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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

III. To Live ... to Die, and to Keep Laughing

Zulus: The Body as Otherness and Prison

Patrycja Kurjatto-Renard


This article on life from A to Ζ concentrates on the way the female body is portrayed in Percival Everett’s Zulus (1990). It examines the conflation between body and landscape and the shame associated with the difference of the main character’s obese body. It also analyses the issues of visibility, control, power, the abject, bodily change and pregnancy.

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  • 1 The name “Achitophel” means “the brother of madness”. In the Old Testament, Achitophel was an advis (...)

1Percival Everett’s Zulus deals with a voyage of a woman across a devastated post-war world doomed to death. Indeed, not only is the animal and the vegetal kingdom of the depicted world unnatural, full of mutants and permanently scarred by some ecological catastrophe which either followed the war or was part of warfare (the text does not explain clearly which of the two possibilities is “true”), but all women have become unable to bear children. All except for one: Alice Achitophel,1 the protagonist of the novel, grotesquely obese and therefore marginalized.

  • 2 This order, which has been chosen for reasons of chronology, will not always be strictly retained i (...)

2Zulus projects the mind toward the end of mankind, but it also looks back at the history of human thought. The alphabet vignettes, one for each letter from A to Z, that open each chapter are filled with direct references to philosophers, writers and artists, while the text itself offers a more allusive reading of Western civilisation. Two of the cultural sources of Zulus will be discussed here: first of all, Plato, whose name appears twice in the opening vignettes that create a paratext, very different in form and contents from the main body of the novel. The second source is a feminist critique of culture.2

3The text obsessively comments on the body as the source of difference and shame. At the same time, it erases the barrier between human body and nature. The literary expression of the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm dates back to Plato, who showed the close link between human soul and body on the one hand and the world’s soul and body on the other [Rivaud, 22]. Besides, we shall see that Zulus presents the body as a prison and a grave: Plato’s connection between sōma and sēma [Ricoeur, 33] is thus retained, albeit with a difference. For Plato, the body is a prison because its nature, mortal and imperfect, does not agree with the immortality of the soul [Timaios, 44a-b, 160]. Alice Achitophel, the abjectly obese heroine of the novel, enters the story as the prisoner of her conspicuous body and her female condition.

  • 3 On the symbolism of the cave, see Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 180-184.

4The proliferation of caves in the novel evokes, among other things, Plato’s allegory of the cave, presented at the beginning of Book VII of the Republic, which is perhaps the best known passage from his work. The allegory evokes the issue of a quest for truth and knowledge; for Plato, those who remain within the cave cannot ever gain higher knowledge [Robin, 61-62]. The cave, both imagined and material, although the boundary between the two is rather fluid, is one of the central images of the novel; and Everett’s text explores its various symbolic values. In Zulus, this space stands for a womb and is thus linked to the idea of rebirth, but also, as in Greek initiation rituals and in Plato’s Republic, for the world or even the whole universe. It symbolises Purgatory, but also the site of rebirth to a new life and the dark netherworld place where monsters are hatched and the subconscious rules.3

  • 4 Zulus shares a certain feminist flavour with another novel by Everett, For Her Dark Skin (1990), pu (...)

5Focusing on the body, on motherhood and on the connection between landscape and the body as the site of motherhood and of identity makes one think of feminist texts.4 That the protagonist of the novel is an abject and obese woman who quite soon becomes pregnant, which places her within the realm of the biological, the non-spiritual, the animal, may be a hint at Julia Kjisteva’s discussion of aligning the abject with the female in her 1982 work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. That Alice should be marginalized because of her body hints, once again, at feminist theories which argue that “patriarchy has conferred otherness on the experience of women by utilising biologistic and essentialist models of women’s identity” [Gamble, 187]. Erasing the difference between biology and civilisation which as we shall see informs certain images of the novel and the treatment of the gaze in the text are other feminist tropes.

