The Female Carries the Mystery
I’ve got a new book coming from W.W. Norton in November. It’s a novel called 36 Righteous Men. If you followed last year the series on this blog called “Report from the Trenches,” you know the details of the huge crash this book took, midstream in its writing, and of my six months of nonstop hell trying to regroup, restructure, and reanimate it.
The concept that saved the day came from Shawn Coyne’s editorial notes:
The female carries the mystery.
This is a helluva deep subject and one that, even now, I have only the sketchiest and most tenuous handle on. Bear with me please. I’m gonna try, in the next few posts, to plunge into this topic and see if we can extract a kernel or two of wisdom.
What does it mean, “The female carries the mystery?”
It’s not hard to see in a movie like Chinatown, where the character of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is literally the woman of mystery, or in Double Indemnity, where Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) fulfills the same narrative purpose.
In both films—and just about every other film noir or detective story you or I can think of—the female lead has a secret she is hiding from the male lead (and from the world in general, including, at least partially, herself.)
The story is about finding out that secret.
Only when that secret is revealed does the movie deliver its knockout dramatic and thematic punch.
She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!
I’m rotten, Walter. Rotten to the heart.
But the idea that the female carries the mystery can be applied, I believe, even to novels and movies that literally have no female characters.
In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.
The unplumbed, unknowable depths of the sea, into which the whale plunges, taking Ahab with him.
The eternal, unfathomable sea is the female.
In Seven Samurai, the flooded rice fields are the female. They are the well of fertility, the source of life. They are in fact what all the heroism and slaughter were about. They were the stakes of the story. They were the mystery.
Remember the final scene of Kurosawa’s all-time classic, when the villagers, to the beat of the communal tom-toms, replant their now-preserved fields while the surviving samurai can only watch and move on? That’s the mystery revealed.
In my book, 36 Righteous Men, the central female character is a defrocked rabbi named Rachel Davidson.
In the first version of the novel—the one that crashed—I had Rachel indeed bearing the mystery (in other words, she knew all the details of the occult understory) but I had her trying deliberately and passionately to reveal this mystery.
Only when Shawn pointed out the error was I able to regroup and reconceive the story, at least as far as Rachel was concerned.
The change I made was to make her carry the mystery and hang onto it for dear life.
In other words, I turned every scene with Rachel on its head. Instead of having her seek to reveal, I had her seek to conceal.
It made the other primary characters—two NYPD homicide detectives, a man and woman—dig deeper and harder. It made them do real detective work. It tripled the power of Rachel, and it supercharged the villain, whom Rachel was now covering for instead of trying to reveal.
I’ve been working on a new book for the past year—a totally different story, in another century and another genre. But the principle
The female carries the mystery
remains foremost in my working mind. I have stayed hyperconscious (and conscientious) at every stage—conception, construction, and the scene-by-scene writing—of who the “female” is, what mystery she carries, and how I can maintain that mystery and enhance it through Act One, Act Two, and Act Three to build to its maximum emotional impact in the climax.
A new book, you say. Brushing up on my Jewish mysticism and “Tzadikim Nistarim.” Looking forward to it.
This is a profound insight. Thank you, Steven. The book I’m working on has only a couple of minor female characters, but you have helped me see how to apply this.
Wow, deep is right. I am not being coy or condescending when I say it’s pretty cool that two guys (not regular guys, mind you, no, incredibly smart guys) are majoring in this topic of the scary depth of femininity. Being female, I can tell you it’s hard enough for women to grasp. Seriously, it’s scary to us, too. You can go out on the web and see all the New Age teachers and coaches who charge women to “get in touch with their feminine.” We usually go through our whole lives out here in the world and don’t do it. Just reading this post, Shawn’s words and yours, was more instructive than any expensive workshop. Once again, thank you for being you!
