Masculinity and the Polar Gothic: On Ally Wilkes’s “All the White Spaces”

Lowell Duckert reviews the new novel from Ally Wilkes, “All the White Spaces.”

By Lowell DuckertApril 15, 2022

Masculinity and the Polar Gothic: On Ally Wilkes’s “All the White Spaces”

All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes. Atria/Emily Bestler Books. 368 pages.

ALLY WILKES’S ANTARCTICA circa 1920 is a panoply of polar terrors. The sirenic “call of the South” portends nightmarish killer whales with grinding teeth; frigid “Hell” and fiery shipwreck; an aurora australis that crackles and encroaches, lassoing men and dragging them to snowy deaths; a putrefying body sawed slowly apart, the stuff of Service’s “Blasphemous Bill”; the ramshackle huts of a missing German expedition, haunting in their emptiness and ineffective against the howling elements; the paranoia of “overwinter” that pierces skin and mind, embeds and exacerbates psycho- and physiological trauma; faint whispers of mutiny and half-serious jokes of cannibalism told around tiny fires. There is a creature about, too; into this maelstrom, Wilkes unleashes a phantasmic shapeshifter who preys upon its victim’s deepest emotions: be it regret over comrades abandoned in the trenches, or sorrow for brothers taken before they could cross the sprawling continent for themselves.

In sum, readers entering the pages of All the White Spaces will discover the tropes we have come to expect from polar thrillers, those (on the southern side) that typify Poe’s Pym, Verne’s Sphinx, and Carpenter’s Thing. (“Who’s there?” cries one, painfully, into a vacant sky.) In Wilkes’s Circle, there is no Shackleton — nor Scott nor Amundsen — although her title is inspired by the former’s retelling of his 1907–’09 sojourn and predilection for “the void.” Instead, we follow the crew of the Fortitude captained by James “Australis” Randall, leader of the fictitious 1920 British Coats Land Expedition, a gruff man who lost part of his face to frostbite after falling into the Weddell Sea. Determined, scarred, and domineering, he stands in for the archetypal commander who beguiles adventurous young men to a vainglorious demise. Thus, another abiding horror is the heroic masculinity Randall exudes and demands from his crew: scripted gender roles meant to display strength, grit, and honor, mannerisms designed to be stronger than the antagonistic ice, heartier than the greenwood that surrounds the hull. “We’re all men, down South,” he growls. Such an unwavering standard is proven to be punishment enough, and, while reinforced, it fails them miserably. With the Great War two years gone, its turmoil wages on. The “No Man’s Land” of European battlefields extends to the ice shelves, turns into a land for no men at all — only their ghosts. Mud and rime smother bodies alike. Wilkes knows her share of chillers: this is a trip into an abyss limned by the sublime and Gothic, a grim portrayal smacking of the fatalism that has given rise to popular genres like Arctic noir. Pessimism and suspense bump together in the everlasting night. The malevolent South is “alive,” it’s a “living thing,” and its song will destroy you if heeded.

Yet Wilkes’s most significant contribution to this long list of Antarctic entertainment is the narrator at its helm: the stowaway Jonathan Morgan. Jonathan, formerly known as Jo, heads into the white in order to exit out of “some entirely foreign and female country, from which — somehow — I’d never expected to return.” Obsessed with Randall’s exploits, the Antarctic had remained the “center” of his brothers’ “everything,” even as they set off for war. The slip of white paper that delivers the news of their death also becomes Jonathan’s passport southward: his voyage is both an homage to them as well as a figurative blank page for himself, an opportunity, finally, to shed “dull day dresses” for the freedom of “trousers” laced with frost. Gradually emerging from his confined quarters below deck, Jonathan transitions out in the cold open, grows into the person he was told to repress by his parents and that was denied to him by Edwardian scruples. Frequent self-reflective pauses temper the most outlandish and supernatural moments of the novel; we watch Jonathan watch himself, see how he assumes and comes to appreciate the man he always knew he was: “The person in the mirror was unmistakably Jonathan Morgan, myself as I was meant to be.” But this statement is not as immediately liberating as it seems. We witness, for instance, Jonathan fending off the shell-shocked Harry, his brothers’ childhood friend who is stubbornly infatuated with Jo. We cringe at his constant refrains of “Jo” and at his desperate attempts to convince Jonathan to discard the “disguise” and retreat with him to polite, cisgender society. It’s not just a ruse, however, but a deeper truth: “I looked like Jonathan; I looked like myself.”

