The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a daring, poetic young adult science fiction novel. It was a critical success when it came out in 2008, as were its sequels, The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.
The novel is based on a fascinating idea: on a human colony on a distant planet, a germ has wiped out all the women and half the men, leaving the men with the ability—and curse—of being able to hear each other’s thoughts in “a never-ending stream of Noise.” The novel is stylistically innovative, told from the first-person perspective of a boy who “never ended up reading too good” because of the totalitarian rule of his town that outlaws book learning and routinely uses misspellings like “thru” and “tho.” It also uses a stunning visual design element to convey “Noise,” the thoughts of the men and creatures around him:
When I first read the book about four years ago, I was absolutely enchanted by its originality and style. It’s so different from anything else I’ve ever read, rooted deeply in the voice of its main character, Todd. The novel has depth and heart, two qualities that aren’t as common in any genre as I would like them to be. (Though according to The Literary Review, the novel is apparently “unsentimental.” Were we reading different books?)
But at the same time, something about the novel made me uncomfortable, and it’s taken me a while to sort out what it was that made the book feel so problematic.
Warning: spoilers abound for the first book in the series.
The beginning of The Knife of Never Letting Go is set in a rigidly patriarchal society seemingly modeled after the Puritan communities of the colonial United States. Todd learns that:
Girls are small and polite and smiley. They wear dresses and their hair is long and it’s pulled into shapes behind their heads or on either side. They do all the inside-the-house chores, while boys do all the outside. They reach womanhood when they turn thirteen, just like boys reach manhood, and then they’re women and they become wives.
Todd meets a girl, Viola, the first female human he has ever laid eyes on, and discovers that she’s not like he was taught girls were supposed to be. Viola defies gender norms by dressing in pants, taking action (she’s the one who wields the titular knife at the end of the novel when Todd is unable to), and talking back. But defying such antiquated stereotypes is hardly revolutionary—it can almost come across as passé at this point.
More importantly, Viola doesn’t have any Noise. Todd can’t hear her thoughts, though she can hear his. At first he thinks she hasn’t contracted the germ yet because she recently crash-landed on their planet, but he comes to realize that women are immune to the germ altogether.
First of all, think about that: a germ that selectively affects one gender. In our world, the number of diseases that affect only people who are assigned male or female gender is miniscule. Forms of cancer such as prostate, uterine, or ovarian cancer can of course only affect people who have those body parts (though there have been cases of cancer of the “female prostate,” and that’s not even factoring in transgender folks).
But even diseases or disorders that disproportionately affect men, such as red-green color blindness, also affects a small percentage of women. Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder, is referred to as “almost exclusively affecting females,” meaning that while it’s rare, it’s not impossible for those designated as male to develop it, too.
You know that saying, “Women are from Venus, men are from Mars”? Biology doesn’t work like that. People of all genders share a common biology that doesn’t fit into the rigid categories imposed on it by our society. Diseases are proof of that.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, though, the germ is 100% gender-selective. All of the men either die of it or end up with their thoughts spewing out of their skulls for all to hear, and all of the women are immune.
The result of this biological essentialism is the justification of gender essentialism. Todd, who is fifteen years old in Earth years, has never met a woman or a girl. His wonder and confusion are more focused on the “hole in the Noise,” A.K.A. the lack of audible thoughts coming from women, than on the women themselves, but since the disease that defines his difference with women is so rigidly gender-specific, his observations about Noise and the disease end up being intrinsically tied up with his understanding about gender.
When Todd and Viola meet Hildy, a grown woman, Todd is reluctant to trust her because he’s used to relying on Noise to ascertain a person’s intentions. Viola encourages him to trust Hildy and Todd wonders if “maybe one Noise-less person can read another.” Again, the observation is couched in terms of the effects of Noise on Todd’s understanding of the world, but since Noise is so incredibly gender-specific, this also becomes his understanding of gender. Women are inscrutable and able to communicate with each other in ways that men can’t possibly understand.
Todd and Viola also meet Hildy’s husband, Tam, who tells them that he has gotten good at making his Noise “flat” and unreadable through years of living with Hildy. “It’s why I can read so good,” Hildy says. “He gets better at hiding, I get better at finding.” In this world, women and men are on unequal ground in terms of how they understand each other, because women can read men’s thoughts but the opposite is not true. While women are inscrutable to men, men are open books to women.
This idea mirrors the assumption many people have in our world about “women’s intuition,” which assigns almost superhuman powers of perception to women. How many times have you heard the sentiment of “a woman always knows” or something similar? This stereotype also works to make women, in turn, seem incomprehensible to men because they operate on a different level and never say exactly what they mean.
There is some research that seems to corroborate that women are, on average (again, this indicates a general trend, not a rigid black-and-white divide like the one in The Knife of Never Letting Go) better at reading facial expressions and picking up on non-verbal cues. Why? According to this article in Psychology Today,
Women, who have been historically lower in social power, spend more time observing and scrutinizing those in power (i.e., men, and powerful women), and become more attuned to their nonverbal cues. It has also been suggested that evolutionary elements have been involved, selecting females who have better ability to decode the needs of children and potential mates.
So the explanation is not merely biological or intrinsic, even if there might be some components of evolutionary adaptation. This article makes sure to point out that sex differences are “group based,” meaning that there are plenty of exceptions.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, there are no exceptions. The result? Gender essentialism.
Of course, the rigid gender divisions in Patrick Ness’s novel don’t correspond to all gender stereotypes, because gender stereotypes are messy and contradictory, and the gender divide in the novel is much cleaner and simpler. In our world, men are stereotyped as—and taught to be—more stoic and unemotional, betraying as little weakness or vulnerability as possible. Men in The Knife of Never Letting Go are unable to hide their thoughts and emotions to the extent that (some) men in our world are able to. At one point, Viola tells Todd,
“Just because my thoughts and feelings don’t spill out into the world in a shout that never stops doesn’t mean that I don’t have them.”
The stereotype of men in our world isn’t that they “spill out” all their thoughts and feelings—quite the contrary. But isn’t that the fear inherent in the stereotypical man’s desire to keep himself hidden? Don’t we teach boys in our world not to be vulnerable or expressive specifically because we as a society believe it will put them at risk?
Seen from this angle, the gender essentialism in The Knife of Never Letting Go can be viewed as a manifestation of the stereotypical male fear: that women are incomprehensible and that they always know what men are thinking.
I don’t think Patrick Ness is a mysogynist or a bad person. The Knife of Never Letting Go is still a fascinating, beautifully written novel with plenty to offer. But I do think it’s steeped, however unintentionally, in the gender stereotypes that can be so harmful in our world to people of all genders.
Leave a comment!
Have you read The Knife of Never Letting Go and/or its sequels? I never read past the first book, maybe because it made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t express, or maybe just because I’m bad at completing series. If you read it, what did you think? Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation?
What’s your take on the portrayal of essentialist gender stereotypes, especially in fantasy and science fiction? I know fantasy and science fiction can be arenas to examine stereotypes in a pure and uncomplicated form. In my view, these stereotypes weren’t challenged in any meaningful way in The Knife of Never Letting Go, and challenge is necessary if you’re going to examine something. I want to hear your thoughts, though!
Do you have any suggestions or requests for what I should write about next?