Dialectical "Complexifications": The Centrality of Mary Malone, Dust, and the Mulefa in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

By Fitzsimmons, Rebekah | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Dialectical "Complexifications": The Centrality of Mary Malone, Dust, and the Mulefa in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials


Fitzsimmons, Rebekah, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


PHILIP PULLMAN'S YOUNG ADULT TRILOGY HI SDARK MATERIALS DEALS WITH weighty issues such as good and evil, free will versus fate, and the true nature of a mysterious substance called Dust which seems to imbue living beings with consciousness. Across the trilogy, Pullman portrays a world in which a scientist wages a war against the God-like Authority, angels interfere in the affairs of men, and a corrupt church experiments on the source of original sin. Against this backdrop, the narrative follows the coming of age and first love of two children, Lyra and Will. The novels also describe the evolution of Mary Malone from Catholic nun to scientist to Dust observer as she journeys into the world of the strange, elephant-like mulefa. To date, critical treatment of the trilogy has pushed Mary's story line aside or oversimplified it in terms of its importance to the narrative. Yet Mary's transformative journey and the world of the mulefa are integral parts of the novel and hold great symbolism in terms of the trilogy's larger narrative. In order to fully address the importance of Mary's narrative, this article will re-examine the philosophical implications of Pullman's narrative through the use of what Fredric Jameson terms "dialectical criticism" or a form of criticism that enacts the Hegelian dialectic. Jameson stresses the dialectic as a system, which starts from a specific concept or system and identifies its natural or logical negation. By working through the differences, the contradictions, and the contrarieties of these first two terms, a new, more productive term emerges. This critical approach is useful to "propose a startling new perspective from which to rethink the novelty in question, to defamiliarize our ordinary habits of mind and to make us suddenly conscious not only of our own non-dialectical obtuseness but also of the strangeness of reality as such" (Valences 50). Jameson's use of dialectical criticism, most notably in Archaeologies of the Future, is particularly useful in works of science fiction and Utopia, which present a negation of our reality and thus can present an implied critique of political, social, and other systems. This paradox-by design leads readers to think dialectically, comparing their own world to the fictional one and constructing mentally a synthesis of the two, which Jameson argues is the ultimate productivity of Utopian texts (Archaeologies 142). By following Jameson's lead, we can better understand the contradictory, Utopian, and dialectical possibilities of Pullman's fantastic universe.

This article will first evaluate the positioning of the mulefa within the novels and within the critical reception of the novels. Then, by examining the dialectical nature of the mulefa and Dust, it will become clear that the land of the mulefa is uniquely drawn as the only space in which Mary can come to understand the nature of Dust. Finally, after reading the mulefa against the Hegelian dialectic of the master/slave, we can come to understand Mary's symbolic role within the Hegelian narrative and her vital importance to the resolution of the novels. Mary's journey and engagement with dialectic thought allows the reader to develop a dialectical understanding of the contradictions of Dust in order to reach a higher understanding of the universe. Through the dialectical examination of Mary's story line within the novels, it is possible to demonstrate that Mary's investigations into the meaning of Dust, her intervention in the lives of the mulefa, and the aid she offers to Lyra are essential to the trilogy's successful conclusion, both in narrative and thematic terms. Thus, future critical treatments of this trilogy must create a central space for Mary Malone and the mulefa.

The trilogy His Dark Materials, published between 1995-2000, was well received by critics. The Golden Compass was awarded the Carnegie Medal for children's literature and The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread book of the year award. …

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