend time together, Jules realizes that Leo is not that bad:
In a few more days Jules began to discover that he liked Leo. They began to share things, to talk more. The subject of their previous relationship was taboo for a while. It was as if Jules wanted to know Leo from scratch, not acknowledging there had ever been a Cleo who had once been his life…He was able to talk freely to Leo, and it was in a slightly different manner from the way he had talked to Cleo. He poured out his soul. It was astonishing to Leo that there were so many bruises on it, so many defenses and insecurities. There was a buried hostility which Jules had never felt free to tell a woman. (432)
This passage demonstrates that once Cleo becomes Leo, he is able to experience a different side of the relationship that he has with Jules. Jules is more open and is willing to share things he could not with his wife. Throughout the story, Leo tells Jules that he is still Cleo on the inside. The characterization demonstrated in this part of the story tells the reader that once Cleo can change her gender, she is able to find her true self as a partner to her husband Jules. Leo wanted to remind Jules that “he could do this with Cleo, too. What Leo wanted to emphasize was that he could be a companion, a buddy, a confidant no matter which sex he was. He wanted to combine the best of being a woman and being a man, be both things for Jules, fulfill all his needs” (433). Leo and Cleo are the same people on the inside, but Leo allows Cleo to express her identity in a clearer way, a way that is not muddled by gender roles. At the end of the story, when Cleo becomes Leo again, she explains to Jules that “‘Leo isn’t gone, and don’t you ever think that for a minute. He’s right here.’ She thumped her chest and looked at him defiantly. ‘He’ll always be here… You don’t have to face Cleo being a male. I’m changing all that. My name is Nile…I won’t answer to anything else’” (436). When she expresses this, the reader can see a clear change in her character. She changes her name to Nile, which is the monumental river in Egypt that is associated with power and greatness. She feels strong, assertive, and, like the river, powerful. She has finally found herself and can express herself more easily than before. The story began with her having trouble being assertive, and ends with her feeling secure enough to raise her tone. In this way, changing her gender allows her to find her true self.
The same method of self-discovery is present in “Coming of Age in Karhide.” Le Guin creates a world where her character, Sov, is about to undergo kemmer, which is a period where the naturally hermaphroditic people become male or female and lose their virginities. Sov explains that they do not really remember how they were like as a child, which illustrates that Sov might not have a true sense of self. Sov is fourteen when they undergo kemmer. Sov works at a workshop, and they feel the need to be treated as “an adult, a working person” (7). When Sov is about to go into kemmer, they constantly sulk and rage: “I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me” (8). This demonstrates that Sov’s character feels unsure and misplaced, like most do during adolescence. Sov’s grand calls them a mahad, which “means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person” (9). Sov feels a sense of inclusiveness when grand says this to them: “I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human” (12). This passage illustrates that Sov feels better about themselves when receiving respect from their grand. Grand tells Sov to go to the Fastness, which will allow Sov to control kemmer. When Sov arrives, Ranharrer the Adept tells Sov that they are ignorant, but in a tender way. In this way, Sov is naïve and does not know much about anything. When Sov goes into kemmer, everyone cheers for them. Sov “wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live” (16). When in Kemmer, Sov begins to feel the “familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself…I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me…All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning…I was aware of everything…” (18). This demonstrates the clear point where Sov understands themselves and feels sure. When Sov kemmers into a woman, she has a sexual experience with a female named Berre. When Sov leaves the pool, “[Sov was] feeling sad and shy and forsaken, yet extremely interested in what had happened to [their] body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric…” (20). The fact that Sov is able to experience female gender and sexuality, yet not be constrained to it, allows Sov to bend rules and explore things beyond the horizon. When Sov and Berre wake up, “[they] were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults” (21). Sov experiences kemmer and at first is hesitant and afraid, but soon, Sov realizes that this experience allows them to explore their true nature.
