I was certain that this section of the book would have a lot more going on than the first few chapters, but that isn’t actually the case. Instead, though the Atreides family does finally make it to Arrakis, most of these pages are still dedicated to set up and exposition. The book continues to be highly readable and mostly enjoyable, but the final chapter in this section did finally manage to be truly disappointing when I thought—was certain—something was going to happen and then nothing of consequence did.
The first chapter of this section starts off well enough, giving the reader a little more insight to Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides. There’s a good amount of Leto thinking about how awesome Paul is at everything, but most of the chapter is about getting deeper into the economic and political situation that they find themselves in on Arrakis. Paul has a lot of questions for his father, mostly about the Reverend Mother’s warnings and pronouncements of doom, but Leto downplays the prophecy as being just “a woman’s [Jessica’s] fears” and advises Paul to treat it simply as evidence of Jessica’s great love for them. It’s an interesting moment that skirts the edges of the depiction vs. endorsement debate, to be honest. Certainly, this sexism belongs to the character of Leto Atreides, but is it also Frank Herbert’s sexism? With so little actually happening in the book so far, most of what we have at this point is still just narrative setup, and it’s hard to judge the overall treatment of women in the book until we see how the actual story unfolds.
The next chapter sees Leto interacting, for the first time in the novel, directly with Jessica, and it clarifies a lot of questions I had about Jessica’s relationship to the Duke and what her status in the household is. It turns out that, while she is Paul’s mother, she’s not the Duke’s wife, which puts her in a somewhat complicated position. The way it sounds here is that being just a concubine gives her somewhat more freedom than if she were married, at least when it comes to not having to participate in normal public wifely duties, but it also makes her standing and authority someone ambiguous. She does work as the Duke’s secretary, but it’s not exactly clear what work she does, and most of what we’re actually shown so far in the book is Jessica being responsible for fairly ordinary household duties rather than doing work related to the Duke’s business or politics. The most significant thing that I noticed about Jessica and Leto’s relationship, though, is how incredibly patronizing and condescending Leto is towards Jessica, both in the way he talks about her to Paul as I mentioned above, but also just straight to her face in a way that is infuriating to read about.
It’s good, I suppose, to get this window into their relationship, but it’s not a partnership that I find romantic, and it doesn’t go very far to make me care about Leto’s almost certainly impending death. Rather, I can’t help but feel as if Jessica and Paul would be better off without his toxic influence. The Duke is deeply chauvinistic, but the way he considers race is also pretty messed up. Duke Leto is described in racially coded terms and in a negatively connoted fashion as olive-skinned and dark-haired, but Jessica is described as fair, blonde, light-eyed and beautiful, something the Duke takes pride in. What he takes even more pride in, however, is the fact that Paul, though dark-haired, has inherited his mother’s lighter skin and eyes and generally favors her more in looks. With the Bene Gesserit, of which Jessica is a part, being so concerned with eugenics and breeding, it’s hard not to perceive Duke Leto’s reflections here as at least indicative of the character’s internalized racism but also quite possibly a sign of the author’s own unexamined racial prejudices.
Speaking of toxic influence, the Harkonnen stewards have certainly left Arrakis in a messed up state for the Atreides family to deal with, and most of this second section of the book is detailing just how hostile things are for the Duke, Paul, and Jessica. The land itself is unreceptive to life, with most of the planet taken up by vast deserts and devoid of water, which is precious and highly controlled. The people are suspicious, and many of the workers responsible for harvesting the spice that the Duke is supposed to be in charge of are planning to abandon the planet altogether. However, the most significant actual event in these chapters comes in chapter nine, in which Paul wakes up from his nap and only just manages to escape an attempt on his life, and with the help of the mysterious housekeeper, Shadout Mapes. It’s a brief moment of real danger and slight excitement in a story so far mostly made up of long pieces of exposition, but even that doesn’t do much to liven things up. Paul is so clearly a Chosen One and so obviously going to be the main character that it’s hard to believe that he’s actually in any real peril.
Finally, and speaking of real peril, the last chapter of this section begins with an epigraph that I was certain was foreshadowing that Leto’s abovementioned impending death was actually imminent. After the foiled attempt on Paul’s life and this chapter’s ominous introduction, I felt sure that Duke Leto was not long for this world. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and instead we’re treated to what mostly amounts to even more exposition, though it’s all mixed together with some examination of Duke Leto’s toxic masculinity. Throughout the chapter, Leto is upset that he feels out of control, ashamed of his feelings of fear, and terrified for his son. He repeats, over and over again, “They have tried to take the life of my son!” and this mantra also contributes to the sense that Leto himself could be in danger as well, so it’s disappointing that he’s still living at the end of the chapter.
It’s obvious that Leto has to die in order for the story to progress, and I fully expect his death (likely murder) to be a major instigating event that sets Paul on whatever his path will be for the rest of the book. There’s a reason that many similar Chosen One and Hero’s Journey narratives just cut all this stuff out and start after the death of the parents, though, and that reason is that too much of this stuff can be very boring. That said, this pacing, excruciatingly slow and approaching dull as it is, still feels very deliberate, and Dune is a book that’s so well-loved and enduringly popular and influential that I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that there will be some payoff. I just hope it comes soon.