Mimicry and Subversion: the Representation of the Neo-Victorian femme fatale in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride

 ‘You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride, p.392

As Barbara Creed argues, ‘All human societies have a concept of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about women that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.’[1] Throughout both late Victorian and neo-Victorian literature, concepts of the monstrous-feminine are inextricably linked with masculine fears of unveiled female sexual agency. More specifically, the characterisation of the female as dangerous and horrifying is intimately linked to notions of the sexually-independent female. This is the fear internalised by the femme fatale figure, a monstrous woman who refuses to remain subordinate to androcentric notions of the ‘ideal woman’, as presented in such works as Coventry Patmore’s 1854 narrative poem Angel in the House.[2] This typecasting of the femme fatale as monstrous proliferates throughout Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Despite the femme fatales continual shapeshifting’[3] in representation throughout the texts, the femme fatale remains a persistent figure of monstrosity; the femme fatale embodies, amongst others, fears of devolution, emasculation and decadence. Despite this, however, she remains a figure that evokes ‘dread’ desire’ and irresistible longing in her victims. [4] This monstrous power is evoked by the femme fatale’s subversion and monopolisation of the male gaze. [5] Through this, her fatality is achieved. The femme fatale, through this subversion, uses the gaze on her victims to ensnare them. Whilst the femme fatale gains power and influence through this subversion, ordained societal codes of masculine superiority come to be entirely obliterated; this results in the representation of the femme as fatale. Through a discussion of The Robber Bride, it becomes apparent that the femme fatale’s success at internalising the male gaze correlates with her level of monstrosity. Those that entirely refute and overpower the male gaze and, in turn, androcentric ideals are proven to be far more monstrous in their entirety than those who remain trapped in patriarchy.

In stark contrast to Victorian conceptions of the fatal woman, Atwood’s contemporary femme fatale bears no fatal flaw or hamartia. Zenia, a fin-de-millennial reworking of the femme fatale, is a creation of total monstrosity; she is described by Atwood herself as a horrific ‘Lady Macbeth’ figure who harbours no morally redeeming features.[6] Unlike Victorian femme fatales such as H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, whose passion results in her demise before she can truly be fatal, Zenia is a femme fatale that proves entirely deadly to the men and women she encounters. Unlike her Victorian counterpart, she never falls victim to the male gaze she attempts to monopolise. Instead, Zenia garners complete control over the male gaze, ensnaring her victims in their own perceptions of femininity. The power embodied in this gaze is made paramount by Roz, who declares that ‘you are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’[7] This is the gaze of patriarchal domination and oppression, which acts to reduce and ‘mould’ women into positions of inferiority and subordination at the hands of superior masculinity. Through Roz’s declaration, Atwood essentially suggests that women are ‘moulded’ into figures of the ‘proper feminine’ by the patriarchally oppressive gaze of androcentric society.[8] As Jean Noble observes, male power ‘lies at the heart of an unequal gendering gaze directed from men towards women’; women thus become ‘defined and constituted by that male gaze.’[9] Noble’s argument is clearly corroborated by Atwood, who continues to ponder ‘male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?’; ‘even pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own […] unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole’ (p.392). In this sense, it becomes apparent that the women of the novel are under the continual scrutiny of male driven society; this continual examination appears to be not too dissimilar from Panopticism. As theorised by Jeremy Bentham and later expanded by Foucault, the theory is based on the notion of ‘all-seeing’ architectural buildings. Bentham argued that these buildings would result in behavioural changes, as the individual censors their behaviour accordingly under the ever-watchful gaze.[10] Tony, Charis and Roz are all victims of this Panopticism, continually monitoring and changing themselves to please their respective partners.

However, Zenia successfully evades this Panoptic gaze through her refusal to remain trapped in these constructed ‘male fantasies’ (p.392). It is through evasion of the Panoptical gaze of patriarchy that Zenia becomes so monstrous. Zenia essentially subverts societal norms through mimicry and subversion, trapping her victims in reflections of the male fantasies that preoccupy their lives. Through mimicry and subversion, Zenia takes possession of the male gaze in a manner that proves entirely fatal to those surrounding her. As observed by Barbara Creed, ‘the femme fatale performs in order to capture and control the male gaze’.[11] Upon capturing this gaze Zenia, like Ayesha, becomes a figure of monstrosity through her unbalancing of patriarchal society. However, Zenia is never placed up ‘on a pedestal’ (p.392) by her creator in the same way as Ayesha; Ayesha’s power is hampered by her creator, Haggard, who destroys Ayesha’s monstrous power through unbridled passion. In contrast, Zenia is never hampered by such passion. She is instead a figure of unstoppable monstrosity, using the male gaze to act independently on her own immoral desires. It is this power that gives Zenia the ability to monstrously destroy her victims. In this sense, Zenia embodies Luce Irigaray’s theory of mimicry. Irigaray suggests that ‘there is […] perhaps only one ‘path’, the one historically assigned to the feminine: that of mimicry. One must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means […] to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it.’[12] The only way to deconstruct patriarchal conceptualisations of femininity, Irigaray suggests, is to adopt these male fantasies of the feminine ideal and overplay them. Only through this overplaying is subversion reached. Acting on Irigaray’s discourse, Zenia becomes a figure of gross monstrosity through her successful mimicry of male fantasies. As Roz declares, ‘The Zenia’s of this world have studied this situation and turned it to their own advantage; they haven’t let themselves by moulded into male fantasies, they’ve done it themselves’ (p.392). This mimicry not only affects the men she manipulates, but also the women she targets along the way. In fabricating personal histories and personas designed purposely to speak to the innermost desires and traumas of the three women, Zenia deploys her destruction. In doing, Zenia entirely refutes the subordinate patriarchal position that Ayesha ultimately falls victim of; she instead subverts and mimics male perceptions of the feminine ideal to enact and destroy their lives. Once these fantasies are performed to the men she ensnares the result is complete emasculation and a shattering of male superiority. Mitch is suggested to have committed suicide over the loss of Zenia whilst Billy disappears entirely. Like Holly and Leo, none of the men are the same after meeting her. Atwood thus portrays a far deadlier version of the femme fatale. Zenia is a femme fatale whose monstrosity lies in her successful mimicry of each individual victim’s respective fantasy of the ideal woman.

References

[1] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2012), p.1.

[2] See Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1858).

