Gender Roles in Native American Society: A Comparative Paper between Tracks by Louise Erdrich and Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.
— Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller, American journalist, critic and women’s rights advocate during the American transcendentalism movement, believes that men and women are not wholly what the society characterizes them as but two separate types of beings that in fact bear more similarities than differences. Similarly, the novels– Tracks by Louise Erdrich and Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison– demonstrate the idea of male and female qualities portrayed in the opposite gender through the actions of the main characters Tristan and Fleur. While both characters bear similarities in their characteristics, their actions and effect on others ultimately make them come off as characters with opposite gender traits. Fleur is portrayed as a masculine character, displaying traits such as courage, independence and assertiveness. Tristan is portrayed as a feminine character displaying traits like gentleness, empathy and sensitivity. The integral role of both the characters to their respective storylines makes for an interesting comparison between the two novels.
The characters of Fleur and Tristan greatly differ from each other despite the similar circumstances they experience in life. Both characters lose some sort of parental figure in his/her life. The absence of a male figure in Fleur’s life causes her to be more masculine in her personality and character traits. Fleur’s courage and independence arise from the lack of guidance in her life after the death of her parents. When Sophie is suffering in the cold outside, Erdrich says, “ ‘Heartless!’ cried Margaret angrily, coming in the door. I looked away but Fleur said to her, ‘I have my reasons, as you’ll see’ “ (Erdrich 90). Erdrich develops Fleur’s masculine characteristics through her freedom to work, ability to lead, fearlessness and strong decision-making skills that ultimately make her unquestionable. Similarly, the femininity of Tristan’s character is a byproduct of the absence of a female figure in her life from a very young age. Harrison portrays Tristan’s sensitivity when Isabel leaves for the winter and doesn’t return by saying, “…a closeness that was fatally rended in the fall…when she opted to return to Boston for the winter. And how the passionate boy had tortured her for her decision, writing in the winter that he had prayed daily for her return by Christmas and when she hadn’t returned by Christmas he had cursed God and had become a stead-fast nonbeliever. In the spring when she returned he was cool and so distant that she complained…” (Harrison 213–214). Tristan also displays these qualities when he shelters the crying puppy or when he attempts to ease Susannah by lying to her. Defining femininity, Tristan is easily hurt by these smaller issues that occur, displaying a lesser sense of courage and bravery and a greater sense of gentleness, empathy and sensitivity. In this way, both Fleur and Tristan, although faced life through similar viewpoints, their experiences and personality development was completely different.
Fleur’s is reflected through the term Supernatural, while Tristan is reflected through the term Sporadic; assisting in their account for opposite gender traits. Magic plays an important role in the book, Tracks. The Anishanabe people believe in the existence of supernatural beings as well as other powers that can essentially do anything including communication with the dead, surpass death, or even awaken natural forces such as the water. Fleur is one such supernatural being. While Fleur verbally handles certain situations such as the case with Sophie or the conflict between the people and the government regarding the land, her supernatural powers handle many others for her. The Matchimanito (lake monster) is afraid of her and therefore doesn’t kill her in the many times she has almost drowned but the ones who try to save her have often killed Characters like the men at the butcher house take Fleur to be a helpless female figure of the novel and rape her without realizing that she embodies male personality traits. Having said that, the wind assists her in taking revenge against her rapists by not only destroying the place where it occurred but the men themselves who had raped her. She has distilled a certain amount of fear within people who don’t question her and rather trust her instincts for she is both intelligent and powerful. Some of the few times we are actually able to see Fleur as a female character is either through the eyes of Eli or her relationship with Lulu. On the other hand, the novella Legends of the Fall defines Tristan as sporadic for his irregularity in his behaviour and display of emotions. Harrison says, “The young second cousin, Susannah, she had brought from the East in hopes that Alfred would make a good marriage, had instead become engaged to Tristan. This amused Ludlow who secretly favoured Tristan’s misbehaviour even though after the engagement dinner Tristan inexcusably disappeared with One Stab for a week on a track of a grizzly that had taken two cattle” (Harrison 200). Throughout the novella, one might get the perception that Tristan is a spontaneous and brave man through his sudden acts of disappearing and appearing and his instinctive decision making but in reality, Tristan is a naive child at heart. His reasons for displaying the sudden bouts of highs and lows are simply because of his feminine qualities of empathy and love. After the death of his brother Samuel, Tristan loses his temper as Harrison describes, “Then Tristan went mad and there are still a very few old veterans up in Canada that remember his vengeance because he was captured and restrained before it reached full flower” (Harrison 217). Tristan’s rebellious behaviour is just his way of dealing with situations as he is not headstrong like Fleur. In this way, Fleur’s magical powers characterize her as more masculine and Tristan’s sporadic behaviour characterizes him as more feminine.
