Content warning: sexism, violence against children
Spoiler warning: spoilers for all His Dark Materials books.
In preparation for the final(?) season of His Dark Materials, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon one of the main characters of the show, Marisa Coulter. I will do so from a book perspective, but much of her book journey is of course relevant to the show as well. In either format, Marisa Coulter is someone to be reckoned with. From the moment we first meet her, we realise that this is someone extraordinary that we are dealing with.
A lady in a yellow-red fox-fur coat, a beautiful young lady whose dark hair falls shining delicately under the shadow of her fur-lined hood, is standing in the doorway of the Oratory, half a dozen steps above him. It might be that a service is finishing, for light comes from the doorway behind her, an organ is playing inside, and the lady is holding a jewelled breviary. (…) The young lady’s daemon is moving out from behind the fox-fur coat. He is in the form of a monkey, but no ordinary monkey: his fur is long and silky and of the most deep and lustrous gold.(Pullman 2011a, 42)
Who is this beautiful lady, surrounded by luxuriousness and holy light we might ask? Well, we soon find out that she is a child trafficker who is conducting unethical experiments on marginalised children, partly in order to gain power. I’ve previously analysed these events from a few different points of view, so here I wanted to approach Marisa and her actions a bit differently. Specifically, I want to analyse how Marisa’s relationship to gender, class, shame, and power impacts the way she approaches the world.
We don’t know too much about Marisa’s background, except that she wasn’t from the same social standing as either Asriel (or presumably her husband Mr Coulter). This is made clear in Northern Lights when John Faa explains to Lyra how Asriel and Marisa met:
When he was a young man, Lord Asriel went exploring all over the North, and came back with a great fortune. And he was a high-spirited man, quick to passion, a passionate man. And your mother, she was passionate too. Not so well-born as him, but a clever woman. A scholar, even, and those who saw her said she was very beautiful. She and your father, they fell in love as soon’s they met.(Pullman 2011a, 122)
Here we learn a few crucial facts about Marisa. First, that she wasn’t exactly “well-born”, and second that she was considered both clever and beautiful. She was also a scholar, something the reader already knew, but it’s interesting that it’s pointed out in this passage when describing her social standing. Asriel has a lordship and “a great fortune”, and Marisa has her beauty and some academic acclaim. We don’t know as much about Mr Coulter, but it is stated that he was a politician and someone who was raising in power. It makes sense then that Marisa might marry him to gain a better social standing herself. As Asriel says later in Northern Lights:
You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken- priesthood and so on- it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that.(Pullman 2011a, 372)
So, she tried to gain power by marrying up, so to say, but that didn’t work. So to start, I’d like to analyse that strategy of hers and what made it fail. To do so, I’ll have to go into some theory…
I think one way of understanding Marisa’s actions is by looking at them through the theoretical perspective of two sociologists: Beverley Skeggs and Pierre Bourdieu. Skeggs has done a lot of writing about working-class women, and while I don’t think Marisa grew up lower-class (just not upper-class), I still think a lot of this applies. When writing about class, Skeggs makes use of the work by Pierre Bourdieu and how he conceptualises class. As he argues, someone’s position in society isn’t just caused by their economic capital, but also social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital (1987). One’s position in what he calls social space is furthermore dependent on not only the volume of one’s capital, but also the composition of said capital, and one’s trajectory. This essentially means that it matters how much capital you have, how much of each type of capital in comparison to each other you have, and where you started in the social space and where you have moved. Economic capital refers to, as one might guess, the amount of money one has. Social capital on the other hand refers to what social connections one has, which networks one has access to etc. But cultural capital is perhaps the most interesting one and one that becomes very relevant for this analysis. Cultural capital refers to for instance education, knowledge of culture (books, movies, music, etc.), and general taste (in clothes, décor, etc). As Bourdieu argues, different type of cultural capital is valid in different social spaces. If we apply this to His Dark Materials, we might consider how at Jordan, tokay is served after dinner, while with the Gyptians one can expect jenniver. You can make similar comparisons about what is seen as good taste in décor, for example when Lyra arrives at Marisa’s apartment:
She had seen a great deal of beauty in her short life, but it was Jordan Collage beauty- grand and stony and masculine. In Jordan Collage, much was magnificent, but nothing was pretty. In Mrs Coulter’s flat, everything was pretty. It was full of light, for the wide windows faced south, and the walls were covered in delicate gold-and-white stripped wallpaper. Charming pictures in gilt frames, an antique looking-glass, fanciful sconces bearing anbaric lamps with frilled shades; and frills on the cushions too, and flowery valances over the curtain-rail, and a soft green leaf-pattern carpet underfoot; and every surface was covered, it seemed to Lyra’s innocent eye, with pretty little china boxes and shepherdess and harlequins of porcelain.(Pullman 2011a, 76)
Both Jordan and Marisa’s apartment are described to have this sort of luxury beauty, albeit in different ways. It’s interesting to consider how this contrasts with what is valued in the Gyptian community, where the Costa family’s boat is described as “brightly painted” (Pullman 2011a, 37), and the family is “noted for the grandeur and sumptuousness of their boat (ibid, 54). We hardly get a view that the Gyptians’ boats are luxuriously decorated in the same sense that Jordan is, the painting is most likely not as expensive as whatever decorations they have in Jordan, yet the Costas’ boat is still considered one of grandeur in this community, based on what they value. It thus contributes to them having a higher standing in that community. Yet, it would not be recognised as a legitimate form of cultural capital in other spaces. This can be explained by another Bourdieu concept, symbolic capital. Symbolic capital refers to the form the other capitals take when they are deemed legitimate. An example of this would be how a university degree (especially from a “fancy” university) makes one’s cultural capital (in this sense education) legitimate, and thus it functions as symbolic capital. As Bourdieu notes, for capital to matter, for it to wield any power, people need to believe that it does.