[3] Heather Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale in British Literature, 1790-1910 (Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012), p.109.

[4] H. Rider Haggard, She (London: Vintage, 2013), p.204. All further references to Haggard’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[5] In feminist theory, the male gaze is defined as the act of depicting the world and women from a masculine and heterosexual point of view; this is apparent throughout both visual art and literary history. Under this gaze, women are often presented as objects of male desire, deriving the construction of their identity from these male fantasies. This is the concept of the male gaze, as first developed by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, that my essay will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly ‘monstrous’ power possessed by the femme fatale. For more information on the male gaze, see Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.833-44.

[6] Margaret Atwood, Interview for South Bank Show, interviewed by Gillian Greenwood (ITV, 1993).

[7] Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (London: Virago Press, 1994), p.392. All further references to Atwood’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[8] For more information on the notion of the ‘proper feminine’ as opposed to the ‘improper’, see Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper Feminine’: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Taylor and Francis, 1992).

[9] Jean Bobby Noble, Masculinities without Men?: Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions (Vancouver, BC :University of British Columbia Press, 2010), p.47.

[10] See Michael Foucault, ‘The Means of Correct Training’ and ‘Complete and Austere Institutions’ [from Discipline and Punish], in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1991), pp.188-204, 214-24.

[11] Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2009), p.122.

[12] Luce Irigaray, ‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine’ in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp.118-32, p.124.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

References
Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gibberish [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Monstrous Femme Fatale in H. Rider Haggard’s She

‘Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious.’
-H. Rider Haggard, She, p.143.

The representation of the femme fatale as monstrous is prolifically highlighted in H. Rider Haggard’s characterisation of Ayesha, as shown in his fin-de-siècle novel She. Referred to predominately as ‘She’, an abbreviation of her full title ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed’ (p.144), Ayesha immediately becomes a figure of abjection and horror who threatens ingrained notions of androcentric superiority. In her dictator-like control of the Amahaggar people, eternal beauty and superior intellect, Ayesha subverts Victorian teachings of the ‘ideal’ woman. These women were suggested to be ‘devoted, docile wives and mothers’, paragons of domesticity, virtue and humility.’[1] Ayesha defies this subordination, instead using her powerful sexuality to control and conquer both the land and men surrounding her. This is demonstrated in Ayesha’s respective unveiling to Holly and Leo. Before revealing herself to Holly, Ayesha declares that ‘never may the man to whom my beauty hath been unveiled put it from his mind, and therefore even with these savages do I go veiled’ (pp.142/143). This is proven true when Holly shrinks ‘back blinded and amazed’ (p.143). Leo, in turn, finds ‘the power of her dread beauty fasten on him and take possession of his senses, drugging them, and drawing the heart out of him’ (p.204). Both Leo and Holly are reduced and emasculated through Ayesha’s unveiling, finding themselves powerless to her sexual domination. However, it becomes apparent that it the veiling of her beauty in the first instance that provides Ayesha with such power over the men; essentially, her success at withholding herself from the male gaze supplies her with power over all those that surround her. In remaining shrouded, Ayesha takes hold of the male gaze and uses it as weapon against Holly and Leo to emasculate them both. Holly, upon witnessing Ayesha’s form, appears affected to the point of regression; he is reduced to a physically inferior position to Ayesha, ‘stumbl[ing] from her presence’ (p.158). Holly’s ‘stumble’, a term etymologically defined as ‘to trip or momentarily lose one’s balance’, becomes indicative of Ayesha’s monstrous power; Ayesha’s undressing entirely shifts the ‘balance’ of power from the androcentric male figure to herself. [2]  This loss of balance results in Holly’s inability to perform even the most basic of bodily functions; he essentially becomes trapped in what he later refers to be Ayesha’s ‘dread beauty’ (p.204).

Rather than becoming instantly enamoured with Ayesha’s beauty, however, Holly declares that ‘never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious’ (p.143). In the collusion of her beauty with ‘dread’, defined as to ‘anticipate with great apprehension or fear’,[3] Ayesha’s appearance is inextricably interwoven by Haggard with a discourse of horror. This, when coupled with Holly’s references to the Sublime nature of Ayesha’s power, invokes a combination of awe and terror in the reader that simultaneously accentuates her monstrosity. As the philosopher Edmund Burke theorised on the Sublime, ‘Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smoothed and polished […] the great ought to be dark and gloomy.’ Thus, ‘they [Beauty and the Sublime] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded in pain, the other pleasure.’[4] Despite her clear beauty, Ayesha’s ability in emasculating her victims through a reflection of the male gaze thus positions her as a figure of abject horror. Her ability to tip the balance of ordained societal codes results in her depiction as fatal to those she encounters; she becomes a character that is underpinned by a discourse of female monstrosity.

In Ayesha’s stripping of Leo and Holly’s notions of masculine authority the novel can clearly be seen as playing on fin-de-siècle fears of devolution, otherwise known as Degeneration theory. Max Nordau, writer of the indicative 1895 text Degeneration, diagnosed the cause of recidivism in Victorian society be to an increase in femininity. This increase led to what Nordau denounced as the emasculation of society; femininization thus resulted in increased decadence, a supposedly recidivist fault diagnosed in fin-de-siècle culture, art and literature.[5] Ayesha internalises these fears, becoming the literary manifestation of male anxieties concerning devolving masculinity. Her desirability and independence appear to entirely consume and trap Holly and Leo, who are both described as never full the same after meeting her.[6] However it is this same fear of Degeneration, as internalised by Ayesha, that feeds into and hampers her power. Haggard, a firm believer in the patriarchal notion of women’s domestic position, unconsciously attempts to claim and destroy his femme fatale’s power in an attempt to restore ‘true’ societal balance.[7] This hampering is achieved through Ayesha’s depiction as eternally devoted to her lover Kallikrates. This passion firmly places her in the position of the patriarchally-devoted wife of nineteenth-century England.[8] Ayesha’s love extends past her fatal desire for totalitarian rule; her love results in her becoming fatal to herself. This is demonstrated in her stepping into the Elixir or Life and consequently degenerating. As Holly witnesses, ‘she [Ayesha] was shrivelling up […] smaller and smaller she grew […] till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was a stamp of unutterable age’ (p.293/294). As Rebecca Stott argues, Ayesha falls foul to ‘retrogressive evolution, a savage devolution’, [9] regressing to the point of extinction. Rather than fatally enacting her monstrous desires for imperial power and rule, Ayesha’s love essentially results in her regression. In turn, this regression acts as brutal patriarchal punishment for her misappropriation of masculine power. She essentially risks it all for her lover, trapping herself in the male gaze that she herself attempted to subvert. In this way, Ayesha becomes a femme fatale constructed from male fantasy. She is the femme fatale that succumbs to her passion, risking it all for her lover; in doing so, she destroys any semblance of the monstrous threat she once possessed.

