The Serpent by Jane Gaskell
I’ve spent the two days since I finished The Serpent trying to figure out how I can possibly describe this unusual book. The best I can come up with is that it ought to be a book you’re assigned to read in college, but because you’re busy and just not really into it, you squeak by without doing the reading. As years pass, people reference it often enough that when you accidentally stumble across it in a long-forgotten box, you decide to read it, and then you find yourself lying awake at night kicking yourself for not doing the reading when you actually had a platform in which to discuss the nuance of this fascinating and devastating novel.
There are some takeaways I hope you pick up on from this intro:
The Serpent isn’t easy. Sentences can be ponderous and confusing; it’s the sort of novel where I’d find myself reading the words without actually stringing them together into a coherent sentence. When I put my mind to the words, though, they were beautiful and descriptive. Given that The Serpent is told in the form of a girl’s diary, it makes sense that there are going to be some idiosyncrasies in the writing. I grew to love how I could determine the mood of the protagonist based on how her writing flowed.
2. The Serpent isn’t fun. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true, but at the same time I’ll stand by it. I’m glad I read The Serpent. At times it’s hilarious. Other times it’s joyful. The trajectory of the story, however, isn’t fun. Hell, the back copy mentions that Cija, our protagonist, is raped multiple times, and that’s the part of a book that’s supposed to make us want to read it. Just imagine the brutality that we actually witness.
This seems like a great time to say that if you’re sensitive to depictions of violence, rape, coercive/abusive relationships, systemic violence against women/girls, or similar heavy topics, The Serpent might not be a great book for you. The best part about this is that Jane Gaskell covers these topics honestly. None of it is titillating or sexy, and even though I don’t love reading about super real problems like these, there was an authenticity to her writing that made me feel better.
I know that sounds bizarre.
The best comparison I can come up with is finding out that that one guy who acts inappropriately toward you also acts inappropriately toward a friend. It’s not a good thing, but it also makes you feel better because you know for a fact you’re not making shit up, and you suddenly have a sense of solidarity over this horrible thing in your life.
In that way, the brutality of The Serpent almost felt healing. On the other hand, my one dog who we joking refer to as our empath-dog because she knows when you’re upset and will try to make you feel better, well, she was in a constant state of panic while I read The Serpent because apparently my body language or pheromones or some shit was sending out panic-level vibes.
Okay, with two heads-up and a straight up warning out of the way, it’s time to dig in.
Cija (pronounced KEE-YAH) is the daughter of a dictatress. Raised in isolation and taught that she’s a goddess, the beginning of the book is filled with banal teenaged-girl level tension. She wishes she were tan, she hates to do chores, and when she’s bored she sometimes lashes out at her caretakers. She’s a bit bratty, but (in my opinion) likable. This low-stakes life changes quickly when she’s sent on a quest: she must seduce an enemy general and murder him.
Just like that, she’s thrown into a world where women are only valued so far as they are useful to men.
This is central to one of the biggest themes in the book: a woman’s sexuality is both a liability and an asset.
In a land where women have literally no agency—they’re considered property, nothing more—it makes sense that Cija would wield her sexuality like a weapon. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes it works until the man gets frustrated and lashes out. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all, and she finds herself reduced for the unwanted interest of an abusive man. And, well, sometimes the man just isn’t interested, and she has to seek some other position to exert her influence from.
This bigger theme is teased apart into bite-sized pieces that I kept choking on. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching is the quintessential Nice Guy Smahil. He’s a classic abuser: charismatic and seemingly-caring and cruel and selfish. He’s the sort to light a woman’s house on fire just so he can guilt her into caring for him because he helped put it out.
Of all the hard things to read about The Serpent, I think Smahil's wanton realism is the hardest. I’ve known Smahil, and clearly Jane Gaskell has as well. He has the nuance, the personality, and the delicate touches that make him more than archetypal: he could walk out of The Serpent and replace the Smahil in my life, and I’m not sure I’d know the difference.
I urge both men and those women amongst us lucky enough to have lived without a Smahil in their lives to recognize him as a reality, because he is. I fear it's too easy to chalk him up to a trumped-up villain, a gross over-exaggeration, and dismiss him out of hand. Dear cod I wish that were true, but it’s not. Smahil is real and, worse than that, he’s actually pretty common.
Contrasting this intimate look at violence against women is a broad-spectrum overview of the world’s violence against women. Women are property. Women are constantly in danger of sexualized violence from passing armies, cruel leaders, tyrannical politicians. Women die and are killed and Cija can’t let it get to her—lest she lose herself to rage and despair—but at the same time she can’t look away.
