Ethics, the Feminine and the Thriller part II

On Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears

It’s impossible for a novelist to deal with ethics through stereotypical characters. The role of the stereotype dictates their behaviour. Consider the stereotypes men have created for women : the holy triumvirate of whore, virgin angel and madonna mother, along with the ball-busting shrew, the ambitious women who threatens male power and control. None of these characters can confront ethical problems in fiction because their role assigns them either ethical or unethical behaviour.

Male characters can be judged by readers according to how they treat whores, angels, madonnas or shrews, but there’s a limited range of responses, often socially, rather than ethically driven. It’s okay to harm a whore or a shrew according to social mores of even recent times, but ethical standards are of a different order than this context-sensitive social morality. It’s stereotypical masculine behaviour, too, to banish the whore, destroy the shrew, adore the virgin and make way for the Madonna. For a novel to be truly concerned with ethics, the characters have to be nuanced and rounded.

I think feminist and other broader ethical concerns have much to do with spirituality, for lack of a better word. Well, maybe “psychological health” would suffice, psyche and spirit being either identical twins or close cousins, depending on your point of view. Encounters we have with other people, like encounters we have with anything, impact our spirit or our psyche. We either mature through the encounter, growing in wisdom and compassion, or we harden into crippled versions of humanity. Men who see women only as stereotypes, or functions, deny themselves the value of the encounter. Even men who choose not to deal at all with the 52 percent of the population that is female, deny themselves the growth and maturity that could follow if they would only throw down their patriarchal glasses to try to see the women around them without preconceptions, and without diminishing them to the status of functionary.

Where ethics really come into play is in how we respond to our emotions. Anger, envy, jealousy and fear are the emotions that lead us to harm others, if we simply act from those emotions. An ethics that doesn’t deal with emotion may be prescriptive, but it fails to analyze the problem, and thus can’t provide solutions. “Just say ‘no’” doesn’t cut it. That’s one problem with religion-sourced ethics. It calls on us simply to obey, without helping to understand why we might harm others. Controlling our emotions has never been a viable solution, as it leads only to repression, which all too often leads to explosive release. The ethical route is to feel emotions without acting on them. That’s the route to spiritual and psychological growth.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I consider The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller about how the world might destroy itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin War with its accompanying thaw in US – Soviet relations. He envisions a crisis, in which the world is destroyed by fear, by bogeymen, by stereotypical responses to cultural stereotypes. The ethical person will be the one who can throw aside the stereotypical view and use reason to sidestep a stereotypical response and has the strength of character to refuse to be motivated by fear.

Jack Ryan is the hero of the novel. We are informed almost from the start, and throughout that he is a Catholic and that it matters. We find out again and again that Jack is an ethical person, a man who learns by his mistakes, a man who uses reason to overcome problems, a man who hates corruption in politics, a man who speaks his mind and follows the rules. He is saved from being a caricature by his tendency to lose his temper, which makes him enemies and diminishes his effectiveness at his job.

There are two female characters of note in the novel and a third who figures more in the plot than her brief appearances would suggest. One, Ryan’s wife, comes very close to being the “angel in the house”. She’s pretty much a perfect wife and mother, as well as being an eye surgeon. We know she’s not greedy, as she’s not concerned about money. We know she suffers only minimally from vanity. Her hair is rarely groomed, she doesn’t wear heels and acknowledges her flat-chestedness with only a little sadness, not enough to invest in silicone. She is close to the stereotype of the woman who “leans in”, drawn long before the term was created — the woman who takes on wife and motherhood while also working hard at a career, without letting anyone suffer.

When she believes Jack is cheating on her, we see her weakness, which seems at first to be her failure to believe in Jack, but evolves into a failure to confront him to find out the truth. We see her at her worst when Jack’s driver and bodyguard comes to see her and she says: “’Sure, why not? It’s over, the only reason I haven’t walked out is the kids. So go ahead, make your pitch. Tell me that he still loves me and all that. He doesn’t have the guts to talk about it to me himself, but I’m sure he had something to do with this,’ she concluded bitterly.”

This is actually a foreshadowing of the major plot of the novel, in which The American president believes lies about the Russian head of state, which almost leads to world destruction. Tellingly, Clancy does not let this character struggle through the situation. She already knows she should talk to her husband and it is her failure to do so that causes her to spiral downward with her emotions. While she accuses Jack of not having “the guts” to talk to her, she suffers from the same cowardice. Instead of taking that step, and growing through the act of courage, or failing to take the step and suffering the consequences, however, she is “saved” by the work of Jack’s two friends and bodyguards, who come to her home to tell her that Jack is faithful, and even bring her to see the evidence for herself. Clancy fails to allow her to make the ethical choice. Does he believe women are incapable? Does he believe women need rescuing by men? This would be a better book if he had made different authorial decisions with regard to this character.

The other woman, Elizabeth Elliot, is more of a problem. For quite a long time in the novel is looks as if Clancy is going to have a woman destroy the patriarchally-created, violent, cruel and murderous world because the woman is worse than any of the men in that world.

Elliot is shown as totally self-absorbed, without compassion or empathy for others, suspicious of all around her, devious in attempting to control other people, and lastly stupid enough to believe that she can control them. She is the ambitious shrew who actually believes (gasp!) that she can bust the balls of POTUS! After the first instance when readers are shown that she and the President are having an affair, the narrator says: “So easy to manage. She smiled her secret smile to herself. He could be directed to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it and do it consummately well, for he loved to give pleasure to a woman…he craved being remembered and so he did what the woman wanted if the woman had the wit to ask…so eager to please, even in this.”

After she has arranged for a naive young student to spy on Jack to look for dirt she can use to get rid of him, she thinks: “It was so easy to seduce people …Sex was a useful tool for the task, but power and ambition were so much better. She’d already proven that.”

After all her predictions that she could control men, even the president, a reader expects to find out whether she is right or not. However, although the president is strongly swayed by her suspicions during negotiations with Russia, we never do really find out. In the end Clancy drops her quite awkwardly from the plot, consigned to a hospital because she “didn’t cut the mustard.” The president himself is also inexplicably dropped and we don’t find out what happened to him. No hospital is mentioned in his case.

The third woman is the Asian wife of a dead army officer whom Jack is helping financially. With eight children, all of whom are to receive good educations, the triumvirate of angel, whore and Madonna is complete.

Despite these limitations in the female characters, this is a good novel. It presents a scenario in which suspicion and distrust function as the greatest threat to peace and good relations in both personal and political arenas. The novel has something to tell us about how to make the world a safer place. Jack is a good man because he transcends his gender conditioning – his best qualities are those his society generally assigns to women. He is generous, tender and kind-hearted, forgiving and humble. He understands that power corrupts, saying “The very atmosphere of Washington corroded the soul.” He also understands the power of clear and direct communication and it is in that way that he manages to avert the destruction of the world, about to be brought about because of people’s failure to speak to and listen to each other. And, unfortunate as it is in a world run by men, communication is also regarded as a woman’s skill. He is in touch with his emotions and capable of self-criticism, qualities one doesn’t see in public representations of men.

Though I usually prefer detective novels and thrillers written by women, I plan to read other Clancy novels to see if he improves in his representations of women – if he’s capable of moving beyond the triptych of female stereotypes.


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