Frank Herbert's Dune series is perhaps the best science fiction work ever written. Its elaborate writing incorporates an intricately woven plot, unforgettable characters, and unique settings, which culminate together to make a saga like no other.
Dune is rich with thematic material, touching on such varied issues as ecology, economics, religion, and politics; ultimately, it is a novel about control, human nature, and the consequences of power.
The last three points made about Dune can be exemplified in one concept: love.
Love can control an individual. It is within human nature to love and to be loved. Love is a powerful emotion which can bring about dire consequences.
Even with the threat of possible negative consequences, love is, more often than not, considered to be a pure and beneficial experience. Love aids people in growing, as well as unveils to them new experiences and new ways of considering things. Love has been the inspiration for millions of poems, songs, and sonnets; it is something to be pursued and cherished, whether it were to bring happiness or the contrary. However, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Frank Herbert's Dune series do not view it as such. The Bene Gesserit are conditioned to view love as a weakness which plagues the 'lesser people'. Love is discouraged by the Sisterhood, even though practices such as sex are not.
Yet, not all Bene Gesserit follow this way of thinking. Very few Bene Gesserit who become consorts or are involved in sexual relationships with men grow to develop feelings of love. To the Bene Gesserit, such a divergence from their teachings is frowned upon and considered an anomaly. Consequently, such an anomaly is Lady Jessica Atreides, consort to Leto Atreides, as well as mother to Paul Atreides, the principal character of the starting novel of the Dune saga.
The Bene Gesserit are a powerful and ancient order of women whose actions and goals are vital to the social, religious, and political evolution of the Dune universe. To be a Bene Gesserit means both to control and to be controlled.
They are a Sisterhood whose design is loosely based upon Roman Catholic women's sects, other than the complete lack of the piousness and goodness that is normally expected of nuns. Bene Gesserit sisters undergo rigorous training of both mind and body through years of mental and physical conditioning in order to enhance and achieve powers and abilities. Those Bene Gesserit who manage to acquire the whole span of abilities that a Bene Gesserit can possess are referred to as 'Reverend Mothers'. The leader of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is called the 'Mother Superior'.
Through a lifetime of meticulous training and the augmentation of that training by the spice, a Bene Gesserit Revered Mother can learn to control every single organ, muscle, and function in her body. However, even with such immense amounts of physical control over themselves, some Bene Gesserit cannot help but be unable to control the whims of their hearts and emotions.
Book after book of the Dune series, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is betrayed, transformed, and sometimes even thrown off track by those very whims and emotions that they cannot control with any amount of strenuous training. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood functions like a perpetual motion machine, that is, until somebody within their ranks falls in love. Such a small flaw in the mentality of even one Bene Gesserit sister can serve to jar and even threaten to destroy the very foundations of the Sisterhood.
The prototypical example is, without a doubt, Lady Jessica Atreides. She's ordered to conceive a daughter to Duke Leto Atreides. The multi-generational breeding program created by the Bene Gesserit demands it. Out of love for Leto, she gives him the son he wants. And the entire universe is changed twice: first by the emergence of Emperor Paul Muad'dib, and then by the thousand-year tyranny of his son, Leto II, the God Emperor, who literally turns into a great big worm. It is in this manner that one woman's falling in love and resulting disobedience changed the course of the universe forever.
The purpose of the Bene Gesserit's multi-generational breeding program is to fulfill their ultimate goal of the creation of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit. Essentially, the Kwisatz Haderach is a male Bene Gesserit; a being which can be in all places at once. The Benne Gesserit have planned on realizing their goal by means of the strenuous application of a massive human breeding program, conducted for countless generations by the sisterhood. By carefully controlling and manipulating people, as well as all aspects of relationships between couples, the Bene Gesserit had been able to carefully control the bloodlines of the noble houses throughout numerous generations.
Lady Jessica's disregard for the orders of the Bene Gesserit brought about a series of potential consequences, which ended up changing plans which the Bene Gesserit have been making for thousands of generations. And not only that, Jessica's disobeying of orders had also managed to change the future of the Dune universe drastically.
The reason why the Bene Gesserit wanted her to conceive a girl was in order to wed the child to the heir of the Harkonnen family. This would have served to seal up the existing breach between House Harkonnen and House Atreides. However, with Jessica's giving birth to a son, both Atreides and Harkonnen bloodlines were threatened to be lost to the Bene Gesserit.
The plans of the Bene Gesserit were working perfectly up until that point. Lady Jessica was to be coupled with Duke Leto Atreides in order to produce a daughter who would then be wed and bred with Feyd Rautha Harkonnen, in order to produce the Kwisatz Hederach. The Kwisatz Hederach was not meant to be born until another generation, but Jessica managed to change this. The relationship between Lady Jessica and Leto Atreides, which started out as merely a courtship arranged by the Bene Gesserit, had grown into one of love. Jessica and Leto found joy in one another and their mutual affections blossomed and evolved. With this development of affections, as well as with Jessica's pity towards Leto after realizing how much the death of his first son, Victor Atreides, grieved him, the Bene Gesserit's plans were doomed to ruin. Seeing how much her husband wanted another son, in order to have an heir to House Atreides, Jessica obliged Leto and went against the orders given to her by the Sisterhood. Instead of the daughter she had been told to birth, Jessica brought a son Paul, into the world. Driven by her love for Leto, and perhaps by the idea that she herself may be able to give birth to the Kwisatz Haderach, Jessica single-handedly disrupted the intricate plans of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.