Furthermore, the theme is more convincingly developed in “Options” rather than in “Coming of Age in Karhide” because of Varley’s use of dialogue. When Cleo first tells Jules about the concept of changing genders impermanently, he does not understand her. Cleo asks, “‘Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like?’ [Jules] sighed and closed his book, then turned to face her. ‘I don’t quite understand you tonight,’ he said. ‘Well, maybe I don’t either, but we could talk—’” (417). Jules proceeds to cut her off and explain that it would not be a good idea. This dialogue between the two characters illustrates Cleo’s uncertainty and curiosity when it comes to gender. Jules is set in his ways and does not see the need in trying out the opposite gender. When Cleo goes to the body salon to have a consultation, a man named Marion allows her to glance at how she’d look if she were a male:
There was no doubt the face was her own, but it was more angular, perhaps a little larger in its underlying bony structure. The skin on the stranger’s jaw was rough, as if it needed shaving… ‘Why all the brawn?’ she asked Marion… ‘I didn’t choose this image,’ he explained. ‘The computer takes what it sees, and extrapolates. You’re more muscular than the average woman. You probably exercise. This is what a comparable amount of training would have produced with male hormones to fix nitrogen in the muscles…’ (419)
This scene between the two characters allows the reader to understand that Cleo’s body leans towards being more “masculine” than “feminine” when in the context of gender roles. A woman is supposedly dainty and weaker than her male counterpart, but Cleo proves otherwise. When she changes her sex, she expresses herself in a truer way. When Cleo reduces the size of her breasts, Jules is angry with her mainly because she will not be able to breastfeed Feather, their daughter. Jules angrily asks her if he is supposed to nurse her and Cleo gets upset: “’Damn it, that’s exactly what I expect you to do. Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. You think it’s all fun and games, having to carry a child around all day because she needs the milk in your breasts?’” (421). Jules does not understand her and wants to understand why she wants to revolt. Cleo asks him to try out taking Feather to work for a few months, the way Cleo would, so he can understand what she goes through. He rejects the idea, and Cleo feels sad. Her relationship with Jules is a large obstacle to her trying to find her true self, since they are both tied down by gender roles. When having sex, Cleo asks to be on top. During the scene, Jules voices his opinion of her wanting that role:
‘Cleo, what the hell is the purpose of this?’
She stopped dead and let her head sag between her shoulders.
‘What’s the matter? Are you feeling silly with your feet in the air?’
‘Maybe. Is that what you wanted?’
‘Jules, humiliating you was the farthest thing from my mind.’
‘Then what was on your mind? It’s not like we’ve ever done it this way before. It’s—’ ‘Only when you choose to do so. It’s always your decision.’
‘It’s not degrading to be on the bottom.’
‘Then why were you feeling silly?’ (423)
This illustrates how Jules feels defensive about Cleo being on top. Before, it was not an issue, but now he feels shook up in his role as a husband and a man in the relationship. Cleo tells him, “And you feel threatened by it. By the fact that I’m curious about changing, that I want to know what it’s like to take charge. You know I can’t—and wouldn’t if I could—force a change on you” (424). Their marriage is experiencing hardships due to the fact that Cleo is unhappy with her place in the relationship. She does not enjoy being the mother, the one who cares for everything and is considered the weakest. She wants to change these roles and she wants to explore something new, so she can find herself. Jules still does not understand, and Cleo explains why she wants to change her gender:
‘It’s the option I want. I’m not unhappy being a female. I don’t like the feeling that there’s anything I can’t be. I want to know how much of me is hormones, how much is genetics, how much is upbringing. I want to know if I feel more secure being aggressive as a man, because I don’t most of the time, as a woman. Or do men feel the same insecurities I feel? Would Cleo the man feel free to cry? I don’t know any of those things.’ (427)
At the end of the story, Leo feels like he has learned enough and should change back to Cleo. He explains to Jules, “…I’ve changed. But it’s not any kind of reversal…It’s an expansion. It’s not a new viewpoint. It’s like filling something up, moving out into unused spaces. Becoming….It’s like a completion” (434). Leo then explains that before, he saw the male and female genders as two separate concepts that opposed one another. Leo’s intention was to patch things up between the two “Siamese twins,” and now feels like they have become one whole person and he cannot tell them apart anymore. This scene demonstrates that because of the sex change and its reversibility, Cleo got the chance to explore both sexes and experience a side of her that was dormant before.
In “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Le Guin allows the dialogue between the characters to illustrate Sov’s lack of sense of self and the change they encounter. At the beginning of the story, Sov refuses to acknowledge the idea of entering kemmer. Their mother tries explaining that they will have to have a kemmer day, and Sov cries, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…” (Le Guin 9). This demonstrates that Sov is apprehensive about kemmer and feels unsure, like an average adolescent. In a conversation with their cousin Sether, Sov becomes more apprehensive about kemmer. Sether says,
…It’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? (Le Guin 11)
At the end of the story, Sov meets Berre who says “But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad…all my friends would be women already” (Le Guin 20). This illustrates that gender is a flexible thing that is not set in stone; these people have the opportunity to experience both genders and try out what fits them and what they do not enjoy. Their lives are not based around sex and roles, which allows them to have a better chance at establishing who they truly are.
