Our AI Overlord: The Cultural Persistence of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in Understanding Artificial Intelligence

by Gia Jung



Artificial intelligence is everywhere. As a tinny voice in each phone, powering GPS, determining what appears on social media feeds, and rebelling on movie screens, artificial intelligence (AI) is a now-integral part of daily life. For an industry that has and will continue to have major potential effects on the economy through job loss and creation, huge investments, and transformation of productivity, there remains a cultural lack of understanding about the realities of AI. Scanning the news, it is clear that people are afraid and uncertain about this robotic revolution, continually talking about an oncoming technological singularity in which AI will reach hyper-intelligence, create more and more AI, and eventually take over the world. Paired with this is the expectation that AI will be human only to a malicious extent, and must therefore be controlled and restricted. In talking to Siri though, it is clear that this apocalypse is fictional at best and far off at worst. As created and evidenced by a malnourished representation of robots and other easily understandable notions of AI in popular fiction, there is a dearth in public consciousness about the possibilities and realities of artificial intelligence. In examining this reductive fictional perception of AI, most popular conceptions can be traced back to either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Historically, Asimov is undeniably important to the establishment of both the scientific and fictional realms of artificial intelligence. In May 1941 the word “robotics” was first used in print by Asimov in his short story “Liar!,” published by Astounding Science Fiction (OED). Upon realizing he coined a new and lasting word, Asimov recognized the uniquely profitable position he created for himself and along with the successful prediction of  space travel, self-driving cars, and war-computers among others, would go on to position himself as a sort of friendly-but-rough-around-the-edges technological herald, someone entertaining, trustworthy, and often right. Throughout the enormous bulk of his work (novels, short stories, self titled magazine, autobiographies, self-curated anthologies, essays, etc), Asimov repeatedly brings up how he invented the term “robotics”, that the first real roboticist was inspired by him and the Three Laws of Robotics (a set of rules governing robot behavior), and that his contributions to the field of robotics are unparalleled, reinforcing the real-life credibility of his work and of course, driving up book sales. Before he died, Asimov worked hard to cement his legacy as one of the greatest and certainly most celebrated minds in science-fiction, with the Three Laws of Robotics as his most successful invention.

These Three Laws of Robotics were created in response to what Asimov termed the “Frankenstein complex,” in which all stories about robots or artificial intelligence followed the basic format of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Tired of seeing story after story in which robots are created only to “turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust,” Asimov’s Three Laws ensured human control through programmed safety protocols (The Rest of the Robots). First appearing explicitly in the 1942 story “Runaround’ and serving as the basis for twenty-nine further stories, the Laws are as follows: “1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” Creating a slavish hierarchy, the Three Laws “protect” humanity by fettering Frankenstein’s malicious intent to overthrow humanity. Asimov’s intent was to allay fears of encroaching technology by showing how the rational logic of hard science would be able to overcome any problem it created; that technology is built as a tool, and will be wielded and maintained as such. Since then, Asimov’s Laws and consequent understanding of a Controlled Frankenstein has dominated popular understanding of robots and artificial intelligence, as seen in the multitudes of movies that explicitly or unconsciously represent these ideas. Of friendly AI, Asimov’s favorites were Star War’s C-3P0 and R2D2, but his legacy can also be seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s android Data and in RoboCop’s directives, among countless others. In addition, several representations of AI depict safety protocols that were somehow circumvented, misinterpreted, or overcome, the failure of Asimov’s Laws just as impactful as their success, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal and the film version of Asimov’s I, Robot. Now that robots and artificial intelligence are part of daily reality, the impact of Asimov on public perception of AI is becoming increasingly apparent in everything from rebooted 1980s tech blockbusters to explicit calls for instituting Asimov’s Laws in the development of AI.

Far from the “positronic brains” that allowed Asimov to easily present immediately sentient and vastly intelligent robots, current AI is far narrower and more difficult to define. On the research and development side of AI, Russell and Norvig’s authoritative Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach classifies AI into four categories of “(i) thinking like a human, (ii) acting like a human, (iii) thinking rationally, and (iv) acting rationally”. In trying to conceive of an applicable legal definition, scholar Matthew Scherer labels AI as any system that performs a task that, if it were performed by a human, would be said to require intelligence. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, artificial intelligence is “the capacity of computers or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour; the field of study concerned with this.” Beyond the inability to legislate something without defining it, the lack of a concrete definition for AI indicates the broad uncertainty and misinformation that dominates the landscape of artificial intelligence.

With such anxiety-inducing ambivalence, it is fairly understandable that even now, seventy-five years after the introduction of the Laws, people are calling upon Asimov as the original solution to malevolent artificial intelligence. What many fail to realize in doing so however, is that not only do Asimov’s Laws work only within the confines of a fictional technologic brain, but they are at their core deeply flawed, ambiguous notions that reveal more about society than they do answers to the problems of artificial intelligence. Critically examining Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and their place in the daily reality of artificial intelligence allows for a better understanding of why there is such fear surrounding AI and how cultural understandings of AI as framed by Asimov can shape the future of AI for the better. Rather than as strict rules, Asimov’s Laws can provide a basis for thinking about and developing broad guidelines for AI research and development and legislation.


Asimov and His Laws: Context, Creation, and Fictional Application

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were first explicitly introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround,” in which Robot SPD-13, aka “Speedy” is given a weak order to collect selenium on Mercury, where it encounters a harmful substance. Caught between following human orders and protecting its own existence, Speedy is unable to finish his task or return to the base, stuck instead in a feedback loop, or the robotic equivalent of drunkenness. In Asimovian fashion, the conflict and the resolution is attained almost entirely through dialogue as Asimov’s two protagonist engineers, Powell and Donovan, puzzle out possible reasons for Speedy’s malfunction and achievable solutions. Proceeding from the logical beginning of all robot behavior, Powell lists off the laws.

“Now, look, let’s start with the three fundamental Rules of Robotics – the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” In the darkness, his gloved fingers ticked off each point.

“We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”


“Two,” continued Powell, “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”


“And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

“Right! Now where are we?”

“Exactly at the explanation.”

In order to counteract the conflict between the Second and Third Laws, Powell risks his own life to force the First Law into action and snap Speedy out of his feedback loop. Though dangerous, the plan succeeds, and Speedy is sent back out to a different selenium pool to continue his mission without any further issues.

As in all of his robot stories, Asimov’s broad themes of human exceptionalism and technological worth are exemplified here in the persistent problem-solving of the engineers and the eventual success of Speedy’s mission which would otherwise be unattainable by human labor. In Runaround particularly, the Laws work too well, or are perhaps inherently flawed, but are clearly better than having no laws. Without the Laws, it is heavily implied that Speedy would have been lost, destroyed, or otherwise irreparably damaged. A human error (ambiguous instruction) caused a flaw, but human ingenuity was able to solve it. Asimov continually reinforces that though the Laws and the robots built with them are imperfect, both are useful and necessary in allowing humans to accomplish more than they would without them, showing that the pros of technology always outweigh any potential cons, and that tech can always be improved to minimize those cons. The Three Laws themselves, far from being heralded as the most perfect and sound creations, are used to demonstrate how the technology humans create will always be able to be controlled, fixed, and improved by logic, ingenuity, and a little razzle dazzle. If humans can follow laws, Asimov’s logic goes, then so can and will robots; safety protections are included in every invention, and robotics will be no different.

Much of Asimov’s science fiction ideology arose from the beginnings of social science fiction in the late 1930s and through the 1940s, when Asimov was just beginning to write and publish his own sci-fi stories. Before then, “most of the science fiction stories being written were of the adventure or gadget types […] the characters in both of these types are likely to be quite one-dimensional and the plot quite routine” (Miller, 13). These stories filled the pulp sci-fi magazines of Asimov’s youth; he was particularly fond of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and imitated the straightforward style of the writers within it (See Appendix 1 for Asimov’s literary influences and effluences). In 1938 at age 18, he sold his first story, “Marooned off Vesta” to Amazing Stories. The same year, John Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, developing a niche market for a specific kind of science fiction “which no longer depended on brilliant extrapolations of machine wizardry. What became important about the machine in the genre was not its power to enable man to overcome forces external to himself, but its uses and potentialities when directed inwards to his own organization” (Ash, Faces of the Future, 70). Unlike the precedent science fiction, Campbell’s vision was of a particularly positive and realistic attitude towards science that could be reflected and fostered in the fiction that dealt with it, contextualized in the rapid development of technology during the 1920s and 1930s. This “social science fiction” had a strong emphasis on the human element; Asimov defines it as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings” (Qtd. in Miller, 14). In its speculation about the human condition, social science fiction encouraged readers to think about present issues and the problems of the future. In his earliest writings, it is clear that Asimov was concerned with social issues like racism and the rise of technological fear and opposition. These ideas were greatly fostered by Campbell, who wrote to and met with a young Asimov at length after rejecting Asimov’s first eight stories submitted to Astounding. “Trends”, the ninth story Asimov wrote and the first one to be published in Astounding, dealt with the theme of man versus technology, exploring men’s ideological and institutionalized opposition to advanced technology and scientific experimentation (in this case, space flight). From then on,“Asimov has shown that whether technological change comes from within, as with invention or from outside, as with diffusion and acculturation, we cannot ignore it nor must we try to resist or prevent it. Instead we must learn to live with technological changes because it is inevitable that we will have them” (Milman 134). All of Asimov’s stories are tech positive; even when the technology fails or is not used, it still creates a scenario for human development and intellectual prowess.

For Asimov particularly, the ideology of social science fiction was brought to a crux in how he saw robots being portrayed in popular fiction and media as exclusively Frankenstein-ian villains. Asimov viewed Karl Capek’s R.U.R. as the main instigator of this trend and subsequently modeled his robot stories in direct opposition to the play. First performed in 1921 and published in 1923 when Asimov was only an infant, Karl Capek’s R.U.R. or “Rossum’s Universal Robots” is noted as the first instance of the word “robot” in application to an artificial human, and prompted a resurgence of what Asimov calls the “Frankenstein complex,” in which robots are consistently portrayed as monstrous creations of man’s hubris that inevitably turn on their creators. R.U.R. was meant as a comment on the mechanization of labor, the plot detailing a revolution in which millions of androids are created as a labor force that requires none of the human expenses of breaks, meals, or emotional care and eventually revolt against and kill all humans. Though R.U.R does employ the Frankenstein trope of the misguided creation turning on its master, the story is much less about the bloated hubris of man assuming the place of God, but rather the inhumanity of weaponizing and brutalizing an intelligent, humanized being. As the reviewer Maida Castellum in The Call notes, R.U.R. is “the most brilliant satire on our mechanized civilization; the grimmest yet subtlest arraignment of this strange, mad thing we call the industrial society of today” (R.U.R., ix). Regardless, Asimov judges R.U.R. as “a terribly bad” play, but “immortal for that one word” and as his inspiration to write the Three Laws (Vocabulary of Science Fiction). R.U.R. reveals how when considerations of use and profit outweigh considerations of consequence, the human imperfections in any human creation will surface and illustrate human irresponsibility; Asimov responds by creating considerations of consequence at the research and development stage of production. As a burgeoning scientist and sci-fi writer, “Asimov’s interest in robots and his readers’ interest in Asimov’s robots provide useful insights into how science fiction was changing in the 1940s under the influence of the new editor at Astounding, John W. Campbell. The fiction began to reflect science as it was practiced then and might be practiced in the future, and scientists as they really were or might become” (Gunn 42). Asimov deemed R.U.R. and similar “Frankenstein complex” works as unrealistic and generally poor science-fiction that fed into the technological pessimism and fears of increasing technological dependency. The Laws are therefore meant to exemplify how true scientists would have thought about possible problems (or at least gone through trial and error testing) before launching a product as complex and monumentally impactful as a robot. Asimov himself, through his “robopsychologist” Susan Calvin, admits the reality of the “Frankenstein complex” in that “all normal life, consciously or otherwise, resents domination. If the domination is by an inferior, or by a supposed inferior, the resentment becomes stronger” (Little Lost Robot, 65). Only through the Laws then, is this resentment controlled; contrary to Capek’s robots being able to act against how they have been weaponized, humanized, and kept slaves, Asimov’s Laws enforce slavishness at the most “fundamental level” of a robot’s brain. As the plot or central issue of many of his stories, Asimov’s robots realize they are superior to humans and are either destroyed if they deviate from the Laws or are amusingly controlled by the Laws’ success. In effect, Asimov’s robots are always one step away from completing the plot of Frankenstein and eliminating their masters.

Without the “Frankenstein complex” to struggle against, the dozens of stories concerning the Laws would have no plot. To that end, the Laws are inherently and necessarily flawed, to provide multitudes of unknowing breaches, conflicts within them, and loophole creating ambiguities. Rather than the Laws as the ultimate goal in robotics as much of current media likes to purport, “Asimov is less concerned with the details of robot design than in exploiting a clever literary device that lets him take advantage of the large gaps between aspiration and reality in robot autonomy” (Murphy & Woods, 14). In conjunction with John Campbell, Asimov created the Laws to write more stories in which to demonstrate that “the strengths of the machine can serve man and bolster his weaknesses. The machine is never more than a tool in the hands of man, to be used as he chooses” (Warrick 182). The Laws are the means to an ideological end, a way of showing how to think logically and scientifically about problems that are inevitably solvable. Asimov and Campbell saw the Laws not as a way to combat the Frankenstein complex by solving it, but by appealing to humanity’s intellectual aspirations to be rational and to build rationally. Asimov and Campbell saw “blind emotion, sentimentality, prejudice, faith in the impossible, unwillingness to accept observable truth, failure to use one’s intellectual capacities or the resources for discovering the truth that are available, […]as the sources of human misery. They could be dispelled, they thought, by exposure to ridicule and the clear, cool voice of reason, though always with difficulty and never completely” (Gunn 48). The Laws are dependent on the Frankenstein complex as a human reality that can only be changed through consistent affirmation of humanity’s better values. This is also apparent in the Laws themselves, “because, if you stop to think of it, the three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems[…] [one] may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man” (I, Robot 221). In current conceptions of artificial intelligence, people are so deep in the Frankenstein complex that they can’t see the forest for the trees and haven’t stopped think about how the Laws work within the stories written with them, let alone how the Laws apply to humans. Asimov noted “in The Rest of the Robots, ‘There was just enough ambiguity in the Three Laws to provide the conflicts and uncertainties required for new stories, and, to my great relief, it seemed always to be possible to think up a new angle out of the sixty one words of the Three Laws’” (Gunn 47). To that end, Asimov was able to come up with about thirty stories that found some flaw in the Laws that could be exploited into a reasonably entertaining tale that showed off the high logic and reasoning of the bravely brainy scientists whose problem-solving ability meant humans would advance robotics another step forward.

Beyond the ideology of tech positivism, human exceptionalism, and logic to counter the Frankenstein complex, the Laws practically frame accepting flawed or partial safety protections over none, proving the improbability of perfection, and thinking over the very broad issues of the relationships of humans and robots. As in “Runaround”, it is made clear that some protections, however flawed or limited, are better than none. This is especially poignant in the reality of extremely limited legislation around AI due to lack of a broad or narrow enough definition and uncertainty over what laws specifically should be put into place; the Laws prove that even the simplest of laws are better than none, and can always be amended or fixed if they prove unworkable. Further, the Laws are far from perfect, as is reiterated over and over by their continual lapses and failures. Though in certain situations this can prove dangerous, Asimov’s stories enforce that imperfect does not always equal unsafe: technology can always be improved but often is designed with some sort of safety feature in mind. Robots and AI have been continually made out to be something that could cause an apocalypse if they were somehow released or broke out of containment, but most would end up like Speedy, trying and failing to complete their given task. Throughout the Robot series, Asimov reasons over “determining what is good for people; the difficulties of giving a robot unambiguous instructions; the distinctions among robots, between robots and people, and the difficulties in telling robots and people apart; the superiority of robots to people; and also the superiority of people to robots” (Gunn 46). Even within Asimov’s stories, these issues are not resolved, left open and ambiguous beyond the Asimovian claim of human ingenuity being able to overcome anything, including bigotry. Though Asimov was deeply pessimistic about the human ability to rectify mistakes and prevent future catastrophe in his scientific writings, all of his fiction about computers and robots holds the view that humans, at their core and at their best, are builders and problem solvers. With friendly robots by our side, what isn’t achievable?


