Warning: spoilers abound. What follows is more of a rumination on gender that this book has provoked than a review. I also realize how using the term “the patriarchy” just kind of turns people off, it makes me sound like an irrational feminazi who is offended by the slightest of things and spends her days waiting to be angry about something. To which I say: consider the possibility that this just demonstrates what a great job misogynists have done turning the words we have to talk about these things against us.
I’m a fan of Denna. I’ve said in a previous review that I appreciate that Patrick Rothfuss is not one of those guys that think beauty makes life easy for girls. The attraction of men in a patriarchal society is a chaotic power that controls a beautiful woman as much or more than she controls it. So, I’m a fan of Denna and I think Rothfuss himself is a pretty good egg. Patriarchy is like an onion. It has layers. Moving through the patriarchy as a woman, you gain insights into the layers as the years go by. Layer one: thar be some bullshit double standards here. You have sexual desires, but if you’re honest about them, you’re a slut. Hell, you’re a slut even if you hide them, even if you’re asexual. At the same time, men’s sexual desires are not just normal and right and good, they entitle men to those sexual acts– which again, for women, result more often in judgement and social consequences than orgasms, with a side of butt sex and threesome requests (I think it says a lot about the toxic sexual relations of Western society that the two most demanded acts of cishet women are the things least likely to please cishet women, as they lack prostrates and attraction to women).
The entitlement men have over you goes beyond just the man who’s interested in you. A common problem I had in my youth was losing an entire group of friends because they thought I was cruel for not wanting to fuck their friend who really, really wanted to fuck me. Sorry, it wasn’t about fucking, it was about feelings: “He just likes you SO much. Why can’t you give him a chance?” Because if I give him a chance and still don’t want to fuck him, I’m a bitch for not wanting to get into a relationship with him, which I won’t, because I just don’t want to fuck him. But if I want a guy, if I really like him, if I want to fuck him, no one seems to root for me. In fact I am so embarrassed when I have strong feelings for a guy that I almost always hide them until I am absolutely sure he likes me too, and in the right way, not the way that ends in him leaving in the morning and laughing about all the details of sex with his friends the next day (hint hint, I think this is where Denna is).
At one point, Kvothe’s friend Sim calls Denna cruel, and Kvothe agrees. The readership of this series also seems to agree. A lot of people seem to hate Denna for not giving Kvothe what he wants, what he’s entitled to. I remember watching a conference video in which a fan asks Rothfuss what girl did him so wrong that he made a character like Denna and he admitted that, yeah, more or less he’s had a Denna. But. But. After Kvothe loses his virginity to a fairy sex goddess (yup, that happens), he runs through women without consideration as well. At first it’s fine—he beds a serving girl and they both seem to understand this is a one night stand. He has sex with women in a land where sex is as it should be, natural and without a sense of ownership, so it works out pretty well here. Then he returns to the patriarchal university town of Imre, whose university has only a handful of women, and he turns the women in town into notches into his bedposts and becomes one of Those Guys, you know, the ones who have problems with commitment, the distant kind of guy that you convince yourself you can change when you’re in your twenties and haven’t learned better. There is no sense that those women are the protagonists of their own lives, that Kvothe might have hurt them, that they might be Kvothes and Kvothe might be their Denna. A girl hurts a guy for not letting sex get in the way of her genuine love of a guy, because of her fear that he won’t love her once he gets The Sex, a fear that has come true over and over in her life, and she is turned into the avatar of female cruelty. A guy hurts numerous girls by having sex with them and disposing them, and he’s The Man.
