Everyone Else Is Just Reanimated Snake-Mummies: H. Rider Haggard’s Antipodes
In our discussion of She, much has been said about the dualities in the novel (life/death, mind/body, beauty/ugliness, and the the list goes on. And on.), but it seems to me that not enough has been said about the overarching duality between England, the protagonists’ home, and Zanzibar, where most of the action of the novel takes place. If you look at the two destinations on a map, you will see that they are more-or-less antipodes of each other. Zanzibar is not the southern-most country on the planet (from a Eurocentric perspective), but neither is England the most northern country.
The antipodean positioning of the two cultures is taken to the extreme in Haggard’s portrayal of the African culture they encounter as one that has been all but turned on its head with respect to English society; the women are more sexually aggressive than the men – Holly is married to Ustane before he ever realizes it, Job has to defend himself against the sexual advances of one of the tribeswomen not long after their arrival (94) – , the living are in constant contact with the dead – drinking from vases which were originally used to hold the viscera of the dead (102), sleeping in bedchambers that were once the tombs of the dead, among many other instances – , and, though England at the time was under the power of a female sovereign as well, Ayesha is a stark contrast to Queen Victoria; appearing young and impossibly beautiful, as well as supernaturally strong and, if not purely evil, merciless with anyone who stood in her way.
By extension, Ayesha embodies everything that is wrong (read: evil) with this new society. On many occasions she is perceived as dead herself; the gauzy material she is usually wrapped up in gives her a ”mummy-like” quality (146) and when she first reveals herself to Job, he confuses her with a reanimated corpse, ” ‘Oh, God help us, sir!’ he ejaculated in a frightened whisper, ‘here’s a corpse a-coming sliding down the passage!’ ” (198). And on the topic of ‘sliding’, she is frequently given serpentine qualities. In fact, at least five times are her movements described as snake-like, she makes noises akin to hissing at least three times, and, most obviously, wears a “double-headed snake of solid gold” throughout the entire time Holly and Vincey know her. At various points in the novel she undulates, glides, slides, hisses and even throws back her head like “a snake about to strike” (160).
Saying that Ayesha exemplifies sin and temptation (a la the snake who tempted Eve) is not a stretch. She is to Satan as Queen Victoria is to God, the evil to her good, etc… Basically, Haggard is saying England = Good, Everyone else = Bad. And that pretty much sums up the British view of the rest of the world in the 19th Century.
Haggard, H. Rider. She. London: Penguin Classics. 2001. Print.