It might be tempting to think that women spared from the direct perpetration of violence don’t suffer from it, but that’s not true. I remember the first time I learned about ‘bride kidnapping’—the hideously established tradition of kidnapping a woman or, most-often, a girl, and forcing her into ‘marriage.’ I was 9 when I first learned of this custom. I also learned that girls as young as 11 might be kidnapped, and that even if the girl escapes, sometimes her family will force her to go back to her kidnapper.
I remember lying in bed, being a normal nine-year-old. I was slightly afraid of the dark, of the closet, of the weird shadows coming in through my bedroom window. And then I remember thinking about how if I had been born elsewhere, my current fear would have been vague and ridiculous: I’d have had good reason to lie awake at night staring in horror at the window.
Simply understanding that my gender could be so maligned, so inconsequential, so powerless … the fact that I didn’t experience this hateful derision firsthand didn’t make me feel safe. It made me feel like my relative power and autonomy was tenuous, an accident, and that at any time men could start coming through American girls’ windows, forcing them into a life of rape and degradation.
I almost didn’t realize how much my childhood understanding of how much the world hates women affected me until I watched Cija—16 years old and perceptive as fuck—internalize the same sort of messages. For her there’s no vague feeling of defeat and powerlessness. For her there’s rage and sorrow paired with a powerful resolve to never feel less-than.
Which segues into a complaint I’ve often read about The Serpent: that it’s anti-women. I can kind of see why people take this stance: women are constantly tearing each other down and there are multiple scenes were women fight over the same shitty guy.
At the same time, though, I don’t view this as anti-women—I view this as realistic. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Gate of Ivory’s loving depiction of sisterhood, but The Serpent is too steeped in realism to offer up such an idea and have it read as true. In a world where women have no power, there are two options for them to raise their value in the eyes of men:
Knock each other down
Admittedly the former would have the biggest payoff, but it’s also much harder and requires everyone to work together and trust each other.
If Cija fell viciously and unrepentantly into the foray of tearing other women down, then I’d chalk The Serpent up as anti-women, but she doesn’t. She does hate a few women along the way, but it’s never to gain the favor of a man. As a girl raised in a country that is ruled by women, too, Cija has a certain amount of outside perspective that these women raised in a society that actively oppresses women lack. I almost got the feeling that Cija is so reviled by most girls/women because she—unlike them—doesn’t believe that she’s inferior.
Even with all of this realism, The Serpent would have left a bad taste in my mouth had all of Cija’s relationship with women been awful. Thankfully, they aren’t. She respects, and is seemingly respected by, the general’s mistress. She is mothered by a kindly villager, and reciprocates that kindness. She takes a young slave under her wing, and regularly remarks about her with genuine fondness.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, considering The Serpent was published in 1966, she also befriends a trans woman. Lel is misgendered and berated by her brother and her village for any signs of traditional femininity. Cija has no such qualms, and their friendship is a safe place for Lel to live authentically.
This is kind of a trend of Cija’s: she befriends those of the least stature. Not from any sort of savior complex or egotism—it feels like she can’t deal with the political and societal posturing of the middle and upper classes and is most comfortable surrounded by those with a similarly pragmatic outlook on life.
This, paired with the fact that she takes her fall from grace with surprising aplomb, makes this goddess-princess surprisingly sympathetic and relatable. If she has to plow fields to survive—well, there are others who have it worse.
This book is real, y’all, and sugarcoating this fact would be lame. But, as real as it is, it’s also delightful at unexpected intervals. Her time in the tower was comedic gold. The tone and the writing was so fresh and clean and unexpected I’d have never, ever, ever guessed it were written in the 1960s, and even when Cija’s world gets bleak, little moments shined in such a way that I’d have to take a moment for the beauty of them.
Honestly, if I had read this review, I’d have never picked up The Serpent. There’s no way to make The Serpent not sound like too much. And yet I’m extremely glad I did read it—much like T he Seven Citadels series, it’s the sort of novel you find yourself chewing on long after you finish it. And then, again, you find yourself wishing you could have discussed The Serpent with your English Lit class.
Warning: Apparently The Serpent was split into two books at some point, with the first book still being called The Serpent and the second book being called The Dragon. The full-length Serpent is something like 460 pages long, so keep an eye out when shopping, lest you reach the end of the book without having reached the end of the story.
Cover art: Unknown :(