Layer two: you’re not like the other girls. I remember when the #metoo thing was happening, Dan Harmon was accused of harassing his writer (I won’t name her because I don’t want that stink to define her career), and he made an a-pod-logy broadcast about the whole thing, and I think it’s about the only honest thing I’ve heard from a man about the toxic sexual relations we have in this society. I can forgive a lot, but I have a reputation for being unforgiving, because I won’t forgive people who are dishonest with themselves and others and who are clearly going to repeat the behavior they are apologizing for. So it was really something to hear real honesty from a guy and it’s also the only time I’ve learned something from a man about how men think about women (most of the time it is painfully obvious). At one point he says “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had any respect for women on a fundamental level. I was thinking about them as different creatures, I was thinking about the ones that I liked as having some special role in my life, and I did it all by not thinking about it.” There’s nothing you can do. You can be the most talented, smart, Not Like Other Girls girl in the room, but the best you’ll ever be is some guy’s Denna. Guys start out as people, and since they’re people they can be the protagonists of their own lives, but women are limited to the role they play in a man’s story. That’s if you even get a name, unlike the girls whose beds Kvothe plows through. And at least then, he sees them, because he certainly doesn’t seem to see any woman who isn’t beautiful. I will say this: I tend to side-eye an author when every single woman in a book is beautiful. The Kingkiller Chronicles is full of compelling, interesting, complicated women. They are all beautiful. That beauty relegates them to character, not protagonist status, but it is also a necessary condition they must meet to count. OK, I admit, Shehyn is an exception.
And yet: Denna to herself is clearly the protagonist of her own life. There is a sense of adventures and knowledge that Kvothe has no access to. Also, she clearly loves Kvothe, but wants at least one guy in the world to love her in a way that doesn’t end when he gets what he wants out of her. It is so clear to me that she won’t give him what he wants precisely because she doesn’t want to lose him. I vibe with her so hard on that level. Of any character, I want to read a book told from her point of view. That is where Kvothe and Rothfuss diverge, where Rothfuss seems to get things that Kvothe doesn’t.
Layer three: this guy says he’s a feminist, or an ally, that he Gets It. Then he turns out not to get it quite so much. At one point Kvothe rescues two girls that have been kidnapped and raped by some bandits and returns them to their town. They are not relieved by the prospect, and he doesn’t understand why. He doesn’t understand that half the crime of rape is that it turns you into Damaged Goods if people know about it. That is why a rape victim’s story is his or her own to tell, why telling people about it if they don’t know is a great betrayal. This is why we say it’s brave when people who have been raped tell their stories.
When the girls tell him this, Kvothe tells them any man who would hold what happened to them against them is a fool and they’re better off without them. I’ve been told this too, at bad junctures of my life, that really it’s a good thing, because you’ll learn who your friends are. But what if you learn you have no friends? What if you’d rather not have known? Maybe you already know that the right circumstance will make anyone betray you, anyone, and you’d rather this knowledge remain abstract. What if these girls need those fools for economic security? When one of the girls tells him she hates men, Kvothe says that is understandable, but that he is also a man. Yep, not all men. The thing is, we also know that. We already know that only a small percentage of men are rapists, and it is a frustrating daily experience for women to be told things we already know as if it’s some great gift of knowledge. When that girl says she hates men, she doesn’t mean all men. She means she hates not just what happened to her, but that it’s not done happening to her. She hates the men that will judge her or at best feel sympathetic to her but still find themselves unable to marry her. She’s saying she hates the patriarchy. Point to Rothfuss: it is an established characteristic of Kvothe that he’s bad at listening. But he also in a moment of anger makes it really explicit to all the townspeople what these girls have been through (four times a night), and yet when he leaves, we’re meant to think that He Told Them What For and it’s all good in the hood because he broke a slut-shamer’s arm, and this is where Kvothe and Rothfuss seem to merge: those girls are not going to be OK, and I don’t think Rothfuss Gets It. I found the idea that those girls would be OK the most ill-thought, unbelievable thing in this book. Their entire lives are going to be complicated by this, by what people think of this, and they really might never find someone to marry and provide them with economic security, no matter what Kvothe told the townspeople. In the book what happens to them transforms into a damsel-in-distress story that bolsters Kvothe’s reputation. He never wonders how it’s going for them. He thinks more about what the stories are doing for his reputation than what those human beings’ lives are like now that he’s not there. Perhaps Rothfuss understands that this is a failing of Kvothe’s, but it’s really not clear.
