To celebrate WOM4N, we asked several of our authors and staff to share their favourite female characters from the 4th Estate bookshelves. Here, Justine Gold explains the appeal of Flora 717, the humble insect at the heart of Laline Paull’s ‘The Bees’…
‘Flora thrills and frustrates me. Hatched into a world where deformity can mean death, Flora essentially defies the Hive’s eternal law – ‘Accept, Obey, Serve’ – from the very beginning of The Bees, through her physical strength and attributes. She kicks and forces herself out of her cell, is ‘obscenely ugly’ and ‘excessively large’, and is able to speak, while others of her kin are mute.
Yet these are all qualities that she is born with and cannot change about herself. The fact that she inherently defies the regime without even meaning to, allowed me to immediately stretch my imagination to thoughts of her battling the Priestesses, leading a resistance, and, ultimately, becoming Queen. But alas, her hive-mind limitations mean that she is almost always failing to deliver the strength that, as a conscious being, she should have control over: a psychological resistance.
I find myself thinking of the vibrant mind of Offredin Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid Tale. Offred actively attempts to preserve her sanity and revels in the sense of power that comes from visualising her former life, performing small acts like hiding her daily allotment of butter in the toe of her shoe, and reciting ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum’. While Flora’s curiosity does lead her to places she is forbidden to enter and gradually uncover secrets, it is not as defiant and disruptive as her initial bulldozing entrance into the bees’ world. She is physically strong as a forager, battling harsh weather and wasps to bring food and protect the hive, but she rarely questions the regime. However, Paull is utterly correct to deny us of this internal resistance; Flora is not human, like Offred. She is a bee, slave to the hierarchy of the hive and entranced by the Queen’s all-encompassing scent. It is this that propels my frustration with Flora: the undeniable gulf between human and animal that forces me to just stop short of admiring her… right up until the unimaginable happens, and Flora refuses to make the same mistake twice.
It’s at this moment that Flora shines. Having remained faithful to the law and devoted herself to her Holy Mother the Queen, there has come a time where mother courage prevails over the chemicals that have numbed her, and I realise that those big expectations I had for Flora might still be fulfilled. She resists on all levels and musters the strength of mind and body to protect and nurture, and I finally understand, respect and admire her. Testament to Paull’s writing, I found myself relating to the strife and perseverance of this astounding bee.’
To find out more about our books, events and competitions, click here to sign up to our newsletter.
If you enjoyed this, try: