Dramaturgical Analysis and Gender Roles in “Paladin of Souls”


“Ista was very unsure about her next move, but it seemed the logical progression.  She had a profound mistrust of logic; it was quite as possible to reason one’s way, step by slow step, into a mire of deep sin as it was to fall into it headlong” (236-237).

This afternoon, I finally finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo award winning novel, “Paladin of Souls”.  Although it took me several weeks to read, it actually hooked me more than “The Curse of Chalion.”  Though I adored Cazaril, the protagonist from the previous book, it was a joy to read about Ista, a more complex character with a different kind of tragic past.  She is the character that I referenced in my last post that seems to have been based in part on Juana “La Loca.”  Ista is a refreshing point of view character, especially in the fantasy genre.  She is intelligent, humorous, and wry at times.  However, she also is flawed and vulnerable.  In the beginning of the book she seems to view the world very negatively, or perhaps cynically.  She is well aware that she lives in a patriarchal society with more limited opportunities for women.

In chapter one, Ista is essentially imprisoned by her loved ones due to their perceptions of her lack of sanity and is forced into a feminine role that she doesn’t want.  As an excellent glimpse of Ista’s insights about the world, she thinks, “[s]he knew what she feared—to be locked up in some dark, narrow place by people who loved her.  An enemy might drop his guard, weary of his task, turn his back; love would never falter” (2).  Ista develops a suitable escape plan by playing to the role that others perceived her in.  It would be acceptable for a woman of her station to go on a pilgrimage.  I appreciate the fact that Bujold writes about a forty year old character going on an adventure.  In fact when realizing that she wants to travel, Ista reflects, “Roads were made for young men, not middle-aged women.  The poor orphan boy packed his sack and started off down the road to seek his hearts hope…a thousand tales began that way” (4).  As a reader, I’m thankful for a character that does not fit that mold.

As mentioned above, throughout the journey, Ista determines who she is, moves past mistakes from her younger years, makes friends (and a lover) who appreciate her for who she is, and saves the realm.  She banters with a bawdy god.  She is a sexual being, unlike the presentation of many characters of the same age in other books.  Yet, Bujold doesn’t wave away the limitations of aging.  The travels for Ista are more difficult than for her younger party members, yet she pushes herself.  While she doesn’t  know how to sword fight, she uses her other virtues like her wit instead.  When I think of characters as role models for women (and men), I would put Ista high on the list.

As I’ve discussed several times now, dramaturgical analysis is an idea by Erving Goffman.  We are constantly on a stage, performing for an audience.  This book does an excellent job of looking at how we may play a part and how others may want to force us to continue playing this particular role.  Near the end of the book, many of the characters from the first part of the book are reunited with Ista. They want her to be the lost woman that she was at the beginning. For instance, “[s]he let herself be coaxed back to bed by those who loved her.  Though the Ista they thought they loved, she supposed, was an imaginary one, a woman who only existed in their own minds, part icon, part habit.  The reflection did not depress her unduly, now that she had someone who loved the Ista who was real” (445).  I think it is important to reflect on the roles that we are playing.  Do we want to be playing all of them? Are there some new roles that we want to try?

I could write another blog post just on the supporting characters.  Liss is a strong, young woman who is unexpectedly to many characters, a courier.  Ista selects her to be her lady-in-waiting for her pilgrimage.  Another great role model, Liss is physically adept and a fast learner to her new role.  Cazaril sends two brothers, Foix and Ferda dy Gura, to accompany her.  The brothers have distinct personalities and through them, and an older pair of brothers in the book, Bujold explores different types of masculinity.

Similar to the first book, the world building is exquisite.  Her descriptions are lush but don’t feel overwrought.  The characters are three dimensional and believable, even when they are in unusual situations.  When compared with the earlier book, this book develops the theology more and continues to develop the norms and values of the people in this world.  I highly recommend the book for those who enjoy swashbuckling, strong characters with sardonic wit.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

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