The Sundered Egg:
The Sexual Issue in Frederick Manfred's The Manly-Hearted Woman


Thunder on the Mountain;

Thunder on the Lake:

  –Preponderance of the Small.

The Manly-Hearted Woman, by Frederick Manfred [First Edition]

Deb Wylder has remarked that The Manly-Hearted Woman is a book of sufficient complexity to keep critics busy for years. Wrestling with the whole of the book these last two months, I have come back to that remark twice in exasperated agreement. Finally—irrelevantly, no doubt—I consulted the I Ching for help and received a spate of newly ambiguous messages until I asked how to begin this paper. The answer was unnervingly simple and straightforward: Small things may be done; great things should not be undertaken. That was the problem, of course; I was attempting to deal with all the issues in the book; worse, I was allowing every attempt I made to become diverted into some larger, relevant, but irresolveable problems. Bowing to the wisdom of the Tao, I will stay, in this little space, centered around one small issue.

Dancing Badger

Author's Note Note

None of Manfred's work is in print. The coming release of a mini-series based on his novel Riders of Judgment may change that.

The issue is sex.

It should be evident to any reader of The Manly-Hearted Woman that sex is a central issue in the book. For those who are not familiar with the story, a brief synopsis will substantiate this. A young, effeminate Yankton man goes to a sister village down the river to join a warparty going further south to attack the Omaha. He has been told that he will die in battle, and that his reward for this calamity is that he will be permitted to "talk" (a euphemism in the book for "make love") to the women of the lower village. He is part of some divine plan, inexplicable to mortals, and the events of the week of the novel will have ramifications into the distant future. At the village, Blue Mounds, his special mission is accepted as holy, and he impregnates eight women. His ninth lovemate is the wife of a manly—hearted woman–that is, one who has renounced her own sex and taken on all the social customs and duties of a man. Manly Heart at first accepts his mission and encourages his relationship with her wife Prettyhead, seeing they might have children, but she finds herself drawn to the man and finally tries to seduce him. He refuses to cooperate.

The men leave for the Omaha village. Meeting an apparent peace party from the village, they parlay. One Yankton, Bitten Nose, is angered by the amused attention of an Omaha girl who laughs at his mutilated nose. He insults her with a sexual gesture, then attempts to rape her, percipitating a battle in which he accidentally kills Flat Warclub. The Yanktons are victorious and return to Blue Mounds with their dead. Flat Warclub’s body is claimed by Manly Heart, who becomes female, buries him, and lives her remaining years as a hermit, mourning his death, known to the village as "The Silent Woman."

That the sexual issue is a major theme of the book can escape no reader; but the novel’s obsessional elaboration of that theme defies synopsis. Consider the tenor of the personal names, including those of incidental characters: Stalk, whose name is explained to us by his sister, and the similarly-named Hollow Horn; He is Empty, a sterile old man who begins to "fill up" through the ministrations of a new young wife; Rattling Wings Woman ("wings" is an oft—repeated euphemism for labia in the novel), who claims to have never had sexual intercourse; Flat Warclub, whose name "incidentally" describes the shape of his penis; Red Daybreak, whose sexual pleasure is early morning violence and rape.

Consider the metaphors peppering the book: a puffball is like a scrotum; the hills are breasts; a treeless river fork is like the fork of a young girl; the lizards of Manly Heart's s vision disappear "almost lewdly" into a red crack; a flute is a penis and vice versa; war is sexual and lovemaking like warfare; "lightning" is both orgasm and death; cactus are male genitalia, clamshells, female. The very landscape is heavy with male-female sexual reference, a world turning on the sensual axis of male-female union.

There are the names of the two villages to consider in this context. "Blue Mounds" is clearly female; Manfred leaves no doubt of this, using the word "mound" consistently throughout the book to refer to the vulva. Flat Warclub’s village is "Talking Water," named for the lake near it. While Manfred never describes the lake as steamy with sexual implication, like Lawrence’s Lake Sayula in The Plumed Serpent, once we have become accustomed to the double meaning here of the word "talk," it is not difficult to recognize in the village name a reference to seminal fluid. The male village comes down to the female village, to court, to defend and protect.

Sexual incident, much of it eccentric, proliferates in this brief book, though the actual "ta1king" of Flat Warciub and his nine paramours occupies only thirty pages. The list of sexual topics reads like chapters from Masters and Johnson: vagina dentata; male femininity and female masculinity; precocious sensuality; homosexuality; sadism; three separate discussions of masturbation, two male and one female; cunnilingus; parthenogenesis; a narcisstic Casanova and Bitten Nose’s mutilation—sexua1 in two senses—a1l in two hundred pages.

