The Big Idea: Jane Hennigan

In her novel Moths, author Jane Hennigan does a table flip on the world we know to reveal some things that are truths in any world we might happen to live in.


Why did you make the men suffer so much?

Do you just hate men? Is that it? This is the sort of half-joking question I get from men I meet after they ask me what my book is about. Occasionally I get asked – what does your husband think of your book?

I do not hate most men. Nor do I want most men going around feeling constantly bad about themselves due to the fact that they are part of the patriarchy and not at that very moment checking their biases. The fact is, I’m married to a man – a really nice guy. Likewise, my two sons, my stepson, brother-in-law, nephews – all phenomenal people.

I’m a feminist, yes – but then so are many men. I want to reply that feminism is about bringing about equality – its ambition is not to torture men.

My focus on feminism, and in particular how it intersects with class, began when I attended university to study literature and philosophy. I was thirty-four and from a working-class background where claiming to be a feminist would be met with, at best, confusion or ridicule, at worst, hostility, so the course was an eye-opener. Later I became a lecturer for seven years at a further education college (community college in the US). I taught, among other things, feminism in literature. Much of the course looked to redress the bias towards white, rich, male authors which populates many undergraduate English syllabi. Instead, we read Alice Walker, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. 

The students were, in general, working-class women, ranging from their late twenties to early forties. Like me, having missed the opportunity to go to university the first time around due to children or work commitments – they were now taking advantage of the accelerated two-year degrees available at the college, cramming their studies into every spare minute. They’d come into class – exhausted, often straight from a job, or sometimes with a toddler in tow, clutching a copy of The Color Purple and a juice box. Then we’d discuss the themes of endemic violence, power, and why male hegemony mattered.

Initially, it didn’t matter to most of them. The idea that there was some mystical power structure that you couldn’t see, one that men had put there seemingly on purpose to keep women down – that it permeated our language and our institutions, our schools and churches, even our families, seemed ridiculous. Men just aren’t that clever! said one student, to much nodding. Add to this the third-wave ‘choice feminism’ platitude Women! you can be whoever you want to be— nobody’s stopping you—and the whole idea comes across as a bit wayward.

But those were potent books on the syllabus. The way Walker presents Sophia – her wit and strength crushed by institutionalised racism and sexism. How Atwood unpicks men’s microaggressions, and their toxicity towards women and then amplifies both in the dystopian Gilead. Angela Carter’s rewriting of the culturally engrained stories and fairytales which pass on patriarchal configurations of power. Not all the students bought into the idea of institutionalised bias, but some did. They saw their own struggles – implicit, understated, unnamed, reflected back from the pages of those texts. But also, importantly, they had men in their lives. What could they do? – up and leave their partners? Never speak to their misogynistic fathers again? Abandon their sons? They could do anything they wanted – but theoretical feminism is vastly different from navigating the world as it is right now – especially in a working-class environment.

Books that call out the patriarchy sometimes set the narrative at a ‘men are terrible’ stage – a primal feminist scream, understandable, vital even. The early timeline in Moths is exactly this – a brutal rendering of male violence against women, a look at how those men closest to women are statistically the most likely people to hurt them. But I also wanted a way of exploring other ideas – what would a modern matriarchy look like? How would women—vastly underrepresented in STEM fields—rebuild a country after its decimation, how would women, born into a world unencumbered by the male gaze, feel and act? And finally – how would women treat men, when the power dynamic had changed so drastically?

In the second timeline, women run the country and men, when they are considered at all, are valued for their docility and sex appeal. Women are the agents of the world and they treat men similarly to how men in the 1950s treated their secretaries. There is a measure of ironic tongue-in-cheek humour to this, but it’s also meant to defamiliarise the situation.

Flipping the script, replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, highlights the existing gender inequalities. Those lacking power struggle more. In Moths – that’s the men.

Moths: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jane Hennigan”

  1. Does this “gender dystopia” mention trans and intersex people? What kind of people are included in “all men” who are affected by the moths?

    I am profoundly uninterested in a gender dystopia (or utopia, for that matter) that assumes gender is absolutely, biologically binary.

  2. The main character’s best friend in the book is a trans woman, and I thought it was really well done, inclusive and sensitive. If you like dystopian sci-fi and apocalypse stories you should check it out, it’s a great read!

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