References
Featured Image: Image take from Purnell’s 1977 edition of the H. Rider Haggard’s She. See H. Rider Haggard, She (Bristol:Purnell, 1977).

[1] British Library, ‘Introduction’ to The Angel in the House. Available at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coventry-patmores-poem-the-angel-in-the-house [Accessed 26th March 2017].

[2] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stumbled [Accessed 10/12/2017].

[3] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dread [Accessed 4/11/2017].

[4] George Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: J. Dodsley Publishers, 1767), p.237-238.

[5] See Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[6] After Ayesha’s demise, Holly describes his and Leo’s own personal changes. Leo is described as his ‘golden curls’ of hair turning ‘to a snowy white’, whilst Holly states of himself that: ‘I know that two days afterwards when I inspected my ace in some water I scarcely recognised myself. I have never been famous for beauty, but there was something bedside ugliness stamped upon my features that I have never got rid of until this day, something resembling that wild look with which a startled person wakes from deep sleep more than anything else that I can think of’ (p.308).

[7] See H. Rider Haggard, ‘A Man’s View of Woman’ (1894), as reprinted in H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, ed. Andrew A. Stauffer (Ontario: Broadview, 2006), pp.337-340.

[8] For further information on the position of the domestic woman in the Victorian era, see Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth-Century (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1845).

[9] Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.114.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Racialised ‘Other’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

‘Everybody remembers the first time that they were taught that part of the human race was Other…It’s as if I told you that your left hand is not part of your body.’
-Toni Morrison

Throughout American history and literature, race has always played a huge, and often debilitating, role in the construction of Black American identity. This is most notably seen through the differentiation between the ideal of ‘Americanness’ and the alienated Black African American. In the cult novels of Post-1945 America, Black characters consistently find themselves trapped by societal conceptions, ideologies, and notions of inferiority. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird undoubtedly highlight these oppressive principles. The novel evokes American racist societal concepts, as well as use discriminatory racial tropes, to highlight and essentially criticise the fragmented nature of Black American identity in post-war American  society.

Black American identity is most clearly stifled by the notion of ‘Americanness’, an ideology that seemingly suggests the true embodiment of the ideal and ‘true’ American are middle-aged, white Protestant men. The Marlboro man, a figure created to sell

marlboro.jpg
The Marlboro Man 

Marlboro cigarettes, appears to be the true embodiment of this notion; his rugged individualism, independence and, most obviously, his position as a white American serves to highlight both his position as an individual, whilst also representing simultaneously a mass of individuals. This ideology, defined as ‘a system of ideas that governs the way we experience the world’,[2] singlehandedly foregrounds the oppressive racial attitude towards the Black African American, who in turn is seen as the ‘Other’ figure. This notion of ‘alien’ races and cultures was paramount to both the political and cultural movements of Twentieth-century America. This paranoia and fear of the other is highlighted through earlier war propaganda posters, such as America’s 1918 conscription poster entitled ‘Destroy this Mad Brute-Enlist’[3]. The representation of the German enemy as a looming African gorilla serves not only to accentuate the fear of the ‘unknown’ and enemy ‘Other’ of the German cultural movement, but can also be read as accentuating the fear of ‘known’ alien threat to white supremacy- the Black African American.

invisible man
Harry R. Hoops, Destroy this Mad Brute Enlist- US Army.

This ‘known’ internal threat grasps the helpless female figure (reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty and, therefore, a metaphor for America itself) in his right arm, whilst also carrying a bloodied bludgeon in his left hand. Such propagandist pieces ultimately led to the formation and continuance of a handful of discriminatory racial tropes; as Tommy L. Lott argues, the metaphor of the Black African American as an ape-like figure ‘satisfies the need to provide a biological justification of antiblack racism, and supplies a convenient rationale for ongoing subordination of Black people.’[4] The representation of the Black man as an ape is perhaps most popularly demonstrated through King Kong[5], created in 1933, which plays on the notion of the predatory sexual nature of the Black individual, as well as notions of violent primitivism. King Kong encapsulates and plays upon the supposed violent hyper-sexuality of the Black Man; popular portrayals of the Black American as barbarous and primitive continue to pervade to this day.

This same racial typecasting is demonstrated through Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. The reader finds the construction of Tom’s identity based almost solely on a handful of prejudiced tropes, the most obvious of these being the Myth of the Black Rapist. Angela Davis, who coined the latter term, argues, ‘In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by racism.’[6] This trope, built on the stereotype of Black men being hyper-sexual and dangerous, is foregrounded in the film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. The film famously depicts a white woman throwing herself off a cliff to escape from the barbarous Black rapist.[7] As explained by Michael Phillips, ‘The Myth of the Black Rapist provided a powerful counter-discourse’ that led to ‘Negrophobic images of the black man as ravishing beast’, which suffused ‘the language of even counter-hegemonic movements’.[8]

Despite there being a forty-five-year difference between the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Birth of the Nation, this racial stereotype clearly comes to shape the way in which Tom Robinson is portrayed and framed for the sexual assault of Mayella. Despite being physically handicapped and the blatant fraudulence of Mayella and her father’s testimonies, Tom Robinson is still asked if he is ‘strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor?’.[9] Regardless of his clear innocence, the court continues to focus on Tom’s strength in a negative light. The verbs ‘choke’ and ‘sling’ highlight Tom Robinson’s conceptualisation as a barbarous and dangerous primitive. This negativity is clearly still informed by such prolific cultural creations as the ape-like other presented in Destroy This Mad Brute-Enlist; his identity, therefore, is colluded with the criminal ‘other’, an alien figure that is in complete opposition to the pure white ‘ideal’ of Americanness. This same ideological stereotyping informed the outcome of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African American men falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. All 19 men were convicted and 18 were sentenced to death. Although later acquitted, the case undoubtedly represents the prevalence of the stereotype of the African American man being sexually primitive and violent.

It is apparent, then, that the violent actions of a minority of African Americans come to encompass the entire community. Ellison’s criticism of this is further apparent through Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, who declares ‘you know the truth, and the truth is this: some negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral…but this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men’ (p.226). However, despite Atticus attempting to rebel against the idea of the African American as a criminal other figure, his call for social equality is entirely undermined by his use of the term ‘negroes’. In using the latter phrase, Atticus further accentuates the notion of the Black African American as ‘Other’; they are a ‘different’ ‘race of man’, singled out for the colour of their skin and the ingrained ideology that preaches African American’s to be alien to the true notion of Americanness. Although Atticus attempts to bring justice to the court system by banishing such racist tropes as the Black rapist figure, he in fact complicates and inhibits further the racial identity and progression of the Black American. He unwittingly comes to represent the figure of the White Saviour, a ‘genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower-or working class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate’.[10] Through this embodiment, Atticus allows the reader to feel morally superior and comfortable with the trial. Consequently, morality is racialized as white, with the Black man being presented as incapable of saving themselves. As argued by Roslyn Siegal, ‘[T]he Negro[…] is usually depicted as stupid, pathetic, defenceless and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence, to save him.’[11] Rather than representing one truth, then, the figure of Atticus perpetuates another racial trope, one that suggests the Black American to be both morally and physically inferior.    The exploitation and monopolisation of the Black African American figure by white supremacist figures is also apparent in To Kill a Mockingbird. The motif of the Mockingbird greatly accentuates this notion. Upon Scout and Jem asking Miss Maudie why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird, they are told that:

‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird. ‘
-(p.99-100)

Miss Maudie’s explanation contains several troubling aspects; in particular, it suggests the only reason for not killing a Mockingbird is due to their entertainment value, not for their sentient nature and individual identity. This disturbing idea, when coupled with a reading of Tom Robinson is being a major Mockingbird in the tale, suggests that Tom should only be kept alive for the sake of ‘us’, ‘us’ in this instance being the white American population of Maycomb County. Tom is only there to ‘sing’ and please the community, performing menial, low wage work to please the white superior figures. As Isaac Saney argues, ‘by foisting this Mockingbird image on African Americans, the novel does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior ‘races’; rather, Miss Maudie’s comment simply states ‘that Black people are useful and harmless creatures- akin to decorous pets…’.[12] Ultimately, it is this same ‘dancing’ and Tom’s frequent attempts to please Mayella, a figure of white ideal ‘Americanness’, that leads to his death. His identity is essentially belittled to little more than his aesthetic use and his physical ability to work and entertain.

References
Featured Image: Front Cover of Heinemann’s 2003 edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

[1]  Toni Morrison, as cited in Toni Morrison, ed. by Jill L. Matus (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1998), p.23

[2] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 2003), p.4

[3] Harry R. Hoops, Destroy this Mad Brute Enlist- US Army, 1918, Colour Litograph, 106 x 71cm. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010652057/ (Accessed 18/12/2016)

[4] Tommy L. Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p.7

[5] See King Kong, dir. By Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (RKO Pictures inc., 1933)

[6] Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983), p.173

[7] See Birth of a Nation, Dir. By D.W. Griffith (Epoch Producing Co., 1915)

[8]Michael Phillips, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), p.30

[9] Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (London: Arrow Books, 2006), p.217. All further references to Lee’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[10] Matthew Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), p.1

[11] Roslyn Siegal, ‘The Black Man and the Macabre in American Literature’ in Black American Literature Forum, 10.2 (1976), pp.133-136, p.136)

[12] Isaac Saney, ‘Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010), pp.58-62, p. 60-61.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Doppelgänger in Sarah Waters The Little Stranger

For I’ll turn, and am disappointed- realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.’
-Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, p.499.

The figure of the dark double is a common trope in gothic fiction, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is no exception. In her haunting novel, the dark double comes in the form of main character, Dr Faraday. The Little Stranger tells the story of Dr Faraday and the Ayres family in their seemingly haunted house. The unexplained ghostly energy haunts Dr Faraday and acts as the dark double of his unconsciousness.

The text suggests Faraday is involved in the hauntings in some way. Firstly, there are constant references to his desire for the Ayres’s home: Hundreds Hall. As a lower-class citizen, Hundreds Hall and the Ayres family represent the upper class that he both desires to belong to but also detests. Whilst reflecting on his visit to the hall as a child he comments that he ‘wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it’ (The Little Stranger, p.3). Here, his admiration and desire for the hall and wealth is evident from a young age. There is a possessive tone as if he wants to claim parts of the house for himself. The desire for the hall could be associated with the dark double as it is possible Faraday himself, or an energy he created, causes the disruption at the hall to gain it for himself.

Although Faraday desires Hundreds Hall and to belong to the upper class, his conflict between the two classes creates anger. Fellow doctor, Seely, creates his own analysis of the occurrences at Hundreds which could be applied to Faraday:

‘The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration . . .’
The Little Stranger, p. 380

The ‘dark’ corners of Faraday’s mind can represent his hidden class resentment and unhappiness that his parents sacrificed everything for him to become a doctor. The ‘germ’ Seely refers to could be the dark double of Faraday as the strange events at Hundreds only begin when Faraday starts to become close to the family and the ‘stirring of a dark dislike’ (The Little Stranger, p. 27) begins. The literary reference to Mr Hyde further suggests the presence of a second and darker personality, perhaps in Faraday. Unlike the other two texts, there is no physical dark double, but a manifestation of his desire and hatred for higher classes that create an alternative identity of Faraday.

There are several possible explanations for Faraday’s behaviour, with one being the double brain theory which suggests half of the brain can act without the other half knowing. This theory can be applied to Faraday as one part of his brain could be acting differently to the conscious part that readers are aware of in his narrative. (1) After Roderick, Caroline and Mrs Ayres die and the house is abandoned, Faraday still visits, as if haunting it. In the last chapter, Faraday comments that:

‘Hundreds was consumed by some dark germ, some ravenous shadow-creature, some ‘little stranger’, spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself. […] If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.’
(The Little Stranger pp. 498-499)

The unattached tone and observant nature demonstrates that he does not recognise how his description matches his own actions as he could be considered as someone with a ‘troubled unconscious’ due to his class issues, and is connected to the house in some way. The ending also hints that it has been Faraday all along as he looks in the mirror thinking he will see the ‘little stranger’ and instead sees himself. The ‘cracked’ window pane further suggest that his personality is split into two parts, linking to the double brain theory. Faraday is left alone with his dark self (and Hundreds Hall which is perhaps what he wanted from the beginning) whether he is aware of his dark self or not.