6However, while Zulus comments on texts, both old and new, it also comments on trends in contemporary culture, such as the perception of obesity and the beauty canon (which incidentally makes part of the feminist agenda as well). While the female characters of the novel are certainly not fashion victims, the state-condoned disapproval of obesity described in the text may arguably evoke the idea, formulated by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth, that over the last thirty or forty years the ideal of “virtuous domesticity” for women has been replaced by the ideal of “virtuous beauty” [Carson, 119]. Other issues raised or tackled include the inscription of narrative in space, of the narrated in the constructed; the importance of sight and of the visual.

  • 5 In the novel, the Body is the government established in the rebel camp.

7I would like to begin the discussion of the text by showing how Alice’s obesity sets her shamefully apart. This issue will make it necessary to talk about the cultural perception of obesity and the link established in the imagination between pregnancy and obesity. Furthermore, the article will tackle such questions as the interrelated notions of the abject, the female, the obese, the visible, the monstrous and the excessive. The first part of my text will conclude on the transformation of the ugly into the beautiful, which will enable us to pass on to the issue of prisons in the text. In the second part, I will begin by seeing what restrictions to free movement Alice is faced with. Then the question will arise of body as prison, the Body5 as prison, and the female condition as prison. Finally, having shown that Alice is perceived as a “natural” woman, I will list the links established by the text between the main character’s body and depicted landscapes.

8One of the things that Zulus does is to play upon the trend current in contemporary Western culture that perceives obesity as a sign of weak will, a mark of immorality and an aggression against commonly accepted values. Fat women offend aesthetic criteria of Western societies, but this is not the only reason why obesity is viewed negatively. A slim body is perceived as the proof that its owner exerts a certain control over his or her impulses and over the wishes of the body; and consequently is read as a mark of social success [Guillemot and Laxenaire, 56-57]. Besides, such a body comes to be associated with intelligence and professional ambition. A study of the beauty canon promoted by the models of fashion magazines over the period 1901-1981, conducted by Silverstein in 1986, shows that when the number of professional women increases, the fashion magazines feature slimmer models [Guillemot and Laxenaire, 54-55].

9In the world depicted in Zulus, another state of the body is viewed as undesirable, namely, pregnancy. In one way, this can be seen as a logical development of the rejection of obesity. Indeed, a pregnant woman loses control of her body, and looks obese; besides, pregnancy is commonly associated with gaining weight. Because of the interplay between pregnancy and birth-giving, women’s imagination is often said to be based on the interplay between emptiness and completion, between empty and filled spaces. Obesity and pregnancy are equivalent on a certain level: “A woman has a good way of filling up the void: it is to put on weight or to become pregnant” [Lemoine-Luccioni 40, translation mine]. Lemoine-Luccioni points out to the existence of close links between consuming food and becoming pregnant: both processes inscribe the subject within the biological. Therefore it can be said that “pregnancy and delivery are, like coitus or defecation, essentially animal phenomena” [Lemoine-Luccioni, 31]—thus, a pregnant woman would be closer to the animal kingdom than to the human race, a perception of pregnancy that is basically misogynous and which excludes pregnant women from human society.

10Throughout the first half of the novel, Alice Achitophel, the protagonist of Zulus, appears as an obese woman, and therefore is considered abject. Her looks are the reason why she is ostracised by the other members of the dissolving urban community in which she lives, be they neighbours, passersby or co-workers. This disgust appears first of all in a refusal to include Alice in the accepting gaze, which excludes her from humanity: “no one looked at her anymore, except to offer that obligatory shake of the head that meant either pity or disgust” [22]. She is the Other, the unclean inhabitant of the periphery who reminds the slim subjects of their inscription in biology and the destined extinction of the human race, which has become barren. This does not mean she is not looked at. However, watching Alice fills the spectators with pity and disgust, and she sometimes becomes the object of jokes. Thus, she is mocked by the guards, for whom she becomes a circus creature, something of an elephant man, as they “watch the fat woman clear the gate by the narrowest of margins, laughing as her big legs carried her away from them...” [22].