For all the detail of the novel—clinical, historical, and anthropological—The Manly—Hearted Woman operates on the level of fable or myth, not reality. For a "realistic" portrait of the female warrior or "manly heart," the reader must turn to Benjamin Capps’ Woman Chief. With Manfred we are on different ground, the soil of mythic time itself. In spite of occasional details to locate the story in secular time—such as the presence of a white fort down on the Missouri—we are in the pre-civilized time when communities establish their enduring character, a time that predates civilization and personality, that predates time itself. Like Conquering Horse, Manfred’s other pre-white Yankton novel, The Manly-Hearted Woman is about the establishment of a covenant, this one within the community itself, and sexual. Unlike the preceding book, here the covenant is flawed and the end tragic.

To understand the nature of this covenant, we must retreat not to pre-Columbian religions or even The Golden Bough, though both sources illuminate events in the novel; we must go back, through the medium of Plato’s Symposium, to a pre-human time. At literature’s most famous dinner party, the comedian Aristophanes contributed—perhaps extemporaneously—an explanation of why there are three sexes. That Manfred is familiar with the passage is easily demonstrated. He used it in his novel, Morning Red, in a discussion of the nature of love, and in an interview roughly contemporary with the publication of The Manly—Hearted Woman (The Denver Post, September, 1977) he referred to the story while discussing that central theme of his literary career—the nature of love—and went so far in that discussion as to quote an image from the Jowett translation still fresh in his mind.

The story is one of those, like the parable of the cave, that it is useful to come back to after years of assuming we know it, to discover how our personal preoccupations and prejudices have shaped and distorted it. I re-read it recently and made just such a discovery. I had recalled that there were three sexes, each a whole, round person, four-legged, with two faces—one all male, one all female, and one hermaphrodite. I remembered that Zeus, in one of his typical fits of pique with the human race, had split each in two ("like a sorb apple," as Jowett translates) and that the impulse to love is the impulse to become whole again.

It was here that Aristophanes and my memory parted company. The whole male is not, as I had had remembered, the progenitor of the male sex, the quintessential male seeking the female, but it is rather the archetypal source of male homosexuality. It is the hermaphrodite who is the source of man/woman love. I had assumed that the myth explained homosexuality as a memory of some ancient hermaphroditism; precisely the opposite is true. Applied with this proper understanding to the situations in The Manly-Hearted Woman, the myth becomes strikingly apt. Suddenly two ambiguously sexed characters are agents for establishing a new form of heterosexuality, the true heterosexuality of the male and female hermaphrodite, a Jungian marriage of male-with-anima and female-with-animus. That Manfred means us to think in these terms—at least sometimes as we read—is clear.

Most readers instinctively expect some union between the two central characters, and one of the great frustrations of the book is the failure of that logical consummation to occur, a source of the pessimism many find in the final pages. Flat Warclub has a dying recognition that he and Manly Heart were "made for each other," and Manly Heart expresses her own sense of that in an image which directly recalls Plato, when she demands the right to perform Flat Warclub's funeral and emphasizes her demand by running a finger imperiously from her forehead to navel: "separate him from me and you cut me in two," she says.

The connection to Aristophanes also provides some clarifications of the thematic function of Bitten Nose in the novel. He is represented throughout as Flat Warclub's chief adversary, playing Judas to the dying hero's Jesus or Set to his Osiris. He is brutal, violent, mean-spirited. His name celebrates a personal mutilation. During a fight with his brother, Always Finds Buffalo, the brother bit off the tip of his nose. The humiliation was so great that Bitten Nose killed the brother and exiled himself from his own village, moving to the Talking Water village. The story of his mutilation has symbolic as well as psychological meanings; the details are significant for providing more than mere motivation for his viciousness.

The missing tip of his nose is the badge of an adulterous wife. That the mutilation was executed by his own brother adds further sexual implication to it. By biting off the tip of his nose, Always Finds Buffalo has implicitly accused Bitten Nose of being unfaithful in sexual duties to his brother—at once homosexuality, adultery, and incest; he has symbolically unmanned Bitten Nose, since the nose is a commonplace symbol of the penis (lest we miss the relevance of that commonplace, we are told that the warrior's nose looks like a bitten cucumber, with tooth marks still visible). Always Finds Buffalo has performed the mutilation not with the customary knife but with his mouth, a sadistic mockery of oral sex. BItten Nose's recognition of all these implicationsis his motivation for murdering his brotherand is also offerd as an explanation for his savage misanthropy. It should come as no surprise that Bitten Nose is the most machismo-obsessed of the Yankton warriors; he is the whole man, half of the "true man" that he and his borther were together, at once totally masculine and symbolically homosexual. That he should precipitate the final battle by using heterosexual lust as a threat is in keeping with his symbolic function and his psychology—the over-compensating latent homosexual. It is no accident that he kills a deer by sodomizing it with an arrow.

