Every Boy Should Have a Man

by Preston L. Allen

This is our longest reading, and the most disturbing one, at least for me. But we had a well-attended, insightful discussion, and I came away appreciating this book in new ways—so thanks, as always.

Emily took some excellent notes on what we talked about. We started with the novel’s form: the shifting perspectives, the absence of a continuous main character who stays with us from beginning to end, the use of epithets and nicknames instead of proper names, and of course, the Jack and the Beanstalk and Tower of Babel stories lurking in the background.

George Cruikshank, 1854

Every Boy Should Have a Man describes a version of our world with two kinds of people, who look pretty similar except for their size. The world is divided in two by a firmament. Giants (‘oafs’) live exclusively above the firmament and are unaware of the lower world; ‘mans’ inhabit either the upper world (with giants) or the lower world (without giants) and typically live out their lives without ever being aware that the other side of the firmament exists. Only Jack and his family know how to travel between the worlds.

Like the fairy tale, the novel leads us to identify Jack and other mans as being more like us, and oafs as the monstrous enemy. But by dropping odd hints here and there and then ending with Mike’s story, Allen forces us to ask ourselves: What if we’re more like the oafs? Or what if we’re equidistant between mans and oafs? What if the differences between mans and oafs—not just their clothing and diet but also their size and lifespan—are cultural rather than biological?

(There would still be that strange detail about the opposable big toe in chapter 10. I haven’t figured out what to do with that.)

The book doesn’t answer any of these questions for us. It doesn’t tell us whether mans or oafs are more moral or deserving of success. We could celebrate Jack for his resourcefulness, bravery and persistence—but is it really virtuous to go uninvited into another world and steal their goods? On the other hand, is it virtuous to live like the oafs: utterly incurious, never exploring, stagnating in class warfare, treading the same ground forever until all your resources are depleted?

The story refuses to tell us the answers. Instead it does what good sci-fi does, in my opinion: it helps us think about the questions, much more carefully and thoroughly than if we’d just considered them in the abstract.

The language stuff. The main reason I include Every Boy Should Have a Man in this class is because of this passage from chapter 12, where Rose returns to Zloty for a visit and tries to explain to him what she has learned about language:

…[T]here is no such thing as talking mans and mans that cannot talk. Mans that cannot talk are simply mans who speak a different language…

You do not know of languages because your people only have one language. So you do not even have a name for the language you speak. You do not even have a word for the word language. (p. 141)

What becomes clear in this chapter is that oaf society is so homogeneous and geographically constrained that there is no language variation. Oafs take it for granted that everyone talks the same, the way we take it for granted that every physical object we encounter will obey the law of gravity. We don’t need a word for ‘the set of objects that obey the law of gravity,’ because we don’t know of any other kind of object; our world doesn’t have that kind of variation. That’s what language is like for the oafs. They don’t need a word for ‘the set of sound-meaning correspondences used by a group of people’ because there is only one such set in their known world, and no need to talk about other possible sets.

It would never occur to an oaf that somebody could use different combinations of sounds to refer to similar ideas. So when they see a man doing that, they don’t recognize it as language at all.

It’s wild to imagine thinking this way. MJ reminded us of ‘Mazes’—the alien failing to understand the narrator because it simply wasn’t prepared to see the bodily movements of a tiny creature as intentional, intelligent attempts to communicate. The same basic disconnect is happening in Every Boy Should Have a Man; what makes it remarkable is that both oafs and mans are speaking with their mouths, producing many of the same sounds and perhaps even some of the same words (Allen tells us the languages are Frisian and English!)—but the oafs are so unprepared for the possibility of other languages that they can’t see one even when they’re staring right at it.

Linguists are trained to view variation and change as essential to language; Saussure established diachrony (change over time) as foundational to the discipline (Part I ch 1). Moreover, we take it for granted that every human culture can use language to talk about language; this reflexiveness was included in Hockett’s famous list of design features that makes human language different from other animal communication systems: ‘Bees dance about sites, but they cannot dance about dancing’ (p. 10).

Every Boy Should Have a Man helps us poke at these claims, helps us imagine a group of people whose language doesn’t change and who don’t use language to talk about language. Of course it’s fiction; it’s not evidence in the traditional sense. But it helps us imagine an alternative to something we might otherwise accept complacently as universally and automatically true. It presents us with an alternative and entices us, by engaging us in a narrative, into doing this idea justice.

It helps us imagine. Imagining is so important in education, and so often skipped over.

After our class I found myself thinking about what one of you said about Rose’s first child Mike, and how the story ends with this (bicultural?/biracial?) character being torn between two worlds and feeling alienated from both of them. So much sci-fi is about traversing worlds, so it makes sense that we’ll encounter characters like this; we also had Serenity from ‘Solitude’ and the creature in Frankenstein. Anyway, I started realizing that some of my favorite non-sci-fi authors write about characters dealing with the same kind of alienation in our real world, usually in the context of emigration and immigration: Jhumpa Lahiri, Laila Lalami, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ha JIn, Lisa Ko… and there’s Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels may or may not be sci-fi but also deal with alienation and moving between worlds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *