From the beginning through Paul’s meeting with Dr. Yueh
“A duke’s son must know about poisons. . . . Here’s a new one for you: the gom jabbar. It kills only animals.”
Dune begins on the planet Caladan, which is ruled by Duke Leto of the House of Atreides. The House of Atreides is one of the families that rules over the planets and planetary systems of the universe. Duke Leto’s son, Paul, is in bed when his mother, Jessica, and Reverend Mother Mohiam check in on him. The old reverend mother mutters that Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, the one who brings about important changes in the universe. Reverend Mother Mohiam says that the next day, Paul will meet her gom jabbar, an instrument that poisons and kills instantly, unless he passes her test. To test whether Paul is human, the Reverend Mother Mohiam has him put his hand into a small box. The box brings great pain to Paul, but he knows that if he moves, the Reverend Mother Mohiam will stab him with the gom jabbar. He passes Mohiam’s test, which means he is a human being and not an animal. He then discovers that Jessica took the same test long ago; the reverend mother was her teacher at the Bene Gesserit school. The two women reveal to Paul that something terrible will soon happen to the House of Atreides and that his father will die. The two women tell Paul that the duke’s death will happen soon after the Atreides move to Arrakis, the desert planet, now ruled by the Atreides’s mortal enemies, the Harkonnens.
On another planet, the fat Baron Harkonnen reveals his plot to his nephew Feyd-Rautha and his servant, Piter, a Mentat, a person who thinks using logic and no emotions. The baron has maneuvered the emperor, the leader of the universe, into giving the planet Arrakis to the Atreides in exchange for the planet Caladan. Though Arrakis is a desert planet and Caladan a lush one, this trade does not seem good for the baron; Arrakis is rich in melange, a drug and spice that is an addiction for millions of people throughout the galaxy. The baron has arranged this trade because he plans to kill Duke Leto and all his family once they are on Arrakis by using one of their own people to betray them. Piter trades barbs with his fat master as Feyd-Rautha looks on passively.
Back on the planet Caladan, the Reverend Mother Mohiam confronts Jessica and asks her why she did not have a girl, in accord with the Bene Gesserit’s orders. Jessica replies that she did so because the duke wanted a son, an heir, very badly. The reverend mother chides her, saying that now there is no daughter to wed a Harkonnen, the rival house of the Atreides, and “[seal] the breach.” Jessica and the reverend mother both know that the planet Arrakis is already lost and that the duke is as good as dead. They talk to Paul, and he recites a dream he had in which he met a girl who calls him Usul.
Later, Paul meets Thufir Hawat, the duke’s main strategist, in the training room. Hawat warns Paul of the dangers he will face on Arrakis, but he tries to dispel Paul’s fears that his father will be killed. He also mentions the Fremen, the native inhabitants of Arrakis. Hawat explains that the Fremen are a tough, resilient people, and they will have to be dealt with in some way by the Atreides. After Hawat leaves, Gurney Halleck, the duke’s war master, appears and challenges Paul to a training duel. Paul fights well, but Halleck makes the battle difficult for him, since he knows that Paul may actually have to fight someone soon. Finally, Paul meets with Dr. Yueh, a doctor of the Atreides, who gives him some information about the life-forms on Arrakis—including the planet’s sandworms.
Within the first few pages, Dune buries us in an avalanche of names—people, places, things, and concepts. Many of these new terms are explained, but many are not. We are forced either to wait until they are explained or try to figure things out using context clues. Most editions of Dune contain a glossary in the back, but it is not exhaustive, and there was no glossary when Dune was published serially in Startling Stories magazine in the early 1960s. It is comforting to realize that once we finish the book, almost everything makes sense. A second reading of Dune, particularly after reading the appendices, is often as enjoyable as the first, since we are then more aware of the implications of each event, small and large.
The novel immediately introduces us to Paul Atreides, who is the novel’s main character. Although Paul is fifteen years old when the story begins, he never seems to act like a child or even a teenager. When the reverend mother tests him, he shows some mild arrogance and petulance, but no more than any adult undergoing such a test would. Paul’s success with the test and his resistance to a great amount of pain make him seem even older. One idea that is not fully explored in Dune is the reverend mother’s suggestion that Paul may be an animal instead of a human being. Prior to the test, Paul recites to himself a kind of mantra that partially explains the differences between animals and human beings: “Animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see the universe.” These semiscientific, semireligious phrases are puzzling, and since they are never really explained, it is difficult to understand the difference between the author’s definitions of animal and human. Judging from the test, however, it seems that people like the reverend mother believe that some human beings act just like animals and react to everything by instinct. What separates animals from humans, she believes, is the ability for humans to close off pain mentally and to use the rational mind to overcome instinctual and irrational impulses. The mantra that Paul recites seems to help him withstand the pain of the reverend mother’s test.
The first few pages of Dune foreshadow that something destructive is in store for Duke Leto and the Atreides family. For example, the reverend mother warns that something terrible is going to happen to the Atreides family and that Paul’s father, the duke, will die soon. When she suggests that Paul could be the Kwisatz Haderach, we begin to think this may be an important role in the preservation of the Atreides family. The reverend mother’s warnings concern Paul, who thinks she speaks “as though [his] father were dead.” Furthermore, Paul’s dream about the caves and the girl who calls him Usul also seems to be a premonition of Paul’s future and the novel’s future events.
Although Paul is Dune’s main character, Herbert shifts perspective freely from character to character within a single page or even within a few paragraphs. We read the reverend mother’s thoughts one moment, and Jessica’s thoughts the next moment. Herbert’s narrative technique provides us with an extraordinary amount of information, which is enriching, but also confusing. His narrative is flooded with countless names and concepts.
The technique becomes more familiar as the novel progresses. Eventually, Herbert allows us to know what each character thinks and feels consistently. Herbert’s tactic provides as much information as possible about the characters and their world, but it removes much of the dramatic tension that might exist if we were less aware of the characters’ intentions and motivations.