The dark double acts as a representation of both Faraday’s fears and desires. His dark double is a manifestation of his desire and resentment towards the upper class. Faraday does not recognise the dark part of himself and after the deaths of the entire Ayres family, he is left with the Hall he desired but with his dark self still part of his identity.

References
Featured image: 
Front cover of Riverhead Books 2010 edition of the novel. See Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (New York City, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010).

(1)   Henry Maudsley’s journal article discusses this theory, suggesting that ‘that consciousness exists at one moment in the one, and at the next moment in the other, hemisphere.’ Henry Maudsley, ‘The Double Brain’, Mind, 14, No. 54 (1889), 162-187 (p. 167)

Written by Sophie Shepherd.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

Immortality and Transcendence in John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death’
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, l.51-52.

The wish for transcendence adopts an arousing vision for the second-generation Romantic poets, as they strongly believed in the healing power of the imagination and the ability to escape real life with their creative thoughts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers a theory for creative transcendence in one of his famous passages in Biographia Literaria (1817). He establishes a harmonious relationship between the ideal world and the real world: ‘[the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create: even where this process is rendered impossible’.[1] Shortly after Coleridge’s work was published, poets including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley shed a new light onto the transcendent powers of poetry. Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) explores the transcendent influence of the human mind through the presence of nature as an immortal symbol. The use of imaginative transcendence from a real world to the ideal in both poems exposes the transition of multiple other binaries. The wish to transcend between the real and ideal can question whether the human imagination is subject to the limitations of human experience.

In Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird is presented as an immortal icon. The speaker admires the happiness that the nightingale possesses: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness’.[2] The nightingale embodies an excess of joy which is incomparable to the speaker’s. The superlative ‘too’ portrays the extremity of the nightingale’s immortality, invoking an excess of emotion onto the speaker. The overbalance of pleasure from a natural object links to the themes encompassing the Sublime. In The Prelude, William Wordsworth recognises nature’s superiority in the lines:

‘The Power which these/
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus/
Thrusts forth upon the senses.’[3]

The all-consuming ‘Power’ of the bird’s songs in Keats poem invokes a raw emotion that shows how the transcendence is initiated by a Subliminal, aesthetic experience.

Whilst the nightingale is an immortal entity, it is also a bird of darkness. The dark imagery in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ resembles the death-wish of the speaker; there is ‘no light’ (l. 38) except from where the breeze causes the trees to part. The stanza is full of absences and presences caused from the transcendence from reality to the ideal, reflecting the glimpses of life and death:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
(ll. 41-52)

Keats’ bird is invisible in the shadowy forest of ‘embalmed darkness’, resembling the death-wishes connected to the transcendent thoughts of the speaker. The dark imagery plunges the speaker into confusion; he ‘cannot see’, blinded by the powers of his imagination. Furthermore, he addresses the nightingale as ‘Darkling’ to emphasise his loneliness in a dark world. Although the nightingale is immortal in the ideal world, Keats is suggesting that when combined with the real world, the bird brings deathly connotations because of its black colour. He views death as a welcomed prospect; ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’. Death to Keats seems partly desirable because of the mortality of the world he lives in. The presence of the nightingale in reality makes him see death as an escape to release him from his troubles. The dark symbolism of the nightingale draws a close association between life and death, which blurs the boundaries between the two.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contrasts the immortality of the bird with the reality of mankind to remind us of the permanent sorrow in the world, emphasising the human desire to escape it. The speaker wishes to ‘fade far away’ from the death and decay of the real world:

‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan’
(ll. 21- 24)

The verb ‘dissolve’ stresses Keats’ desire to disappear from the destructive world around him. The added emphasis of ‘dissolve’ in parenthesis separates the word away from the rest of the stanza; resembling Keats distancing himself from the decay of reality. Furthermore, the imagery of the miserable men visualises a world of grief and suffering that is not apparent in the nightingale’s world. The sensory ‘groan[s]’ interfere with the beauty of the nightingale’s song that ‘Singest of summer’ (l. 10). This contrast grounds Keats in the realms of reality and stops him from transcending. The regular rise and fall of the iambic pentameter syllables arguably represent the sound of a heartbeat; further keeping Keats connected to the physical body whilst transcending to an idealised state. This suggests that the mortality of the world cannot be escaped even if mankind wishes to be free. With regards to Keats’ poetry, Bernice Slote summarises that ‘because of the particular poetic quality of his life, Keats’ poems are nearly always viewed autobiographically’.[4] Contextually therefore, it is likely that Keats is referring to the death and sickness occurring in his life at the time he wrote the ode. His family’s misfortunes and impending struggle with tuberculosis enabled Keats to envision a world surrounded by life’s suffering and decay. This belief is exemplified in his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818:

I compare human life to a Mansion of Many apartments… [in which occurs the] sharpening of one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man- of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.’[5]