Thus it could be said that the culture of these mythic Yanktons contains two of Aristophanes' sexes, the whole male and the whole female, and that the bulk of their troubles are brought about by their inability to accomodate homosexual personal needs with the heterosexual needs of the community. By homosexual I mean not just copulative preference—that, in fact, is hardly relevant at all—but something closer to the concept of "like-sex bonding." In The Manly-Hearted Woman we are touring Siouxland in the mythic age (recall, please, that "mythic" means "timeless," without beginning or end or even existence in time) of sexual warfare when "many women were being wronged in the camp" (33) and "living strange private lives" (39). The covenant initiated by the two heroes, the third pair that was missing from Yankton culture, the whole hermaphrodite, is intended to right this situation.

Before moving on to some questions this connection to the Symposium may answer, it would be well to examine the two husbands of Prettyhead, the half-white outcast Manly Heart has married, in light of that connection. Flat Warclub and Manly Heart are, as Manly Heart perceives, one "person," each representing a half, each half partaking of both sexes. Flat Warclub is introduced as an effeminate young man, ineffectual as a hunter, insignificant as a warrior, and given for his vision—his initiation into manhood—a laughably unmanly quest: Go hunt clams. He wears a clamshell, a feminine ornament, in his hair, and his "helper," once he secures one, is female in the Freudian sense—a small rock whose distinguishing characteristic is its myriad holes.

Growing up fatherless, he has no "proper" traditional male role model; this accounts for his eccentric character (though not entirely, for Bitten Nose and the narcissistic Sunny Day Walker were also fatherless). When his hour arrives, he distinguishes hiself as a lover—a clam hunter—rather than as a warrior, and it is among the women, not the men, that he is regarded as a great lover.

In a culture where "men were men, and women knew it," he is an unlikely hero. His effeminate seed should be the weak sterile discharge a real woman would avoid, a real man disdain. But it is he, so emphatically unvirile, who is to "father multitudes," to perform as the new seed stallion for the human herd at Blue Hounds. If he strikes the men as an unlikely lover, it is quickly apparent that to the woman the opposite is true, and his very effeminancy that distinguishes him. Prettyhead elaborates on this in a discussion they have after lovemaking:

"Why is it," she said, "that the women of our band complain that, when their husbands to wish to talk with them, their husbands talk suddenly and without notice? Even the dogs talk for a little while."
"This I do not know."
"Who are you that you are different and prefer to dally?"
"That is something for the gods to say."
"It is what every woman longs for from her husband. To tarry along the way and dally and fondle. All women love the touchings."
(p. 117-118)

During the description of Manly Heart's life before Flat Warclub arrived, we see a great deal of the sexual customs of the village, and we are given to understand that the women's needs are not well served. What Flat Warclub brings to the people of Blue Mounds is a new understanding of the sensual pattnership possible in sexual contact, the mutuality of give and take that makes relationships healthy, symbiotic. Only a man in touch with his own femininity can have such an understanding to share, only one secure in his masculinity can exercise it. Flat Warclub is not a winkte, a woman-heart, but a man sufficiently female to save a sexually polarized race#150;the Plains Indian race, yes, but also, in a larger context, the human race—from its own pattern of sexual conflict. Manfred makes him at once symbolically suited for his role and psychologically consistent; he is a fatherless child, through that curse of birth given the environmental opportunity to develop into the new kind of man his people needs.

Manly Heart is more problematic. She has been fully, almost too fully, female, obsessed with boys and sex as a child, conspicuous for her sensual desires in a culture where girls shouldn't be (paradoxically, this can be interpreted as both a sign of her masculinity and, because she desires sexual contact with males, exaggerated femininity). She has a certain physiological masculinity in her secondary sex characteristics. Her stride, the coarseness of her hair, her strong chin and eyes complement the physical effeminancy of the "slender, high-shouldered" Flat Warclub. Flat Warclub never rejects his identity as a male, even resents the fate that denied him the more obvious maleness of his fellow men. Manly Heart does explicitly reject her role as a woman, thereby departing on a course not strictly parallel to her male counterpart's.

She happily adopts all possible physical, social, and psychological accoutrements of masculinlity when she adopts her "manly-hearted" peorsona under the direction of the gods, and her decision is confirmed and approved by the village shaman and the warrior societies. She changes biologically, losing her menstrual period. The gods give her a helper similar to, complementary to Flat Warclub's. Hers is the masculine counterpart of his, a phallic spearhead she wears between her female breasts as if to emphasize her hermaphroditism. Their secret names, Stone from the Clouds and Point from the Clouds, emphasize the parallel.