11In this way, Alice’s obesity is first of all presented in terms of visibility. If obese Alice is perceived as ugly by other characters, this does not make her invisible even if it places her on the margins of the described society and even if the citizens who conform to the beauty canon refuse to give her the blessing of their benevolent gaze. “The ugly is not the contrary of the beautiful ... The ugly is the deformed, not the shapeless; the horrible, not the obscure. It is what we see, it is not invisible” [Lemoine-Luccioni 169]. In short, ugliness, like beauty, belongs to the realm of the visible. However, contrary to the beautiful, it rapes the gaze that beholds it, it is a violation of the aesthetic sense.

12In view of what has just been said, Alice’s rape mirrors this offence her body offers daily to other peoples’ sights. It may seem paradoxical that Alice is raped almost as soon as the man who enters her house looks at her: after all, she is an obese woman, perceived as abject and ridiculous and not as an object of desire. However, the rape which opens the novel and triggers Alice’s transformation could be read as an exteriorization of the anonymous citizens’ perception of Alice. The rapist is Everyman: he stands for all society which despises Alice for her looks and which would like to see all its members conform to its standards of what is appropriate. If Alice’s body violates the eyes of those who view her, it is in turn subject to the violence of her aggressor’s penis. And yet, Alice is not a victim. Quite the contrary: she laughs at her rapist, the father of her child, whose penis she perceives as minute and who is denied any power over her. In this way, the rape fails to make her cooperate with the rules of the society she lives in.

13The rape transforms Alice into a woman, abruptly and against her will. Yet she embraces her new condition quite willingly, even if it makes her quit the life she knows. If rape is supposed to be “a cornerstone of patriarchal control” [Gamble, 303], the patriarchal society does not control Alice; in spite of her having internalized the objectifying gaze, she does not succumb to the victimization of a woman in the process of rape.

14As the reader learns from the protagonist’s memories, Alice’s grandmother blamed her for her obesity and ascribed her father’s early death to his disgust and embarrassment with his daughter’s body [40]. What the grandmother really blamed Alice for is precisely the immorality in becoming boundless, in invading the living space of other people, invading it so much that there was no place left for her father. Her grandmother voiced the feelings that other citizens probably feel in a more or less conscious way. In their minds, Alice allowed herself to become obese, showing that she enjoyed food and maybe even stole the food of others. Indeed, the post-war world suffered from a shortage of food, and its citizens ate mostly cheese, labelled “our food”, whereas fruit and meat were extremely rare and hard to come by. In view of this state of things, it becomes clear, on one level, why the inhabitants of the city perceive obese Alice as “dangerous, an infected, over-consuming competitor” [93]. Thus, Alice’s corpulence has not only an aesthetic dimension, but also an economic one. In fact, Alice stands on the very fringe of what is socially acceptable. She is rejected because of her monstrosity, of her bloated flesh. However, what other citizens perceive as monstrous could be labelled her individualism, or her difference from them.

15Alice is set apart—by her size, her sheer bulk, by her consequent visibility, and finally by her ability to conceive, unique in the depicted world. Alice is unique among women, which is underlined by the light blue dress she is given at the rebel camp: this garment is the same colour as “the virgin mother’s ample blue gown” [Kristeva 592] worn by Virgin Mary in paintings. It is no surprise that Alice’s child is likened to Messiah.

  • 6 “The king is only a king, that is to say a monarch, in the images which bestow on him a supposedly (...)

