An Unlikely Marriage

It was a pleasant surprise to find last week that I enjoyed “Bloodchild” even more the second time I had to read it for a class. Part of the cause for my newfound enjoyment was probably knowing what to expect. I was prepared for the visceral rejection I felt when reading descriptions of T’Gatoi’s arthropodal form, when reading about what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship, when reading about interspecies impregnation. In many ways, the story Butler claimed to write as an inoculation against her fears worked as a vaccine against my own discomfort as well (Butler, 30). But I think a far more significant source of joy in my second time through the short story was its pairing with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They seemed an unlikely match to me on syllabus day, but, having taken classes with Dr. McCoy before, I decided to swallow my preconceptions about both works and enthusiastically observe the conversation in which they were engaged.

I found the two narratives had much more in common than I originally thought. “Bloodchild” is, after all, “a love story” (30) just as Romeo and Juliet is. My first time reading it through, this romantic facet of “Bloodchild” was perhaps the most objectionable to me. There were so many things wrong, it seemed, with the relationship depicted between Gan and T’Gatoi. There were clear moments of animosity between the two. There was institutional coercion. In many ways, the relationship was founded on manipulation perpetrated by both partners in order to get what they both wanted. However, soon after my first time through it, I began to wonder how different this relationship really was from other love stories I had read. After all, doesn’t the second act of most every popular romantic film hinge on a falling-out, a flurry of animosity between the on-screen lovers? Isn’t there almost always a mismatch of what each partner wants from a relationship, an imbalance that must be negotiated and (ideally) agreed upon? And isn’t there a powerful, implicit institutional coercion that we’re subjected to through both our culture’s and our legal system’s emphasis on heterosexual marriage?

The fusion of “Bloodchild” with what is arguably the foundational text in the modern Western romantic canon, Romeo and Juliet, highlights those very parallels between Butler’s interspecies relationship and the model many of us no doubt draw on when we think of love. Gan, after all, does love T’Gatoi—the jealousy that he feels after realizing T’Gatoi would have impregnated his sister says as much. His love is not dissimilar from the star-crossed love between Romeo and Juliet (and therefore from the many romantic narratives that the love story has inspired). For example, both love stories have a moment of disillusionment for the lovers. Just as Butler describes Gan’s character arc as one in which he “must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life,” Juliet has a similar moment of doubt, in which she also learns that her own relationship with Romeo is not without its flaws, after Romeo murders her cousin Tybalt. She, like Gan, seriously considers if her love is worth it and she, also like Gan, ultimately makes the decision of her own accord to continue in spite of the information that she has absorbed. Yet another similarity between Gan’s and Juliet’s love is the fundamental mismatch of desires that must be negotiated between partners. In the case of Gan and T’Gatoi, Gan wants the continued protection and support (both emotional and physical in nature, it seems) from his partner while T’Gatoi’s primary interest in the relationship is the children that Gan can bear for her. In the case of Juliet and Romeo, Juliet seems interested in securing a husband as her family encourages her to do while Romeo’s interests, it would appear, are primarily sexual in nature (given how quick he is to abandon contact with Rosaline after it becomes clear she won’t “ope her lap” to him (1.1.113)). In both relationships, despite this mismatch of interests, both pairs of lovers find an exchange that they consider to be agreeable.

I think, in addition to emphasizing the similarities between Terran/Tlic monogamy and our own earthly relationships, the pairing of these two works emphasizes Butler’s singular insight into (to use the language of our course) just how easy it is to naturalize and justify even the most intensely artificial mechanisms that bind us together on a societal level. Both stories feature strong social pressure on one main character to form a monogamous romantic unit. In Romeo and Juliet, marriage is imposed on Juliet—in fact, it’s the topic through which she is introduced to us. It is through a conversation about marriage between Paris and Juliet’s father that we first hear her name, and it is to “think of marriage” that her mother first summons her onstage (1.3.69). Although she initially resists the idea, insisting that marriage “is an honor that [she dreams] not of,” she is impelled to consider Paris as her potential husband. Similarly, Gan is raised to expect that he must couple off with a Tlic, specifically with the old family friend T’Gatoi. In Gan’s own words, “[he] had been told all [his] life that this was a good and necessary thing Terran and Tlic did together” (16). In the case of both Juliet and Gan, these radically external commands are ultimately justified in their minds and become central motivations for their characters as their respective stories develop. Despite the fact that both the union of Tlic and Terran and the Judeo-Christian marriage of man and wife have their origins in pragmatic trades of sentient beings (Terrans and wives, respectively) for the purpose of creating offspring, Gan and Juliet manage to find what they see as powerful emotional bonds in these otherwise ruthless traditions. As these two characters illustrate, it is easy for us all to assume that the bonds we seek out with family, friends, and romantic interests are our own internal desires rather than forms of social organization that have been imposed on us through explicit commands or through the models that we are shown in our culture and history.

Furthermore, I think the fact that we’re (or at least that I’m) disgusted by only one of these works speaks to Butler’s genius as a science fiction writer. She had not only the desire to force a confrontation between reader and institution, but the talent to alter this familiar institution (marriage) in such a way to make it seem foreign and repulsive. I have little doubt that Dr. McCoy was correct in telling us Butler is never gratuitous. I think Butler infused the perfect amount of the grotesque, in the form of an unfamiliar planet and an explicit interspecies romantic encounter, into an otherwise-cherished tradition to make us react in horror at something so familiar to many of our lives.

To be clear, I don’t think that Gan and T’Gatoi’s relationship is healthy. I’m not making the argument that, because it has similarities to Western marriage rituals, it is to be accepted. The tradition that they take part in is clearly rooted in the brutal subjugation of the Terrans (T’Gatoi’s claim that her species “saw them as people and gave them the Preserve” (25) being an example of history as dictated by the hegemonic power). It’s very clearly coercive. The line of consent in their situation is hopelessly confused. Rather than suggesting its association with the marriage in Romeo and Juliet cleanses it of these flaws, I’m suggesting that this very association highlights those same flaws in a classic romantic narrative and, by extension, in the model of Western monogamy. Butler’s short story (and its coupling with Shakespeare’s play) presents our terrestrial traditions as alien, forcing us to confront with new horror the artifice that guides so many of our actions every day.

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