Lady Jessica's relations with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam are strained as a result of what had occurred. When the Reverend Mother comes to visit the Atrreides household in order to examine Paul's capabilities, there is a lot of tension between the two Bene Gesserit. Both women know of what Jessica has done, and neither of them wants to come to any sort of agreement about it.
The Reverend Mother's feelings towards what Lady Jessica had done are represented in her thoughts:
'Damn that Jessica! the Reverend mother thought. If only she'd borne us a girl as she was ordered to do!'
In any case, Jessica did end up giving birth to the boy who would later become the Kwisatz Hederach. This may sound as a benefit to the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood because their labors to produce the Kwisatz Hederach had been fulfilled due to Jessica's betraying of orders. However, that is far from being the case. Paul Atreides was not supposed to be conceived in the first place, and neither was he supposed to be the Kwisatz Hederach. His existence threw the carefully woven plans of the Bene Gesserit off-kilter.
The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam does well to remark on this, saying:
'"You thought of only your Duke's desire for a son," the old woman snapped. "And his desires don't figure in this. An Atreides daughter could've been wed to a Harkonnen heir and sealed the breach. You've hopelessly complicated matters. We may lose both bloodlines now."'
Not only did Lady Jessica catalyze the premature creation of the Kwisatz Hederach through giving birth to Paul, but through the conception and birth of her son, she gave way for Paul's own son to come into the world in later novels. Paul's son, Leto Atreides II, turned out to be a tyrant. Not only had Leto II managed to completely escape Bene Gesserit control, just as Paul had, he had also taken over the Bene Gessert breeding program and assigned them a rather useless role in the universe for the entire three thousand and five hundred years of his reign.
Since the Kwisatz Hederach was born one generation too early, the Bene Gesserit had not been expecting it to occur, and thus had little control over Paul in the same way they had control over the men they raised themselves. The Bene Gesserit were denied power over the one thing which they had been laboring towards. To them, this was both a great frustration and a great wrong which had been committed against the Sisterhood by Jessica, one of their own. They had also been denied power over Paul's son, Leto II. Instead of giving into Bene Gesserit control, Leto II had been able to put the Bene Gesserit under his own control, which did not bode well with the Sisterhood. Their distrust of love grew, as well as their contempt and anger at Jessica. This became yet another example which the Bene Gesserit used to condemn love.
There is much irony in the relations between women and men raised by the Bene Gesserit. Women raised by the Sisterhood were conditioned to regard the emotion of love as a weakness, as a flaw which plagues people of ranks lower than that of their own. As a result, Bene Gesserit sisters grew to be haughty of love and deemed it as practice which is beneath them.
In contrast, men raised by the Sisterhood were conditioned to keep the Sisterhood in their highest regards and to worship the Bene Gesserit. Men were given an idea of the Sisterhood's ultimate purpose and each one was taught to love and honor the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit used distorted notions of love in order to control and keep loyal the men raised by the Sisterhood. Some Bene Gesserit even specialized in this very task. Frank Herbert called them 'imprinters'; imprinters were trained in amplifying pleasure in order to create an addiction to said pleasure within men, which in turn kept said men devoted and easily manageable.
The Sisterhood's relationship with love and sex is just as shocking in modern times as it was in 1965. Yet, for the Bene Gesserit, controlling people with sex was considered a feminine strength. They invoked misconceptions of love within those outside their ranks whom they controlled. This is yet another ironic concept is ironic at how they use the feelings of others in order to manipulate them and bend them to the Sisterhood's will. This seems incredibly hypocritical on the part of the Bene Gesserit, for if they truly mistrusted love as much as they did, would they not refrain from utilizing it for anything? This would be the case, if it were not for the fact that the Bene Gesserit were incredibly aware of the powers of love. Thus, by twisting the concept of love and turning it into a sort of harness by means of which they could control others, the Bene Gesserit had been able to turn something dangerous into something useful. Since they are taught that they do not need neither love nor men for anything, a Bene Gesserit feels justified in using love to control men in order to obtain anything that she may want or need. Paul and, consequently, his son Leto II were able to escape such fates due to Jessica's falling in love with Leto Atreides and disobedience of Bene Gesserit orders.
As such, Jessica's actions were not forgotten by the Bene Gesserit. Instead, they served as a reminder of what can occur if a Bene Gesserit were to fall in love. Even thousands of years after her death, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood passed down their knowledge of Lady Jessica's doings to the new generations of Bene GEsserit. The decision Jessica made had been one which altered the entire universe, and the Bene Gesserit were quick to pin the fault of it, above all else, on Jessica's falling in love with Leto Atreides. In the years the followed her death, Jessica's actions became known by all Bene Gesserit as "the Jessica Crime"; any Bene Gesserit who would choose her love over the instructions of the Sisterhood would essentially be committing the same crime, one punishable by exile. Jessica's actions served as a lesson to other sisters that a Bene Gesserit must maintain control over her emotions lest she follow in Jessica's example and endanger both the Sisterhood and humanity in general.
