“We are repelled by it, terrorized. It is said a man will come one day and find in the gift of the drug his inward eye. He will look where we cannot – into both feminine and masculine pasts.”
Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit all-female secret society, speaks with a young Paul Atreides about the role he may yet fill for her Sisterhood. Paul, the living, breathing snag in the Bene Gennerit centuries-long breeding program to produce a male with the ability to ingest a should-be fatal dose of the awareness spectrum narcotic Melange and access vast ancestral memories.
While the Dune series hinges on one man going beyond the limitations of a group of women, expanding the core-consciousness of the Sisterhood beyond the minds of women, the characters in the series who truly enthrall – evoke vital intelligence, believable fear and longing and despair – are female. Now these five women pass one-dimensional kick-ass, sci-fi chick personas; and, far from damsels, they remain in memory for their own struggles, not for their relationships with the men.
Read up on my list after the break. Disclaimers: Jessica Atreides is excluded (I will discuss), and I do not acknowledge any Dune work after Chapterhouse.
Reverend Mother Odrade carries the final two Dune novels: in Heretics she shadows the Mother Superior Taraza, the leader’s wild advisor, second-in-command; in Chapterhouse, after Taraza’s murder, Odrade ascends to interim Mother Superior and precipitates a gamble to save her Sisterhood.
While I welcomed the focus in the final Dune books on the obscure Sisterhood and its inner-workings, the society’s members, such as Lucilla, maintain a flat devotion to the rules. Yes, the Sisterhood comes first, this letting-go-of-oneself is believable, but Odrade proves a fascinating anomaly: She asks questions, self-examines, forms emotional bonds, eats meals with the acolytes – even laughs (and characters in Dune rarely laugh).
The Sisterhood claimed Odrade, a valued vestige of the prescient Atreides line, at a young age from loving parents (in true Jedi fashion), and despite the immense power and knowledge she acquired, Odrade still questions the value of her own life within the demands of the Bene Gesserit. Odrade ponders, Am I alive?, revealing a note of humanity in the Sisterhood’s broad, all-consuming sense of purpose.
Almost 16, a Reverend Mother without motherhood. Virgin priestess, object of fearful veneration of the superstitious masses – Alia of the Knife. – Irulan Report, Dune Messiah
My favorite character of the entire series, Alia Atreides: only a child in the first two novels; born after her own father’s murder, she constantly contends with the label of Abomination. Still in the womb, the pre-born Abominations awake to the minds of thousands of ancestors; as such, Alia enters the world of Dune as an infant Reverend Mother.
Even as child – though not a child at all – Alia strikes terror into the core of Reverend Mother Mohiam, who says upon first seeing Alia, “‘Death! It cannot come too quickly for that child or for the one who spawned her!’ The old woman pointed a finger at Alia. ‘Get out of my mind!’“
And as a teenager Alia projects a wild confidence – she outdoes the Imperium’s finest swordsman on a target dummy, while in the nude – but her convictions and extreme intelligence belie a deep fear of her true nature.
While I usually prefer female characters independent of men, Alia does look to male partners for support: she succumbs to deep-seated panic when her brother leaves her, perhaps the only one who understood her mind; she pleads with Duncan Idaho, Will you love me?; and she surrenders to a male inner voice, the Baron’s, losing herself to the Abomination she so long avoided.
Before Alia’s suicide, she cries alone in her chamber in an unforgettable moment of the series: Alia, the Fremen child of the knife, who in the past wiped away the water-wasting tears of her brother, barely recognizes her current self and asks, “Who cries? Who is it that cries?”
As with Odrade, Alia commands the immense perspective and abilities of the Bene Gesserit, but lacks the stoicism and foresight the Sisterhood insists upon; she still cries for herself. While the male characters such as Leto, Miles Teg and Duncan host some of the series’ most fascinating sci-fi concepts, Alia reveals more nuanced humanity, despite her supernatural makeup.
Alma Mavis Taraza
An enduring memory of Mother Superior Taraza beyond her position, a sovereignty Herbert only reveals in the second-to-last installment, is her gruesome death at the hands of The Honored Matres: a laser severs her legs at the knee, and returns to cut her again at the hip.