Fleur and Tristan’s actions, as well as personality traits, greatly affect the other characters of the novels through attraction, love, jealousy and revenge. Fleur is an animal that cannot be tamed by any man. She does not need their existence for her survival which is why she is not afraid of any sort of confrontation with them. In fact, her luck and charisma effortlessly brought men closer to her, causing a great amount of jealousy and hate in Pauline’s mind for her. Pauline says, “ I was fifteen, alone, and so poor-looking. I was invisible to most customers and to the men in the shop…I blended into the stained brown walls, a skinny big-nosed girl with staring eyes…She [Fleur] knew the effect she had on men, even the very youngest of them. She swayed them, sotted them, made them curious about her habits, drew them close with careless ease and cast them off with the same indifference” (Erdrich 15–16). Pauline was jealous of the successfulness of all of Fleur’s tasks, including the effortless persuasion of men. Fleur, on the other hand, never longs for relationships for her survival. She relentlessly survives her family’s death, not initially caring to develop a bonding relationship with Nanapush, never bothered worrying about the absence of a male figure after the birth of her baby, didn’t require Eli in her life but Eli had fallen in love with her and she didn’t seem to mind it either. The only thing Fleur is determined about is her survival and their land. Depicting Fleur in a deer-like manner was contradicting as Eli perhaps must have believed that he would essentially be able to tame her. This depiction also exists to show that there is a calmer side to Fleur that the readers view through Eli’s eyes as Fleur does not attempt at impressing him with her natural charisma and it is pure fate and attraction that draws him to her. The relationship between Fleur and Eli creates another bud of jealousy within Pauline. Her lack of emotional connection with others allows us to characterize her as a character with masculine traits. Tristan, on the other hand, is awfully affected by the absence of family in his life. It begins with the absence of his mother, followed by his brother Samuel, his wife Two, Susannah, and one by one the rest of the characters surrounding him. Tristan finds love easily, first through Susannah and then Two. His charisma and carelessness make the other characters appreciate him more, as he does not follow the rules and is not afraid of death. Jealousy stirs among Alfred’s character when he loses his beloved Susannah to Tristan. Alfred says, “In the spring Alfred came east for Arthur’s counsel in mapping out his future, to see his mother and not incidentally Susannah whom he loved in secret. Alfred was a bit cloddish compared to Tristan and Samuel but he was steadfast in his admiration of his brothers, and of a loving and faithful nature. he wept one evening at bedtime when he found himself wishing that Tristan wouldn’t return and Susannah would somehow fall in love with him…It hurt him deeply in Boston when Susannah seemed almost not to notice him across the dinner table” (Harrison 241–242). Although of a masculine character, Tristan portrays femininity and gentleness when he comforts Susannah by lying and claiming that “she mustn’t take her life because life was so awkward and complex that one day they might be together again. He would at least return in a year…and they could talk calmly. So he left, and she had hope again and held his lie that saved her life close” (Harrison 265). The personalities of both Fleur and Tristan play an integral part in affecting the other characters of their respective storylines in aspects such as love, hate, and jealousy.