She is the superb hunter that Flat Warclub is not—one of the best in the village. She is a respected "male" in the village when Flat Warclub arrives: married, accepted at council fire, and eligible to participate in the war party against the Omaha. She is only refused a place on the war party because the council agrees that Flat Warclub must go and taking two "special people" might be bad luck. Accepted as a husband by the orphan Prettyhead, she is assured by her helper that she will be father to a child. She and Flat Warclub fit together like the wavy seams of a jigsaw puzzle, filling each other's gaps, complementing any lacks, each receding to make room for the dominant characteristics of the other.

The obvious implication to draw from this complementarity is the one usually drawn—that these two should be parents of the ideal child, a sexual paragon who will represent the new order. It is a logical assumption; Flat Warclub flirts with the idea, Manly Heart is seduced and ultimately destroyed by it. It is, unfortunately, impossible as a resolution to many problems the myth attempts to deal with. For a number of reasons, these two cannot mate, nor can they raise the special child that mating would produce. Prettyhead must act as surrogate mother.

Prettyhead's role in the action is the most unsatisfying, reducing a pleasantly bilateral symmetry to trilateral confusion. But if we understand that Manly Heart and Flat Warclub are one person, her function is clear and crucial to the gods' plan. Manfred emphasizes the "special" quality of each of the three. Prettyhead is an orphan, a foundling. She is believed in the village to be part white, and none of the village boys will court her because of her assumed half-breed blood. Thus, she represents yet another hibridization, another blending of opposites, racial rather than sexual. Beautiful, affectionate, a good wife once she learns to accept the peculiar nature of her marriage to Manly Heart, Prettyhead is the ideal mother for the child. She has the outcast's understanding of the needs of a special child, but she is normal in all respects, even in terms of her own upbringing by a pair of villagers whose first child died. To exclude her from the equation of this sexual development would be to lose something valuable. It is for the women, a little more than for the race, that this covenant is enacted, and they must have a role in the creation. The child must have a mother and a father in order to see the new role models that will shape it into the special person promised by the gods–the mother is Prettyhead, the father is Manly Heart/Flat Warclub.

Manly Heart and Flat Warclub cannot be exclusively the parents, for reasons functioning on many levels of the novel, foremost the simple fact that both are "fathers." On the mythic level, Flat Warclub's death is the inevitable price that must be paid for the change that is occurring in the community. His social function is to fertilize nine women with a new seed, the androgynous seed of true man/woman love. It is important that many children be born, that a new line be engendered; there is the implication that a new race is being formed. But in order to fulfill this function, Flat Warclub must violate an established custom, a sacred tribal injunction against promiscuity.

Even when the gods require such crimes against the community, the individual, not the gods, must take the responsibility for the act. In Conquering Horse a similar situation exists, when No Name's father Redbird must die to make way for a new generation, and No Name must accept the possibility that he will have to kill him. In the earlier novel, Manfred demonstrated a clear understanding of the pre-Socratic concept of moira, justice as impartial balance, a concept most precisely articulated in the Oresteia. Change, growth, evolution, is the result of violating the stable boundaries of the community, those very boundaries being the static norm. A healthy culture must have both stability and growth, and stability is the function of the old, growth the intrusion of the new. If one must violate the old ways in order to create a new good, then the heroes who take upon themselves that obligation must pay, in accordance with the old law, for the violation, even as Orestes must pay for the morally good but socially evil murder of his mother.

Flat Warclub must die. He cannot return to the village after having violated a taboo of such importance; his death must be singular to justify his singular life. Flat Warclub accepts the immutable workings of moira; Manly Heart cannot. She assumes that human desire can divert the relentless course of superhuman justice, justice more the law of nature than the will of gods, and as much out of the gods' hands as out of hers. She becomes a tragic figure, at last, broken on the wheel of that implacable, unwavering justice.

It is the fact that he must die which forbids planting his seed in Manly Heart. To understand this, we must speculate a little about what might have been, the potential endings terminated by developments in the novel as written. The first problem to consider is implicit in Flat Warclub's recognition, while he is dying, of their rightness for each other: Had they shared and consummated that love, might the memory and promise not increase his understandable regret at dying and even tempt him to join her in resisting his fate? One needn't read far into the Greek roots of so many of Manfred's books before being deluged with examples of the disastrous consequences likely to spring from such attempts, calamities for both individual and community.