16The question of visibility is linked to the issue of power. Ricoeur mentions the importance of the visual signs and attributes in the process of legitimizing—a king stripped of them is not a king, power is bestowed by the gaze of the community [344, 353].6 Alice is extremely visible, and this influences the relation she entertains with power, both in the city and in the rebel camp. It is as if she were feared because of her visibility, and various power groups want to use her for their own ends. The rebels, who pretend to liberate her, in reality fear her and imprison her. She becomes the body that men and women who wield power in the camp (and who belong to the government named the Body) visit, scheming to appropriate her offspring. Her body is turned into a museum visited by the citizens of the camp-state, and so she is imposed the status of a cultural symbol. The rebels dress her like Mary in order to control her. They seem to offer her a position of honour and of power, but in reality want to brand her as an outsider.

17Apart from appearing on the thematic level, the disgust which Alice’s fat body arouses in the citizens is constantly evoked in the language of the novel. The narrator, as well as various characters, constantly refers to her as “the fat woman” (alias “huge woman” or even “fat cow” 30). In this way, the reader sees her through the eyes of any citizen of the city she inhabits.

  • 7 Note however that the text imposes a limit on the abject as the van transports paper.

18Not only do other characters view Alice as abject and therefore monstrous: Alice herself internalizes the others’ gaze upon her body and becomes very self-conscious. This might be yet another hint at gender studies: consider for instance John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing which deals with the objectification of women through the male gaze and on women’s internalizing the male point of view. The text dwells on Alice’s perceptions of her own body in terms of a disturbing and obnoxious presence. Thus, she frequently feels the urge to get rid of the overpowering stench which she feels to be hers [40] and keeps excusing herself for smelling badly when she escapes the city with the rebels [51]. She even anticipates the moment, soon to come, when her perspiration will be smelled by the people around her [79]. The rebel doctors who examine her upon her arrival in their camp comment in detail and somewhat cruelly on her “malodorous condition” [89]. Alice’s smell is an extension of her body, and once again, she is seen as invading others’ personal space in an unacceptable way. Indeed, so abject she is that when she escapes from the city, it is thought expedient for her to travel in a garbage van7 [50-51].

  • 8 Note that Alice’s mother died before her father did, thus abandoning her daughter and erasing herse (...)

19Ultimately it is her pregnancy which makes Alice beautiful, since it enables her to break out of the ugly huge obese body. This textual development contradicts the perception of pregnancy in Western culture. Indeed, in many women’s daydreams and nightmares, beauty is erased in pregnancy, and in the postpartum period [Lemoine-Luccioni 33]. The birth liberates the slim Alice that had been heretofore hidden from sight within her mother’s monstrous body. The fat Alice becomes her own mother and gives birth to a version of herself that is slimmer, more beautiful, and more appropriate to the accepted beauty canon.8 In this way, the text plays on the relation of the outside and the inside, but also on the myth of the self made man. Alice is a self-made woman, parentless, independent, and seemingly free from biology.

20The reader can wonder which Alice is “real”, which one of her double minds perceives the “true” image of “reality”. The novel opens with realistic descriptions and seems to shun the surreal, the magical, the uncanny, until the moment when Alice breaks in two, as it were. The style of the narration changes from that moment on: it turns into a delirious discourse, full of hallucinations and visions. So does the protagonist. By being born out of herself, Alice crosses the barrier between the real and the unreal, between this side of the mirror and the other side.

21The bulk of her body precludes her from moving freely, restraining her both in the physical sense, as it makes her awkward, and in the social sense. Alice is a prisoner of her body, which is a normal human condition according to Plato’s texts. In Phaedra, the philosopher claims that the divine and superior part of the soul, the intellect, is chained to the body in punishment for ancient crimes and finds this prison next to unbearable [Rivaud, 89, 93]. We are told that she “often dreamed that she was so large she was unable to leave her house and so the government made it her prison, with goons patrolling the yard and sleeping on the porch and peering through the windows at her, even though no portal of the dwelling could accommodate her girth” [51]. In her dream, she fills the house completely, in the same way as she will fill up the prison where she is held captive in the rebel camp. But even in the city, Alice’s obesity and pregnancy are likely to be punished, for the threat of being sent to a “fat camp” constantly hangs over her. Indeed, in the city where she lives, losing weight is a government measure and preoccupation [12], as is sterilization. Nevertheless, Alice manages to avoid both measures and retain her difference, however shameful it can be, simply by ignoring letters from the government demanding that she undergo the appropriate procedure. When she finally does something that pushes her outside the limits of the society in which she lives and has to flee the city, her escape is rendered more difficult because she is conspicuous and easy to spot.