Taraza acts as the quintessential Bene Gesserit, and as such, demonstrates the role of the feminine in the Dune series. In a way, these overwhelmingly competent women are written as men, but the Sisterhood’s staples – sharing of minds, ongoing missions – are feminine concepts to me; I’ve also always viewed the Spice Agony as a parallel for labor. But beyond her role, Taraza acts with personal daring and sass. She is the master negotiator – she lies, soothes and threatens at perfect moments with the dangerous Tlielaxu Waff – and despite the distance her lofty responsibilities require, Herbert gives Taraza a voice, an edge, even a bond with Odrade.
That being said, Taraza does embody un-shaking devotion to the Sisterhood. Even upon her death she feels triumphant – I have won!, she exclaims, for her mortal enemies, the Matres, have attacked the Dune planet, sealing her plan to destroy the divided awareness of Leto II, to free humanity from his ongoing prescient dreams. Having succeeded, Taraza’s death matters little; she shares her mind with Odrade before her body fades, reminding that no Sister ever really dies, only joins a mass consciousness – a fascinating, almost Borg-like aspect of the Bene Gesserit.
“Spoils of War”; the twin sister and sole companion of Leto II. While she acknowledges her brother as “always the stronger,” Ghanima houses both the vast intellect of a pre-born and the animalistic bravery of a Fremen, the indigenous race of Arrakis.
Ghanima only appears in one of the novels in the series, and while history remembers her for her relationships with men (the Tlielaxu document merely “a normal life” for her after the events of Children), Ghanima stands apart as a female pre-born who masters her inner voices.
Hate will make me strong. In hate, I can resist Alia’s fate. – Ghanima, Children of Dune
Ghanima shares every secret of thousands of lives with Leto, and when she believes he is dead, she turns to murderous rage against the Corrino family as a source of focus. Ghanima wills herself to become pure Fremen when so many easier, self-destructive avenues lay before her.
He was gone; her twin was gone. She put aside all tears and nurtured her rage. In this, she was pure Fremen. And she knew this, reveling in it. - Children of Dune
Science-fiction writers often employ an “every-man” protagonist to introduce unusual concepts; since Rakian priests, and later the Bene Gesserit, pluck Sheanna from an ordinary Fremen life based on her unusual ability to command the sandworms of Dune, the child seems the likely candidate for the reader to live through. Yet Sheanna defies her protectors and displays a haughty, piercing intelligence. The local priesthood safeguards Sheanna as a deity on Earth, a reverence Sheanna finds alien and unappealing; but instead of trying to convince her sycophants otherwise, Sheanna regularly uses her influence to get her way, often chastising the priests, “You are evil to doubt me.”
Sheanna also provides the dumbstruck Rakian priests, and the reader, with an extraordinary image: the Dune sandworms, unyielding forces of nature, mouths 80-meters in diameter, bowing before her tiny frame.
Appearing in both Heretics and Chapterhouse, Sheanna transforms from impudent child to rebellious Reverend Mother. She could have led a luxurious life on her home planet, but Sheanna’s energy drove her to join the Bene Gesserit; and she quickly reveals to the Sisterhood she is a force beyond her genetic gifts.
I must frame my discussion of Dune with a profession of love, and an admission of bias: Sometimes when I reread these books, I pause, press my hand on the cover and close my eyes – afraid if I don’t imprint these perfect words, they will somehow go away. I have no particular fascination with the themes Dune explores – environmentalism, the fallacy of power, the illusion of free will – but the clarity and intelligence in Herbert’s words make this fantastic sci-fi world feel real. So the Dune novels hit such an emotional core with me, I may lack objectivity in discussing its stronger and weaker elements.
That being said, you may have noticed I left off probably the most famous female character of Dune, Jessica Atreides. The Bene Gesserit mother of Paul and Alia, the genetic strait who disobeys her Sisterhood and betrays its centuries (centuries!) long project because … why? Wait for it: Her husband wanted a baby boy instead of a girl. Great job, Jessica. Maybe you should have noticed you were pregnant before you underwent the Spice Agony as well, but I won’t put too much pressure on you. Jessica also backs off from the children she brought into the world, abandoning them on Dune only to write occasional letters of judgment before returning to defy (the albeit corrupt) Alia. Jessica is a wishy-washy source of frustration for me, a limp contrast to the dynamic likes of Alia or Sheanna, as flawed as those characters may be.
And while many will argue I missed the boat as a reader finding Ghanima a more compelling character than, say, Paul Atreides, but Herbert’s evocation of powerful female characters appeals to me as much as Leto’s Golden Path does. But I concede my strong emotional response to these novels and its characters may play into my judgments more than they should. So let me know what you think about my list …