The degenerated earth that Keats lives in opposes the nightingale’s infinite life; as the bird ‘wast not born for death’ (l. 61). The age and decay of the real world in Keats’ ode contrasts with the state of the bird to suggest that mankind is inferior. Combining the world of imagination with the real world is important to Keats because without imagination, the real world is confined to ugliness. On the other hand, merging the two worlds with the speaker’s imagination shows how one cannot simply transcend into the other. Earl Wasserman argues that Keats’ juxtaposition of immortality and pain emphasises the instability of reality, ‘for the perfection of the nightingale’s happiness underscores an uneasiness of the poet’s’.[6] In a universe of suffering and pain, seeing the nightingale triggers the speaker’s imaginative thoughts. Keats binds a world of pain and fear by forging the ideal and real world as one: ‘Still wouldst though sing, and I have ears in vain-/ To thy high requiem become a sod’ (ll. 59- 60). In these lines, Keats is implying that even with the joyous sounds of the nightingale, death inevitably still surrounds him. It is not a jubilant celebration of life but a ‘requiem’ for the dead.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ highlights his awareness of the transcendent power of art when he rides on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ (l. 33). Furthermore, Keats transcends beyond admiring the nightingale when he notes that ‘Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes’ (l. 29). The nightingale is no longer an aesthetic beauty but a metaphor for poetic inspiration. For Keats, the power of poetry is not the only motivator for his transcendent experience. The poem’s rich imagery of intoxication emphasises a desire to escape into a world of hallucinogenic bliss. The imagery of the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ (l. 17) suggests that alcohol is an overwhelming factor to the quality of Keats’ thoughts. The plosive alliteration is onomatopoeic and captures the action of sparkling wine fizzing. The ‘winking’ is suggestive of bubbles forming and bursting, which personifies the alcohol as opening and shutting like an eye. This can allude to Keats’ imagination flitting from reality to the ideal through the influence of alcohol. The ode begins with ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’ (ll. 1- 2) to suggest that the speaker is drinking to escape his misery. The decadent start of the poem concentrates on the suffering of the speaker, through the repetition of the first-person determiner ‘my’ to emphasise the speaker’s unstable state of mind. The ‘drowsy numbness’ adds delusion and portrays the real world as blurred and uncertain. Furthermore, Keats uses Greek myth in his ode to express his desire to transcend from the uncomfortable reality of modernity. Greek myth is used to describe the transcendence of Keats flying to the nightingale ‘Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards’ (l. 32). In Greek myth, ‘Bacchus’ is the god of agriculture, wine and fertility; encompassing the earthly consciousness of the real world. To ‘not’ use reality as a way to transcend to the ideal suggests that alcohol is an insufficient source of inspiration for his imagination. John Strachan disapproves of Keats’ work, describing it as ‘neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium’.[7] In disagreement with Strachan’s criticism, the intoxication of the speaker in the ode can be seen as a symbol of the real world’s chaos as opposed to the poet himself. Keats criticises the self-indulgence of mankind and shows its interference with the poetic inspiration.

References
Featured Painting:
Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845, Oil on Canvas, 114 x 97cm, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. The Floating Press (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 365- 366.

[2] John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1464- 1466 (l. 6) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 554- 558.

[4] Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958) p. 4.

[5] Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May, 1818 in Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

[6] Earl Wasserman. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953) p. 188.

[7] John Strachan, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on The Poems of John Keats (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 39.

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Happy (belated) New Year!

After an extended break over the Christmas period, we are now back and ready to kickstart the new year with a series of new blog posts. Before we begin publishing posts again, however, I would just like to say on behalf of all of us here at The Literature Blog a big thank you to all of our readers (both old and new) who continue to support us and give us a platform to write. We never imagined that our blog would grow so quickly and have as much support, so we are very grateful!

Along with the other members of the team, I hope that you enjoy our new content that will be featured over the upcoming months. To keep up to date, feel free to hit the follow button. And from all of us here, Happy (belated) New Year!

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Transgression of heterosexual marriage in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’
-Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, p.5.

Marriage is typically based on a mutual love and desire. However, in The Little Stranger, Waters subverts the social understanding of marriage, and instead uses marriage to satisfy a queer ulterior motive. Faraday’s sudden longing for Caroline is unsettling when contrasted to his earlier unfavourable descriptions of her appearance. He describes her as androgynous with ‘boyish shoes’ and her feminine body parts (hips and bosom) are described with negativity as ‘wide’ and ‘large’. Even after becoming engaged to Caroline, therefore supposedly feeling love and desire towards her, Faraday describes her face as masculine by using the words ‘strong’ and ‘angular’. The text says, ‘I couldn’t believe that I had ever found [her face] plain.’1 Faraday’s description of Caroline is hardly praising her beauty or expressing a profound attraction. Instead, he appears repulsed by her fleshly female form. A poetic literary technique, the blazon, dissects the female body and typically praises its

beauty. Faraday subverts the traditional blazon, which is commonly associated with Petrarchan love, and instead he describes Caroline in a basic and simplistic way. Faraday transgresses typical expectations of heterosexual relationships where desire and attraction are fundamental. His reoccurring criticism of Caroline’s appearance is implicit of no attraction, lust or desire towards her, which jars with his sudden desire to marry her. Instead, it is implied that Hundred’s Hall is the object of his desire. Caroline summarises this herself as she says, ‘Do you really [want me]’ ‘Or is it the house you want?’(p.448) The queer projection of desire onto the house transgresses typical expectations of marriage. Heterosexual love becomes spectral as desire is displaced onto a house, rather than Faraday’s own fiancé. The relationship, therefore, becomes merely functional as a way to guarantee possession of the house, and challenges social ideologies of romantic love.

Even as a small child Faraday is infatuated with Hundred’s Hall. On his first ever visit, he took an acorn out of the wall which he felt entitled to own. Faraday describes this event by saying, ‘I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.’(p.3) Faraday defines his feelings towards the house in relation to heterosexual desire, which transgresses the typical social ideologies of desire. Desire is displaced onto an object, rather than a person. The queer attraction to the Hall is intensified when Faraday describes the feeling of the acorn in his trouser pocket. The text says, ‘I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement.’(p.3) The hard lump in his pocket appears phallic, especially as he refers to a ‘sick’ excitement, immediately portraying Faraday’s perverse attraction to the house. The queer sense of desire Faraday feels towards Hundred’s becomes intensified as the novel continues, and when he sees an opportunity of gaining ownership (through marrying Caroline) he becomes obsessed with the idea. Heterosexual love and marriage become a socially acceptable way of satisfying his queer obsession of the house. Caroline becomes aware of Faraday’s ulterior motives for marriage. When Caroline calls off the engagement, Faraday asks, ‘[h]ow can you say all of these terrible things? After all I’ve done, for you, for your family?’ Caroline responds by saying, ‘You think I should repay you, by marrying you? Is that what you think marriage is- a kind of payment?’(p.448) Caroline appears to be aware of Faraday transgressing the social and cultural norms of marriage. For Faraday, marriage becomes a disguise and excuse which allows him to satisfy his queer obsession with the house.

References
Featured photo: Book cover of The Little Stranger, Sarah Walters. Reprint edition (May 4, 2010)

1.Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago Press: London, 2009) p.323 All further references are to this edition.

Written by Sarah Culham.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Relationship between Clothing and identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.’
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, p.18.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) demonstrates how clothing can be used to enforce rigid, fixed identities as the government of Gilead attempts to control the population in the dystopian novel. It establishes the limitations of clothing and how it can be used as a method of containment and repression. The protagonist Offred, along with other women in the text, are required to wear certain clothes that reflect their role and status in society.