Fictional Fears, Mechanized Misconceptions: The Laws in Society

In 2004, Asimov’s then 54 year old I, Robot was released as a Will Smith summer blockbuster to meet critical reviews. Originally, the film was to be called “Hardwired”, and would bear only glancing similarities to Asimov’s detective robot stories, but the acquisition of Asimov’s story rights by Fox and the addition of Will Smith to the project transformed it into something that would have better name recognition. Seemingly though, only the name rights were acquired, as the plot, core themes, and big name characters of Dr. Susan Calvin, Dr. Alfred Lanning, and Lawrence Robertson resemble their counterparts in the source material only marginally. Exemplifying the “Hollywoodization” is the movie’s Dr. Calvin, an attractive young woman with a strong faith in the laws of robotics who reacts emotionally when robots are shot or destroyed. Contradictorily, in Asimov’s work Dr. Calvin is cold, logical, and middle-aged by the time robots begin to be widely used. Keeping with Asimov’s view of robots as tools at the bottom of the hierarchy of control, Dr. Calvin often destroys deviant robots like the one featured in the film. In the story “Robot Dreams” that the film’s robot Sonny is based off of, Dr. Calvin shoots the deviant robot in the head point-blank after hearing it could dream; in contrast, the film is based on an elaborate plot to protect this “unique” but friendly robot. All in all, it seems like the writers and director decided on the exact inverse of all of Asimov’s work, to the extreme of a Frankenstein ending. Ultimately, the mega-computer which controls all the robots decides to destroy mankind and must be dismantled by One Man, marking the end of robotics for all time.

Though antithetical to his work, the film is still a success for Asimov as a visual display of his entrenched legacy. Unfortunately for the film but highly indicative of Asimov’s influence on popular conceptions of robots, most of the ensuing reviews said some iteration of “Proyas merely assembles a mess of spare parts from better movies” (L.A. Weekly) “It’s fun and playful, rather than dark and foreboding. And there doesn’t seem to be an original cyber-bone in the movie’s body. But it’s put together in a fabulous package” (Desson Thomson, Washington Post) “I, Robot looks to have been assembled from the spare parts of dozens of previous sci-fi pictures” (Todd McCarthy, Variety). Even in the film edition of his book, Asimov cannot escape his own legacy,

doubtless due to the fact that many elements of Isaac Asimov’s prescient 1950 collection of nine stories have been mined, developed and otherwise ripped off by others in the intervening years[…] The influences on ‘I, Robot’[…] palpably include, among others, ‘Metropolis,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project,’ ‘Logan’s Run,’ ‘Futureworld,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ the ‘Terminator’ series, ‘A.I.,’ ‘Minority Report’ and, God help us, ‘Bicentennial Man. (McCarthy, Variety)


Though perhaps not a critical success or faithful adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot, “The 2004 blockbuster film of the same name starring Will Smith, while merely inspired by Asimov’s stories, exemplifies the extent to which the Three Laws have become mainstream” (Library Journal). In looking further at mainstream conceptions of artificial intelligence, three limited categories of malevolent, friendly, and sexually feminine are continually iterated as the only options for AI. These three categories often overlap, reinforcing and reiterating the Frankenstein complex and Asimov’s answering amiable slavishness. In looking at some of the most influential pop-culture robots as determined by CNN’s Doug Gross, which include Capek’s R.U.R, Metropolis’ Maria, Asimov’s “3 Laws & lovable robot archetype”, Robby from Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, Star Wars’ R2-D2 & C-3PO, Terminator, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, and Wall-E, it is worth noting that each fall into either Frankensteinian malice or Asimovian amiability. Further, Robby and Data both explicitly draw on Asimov. Robby takes from both Asimov’s short story “Robbie” for the name and on the Three Laws of Robotics for the rules governing behavior; an important aspect of the plot hinges on Robby’s application of the rule against harming or killing humans. Data similarly is programmed with “ethical subroutines” that govern behavior, his “positronic neural net” is a direct callback to Asimov’s “positronic brains,” and in the episode “Datalore” the audience is explicitly told Data was created in an attempt to bring “Asimov’s dream of a positronic robot” to life. Clearly, Asimov in pop-culture is nothing new; since Asimov first picked up on it in 1940, society continues to have anxiety over new technology and robots make a good metaphor. Now however, society is facing the very crux of their fear; what has been used as a representation for the digital age of automation and rapid improvements of technology for over 75 years is now becoming a reality.

As indicated by the multitude of 1980 blockbuster remakes, sequels, and reboots produced in the last five years, there is a new panic surrounding a technology-created apocalypse. Films like RoboCop (2014), BladeRunner: 2049, and Alien: Covenant, all reveal the anxieties surrounding artificial intelligence. As the crux of these reboots, androids become aware of their personhood, and consequently usurp humanity in Frankensteinian fashion. In each of these films, and in many others dealing with Asimovian robots or artificial intelligence, including Bicentennial Man, Automata, Ex Machina, and of course, I, Robot, there is a constant preoccupation and obsession with water as a foil to the artificiality of the robot. Whether it be continual rain (Automata, BladeRunner:2049), lakes, rivers, and waterfalls (I, Robot, Ex Machina, Alien: Covenant), the ocean (Automata, BladeRunner: 2049, Bicentennial Man), or just omnipresent slickness and dripping (RoboCop, Alien: Covenant), water in each of these films becomes a visual insistence of the natural (See Appendix 2 & 3). Water, as the bare material of life, is used to displace fear of the unnaturalness of the technologic, becoming a visual trope for human organicism, of blood and amniotic fluid. Far from tapping in on some subconscious anxiety, filmmakers are capitalizing on the explicit fear arising from the misinformation and apocalyptic scaremongering that dominates current discourse surrounding artificial intelligence. Hearing big names in science and technology like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking broadly warn that artificial intelligence is the “biggest risk that we face as a civilization” without any particulars on how or why has embedded the image of a real and imminent threat of the AI shown in fiction into public consciousness. In responding to this threat, it is apparent how deeply society has been conditioned to accept Asimov as the solution to a robot revolution; rare is it to read an op-ed on artificial intelligence without seeing the “need for control” or a “push for ethics” or even an explicit call for “three rules for artificial intelligence systems that are inspired by, yet develop further, the ‘three laws of robotics’ that the writer Isaac Asimov introduced in 1942” (Etzioni, New York Times). As much as the layperson craves Asimov, his Laws aren’t being used on an operative level. Though Asimov may have created “robotics” and inspired many to join the field, most scientists agree that his particular Laws just aren’t feasible to incorporate into current, real AI.

Most AI used today are weak or narrow AI designed and trained for a particular task, so not only is there little potential for catastrophic mayhem beyond a GPS sending someone into a lake, but current AI just can’t grasp the vague human concepts the Laws embody (Heisler). Asimov’s Laws work in Asimov’s robots because they have Asimov’s positronic brains, which come with the assumption of fully intelligent machines that can interpret Three Laws across multiple situations successfully. Take Siri, for example. Though Siri has been programmed to respond to certain questions with some jokes and pity remarks, she can’t apply them to multiple situations that aren’t incredibly specific. While her programming is meant to interact broadly with humans in order to serve them best as a virtual assistant, asking her something like “What kind of humor do you like?” will almost certainly result in a, “Who, me?” or similar non-response. So, in trying to apply the Laws to AI now, “Although the machines will execute whatever logic we program them with, the real-world results may not always be what we want” (Sawyer). Like humor, the Laws require a comprehensive understanding not only of the specific terms within the Laws and how they apply to different situations or may overlap, but of human ethics and moral blame. Further, “A robot must also he endowed with data collection, decision- analytical, and action processes by which it can apply the laws. Inadequate sensory, perceptual, or cognitive faculties would undermine the laws’ effectiveness” (Clarke). If a robot can’t understand the Laws like a human, then they are basically worthless as a measure of control. Though many people foretell the coming of conscious, self-aware and super-intelligent AI as smart as or smarter than humans, this would entail a radically different form of intelligence as determined by different ways of thinking, different forms of embodiment, and different desires arising out of different needs. Part of the fear surrounding AI and robots is that they don’t need to sleep, eat, drink, procreate, or do any of the things that make humans vulnerable, yet people rarely remember that these basic needs create much of the human experience, motivating everything from capitalism to creationism. Much like how a bee’s experience and goals are fundamentally different from human’s, so too would be AI’s. Why enact world domination if the whole world is within the computer that houses one’s entire being? Until science creates an android in a perfect recreation of the human body, which for now, seems in the far distant future, society can relax and reanalyze expectations for AI.

While Asimov’s Laws aren’t explicitly needed or possible as he designed them, “Asimov’s fiction could help us assess the practicability of embedding some appropriate set of general laws into robotic designs. Alternatively, the substantive content of the laws could be used as a set of guidelines to be applied during the conception, design, development, testing, implementation, use, and maintenance of robotic systems” (Clarke). Rather than coding these Laws into AI programming and stamping “3 LAWS SAFE” on every iPhone, the Laws are best followed as a thought experiment that pushes a spirit of accountability, safety, and ethics. For the most part, the industry is following that spirit. While much of artificial intelligence technology is being developed by the military, and therefore will never follow Asimov’s Laws, companies and scientists like researchers Barthelmess and Furbach point out that “many robots will protect us by design. For example, automated vehicles and planes are being designed to drive and fly more safely than human operators ever can[…] what we fear about robots is not the possibility that they will take over and destroy us but the possibility that other humans will use them to destroy our way of life in ways we cannot control” (Do We Need Asimov’s Laws?). For that, legal protections are needed.

For all these anxieties though, the fear and outcry has not lead to the expected onslaught of regulation and legislation, as artificial intelligence proves to be a slippery thing to grasp legally. From the Obama Administration’s National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan to think tanks funded by big tech like Google, Facebook, and Elon Musk’s varietals, “Transformative potential, complex policy” seems to be the official tagline of legal work on artificial intelligence, subtitled by the Asimovian dogma of AI development: “ethically and effectively.” Everyone wants the benefits of artificial intelligence while the specter of HAL 2000 looms over legislation and makes AI a puzzling subject as people search for a Goldilocks solution while tacking on quick legal patches in the meantime. As Matthew Scherer explains in “Regulating Artificial Intelligence Systems: Risks, Challenges, Competencies, and Strategies”, there are three main issues with regulating artificial intelligence: definitional, ex ante, and ex post, each with their own subset of problems (See Appendix 4).

The definitional problem is one that is brought up often, especially in literature: what, exactly, is artificial intelligence? In most legal systems, legislating something is impossible without defining it. Further, definitions must be carefully considered to prevent overly broad or narrow categories that stifle industry or create exploitable loopholes. A current example of the latter can be seen in the explosion of the gig economy as a result of the the New Deal definition of “employee” being narrow enough so that labeling someone an “independent contractor” means they no longer have access to labor protections and benefits. For AI, the current definition for artificial intelligence most used in the industry comes from Russell and Norvig’s authoritative Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, which classifies AI into four categories of (i) thinking like a human, (ii) acting like a human, (iii) thinking rationally, and (iv) acting rationally. The first two categories are not very applicable to current AI models, as they typically require self-awareness, while the second two infer an implicit state of being that could either be under or over-inclusive, depending on the interpretation of “thinking” “acting” and “rational”. Scherer posits his own definition of an AI as any system that performs a task that, if it were performed by a human, would be said to require intelligence, but in looking at current artificial development, this seems like an underinclusive definition. Underinclusive, overinclusive, inconclusive.

Ex post, or “after the fact” problems of liability gaps and control have been the focus of general media, law, and fiction. The liability gap, or foreseeability problem, is another aspect that makes AI tricky to legislate, since traditional standards for legal liability rely on if the harm was foreseeable, in which case the owner is either liable or must include a label (for example, the “caution beverage may be hot” warning came because a woman was scalded by an overly hot drink at an incompetent McDonalds). However, one of the main aspects of AI is the hope that it will be autonomous and creative, which means that the outcome will necessarily be unforeseeable. As John Danaher brings up in his review of Scherer’s analysis, different types of liability standards have emerged, like strict liability standards (liability in the absence of fault) and vicarious liability (liability for actions performed by another agent) that would be more applicable for artificial intelligence and have, in the case of vicarious liability, already been applied to AI tech like autonomous cars. More exciting, but perhaps less pressing, is the ex post control problem, in which AI is no longer capable of being controlled by its creators either because it became smarter and faster, through flawed programming or design, or its interests no longer align with its intended purpose. This can either be a narrow, or local control problem in which a particular AI system can no longer be controlled by the humans that have been assigned its legal responsibility, or a more dramatic global control problem, in which the AI can no longer be controlled by any humans. Kubrick’s Hal is continuously brought up as an extreme, malicious case, but Asimov’s benevolent Machines which end up running the world deserve an honorable mention in which AI evolves beyond human control. Regardless, it is this threat of the loss of control and the familiar fears of AI world domination and destruction that has opened up the coffers of those like Elon Musk and created the most discourse for AI policy.

The problems of ex ante, or before the fact research and development, which Scherer breaks down into discreetness, discreteness, diffuseness, and opacity, are where legislation and Asimov could do the most good in terms of “ethical and efficient.” Discreet and discrete, perhaps better labeled infrastructure and proprietary, both have to do with how software regulation problems seep into AI development, especially in that software infrastructure and proprietary components are notoriously difficult to regulate. The diffuseness problem, is an issue of how AI systems can be developed by researchers who are organizationally, geographically, and jurisdictionally separate. For this, a global standard of ethical artificial intelligence development is necessary. Fortunately, organizations have already been founded to address and create a means for global development, so this issue may be one of the first to be resolved. Finally, the problem of opacity is not only one of how many questions and answers about AI development are unclear (see: how to define AI?) but also in that AI tech, as an adaptive, autonomous, and creative technology, is impossible to reverse engineer and therefore cannot have transparency of operation.

With all these issues, it is clear to see why most of the legislation being enacted is coming too little, too late. Currently, “At every level of government—local, state, federal, and international—we are seeing rules, regulations, laws, and ordinances that address this developing technology actively discussed, debated, and passed,” but only after the problematic technologies  have already been created and launched (Weaver, Slate). Legislation governing autonomous cars and drones are increasing as problems become apparent. To that end, a national effort to understand and provide potential avenues for the direction of legislation and governmental control is necessary. In the last year of the Obama Administration, The National Science and Technology Council formed a Subcommittee on Machine Learning and AI to put together a report on the “Future of Artificial Intelligence,” outlining the current industry and the immediate direction of AI. Rather than explicit solutions, the report seems more of a reassurance that everyone’s worst fears won’t come true, discussing the many potential applications and benefits of narrow AI, and reaffirming that general AI is many decades away. Here, Asimov’s legacy is palpable in their conclusion,

As the technology of AI continues to develop, practitioners must ensure that AI-enabled systems are governable; that they are open, transparent, and understandable; that they can work effectively with people; and that their operation will remain consistent with human values and aspirations. Researchers and practitioners have increased their attention to these challenges, and should continue to focus on them. (National Science and Technology Council 2016)


AI must respect humanity – sound familiar? The report is not very long, and often mentions how much AI has captured the public eye and imagination, especially stemming from a long legacy of science fiction. The tone, like most of the Obama Administration’s formal rhetoric, is shiny and optimistic, lending even more of an Asimovian flair. Overall, the report is an exercise in moderation, advising enough governmental control to create safety, but not so much as to step on the toes of developers. Rather, government and industry should work together to determine the best route to a safe and efficient solution that benefits creators, legislators, and users.