  • 9 For a discussion of such fantasies, see Lemoine-Luccioni, 34, 77.

22Alice’s body can be viewed as one of the jails which she manages to flee from in the novel. Indeed, as it has already been mentioned, her first pregnancy ends with a monstrous delivery: it is not an infant, but a full grown (though slim) version of Alice which emerges and disrupts the fat body. The passage which relates the birth plays upon the ambiguity between the body as confinement and the cell as confinement, and upon the two women protagonists, or rather, a split woman protagonist: “the woman was breaking up, splitting as her body pressed into the walls of her confinement, breaking her into the light of day, while the earth quaked violently, and fingers pointed at the breaking woman, the opening body yielding the complete woman, full of the brain and emotions of her fat mother, earth mother, Alice Achitophel” [108-109]. The passage plays on fantasies featuring bursting out and caves as big as the world, plaguing the imagination of pregnant women.9 This birth frees the new Alice out of a double imprisonment: it liberates her from her abject body and also from the prison cell in which the rebels have put her. It also frees her from her “earth mother”, which could hint at her liberation from nature and its constraints. At this point, Alice leaves behind the natural order and is reborn as a mutant, or the new Eve.

  • 10 Note that the Platonic idea that beautiful and good are one and the same is played with in the text

23At this moment, Alice leaves behind “her enormous discarded shell” [109], her body with all the pictures and hopeful cities created by her thoughts: “sparkling cities”, “fat with the hope of success and clear of the poison-planet air which she sucked in” [108]. Even if she seems to abandon the visions of glorious future, at this point in the story the reader is encouraged to see the birth as a positive event. It is a means of freeing the protagonist from her jail and of liberating her from her disgraceful looks.10 Alice also frees herself from the family bonds of motherhood and daughterhood.

24The alleged reason of placing Alice in confinement is the wish of certain rebels to protect her against the mob which objects to her pregnancy or misunderstands it. While Alice does become conscious of an atmosphere of hostility as she wanders in the camp, she nonetheless never believes that this necessitates imprisoning her and considers she has been the victim of a plot. The windowless “guest house”, as it is called by a rebel who leads Alice to her prison, is situated behind the seat of the rebels’ government, which is called the Body [102]. This name comes to reinforce the image of Alice as a prisoner of her own female nature.

25As Gillian Rose observes, “confinement is a recurring image in women’s accounts of their lives” [144]. When she is put in prison, Alice thinks of herself in terms of a garden, imagining she will be “plow[ed] and harvest[ed] like a field” [103]. Her condition as a pregnant prisoner makes her think of her own body in terms of the non human. She supposes she will be “tended like any garden” [102], thus becoming a slave of her fertile body. Occasionally during her reverie Alice feels she is outgrowing the walls of her prison, spurting roots which pierce the floor and infiltrate the camp outside: “her body sinking down roots, life-pulsing roots penetrating the floor and spreading out into the camp...” [105]. The vision of this metamorphosis is triggered off by the light she is unable to switch off, the light which makes her plant-like being grow. The metaphors she uses to describe her predicament stem not only from the vegetal but also from the animal kingdom, as she dubs herself a “brood mare”. Note the presence of vegetal metaphors in feminist work on the body, for instance in S. Griffin, A. Collard and J. Contrucci [Rose 78 and 80 respectively] and in de Lauretis’ Feminist studies / Critical Studies [12, after Rose 29]. The binary opposition between nature and culture, related to the opposition woman // man and so often explored in feminist thought, underlies Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on procreation. One of the theories on that topic that Plato expressed was that the child comes from the father, while the woman provides simply the ground in which this seed can grow, thus bearing only passive assistance in the process of the creation of the human being. This idea appears in Timaios, and has been exploited by Aristotle [Plato, 50 d, 169; Ulinski, 28].