More important, though, is the paradox that their mating creates, a paradox Manly Heart's helper reiterates to persuade her to drop the idea. If Flat Warclub is the father, and Manly Heart the mother, then the child is automatically denied the very example of androgyny their mating should create, particularly if Flat Warclub dies. The father is dead, never seen by the child, unavailable as role model, and the mother has renounced her male role, becoming wholly woman to be impregnated. Mating the two effectively cancels out their significance as harbingers of a new sexuality.

Flat Warclub must die, as the price of the special gift he is given by the gods and the community, and so that he may be remembered and held up to his children as a role model: an androgynous hero, commemorated by the men for his courage, by the women for his sensitivity. Prettyhead must mother the special child, more special than the eight others sired with normal women, because Manly Heart cannot. As her helper insists, who ever heard of the husband giving birth? If she is to be accepted as a man, a husband, she must function in that role. Complement to the dead half—the war-making half—of the whole man that she and Flat Warclub represented between them, she must be the worldly role model for the child. That she cannot accept this responsibility is her personal tragedy and, ultimately, a tragedy for her human community. When she divorces Prettyhead and renounces her symbolic masculinity, she prevents the ultimate plan from being carried out.

It is the nature of the gods to ask of humans more than can be rightfully endured, in causes of superpersonal implication. When the individual overcomes personal limitations and subordinates personal gratifications for the greater good, it is the stuff of heroism, be the hero Prometheus or Christ, Tamsen Donner, Flat Warclub, or Judith Ravelling. When the individual is crucibled by such responsibilities and demands, and thus broken, not refined down to heroic stature but shattered, we enter the realm of tragedy. Manly Heart is a tragic hero, betrayed by her own affections and her sensual desires—unkindest betrayal of all in this novel of sensual affirmation. She becomes at last less than she could have been, failing to provide her necessary portion to the pattern of the new covenant. She fails because of a fatal paradox, that in order for sensuality to be reborn, one of three must renounce sensual pleasure. She is not equal to the renunciation, and through her a world is lost for love.

For her, the nine children are nothing. They are not even mentioned as the novel focuses down on her personal tragedy, winding to its pathetic conclusion. That they are born, we have no reason to doubt. Like Flat Warclub's fated death, they are in the immutable course of things. We need only contrast the polarized sexual divisions in The Manly-Hearted Woman with the unself-conscious androgyny of Redbird in Conquering Horse or of that other Siouxland Christ, Scarlet Plume a few novels later to see that the new sexual contract was completed for the Yanktons, however flawed or diminished by circumstance.

Then what was lost? A life, this woman's, destroyed in the refining fires. What else, the novel does not say, because no one will ever know what could have been. We can see in the Yanktons of Conquering Horse the sexually balanced people who came from the seed Flat Warclub cast upon the women of Blue Mounds. Among those progenitors was the son of Prettyhead, raised like the others by a woman who cherished the memory of the first truly heterosexual man. Like Flat Warclub, each male child would have been raised in a widow's environment, given the opportunity to grow away from the stereotyped masculinity, so insulated and sterile, of "real men." The change is inevitable, and good.
Frederick Manfred

Frederick Manfred

But who can say what evolution of human sexuality never grew beyond mere potential because Manly Heart could not accept her role as father to one of those children?

The Manly-Hearted Woman exists on many levels: it is a fable, a moral tale of human sexuality. It is one of Manfred's most startling and troubling explorations of the root and meaning of human sexuality, especially paired with Milk of Wolves, published the same year. It is a stimulating prologue to the Buckskin Man Tales, an ambitious attempt to explore the most basic issues of our relationship with the land and each other upon that land. It is an accurate representation of pre-white Plains Indian life, although this is certainly the least of its functions; it is not, like Conquering Horse, a work of great historical and anthropological detail, its realism is secondary (or less), a sketchy background to the mythic center of the piece. It is an adventure peopled with characters of fascinating psychological and moral complexity and touching human frailty. It is a love story of great poignancy and a narrative unabashed in its treatment of sex, violence, and humor. It is, until its final moments, primarily the story of a unique man. And yet, in those final moments the man, for all his uniqueness, is forgotten as the author brings us full face—or nearly so—upon the terrible price that Manly Heart, a woman again, her only love dead, has paid for the greater good of the tribe.

No detail of the last chapter of this novel so rich with the smell and feel and sensual delight of love and physical sex more painfully underscores that price than Manly Heart's new name, seen in the context of the pervasive double meaning of the word "talk." Flat Warclub paid for the birth of the tribe's new sexuality with his life; Manly Heart paid as well, aging in lonely vigil at the hero's scaffold, as the woman who never had the lightning, The Silent Woman.

—Mick McAllister

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