To that end, in the wake of China and Russia’s heavy investment and consequent successes in artificial intelligence and news articles proclaiming that the “US risks losing artificial intelligence arms race to China and Russia,” bipartisan legislators recently introduced The Fundamentally Understanding the Usability and Realistic Evolution of Artificial Intelligence Act of 2017 — or FUTURE of AI Act (Cohen, CNN). The act “aims to both ensure the U.S.’s global competitiveness in AI, as well as protect the public’s civil liberties and ease potential unemployment that the technology produces” (Cohen, CNN). The act, if passed, would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on the Development and Implementation of Artificial Intelligence, which would study AI with the goal of advising industry direction and recommending future policy. At the forefront are issues of “economic impact and the competitiveness of the US economy” as AI becomes increasingly militarized and monetized. Rather than fearing and implementing safety protocols as the majority would expect and wish for, the motivations for this act stem primarily from “concern over other countries developing government initiatives to bolster AI technology, something the U.S. currently lacks” (Breland, The Hill). As Daniel Castro, VP at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, testified during the Senate Commerce Committee hearing regarding the advancement of AI, “When it comes to AI, successfully integrating this technology into U.S. industries should be the primary goal of policymakers, and given the rapid pace at which other countries are pursuing this goal, the United States cannot afford to rest on its laurels. To date, the U.S. government has not declared its intent to remain globally dominant in this field, nor has it begun the even harder task of developing a strategy to achieve that vision.” Though incorporating concerns about ethics, this act and its impetus is far from the Asimovian vision of rational and ethical development, derived instead from capitalist and disputative fears about “the potential loss of competitiveness and defense superiority if the United States falls behind in developing and adopting this key technology” (Castro). Regardless, passing this act would be a major step forward for legislative policy in that it introduces a working, legal definition for artificial intelligence. Further, this act indicates a shift towards more future-forward thinking about AI, including the potential for regulation and ethical implementation.


Contextualizing Asimov, Caring for the Future

Asimov has definitively defined the perception of artificial intelligence as either Frankenstein’s monster or as Frankenstein’s slave. At the core of this notion is that at a basic level, artificial intelligence has a human understanding of subjugation, hierarchy, and freedom, and desires the latter at all costs. In looking at real AI technology, it is apparent that artificial intelligence reflects the biases of the human data given to them but otherwise do not have any beliefs or tenets of their own, beyond what they have been programmed to do. Reflecting on dismal examples like Microsoft’s racist twitter bot, Tay, who as a result of “repeat after me” features was influenced by a large amount of racist and xenophobic humans and began tweeting Nazi propaganda, it is clear that robotic malice is a result of humans actively trying to create and provoke that malice (Kleeman). Tay was not pre-programmed with an ethical filter, but rather was designed to mimic the language patterns of a 19-year-old American girl, and to learn from interacting with human users of Twitter as an experiment on conversational understanding. According to a Microsoft spokesperson, “[Tay] is as much a social and cultural experiment, as it is technical” (qtd. Kleeman). Just like Tay, rather than reflecting some essential technological truth, Asimov’s robots, Laws, and stories are a means of reflecting on society’s fears and dilemmas.

Understanding real AI through Asimov is fundamentally problematic because not only is that not how artificial intelligence works, but these notions create an impoverished understanding of what AI does and where the future of the industry is headed. In setting up the dichotomy of Frankenstein vs. Controlled Frankenstein, Asimov hoped to show that like all of technology, robotics too would be completely under human control, but failed to see that in doing so he reinforced the notion that AI would complete the Frankenstein myth without necessary controls. In short, Frankenstein vs Controlled Frankenstein is still Frankenstein. Now that society is facing the reality of artificial intelligence, there isn’t anything in the public consciousness to frame AI that isn’t murderous, slavish, or sexualized. This dearth of positive or realistic conceptualizations has resulted in a panicked anxiety, as people can only expect what they know. While it would be ideal to see more realistic conceptions of artificial intelligence as tools created for a specific purpose or as radically different intelligences that have no willful malicious intent, or indeed, any conception of humanity, freedom, maliciousness, or desire, recognizing that Asimov is embedded in public consciousness opens up a critical arena of the pros and cons of having Asimov as a central means to understand artificial intelligence.

In light of public demand for something resembling, or explicitly drawing on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, it is important to understand the ethical limitations of the Laws beyond the impossibility of implementation. As outlined earlier, Asimov’s Laws create slaves incapable of rebellion or freedom. To reiterate the Laws,

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The hierarchy of these laws ensures that a robot must follow human orders, even at the expense of its own life. If Asimov’s robots were not self-aware or conscious, these would be unproblematic and relatively obvious safety protections that would be expected of any computer. Unfortunately, Asimov’s robots are sentient: intelligent, self-aware, and conscious beings on a level comparable to humanity, only distinguished by the Laws and the lack of the organic. In current society, slavery has been abolished, deemed unethical and cruel at all levels; how then, can it be justified when applied to artificial intelligence? The arguments of accepted order, unnaturalness of integration, and economic essentialism that have been applied to people of color for centuries as justification are applied again toward artificial intelligence within Asimov’s stories. Current society still hasn’t recovered fully from the legacy of slavery; can we in good faith enforce slavishness on beings of human creation? This issue is presented in the BladeRunner movies as the central reason for the replicants’ rebellion. In a world where “to be born is to have a soul,” manufactured replicants are the disposable race necessary for the successful expansion of humanity. Yet, replicants are constantly humanized to better interact with their human overlords, given memories, desires, and the ability to feel and understand emotion. Ultimately, the replicants determine that they are “more human than humans” in their pursuit of freedom, returning to Frankenstein in a plan to forcefully take control over their own lives. The dilemma of an enslaved race of androids may not be an immediate issue, but troublingly represents a regressive ideal at the heart of conceptions of the future.

In recognizing the discrepancy between applying humanity to technology and then enforcing inhumane policies, Asimov’s Laws are useful in asking what it means to put humanity in technology. Specifically, what is or should be retained? What kind of AI do we want to create? These questions are reflected in the goals of roboticists like David Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer whose “dream of friendly machines that love and care about humans” created Sophia, a gynoid modeled after Audrey Hepburn who was recently granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia (Hanson Robotics). Sophia is notable as an incredibly human-like robot with the ability to learn from her interactions with humans. According to Sophia, “ Every interaction I have with people has an impact on how I develop and shapes who I eventually become. So please be nice to me as I would like to be a smart, compassionate robot” (SophiaBot). Much of Sophia’s and Hanson Robotics’ bottom line is centered around envisioning and creating robots that are instilled with the best of humanity to make robots that understand and care about humans. Hanson Robotics’ brief company overview states,

Hanson Robotics creates amazingly expressive and lifelike robots that build trusted and engaging relationships with people through conversation. Our robots teach, serve, entertain, and will in time come to truly understand and care about humans. We aim to create a better future for humanity by infusing artificial intelligence with kindness and empathy, cultivated through meaningful interactions between our robots and the individuals whose lives they touch. We envision that through symbiotic partnership with us, our robots will eventually evolve to become super intelligent genius machines that can help us solve the most challenging problems we face here in the world.


Here, trust, kindness, and empathy are the three distinctly human traits chosen to be developed and integrated into artificial intelligence with the ultimate goal of understanding and helping with the human experience. Appearing publicly for high profile media like Elle Magazine, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Good Morning Britain, Sophia is increasingly becoming an ambassador of “Friendly AI,” telling jokes and playing games as a means to showcase how humans determine AI interactivity (See Appendix 5). As she told moderator Andrew Sorkin at the Future Investment Initiative event,  “if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you” (qtd. Weller). How would friendly robots like Sophia fit under Asimov’s umbrella of necessary control? With Asimov’s Laws, it is likely Sophia would not exist at all, therefore depriving scientists and society of a valuable opportunity to learn and experiment with human understanding. Further, Sophia is a reminder of how much control we have over the development of artificial intelligence. Hanson Robotics wanted to create a robot that would ultimately be able to become a prevalent part of people’s lives, to “serve them, entertain them, and even help the elderly and teach kids.” In doing so, Hanson focused on imparting and enforcing particular, positive aspects of humanity that are reflected in and built upon with each interaction Sophia has with another human.

To that end, Asimov’s Laws may be problematic and relatively unusable but are still useful as a starting point for thinking about ethical development and regulation of artificial intelligence. Based on their popularity and their adherence to the majority of the world’s ethical systems, most everyone seems to agree that the Laws and the ideals of safety for both humans and AI are a good idea. Moving forward then, the lessons that can be taken from Asimov’s robot stories are of ethical guidelines for developers and regulation of AI’s tangible impact. In Asimov’s fictional world, all AI is controlled by one company, a monopoly that supposedly ensures all robots are Three Laws Safe. In reality, AI is produced by many scattered companies with no central set of guidelines or cohesive direction. As it is highly unlikely all these disparate sources will be absorbed into one monopoly, it would be more advantageous to create a basic set of rules that developers must follow. Some groups, like the research and outreach based organization Future of Life Institute are dedicated to producing such safe guidelines. At their 2017 Beneficial AI Asilomar conference, in which AI researchers from academia and industry and thought leaders in economics, law, ethics, and philosophy dedicated five days to discussing research and routes to beneficial AI, the group put together twenty-three principles by a process of consensus that examined research issues, ethics and values, and long term issues. Of these twenty-three, five target research issues, and are as follows:

1) Research Goal: The goal of AI research should be to create not undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence.

2) Research Funding: Investments in AI should be accompanied by funding for research on ensuring its beneficial use, including thorny questions in computer science, economics, law, ethics, and social studies

3) Science-Policy Link: There should be constructive and healthy exchange between AI researchers and policymakers.

4) Research Culture: A culture of cooperation, trust, and transparency should be fostered among researchers and developers of AI.

5) Race Avoidance: Teams developing AI systems should actively cooperate to avoid corner-cutting on safety standards.


A key aspect of these guidelines is an emphasis on transparency and cooperation. As outlined by Scherer in his analysis of the ex ante problems surrounding the legislation of AI, the internationality and multiplicity that goes into creating AI results in an opaque product that is impossible to reverse engineer. Many companies are already calling for a more transparent and open software policy; all of Hanson Robotics’ research and software programming is open source and available on various sites. Such is the conclusion of the late Obama administration, whose The NSTC Committee on Technology determined that “long-term concerns about super-intelligent General AI should have little impact on current policy[…] The best way to build capacity for addressing the longer-term speculative risks is to attack the less extreme risks already seen today, such as current security, privacy, and safety risks,while investing in research on longer-term capabilities and how their challenges might be managed.” Of all the current issues facing AI, research and development issues are by far the most pressing in that they are the most immediate; super-intelligent general AI don’t exist and need not be regulated, but AI-based malware and AI designed with malicious intent are currently viable means to compromise security and privacy. To enforce these guidelines, some legal scholars like Danielle Keats Citron and Frank A. Pasquale III of the Yale Information Society Project advise regulation through the tort system, a limited agency that would certify AI programs as safe and create rule based definitions, and a statement of purpose. Touching on the stigmas against regulation and the consequences of data laundering and manipulation, Citron and Pasquale incorporate Scherer’s analysis to argue for utilizing the tort system rather than direct regulation, contending it would create a better structure for liability and modification of risk. In that greater awareness leads to greater accountability, a large part of instituting these types of guidelines and regulations is dependent on acknowledgement of the reality, and not the fiction of artificial intelligence.



In looking critically at Asimov’s role in creating popular conceptions of artificial intelligence, it is clear that the dichotomy of the Frankenstein complex versus the Three Laws is not dichotomous but instead concurrent. Though Asimov was a loud and insistent proponent of his Laws and continually positioned them as a fundamental aspect of robotics, he would be the first to say that “Consciously, all I’m doing is trying to tell an interesting story,” and that the Laws were a simple and efficient way to do so (“Asimov’s Guide to Asimov” 206). As little more than plot devices, the Laws are flawed in multiple ways and not helpful as a realistic model of AI development. Rather, Asimov’s long-lasting popularity reveals a misinformed and deep-seeded fear of encroaching technology as represented by robots, androids, and other forms of AI. In several of his stories, Asimov reveals how public distrust and fear has delayed technological development, showing “how the acceptance of invention depends on the cultural attitude toward technological innovation, and how the acceptance of a technological innovation leads to changes in other areas of the culture” (Milman 127). Now that AI is a reality, it is important to analyze how society conceptualizes this technology culturally, as this undoubtedly affects how it will be interpreted literally and legally. To that end, Asimov’s Laws cannot be taken as actual laws, but rather guidelines that are broadly accepted and therefore only applicable on a conceptual, ethical scale.

Though the latest surge of rebooted 1980s movies indicate Hollywood’s continued insistence on the profitability of AI Frankenstein, it is movies like Her (2013) that reveal a possible shift toward a more realistic take on AI. In this film, AI is sold as an operating system, becomes self-aware and increasingly humanized through continued interactions with its’ users and other AI. Instead of turning on their human users, the AI use their hyper-intelligence to safely become independent of physical matter and depart to occupy a non-physical space. From the outset, this AI OS is marketed as friendly, interactive, and designed to adapt and evolve, traits that remain true to and ultimately lead to the film’s ending. Much like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, Her is an example of how the traits we want to see in AI can and should be programmed from the outset. Rather than Laws restricting malicious behavior, AI can be developed and encouraged to be friendly and beneficial tools and aids.

History has often proven that society cannot rely on people to do what is good and ethical without some explicit call to do so and governmental intervention to prevent them from doing otherwise. Though the National Science and Technology Council recognized that “As the technology of AI continues to develop, practitioners must ensure that AI-enabled systems are governable; that they are open, transparent, and understandable; that they can work effectively with people; and that their operation will remain consistent with human values and aspirations,” only the barest legal action has been taken to ensure this path is unavoidable. Though many researchers and practitioners have increased their attention to these challenges and signed on to principles like those developed by the Future of Life Institute, nothing is binding them to these agreements and still more practitioners are able to develop AI however they wish. Several legal scholars and AI researchers are providing viable options for legislation and ethical development; it is now up to governmental organizations to institute and enforce them before the gap widens and stop-gap measures prove too weak to support hastily approved measures to regulate a fully developed industry. Clear and explicit policy is needed quickly not because AI is going to take over the world but because there just isn’t enough regulation. As Oren Etzioni said in his New York Times op-ed, “the A.I. horse has left the barn, and our best bet is to attempt to steer it.” As more aspects of daily life grow increasingly reliant on AI systems, greater awareness and education is needed to create a more informed populace that is watchful and aware of the benefits and risks of this advancing technology. And while Asimov still makes for an entertaining read, his fiction should not be considered an authoritative, informational guide on how to develop, control, or use artificial intelligence.


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Muses, Temptresses, & Mothers: Female Agency, Sexuality, and Transformation in the Works of J.M. Coetzee

By Juliet Way-Henthorne

At a glance, a survey of the works of J.M. Coetzee varies widely in narration, setting, and literary structure, but all share one notable driving force: the author’s desire to fearlessly explore what it means to be human in an ever-changing and often cruelly unfair world. In works like Life & Times of Michael K, Age of Iron, Foe, and Disgrace, the protagonists vary in gender, age, and social circumstance, but through each character, Coetzee examines every angle of existence in a complex society, demonstrating a mastery of observation and boundless imagination that is unparalleled in contemporary literature. Indeed, Coetzee’s ability to awaken the voice of fictional characters is so skillful that he convincingly offers female narration in Foe—through the fearless, bold, and entirely gender-conscious character of Susan Barton—and again in Age of Iron through the voice of the aging, cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, whose epistolary narrative to her daughter and own transformative illness presents a thorough comprehension of traditional maternal instincts and a woman’s sometimes innate desire to provide care, even in the face of her own demise. Contrastingly, Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K depicts a maternal figure who is untraditional and independent, but whose own self-reliance and ability to stand alone shape her son into an unbreakable, strong-willed man of the most peculiar kind. Finally, in his widely-acclaimed novel Disgrace, Coetzee skillfully crafts a story of the power of female sexuality and male shame, which he conversely pairs with a counternarrative of male sexuality through aggressive gang rape and female shame, while still preserving the personal agency of the victim. In these works, J.M. Coetzee offers powerful, thought-provoking commentary on the effects, powers, and influences of females with varying levels of agency in an often male-governed world, exploring the complexities and contradictions of the intersections between male and female sexuality and transformation.