The colour of clothing is used to differentiate between women and signify their role in society. Offred wears ‘red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine’ and ‘red gloves’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). She also mentions how ‘everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). Offred’s role in society is to provide children for the Commanders and their Wives; by dressing the Handmaids in red it defines them by their specific roles. Red, the colour of blood, is associated with menstruation and so their internal use is being reflected by the clothing. Red can also signify passion and lust, which is ironic due to these feelings being taken away from the Handmaids. The colour can be associated with an over-powering force, and here it also links to both life and death. There is also a focus on practicality, and not pleasure, as the shoes are designed to protect the spine which is important for child birth. The wings are significant as they are the only item of clothing that is white. White is a neutral colour which represents how their faces are separated from the body, suggesting they are not important unlike their bodies. They also provide a limited vision thus showing how their clothes are used as a restraint and to gain control. Offred describes herself as ‘a distorted shadow’ (Handmaid’s, p. 19) which demonstrates how her identity has been distorted and manipulated to fit the new regime. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, is described as ‘a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman […] looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us’ (Handmaid’s pp. 28-29). Here, Offred feels that they have been reduced to shapes, rather than people, which demonstrates the degrading powers of clothing. Cynthia G. Kuhn suggests that ‘the coding of gender is an ongoing concern in Atwood’s writing, especially as it results in the marginalization of women, and dress plays a significant role in illuminating such displacement.’ (2) Colour reduces women’s status in Gilead, which links to Kuhn’s discussion. They are specifically segregated from the higher positions of men. Therefore, clothing and colour can be used to maintain control over the women in Gilead.

Although Gilead uses clothing to control, it can also signify small glimpses of a subverted freedom. An example is when the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels. Here, the women appear to have freedom over their clothes. They are bright, colourful and a clear contrast to the dresses of the Handmaids and Marthas. Yet, it represents an inverted freedom as all the clothes cover a limited amount of skin and are a mismatch of lingerie and costumes worn for male pleasure. Offred comments on her friend Moira’s outfit: ‘What is the significance of it here, why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? How can this bedraggled costume appeal?’ (Handmaid’s, p. 251). Without anybody telling her, Offred assumes that the women dress to be sexually attractive to men. The repetition of questions implies Offred struggles to understand why it is necessary for them to be sexually appealing. Clothing still has limitations as it is worn for a specific purpose of appealing to men. Offred cannot decide if the women at Jezebels are happy:

‘At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they         are like oversized children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there      joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.’
(The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 247)

‘Masquerade party’ has associations with mystery and disguising identity. By describing them as children it suggests an innocence and child-like behaviour and that they are trying to be grown up or be people that they are not. These images of disguise and acting further supports how clothing is used to limit freedom in the text. Madonne Miner suggests ‘the “past” called up by the Commander, the past that brings delight into his voice, is one in which women are on display for men, and are dependent upon men.’ (3) This observation links to the subverted view of freedom present at Jezebels. The women are on display for the wealthier men of Gilead, and they rely on their lust and reluctance to let go of the past. The women at Jezebels may have more freedom than the Handmaids and Marthas, yet they are still required to follow the rules created by men. Clothing is used to control women and put them in specific roles, even when they have a small amount of freedom.

To conclude, in The Handmaid’s Tale, clothing is used to segregate and undermine women, forcing them into roles. New identities are created for the women and the clothes reinforce them, whilst stripping away their true identities as a method to gain control.

References
Featured image: https://www.bustle.com/p/is-the-handmaids-tale-season-2-based-on-the-book-the-show-has-used-up-most-of-its-source-material-8876101

(1)   Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage Classics, 2010)

(2)   Cynthia G. Kuhn, Self-fashioning in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction: Dress, Culture, and Identity (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), p. 22.

(3)   Madonne Miner, ‘”Trust Me”: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Twentieth Century Literature, 37.2 (1991), 148-168.

Written By Sophie Shepherd.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Robin Hood ballads: Regurgitating Traditional Tropes or Deeply Influenced by Historical Context?

‘Not a Frenchman will I spare
[…]
Not a Frenchman will he spare.’
– ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, ll.104-108

Although Stephen Knight and  Thomas H. Ohlgren point out that the tropes, the ‘augmentation of the outlaw band’ and ‘Robin Hood meets his match’ are prevalent in the Robin Hood tradition, certain late ballads are more influenced by their historical military context than any previous Robin Hood material in the tradition. (1) ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’ is shaped by the Anglo-French relations of the seventeenth century and ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’ reflects the powerful threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Joseph Ritson recognises that the ‘most surviving common broad-sheet ballads were printed between the Restoration of 1660 and the Revolution of 1688’. (2) The relationship between France and England throughout the whole of the seventeenth century is characterised by war and military conflict, but it is most aggressive during, and shortly after the time Ritson refers to. The Anglo-French war of 1627-29 was sparked by the French refusal to ally with England against the Habsburg Spain and Austria. In the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667), the French allied with the English enemy. (3) Similarly, the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) brought William III to the throne and therefore caused England’s alliance with the Dutch against the forces of Louis XIV. (4) This Anglo-French rivalry is undoubtedly articulated in the late Robin Hood ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. Stephen Pincus notes that ‘[t]he streets of London and provincial towns were littered with pamphlets, broadsides and poems offering glosses on witticisms about the most recent doings of European dignitaries.’ (5) This confirms that this ballad could be a form of political propaganda. In it, the enemy is politicised. Robin Hood states, ‘not a Frenchman I will spare’ (6) and the narrator repeats, ‘not a Frenchman he would spare’ (l.108). Although ‘Frenchman’ is in the singular, it is symbolic of the entire nation which, is confirmed through the celebration of the violence in the ballad. The narrator repeats how Robin took his ‘noble bow’ (l.125). Despite the fact that the ballad comes after Munday’s gentrified version of Robin Hood, the adjective ‘noble’ is not connected with Robin, but with his weapon, and therefore with the violence. The bow is no longer being used for sport and archery competitions as it is in the early ballads, but is turned into a war weapon. The narrative of the ballad is celebrating the violence because of the political nature of the enemy which adds something new to the larger tradition, and shows its contextual influences. (7)

