week 13

sultana's dream


This week we discussed “Sultana’s Dream,” a short story describing¬†a women’s utopia. On my first reading of the story, I was unsure as to what I was intended to take away from it. On the one hand, it described a seemingly perfect world, in which all energy is renewable, and there are no wars, and everything is kind and full of flowers. But of course there is always the underlying sense that something is amiss. It reminded me of a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in which a perfect utopia is maintained at the expense of a single pitiful, neglected child. “Sultana’s Dream” is probably even more skewed in the sense that an entire gender is sacrificed for a perfect world. I found it more satisfying to read the story as hyperbole, in which one is meant to feel uneasy. This world is lovely, but what about the men? Is it ever just to sacrifice the freedom of half the population for the good of the other? – if not, why is it the case that in the real world, women are marginalized?

I attempted to capture this sense of unease and imbalance in my illustration this week. On the left is a silhouetted lion (in the story, a lion is used metaphorically to justify why and how a man might be subdued), and on the right, a veiled woman, also in silhouette. The woman is sitting, meek, with her head bowed. Silhouetted prison bars frame and encapsulate the scene. The nature of the depiction Рthe fact that all the characters and elements are in silhouette Рmake it impossible to discern which party is imprisoned. Perhaps it is the lion who is behind bars and the woman is sitting beside the cage, or perhaps the lion is free and the woman is locked up. Or perhaps neither is free, and the two are locked in the cage together.

Taking into consideration these distinct interpretations of the scene, with this piece I hoped to make the viewer consider the implications of each one. It is of course a shame to lock up a majestic lion, who is depicted as powerful yet peaceable, not vicious. There is something similarly unsettling about locking up a woman while a lion roams free, and locking up both together is certainly no happy medium. The takeaway here is that the solution is not easy; the utopia described in “Sultana’s Dream” is not ideal, but nor is reality as it stands today. This piece is not meant to offer a simple answer; oversimplification is an easy pit to fall into, but feeding into it is unlikely to produce any useful resolution.

Medium: pen & ink