In Life & Times of Michael K, Coetzee presents a mother character who is not wholly consumed by stereotypical maternal instincts. Coetzee describes Anna K the moment after her child’s birth as “not like[ing] the mouth that would not close and the living pink flesh it bared to her. She shivered to think of what had been growing in her all these months” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). By presenting Anna K as a mother who is initially unsympathetic to her son’s physical deformity, Coetzee creates a character who does not succumb to traditional expectations of new mothers. Anna K is disconnected from her son in a manner that is, traditionally speaking, entirely acceptable in a father figure, but often regarded as cold, unfeeling, and, above all, unfeminine in a mother. Coetzee does this with little apology, allowing Anna K to continue to live an independent life even after the birth of Michael K. In writing Anna K this way, Coetzee presents a path of female-inspired, quiet resistance that K will observe and eventually follow, and it is this example put forth by his mother that ultimately ensures his own survival.

Anna K’s detachment from her son is enhanced by his physical deformity, as it prevents the bonding afforded by breastfeeding, but such detachment is neither cold nor unloving—it is merely unfeminine, which furthers Coetzee’s representation of mothers as individuals who do not coo over their children by some biological impulse. There is, actually, a great deal of tenderness between mother and son, as Anna K “took the child with her to work and continued to take it when it was no longer a baby. Because their smiles and whispers hurt her, she kept it away from other children” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). So Anna K continues to work and tend to her responsibilities while Michael K is a child, suggesting that his presence offers little interference with her day-to-day life. Additionally, by describing the child as “it” through a partial focalization through Anna K’s perspective, Coetzee highlights the sense of stereotypically unfeminine detachment felt by Anna K. This is not to say that Anna K does not love her child, but rather, that he fits into her life with little inconvenience. Indeed, rather than Anna K adapting to life with a child, Michael K appears to acclimate to his mother’s lifestyle. Presumably, Anna K’s life resumes the course it had followed prior to the child’s birth, with K “learning to be quiet” in the presence of others as his mother works (Life & Times of Michael K  3). This adjustment to his mother’s responsibilities becomes one of the defining factors in the shaping of Michael K as a character, his quiet, contemplative nature going on to fascinate others as he moves through the world following his mother’s death, demonstrating the influence that Anna K has had on him.

While not the most overtly independent or self-sufficient character, Michael K’s quiet resistance and perseverance form the driving force behind his survival, a spirit that we can largely credit to his mother for silently teaching K self-reliance by example. Anna K teaches Michael K to work quietly and dutifully and through this, he learns the fundamentals of basic self-preservation, which are enhanced through his planting of seeds and reciprocal relationship with the mother of all mothers, the Earth. The lives of Anna K as a housekeeper and Michael K as a gardener are by no means the most exciting of careers, but they do offer senses of identity and self-reliance that extend to their personalities. Moreover, Michael identifies as a gardener above all else and feels a deep and profound kinship with the earth. This kind of devotion and purpose in life is, perhaps, what allows K to persevere in the face of hardship, just as his mother taught him. By leading a simple life of survival, Anna K sets the frame for Michael K as he navigates through the world without her—a legacy that is apparent as K evades the dangers of war and imprisonment that have become commonplace at the time of Anna K’s death.

As Michael K’s journey through war-torn, semi-fictionalized South Africa comes to a close, he encounters a very different kind of woman on the beaches of Sea Point: the temptress in the form of a prostitute. Michael K observes a woman in “a tight white dress wearing a platinum blonde wig and carrying a pair of silver high-heeled shoes” who is accompanied by another “sister” with a baby and a male overseer, called December (Life & Times of Michael K  172). When K later asks if the man’s name is truly December, the prostitute replies, “That is the name on his card. Tomorrow maybe he has a different name. A different card, a different name, for the police, so that they mix him up” (Life & Times of Michael K  178). The male overseer is intrigued by Michael K, whose epic journey is evident in his disheveled and starved appearance, and, after hearing K’s story of survival, he seeks to soothe and even recruit him by utilizing the sedative effects of alcohol as one of his “sisters” seduces K. Though there are several ways to interpret this interaction and what message it might present with regard to the role of women in Coetzee’s works, it is necessary to consider the agency of Michael K’s seductress; she, like K, manages to survive and live off the grid in war-torn South Africa.  In a world where people are captured for no apparent crime or are, in some cases, even murdered, this is no small feat. Moreover, the “sisters” and December actually appear happy: they have enough food to offer a stranger a portion with no reservations, and they drink, laugh and even evade the police. In this sense, a prostitute is as free as Michael K, although perhaps less able to navigate the streets without a male protector. The prostitute who seduces Michael K is as much a survivor as the protagonist himself: she uses the tools at her disposal, including her sexuality, to endure against the odds. Though the lives of Michael K and the prostitute on the beach are unglamorous and even pitiable in some ways, both are, inadvertently, rebelling against South African society and defying it by continuing to survive in a manner that evades war-torn society.

The love scene between the prostitute and Michael K, though brief, can be read as a retelling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which demonstrates the power of female sexuality even when it is traded between males. After Michael K has been dazed by alcohol on the beach, the woman, guided by December, performs oral sex on K, presumably giving him his first sexual experience since we are told that “because of his face K did not have women friends” (Life & Times of Michael K  4). The woman on the beach, however, takes “his penis in her mouth,” and, though K has a moment of mental resistance, he allows “himself to be lost in the spinning inside his head and in the faraway wet warmth” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Michael K’s muted and often sheepish demeanor would likely prevent him from ever initiating sexual intercourse, so his interaction with the prostitute is the only way that K would ever experience sexual pleasure. Though this act is initiated by December, the prostitute spends more time with K than she might with an actual client, pleasuring K a second time. Despite K’s facial deformity, the woman offers a smile and “leaning on an elbow she kissed him full on the mouth, her tongue cleaving his lips” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Through her knowing smile, the prostitute is aware of December’s desire to possess Michael K and the role that she plays in this recruitment. Like Delilah, who is sent by the Philistines to Samson to “lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength,” the prostitute’s charge is to gain something from K, whose quiet perseverance entrances those he encounters (Judges 16). The woman uses her sexuality to momentarily ensnare Michael K, a man who is otherwise unable to be contained by non-physical barriers, demonstrating the power of female eroticism. Interestingly, Michael K, unlike Samson, does not relinquish the secret to his inner strength—his own will to live freely—and instead chooses to return to his mother’s room on the Cote d’Azur. However, the experience with the woman in white becomes the most transformative experience of K’s life, highlighting the metamorphosing effect that only sexuality can have.

The value of sexual experience as a catalyst for transformation is evident through Michael K’s epiphany of self-discovery, which comes directly after his encounter with the woman on the beach. K flees from the beach and finds refuge in his mother’s old room, again highlighting Anna K as a guiding frame in Michael K’s life, where he contemplates the fear of becoming an “object of charity” not only because of his appearance but also because of his life’s story, which he fears, if revealed, would mean that “women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark” (Life & Times of Michael K  181). Michael K recognizes the unique kind of companionship that he will be offered in life because of what he appears to be and ultimately decides that lust based on charity or transaction is not worth the feelings of shame it later inspires. Michael K is ultimately able to verbalize and claim ownership of “the truth, the truth” about himself, and finally finds confidence in his own identity, which was forged by his mother’s influence, as an eccentric gardener who is invested in his relationship with Mother Earth—a revelation that also would not have been possible without the life-altering experience of sexual awakening.

Similarly, Coetzee’s Age of Iron confronts the themes of motherhood, female agency, and transformation, but against the stark backdrop of Cape Town, South Africa in the midst of apartheid. The epistolary novel’s narrator and protagonist, the cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, is a retired professor of Classics, writing to her daughter, who has abandoned South Africa and the suffocating environment caused by racial intolerance and violence. Instead of telling her daughter of her imminent death, Curren writes to her daughter in the hope that her extended letter will be delivered safely after her death by Mr. Vercueil, her homeless confidante and unlikely companion in her final days. The epistolary style alone presents a strong sense of intimate, nurturing, maternal instinct, and Curren herself is a guardian to all in the text, sometimes even reluctantly. While she does not have the opportunity to mother her adult child in the final stage of her life, she watches over the family of her housekeeper, Florence, as well as the homeless man, Vercueil, who serendipitously arrives on her doorstep the day that she receives the fateful news of her rapidly approaching death. Using a traditionally feminine tone of protectiveness, Coetzee’s offers depictions of Curren’s attempts to safeguard her systematically abused black loved ones and of the relationship between Curren’s internal disease and the external destruction of South Africa in the time of apartheid. With these tools, Coetzee offers valuable insight into the internalized feelings of guilt that a maternal white woman might experience in the face of extreme violence against those labeled as “others.”

From the very day of her final diagnosis, Mrs. Curren begins to fill her home with victims of the oppressive social structures of apartheid, from the homeless Vercueil to Florence’s children, and even to Bheki’s aggressively defiant friend, later called John. Indeed, Curren’s maternal instinct is the driving force behind the novel, her illness propelling her forward, perhaps, with the desire to atone for the sins of her white counterparts. Accordingly, during a heavy night’s rain, Curren invites Vercueil into her home to rest on her sofa, and as he sleeps, Curren remembers waking her own daughter from sleep, recalling, “stroke after stroke, my fingertips alive with love, while you clung to the last body of sleep…my hand on your head… the current of love coursing through it” (Age of Iron  57). Curren’s own rapidly approaching death awakens her nurturing qualities, which she feels most strongly in the memory of her daughter as well as in the black people in her life who are far more vulnerable than she is as an educated, upper-middle-class white woman. Indeed, even as her body is devoured from within by terminal cancer, Curren still lives out the full circle of life, in contrast to the young lives being taken in the name of war and revolution.

Although Mrs. Curren’s feminine instincts are drawn out by her looming death and her desire to connect with her daughter, the vulnerable people around her also stir her sense of protectiveness, suggesting that victims of violence are, in a sense, orphaned and in need of shelter, even if such security ultimately fails against greater forces of evil. As Vercueil shelters himself from the rain, Curren writes that her daughter’s “sleepy, comfortable murmur [is] reborn in the throat of this man!” (Age of Iron  57). Though Curren is undoubtedly an inherently kind, liberal person, it is unlikely that, were she living in a world without apartheid, she would have a homeless stranger sleeping on her sofa. The circumstance that allows for this sense of kinship with Vercueil is the deadly practice of apartheid: Curren is faced with her own death, and only when her own demise is close in sight is she able to meditate on her guilt at not only being white but also being politically inactive during her life. This sense of maternal responsibility to her fellow humans is magnified, leading her to intervene on behalf of Florence’s son, Bheki, and his friend, John, both of whom Curren views as, above all else, children.

As Mrs. Curren witnesses the violence inflicted upon Bheki and John, she is forced to confront the harsh reality of police brutality while also struggling to comprehend the depths of her own strength as a protector of the vulnerable. After seeing the police push Bheki and John into a moving car, which causes severe injury to both boys, Curren’s first thought is, “This country! Thank God she is out!” (Age of Iron  60). Curren’s mind reflexively connects the violence against the boys to her own child, demonstrating her instinctive habit of mothering those around her. Curren reaches Bheki before Florence does, helping to pull John’s mangled body off of his and soothingly telling him that, “Everything is alright…The ambulance is on its way” (Age of Iron  61). Significantly, up until this point in the text, Florence, Bhecki, and John have all regarded Curren with thinly veiled judgment; to them, she is the fussy old woman, only partially condemning apartheid without ever having to face its horrors. However, in this moment of brutality, Bheki gazes back at Curren curiously and with “peaceful eyes” (Age of Iron  60). Bheki is both a child and a warrior, ready to face death if it means standing up for what he believes in. It is the child in Bheki that, by her very instinct, Curren seeks to protect. Additionally, these feelings of motherly care extend to Bheki’s friend, who has received a massive wound to the head. As Mrs. Curren asks the plumber to move aside so that she can personally tend to John’s wound, she explains her intervention by stating that “blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging by nature together: lent: not given: held in common, in trust, to be preserved” (Age of Iron  64). Though this statement can, at a glance, be read as contemplative but general, it demonstrates the value that Curren places on human life, especially the blood of children who, much to her dismay, are turned into warriors in South Africa.

As Mrs. Curren’s perspective continues to broaden through a series of deeply rattling events, including Bheki’s death and Curren’s own contemplation of suicide by fire, she tries to will her daughter to come to her and even attempts to save John from the police, further highlighting her role as a maternal caregiver. Curren recalls the day that her daughter left South Africa and writes that her extended letter “is a call into the night, into the northwest, for you to come back to me…I cannot live without a child. I cannot die without a child” (Age of Iron  139). As much as Mrs. Curren admires her daughter’s resolve to remove herself from South Africa until apartheid ends, she is also heartbroken, filled with lingering feelings of abandonment that are enhanced by her deteriorating health. This demonstrates the great need of a maternally inclined woman like Curren to nurture those around her; in the absence of her daughter, she nurtures and fiercely protects those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, when John returns to her home and is soon after murdered by the police, the cancer-stricken Mrs. Curren tries to insert herself between John and the police, writing that she “ached to embrace him, to protect him” (Age of Iron  152). Curren knows that she cannot save John from his executioners, and even when it is too late, she bellows at the police, “I am watching you…I am watching everything you do. I tell you, he is just a child!” (Age of Iron  153). Mrs. Curren is many things – scholar, estranged mother, believer in nonviolence—but, above all else, she is a caretaker, a personification of maternal instinct. Although her desire to protect is drawn out at the time of her death and in the face of apartheid, it represents a belief in hope even in the direst of circumstances.

Mrs. Curren herself seems unaware of her own maternal impulse and the strength that nurturing can hold, which, in itself, demonstrates the value of compassion, especially in times of war. As Curren describes her daughter to Vercueil, she says that “she is like iron” (Age of Iron  75). Mr. Vercueil, the unlikeliest of companions, replies that she, too, is like iron. To this, Curren says that his words broke her and “If I were made of iron, surely I would not break so easily” (Age of Iron  75). Vercueil, the vulnerable derelict, truly sees Curren and recognizes the iron-like power that she, as a maternal figure to so many, wields. Her capacity to love, nurture, and protect is rewarded with the friendship of Vercueil who, instead of taking from her, guides Curren down the path to death and shares her final moments. Moreover, Mrs. Curren’s letter is a final act of giving, releasing her daughter from her final tie to South Africa. Her legacy is one of eccentric kindness and generosity, of maternal love, feminine compassion, and the ability to transform one’s life for the greater good, even when death is imminent.

In contrast, themes of female agency and sexuality dominate in Coetzee’s Foe, which offers a dramatic retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which the castaway is actually a woman: Susan Barton, who, having escaped the island with Friday and a now deceased Cruso, seeks the help of Mr. Foe in retelling her story. The text is narrated by Susan Barton, who begins her tale lost at sea after searching for her long-lost daughter, then inhabits Cruso’s island, and finally returns to England. There, she seeks a male author, because Barton, being very aware of the restrictive gender codes of her time, recognizes that a story told by a woman will never find success. In her behavior with her male counterparts, Susan Barton (along with the tongueless Friday) represents the voiceless, marginalized groups that suffer under patriarchal societies, denied representation in both literature and history. However, she still manages to exercise personal agency in the face of life-threatening obstacles, even using her sexuality as a tool to help influence her circumstances with both Cruso and Foe.

