The treatment of gender identity in The Coming Race is interesting because it is difficult to understand what exactly Bulwer-Lytton is trying impart about Victorian society through his treatment of women in the novel. On its surface, the novel seems, through the Vril-ya, to be depicting a society where the gender expectations are the complete inverse of those of Victorian England. However, several aspects of the culture reveal that the norms are more conservative and traditional than they first appear.
When the protagonist first arrives in the subterranean world, he is shocked by the physical appearance and apparent sexual dimorphism of the Vril-ya. The Gy-ei (female Vril-ya) are larger in stature than their male counterparts. The Gy-ei are also the more intellectual of the two sexes, and are known for their scientific and literary prowess, as the men (Ana) “are unfitted by a duller sobriety of understanding” (66). Meanwhile, the Ana are the sex more inclined to fulfill stereotypical homemaker roles. The Gy-ei are also the sex that romantically pursues the other in courtship.
Despite some significant changes in gender performance, there are still ways that the Gy-ei are stereotypically aligned with Victorian women. For example, they are considered to be more innately emotional, and are in fact the wooers because “love occupies a greater space in [their] thoughts” (68). They are also thought to be the more jealous. Symbolically, when the Gy-ei are married, they give up their wings and no longer fly (121). Therefore, the position of women in the society of the Vril-ya is still extremely ambiguous.
The manipulation of the gender roles in the novel could serve any of several purposes. Most obviously it would help create a world both strange and familiar for the protagonist, one where the protagonist recognizes the roles in society but not those performing them. The question of whether the Vril-ya live in a utopian or dystopian society is complex, and depending on the individual interpretation, the novel could be an appeal for greater rights for Victorian women, or a conservative reaction to the beginnings of feminism. I am inclined to think that the novel falls somewhere in the middle. Bulwer-Lytton seeks to upend stereotypes but also seems unable to set aside misguided theories of biological differences between the sexes. He is merely creating a world that will confound the narrator, and, in the time of its publication, the novel’s readers. This estrangement is, in fact, elemental to the genre of Victorian science fiction.