Wilkes deliberately places Jonathan’s journey of self-actualization and admiration alongside the self-destructive type of masculinity espoused by Randall and many of his men. If the icescape can “make a man,” in Randall’s estimation — buttressing his singular idea of what a “man” is — it also demonstrates that masculinity is constantly up for negotiation: manhood is contested, constructed, fractured, and remade. Here, Jonathan’s sentiment “Sometimes the South just takes a man” tangles with another: “Down South, I’d actually grown — could finally compare myself without flinching.” If Antarctica takes “pieces” of you, in other words, it makes you, too. Wilkes sets these poles of possibility in productive tension. The novel’s final confrontation hinges upon Jonathan’s realization that his familiar concepts of duty and valor were in fact misguided, if not injurious, and that his brothers did not — could not — ever greet him as Jonathan. “I was meant to fight for Jonathan Morgan,” he defiantly concludes. Survival here appears as a brave act of self-acknowledgment, of developing trust, care, and confidence from within even when others would deny the very existence of said self. Perhaps Jonathan doesn’t need rescuing, Wilkes suggests, for we’ve been observing a heroic expedition of self-recognition and assertion all along — just one different than expected from a “golden era” too quick to confirm the courage of legendary men.

Embedded at the heart of the book, this critique of undaunted manliness poses lasting questions both for the genre of polar horror (if it can be called that) and for subsequent narratives set in the far north and south. The habitual depiction of cisgender men on ice propels a macho feedback loop, which, in turn, promotes this pattern of risky behavior as the norm. Jonathan’s departure is a welcome break from the cycle, despite being so easily swayed by its stereotypes at first. A particularly telling moment comes after he saves a shipmate from near-death; positioned as an Antarctic action hero, he is at last invited into the fabled circle of manhood: “I turned, and went to take my place amongst the men.” But this entrance occurs only a quarter through the tale; by its finish, we are left to wonder whether that circle was worth lionizing at all — not asking how to get in, exactly, but why one would attempt it, and at what cost. Wilkes’s gift is to shine a light elsewhere, to make visible other lives often obscured by rote narratives that have come to represent “all the white spaces.” There are plenty of additional perspectives to consider, she insists, like Tarlington’s, the ship’s scientist and a conscientious objector, who is ultimately revealed to be the disowned son of the captain himself. He doesn’t fit his father’s mold, either, for he has a “hunger” shared by men who cling to each other for reasons besides warmth. Jonathan empathizes: “People had been trying to tell me what was proper — or manly — my whole life. But out here, at the end, I couldn’t think of it as wrong.”

So, what are we to make of all that space, “out” there, in the end? At a time when climate change imperils the real southern places she describes, Wilkes’s loosely historical fiction manages to draw nearer the centuries-old surroundings. Never a space for mere emotional projection or a metaphor for the indomitable human spirit, the physical icescape refuses to slip away. When the book glances back to the ravaged year of 1917, for example, it magnifies the repercussions of unchecked industrial rapacity, the vast anthropogenic harms done in the service of ecological imperialism. It was a moment “when the South Atlantic whaling trade rendered sad-eyed mammals into oil and glycerin and a hundred other things” needed to oil the machines of the (supposed) war to end all wars. And the text looks forward, too: in remembrance of the past, she redirects our attention to the fleeting now. What fate, what futures, await polar spots like Pine Island Glacier and its neighboring locales? Jonathan’s story underscores a richer spectrum of experience that deserves notice, one that traverses gender binaries as well as the illusory divides between species, times, and oceans. Wilkes beckons us toward the intricacy, the vibrancy, of circumpolar vastness. Voices like Jonathan’s affirm that “void” sites are full of memories, desires, and acts of compassionate kin; that there is a chance for companionship, renewal, and re-creation within the most fragile of cores; that the hyper-heroic and masculine dreams of monstrous manhood and the death wishes it feeds upon are not the only points lining the warm-water horizons ahead. Here, “at the end,” one can peer into the mislabeled “nothing” to learn that “perhaps they were not empty at all,” that those who fight for fraught “white spaces,” are, in doing so, fighting for themselves.


Lowell Duckert is associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, where he specializes in early modern literature and the environmental humanities.

LARB Contributor

Lowell Duckert is associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, where he specializes in early modern literature and the environmental humanities. He has published on various topics such as glaciers, polar bears, the color maroon, rain, fleece, mining, and lagoons. With Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, he is the editor of “Ecomaterialism” (postmedieval 4.1); Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire; and Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking (nominated for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s Ecocriticism Book Award). His book For All Waters: Finding Ourselves in Early Modern Wetscapes was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2017 and was short-listed for the SLSA’s Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize for the best academic book on literature, science, and the arts. He’s currently working on a book project about the early modern cryosphere and its potential intersections with contemporary climate change activism.


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