The power of words and commands, the power of words to give orders and bring order, lies in belief in the legitimacy of the words and of the person who utters them.(Bourdieu 1979, 83)
Symbolic capital is therefore crucial to make the other types of capital matter.
Thus far, I’ve mainly talked about class and capital in isolation, not considering other social structures, but as many (eg. Skeggs 2005) have noted, social structures such as gender and race most definitely impact class and capital. As mentioned above, Beverley Skeggs is one scholar whose work regarding this I think is especially interesting. When discussing class and gender, Skeggs have noted how the working class has often been seen as dirty, dangerous, pathological, and lacking respect (2002). As she notes, one strategy that the working class (especially working-class women) have employed to counter this perception is striving for respectability. Achieving respectability then becomes a form of cultural capital, which can compensate for one’s lack of other capital (eg. economic, social, and symbolic). To achieve respectability, one needs to utilise femininity correctly. Femininity thus becomes a tool to achieve more capital and a higher standing in the social room. This can include using femininity when pursuing heterosexual relationships and gaining status through these. But while performing femininity correctly might lead to one gaining more capital, there is also the risk that one will perform it incorrectly, for instance by dressing or behaving in a way that is seen as trashy/promiscuous/slutty will further cement one’s place in the social room. And, as Skeggs note, for someone who does manage to make it out of the classed space they grew up in, it often feels like one is always waiting to mess up. For the other shoe to drop. One can often feel afraid of saying the wrong thing, behaving in the wrong way, dressing in the wrong way etc, because one wasn’t brought up with the social codes that come for granted for everyone else.
While not all of this applies to Marisa, I do think that thinking about her actions through the lens of capital, respectability, and femininity sheds some light on what she was trying to do early in her life, and why it failed. It seems as if she attempted to use her femininity as capital to better her station, particularly through her marriage which became a way to gain more cultural, economic, and social capital. Yet this all obviously got (at least partly) ruined when she had an affair with Asriel and got pregnant with Lyra. In the public perception, she wasn’t a respectable woman anymore, having deviated from the norms surrounding sexuality. No longer a respectable and proper wife, she lost a lot of cultural and symbolic capital. As Marisa puts it herself, having this child outside of marriage has been shameful:
“My child, my own child, conceived in sin and born in shame, but my child nonetheless, and you keep from me what I have every right to know!”(Pullman 2011b, 37)
It is interesting how Marisa uses the word shame here, in a context where the Magisterium is discussing Lyra and the prophecy around her. As the reader learns later, Lyra is destined to repeat the role of Eve, committing “original sin” again. I have in a previous essay discussed both Lyra and Marissa in relation to Eve, so here I would just like to note how according to the bible (in our world and Lyra’s world) humans started to feel shame over their bodies due to Eve’s actions. Again, shame is connected to women’s sexuality.
This connection between femininity, sexuality, and shame is also something Professor Ulrika Dahl has written about (2014). Dahl describes womanhood as more or less a connotation to the affect of shame. This can mean being shamed, but also shaming others, for instance shaming one’s family by “inappropriate” actions. According to Dahl, the way femininity is so closely bound up in shame leads to the two concepts often reinforcing each other.
Maybe shame is the connective tissue that embodies femininities and their relations, that which forever associates femininity to that which is called womanhood and defines the subordination of that which we call the second sex.(Dahl 2014, 325) My translation from Swedish.
