The society presented in Sherri Smith’s Orleans is not emphatically divided by race, class, or gender. Unlike other YA dystopian protagonists (such as Katniss Everdeen or Pressia Belze), Fen de la Guerre does not live in a culture of Have and Have Not. Instead, the ruins of New Orleans are divided among blood tribes, and blood has come to signify all aspects of life: currency, religion, safety and social standing. In this respect, while blood does not simply represent one modern-day social division, the overarching theme of purity can be seen in Orleans’ constructions of the meaning of blood, and female sexuality.
The post-apocalyptic society of Orleans, closely links the desirability of pure blood and the historical value of sexual purity. Blood purity is considered both a privileged and vulnerable position. The idea of blood purity, which individuals cannot influence, being the highest marker of value draws attention to constructions of value and purity. For example, when considering Enola, Fen says, “Baby Girl brand-new. Cleanest blood there is. She ain’t got the Fever in her yet, and won’t if I be careful” (Smith 61). The value of blood purity is further emphasized when hunters appraise Enola, saying, “Fresh blood. Maybe not even the Delta taint. We can sell that for twice the price.” (119). Enola’s purity is heightened by her newborn status, but Fen notes that as a child herself, she was made aware of the consequences of blood status. When blood hunters attacked her family, she reflects that they “Almost took me, too, but Daddy knew what they do to little girls like me on blood farms.” (62). Fen’s use of “little girls” and not “little kids” indicates the interchangeability of girlhood, purity, and innocence in her society. Blood status and autonomy are also closely linked in Fen and Enola’s experiences in Orleans, because Fen’s O-Positive status places her at a constant risk of being captured and harvested for her blood. The violation involved in this experience serves to dehumanize her in an animalistic way. When captured and taken to a “blood farm”, the hunter Orvis says “Once you fatten ‘em up, who knows how much [blood] they’ll pump”, and his partner Maylene responds, “Stable ‘em and feed ‘em.” (123).
In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti argues that there is an “inextricable relationship between sexual purity and women” (21). Western society has historically viewed purity as one of the most important aspects of the female identity, representing her commitment to her (future) husband, and her moral character. Over time, the desecration of purity has come to include many “risky” behaviour made by (often, young) women including sex, body modification, and drug or alcohol use. It is important to note that girlhood is indistinguishably linked to the idea of purity because girls are often viewed as too young to engage in “inappropriate behaviour”, and are deemed to be “innocent”, and at risk of losing their purity.
In this new world of disease and contamination, importance is still found in sexual purity, however there is more emphasis in literal cleanliness of blood due to it’s rarity and it’s role as a currency in the walled society. While the construct of virginity implies a decreased female value after pre-marital sex, the concept of bodily purity in Orleans decrees that a person’s value decreases significantly after being pierced by a needle. Fen is familiar with the value of those who are “untouched” because of her experience being bought and sold by Mama Gentille as a child. She remembers her discomfort at Mama Gentille’s fascination with her immaculate skin, “I pull my arm away, but she hold on tight… we both stare at the inside of my wrist… Mama run a hand down my arm…’You’ve not had it as bad as the rest… You speak like a little lady and your skin be smooth’” (Smith 91). When Fen discloses to Mama Gentille that she knows her blood type, Mama slaps her across the face because this could decrease her value to a buyer.
In addition, Fen’s buyer’s reaction when faced with the prospect of clean blood is reminiscent of the past and present fetishization of virginity. Fen describes, “he be spreading my legs, and I clamp them shut but he force them wide and run his hands along my knees and thighs and over the insides of my arms. ‘Clean,’ he say to himself. ‘Clean, like she said’” (96). The inextricable nature of sex and blood is furthered by the ambiguous language used between Fen and Alice, when Alice says, “ She ain’t wanting you to be used up on one of the boys here. She got something special in mind for you.”(94). The idea of being “used up” is often associated with female virtue, and Alice’s vagueness connects to the notion of virginity as a tangible object that once given or taken, is gone forever. In Fen’s world of blood hunters, blood farms and the everyday sale of blood, a person can literally be used up. Lines such as “He used me up and I ran away” (105), can be interpreted through the lens of scholar Sara Day, who highlights the recurring connection in popular culture between blood and female sexuality, which together involve, “The power of desire, the act of penetration, and the exchange of bodily fluids” (Day).
Orleans constructs a society which places the “untouched” in a position of vulnerability, and allows for ambiguous notions of purity to blur the lines between sexuality and blood status. Blood farms, rape and tribal violence invoke ideas of bodily violation and autonomy, prompting readers to examine the “blurred lines” between Fen’s experiences as a blood donor, a rape victim and as a young girl who was once deemed as “clean”, pure”, and “desirable”. Fen’s survival in Orleans relies on understanding her past abuse, her knowledge of her own value, and a desire to shield the baby Enola from a similar fate.
Day, Sara K. “Pure Passion: The Twilight Saga, ‘Abstinence Porn,’ and Adolescent Women’s Fan Fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1, 2014.
Smith, Sherri. Orleans. Speak, 2013.
Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2010.
- Is there is any religious significance (e.g. Christianity) in the emphasis of blood and purity in this novel? What would a religious connection imply or signify to readers?
- Does Enola’s survival contribute to the value of purity in Orleans? As one of the only “pure” characters in the novel, what does her survival (and Fen’s death) say about the value of purity?