Hillary Jordan’s “When She Woke”: A Discussion

Discussion by Molly Templeton and Tobias Carroll

We like to talk about books. And sometimes, the best analysis of a book can come through a detailed discussion of it. This was the case with Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, which follows a young woman named Hannah Payne living in a near-future United States in which a totalitarian religious state has been established. Hannah has recently become “Chromed” — her skin synthetically dyed, in this case red — after having had an abortion. And if you’re thinking that some of this — Hannah’s initials, the color red, the religious state — sounds a bit familiar, you’re not wrong: Jordan’s novel consciously takes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as its inspiration.

Tobias Carroll: On its most basic one, When She Woke is about its protagonist being forced to cast off the belief system in which she was raised and needing to find an alternative. It’s also a work of science fiction, and an update of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. And to a large extent, I think it worked on all three levels, some more than others.

To begin, I was curious to know what you thought about the novel as a whole. And I wanted to address the more science-fictional elements of the novel, both technologically and socially — do you think the future history that Jordan has imagined is a plausible one? And: though it’s a presence in the novel from the beginning, and though the particulars of the treatment that keeps Hannah and her friend Kayla permanently marked with crimson skin does figure prominently into the novel’s second half, did you think the Chroming process, and the other science fiction elements of When She Woke, worked?

Molly Templeton: I cheated and described the book to a friend as The Scarlet Letter crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale, which isn’t exactly accurate but gives some notion of what Hannah is up against: an extreme version of a society (sub-society, really, since the whole world isn’t like Hannah’s family) that believes women should make babies and dinner, and they’d better do those things within a carefully structured set of rules that allow for no freedom and as little thought as possible.

The structure of Hannah’s limited world was both deeply believable and a little obvious, and maybe those things skip down the street hand in hand. Would it be as believable were it less obvious? (Am I thinking about this kind of balance constantly in terms of how it relates to too much traditional fantasy, where dragons are real but women’s status is the same old faux-medieval bullshit? Yes.) I don’t think there’s much sci-fi in the social structure; don’t you think these families, these preacher types and corrective houses, already exist? You can’t stalk all the criminals you like or turn them bright colors, but everything else in the book hews pretty closely to the familiar and existent, which shores up the effectiveness of the story.

The Chroming is fascinating and occasionally confusing, and sometimes I couldn’t track which colors were more hated and feared, and which were allowed where and for what reason. But it’s a stunning, horrible idea that works dramatically … well, I don’t want to say it “works” so much as I want to say that it’s nastily effective.

TC: I agree with you on the Chroming and its effectiveness. It’s also useful for ratcheting up the tension of the novel: the fact that Chroming isn’t just a way for the government to easily demarcate nearly everyone who’s committed a crime, but also something that can cause someone who’s gone through the process to lose their mind if the process isn’t renewed regularly. And after reading something like this, it seems…not implausible.

I absolutely think the sort of corrective houses Hannah encounters exist — and I think it’s significant that the most dangerous parts of the novel don’t come from the rampaging vigilante gangs, but rather…a middle-aged woman who invites you into a room for a nice cup of tea. (All of which seems in keeping with the fact that this is ultimately less a novel about Hannah defying the society around her and more a case of her shaping her own identity as ideologies clash around her.) It’s definitely significant that the two creepiest sequences in this book for me could just as easily have come from a novel set in the present day.

What did you make of the scenes in which Jordan outlined how the country had reached this point? There was definitely a sense of a United States that turned to a third party (I’m tempted to borrow Andrew Sullivan’s “Christianist” description here) after a number of tragedies left it reeling. And while this worked for me, I definitely felt the impact of the epidemic Jordan refers to far more than the bombing which left Los Angeles devastated.

MT: I nearly forgot about the various tragedies; Hannah’s world is so particular and specific that even when she mentions such things (excepting the bombing that nearly killed her father), it feels a little authorial, a reminder that more things have changed than are necessarily apparent on the surface, even when that surface is red. But Jordan left things just vague enough, I think, that the epidemic, the tragedies, stood as markers but not distractions. Hannah’s world still seems small until she meets the vigilantes – despite her own broadened self-education through the library.

One thing I thought about a lot when I finished the book was Jordan’s language. I never want to call it simple, or straightforward, or plain – though that might be the closest word, it still sounds dismissive. But there is a clarity to the way she describes Hannah’s experience, a spareness that isn’t spareness. I can’t quite pin it down. It’s like anything that might have been too distracting has been brushed away – after Hannah’s time in the prison, just the world seems impossibly complicated. She passes from prison to the halfway house to the vigilantes without too much emphasis on any of them; like you said, it’s not about defying society so much as it is about building your own self when you’ve always been given too few building blocks.

Do you think it’s a little pat that everyone else, every other group, is willing to make terrible decisions and cruel sacrifices, but Hannah is too noble for such things? There were points in the book where I loved Hannah’s certainty, her realistic growing appreciation of love and connection, and times where I felt like she was almost too idealistic a heroine, and that aspect was nagging at my immersion in the story.