Furthermore, Dahl also argues that this is all tied to social class. Shame prevents us from taking certain paths in life because it reminds us of where we come from, and how we are perceived. Like Dahl says:
Shame moves between us, it spreads, sometimes like wildfire between downcast eyes in a subway cart when someone speaks too loudly, dresses inappropriately, or is harassed. Shame sticks between bodies and things, it’s a form of inherited connective tissue which links you to your class background, your barn, your family’s reputation, your lack of family, it precedes you when you arrive at school or your workplace, in the same way your people’s reputation might precede you when you arrive to a (new) nation. Shame is a repeated movement away, down, and in, an instinctive reaction, shame slides over bodies like sticky slime, and it’s not just the fault of slimy men; it can make us reject the one we love the most or at least the one who wants to love us, shame leaks out of bodies in the form of sweat and tears. Shame holds us in its grip, our private lives and our feelings, our relationships and our way of moving through life and it’s not always possible to deconstruct or intellectually dismiss how shame operates in individuals and collectives. Shame orients us in certain directions and not others. Shame stops us from speaking, questioning, it’s used to silence, not in the least women and feminists (…) Shame is to be exposed and the exposure of your shame is even more shameful. Look down. Know your place. Do not make claims and do not show interest.(Dahl 2014, 326) My translation from Swedish.
I think this description of shame and how it affects people, especially feminine folk, provides a very clear explanation of Marisa’s actions. The exposure of her “shame”, in having a child out of wedlock, affected her so deeply because the shame was so associated with her position as a woman. And being a woman is already inherently shameful, especially in her world. It’s already associated with sin, the sin of Eve. Marisa’s actions made this association even clearer. She probably, therefore, felt like she had to separate herself as much as possible from the shame, move away from and reject the child she loved out of shame. As Dahl says, shame orients us in this world and Marisa’s shame strongly affected the future steps she would take to regain power.
Another aspect of Marisa’s decision to reject motherhood as she strove to gain more power is of course the difficulty of combining motherhood and a career, even today. And in Marisa’s world, it’s probably even more difficult. As many second-wave feminists pointed out as early as the mid-20th century, an obstacle to true equality for women was that even when women were given access to the labour market, they were expected to put their role as mothers first (eg. Moberg 1961). To handle this, and the shame her extramarital affair had brought, Marisa seems to have tried to separate herself as much as possible from motherhood and sexuality. While still being feminine in her appearance etc and making use of that cultural capital, she devotes her whole career to fighting against sexuality and sin. In her work in investigating Dust and severing children she essentially rejects all that she risks being associated with due to her previous “shameful” behaviour. She also has access to a lot of her previous cultural, economic, and social capital as we can see during for instance the cocktail party in Northern Lights. She’s still (somewhat) respected as a woman of high society, with the social connections to prove it. And she doesn’t hesitate to show off her status through her clothing and decorations in her apartment. Yet, it seems clear that even though she has amassed some power through her forms of capital and her position and the Magisterium, part of why she has been able to do that is that she’s seen as a disavowable asset by the Magisterium. As a woman, and a woman with her past, she can be used by the Magisterium to do unsavoury tasks, but she can also be cut off if necessary.
In conclusion, it becomes clear that Marisa has several different strategies to gain different forms of capital and power. She has tried to use social capital and cultural capital to gain economic capital and symbolic capital, to rise above the class position she was born into. As part of that, she tried to use her femininity to be seen as respectable and gain more cultural capital. But that ability was damaged when she had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock. She wasn’t seen as respectable anymore. Her actions brought shame upon her. And this shame was especially connected to her femininity and sexuality. As such, this shame oriented her going forward, for instance rejecting motherhood and building a career in policing sin. Throughout this, it is clear that Marisa’s power is very much tied up with class, shame, and femininity. Both her goals, her means, her limitations, and the consequences of her actions are inextricable from the social structures around her. That’s part of what makes her a fascinating character. She does absolutely terrible things, but she’s also such a clear example of what power and social structures can do to someone. The shame of the patriarchy has burned her, but instead of burning it down in return she for the most part works within it to gain power. Until she doesn’t. Until she becomes part of conservative men’s worst nightmare.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Symbolic Power.” Critique of Anthropology 4(77): 77-85.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups.” Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32: 1-17.
Dahl, Ulrika. 2014. Skamgrepp. Femme-inistiska essäer. [”Dirty trick. Femme-inist essays.”]Stockholm: Leopard.
Moberg, Eva. 1961  ”Kvinnans villkorliga frigivning.” [”The woman’s conditional liberation.”] In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter [”Key texts in women’s politics”],eds. Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 164-173. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
Skeggs, Beverley. 2002. Formations of Class & Gender- Becoming Respectable. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Skeggs, Beverley. 2005. ”The Re-Branding of Class: Propertising Culture.” In Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities & Lifestyle, eds. Fiona Devine, John Mike Scott & Rosemary Crompton, 46-68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pullman, Philip. 2011a. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic UK Ltd.
Pullman, Philip. 2011b. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic UK Ltd.