This celebration of violence in the ballad coincides with the negative portrayal of the French enemy. The fishermen were ‘awar of a French robber/Coming toward them most desperately’ (ll.79-80). This description, with the reference to robbery and the adverb ‘desperately’, suggests French greed and links with the absence of the fish in sea; Robin, disguised as Symon ‘neither gott great nor smaw’ (l.52). This lack of fish metaphorically suggests an impending French threat to goods on English soil as well as in the sea. This threat is confirmed towards the end of the ballad when Symon ‘found within that ship of war/[t]welve hundred pounds in gold so bright’ (ll.163-164). Pincus writes that in the late seventeenth century there was a ‘well-known Francophobia of Londoners’ and this shows how the ballad is responding to this popular negative feeling towards France and its ruler Louis XIV, who emerged from the Second Dutch War as immensely powerful. (8) This French power is reflected in the contrast between the ‘fisher and the waryer free/[…] the noble ship’ (ll.158-159). The English ‘fisher’ is unlikely to defeat the ‘noble’ French ship and this unprecedented success, alongside the greedy portrayal of the French, shows the ballad to be acting as a form of political propaganda. The ballad portrays the French as an easy defeat whilst also encouraging hatred towards them. Although the date of the ballad is ambiguous, the violence within it confirms that the negative attitude towards the French is shaped by the contextual military conflict between England and France in the late seventeenth century.

II

By the late sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire had established a large area of territory. However, the seventeenth century marked a change for the Empire. Their focus was now to defend existing land and trade routes, rather than further expansion. (9) Historian Cathal Nolan states that ‘by 1650 […] the empire was one of the largest states in the world at 800,000 square miles and 20 million inhabitants’ and because of wars, such as the Austro-Ottoman War (1683-1689), ‘much of Europe came to view the Ottomans as a lasting and direct security threat where previously it had been a distant and unknown country’. (10) This threatening perception of the Ottoman Empire is articulated through the late Robin Hood ballad, ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’. (11) This ballad is particularly concerned with a racial othering of the enemy. The ‘proud Prince of Aragon’ (l. 49) is joined by two giants ‘most horrid for to see’ (l.56). They have ‘grisly looks, and eyes like brands, […] with serpents hissing on their helms,/[i]nstead of feathered plume’ (ll.57-60). The description of their eyes ‘branding terror’ and the ‘serpents on their helms’ makes the giants explicitly monstrous and inhuman. This othering of the enemy is taken further through use of the conjunctive adverb ‘instead’ which allows the narrator to show what is perceived as normal. It is not until later in the ballad when Robin encounters the Prince of Aragon and calls him a ‘tyrant Turk’ (l.141) that the significance of this othering is revealed. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire and their impending threat is allegorically dramatized through the otherness of the giants. Like, ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, this ballad is responding to the English perception of a potential military threat. This time the threat is the Ottoman Empire, which still confirms the large influence of the historical context.

This ballad places a larger focus on the violence between Robin Hood and the enemy in comparison to ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. This could contextually suggest that the Ottoman threat is stronger than the French threat. In terms of setting, the enemy is already on English soil, not out at sea. The Prince of Aragon commands ‘bring forth my bride, or London burns’ (l.127). The narrative of the enemy is engaging directly with the Great Fire of London of 1666. This not only shows how the ballad is responding to its context but also supports the idea that it is a form of political propaganda, encouraging a national wariness towards the Ottoman Empire. This threatening persona of the enemy is mostly articulated through the violence in the ballad. At the battle, Little John ‘clove the giant to the belt,/[a]nd cut in twain his heart’ (ll.175-176) and to the other giant Will Scadlock ‘with his faulchion he run through/ [a] deep and gashly wound’ (l.181-182). The violence, which structurally takes up a large section of the ballad, is littered with adjectives associated with aggression such as ‘hewd’ (l.155), ‘deep and gashly’ (l.182), and verbs such as ‘struck’ (l.158), ‘slain’ (l.160), and ‘clove’ (l.175). In ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, Robin uses his ‘noble bow’ and shoots the Frenchmen from afar whilst being ‘bound to the main mast tree’ (RHF, l.105). Here, the ‘noble bow’ is replaced with the ‘faulchion’ which in itself is symbolic for the greater intimacy of the battle because it means Robin and the enemy must fight closer together than with the use of a bow. This change in weaponry coincides with the greater focus upon the descriptions of the wounds – ‘blood sprang from every vain’ (l. 56) – and suggests the Ottoman threat to be greater than the French threat because the narrative is much more focused on the action. Despite the difference in the way that the threats are portrayed, these late ballads still show how the military context shapes their themes.

References
Featured Photo: Image from page 20 of ‘Robin Hood; a collection of ancient poems, songs, and ballads, not extant, relative to that celebrated English outlaw, to which are prefixed historical anecdotes of his life’, accessed from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14766209342, [accessed on 29/11/18].

1)      Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren, ‘Later Ballads: Introduction’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/later-robin-hood-ballads-introduction> [Accessed 11/04/2017]

2)      Joseph Ritson, quoted in Rhymes of Robyn Hood by Richard Barrie Dobson and John Taylor (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 51.

3)      Ronald H. Fritze and William B.  Robison, Historical Dictionary of Stuart England (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), pp.203-204.

4)      John Childs, The Nine Years’ War and the British Army, 1688-1697: The Operations in the Low Countries, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp.21-25.

5)      Stephen C.A Pincus , ‘From Butterboxes to Wooden Shoes: The Shift in English Popular Sentiment from Anti-Dutch to Anti-French in the 1670s’ in The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1995), pp. 333-361 (p.335).

6)      ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), l. 104 available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 28/02/2017]. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

7)      In the medieval ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, the violence is casual; Robin kills Sir Guy and cuts him in the face in order to make it seem as though it is him who is dead. ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 08/04/2017]. In Munday’s play The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, the enemies are personal. Prince John is a rival for the love of Maid Marian. Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/downfall-of-robert-earle-of-huntington> [Accessed 08/04/2017].

8)      Stephen C. A. Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy: 1650-1658, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 254.

9)      Cathal C. Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopaedia of Global Warfare and Civilisation (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), p. 344.  

10)  Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715, p. 344.

11)   ‘Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood/text/child-ballad-129-robin-hood-and-the-prince-of-aragon> [Accessed 14/04/17]. All other references to this text are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

Written by Estelle Luck.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.