I’m commenting on my own comment because I realized you guys used the word “mystery” and I used the word “scary.” I guess mysteries are not necessarily scary, are they? That’s what I’ve been thinking about. I think the mystery of woman is, to men and women and perhaps other gender definitions these days, simply scary. Women are scary because they are unpredictable and powerful. What isn’t there when a woman leaves a home or another space is palpable, it leaves a gap. That is when we notice the power of a woman. And that’s scary. Just thinking out loud here.
Mia, I’m thinking another way to look at it is to see what IS there when a woman leaves, and that is chaos. The male principle of order has failed. The man expects the woman to stay, to keep his order. If she refuses, it’s all over. Chaos. That’s what’s scary.
Scary to men, anyway. 🙂
I was reading this with some faith but also some skepticism as I usually do when ti comes to females roles in stories. It’s something that really bothers me for some reason, so I was concerned when I first started reading this article..
But then that was consoled the moment you mentioned one of the two primary detective was also a woman. Then I understood that it wasn’t female as a gender, but female as the concept. The feminine pull vs the masculine push. In this instance, the female “hide” vs the masculine “seek”.
I really like it. I didn’t even think of like that before. It’s not just enough to have a female character, but also to understand the female energy in stories. Very interesting!
Yes! This column was quite Jungian. The feminine is chaos, the masculine is order. Mountains are masculine, water is feminine, etc. But your distinct wording here is animating for me. “The female carries the mystery” is a more nuanced understanding of chaos. Well, she does conceive, carry, and give birth, but it is a complete mystery how the conception took place, what is developing in utero, and what specific impact that offspring will have, right? Love you, Steven! Thanks!
Go for it, Steven. And thank you.
“In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.”
Speak of the feminine.
In this case
Exactly! SOOOOOO awesome, isn’t it?
I like this concept — simple but profound!
Fascinating! I’m so pleased that you worked this one out with Shawn’s insight. It’s a wonderful act of professional generosity to share this with us, too. Thank you Steve!
Wow. You have made a transformation discovery. Thank you. I write about the U.S. Mexico border, and realize that the border is the female. Profound. Thanks.
Interesting. I would have thought that a border would be a force of “order,” therefore male. And yet, a border can be penetrated (definitely what’s happening down there). The penetration creates chaos: the female principle at work. (But it requires the male principle to do the work of creating that chaos.)
What an excellent insight you had.
Profound thoughts that have got me mulling – thanks very much for sharing them.
In the Power of Myth documentary, Joseph Campbell said, “Women represent life. Therefore, they represent all the mysteries of life”. Yes, the female carries the mysteries. Life’s mysteries are deftly concealed. And so it is with the feminine.
Great read today. Inspired me to think of a story, without female characters (save offstage), but the theme being (I’m talking about what the story is “really” about) the centrality of women.
I’m unclear how this works with a female detective as protagonist. I can see how it works in stories without female characters where men are the leads, or any story with a male lead. If the hero is a woman working to solve the mystery, and using her feminine power to do that, as well as her reason, who embodies the “mysterious chaos” and holds the secret? I don’t see how this can work with a strong female protagonist.
Somebody commented above that “the female principle/mystery” needn’t necessarily reside in a woman. It’s whatever’s hidden, and wants to stay that way. What your female detective is trying to uncover is embodied in something: a child, a history, a town, perhaps even a man?
It is a bit of a puzzle if we say the female detective also has “female principle.” Or maybe not, if she’s trying to keep hidden something like past failure or feelings of inadequacy, or her own connection to the mystery.
Thanks for such an interesting idea! I agree with your point about the idea that the female carries the mystery. Actually, I was working on my essay for sociology class about female principles and got some information from the experts here https://edubirdie.com/english-homework/ but I think your piece of writing is really worth discussing in my class, so will that be okay if I use it as a secondary source?
Wow, you covered the topic in your article as well as https://pro-papers.com/ in the essay I ordered from them. In general, this novel is the best I’ve read in the last six months!
Sorry, but I have no good idea about this. So I can’t time to spend on this article. Because it’s not for me. Gustavo Woltmann