Unicorns and the Purity narrative: Extended thoughts on Ariel

WARNING

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ARIEL BY STEVEN R. BOYETT. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO KNOW SPOILERY ENDING MATERIAL. YOU HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED.

SECONDARY WARNING

THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT EXPLICITLY TALKING ABOUT AND RELATING TO SEX. IF YOU CANNOT HANDLE SUCH CONVERSATIONS OR ARE UNCOMFORTABLE READING THEM, THIS IS MOST LIKELY NOT THE POST FOR YOU.

The purity narrative is one that I find very interesting to look at culturally. Regardless of religious connotations, within American society two different expectations revolve around a teenager or young adult’s status as a virgin. For girls, they are expected to remain “pure” and not engage in any form of sexual behavior, generally being told to wait until marriage or at least being warned away from garnering a reputation for one’s sexual behavior. Girls who are not virgins are sluts, are spoiled goods, are someone to be mocked and ridiculed. Boys being virgins are another matter, though. Similarly to how girls are conditioned to feel shame for their sexual behavior, boys are conditioned to feel shame over their lack of sexual behavior. If you are over 18 and male, culturally men are told to hide their virgin status. To lie about sexual experience they may not actually have. And when they are with a female sexual partner, they are the ones expected to be experienced and know what they are doing.

This brings us to Ariel, whose protagonist is a boy named Pete in his early 20s whose familiar is a unicorn. And unicorns can only be touched by the “pure” meaning “virgin.”

Very rarely does the adjective “pure” get associated with men who are virgins, so I find this exploration of Pete’s virginity specifically being shown as him remaining pure very interesting. The cultural narrative of male virgins remains strongly in tact throughout the book. Pete feels shame explaining to others why they cannot touch Ariel, and others mock him for being a 20 something year old virgin. He is frequently distracted and aroused by female counterparts, often growing angry at them for being objects of his sexual desires that he cannot have. However, whenever his virginity is a matter discussed between Pete and Ariel, the subject of ‘purity’ is the main talking point. The struggle Pete has is between his desires to stay pure for Ariel so that he does not lose his familiar and the societal pressure to have sex paired with his own desires.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Boyett intended for Pete’s sexual struggles to be any sort of commentary on the purity narrative or how men are expected to behave sexually. The book does not seem aware of the hypocritical and confusing definition of what makes one “pure.” Pete can touch Ariel because he hasn’t had sex. He has, however, killed multiple people and masturbated and has constant sexual desires. He has a couple close calls with “losing his virginity” with a few women, but none of these things prevent him from remaining “pure.” Which raises more questions that the book won’t answer. So if masturbating is allowed and one can still be pure, does any sexual behavior count as long as it’s not literal intercourse? Why does his virginity make him pure but the fact that he has ended the lives of several people not count for anything? Why is it that Shaughnessy is considered impure because she previously had sex when she finds killing repulsive and refuses to take a life (at least for part of the book)? My interpretation of these quandaries is that it is showcasing how arbitrary the purity narrative is. That girls in high school would say that they were virgins but would being giving oral sex in the bathroom and there was no mental conflict. Because virginity means one thing, and that one thing is literal intercourse. It doesn’t matter what else you do, or how else you feel.

Boyett was 19 when he first started writing Ariel, 21 when it was published. That is a major reason why I believe that the commentary on virginity and remaining pure is not necessarily author intended. Pete’s singular mindset and want for sex very much sounds like it’s coming from the mind of a 19 year old. Pete has an incredible bond with Ariel, a creature he considers his truest friend and who has such power that she literally brings him back from the dead one time, but his desire for sex overshadows everything. Pete gets mad at women he wants sexually, calling them whores because they are not “pure” like him, when in reality he’s just mad at himself for not being able to engage sexually with them (it should be noted that both the women in question are attracted to Pete. This isn’t a one sided desire with them rejecting them). He does later realize the source of his anger and apologizes to both of them, although he still will rudely push Shaughnessy away because he cannot form a non sexual relationship with her when his wants are screaming so loudly.

As the book came closer to an end, I kept waiting to see how we were going to resolve the struggle between Pete’s desires and the unicorn purity rule. Would his bond with Ariel overcome his sexual urges? Could we compromise and allow him to pleasure himself whenever he wants since masturbating isn’t against the rules? Would Ariel somehow turn into a human and all of this would be solved because now human Ariel and Pete can have sex and solve all problems???? No. Without any fanfare or reference to the internal struggles Pete had earlier in the book, he just decides to have sex with Shaughnessy. He literally is searching for Ariel, who has run off after her capture, and is in the middle of an emotional breakdown over not finding her. Shaughnessy tries to console him and then within a few paragraphs they are having sex. Not once does Pete or Shaughnessy stop to discuss whether or not he actually is informed on this decision or is just acting irrationally and will regret it later. There is no mention of the thought that he will lose his bond with Ariel, who need I remind you we spent the entire book emphasizing how important she is to him and how much they love each other, he just desperately wants sex. He legitimately seems to forget the weight that this decision had, only realizing its after effects when Ariel returns to him the next morning and upon realizing that he has had sex, that he is no longer “pure”, she leaves.

I want there to be deeper meaning to all of this, because the foundation for engaging and interesting commentary is there. But at the time of his writing of Ariel, both in his age and the year in which he was writing, I don’t think Boyett had the awareness to make such commentary. Perhaps Pete’s struggles was reflective on the struggle that teenage boys and men do actually go through as their bodies mature. That they feel such immense desire to be sexual but still feel pressure not to act on it, be it from a religious place or a desire to find “the right” person. In the end, Pete is left feeling empty at Ariel’s absence, unsure how to move forward. But for once Shaughnessy isn’t blamed, nor is Ariel. Pete is just sad at his situation and lost. Because he’s finally fulfilled sexually but has lost the person with whom he had the closet bond with. Because the game was rigged from the beginning and there was never a way for him to win. Stay pure and starve the part of him that yearns for sexual fulfillment, or do what he did and give into his desires, but lose the one person he fought so hard for because no matter whatever else he did, he is now “impure.”

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2 thoughts on “Unicorns and the Purity narrative: Extended thoughts on Ariel

  1. There is some extended conversation in The Sparrow about the priesthood and celibacy (or “celibacy”, as it sometimes is) and how difficult it can be to remain celibate in the face of life and love and natural desires. This does not sound nearly so thoughtful. 🙂

    So is the resolution of the book that Pete doesn’t have his bff Ariel anymore? Is the author’s focus maybe more on that friendship relationship and its conditional status? There’s gotta be some authorial intent in there somewhere!

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  2. That’s part of the confusion… we spent so much time agonizing over Pete’s decision and then within a few pages he has sex, sees Ariel, they literally don’t say anything just cry sadly, and she leaves. The novel as a whole has a ‘journey to adulthood’ motif as Pete becomes more competent a survivor and grows up emotionally. So if anything, I could see that sex in this case was the last step for him to grow up and that means he cannot access the things of his childhood, i.e. Ariel.

    But Ariel isn’t ever associated with childish things in the earlier parts of the book. She’ll swear and talk to Pete about sex (just, you know, not “let” him have it because purity) and neither of those things seem youthful to me. Plus, it was also implied that if a person’s bond with their familiar is broken (normally through death, but none fatal breakage could happen as well) that the person will live but the familiar will eventually die. So… Pete has this deep bond with Ariel, chooses to has sex and she potentially dies or at least never speaks to him again. I honestly am unsure what overarching point Boyett was trying to get at when he made these decisions.

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