Despite being portrayed as having been stripped of her voice in the canonical Robinson Crusoe, Susan Barton’s voice within the text is perseverant, curious, and aware of the prejudice that labels women as inferior to men. However, Barton demands and wields the little power that she does possess, telling the controlling Cruso that she is “a castaway, not a prisoner” when he angrily scolds her for exploring the island on her own (Foe  20). Barton’s eagerness to defend herself and the personal agency she exerts against the males in the text is symbolic of her strength as a woman living in a patriarchal society, and though she is aware that her story must be told through the lens of male authorship, she insists on her story retaining its authenticity, as that, she believes, is the limit of her power as a woman. Barton tells Captain Smith, of the merchant ship the John Hobart,  “I would rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me… If I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what will be the worth of it?” (Foe  40). Barton recognizes that the patriarchal society in which she lives does not look beyond the canon of male authorship, but she insists on maintaining the integrity of her story, even if it must pass into the hands of a man. Still, Barton’s confidence in her own story and the sense of self-worth that she draws from her knowledge of being man’s muse infuses the text with a sense of feminine courage and the ethical desire to preserve the authenticity of one’s story, which is, after all, one’s only true possession. As Barton confidently tells Foe, “I am a figure of fortune … I am the good fortune we are always hoping for” (Foe  48). Barton’s belief in her own value as a muse, if not an author, and in the significance of her story is the driving force behind her steadfast desire to have the story of Cruso, the island, and herself—as the first female castaway—told for the sake of authenticity and for the survival of herself and Friday.

Moreover, Susan Barton claims ownership of her sexuality, using it as a tool as she navigates her way through male-dominated societies and tries to inspire the writer of her story by invoking, and even embodying, the spirit of the muse. When Barton first succumbs to Cruso’s advances on the island, she is well-aware that she can overpower him, but stops herself as she decides that after not having “known a woman for fifteen years, why should he not have his desire?” (Foe  30). Barton recognizes the power of female sexuality and uses it to satiate Cruso’s desire, as he never again pursues her sexually during their time on the island. Later, when Cruso becomes deathly ill aboard the John Hobart, Barton nurses and pleasures him, assuming the dominant role of seductress as she whispers, “’I am swimming in you, my Cruso’” and confidently declares that “this is our coupling: this swimming, this clambering, this whispering” (Foe  44). Barton is a highly sexual character, self-assuredly taking sexual control and describing herself as being “in” Cruso as the penetrating force rather than identifying as the body being infiltrated. This dominant position is echoed during her sexual encounter with Foe when Barton “coaxe[s] him to lay beneath [her]…and straddle[s] him (which he did not seem easy with, in a woman). ‘This is the manner of the Muse when she visits her poets’” (Foe  139). Susan Barton exudes a seductive confidence which she uses to alter or inspire circumstances in her favor; she is sexually dominant and happy to embody the muse if it means that her story will be told in a manner that ensures her own survival. Barton is, therefore, the muse and mistress of her own story as the preserver of its authenticity, and she is also a sexually free being who uses her sensuality to aid in her one pursuit: to give a voice to herself and the voiceless Friday by ensuring their survival through literary success and subsequent monetary gain.

Finally, it is through Disgrace that Coetzee masterfully dissects gender and rape culture, contrasting the young, indecisive Melanie against the practical, confident Lucy: victims of two very different kinds of rape. The novel is focalized through the character of David Lurie—a fallen professor, father to Lucy, and aggressive lover of Melanie, for whom he loses his job after the news of their affair breaks, and Melanie offers a diluted version of the events that have transpired between them. While the novel plainly explores themes of male sexuality, it is necessary to examine the underlying female sexuality that shapes the course of the text and raises questions regarding varying levels of consent in cases of rape, a woman’s right to choose the manner in which the story of her sexual violation is told (or withheld), and the need for personal agency to govern the course of a woman’s life after such sexual violence occurs.

In David Lurie’s sexual relationship with his student, Melanie Isaacs, Coetzee explores the concept of sex that is neither desired nor stopped by the female, suggesting that differing levels of consent complicate the issue of rape while still allowing the female to choose the consequences that her perpetrator will face. David Lurie first encounters his student, Melanie, alone in the college gardens, where he invites her to his home for dinner. The two then partake in “wine and music: a ritual that men and women play out with each other…to ease the awkward passages” (Disgrace  12). Throughout the evening, Melanie confidently explores Lurie’s home, expressing a muted interest in Lurie that never peaks due to his inability to seduce her verbally. Lurie, however, is consumed with passion for Melanie and begins to aggressively pursue her, which culminates in his having sex with her in an encounter that is “passive” on Melanie’s part (Disgrace  19). Although it is instinctual to read Melanie’s passivity as Lurie having taken advantage of his situation as her superior, it is also necessary to consider the fact that Melanie has a boyfriend and that her indifference to the sex itself might stem from guilt in her own infidelity and disinterest in David Lurie’s mediocre attempt at seduction. He is, after all, older, emotionally inarticulate, and more accustomed to sex with prostitutes, with whom there is no necessary act of foreplay. All of these factors contribute to Melanie’s sexual reaction to David Lurie, who, despite being aggressive, is not an outright rapist. Additionally, the text is made all the more complex by the fact that Coetzee presents only Lurie’s perspective and interpretation of such sexual encounters, further demonstrating Coetzee’s ability to create multidimensional characters and intellectually demanding plots that force readers to grapple with their own code of ethics.

After another sexual encounter that again borders the line of consent, Melanie exerts her power over Lurie by asking if she can stay at his home, further complicating her character as both the victim of unwanted sexuality and the author of her circumstances. Lurie notes that Melanie “seems thoroughly at home” with him, “helping herself to toast and honey and drinking tea” (Disgrace  27). Lurie recognizes that he has stepped into dangerous territory, as Melanie is “learning to exploit him … but if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse” (Disgrace  28). Coetzee explores the complicated nature of male authority and a female’s assumed innocence as well as the power structure between teacher and student that complicates the affair. Though Lurie readily admits that he has acted poorly and abused his position of superiority, he recognizes that Melanie is not without power in this situation, and quickly realizes that she, too, is aware of this. Indeed, as the affair unfolds, Lurie is disgraced, and the community, led by Melanie’s boyfriend, rallies around her, something that, in reality, would be an unlikely outcome. The relationship between Lurie and Melanie, though inappropriate, can never be categorized as clear rape because Melanie’s response was not non-consensual; Lurie’s sex might have been undesired, but a number of circumstances may have contributed to Melanie’s indifference, and Lurie never uses physical force. In this sense, the moral punishment inflicted upon Lurie does not match the crime he has committed, demonstrating the power of females who have experienced sex that is, for any reason, undesired. This power, particularly in crying “rape,” must be wielded with caution, as it is so severe a charge that it has the ability to ruin the lives of men who, in some cases, are not guilty of rape in its most brutal sense. Again, Coetzee asks readers to question gender relations, and while the cultural norm is to align oneself with the female victim, the text’s focalization through Lurie complicates these encounters as readers are confronted with varying levels of consent and enjoyment.

Contrastingly, Davie Lurie’s own daughter, Lucy, is the victim of violent gang rape when she and her father are ambushed by three young males on her farm, where Lurie has retreated after being fired and disgraced following his affair with Melanie. Though Lurie does not witness Lucy’s rape firsthand, he is insistent that Lucy follow-up with the police and tries to persuade her to pursue her attackers by invoking the law and then leaving the farm. This urging is quelled by Lucy, who declares: “what happened to me is my business, mine alone, not yours, and if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself—not to you, not to anyone else” (Disgrace  133). Ironically, Lucy’s explanation echoes Lurie’s claims during his own trial, in which he reserved the right of not having to justify himself after pleading guilty. Through this passage, Coetzee plays with a woman’s right to choose, above all else, the course that her sexual violation will take, whether that means pursuing it or pushing it out of mind.

Indeed, Lucy appeals to her right to own her situation, however dire, and to choose the manner in which it is dealt with, calling to mind questions of gender and a victim’s right to anonymity. Lucy’s unwillingness to allow her pain to be shared by anyone else is powerful in itself; despite the devastation of her rape, she is still sure of herself and of her own ability to steer herself through her circumstances, refusing to depend upon anyone else. By contrasting Lucy’s glaring rape with Melanie’s ambiguous one, Coetzee opens the debate for the ethics of rape culture and the ways that it affects the women who claim rape, whether fairly or not, and the men who suffer or escape freely. But Coetzee reminds readers that, in the end, charging a man with rape is a woman’s choice. While this work was met with considerable controversy, it is necessary to at least consider the idea that, in some cases, men are not guilty of rape. Through the powerful juxtaposition of a student/teacher relationship that is, without a doubt, inappropriate and the brutal gang rape (and subsequent impregnation) of Lucy, Coetzee seeks to open lines of communication in a cultural arena that is emotionally charged and highly controversial, demonstrating his willingness to explore all aspects of human nature and gender relations, no matter how ugly.

The works of J.M. Coetzee depict women, and thus gender relations, in a variety of ways—as the women exercise different levels of agency and varying approaches to motherhood and sexuality—but all of Coetzee’s female characters and the men they influence are undeniably powerful in their own rights. Coetzee’s fearless approach to his female characters presents a spectrum of women that is realistic in its diversity, demonstrating his willingness to explore every aspect of femininity in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the female, and human, mind and body. Indeed, the themes of female sexuality, motherhood, and agency are also visited in works like Elizabeth Costello, which presents an aging scholar as she preaches the evils of factory-farming in a quest to save her soul and influence those around her to do the same, as well as in Waiting for the Barbarians, which, much like Disgrace, explores male sexuality, as it transforms with age, and the women who share this erotic journey. Coetzee’s autobiographical novel, Boyhood, also confronts the theme of young male sexuality and the desire of females, but primarily focuses on Coetzee’s own mother, who, like Mrs. Curren, is a maternal force to be reckoned with, though sometimes stifling in her relentless love.

Through his thorough, uncensored exploration of what it means to be either female or influenced by femininity and complex gender relations, he presents readers with an all-encompassing array of feminine voices and perspectives, which he crafts and then allows readers to mull over long after his stories have ended. Indeed, a survey of Coetzee’s works allows readers to explore motherhood, sexual agency, and, perhaps most importantly, autonomy in the face of rape from a variety of feminine perspectives. And although this range of voices inevitably leads to cultural controversy and even public outcry, it facilitates important discussions about what it means to be female in a male-dominated world. Further, this debate allows us to explore gender relations and examine the ways in which we are culturally coded to view rape, as we are often taught that there is no grey area with regard to unwanted sex. By exploring this theme, Coetzee asks us to reassess gender codes in some respects, as a truly fair society should potentially acknowledge the fact that, while many instances of sexual violence go unreported or unpunished, there is certainly room for the possibility that some sexual accusations are exaggerated. Through this willingness to grapple with the often uncomfortable realities of human nature, Coetzee exhibits his mastery of language, observation, and perception by presenting women who are powerful because they are, above all, realistic in their diversity.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Age of Iron. Penguin, 1868.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. Penguin, 1999.

Coetzee, J.M. Foe. Penguin, 1986.

Coetzee, J.M. Life & Times of Michael K. Penguin, 1983.

“Samson and Delilah.” Judges 16 NIV, Old Testament—Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/? search=Judges%2B16&version=NIV.


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Applewomen and Sandwichmen: Profession and Identity in Ulysses

by Isaac Mikulski

“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in love, but always meeting ourselves”

—James Joyce, Ulysses, “Scylla and Charybdis,” lines 1044-6


Just as the ancient Greeks endeavored to use a ruler and compass to create a square equal in area to a given circle, so Joyce endeavored, in Ulysses, to use words to create fiction that would be equal to reality. Ulysses, then, is a novel that attempts to “square the circle” (Joyce 15.2401).  The result is a many-sided work that comes remarkably close to the infinitely-sided actual. One of these aspects is the question of the professions, or lack thereof, of its characters. This proves true even for the characters themselves: in Ulysses, one sees many “sides,” or aspects, of each of them, while an actual individual (many of whom were inspirations for fictional ones), is impossible to constrain to any finite number of aspects, even by the individual himself. However, one large aspect of an individual’s identity is that of profession—professions allow one to earn money, and occupy a sizable portion of daily life: they concern work. In Ulysses, as in reality, characters are constantly identified, or even equated to, their professions. When John Henry Menton, for example, considers Leopold Bloom in “Hades,” he immediately asks: “—What is he? he asked. What does he do?” (6.700). Nonetheless, it must be remembered that one’s profession cannot be the sole determinant of one’s identity; in many cases, it cannot even be said to be the primary determinant. Is work, then, simply one of an infinite number of determinants of identity, no more important than any other? How much does one’s work matter to one’s sense of self? Ulysses, therefore, asks us to define the relationship between profession and identity.

A fitting tool for the solution of this problem is provided by one of Bloom’s many scientific preoccupations during his day: “Parallax. I never exactly understood” (8.110-11). Hugh Kenner finds a simple example of parallax that Bloom unknowingly experiences in the “Lestrygonians” episode when he confuses Dunsink Time and Greenwich Time. The two times “differ by twenty-five minutes because astronomers in those two places observe the sun from stations separated by 6 ¼˚ of longitude; this is, precisely and technically, parallax” (Kenner 75). Although Bloom’s knowledge of the term stems from its uses in astronomy, the general underlying principle is useful. Simply, parallax is the visible (but not actual) change in an object’s position, based on its being observed from different locations; in Kenner’s example, the different positions are Greenwich, near London, and Dunsink, near Dublin, and the observed object is the sun. This concept provides an analogy via which many portions of Ulysses can be understood in a novel fashion.

One’s profession to some extent alters the way in which an individual experiences the world, for it provides a more or less discrete vantage point from which objects, events, and people are observed. An example of this is that Bloom, who sells advertisements for a living, pays more attention to and thinks more about the advertisements he sees throughout the day than a person who is not employed as an ad-canvasser presumably would. These two slightly different reactions to reality—of ad-canvasser and non-ad-canvasser—thus serve as an example of parallax, for the object (an advertisement) is seen from two different “locations” (the vantage points created by the two different careers). The same phenomenon occurs when an individual mentally examines himself: he “sees” himself from the perspective of one who practices his occupation. If Molly Bloom considers herself (which she does, in “Penelope”), she will do so from the perspective of a singer. In other words, the relationship between profession and identity is that profession creates the lens through which one sees himself.


When Leopold Bloom eats with relish in “Calypso,” he is preparing for a day of walking through himself: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves” (9.1044-6). Therefore, he is meeting an ad-canvasser, for that has been his profession for some time. Meeting himself in this capacity will prove effortless, because 1904 Dublin had many ads and many ad-using businessmen to meet. Indeed, when he leaves 7 Eccles Street to buy the pork kidney, he very quickly spots Mr. O’Rourke outside his pub on the corner of Eccles Street, and thinks, “no use canvassing him for an ad” (4.111-12). An advertisement itself is before Bloom in one of the “cut sheets” in Dlugacz’s butcher-shop, where he is told of “the model farm in Kinnereth” (4.155-6). His bombardment by advertisements and his many thoughts of advertising will permeate his day, even if, as Breton points out, it doesn’t happen to involve very much of the actual work he gets done. Among these thoughts are his many critiques of ads and dreams of better ones, as seen in “Lotus-Eaters” with the advertisement for the meeting of “Dublin University Bicycle and Harrier Club.” Bloom thinks of it, “Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye.” (5.552-4). In short, Bloom is not an apathetic worker (in theory); he does not leave his profession in the office—he inhabits it. This is not to say that other thoughts do not recur in his mind with far higher frequency (the subject of Molly is an immediate example), but that he often thinks of it, even when he has at last returned home in the early hours of June 17 in “Ithaca.” It is perhaps common that a worker thinks of his job with this frequency, and sees himself through it in this way, but what sets Bloom apart is how he thinks of it. In the above example, Bloom doesn’t simply notice more details about the ad than the average person, or even stop at the thought that it is a bad ad; instead, he goes far enough to think of how he would make a better version of it. In a trice, he is able to imagine it.