With respect to all of this, all I can say is: I wonder. I think Patrick Rothfuss is a good egg, a good guy, a guy who means well. I think he understands lots of things about women living in a patriarchy that lots of other guys miss. He’s Not Like the Other Guys. I love the society of Ademre, where sex is viewed as a natural urge to fulfill and with none of the weird toxicity and proprietariness that Western society views sex with. But even those women are beautiful. They are warriors, but their scars are in the right places. What I wonder is: are Kvothe’s attitudes meant to be failings, the way that he clearly is too clever and prideful for his own good? When men are promiscuous in this world, they look down on and dehumanize the women they sleep with without losing their humanity. Denna might be promiscuous, but it is heavily implied that she skips town the moment a man wants sex. She is also cruel for not giving men sex. She is also to be faulted for being afraid of commitment and bed-jumping (but also maybe she’s not in bed at all because she skips town when it comes to that– does Rothfuss want his sex worker cake and to eat the virginity frosting too? Is this Sweet Charity? Does Denna just dance with men and run away when they want to move on to the horizontal tango?) and to be accused of having double standards when she doesn’t want to be another of Kvothe’s nameless line of reputation-building girls. Does Rothfuss think the same way as Kvothe, or does he actually get it, and is Denna the best example of how much he gets?
Layer four: why does she stay? There’s a book called Why Does He Do That? By Lundy Bancroft. I like this book because he understands the practicalities of being in the position of a woman who is subject to the violence of men she is close with. At one point he addresses something that has always seemed perfectly obvious to me: why women are reluctant to call the police on a guy who lives in the same house as them. It’s because he will come back. They can call the police, and they will arrest him, but if someone posts bail, he will return, and he will be much angrier than before. About all of the tools that police give women to protect themselves from intimate violence are ultimately toothless and end up just making men angrier. The deadliest time for a victim of domestic violence is when she chooses to leave. Restraining orders are highly correlated to mortality. Anyways: Denna’s patron beats her, and this worries Kvothe and provokes his sense of white-knight-itude. He thinks he can convince her to leave him. Denna is mysterious, but my suspicion is that this is not abused wife syndrome. I think her patron has information that she wants as much as Kvothe wants information about the Chandrian. Heck, I have a feeling she may be looking for them, too. I also think she might not be able to leave him in a world where someone’s blood allows you to track him, that he can find her anywhere, and that she knows leaving is more likely to kill her than preserve her life. Kvothe has tried to convince her to leave once, and it results in their biggest fight. At one point, she sees the scars left over from whippings that Kvothe has gotten from the university and asks him why he stays. The parallel is obvious. Kvothe can’t think of how to explain why their situations are different. The thing is, they are different: Denna might not actually be able to leave.
One of the interesting things about reading in a patriarchy is that you read so much work by obviously sexist writers and you learn to just sort of ignore it. I have read so many pulpy sci fi stories in which women fetch coffee for space captains. I love Burroughs and Bukowski. Still do. In City by Clifford D. Simak, there are more named characters who are dogs than who are women. I study philosophy and I have read numerous arguments on why women are intellectually inferior to men. It just becomes smoke in the air that you breathe and sediment in the water that you drink. This is not that: I think Rothfuss is perceptive and capable of learning, and he seems like a good person.
I also think when you really get art right, it becomes bigger than you. So I think that either Patrick Rothfuss really does get it, or he’s else written something bigger than any limitations he has about understanding the position of women in the world. I’m disappointed that he would characterize Denna as springing from some mindfuck One that Got Away at a conference, and I’m disappointed that readers take her that way. But the fact that I love and care about her much more than Kvothe, the fact that that is possible, the fact that she is so obviously a full fledged human being whose goals and desires are inconsistent with the protagonist’s, demonstrates the empathetic magic that really good books conjure up.