Jack London’s (1876-1916) The Star Rover (1915) is a story told from the first-person perspective about transcendence. The story features as its protagonist Darrell Standing, a former scientist who is about to be hanged in the prison of San Quentin, California (London, 2003). Throughout the book Standing selectively recollects his prison memories, especially the time he has spent in solitary confinement, focusing on his time in the straight jacket. This time spent in the straight jacket, or the ‘jacket’, as he calls it, is spent travelling to previous lives via the power of his mind. In his transcendent adventures he interacts as various men with various women. These women are often insignificant characters, but in some lives some women play more significant roles. Heteropatriarchal values as defined by Wurth and Rigney (227) are ‘preferring heterosexuality over other forms of sexuality (LGBTQ) and that forge gender roles of men as strong, courageous, and smart and women as weak, caring, and naive’. This paper argues that London uses heteropatriarchal normativity as a means to an end to show what it means for a man to mature from seeing a woman as mere mothers and caregivers to being part of a whole with a strong-willed woman, whom is portrayed as the ‘Goddess’ (Campbell 91), and will disprove a heteropatriarchal nomifier by taking a look at the increasing status of women throughout the book
In The Star Rover the protagonists perception of women starts out with an early recollection of the woman as the protagonists mother at the start of the book (London 36), the first view of a woman a child will have and fittingly the first mention of a woman in the book. This particular mother only appears in a few sentences, which is symbolic not only for the weight of this character, but also of the weight given to women by Standing at this point in the story. The only characteristic of this woman is her naivety. She is at best a tertiary character and is not even described as a caregiver. Where the father is described as at least possessing critical thought, the mother stands at the sidelines.
The status of the main woman in the subplots increases in non-linear fashion by introducing Duchess Philippa (London 74) as the Goddess in the first transcendent adventure in the first transcendent memory, who is the object of affection of Guillaume de Saint-Maure, a French nobleman who fatally duels with Italians for keeping her at his court. In this recollection of a previous life Standing does assign more function to Philippa than that of a lover who to die for. The heteropatriarchal values in this subplot are numerous: while de Saint-Maure is odysseanly cunning, willing to fight for love and quick with the sword, Philippa is only an object of affection, symbolic for Standings view on women at this early part of the story. De Saint-Maure is good at fighting but his arrogance gets the best of him and due to this he dies in the last duel, losing the prospect of seeing Philippa again.
In the fourth flashback Standing lives the life of Jesse, a nine year old from Arkansas who is migrating with a convoy to California. His family is with him, and in this family dynamic the mother, although not named, is featured as a caregiver. She and the other women in the group wash clothes, care for wounded men, cook supper and nurture children. Heteropatriarchal as this may seem, the features of the Goddess are already being shown albeit from the perspective of the son; Jesse’s mother functions well and does what she have to do to have her husband keep fighting and providing (London 109). The status of women is again increased from mother to caregiver and lover of Jesse’s father. They are portrayed as more dynamic characters with a bigger influence on the order of things than the previous three flashbacks: they steer the opinion of men, they go through the complex emotion of mourning, and while they aren’t capable of saving the lives of the group members in the end, they at least make decisions to the best of their capability. It is shown that the role women play in the work becomes more significant, even though they are still portrayed within their classic gender roles.
The main woman in the fifth memory, Princess Om, is a character which is assigned a status closer resembling that of a Goddess defined by Campbell: “…She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest. She is mother, sister, mistress, bride”. (92). Indeed, the main character desires her while she desires him. She is described as a “very flower of woman. Women such as she are born rarely”. She was unhampered by rule or convention” (London 150). Om is described as an autonomous, well-thinking, independently acting woman, supporting her husband through the hardness of exile and assisting him in their revenge on their common enemy. It is with Om that the status of a woman peaks, at least in the flashbacks; since there is a lauding of women to come in the book’s closing monologue.
In the book’s second-to-closing monologue, Standing describes what is common in all his memories of previous lives: he has been inventive, adventurous, a son, a father, a fighter and a lover. It is because of a woman he has been able to perform so well in his duties as a man while stressing the difference between the sexes:
“Often, often, in that long past, have I given life and honor, place and power, for love. Man is different from woman. She is close to the immediate and knows only the need of instant things. We know honor above her honor, and pride beyond her wildest guess of pride. Our eyes are far-visioned for star-gazing, while her eyes see no farther than the solid earth beneath her feet, the lover’s breast upon her breast, the infant lusty in the hollow of her arm. And yet, such is our alchemy compounded of the ages, woman works magic in our dreams and in our veins, so that more than dreams and far visions and the blood of life itself is woman to us, who, as lovers truly say, is more than all the world. Yet is this just, else would man not be man, the fighter and the conqueror, treading his red way on the face of all other and lesser life – for, had man not been the lover, the royal lover, he could never have become the kingly fighter. We fight best, and die best, and live best, for what we love.” (London 240)
It is in this quote that the essence of the argument lies: heteropatriarchal normativity can be uses as a means to an end for love. Man is different from woman, but he is not more and she is not less: they are just better at occupying different roles. To use the words of James Brown: “This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl”.
In conclusion, assigning a heteropatriarchal value system to The Star Rover can be thus disproven by taking in account Campbell’s Hero with the Thousand Faces framework, which states that this woman of significant value is ‘the other portion of the hero, because each is both’ (293). While heteropatriarchal values portray women as ‘weak, caring and naive, The Star Rover features cunning, loyal and brave women. However, the status of the female increases throughout the book, culminating in the chapter before the ending which lauds Woman as being a part of the One together with Man throughout history. Standing does this by stating:
“Always has woman crouched close to earth like a partridge hen mothering her young; always has my wantonness of roving led me out on the shining ways; and always have my star-paths returned me to her, the figure everlasting, the woman, the one woman, for whose arms I had such need that clasped in them I have forgotten the stars.” (London 251)
Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”. Ed. 3, Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2008, Canada.
London, Jack. “The Star Rover”. Introduction by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Modern Library, 2003, United States of America.
Wurth, Kiene Brillenburg & Rigney, Ann. “The Life of Texts: an Introduction to Literary Studies”. Amsterdam University Press, 2019, Amsterdam.