THE SINGULAR ‘THEY,’ ‘THEIR,’ and ‘THEMSELVES.’

The singular ‘they’ is commonly used to refer to a person whose gender is irrelevant or unknown—for example, “The participant indicated their preferences.”

Or, “If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.”

And, “A researcher has to be completely Uobjective in their findings.”

Why am I bringing up this topic? Because I’m reading Jasper Fforde, that’s why. He is a never-ending fount of perplexing and intoxicating forms of writing.

I’m reading ‘Early Riser.’ It has just been reviewed by all sorts of people who do that for a living, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful job? So, I’m going to give only a little background and not review it. I want to bring up the fact that I’m two-thirds of the way through Fforde’s phantasmagorical winter ( a winter that has as much, or more, import as the protagonist), and I’m still not sure of the sex (I said sex, not gender) of the protagonist, Charlie Worthing. Charlie is a novice Winter Consul whose job is to protect the hibernators, the vast majority of the population, and make sure various off-the-grid groups do not steal from the Pantry during the winter months. Consul’s various weapons include Bambis and Thumpers, technically non-lethal unless used at close range. They, the consuls, Charlie included, are all damaged in some way, but in the winter landscape of Sector Twelve, they are accepted for what they are.

Fforde never ever uses a gender descriptive pronoun for Charlie. I said gender this time, not sex and that’s maybe because I am getting a little confused. Fforde’s not confused. He’s doing this on purpose to confuse me. I believe I found a clue to Charlie’s, uh, disposition on page 87 but subsequently, while reading various reviews, I see that the reviewers either didn’t pick up on that clue, and you know they skim, or ignored it and proceeded to give Charlie a nomenclature.

Were they correct in their willy-nilly choice of Charlie’s state since the author, as of two-thirds of the way through the book, chose NOT to disclose it? And, why is Jasper Fforde doing this? Well, that’s a silly question. Why does he do anything no one else has thought of doing?

So, I keep reading.

The severe winters that are afflicting Wales, and all the surrounding environs as far as we know, are another of the author’s little digs that I find amusing considering we’re all going to melt, apparently, from heat in a dozen years or so.

Do, someone else, read the book and let me know what you think.

About Eleanor Ingbretson

Native New Yorker. Transplanted to New Hampshire years ago, but still considered a flatlander by the neighbors. Writer of fantasy and mystery and whatever else takes my fancy.

Posted on March 2, 2019, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Yes I really loved this aspect to the novel, I actually assumed Charlie was female from the very beginning before noticing that Charlie is not given a gender description. As you say, it’s clearly deliberate and I think Fforde did it to demonstrate that no gender is more ‘worthy’ than others, as one of the key messages of the book is Charlie’s ‘worthiness’ (AKA moral fortitude) as judged by the Gronk.

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  2. So it is true—except for ones attributable to biology, there are no differences between males and females! Else how does a protagonist exist that doesn’t reveal its gender through its actions and thoughts?

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  3. Sarah Caudwell’s detective, Hilary Tamar, in The Sirens Sang of Murder and its sequels, is also of unspecified gender. Didn’t bother me. I pictured HT from the beginning as a spare, even wizened, academic spinster and gave the matter no more thought.

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