26Not only is Alice referred to as a fertile garden, but the text abounds in passages in which nature is humanized. Perhaps the most memorable description of countryside as body is the depiction of the “scar” [the name used by the rebels, 85], that is to say the trench that the rebels use to travel with Alice to get her to the camp and out of the city. Its earthen walls are blood red, “so red that she imagined them coloured by life fluids” [57]. However, Alice’s mind links this bloody landscape with destruction and not with life: for her it is a “watershed of death”. This conflation between human beings and the landscape in which they move becomes even more blatant when the rebels decide to smudge their bodies with soil which looks like blood and makes them resemble skinned half dead corpses [58-59]. In fact, Alice blends totally with the trench as she gets stuck in its walls, unable to detach herself. Again, we can trace a link between Alice’s exceptional fecundity and her becoming one with Mother Earth, albeit unintentionally. Later on in the text, an entry to the tunnel amongst trees is seen as “the mouth or anus” [140]. Note however that here, the text refers to a mutilated and scarred human body, which reflects the state of the planet after the war.

27When she does not think of herself as a garden or a brood mare, Alice sees her own body as a planet or a cave, closely linked to natural elements outside. For instance, an earthquake evokes what she calls a “quake” within her womb [98]. When Alice lies imprisoned in the rebel camp, her imagination shows her the vastness of her womb, from which a whole new world may spring: “she was a cavern, deep and wide and well-lighted and with pictures carved into the fat-walls of her cavity, pictures of houses arranged neatly in rows, of stick figures herding cattle and sheep, of men and women copulating, of crosses and arrows and swastikas and stars” [108]. Alice’s caves seem to contain seeds of the culture of the whole world, of civilisation and the history of mankind. Although at first this cave seems to evoke a prehistoric society, in reality it includes cities [113] and is a mixture of the prehistoric and the industrial worlds. In this way, the inside of the cavern combines nature and civilisation, thus overcoming the binary opposition, or so it would seem. It also seems to combine the past and the future, and offer the promise of a new beginning for mankind. Alice’s body is that of a cyborg, combining artifice and biology.

28It is therefore appropriate that it should be a full grown woman, already “civilized”, and not a “natural” infant, who emerges from this huge cave-like womb, splitting her mother’s body. From that moment on, Alice’s consciousness splits in two, creating a schizoid fissure and re-imprisoning her within the confines of the dichotomy. The new, slim Alice keeps feeling like a cave: “she felt like a cave, a dark cave, damp and hollow with fear” [123]. The contrast between the luminous cave of her “earth mother’s” womb and the dark space of the new born mutant Eve makes the reader aware of the futility of hope for renewal which seemed to be offered by Alice’s pregnancy.

29Another connotation of the images of light and darkness is the contrast between knowledge and ignorance. According to Plato, a human soul is so traumatised by incarceration within the body that it forgets what it used to know, so the body is the grave of knowledge [Ricoeur comments on this passage, 33]. For Alice, however, things seem to be different at least to some extent: when she is born again, schizophrenically, in the rebel camp, she retains the consciousness linked to her old body along with the one which connects her present body with her mind. She does not forget her previous self, rather, she has full consciousness and memory of the fat Alice’s past. Through the writing on the walls of her womb cavity, she even gains access to the memory of mankind, inscribed as it were in her flesh in the form of letters and drawings. As she sees, in her mind’s eye, the walls of her split ancient fat body, Alice realises that these are covered in writing, just like the walls of Kevin Peter’s cavern [185 and 135, respectively]. That her womb cavity is described as luminous (there is “more light [in it] than any daytime offered” [185]) hints at the light of Knowledge, Wisdom, and Consciousness: “when the shadows [on the walls of the cave] are those of the past, ... the only light we can see them by is the Promethean fire within us” [Frye 345]. Appropriating this knowledge might bring salvation and new life to the destroyed earth, might restore the unpolluted world.

