“No Woman Born,” C. L. Moore, 1944 – The famous dancer Deirdre is horribly burned in a theater fire and her mind is transplanted into a golden, robotic body. After much time spent recovering under the care of the physician who performed the surgery, she is visited by her former manager (and presumed lover), John Harris. At first Deirdre tries to “perform human,” specifically, femininity, for Harris and her “creator,” the “imperturbable Maltzer.” In an uncanny scene, she smokes a cigarette; she apes her old feminine charms: her laugh, her walk. At the same time, Deirdre slowly reveals new abilities and a philosophical outlook to the two men (in what can perhaps be seen as a reverse strip-tease), causing them to become increasingly agitated.
Deirdre also informs them that she intends to return to the stage to regain her fame. Her manager fears that nothing good will come from it; the audience will view her first as a novelty, then a laughingstock–she will always fall short of the humanity and femininity she once possessed, and her attempts to mimic these lost qualities will be ridiculed.
Deirdre’s comeback performance is greeted with wonder and a great deal of suspense. She emerges in a “robe of metal mesh,” light “catching and winking and running molten along her limbs…,” with an “odd likeness to knighthood…with its implications of medieval richness beyond the simple lines.” She is still, at first. “And perhaps the impression of roboticism was what she meant to convey at first.” Moving just enough on stage to signal that she is present, “with every eye upon her, she stood quietly to let them look their fill. The screen did not swoop to a close-up upon her. Her enigma remained inviolate and the television watchers saw her no more clearly than the audience in the theater.” She begins to sway and hum, her voice filling the theater, and when she began to dance, “the audience did not seem to breathe.” They begin to suspect “who it was” before them, yet “[n]othing she had done yet had been human.”
By the time she has finished, she’s given the audience something entirely new, an original form of dance, uniquely her own form of non-verbal self-expression. “Then, startlingly, she laughed. It was lovely laughter, low and sweet and full-throated…And she was a woman now. Humanity had dropped over her like a tangible garment. No one who had ever heard that laughter before could mistake it here.” At this moment, Deirdre breaks into “her” song, “The Yellow Rose of Eden,” a song no one ever hummed “without thinking of her and the pleasant, nostalgic sadness of something lovely and lost. But it was not a sad song now. If anyone doubted whose brain and ego motivated this shining metal suppleness, they could no longer.” It was Deirdre and “the lovely, poised grace of her mannersims that made up recognition as certainly as the sight of a familiar face.” Once they “know” her, they cannot let her finish. “The accolade of their interruption was a tribute more eleoquent than polite waiting could have been.” They “shook the theater.” She scatters kisses at them from “the featureless helmet, the face that had no mouth.”
Although Maltzer and Harris are proven wrong, the story does not conclude amidst the air of “sweet” nostalgia, or with an endorsement of the audience’s means of “recognition” of Deirdre. Ultimately, neither her lover nor the “imperturbable Maltzer” can accept her new form; in a sense, both men use Deirdre to define themselves, and neither can accept her new, undefinable identity. Maltzer eventually becomes hysterical. He claims he’s doomed her to the life of a living spectacle, to a life of only one sense, the “cold, intellectual” sense (sight), to inhumanity. He eventually attempts to throw himself out a window, but Deirdre, with her new strength and speed, effortlessly saves his life. Ultimately, Deirdre gains the financial success and independence she desired and purchases her own estate, to where she will soon retreat to consider her future and her mortality.
In the final lines, she confesses to Maltzer that she needed to sing to maintain her connection to humanity, that she is lonely and wishes there were more of her kind who could share in the wonders of her new “superhuman” perceptions and abilities. She has no limits, she explains, except perhaps the limit of her brain, which will “wear out” at some point. She touches the window at which she earlier saved Maltzer’s life. “I could put a stop to it now, if I wanted. But I can’t, really. There’s so much still untried. My brain’s human, and no human brain could leave such possibilities untested. I wonder, though…” As her thoughts possess her, her act falters. “When she was not listening to her own voice, it did not keep quite to the pitch of trueness. It sounded as if she spoke in a room of brass, and echoes from the walls resounded in the tones that spoke there. ‘I wonder,’ she repeated, the distant taint of metal already in her voice.”
Comments: Complex, daring, and highly influential, this story is considered by some to be one of the best sf stories of the 20th century. Considered one of the first fully realized portrayals of a cybernetic consciousness, the story is also a new take on the Frankenstein motif and contains direct references to that work. A fair amount of criticism is available, particularly in connection with Judith Butler‘s performance theory and Donna Haraway‘s cyborg theory. Deirdre has also been compared to the figure of the “armored woman,” an apt topic, as Joan of Arc was a perennial figure in Moore’s fiction, both by direct and indirect reference. Criticism involving the portrayal of mass culture and nostalgia, which provides a backdrop for the story, and discussions of its use of contemporaneous cultural figures–from the New Woman to the “mechanized” dancing line girl–is also available.
The story’s opening suggests the genesis of the title. Before John Harris views the new Deirdre for the first time, he recalls her former beauty and lines from James Stephens:
“The time comes when our hearts sink utterly,
When we remember Deirdre and her tale,
And that her lips are dust…
There has been again no woman born
Who was so beautiful; not one so beautiful
Of all the women born–“
However, the title can also be connected to a line from Act V of Macbeth, in which MacBeth re-states the witches’ prophesy that no man of woman born can kill him, addressing Macduff: “…And thou opposed, being of no woman born / Yet I will try the last.” Other connections to MacBeth are possible. “No Woman Born” at points equates the female identity with a “garment” that can be taken off or worn in order to establish a public identity; in this sense, it shares one of the themes of MacBeth, which critics Caroline Spurgeon and Cleanth Brooks have noted contains much “old clothes” imagery. Brooks notes that “the series of garment metaphors which run through the play is paralleled by a series of masking or cloaking images.” Most relevant, perhaps, is the image of Lady MacBeth–as a powerful, imposing woman who has “unsexed” herself, a woman surrounded by men eager to restore “male” order, Lady MacBeth begs comparison with Moore’s Deirdre. Yet, while Lady MacBeth commits suicide and order is restored by a man unsullied by “woman” (a man of “no woman born”), Moore’s Deirdre must save her male “co-conspirators” from the chaos of their own hysteria and impulse to suicide.
Read in Women of Wonder: Classic Years and The Best of C. L. Moore.
Author: Wikipedia: “Catherine Lucille Moore (January 24, 1911 – April 4, 1987) was an American science fiction and fantasy writer, as C. L. Moore. She was one of the first women to write in the genre, and paved the way for many other female writers in speculative fiction.”