The Women of Dune, Sci-Fi Classic

As the only book in my Sci-fi classics post that I hadn’t actually read, Dune by Frank Herbert was at the top of my reading pile as I embarked on Sci-fi summer. While I cannot deny that the world-building is excellent and that it helped establish many tropes of its genre, I remained highly conscious of the complex and problematic depiction of women throughout my reading.

dunecoverDune, published in 1965, is the first installment of what would later become a franchise with many books in the saga. It is set mostly on an iconic desert planet called Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune), with a galactic backdrop. The story focuses on young Paul Atreides the son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, as his family moves from their milder home planet to the desert Arrakis. There, they face assassination attempts from the rival Harkonnen family in conspiracy with the emperor. Paul and his mother escape and he becomes a leader-prophet of the indigenous sand people known as the Fremen. This analysis contains some spoilers.

In discussing the female characters of Dune, it is impossible not to first discuss the Bene Gesserit. Almost every female character of any importance in the book is a member of the Bene Gesserit, or likened to one if only she had the proper training. The Bene Gesserit is a mysterious organization open only to women, which trains its members in powers of observation and control.  They master supreme control over their own minds and bodies and those of others, able to enter self-induced comas or modulate their voices to give irresistible commands. They are feared as witches but also valued advisers, wives, concubines, or daughters of the most powerful men in the Universe. They tend to work behind the scenes rather than hold positions of leadership themselves, and their ultimate goals are allegedly for the greater good, rather than for individual gain. One of their mottoes, as Jessica intones, is “I am Bene Gesserit: I exist only to serve.”

Although the Bene Gesserit are among the three most powerful organizations in the empire (beside the Guild and the aristocracy), they are still part of a patriarchal structure. Furthermore, one of their highest goals is to fulfill a prophecy by producing, through careful breeding and manipulation of bloodlines, a male Bene Gesserit known as the Kwisatz haderach, more psychically powerful than any female member of the order.

So know that we’ve looked at women’s place in the universe of Dune, let’s examine each female character individually. This is not hard to do because there are only so many of them.

LadyJessicaLady Jessica — As Paul’s mother and his most constant companion throughout the story line, she is definitely a secondary main character. The author often utilizes her perspective in his omniscient narration. Although beloved by her Duke husband, Lady Jessica must be content in her role as concubine, since the Duke must remain marriageable for political negotiations. After his death, she becomes a Reverend Mother of the Fremen. Over the course of the book, we see the power dynamics shift between her and the son she so carefully trained in her “weirding” ways.

aliaDuneAlia — Jessica’s daughter and Paul’s sister, Alia was in the womb when Jessica underwent the ceremony to be a Reverend Mother and was forever changed. While Paul sees the future, Alia sees the past, as she was imbued with the knowledge of all previous Reverend Mothers. Disconcertingly powerful for a toddler, Alia is viewed as an abomination by most other characters. She may be as powerful as Paul in some ways, but she gets hardly any screen-time.

Harah — Formerly the “woman” of a Fremen named Jamis (they don’t seem to use formal titles like wife and concubine), she passes to Paul along with the rest of Jamis’ property when Paul kills him in battle. Fifteen-year-old Paul chooses to keep her as a servant rather than a mate, and Harah must maintain her dignity while navigating her difficult relationships with Paul’s mother and his actual mate, Chani. At one point, Jessica notes that Harah has the observational skills and plotting mind that would have made her an ideal candidate for the Bene Gesserit.

ChaniChani — Chani is the daughter of Liet-Kynes, the planetologist-gone-native who united the Fremen in the goal to bring greenery and abundant water to their harsh planet. Orphaned in the attack that deposes Paul and his family, Chani (a mere teenager like Paul himself) immediately takes Paul under her wing and trains him in the Fremen ways. She quickly becomes his romantic partner and the mother of his child. Chani is a skilled fighter, but we nonetheless have the classic hero-to-his-highly-capable-girlfriend scene where Paul tells Chani she must stay behind somewhere safe because she would only distract him. Chani is one of his closest advisers and is also compared to the Bene Gesserit. She is strong but submissive, accepting Paul’s orders “as a desert woman accepted all necessities in the midst of a life involved with death.”

