The story follows Modh and Mal as they are taken to the Sky City to marry members of the Crown class, the upper echelon of their society. Once in the city, Nata, the successful slave wife of their captor’s brother, trains the two and teaches them the ways of civilized life. Throughout the story, Modh and Mal are haunted by the cries of a dead baby who was left behind in their village by a slave-catcher named Ralo ten Bal.
As the baby was not buried after she died, the girls fear that her ghost will follow them forever, crying for burial. Although Modh tried to explain to the captors that the baby needed to be buried, the initial language barrier prevented her from being understood. Modh and Mal hear the baby crying almost constantly when they first arrive in the city, but as their lives get better, the crying fades.
In their society, members of the aristocracy are known as Crowns and they reside in the Sky City. The girls, by contrast, are members of the lowest class called the Dirt people, a class comprised of nomadic tribes. Within the limitations of their world, the society is structured so that Crown men must marry Dirt girls, and Crown women must marry men from a third, artisan and mercantile class called Roots. These marriages are the only means of social mobility for Dirt girls, and Dirt boys have no means of climbing the social ladder.
The Crown women and the Dirt women stay together in a space behind a yellow curtain in their homes. In this space, Modh and Mal learn to dance and speak the Crown language, and Bela’s sister Tudju teaches Modh sword practice so that she will have a practice partner. Modh eventually develops a bond with Tudju.
Ultimately, Modh copes with the city better than Mal, and she becomes the prized wife of one of the Crown men named Bela, the same man who kidnapped her. Modh is also aided in her adjustment to life in the Sky City by her in-laws who teach her how to adapt to her role as a wife in this society.
Mal is soon promised to Ralo, the same slaver who abandoned the baby back in Mal’s village. Even though Bela’s family, known as the Ten Belens, is reluctant to give Mal to Ralo, as she is technically their property in addition to Modh, he makes them a large monetary offer that they cannot refuse. Modh is wracked with guilt when Mal is promised to Ralo, but she becomes distracted by her own marital situation, made all the more pleasant by her unexpected pregnancy.
The tale of the two girls quickly reaches its tragic climax when driven by grief and angered by her husband’s brutality, Mal kills Ralo on their wedding night and is strangled as punishment. When Modh learns that Mal will not receive a proper burial because she was a Dirt woman who killed a Crown man, she is grief-stricken and driven to madness. She is locked away for the remainder of her pregnancy, hearing the cries of the unburied abandoned baby as well as the cries of her own unburied sister. After almost ten months of pregnancy, the baby swells and dies within her, killing Modh in the process.
On the one hand, “The Wild Girls” is a standard fantasy story, dark and gritty with a blurred line between realism and the supernatural. Its dark elements, including kidnapping and rape are tempered by the perspective of two young girls. On the other hand, “The Wild Girls” functions like a slave narrative.
Le Guin constructs a society with rigid and extremely hierarchical constraints. As in many of Le Guin’s stories, the society is at once foreign and familiar, featuring elements of non-Western cultures that exist today. With both allusions to Central African tribalism and the Indian caste system, she describes rigid marriage rules with a genealogical logic (in an attempt to ensure genealogical variation amongst offspring).
Le Guin examines, and thus forces the reader to examine, the inconsistency and hypocrisy of a system. The slaves, male and female, in the ten Belen home are not physically brutalized. They have enough to eat. They are not beaten. They simply have no rights, no power, and no voice. Bela ten Belen is a handsome man, an affectionate husband, and a loyal brother. At the same time, he murders innocent people, steals children, and is rewarded for his behavior.
Nata, a successful slave-wife, teaches the wild girls not to question authority and not to speak up, so that they won’t get whipped. Later in the story, the women stay close to Mal so that she won’t be raped because it is the slave women’s duty to protect girls from the men who have the power.
As a slave narrative, “The Wild Girls” reads like a tale told amongst people of a servile class, fantasy tempered with harsh reality, with vivid characters that represent the duality of man, as they are at once good and evil.