Moreover, the theme is more convincingly developed in “Options” rather than in “Coming of Age in Karhide” because of the technique of novum. When Cleo first reads the article titled “Changing: The Revolution in Sex Roles,” she realizes that this concept is something new. She reads in the article, “Men and women would be able to see what it was like from the other side of the barrier that divides humanity” (Varley 414). The article goes on to explain the concept of changing:
…The males had originally been the heaviest users of the new technology, stating sexual reasons for their decision, and the change had often been permanent. Today, the changer was slightly more likely to have been born female, and to give social reasons, the most common of which was pressure to bear children. (414-415)
This article sparks something in Cleo, and it causes her to consider changing. It is something she has heard about but was never quite intrigued by, until now. The author of the article writes, “Traditionalists made much of the importance of sex roles, while changers felt sex roles were important only to those who were trapped in them; with the breaking of the sexual barrier, the concept of roles vanished” (428). The novum of changing allows a person to make their gender be flexible. This can cause a shift in roles placed upon someone by society and can offer them a more free lifestyle. Changers intend to break barriers created by society; their main focus is on eradicating gender roles, which is something that intrigues Cleo. When Cleo is in front of the computer with Marion, trying to see how she would look as a man, Marion explains,
Basically, what we do is produce a cloned body from one of your own cells. Through a process called Y-Recombinant Viral Substitution we remove one of your X chromosomes and replace it with a Y…The clone is forced to maturity in the usual way, which takes about six months. After that, it’s just a simple non-rejection-hazard brain transplant. You walk in as a woman, and leave an hour later as a man. Easy as that. (419)
Varley introduces the novum of changing (and cloning) into his story. It allows the reader to fully grasp the concept of a flexible gender, instead of a rigid one. This novum illustrates Cleo’s decision to change. If gender is not set in stone, a person has a chance to experience different situations that usually pertain to a certain sex. In “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Le Guin illustrates the novum of kemmer. When Sov describes middle-aged, older people at Dory’s party, they explain,
There was a fierce energy in them, their grey hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like then, kemmer? (Le Guin 6).
The reader gets a sense that the novum of kemmer brings happiness into people’s lives. Sov thinks, “Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all” (6). Kemmer is then compared to “having a bath” (7), as though one sits in water and comes out cleaner, newer. When Sov is experiencing the first taste of kemmer, their body is changing: “I smelled sour, strong, like blood, like raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect bites. Deep in my belly, something moved, some monstrous growth” (8). Sov’s experience with kemmer is uncomfortable and they wish for it to be over. The novum portrayed throughout the short story allows the reader to establish that in their world, this is normal and it is to convey the main theme of how flexible gender can lead to freedom of self. When talking about the Doorkeeper, Ebbeche, Sov realizes that he is permanently in kemmer as a male:
After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. (17)
When people of Karhide experience kemmer and then go back to their natural self, they have the opportunity to remove themselves from the expectations set out for them. They can freely express themselves during kemmer and be more comfortable with their own bodies and minds. When Sov sees the man who is permanently in kemmer (almost like a human on Earth), Sov feels bad for him. He imagines that the Doorkeeper is constantly called names like halfdead and pervert. This illustrates that though the novum of kemmer is present throughout the novel, being in kemmer permanently destroys the whole purpose of kemmer. This short time allows people to explore things they usually do not and thus their lives are not based on sex and gender roles.
In conclusion, “Options” by John Varley is a more convincingly developed story that illustrates the theme that when gender is a changeable and flexible concept, people will have a better opportunity of finding their true self. “Coming of Age in Karhide” by Ursula Le Guin also demonstrates this theme, but in a less convincing manner. The techniques used were characterization, dialogue, and novum. In “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Le Guin does not offer much characterization for the protagonist Sov. There is some dialogue in the story, but the dialogue in “Options” offers a better grasp at the main theme. The novums in both stories are clearly demonstrated, but the novum of changing in “Options” provides a better perspective on the concept of flexible gender. Both writers create worlds where gender is seen as something that can be fluid instead of permanent. In our world, gender has a large part in the way society is constructed and how we, as humans, interact and behave. Varley and Le Guin offer readers a peek into a world where gender is not set in stone—a world where people can genuinely be free of all sex roles. If our world could mimic these scenarios, people would have a better understanding of each other—as human beings rather than males and females.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Coming of Age in Karhide.” The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2002. 1-22. Print.
Varley, John. “Options.” The John Varley Reader. New York: Ace Books, 2004. 121-145. Print.
About the Author: Sania Malik is a 2nd-year student in the Literature program at Dawson College. She takes a particular interest in classic novels and 20th-century American literature. Her favourite writers include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and Harper Lee. She enjoys writing, specifically in a journalistic style. She hopes to major in Journalism and minor in Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Sania is also a Copy Editor for The Plant, Dawson’s student-run newspaper since 1969. She especially loves to write about important issues that affect people worldwide, and she hopes to help people through her words.