Lady Margot Fenring — Lady Fenring is married to a eunuch, the Count Fenring who is the emperor’s closest companion and messenger.  Her largest role in the story is to seduce Baron’s son Feyd-Rautha with her husband’s permission to put him under their control and to get pregnant with his child as part of Bene Gesserit genetic scheme to produce the Kwisatz haderach. She is the primary example of the sexual aspect of Bene Gesserit training and manipulation.

ReverendMotherDuneReverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim — She is Truthsayer to the emperor, using her powers to tell if anyone lies in his presence, and holds a position of power and respect in the Bene Gesserit order. Paul fears her at beginning of book, when she administers a pain test to measure his humanity. By the end of the book, however, he calls her an “old witch” (even though if she is a witch, what does that make him?), and silences her with an order reinforced by a psychic attack.

PrincessIrulanPrincess Irulan — She is the Bene-Gesserit-trained daughter of the emperor. In the end, Irulan accepts a political marriage to Paul with grace and serenity even though Paul promises her “No child of mine nor touch nor softness of glance, nor instant of desire” out of respect to Chani, who must remain only his concubine. Irulan devotes her life to writing books about Paul, which are quoted in excerpts at the beginning of every chapter.

The Shadout Mabe — a minor character and literally the only non-Bene Gesserit or possible Bene Gesserit, an old hag who delivers mysterious news and warnings to the Lady Jessica when she first arrives on Arrakis.

On a side note, the depiction of homosexuality is also extremely negative, being associated with the violent pedophile and primary antagonist, Baron Harkonnen.

In conclusion, although the women of Dune are powerful, that does not mean they are in power, and the society portrayed is an inherently patriarchal one. What do you think of the women of Dune? Share your thoughts in the comments!

~ Sci-Fi Summer Reading Challenge Updates ~

If you are just tuning in, check out my sign up post for the Sci-fi Summer Reading Challenge to learn more about it.

Books in progress:

Dragonfly Falling (Shadows of the Apt #2)  by Adrian Tchaikovsky — sequel to the first book I reviewed for this Sci-Fi Summer.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin — This book won the Hugo and Nebula awards and is the only translated work on my list. Given my connection to China, I’m really excited to see a foreign author making a splash in the sci-fi world and to see what that’s all about.

Books Finished:

Clockwork Fairytales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables Edited by Stephan L. Antczak and James C. Basset

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Young Elite by Marie Lu

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Dune by Frank Herbert

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson – A very satisfying final installment of The Reckoners series.

Current Level: Viper Pilot




One thought on “The Women of Dune, Sci-Fi Classic

  1. The opening chapter of Dune is devoted to two powerful women doscussing their shared political & cultural agenda for the future of humanity. They collude to subject a high status male character to a painful test of his humanity to determine whether he might play a central role in their plans. As far as feminist sci fi goes Ursula Le Guinne or Margaret Atwood could hardly have written a more powerful representation of feminine independence and authority.

    Every chapter of the book is prefaced with quotes from the authoritative histories of the events of the book. These establish a context & serve as interpretive counterpoint to the action of the main narrative. Notably they are attributed to the daughter of the old emperor & wife of the new one Princess Irulan. To diminuish her role in Dune you must succumb to determinedly patriarchal stereotypes in the face of a clearly powerful female voice.

    Listing the female characters in this extraordinary book is quite an exercise. I won’t relist them here as you have done so above but I can’t think of any contemporaneous sci fi that has so many &/or such pivotal female characters.

    One of the great enduring powers of Dune is its extraordinary insight into the processes of power & culture. It is a feature of this analysis that the individuals of the story are subject to hisorical, ecological, political & cultural constraints. Not even the almost god like Paul Maudib is free to act on his own wishes. His father Duke Leto accepts the fiefdom of Dune knowing it is a trap. The Emperor himself plays along with the Harkonen schemes reluctantly to maintain the political order. All characters, male & female, must accept &/or rail against their social position & limitations. It would be a mistake to think that this means Herbert is advocating for the status quo.

    Anyway I’ve got to get to work so I won’t go on any more except to say that if you were looking for a sci fi written around 1965 which has more powerful femininst characters & themes then please let me know what it is as I would love to read that book 🙂

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