TC: I do; maybe it’s because I’ve read a fair amount of science fiction lately in which both sides were seen as morally flawed, but — yes, Hannah’s clarity relative to that of nearly everyone around her seemed less organic to the story and more like a trope of the genre. (Though in most novels that present a totalitarian society, there’s at least the moment where someone tries to tempt the main character with a “no, this way of life is better” speech. For obvious reasons, we don’t get that here — but because the society is so far gone here, I’d have been fine with the revolutionaries being a little less morally ambiguous.) No one seems particularly happy in this world — the fundamentalist religion adopted by the state seems less like a way to bolster the country and more of an insufficient bandage on a critical wound.

(There is, perhaps, another novel within this one in which the direction the country is going in is a sort of precursor to an ultimate collapse — that given the terrorist bombings, the inherent tensions of its fundamentalism, and the ever-present vigilante gangs, things are due for an implosion, and getting to Canada is the only smart thing to do….)

What did you think of Hannah’s self-education, incidentally? Jordan, I think, pulled off making the trick of making it convincing (and establishing her curiosity and nascent nonconformity) without making her….too much of a rebel from an early age. (Though I did find myself wondering just what she’d made of His Dark Materials…)

I’m also curious about your thoughts about the novel’s allusions to The Scarlet Letter. I don’t think it’s fair to call When She Woke a direct updating of Hawthorne’s novel, but given the somewhat overt references, it’s more than just an homage. And I’m not sure that every bit worked — for every moment like the reference to Pearl, there were others that didn’t click quite as much. I’m thinking specifically of Aidan’s final scene — given the fate of his counterpart in Hawthorne’s novel, I was expecting something bigger, crazier, more Gothic.

MT: I really liked that Hannah’s self-education wasn’t just about books. As much as I love books about books, books about readers, stories about stories, it would’ve been too easy, too sweet, for Hannah to only have books as her outlet. Her sewing is an education, too – a lesson in texture and feeling and sensual pleasures. The way that she disobeyed and took her own path with the sewing led directly to her taking her own road through the library, and made it all part of here character, not just a reader/writer’s idealistic love of the idea that books can save you and make you your own (even if that’s true).

I haven’t read The Scarlet Letter in so long that my grasp on the connection only goes as far as the obvious stuff, like Pearl, which I felt was too heavy-handed. I think Jordan shifted her bigger, crazier moments to earlier in the story – the would-be kidnapper with the great home decor; the constant threat to her friend. Aidan departs her story in quiet and then in a dramatic frenzy of his own making, which I like for the way it references how people act as if Hannah’s situation was all of her making.

While we’re nearing the end, I have to ask: What did you make of the scene with the preternaturally loving and serene reverend? I loved her even as I felt like the oasis’s dreamy, perfect quality was very nearly almost too much – except that I soaked in that moment of peace, the calm before and after the storm, just as Hannah did. It’s too much and it feels right at the same time.

TC: The setting of that scene also impressed me: the evocation of the storm and, later, the sense of shelter that Hannah finds, albeit briefly. And I think it was dramatically necessary as well: the placement of a middle ground between the fundamentalist faith in which she was raised and the entirely non-religious opposition to it. I liked the fact that Jordan didn’t opt for a cut-and-dried take on things: that, having seen the worst aspects of the culture that led to her being imprisoned, Hannah would reject it every aspect of it entirely. It’s in keeping with the sense of self-discovery that runs throughout the novel — having some sort of faith is still a part of her, even if it isn’t the one she originally knew.

That said…as someone who grew up Episcopalian but no longer identifies as such, my reaction to this scene was a little more mixed. More skeptical, even — I think I found myself thinking something along the lines of, “So, the answer to everything is Episcopalianism?” when I first encountered that scene. Which probably speaks to my own issues more than anything…

As we wind this discussion down, do you have any final thoughts on the novel? I’m worried that some of my critiques might give the impression that I didn’t enjoy When She Woke, which isn’t at all the case — I found that overall, Jordan took on a series of imposing, disparate tasks and made them click. For the most part.

MT: I worry about that a little, too – the accidental criticism of exclusion, by which I wind up talking more about things that snagged me than things that I appreciated. But we’ve been talking, slowly, about this book for some time now (too long, really!) and I still can see its world behind my eyes, the shape of it, the colors, the coolness with which Jordan writes about the most fraught things, but without stripping them of their emotional weight. So much of what she’s done with this just-a-few-skips-ahead world feels effectively logical, chillingly so; it makes so much sense how we get from here to there that she doesn’t have to fill in the blanks. I don’t love Hannah, but she’s the right narrator for the crisis Jordan finds and develops, the struggle of internalized beliefs against the things you learn – some lessons you look for, and some you have no choice about. It strikes me as a coming-of-delayed-age story, difficult, effective, and genre-crossing in all the right ways.

Illustration by Margarita Korol

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