Last night I was digging through my books, searching fruitlessly for some editions that I have either lost or given away, when I stumbled upon my copy of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I set it out to read later, but I immediately pushed my homework aside and polished off the first few chapters before bed. It’s a collection of short stories and one of the few science fiction books that I own, but I remember it being a favorite of mine growing up, so I was excited to see how it held up against the decades.
Most striking of the first few chapters was “Ylla,” about a Martian woman in a comfortable (though not precisely happy) marriage of 20 years. Many of the stories in The Martian Chronicles were published separately before being collected together, which is why I’m okay with talking about it outside of the whole work (I would never, for example, review just one chapter in a novel). “Ylla” was first published in 1950 and, reading it now, I immediately thought of Betty Friedan and “the problem that has no name.”
Before we get to that, however, let’s start with the plot. With the approach of the Earth men the Martian’s telepathy begins to pick up on their presence before they know what is happening. Ylla begins to dream of what is later called the “first expedition” and specifically of its captain, Nathaniel York. She seeks out these dreams more often, even singing in English without knowing what language she’s speaking. Interested at first, her husband (Yll) eventually becomes jealous and manipulative.
Ylla’s telepathic dreams solidify into prophetic visions; she dreams of the time and place of Nathaniel’s arrival, his appearance, his ship, that they will fall in love, and that she will go with him to Earth. Waking up from the most detailed dream the morning of Nathaniel’s arrival, Ylla’s eyes open to her husband standing over her. He forbids her to leave the house, which pains her because of her psychic pull to go to the spot of the ship’s landing, which she presents under the guise of visiting a friend. She obeys her husband’s command even after he takes a grotesque Martian weapon out “hunting” to the ship’s arrival site.
Ylla attempts to distract herself around the house, but she has become psychically tied to the ships arrival, and screams as two shots ring out in the distance. Returning home her husband pretends to know nothing, speaking vaguely about “hunting,” and dismissing her questions. Ylla tries to remember her dream and the strange song, but it is evaporating from her memory; she wants to remember, but cannot. The story closes with Ylla collapsing into tears, shaking as she weeps violently, saying that she does not know why she is so upset.
I was amazed by how much this short story prefigured Friedan and The Feminine Mystique. Regarding “the problem that has no name” Friedan wrote:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”
Ylla is an illustration of this very problem, a housewife who is neither happy nor unhappy, she is suddenly filled with a psychic vision of another life, another idea of happiness. With her husband’s overt intervention this door to another life is slammed shut forever as he continuously and intentionally misleads her while trying to convince her that she’s being irrational*. Because Ylla’s visions are linked to the existence of Nathaniel, his death leaves her unable to hold on to her “dreams,” and she collapses into unidentifiable depression.
That Ylla’s ability to dream of another life is explicitly linked to a man (Nathaniel York) means that it is not exactly a feminist short story. However, I don’t think it needs to be. We know from Friedan that this “problem” was present while Bradbury was writing, whether he was consciously commenting on it, or illustrating it without knowing what it was (similar to Ylla singing in English) is not the important part, the important part is that it is visible within the text. This is the germ of the idea at least, hopefully I’ll have a chance to flesh it out more in the future.
* This is another feminist-adopted theme called “gaslighting” (or “gas lighting”), named after a 1938 play which details this form of psychological abuse. See Wikipedia for a quite good summary of this term and its emergence from popular culture into clinical psychology.