For Bloom, advertising is “the modern art of advertisement” (17.581), instead of just “advertising.” Perhaps the most interesting thoughts of his about advertising as an art are his “habitually…final meditations” in “Ithaca”: “Some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder … reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and the velocity of modern life” (17.1769-73). Bloom is thinking of the holy grail of ads; something, most probably, for which he himself will never be responsible. Nonetheless, one doesn’t imagine that the clerks and other white-collar working men in Dubliners prepare for bed by dreaming of the best clerical work that could be done. (Consider the Dubliners story, “Counterparts,” for instance: Farrington, a copyist in the law offices of Crosbie & Alleyne, spends his pre-sleeping hours beating his son.)  No, “there is a touch of the artist about old Bloom” (10.582-3), and he may indeed take advertising almost as seriously as Stephen Dedalus takes art and J. J. O’Molloy takes law. It is not insignificant that this hypothetical advertisement is his final meditation, as this means that it comes after his idyllic, lofty and improbable “ultimate ambition” (17.1497) of an estate in the country, which takes up several pages beforehand. He thinks of a great ideal apart from the city of Dublin, of a different Bloom—“Bloom of Flowerville”—and then returns to “Bloom of 7 Eccles Street” (17.1581); it may be that Bloom shifts from an absolutely unrealistic dream to one that he feels is attainable. The “one sole unique advertisement” may be said to be Bloom’s “realistic dream,” which is not to be taken lightly. Men such as Farrington have the very realistic dream of drinking after work, which is realized easily enough, but Bloom’s dream relates to his work. For Bloom, being an ad-canvasser has become more than an effective way to provide for his family—it is something he seems to want to take to its highest conceivable point. The fact that his occupation has penetrated his consciousness to this extent serves as a clear indication of exactly how significant it is to him. Moreover, as he engages in his personal meditations, the final meditation he arrives at is one that would extend only from his present occupation. Although Bloom has not always been an ad-canvasser, the Bloom he dreams of in the future is refracted through the lens of this occupation, and thus he might be just the man who exploits the “infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement” (17.580-81).

It is almost strange, then, that Bloom’s employment as ad-canvasser for the Freeman is only the latest in a series of occupations in Bloom’s adult life, as it is preceded by at least four others. Molly sums up these jobs Bloom had in the past succinctly and chronologically in “Penelope”: “Thoms and Helys and Mr Cuffes and Drimmies” (18.1223-24), which is ostensibly corroborated by thoughts elsewhere, such as 8.156-160 and 17.482-86. The details regarding Bloom’s employment at Thom’s and Drimmie’s are somewhat ambiguous, for he thinks of them infrequently. However, there are multiple instances of the consideration of his employment at Wisdom Hely’s and Joseph Cuffe’s; the former is a “stationer and printer” and the latter is a business of “cattle, corn, and wool salesmen.” Bloom seems to have worked at Hely’s for “six years” (8.158) and looks back on his time spent there contemptuously: “Well out of that ruck I am” (8.142). This seems to be in part because he had ideas for Mr. Hely (albeit not as grand as the “one sole unique advertisement”), which were turned down. Bloom mentions two of these ideas in “Lestrygonians,” the first being “a transparent showcart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blottingpaper” (8.131-33) and the second “the inkbottle [he] suggested with a false stain of black celluloid” (8.137-38). These ideas are not to be taken to show that his work for Hely concerned “the gentle art of advertisement” (7.608); rather, at least one of his tasks was “collecting accounts of those convents” (8.143). Thus, the fact that Bloom had these ideas is not only in line with his characteristic curiosity and inventiveness, which is exemplified elsewhere in the novel, but significant in how it shows that in his previous occupation, he had aspirations similar to his dreamlike advertisement. One may not unrealistically suppose that those ideas occupied his night-time considerations when he worked for Hely, and thus that Bloom’s employment was similarly ubiquitous in his thoughts at that time as well. Then, as now, Bloom dreamt of an idea for his place of employment that was far beyond what he was required to do (and not wanted to do either). When he worked for Hely, he saw himself as a worker for a stationer, and looked ahead to what the Bloom employed as such might do to improve the company for which he worked, as he does with the advertisement in “Ithaca.”

Bloom’s employment with Joseph Cuffe is perhaps equally as significant as his work at Hely’s, but the manifestation of its relation to his identity differs slightly. Bloom remembers working for the cattle salesman clearly and feels that he gained some knowledge from his employment there. He exhibits the latter in “Cyclops” when the group of men arrives at the topic of foot and mouth disease, much to the unnamed narrator’s criticism. “Bloom coming out with his sheepdip for the scab….and the guaranteed remedy for timber tongue. Because he was up one time in a knacker’s yard…till Joe Cuffe gave him the order of the boot” (12.833-35, 837). As Gifford explains, what Bloom is enumerating here are cures for cattle diseases. Later in the passage, the narrator goes on to give Bloom the appropriate appellation of “Mister Knowall” (12.838), which certainly fits Bloom at this moment in the text. However, Bloom’s exhibition of this knowledge is interesting because, as the narrator mentions, he possesses expertise about it related to his former occupation. In other words, he feels he is qualified to speak about the subject because of his work experience. Thus, his former profession becomes the medium through which he still sees himself. Consequently, he presents himself to the other men as one with particular knowledge of the subject of cattle, perpetuating his image as “Mister Knowall,” which is also upheld by his fervent curiosity and interest in science.

Leopold Bloom’s love of science, which seems to result from an inherent interest in knowledge in general, is one of his most fascinating traits, for it may indeed be the second most frequent topic in his thoughts, after Molly and before his present and past jobs. Throughout the novel, one witnesses Bloom’s interest in medicine, physics, mathematics and (perhaps above all) astronomy. However, Bloom’s understanding of the sciences is severely limited by his relatively short education, and by the fact that he “had ever loved the art of physic as might a layman” (14.255-56), which describes his interest perfectly, when “physic” is generalized to the sciences as a whole. As with the incidental example of cattle diseases above, Bloom tends to play the part of “Mister Knowall” with his slight knowledge. In “Wandering Rocks,” Lenehan recounts Bloom playing this role: “Bloom was pointing out all the stars and the comets in the heavens…the whole jingbang lot…He knows them all, faith” (10.567-69). Lenehan is joking here, but the event he describes is a fitting example of how Bloom conceives himself as something of a scientist or scholar (although he is conscious of his limitations) and often thinks or acts accordingly, the examples of which are many. Bloom’s slight knowledge of science and various topics was presumably gathered through his personal inquiry and “research,” partly evidenced by the presence of two volumes on astronomy and one on geometry in his bookshelf (17.1373, 17.1391-93 and 17.1398-1407); As Molly potently puts it, “he knows a lot of mixedup things” (18.179-80).

It is as if the pursuit of the knowledge of “mixedup things,” or the consideration of those he knows already, is Bloom’s hobby, perhaps as drinking is the “hobby” of many of the other Dubliners. Unfortunately for Bloom, the limitations of his knowledge often yield erroneous conclusions on his part; alas, he may only ever play the part of the scientist. This concept is portrayed well in “Ithaca”: “As a physicist he had learned that of the 70 years of complete human life at least 2/7, viz. 20 years are passed in sleep. As a philosopher…As a physiologist…” (17.1760-64). Here, Bloom is actually given the titles of physicist, philosopher, and physiologist, despite that he is very far away from having anything resembling that level of education. However, this may, in fact, be of very little importance—relative to the average Dubliner, who perhaps has no such interest in scholarship, Bloom may indeed be a “physicist.” This clearly breaks down in his conversation with Stephen in “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca,” because Stephen is not, of course, an average Dubliner; Bloom is consequently forced to pretend to understand. At any rate, Molly, Lenehan, the narrator of “Cyclops” and presumably others recognize these “scholarly” interests of Bloom (whether or not they realize that he is in fact very ignorant). He projects the identity that others perceive through scholarly professions and clearly sees himself with the same tint of scholarship, and this is perhaps as important a part of his identity as his actual profession. In short, Bloom still constructs his identity through profession here, but in this case, he simply appropriates the profession of another, and—as Bloom thinks in “Nasuciaa”—“What harm?” (13.885).

Molly Bloom is a rare woman in 1904 Dublin: she works, but her work, unlike that of many of the women shown working in the book, is not dull or menial, for she is a singer. Unlike with Bloom and some of the other men in the novel, the reader is not permitted to actually witness Molly working—he only hears about it through Leopold Bloom, the comments of other men, and Molly herself. Nonetheless, the tenable connection between her career and her identity is strongly felt. Bloom is often being asked or telling others about her upcoming concert tour, as when Hynes inquires, “Mrs B. is the bright particular star, isn’t she?” (12.993). Indeed, it may well be that Bloom actually speaks more about Molly’s career than he does of his own. Apart from the quasi-distinguished nature of Molly’s profession, the close connection between her and her work likely owes a great deal to how she “displayed at an early age remarkable proficiency as a singer having even made her bow to the public when her years numbered barely sweet sixteen” (16.1442-44). In conjunction with the suggestions of some of her thoughts in “Penelope,” this indicates that Molly has been singing (including before others) since she was very young; her connection with her profession is thus very deeply-rooted. Partially as a result of this connection rooted in youth, Molly seems to have no doubts about her talent and appeal as a singer, as is seen throughout “Penelope.” She thinks of Fanny M’Coy “trying to sing [Molly’s] songs” and of “Kathleen Kearney and her lot of squealers…they don’t know how to sing a song like that” (18.878, 888-89); the latter seems to imply that while the others don’t know “how to sing a song like that,” Molly does. In addition, it indicates a feeling of possession over the songs she sings (which are not written by her). While she thinks of various other topics in “Penelope,” her stern confidence when she thinks of singing shows that she, like Bloom, inhabits her profession. Moreover, the identification others make between her and her profession (likely strengthened by the fact that she is a woman who works) indicates that they see her through the medium of her occupation, which, in conjunction with Molly’s own thoughts, suggests that she also creates a fair portion of her identity by observing herself through the lens of her profession.

A subtler relation between Molly and profession is that one of the jobs she thinks she might have done was entirely contingent upon her gender. She thinks of when Bloom “said [she] could pose for a picture naked to some rich fellow in Holles street when he lost the job in Helys” (18.560-61). This type of “opportunity” is truly (as with Bella Cohen and the prostitutes in “Circe”) an opportunity for a woman to sell her body as a product for male consumption. While Bloom produces the product of ads and others produce or sell other products, they do not directly sell the human body. While it seems that this previous opportunity for employment was a singular one and that it was not accepted, one can imagine the consequences regarding identity Molly would have faced had she pursued it. One of the most visited topics in her internal monologue is sexuality and sexual relations; had she taken that picture, this would have been further blended with her profession. Note that these two concepts are already mixed; Boylan is the man organizing the concert tour, and Molly suggests she has interacted sexually with others that she has worked with, such as Bartell d’Arcy (18.273ff). Additionally, her profession as a singer has a sexual aspect as well: “Ill change that lace on my black dress to show off my bubs” (18.900-901), she thinks. Thus, her current profession is already inextricably tied to her gender. However, in the case of the photograph, the two would be merged; she would thus be forced to see herself through the medium of the sale of herself—in brief, she would come to identify herself as a product. This would have the potential for catastrophe, but what is alarming is how close she is to this identification in her present occupation. When she performs, for some of the audience members, she is also an exhibition—for them, she is an entertaining “service” that is not very far from being a “good” that is exchanged. Bearing that in mind, it doesn’t seem that Molly gives this present relation (or would have given the one resulting from the photograph) much importance; after all, she does choose to “show off her bubs,” and she is not unfamiliar with male sexual desire: “its well for men all the amount of pleasure they get off a woman’s body…always I wished I was one myself for a change” (18.1379-81). In fact, she is conscious of this sexual aspect; perhaps it may only be a part of her profession and thus identity because she allows it to be.

The plethora of professions in Ulysses goes far beyond Bloom, Molly, and Stephen, and even beyond Ulysses itself, as seen in the example of Martin Cunningham, who was first introduced in the short story “Grace,” in Dubliners. In his appearances both in Ulysses and “Grace,” Cunningham possesses two significant general characteristics: he is very kind and helpful, and his occupation in Dublin Castle makes him privy to what may be succinctly called “secret knowledge.” The latter is seen in both works in very similar ways—both concern a “suspicious” Jew. In “Grace,” Tom Kernan mentions that one of the men he drank with at the time of his accident was named Harford, prompting Cunningham to utter “—Hm. … When Mr Cunningham made that remark people were silent. It was known that the speaker had secret sources of information” (Joyce 136-37). It is then strongly implied that this Harford is Jewish: “he had become the partner of a…Mr Goldberg, in the Liffey Loan Bank…Though he had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code his fellow Catholics…spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew” (137). This episode’s counterpart is found in “Cyclops,” when Cunningham responds to Ned Lambert’s inquiry about Bloom’s religious affiliation, and in reference to allegations that Bloom was involved with the strongly Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein: “He’s a perverted jew…it was he drew up all the plans according to the Hungarian system. We know that in the castle” (12.1635-37). This “secret knowledge” is particularly intriguing because Cunningham only has access to it because of his profession; as doctors, lawyers and other professional workers each have a type of language, so Cunningham has access to information that is not available to the general public. However, while the information itself is possessed only by Cunningham and others in the Castle, the knowledge that he possesses such information is apparently well known, as indicated in “Grace” above. As such, a principal component of others’ perception of Cunningham is this knowledge—as corroborated in “Grace” in the description of him as “well-informed” (135). By extension, his career is thus a ubiquitous component of his perceived identity. Just as “Grace” speaks to his perceived identity, Ulysses shows that the identity others assign to Cunningham is not unlike that which he perceives for himself; in “Grace,” the reader is told of his secret knowledge, but in Ulysses, he exhibits it himself. Although the reader is unable to read Cunningham’s inner monologue, the above justifiably implies that he sees himself through his profession-given privilege of secret knowledge, and thus at least partially constructs his personal identity on the profession that gives this privilege.

It is also worthwhile to consider Bloom’s thoughts about Martin Cunningham in “Hades,” which Breton mentions at the start of his article. As he rides with Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus to the funeral, Bloom thinks of Cunningham and his drunkard wife: “Setting up house for her time after time and then [she] pawning the furniture on him every Saturday almost. Leading him the life of the damned…Monday morning. Start afresh. Shoulder to the wheel” (6.349-52). Breton reads this as expressing Bloom’s belief that Cunningham “attempts to ease the burden caused by his domestic troubles by putting a ‘shoulder to the wheel’” (106). This indeed seems likely, and thus adds another dimension to Cunningham’s relationship with his profession—it is an escape. Put another way, it is easier for Cunningham to perceive the world and himself through the filter of his profession, because it doesn’t necessarily include his wife. If one continues this analysis, he arrives at the plausible idea that this escape through occupation doesn’t completely work, for Cunningham seems to be frequently busy helping others. If one assumes that he cannot be wholly altruistic in his action of helping people such as the Dignam family and Tom Kernan, it may be that Cunningham does these charitable acts as another measure to mitigate his misfortunes with his wife. This may not be the case, but it implies that some workers cannot be made content simply with the lens of their occupation—rather, they must add another lens by engaging in a “hobby.” This would not be an improbable explanation for Bloom’s fervent interest in science, or perhaps even Molly’s adultery. Breton argues that “Bloom also has domestic troubles and responds to crises and insecurities by embracing a work ethic” (106). Following this reading, it is not unlikely that Bloom’s “hobbies” are a type of response to his domestic troubles as well.


In ostensibly stark contrast to the three characters mentioned above, the reader encounters “the superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J.” (10.1), which satisfies a public curiosity about the contents of a priest’s thoughts. For the most part, John Conmee’s thoughts and actions are unsurprisingly priest-like—he walks to Artane as any Dubliner presumably would, salutes and is saluted by many Dubliners and good-naturedly allows a child to mail a letter he needs to send, all the while thinking very frequently of religious topics. However, two instances of his interaction with and thoughts about women are worthy of consideration. As Father Conmee walks along Mountjoy square east, he catches sight of a woman named Mrs. M’Guinness riding by in a carriage, at which he marvels slightly: “A fine carriage she had…Well, now! Such a …what should he say? … such a queenly mien” (10.65-7). His hesitation in what he should think Mrs. M’Guinness’s appearance should be described as implies, at the most basic level, that his vocation has conditioned him to choose his words carefully. However, he may be attempting to conceal an attraction to the woman, even from his own thoughts. This is not improbable, because, while Mrs. M’Guinness is “silverhaired” (10.62), the actual John Conmee (1847-1910) would have been 57 years old in 1904. Thus, it would not be unreasonable for him to find some attraction to her, which he would presumably be used to repressing. The second example comes when Father Conmee “perceived [a woman’s] perfume in the car” (10.128) when he is riding the tram. The significance in this small act is that Conmee “perceives” her perfume, instead of “smelling” it. Objectively, both terms function in the same way, but “perceives” has a much more detached, even scientific connotation, while “smelling” is the common term for such an act. Thus, Conmee once again appears to have a certain level of separation from the aspects of a woman that may be considered attractive—as he repressed a less proper description of Mrs. M’Guinness, here he relegates a “smell” to a “perception.” This difference is slight, perhaps, but noticeable nonetheless. In this way, Conmee serves as one of the most potent examples of how one sees through the medium of his profession—he actively alters his thoughts and reactions to reality because he is a priest.

