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The Battalion

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One step away
June 8, 2024

“Vox” conveys strong message about women’s rights

Vox
Photo by Provided
Vox

Any reasonable person would argue that communication forms the backbone of our society. Words are essential to education, relationships and self-expression. We use them in every aspect of our day.
This book review will probably amount to about 600 words. The average person speaks about 18,000 words a day. That’s roughly 560 million words spoken in our lifetime.
Imagine being limited to saying 100 words a day.
In her novel “Vox”, Christina Dalcher asks her reader to do just that. “Vox” is set in a dystopian America, where a zealous religious government has stripped women’s rights to work, own property, receive an education and even speak. The “Pure Society,” as they call themselves, justifies the suppression with biblical texts discussing women’s place in society. To enforce the prohibition on speech, the government designed and fitted each woman — even young girls — with a word counter. Each counter is a bracelet, programmed to respond to the woman’s voice, that counts every word she says. If she reaches 100 words before the counter resets at midnight, it delivers a powerful electric shock.
Dr. Jean McClellan, a cognitive linguist, is the main character in Dalcher’s book. Before the government stripped women of their rights, she was a leading researcher in the understanding of Wernicke’s area, the part of our brain that deals with speech and linguistics. Now, she’s a homemaker by force. After she is asked by the government to continue her work because the president’s brother has lost his ability to speak in a accident, Dr. McClellan is allowed to remove her counter for the duration of the project. Its removal gives her power: physically, she regains power over her speech; mentally, it gives her the bravery and means to push back against the government’s repression of women.
Many book reviewers have called “Vox” a modern day rendition of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. I agree to an extent. Both have the same kinds of societies: an extremist religious minority overtakes the government and starts systematically stripping away women’s rights. Both governments oppress homosexuality, and both arrest and publicly shame anyone who resists. In both books, the main characters reflect on missing the early signs of the loss of their rights.
“Vox” differs in two distinct ways. First, it is modern, in the sense that Dalcher incorporates current issues into her book: she mentions a border wall between Mexico and the United States, makes reference to the first black president and says that everything fell apart with the right-leaning Supreme Court. Secondly, unlike Atwood, Dalcher focuses a lot on the feelings Dr. McClellan has toward the men she knows, especially her husband. She loves her husband, and her three boys, but is angry that her boys can tell her all about their days at school, while her only daughter sits silently. She begins to resent her husband for being so passive and accepting of the way things are, when she expected him to be her strongest advocate. These additional complexities make “Vox” markably different from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” not just a reworked spin on the original story.
One complaint I have with “Vox” is that Dalcher resolves some of Dr. McClellan’s problems too easily. Instead, she almost lazily addresses additional plot complexities after the climax of the book is resolved. It was a disappointing moment in an otherwise thoughtful and well-written book. It may have been because Dalcher had already told the story she wanted to convey, but I would have been more satisfied if the book didn’t end so abruptly. Regardless, it doesn’t majorly subtract from the rest of the book. Dalcher’s own expertise as a linguist makes the story feel believable, and her storytelling is excellent for the majority of the book. This isn’t just a short story, however, and she makes her message clear: wake up and be engaged, lest you lose your chance.

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