  • 11 As stated in The Madwoman in the Attic, “As herself a kind of cave, every woman might seem to have (...)

30However, Alice is unable to decipher or understand a part of what she sees written within her: the remnants of her body, left in the Flesh House, feature “isolated words, some in languages she did not know, but there speaking to her” [185]. When her second pregnancy advances, Alice becomes conscious of words in foreign and alien languages formed out of the alphabet that formerly adorned her interior: “GIKICKIGWEJUG // MUTATO NOMINE” [212]. Her incapacity to understand the writings within her may be the reason why ultimately she cannot find remedy that is possibly offered to her. Alice does not manage to reconcile the positive, empowering symbolism of the cave with its negative potential. She does exert a power, but it is only a power to destroy, not to give life.11 In the end, Alice destroys the earth by pressing a single button. This final catastrophe occurs in another luminous cave: the underground where Alice emerges after a long and disagreeable trip through a dark and narrow passageway, like an infant born into a world. This underground is filled with people muttering meaningless disconnected words which do not make sense to Alice, and which can be read as an equivalent of her failing to understand the words covering the walls of her womb.

  • 12 The idea that the decay of nature reflects the decline of mankind can be an oblique reference to He (...)

31Alice’s caves, or at least the first one that is described, are “well-lighted” [108], quite unlike Plato’s dim cave, perhaps precisely because she has her intellect to illuminate them. She is living at the end of times and is the guardian of the entire history of mankind, though she fails as mankind’s saviour. Note also that since Alice has abandoned, or is trying to abandon, the “natural” order, the land where she travels is degraded by war and has ceased to be life-giving. This degradation is reflected in Alice’s interior landscape, which is described in terms of a huge wasteland inside a cave: “the scenery before her, inside her cavern-swelled-form was unchanging, unrelenting like a severe landscape, a desert” [193].12

32The text plays on the images of the cavern and the tunnel, which are brought into relation with body and space. For instance, at the end of the novel, Alice’s search for Kevin Peters leads her to a tunnel which takes her to a “cavernous underground” [236-237]. For Alice, the tunnel evokes the interior of her body: “how she imagined the vessels of her body, smooth and bare and leading round and round”, round like a pregnant woman’s womb, and appropriately she thinks she has adopted a circular journey, “perhaps she was crawling in a circle, a womb once full, now empty of promise” [236]. If the cavern where she emerges is a womb, it proves to be full. Indeed, the underground is crowded with people.

33In Zulus, there seems to be no history as the reader is forbidden the knowledge of the causes and the battles of the war which precedes the diegesis, but there is definitely a geography. The time past is inscribed in space, not only in Alice’s body, as has been mentioned above, but also in the landscape scarred by warfare. In this way, the text highlights “the moment of exteriority” characteristic of all external signs of written word according to the myth of Phaedra in Plato [Ricoeur 184]. The memory of mankind is inscribed in space and in the human body but unavailable to any oral account, nor to the written space of the page of the novel.

  • 13 Note that Kevin Peters, like Thoreau, inhabits a cabin in the woods.

34Alice’s quest takes her from the city into the wilderness of the rebel camp and later to the deeper wilderness of Kevin Peters’s haunts and finally back to the city whence she has escaped. Her voyage evokes the Pilgrim Fathers, the itinerant settlers, looking for a liveable place.13 Her circular journey takes Alice from culture to nature and back again. If, as Hélène Cixous states, a woman always travels in the body and “as a body” [563], Alice’s voyage makes her quit her body quite literally, and yet even in this liberation she is still confined to childbirth, as she will conceive again and lose her child mysteriously. Alice is simultaneously wandering and being confined to the Flesh house in the rebel camp. Yet while she is travelling, she is determined by her body, as a beautiful and now desirable woman, as a potential mother, even if her womb houses monsters. In the end, Alice cannot break the connection to the flesh, her flesh.

35This circular journey leads us to the motif of the dead end—dead both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense. The novel, through its images of destroyed nature and abortive births, shows the impossibility of a successful escape, for the rebel camp proves to be as constraining as the city, where the new Alice returns after quitting the Body (not without abandoning there the pieces of her old, fat body). The only way out seems to be leaving the world altogether, a conclusion which makes Alice accept the massive suicide. In this way, she will be able to leave the cave which stands for the world.


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1 The name “Achitophel” means “the brother of madness”. In the Old Testament, Achitophel was an adviser to King David. He betrayed his master as soon as the opportunity arose, and then hanged himself (2 Samuel 16-17) and has therefore been likened to Judas (http://epelorient.; accessed 21.10.2002.). In a way, Alice also betrays the hopes that she raises in other characters and in the reader. In another way, the novel does the same.

2 This order, which has been chosen for reasons of chronology, will not always be strictly retained in the text, for the two enter in dialogue in Everett’s text.

3 On the symbolism of the cave, see Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 180-184.

4 Zulus shares a certain feminist flavour with another novel by Everett, For Her Dark Skin (1990), published in the same year. Indeed, both texts are clearly preoccupied with the subaltern position of women; besides, the choice of certain motifs and characters seems to have been informed by feminist texts. Thus, the myth of Medea is evoked by Cixous as emblematic of women’s condition (574-575); the conflation of women and nature, present in both novels, has been the point of much discussion in feminist analyses of culture. Furthermore, as in Zulus, in For Her Dark Skin the father of a conceived child seems almost incidental, incapable of fathering and instrumental, while the mother wields the power of life and death over her offspring and aims at erasing the despicable father.

5 In the novel, the Body is the government established in the rebel camp.

6 “The king is only a king, that is to say a monarch, in the images which bestow on him a supposedly real presence” (344, translation mine).

7 Note however that the text imposes a limit on the abject as the van transports paper.

8 Note that Alice’s mother died before her father did, thus abandoning her daughter and erasing herself from the diegesis.

9 For a discussion of such fantasies, see Lemoine-Luccioni, 34, 77.

10 Note that the Platonic idea that beautiful and good are one and the same is played with in the text.

11 As stated in The Madwoman in the Attic, “As herself a kind of cave, every woman might seem to have the cave’s metaphorical power of annihilation... At the same time, as herself a fated inhabitant of that earth cave of immanence in which de Beauvoir’s Tunisian women were trapped, every woman might seem to have metaphorical access to the dark knowledge buried in caves” (Gilbert and Gubar, 95).

12 The idea that the decay of nature reflects the decline of mankind can be an oblique reference to Henry David Thoreau, for whom spring fragrance of flowers shows that, “though all other men fall, one shall stand fast” (an excerpt from his journal, 830).

13 Note that Kevin Peters, like Thoreau, inhabits a cabin in the woods.


Born in Poland and lives in France. She studied in Poland, Portugal, France and the USA and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Tours, France, in 2001. Her early research focused on Native American novelists such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and James Welch. Then she broadened its scope to compare the writings of women belonging to different ethnic groups: Asian American, Black American and Native American. Thus, in her PhD dissertation, she focused on three contemporary women novelists: Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Gloria Naylor. Her subsequent research deals with the issues of acculturation, immigration and identity perception from a comparative point of view. Although the writers she has been working on are usually American, she has also presented a paper juxtaposing Chinese American and North African French immigration fiction. Dr. Kurjatto-Renard is a member of such research associations as MESEA, CAAR and EAAS.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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