A Man’s Woman is a story of a man of formidable strength and will, and a woman of the same determination and strength of character. The major theme of the book revolves around the nature of women, the unassailable dissimilarities between the characters of women and men, and the differences in the purpose of their lives that these dissimilarities bring.
The story starts rather unexpectedly with a team making an expedition in snow that we later come to know to be in the Arctic, making its way to the North Pole. The story is set at a time when the North Pole hadn’t yet been conquered by humankind, which explains the Herculean challenge set by the team to themselves. The team is led by Ward Bennett who, as a man of elemental force, exercises complete control over the men in the team and is the primary source of motivation for them. His second-in-command is a man called Richard Ferriss with whom he builds a relationship of great trust and mutual reliance.
The first chapter itself reveals to us that Bennett and his right hand man, Ferriss, are both in love with a woman named Lloyd Searight, who is unaware of the regard that the former has for her. Lloyd Searight is a very wealthy woman who has secretly founded a nursing agency in which she herself works as a nurse. She is a heroine very unlike what we are used to, as she seems to have no weakness. She is described as an extraordinary woman; she is industrious and principled, a most competent nurse, and a beautiful woman besides. She also finds herself fighting what the author terms as the ‘Enemy’ which is death and disease, corresponding to the fight Bennett has against nature.
Bennett’s expedition falls into major trouble and after the loss of men and provisions, the remaining men find themselves in a situation of certain death. A whaler boat rescues them, however, and they return to the United States as severely damaged men, physically and mentally. The inflexion point in the story occurs when Ward and Lloyd take opposing stands on whether the latter should nurse Ferriss, who is dying of typhoid. In this crucial moment, we see Lloyd declaring her deep love for Ward and subsequently backing down from her position, begging Ward to let her nurse Ferriss and fulfil her professional and moral obligations.
Shocked at Bennett’s forcefulness, Lloyd has several moments of weakness, where she reflects on her vulnerability as arising from her sex, and not her as an individual. She, wondering if her fortress of impregnability is built on sand, eventually lets Ward have his way and returns to the agency, expecting humiliation and loss of face with the other nurses. This incident leads both of them to introspect upon the substance of their work and their lives; the nature of their strength and weaknesses and all the moral questions arising from them.
The story focuses almost singularly on the interaction between men and women, and the differences in the positions taken by them even when both characters are strong, bull-headed and resilient. Lloyd reflects elaborately on the convergent but different objectives that are to be achieved by men and women; and guides her behaviour so as to be a support for Bennett, who she believes to be made by God to be an Arctic explorer, while sacrificing her own career.
While the book seems entirely too sexist at various points, it makes one suspicious of their own beliefs, and led me to scrutinise many relationships between men and women around me. The events in the book may get factual support from many examples around us, but the essential question that must be asked is whether varied behaviour is a result of differences between men and women, or as a result only of the belief that such differences exist.
This book will challenge many premises we proceed on while arguing any gender-based issue, and because of the dramatic style of writing that the author employs. Read the book because the author has used accounts of actual explorers while writing the details of the Arctic expedition, making them very real and moving. Read the book because I assure you that you will want to call someone and discuss it before you’re even through the less than two hundred pages. Finally, read the book because it will make you Google “man’s woman” and find another lens in the enormous camera of stereotype and prejudice we use to view women around us.