The Bene Gesserit greatly distrusted the concept love. To them, love was an emotion which brought about nothing but disarray and disorder. This belief was enforced again and again with each Bene Gesserit sister who fell in love and ended up inflicting harm on either herself or the Sisterhood as a whole. The down fallings of other Bene Gesserit sisters who got caught up in love served to make the other sisters wary and suspicious of the treacherous emotion. They grew prejudiced against love over the years of their existence, and each generation of Bene Gesserit passed the prejudice on to the next. Their beliefs were supported over and over again by the failings of other sisters who succumbed to love, and thus their belief only grew and grew. As a result of their distrust towards love, the Bene Gesserit employed certain preventative measures in order to keep themselves distanced from the potential harming capabilities of love. Among those preventative measures was the aforementioned conditioning which new Bene Gesserit underwent, as well as encouragement to maintain purely physical relationships with men rather than marriage and intimacy.
Ironically, the Bene Gesserit encouraged sexual intimacy, as well as the conception of children through the copulation of a man and a woman, rather than by use of an Axlotl Tank. They considered the latter way of breeding as a corrupt method of procreating. All children born within Bene Gesserit society were born out of the coupling of individuals who may have shared one night of lust, but whose relationship was completely devoid of love. Similarly, the children born from the unions of Bene Gesserit sisters and the men they had been coupled with were not raised by either of their parents. Rather, the bringing up of children was a collective effort on the part of the whole Sisterhood. Somehow it does not seem too surprising that children, destined to become Bene Gesserit, born from purely sexual relationships and raised by a collective disdainful of love rather than by a set of loving parents grew to be contemptuous of love themselves.
This was not the case with Jessica, either. She and Leto raised their son without the help or much interference of the Bene Gesserit. This served to develop that familial bond between Paul and his parents. As a result, Paul had not been conditioned to look down upon love, which, had the Bene Gesserit known that he were the Kwisatz Haderach sooner, he may have undergone. Rather, he grew up knowing the emotion based on what he saw from his parents and his own learning. Neither was Paul conditioned to love and adore the Bene Gesserit as most of the men they raised had been.
Unlike what occurred with Paul, Bene Gesserit sisters went through a very different method of being raised. Love was weaned out of Bene Gesserit from very early ages, as they had been taken away from their mothers to prevent any sort of bonding occurring between mother and child. It can be safely assumed that Bene Gesserit condemned love in all forms, not only that between a man and a woman. Familial love was also out of the question. Such an existence is hard to think of, as most people have an individual in their lives that they love. This is not the case for the Bene Gesserit, and yet most Bene Gesserit seem fine with the idea. Everything within the Sisterhood works perfectly if there is no love introduced; when there is, things start to go wrong. This is ironic, considering that in most other works of literature, love is considered as a sort of messiah-like emotion. The Bene Gesserit do recognize love as a sort of ancient power, but rather one which had at one point served its purpose within life, but is no longer a necessary component to the continuation of life.
The latter viewpoint is portrayed in an essential Bene Gesserit lesson which every sister learns: "Love leads to misery. Love is a very ancient force, which served its purpose in its day but no longer is essential for the survival of the species. Remember that woman's mistake, the pain."
This quote serves well to exemplify the Bene Gesserit mentality towards relationships, as well as the reasons for their conditioning. Love was so greatly distrusted by the Sisterhood due to how much it could influence a person. By falling in love, people became impulsive and performed unjustified things all in the name of love.
The Bene Gesserit are brought up and conditioned to believe in their power. They are taught that discipline and control of their power is as important as the powers themselves. Order and discipline were two incredibly important concepts to the Bene Gesserit, and love had received the reputation of disrupting said order and discipline. Knowing this, it is easy to assume that it would greatly shame a Bene Gesserit sister if she were in some manner to lose control.
To lose control is dangerous, and thus the Sisterhood had to be cut off from love to prevent danger. Their distaste of the emotion was so strong that hate was compared to love in terms of its danger:
"Hatred is as dangerous an emotion as love. The capacity for either one is the capacity for its opposite."
To note, the comparison is not made the other way around, with love being said to be as dangerous as hate. This signifies that to the Bene Gesserit, it is much worse to fall in love then it is to hate something or somebody. This raises the question: Is it love itself which has corrupted the Bene Gesserit or their denial of it? And yet, they have every justification to be wary of love. Bene Gesserit focus greatly on the future, and from what they had seen and encountered, love had shown itself as capable of leading people astray from the greater goal. The relationship between women and love in a constant theme throughout Dune, much more so than the relationship between men and love. More often than not, the choice that a Bene Gesserit has to make is one between gaining power and gaining love. Together, the two seem unattainable because powerful women who are able to find love are nothing but failed Bene Gesserit.