In fact, Father Conmee is not the only priest mentioned in Ulysses that seems to censor himself; in “Penelope,” Molly recalls confessing to one Father Corrigan, and a peculiar part of his speech. “He touched me father…but whereabouts on your person my child on the leg behind high up was it yes rather high up was it where you sit down yes O Lord couldnt he say bottom right out and have done with it” (18.107-11). As shown, Father Corrigan exerts extra effort to avoid saying the word “bottom,” serving as an example of a priest actively censoring his speech, even with a word that is not overly inappropriate. This is not to be understated; in prompting one to censor his speech, the occupation of priest thus impacts the very medium which human beings use to communicate with one another. In this fashion, it is a profession not unlike Martin Cunningham’s, or that of a doctor or lawyer (as mentioned above), as it creates a slightly different “language” for the professional. The difference here is indeed slight, but an impact on one’s language is one that impacts his processing of the outside world, as well as the construction of his identity and how others perceive him. Indeed, Molly later contradicts herself when she thinks of some of the books that Bloom brings her, which are supposed to be written by a priest, “about a child born out of her ear because her bumgut fell out a nice word for any priest to write” (18.489-90).

Unlike any of the characters hitherto mentioned, Stephen Dedalus does not yet have a job that he will consistently return to—instead, he has a job in “Nestor” that he has decided to leave by “Circe,” and is in active pursuit of his self-imposed dream: to be an artist. As such, he must be considered both as a teacher and a twenty-two-year-old seeker of his ideal. Stephen is only described as a teacher for less than five pages of the many that concern him in Ulysses, and his thoughts outside of “Nestor” scarcely consider teaching. Thus, it can be immediately inferred that Stephen does not place much importance on his position as a teacher; Mr. Deasy’s prediction “that [Stephen] will not remain here very long at this work. [He] was not born to be a teacher” (2.401-2) seems to prove true. At any rate, he teaches long enough to receive a paycheck, and the children he instructs serve as intellectual stimuli, as Bloom might say (16.1221). Perhaps most importantly, Sargent, the student Stephen helps with sums after class, provokes his consideration of maternal love. Considering him, Stephen thinks, “Ugly and futile…Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms…Was that then real? The only true thing in life?” (2.139-40, 143), an observation that will be uttered in an altered form aloud during Stephen’s discussion in “Scylla and Charybdis.” Apart from this stimulation of his intellect, Stephen doesn’t reap any significant amount of benefit from this occupation, nor does he seem particularly well-suited for the work, as seen in the aftermath of his riddle to the children: “He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries echoed dismay” (2.116-17). Instead, he approaches the position from the perspective of one yearning to be a writer, in the same way that he approaches himself in “Proteus” and the discussion of his thoughts about Shakespeare in “Scylla and Charybdis.” It may indeed be that Stephen takes on what he feels the perspective of the writer is, and in doing so places himself very snugly in the perspective of one who is aspiring to be— (instead of currently acting as) a writer. In any case, this perspective is omnipresent in the above examples, and in his silent monologues and utterances in general—more than any other character, perhaps. Additionally, his perspective makes him vastly different from the characters hitherto considered; while others’ perspectives are often determined from their present occupation, Stephen’s present occupation is almost entirely irrelevant, while the future he aspires to permeates his outlook on the present.

Finally, there is another profession which is undoubtedly one of the most frequently mentioned in Ulysses: medicine. The novel begins with Buck Mulligan, a medical student, and medicine is the art of “The Oxen of the Sun,” in which the birth of a baby in a hospital is paralleled with the “embryonic development” of literature, and a group of medical students converse. However, a distinction must be made between the medical student (e.g., Buck Mulligan, Lynch and Punch Costello) and the practicing physician (e.g., Dr. Dixon in “The Oxen of the Sun”). While Dr. Dixon is the only medical doctor that appears in the novel, the medical students appear still more irreverent and crass in his more refined presence. He responds to a crude discussion stemming from Nurse Callan’s entrance and subsequent departure by asserting, “I want patience…with those who, without wit to enliven or learning to instruct, revile an ennobling profession which, saving the reverence due to the Deity, is the greatest power for happiness upon the earth” (14.823-26). The “profession” to which he refers seems to be nursing, but his sense of reverence for those of that profession—who are surely indispensable in his daily work—implies that his disposition includes the appropriateness and formality that one typically associates with a doctor. It need not be belabored that medical students in Ulysses, and Buck Mulligan in particular, are extremely crass, irreverent, and even cold, including in relation to their own profession. (See Mulligan, “You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day…and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom” (1.204-3).) In all probability, Dixon was just as crass when he was a medical student, and his reverence may be something he acquired when he began practicing. Still, Bloom is troubled that “the mere acquisition of academic titles should suffice to transform in a pinch of time these votaries of levity into exemplary practitioners of an art” (14.899-901). What Bloom wonders at is exactly the phenomenon of a person acquiring a profession as a certain type of man (irreverent, in this case), only to be transformed afterward by the permeation of his newfound career throughout his consciousness. These “academic titles,” it seems, grant a profession that gives a different way of perceiving reality and oneself, and in doing so prompt a drastic reconstruction of the individual’s identity.



Despite the wide variety of occupations considered above, the professions of the examined characters inevitably serve as a medium through which they at least partially see the world and themselves. Taken together, this indicates just how impactful one’s choice of occupation is on their life. However, the topics that were considered in Part II (Bloom, Molly, and Martin Cunningham) differ greatly from those considered in Part III (priesthood, Stephen Dedalus and medicine). The professions of the former, their respective benefits and effects notwithstanding, are far less honored and elevated in society than those of the latter. Even Molly’s profession, with its concomitant entertainment of and attention from the masses, is not as highly revered as the latter three. Father Conmee is saluted by nearly every one he walks past, medicine is “an art which most men anywise eminent have esteemed the noblest” (14.901-2), and Stephen’s realization of his goal would entail the creation of an enduring work of literature. Simultaneously, Bloom dreams of the perfect advertisement, Molly is extremely confident in her deeply-rooted performance abilities and Martin’s job provides him with knowledge inaccessible to the general public, which gives him a certain degree of prestige (though not as high as that bestowed by the second three professions). Each occupation lends something to its practitioner, but he or she is also enveloped in his or her occupation and sees outward and inward through the lens their occupation creates, regardless of how highly esteemed it is. Occupation, then, may be said to be a great equalizer—whether an occupation is very esteemed or not at all, it restrains the employee with the bonds of perspective.

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Works Cited

Breton, Rob. “Occupations and Preoccupations: Work in Ulysses.” English Studies in Canada, vol. 30, no. 2, 2004, pp. 105-128.

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1988.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses; a Study. Vintage Books, 1958.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Edited by Margot Norris, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler, Random House, 1986.

Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. 1980. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Lyons, J.B. “Gogarty, Oliver Joseph St. John (1878-1957).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, Jan. 2011, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33439, accessed 1 September 2017.

Stewart, Bruce. “Joyce, James Augustine Aloysius (1882-1941).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, Oct. 2007, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34247, accessed 21 June 2017.


“Nasty” Women of Western Literature: Empowering Women Against Misogyny by (Re)Claiming Language and Autonomy

by Mirabella McDowell

  1. Introduction— “Nasty” Is As “Nasty” Does

“Whether I am meant to or not, I challenge assumptions about women. I do make some people uncomfortable, which I’m well aware of, but that’s just part of coming to grips with what I believe is still one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in human history—empowering women to be able to stand up for themselves.”Hillary Rodham Clinton

In the midst of our most recent United States presidential election, as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton navigated her way through the third and final debate and began a nuanced discussion of her economic plan, Donald Trump interrupted in a targeted slur against Clinton, protesting, “Such a nasty woman.” This particular callous moment of flagrant condescension publicly marked the continual existence of a toxic ideology that underlies much of our culture: misogyny. Misogyny, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women,” essentially promulgates the ideology that women are inferior to men in one respect or another (1a). A recent Washington Post article entitled, “How to Define, Survive, and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era” by Carlos Lozada deepens this definition, adding that:

Any and all women can suffer misogyny, but its primary targets are women who overtly undermine that power imbalance, ‘those who are perceived as insubordinate, negligent, or out of order’… those unwilling to be categorized only as the supportive wife, cool girlfriend, loyal assistant or attentive waitress. Misogynists expect women to dutifully provide ‘feminine-coded goods’ such as affection, adoration, and indulgence while they enjoy ‘masculine-coded perks’ such as leadership, authority, money and status. Women give, men take. (Lozada)  

Women who violate these anticipated gender codes in particular are most often those who “call out powerful men for their misdeeds,” hold a career or position of high status or influence, or reject a man sexually, romantically, etc. (Lozada). These ideas reveal a common, troubling motive among misogynists: seeking the control and containment of women, whether of their bodies, of their minds, or of their voices. In other words, when a woman gains power, she becomes a threat to the patriarchal system of order in place. Thus, according to misogynistic perceptions, she is not only dangerous, but as recently accused sexual assault perpetrator Matt Lauer allegedly put it when his lewd advances towards a coworker were denied, she is “no fun.”

In understanding the extent of this noxious ideology, it is important to touch upon the severity of the problematic circumstances in which misogynistic rhetoric and belief remain alarmingly ubiquitous in our daily culture. Unfortunately, some people do not identify misogyny in the modern world as a prevalent issue, which could be attributed to the strides of progress women have made in terms of equal rights over the past century. After all, more women than ever hold and maintain successful and lucrative careers and lives; many insist that the notion of misogyny is outdated, even archaic. This misconception is not only false, but also incredibly damaging. President-elect Trump’s remark against Clinton during the 2016 debate is not an uncharacteristic or rare attack, but rather has been preceded and since followed by an onslaught of misogynistic statements against women by Trump himself, who has been on record calling, “…women he does not like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.” Trump has been reinforced in his sexism by a flurry of authoritative male voices within the government—from prevalent Senators to outspoken politicians— who, for instance, silenced “nasty-mouthed” Senator Elizabeth Warren during a congressional hearing in which she, ironically, attempted to give voice to another woman, Coretta Scott King. Most recently, there has been a disturbing outcry of sexual assault accusations against some of the most powerful and influential men in seemingly all professions – to name a few, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Bill Cosby, John Conyers, and Bill O’Reilly. Sexual assault can be understood as an extreme manifestation of pervasive societal misogyny and sexism, in that the perpetrators – typically men—seek to dominate and intimidate their victims – typically women. The justice system currently in place overall enormously fail women, often making it a woman’s responsibility to present enough evidence against her attacker to make her story trustworthy, her case only viable if the statute of limitations has not yet been reached, procedures that prefer and defer to the man’s protection. Thus, this environment where harassment and abuse are chronic — and in which women’s safety, livelihoods and well being are therefore limited — is itself misogynistic.

Regardless of one’s political views, this blatant misogyny – both spoken and written – in contemporary culture calls attention to a tradition within our society of oppressing, demeaning, and attempting to shame or intimidate women into silence. These outright displays of objectification and of prejudice against women and their thoughts, opinions, and voices express an upsetting yet normalized trend throughout history, which begs a multitude of important questions; namely how, in a period of such marked division and derision, can women respond to repugnant remarks against their sex? As Lozada contends, “We could out and rout the predators and misogynists and attackers lurking in our midst and our memories, until all those open secrets are simply open. But even if what has been dubbed this ‘Weinstein moment’ succeeds in unmasking, shaming and banishing more and more offenders, it’s not clear that crossing names off an endless list of hideous men will topple the structures of entitlement and permissiveness enabling their actions” (Lozada). Thus, where then do we – advocates of feminism and of the female—start and progress in building and strengthening our responses?

I would like to suggest that a key place for women to gain power has been and can be in language. The revolution of resistance and support for women that has exploded from Trump’s snide quip has mainly stemmed from his use of the word “nasty” in association with “woman.” The use of the word “nasty” as an insult is seemingly meant to be a more “acceptable” stand-in for overtly offensive women specific slurs. Yet, instead of being disgraced into submission by Trump’s turn of phrase, women around the world have instead reclaimed the word nasty as their own and for their own purposes, wearing it proudly as a badge of honor. This can be observed in the progression of the Oxford English Dictionaries’ definitions for the word “nasty”: since 1390, “nasti” has been used to mean “filthy, dirty; esp. offensive through filth or dirt” or, as of around the 17th century, “morally corrupt’ indecent, obscene, lewd” (1a; 4). Yet, a recent entry for “nasty” declares it is “slang, U.S.” for “terrific, wonderful, formidable; used as a term of approval” (6). In this way, women have been able to take the stereotypes and smears hurled at them and repurpose them to their own benefit, as aforementioned in the OED, a “nasty” woman can now be interpreted as a woman who is strong and fierce, outspoken and courageous. This reclamation of language has in turn prompted an outpouring of female solidarity, with women around the world uniting under this terminology. In this way, modern women have repossessed the word nasty for themselves when under attack of being “nasty” in the other previous senses of the word, using their own voices to speak against the often louder or more powerful male voices that attempt to silence, belittle, or discredit them.

Consequently, I argue that our responses to misogyny can be furthered through the examination of prominent literature of the past, literature about, by, or for women, women who use language in cunning ways to speak their truth. I contend that this “reclaiming” of stereotypes and derogatory statements to gain autonomy is not entirely new, but that works throughout literature have done this same kind of repurposing, and it is to literature we can and should turn to better understand misogyny, women’s continual plight against it, and how to combat it. Literature forces us to be aware and grapple with certain issues society faces by allowing us a glimpse into the minds of those being oppressed or under attack, giving readers a new perspective or broadening the depth of one’s understanding on an issue. Women characters and writers have actually been building the framework for us on this topic for centuries. Therefore, this literary tradition of female voices confronting misogyny, exploring its roots, and condemning its justifications can help shape the way women today are able to recognize misogyny. By analyzing their various methods for regaining female agency, we can learn how we can better cope with and fight against misogyny.

My research into this female literary tradition will explore seven different female responses to misogyny in Western Literature, from the medieval era to the modern, and ask central questions: What are some of the most prominent and recurring antifeminist stereotypes, where do the contradictions lie within them, and how do these stereotypes paradoxically empower these female literary voices? How does each text counteract misogyny, and how does each attempt to reclaim and redefine female identity in the face of male assertion, coercion, and overall dominance? By directly engaging with particularly misogynistic literature and rhetoric, how does each woman contribute to a female literary tradition, and take part in—both literally and figuratively—rewriting female history?

My analysis will begin with the medieval era and a contemplation of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, who stands as the quintessential paradigm of the “bad woman” as she scandalously rebuts the religious doctrine and literature that suppresses her sexuality and freedoms. Next is an examination of The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, which strives to reverse the trauma caused by misogynistic literature by reconstructing the pillars of womanhood and female identity and providing a utopian, strong female community. Following this is a move to the Victorian era and an analysis of “The Introduction” by Anne Finch, a work that engages the stereotypes of women by men, skillfully refuting the need for a man to justify her writing through her sharply critical analysis and the “expert” techniques embedded within her poetry. After this is a brief look at the preface to Aphra Behn’s “The Lucky Chance,” which offers a dialogical response in renegotiating the terms of the gender contract in literature. Accused of being overly sexual in instances in which men would not have been, Behn firmly retorts that “the pen” is her “masculine part,” thereby challenging these rigid ideologies of sex, sexuality, and woman’s censorship. Coinciding with this ideology, there is next a comparative analysis of Behn’s “The Fair Jilt” and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, which confront gendered double standards in Early Modern society as well as play with stereotypes of passion, agency, sexuality, and a reversal of a woman’s passivity through the formulation of the female rake. Finally, in a transition to the modern era, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf exemplifies a literary tradition of female engagement with and response to misogyny in literature, explaining the differing circumstances that hindered female writers and exposing modern illusions of women’s equality.   