Besides other totems taken from the story, both Fleur and Tristan embody a similar totem that exemplifies who they are. A totem is a symbol that serves as an emblem for someone or something. Both Fleur’s and Tristan’s nature displays the madness of the bear. It’s the bear’s characteristics that define their actions, behaviour and attract others towards them. Like the bear, Fleur is strong and courageous and a “conductor between worlds”. Nanapush talks about the bear during the birth of Lulu, where he claims that when Fleur attempted to call on the animals during labour, it is the bear who responded. Although the novel quite frequently describes Fleur as a feline wolf-like kind of being; she is seen most connected with the bear as also the symbol of the Ojibwe clan is represented by bears. Besides the bear, another totem that defines the character of Fleur is the Misshepshu lake monster. Mohsen Hanif and Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor’s at the Kharazmi University and University of Tehran respectively state in their article,’ The Significance of the Lake Monster in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks’, that “Misshepeshu, the mythical Lake Monster in Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks, is usually associated with Fleur, on the grounds that both of them represent the Native Americans’ resistance to the dominant colonial power” (249). Agreeing with the claim, I believe that Misshepshu defines Fleur because of the magical powers that both embody. The pillagers believe that Fleur is married to the lake monster and Eli claims that Fleur sometimes takes a bath in the lake in the middle of the night. Legends of the Fall character, Tristan, also shares the totem of the bear. Like the bear, he is confident and full of rage in his approach. He is calm and subtle when wounded and mad when angry. In the 1995 film adaption of the novella, One Stab claims that Tristan was like the bear whose power grew with anger. Besides the bear, another totem that defines Tristan is the crying puppy. The rage within Tristan is what the reader and the other characters see from the outside. From the inside, Tristan is like the puppy, desperate for help. Harrison symbolizes this when Tristan provides shelter to the puppy to ease his sorrow followed by Two rescuing Tristan and calming his sorrows by ultimately marrying her. The totem plays an integral part in the native American culture as both Fleur and Tristan are characterized as bears but display very different behavioural qualities.
Tracks by Louise Erdrich is a powerful book that conveys struggles and conflicts regarding the land as well as internal matters among the Ojibwe people. Erdrich presents the book through two unreliable sources–Nanapush and Pauline–who both discuss the life of Fleur from their respective perspectives. Fleur is essential to the development of the novel. She is a strong character who demonstrates courage in the toughest of times. She survives her death many times; she opposes to cultural norms and displays feminist (masculine) outlook in her actions. She is represented by the totem of the bear that gives her the strength and power to survive. She embodies mystical powers that she uses against the bad to seek revenge. The powers also instil a sense of fear amongst the people. Fleur has an individualistic personality that is appreciated in her relationship with Eli. Fleur is ultimately characterized as a female character with male character traits. The other novella, Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison conveys similar ideas of a struggle between relationships and anger and frustration among the characters. The story doesn’t have a direct narrator, eliminating a sense of who what is exactly going on in the minds of the characters. Tristan, the main character is also essential for the development of the novel as all the conflicts are revolved around him. He is defined as sporadic due to his constantly changing behaviour. He is spontaneous, courageous and free-minded. He doesn’t follow the rules and isn’t afraid of death although ironically isn’t able to come across it till the very end. His strong personality traits are a product of his weaker side. He embodies female characteristics of gentleness, empathy and sensitivity through his actions which are an offset from the loss of his loved ones. He is represented by the totem of the bear as well. Both authors–Harrison and Erdrich–attempt to inform the reader that appearances can be deceptive as their lead characters although may be male and female by embodying the traits of the opposite gender. All in all, Tracks and Legends of the Fall are both true masterpieces in which character, narration and circumstances all reveal the importance of Fleur and Tristan in the success of the novels.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1988. Print.
Harrison, Jim. Legends Of The Fall. 1st ed. New York: Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, 1979. Print.
Smith, Patrick A. “Mythmaking And The Consequence Of “Soul History” In Jim Harrison’s Legends Of The Fall”. Questia.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
“The Bear And The Owl: Finding Imagery In Louise Erdrich’s Novel TRACKS”. Wdog.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
Hanif, Mohsen, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi. “The Significance Of The Lake Monster In Louise Erdrich’s TRACKS.” Explicator 72.3 (2014): 249. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 17 Nov 2016.
Legends Of The Fall. Hollywood: Edward Zwick, Susan Shilliday, William D. Wittliff, 1995. film.