Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks is set in a dystopian world eerily similar to our own. The novel centers on four women in the state of Oregon and their relationships to politics, motherhood, and each other. In the beginning, this America looks and sounds like our own. However, as the story unfolds we learn of the Personhood Amendment to the constitution, which gives embryos the same rights as full-fledged human beings. This amendment has effectively outlawed abortion and in vitro fertilization (as the embryos cannot consent). A "Pink Wall" has been implemented at the Canadian border, making it impossible for Americans to get a legal abortion in Canada as they would be sent back and arrested for attempted murder. We experience this new reality through the lives of The Biographer, The Wife, The Daughter, and The Mender.
In Red Clocks, the characters are defined by an archetype. Zumas puts each woman into a box with the intention of them breaking it. One woman is without a title, and that is Eivør Minervudottir. Womanhood, and more specifically, motherhood, is a large theme throughout the novel. The inside flap asks: What is a woman for? But this book explores more than that. It’s not just asking what roles women fulfill, but how they subvert the roles society believes they should be in. Women are expected to be wives, mothers, lovers, nurturing, quiet, subservient, and kind. We expect The Biographer, The Daughter, The Wife, and The Mender to be what Zumas tells us they are, but they are far more than that.
The Biographer’s name is Ro. She is a single high school history teacher who wants to conceive a child. The new Personhood Amendment has made this unreasonably difficult. Insemination is not working, in vitro is illegal, and the “Every Child Needs Two Act” requires her to enter into a relationship if she wants to adopt. Other women question her motives, because unlike other women she needs to explain herself. This is because Ro is not the ideal woman. She is single, in her 40s, and not seeking a partner. Therefore, she must have a reason for wanting a child. Ro herself doesn’t know what this reason is – she questions her very desire: “How much of her longing is cellular instinct, and how much is socially instilled? Whose urges is she listening to?” (332). While those two factors may be working together, the subtext in her story tells me that there is another reason. Ro lost her bother, Archie, to a drug overdose. She is still reeling from this and may be suffering from survivor’s guilt. She saw herself personally responsible for Archie, and his passing left a void. She says, “Things I have failed at:
The Biographer is labeled this for a reason. She is writing a book on Eivor Minervudottir, a 19th century polar explorer. Eivor was an unmarried woman who escaped from her family’s sheep farm to explore the ice. She conducted strenuous research and wrote a paper about her findings. The man she was partnered with at the time took this paper and published it under his name. In this, we see a woman’s agency being taken from her. This is part of the reason she is the only character not labeled. Another reason is Ro’s influence. Biographers have tremendous power in shaping the story. Eivor is not labeled because Ro understands how it feels to be put into a box. I’m sure that she relates to Eivor in some ways, as they are both doing something they see as important and necessary despite the world’s insistence on ignoring them.
The Wife, Susan, is just that. She is a housewife in an extravagant home raising a young boy and girl. She is attractive, organizes events, and cooks dinner every night. At least, I’m sure she did in the beginning. By the time we meet Susan, she is miserable. She feels like her life is no longer hers – it is her husband’s, her children’s, and her friend’s. Societal expectations tell us that this is the goal. Women should seek to serve others, right? Except Susan no longer wants to be constrained by the oppressive force that is her marriage. But she can’t leave. What would society think of her then? She would be blamed for tearing apart a perfect family. Instead she tries to gain control in other ways: she thinks of crashing her car into guardrails, she contemplates cheating with her husband’s coworker, she helps The Mender win her trial. The last one tips her over the edge because it makes her feel good about herself. Susan left law school to build her family, she left that part of her behind. Now, she has used her own knowledge to prove herself. This gives her the confidence to leave her marriage. Susan wants to be a mother, but not a wife. Motherhood is rewarding to her. Marriage is not. Not anymore.
Mattie is The Daughter. More specifically, the adoptive daughter. She is a sixteen-year-old student of Ro’s. She becomes pregnant by accident, and almost immediately thinks of terminating. Mattie sees a future ahead of her, and a child is not in it at the moment. You can’t blame her. Being a teen mother is difficult. She would not only face the pain of childbirth but the stigma from her community. She would rather avoid both. Throughout her story she grapples with getting an abortion or having the baby and putting it up for adoption. Keeping the child is not an option. Mattie doesn’t want to be seen as a murderer, but she also doesn’t want her child questioning their lineage as she often does. Mattie ultimately decides that “she doesn’t want to skip the Math Academy…Or to push it out. She doesn’t want to wonder; and she would. The kid too – Why wasn’t I kept? …She doesn’t want him wondering, or herself wondering” (249). Motherhood is not out of the cards for Mattie, but she deserves the right to decide when to become a mother. She makes the choice to get an abortion and doesn’t regret it.
Lastly, there is The Mender – Gin. She is a recluse living in the forest on the outskirts of town. Ever since the Personhood Amendment was passed, women seek her out to perform abortions. Gin willingly gives them the care they need, as long as they don’t expect much else. Gin prefers the company of animals and nature to humans. This is why when she got pregnant with Mattie, she gave her up for adoption. She reflects on this after seeing Mattie by the library, “terminations were lawful then, but the mender wanted to know how it felt to grow a human, with her own blood and minerals, in her own red clock. Grow but not keep” (160). Gin does not, and never wants to become, a mother. She prefers her simple life of herbs and cats. This paints her as dangerous to society not only because she is defying expectations, but because she is giving other women the ability to live their lives on their terms.
Her life is disrupted when she is falsely accused of giving an abortion to a woman named Lola. This is the trial that weaves all of the stories together, as the other women see the government try and paint Gin as a murderous witch. Lola, who used to be Gin’s lover, was never pregnant. She lied to protect herself from her abusive husband. However, with the help of an attorney and Susan, the truth comes out. Gin is set free, and this is seen not only as a win for her – but a win for women.
Red Clocks tells us not what a woman is for, but what a woman wants. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf (pictured above) told us what the novel was about all along. There’s not a singular lighthouse. The other lighthouses, the other women and their choices, are just as valid as the rest.
Zumas, Leni. Red Clocks. Little, Brown and Company, 2018.