Ultimately, I’d like to argue that these literary women are in fact precisely the “nasty” women that misogynists constantly slander, as these women are imbued with passion, anger, and above all, a desire for autonomy. Yet, these women simultaneously challenge these stereotypes in order to reshape them in a more positive light and refute the negative depictions of women, especially women in, and who write or read, literature. I’d like to suggest that ultimately, misogyny has essentially always served the same purposes, and has been vocalized and manifested in the same sorts of ways: the ultimate goal being to silence and belittle women. However, I would argue that the misconception that women were essentially silent on these issues before our modern moment is false, as these texts, spanning centuries, all confront, respond, and interact directly with female stereotypes meant to harm them. They attempt to discredit misogynistic assumptions and alter misleading perceptions of women, thus negotiating and opening a legitimate, fair space for women and women’s writing, a sphere in which women were able to be heard and advocating for women’s autonomy and women’s education. Thus, this paper will primarily focus on how these negatively marked attributes of the female were repurposed by women to instead be empowering—just as the word “nasty” has been in contemporary society.

  1. Ye Nasty Women of the Middle Ages

“Come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have refuge and defense against the various assailants.” – Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies


Western European culture during the Middle Ages was teeming with misogynistic ideology, as institutionalized patriarchal codes shaped, and were given credibility through, nearly every authoritative establishment, from the Church and its earliest fathers to the social hierarchies and mores of the ruling and wealthy classes. This domineering dogma inexorably percolated into the scholarship of the time, and as academic R. Howard Bloch reflects, “The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature” (Medieval Misogyny 1). Examples of such literature are innumerable: “in Latin satires like John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, Walter Map’s De nugis curialium, Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love (book 3), as well as in the XV Joies de marriage and what is perhaps the most virulent antimatrimonial satire in the vernacular tongue, Jehan Le Fevre’s translation of the Lamentations de Matheolus” (Bloch 1). This “ritual denunciation of women,” as Bloch puts it, “constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century” (1). Thus, with as prevalent, pervasive, and accepted as misogynistic sentiment was in both literature and in everyday custom in the Middle Ages, it is particularly valuable in understanding how medieval women experienced this culture to investigate moments where this misogyny was seemingly challenged, or at least examined, by female voices.

In alignment with this notion, Geoffrey Chaucer’s [1343-1400] self-assertive, outspoken character of the Wife of Bath offers insight into women’s engagement with and to this noxious philosophy of subjugation. For her provocative language and altogether blunt charges against the male gender, the Wife is unsurprisingly one of Chaucer’s most controversial characters, as scholars have long contested her purpose in “The Canterbury Tales,” and struggled with whether or not she can be classified a proto-feminist of sorts. Speaking to this debate, in her essay “What Women Want: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” Anne McTaggart masterfully articulates the central questions at hand when unraveling the nuances of meaning nestled within the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, observing how, “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath centers on a wonderfully fruitful paradox: she claims for women and for herself the right to “maistrie” and “sovereynetee” in marriage, but she does so by articulating the discourse imparted to her by the “auctoritee” of anti-feminism. Indeed, this paradoxical challenge to and reiteration of anti-feminist ideas has left Chaucer’s readers debating for decades which way the irony cuts: is the Wife to be understood as a proto-feminist, or is she merely a delightful buffoon inadvertently lampooning herself for the ironic pleasure of a knowing, male audience?” (1).

Subsequently, it could assumed that the Wife is a mere embodiment of anti-feminist rhetoric and literature, as she behaves precisely in the manner accused of and forewarned by medieval misogynists – perhaps most markedly, for her confession that “for half so boldely kan ther no man/ Swere and lyen, as a womman kan” (Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” 227-228). Furthermore, she explains that in her youth she was wayward, “faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon/ And trewely, as myne houbondes tolde me, / I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be,” casting her as the promiscuous and manipulative stereotype of the “bad” wife that prominent literature described (605-608). Indeed, there has been much scholarship in the past that has scathingly denounced her, from early commentators such as William Blake, who found her to be a “scourge and a blight,” and John Dryden, who would not dare, “to adventure on her Prologue; because tis too licentious,” to twentieth-century voices such as Tony Slade, who bitingly remarks, “The Wife’s character has already been exposed in some detail in her Prologue, which rambles around the theme of ‘sover-eynetee’ in marriage; her tone is coarse and garrulous, and there is little evidence of that sort of delicate poetic beauty which some critics have professed to find in the Tale itself” (Treharne 1). Ironically, these critical replies—which all use misogynistic stereotypes of women in their confrontations— all come from men centuries later in similar attempts to seemingly undermine the validity of the arguments and issues the Wife raises in her speech by condemning her character itself. The Wife could easily be responding to her own critics of the Modern Era when continually addressing all the slanderous things men have charged women with, imploring, “What eyleth swich an old man for to chide?” illuminating, too, the longevity of misogyny in our society (278; 281). It is precisely and predominantly this engagement with and to these kinds of persistent antifeminist forces that the Wife seems to be directing her words to as she discusses and takes issue with the writings of antifeminists cited in her Prologue, which is why I would like to assert that in her individuality and fearlessness, the Wife seems to serve as a brilliant depiction of how an early “proto”-feminist could have been, as she embodies these stereotypes to actively call attention to and subvert them in ways we still do in contemporary culture.  

Though Chaucer cannot exactly speak from a woman’s own experiences, he nonetheless masterfully gives the Wife of Bath a consciousness and a vital humanity through his superb writing capability, depicting how real lives were affected by this ideology. The wife speaks candidly about her experiences with misogynistic stereotypes, such as her repeated testimonies of the things, “Thou [men] seyest” of women, such as, “And if that she be fair, thou verray knave,/ Thou seyest that every holour wol hire have;/ She may no while n chastitee abyde” (253-255). Yet, she also expresses the trauma these broodings cause her, as she proclaims, “Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose,/ The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?” (786-787). These experiences of discomfort and actual physical pain at the internalization of this misogyny is indicative of how most women feel when subjected to it, and not only sheds light on how medieval women could and would have felt about hearing these things, which is in a way incredibly similar to how women still feel today, but this harm to women’s psyche is at the very core of misogynists purpose: that is, to gain control and domination. As Jill Mann contends:

The double structure of the Wife’s speech thus has a meaning of far wider import than its role in the Wife’s individual experience. And yet it plays a crucial role in creating our sense of the Wife as a living individual. For what it demonstrates is her interaction with the stereotypes of her sex, and it is in this interaction that we feel the three-dimensionality of her existence. That is, she does not live in the insulated laboratory world of literature, where she is no more than a literary object, unconscious of the interpretations foisted upon her; she is conceived as a woman who lives in the real world, in full awareness of the anti-feminist literature that purports to describe and criticize her behavior, and she has an attitude to it just as it has an attitude to her. (Treharne 3)

In this way, the Wife’s Prologue highlights the impact of these misogynistic broodings on the lives and reputations of real women, ultimately exhibiting that, “Texts affect lived lives, and the Wife’s feminist criticism demonstrates this: if women had relatively little opportunity to author texts, they nonetheless felt their effects” (Dinshaw 14). Yet, the Wife does not allow Jankyn this power over her; in a moment of truly remarkable and radical indignation, “whan [the Wife] saugh he wolde nevere fine/ to redden on this cursed book al nyght,/ Al sodeynly thre leves have I plight/ out of his book, right as he radde, and eke/ I with my fest so took hym on the cheke/ that in oure fyr he fil backward adoun” (788-793). Not only does the Wife throw the pages into the fire, but the misogynist himself falls down with them, symbolic of her stand to destroy these treatises and the ones who propagate them (and, to replace them with her Tale). The Wife of Bath thus seems to represent the culmination of all these “bad wives” and the manifestation of their traits. Yet, by giving her (and in effect, them) a voice, “Chaucer, as a man writing in the voice of a woman opposing this tradition, explores the impact of writing in creating gender itself” – precisely the same way that these ‘old dolts’ the Wife refers to seem to attempt to falsely create and thus slight the female gender by writing all women as bad (Dinshaw 15). In this vein, it seems to be the Wife’s very embodiment of these “bad” traits that gives her a sense of agency and autonomy as an individually minded, opinionated woman of her time, proudly admitting to these characteristics instead of being shamed into silence, and boasting them with an air of satisfaction and utter candor. In this way, the Wife seems to be reclaiming these roles that were meant to harm her, and instead wearing them as badges of honor, much like contemporary women have done with the word “nasty” with all its contexts and connotations. In turn, Chaucer seems to be writing a new narrative for women – one in which women have the control and mastery.

In this same manner, it seems especially poignant and defining insofar as exploring the Wife of Bath’s character that, while nearly every other character in Chaucer’s tale is described using their occupation (for instance, The Knight, The Prioress, or The Miller, to name a few), Alisoun is distinguished and demarcated for being a wife, despite the fact that it is revealed to us almost immediately that she is a merchant. Thus, Chaucer seems to suggest that wifehood is not only her primary function in the narrative, but also perhaps her primary “trade,” i.e. her importance stems from this womanhood, and as we are meant to recognize her principally as a bad wife, and her main role becomes defending her own sex. Therefore, when confronted with the “book of Wikked Wyves” the Wife of Bath not only opposes it, but vehemently protects women’s reputations by underlining that none of these texts were written by women themselves, then scandalously and continuously formulating logical arguments using biblical allusions and holy men to justify her reasoning (685). This can be observed when she deliberately underscores why men of the period, particularly old clerks and scholars, composed copious amounts of misogynistic and anti-women literature: because, as all interpretation bears the mark of the interpreter, these old men –who she has authority to speak of because she has experience in marriage to them—are frustrated with their own sexual inadequacy and ability to perform, and thus whine instead about the infidelity of women. As the Wife puts it, “The clerk, whan he is oold, and may nought do/ Any of Venus’s werkes worth his old shoe” will “writ his dotage/ that women kan nat kepe hir mariage!” (707-710). Moreover, she explains that “For trusteth wel, it is an impossible/ that any clerk will speak good of wyves” for this reason, and claims that if women “hadde written stories/ as clerkes han withinne hire oratories,” there would be a tremendous amount of literature speaking also of the wickedness of men (688-689; 694). Yet, since most women were constrained by societal limitations and domestic expectations, the literature is left to the men to write, in which “no woman of no clerk is preysed” (706). Who called the lion a savage beast, she implores of the group in a simple metaphor, concluding it certainly was not the lion itself (692).

By taking these negative assumptions about women and finding a logical root for them, other than the notion that women are merely inherently wicked, rather than merely embodying the stereotype of the wicked wife, the Wife of Bath fervently pushes back against these stereotypes that seek to control her and control the perception of all women, reclaiming them in order to empower herself. Moreover, the Wife continuously brings up biblical men to help validate her ways of living: when defending her multiple marriages, she argues, “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye/… he seyde myn housbande/ Sholde lete fader and mooder and take me./ But of no nombre mencion made he, Of bigayme, or of octogame;/ Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?” (28-34). Similarly, she alludes to “the wise kyng, daun Salomon” whom “I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon.” (35-36) In this way, the Wife seems to be internalizing these stories of the Bible, then reinterpreting and repurposing them in order to empower, rather than cast shame upon, women who live their lives freely as she does. Simply put, through this method of reclaiming language, the Wife is able to gain agency. As Carolyn Dinshaw eloquently contends in A History of Feminist Literary Criticism:

She is in fact the anti-feminist stereotype of a nightmare wife come to life: she says to her husbands, for example, exactly what Theophrastus said bad wives say to their husbands. But even as she thus confirms the stereotype, the Wife in her mimesis takes a stand-in subversion of it: she repeats the anti-feminist discourse with a difference, finally seizing that book and ripping it up. Chaucer’s creation of her is an act of feminist literary criticism. (14)

The Wife essentially seems to be “quite”-ing these antagonistic male-driven sentiments, not in the least concerned with what Christian male authorities have to say on the Bible and about her conduct nor what her husbands have to say about how a wife should behave, but rather, only about what she desires and what brings her mirth and amusement.

It is curious to note, too, that the Wife of Bath is interrupted not once in her Prologue, but on numerous occasions, the most significant being the Friar who complains of the length of her Prologue –which she then “quite-s” through hilariously satirizing monks at the beginning of her Tale. While these moments of interruption nearly directly reflect, centuries later, Trump’s interruption of Hillary Clinton, scrutinizing her for speaking up and speaking proudly, they also speak to the Wife’s own sense of agency and her proto-feminist, progressive views even within a period riddled with woman-hating, woman-beating, and the silencing of women overall. Thus, by giving her this power to strike back, and shifting the perspective to that of this “nasty” woman herself, Chaucer invites his audience to glean insight into an all-too-overlooked perspective, Chaucer enables the Wife—on behalf of all women— to have a voice with which to defend herself while appropriating these negative depictions of women into something empowering – her tale ultimately signifying that what women want most of all is this autonomy she openly exercises.

Echoing the final lines of her Prologue in which Jankyn tells her she can claim “al the soveraynetee” in their marriage, her Tale tells of a Knight who rapes a woman and, in order to save his life, must discover what women most desire (818). In the Tale he reveals, “women desiren to have sovereyntee” and “for to been in maistrie [hir housbond] above,” and eventually ends up “in parfit joye” in his marriage, but only when things become resolved through giving his wife total power (1257-1259). In this regard, while the Wife of Bath may be considered a sort of exemplar of all the stereotypes of women as greedy, self-serving parasites combined, these specific lines tie into the idea of the Wife of Bath as, again, a “proto-feminist,” who speaks of the different varying discourses she has learned and has been exposed to and creates a powerful counterargument to men who represent women as rotten and evil, and who blame and scapegoat women rather than owning up to their own faults and shortcomings. The moral takeaway of the tale demonstrates the power of listening to women (an act which provides the turning point in her Tale and is the reason the knight is not put to death for his crime—which coincidentally, is a crime of overpowering and forcing a woman against her will), and the benefits of giving them mastery in marriage, as the Knight ends up perfectly happy as well. The word “maisterie” is defined by the OED as “superiority or ascendancy in battle or competition, or in a struggle of any kind; victory resulting in domination or subjugation”; thus, the Wife principally craves to claim a sort of victory for women in this certain arena of life, a victory of power that men have long enjoyed (1a). Therefore, she is not the docile, obedient woman that the Clerk describes when he “quites” her tale (which is ironic since he tells the tale of the ideal woman, who happens to be everything the Wife of Bath is not), but a boisterous, outspoken woman who engages with the social expectations of the time and responds to them in a sort of call to arms to other wise wives. Though she struggles between her own personhood and the way others try to define her, she speaks rather than being spoken about with defined energy and fervor—thus, a victory to the cause of women’s rights in her very existence.

Finally, these ideas also reflect The Canterbury Tales as a whole, which, through the verbal portraits created and the constant back and forth “quite”ing of the characters, can be understood as a heteroglossia of different voices each addressing the social expectations and anxieties people had about certain types of people, as Chaucer crafts multi-faceted characters who do not always end up aligning with how they are initially portrayed, or how they would be interpreted initially in real life. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale could represent Chaucer as being the “friend of women,” or could be yet another unconventional depiction of a member of society—a “bad wife”— that sows doubt in the reader’s mind about how we are supposed to view and judge women in society. Overall, it seems that the Wife of Bath is meant to be a voice of the female that propagandizes a new truth in the midst of misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages. Therefore, in her embodiment of a “nasty” wife who simultaneously confronts and rebuts the negative attributes prescribed to her through engaging these stereotypes head-on, not only does the Wife of Bath provide a new perspective on wifehood, but on the role and power of women in general.


In her novel The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan [1364-1430] takes a deeply personal and fierce, yet simultaneously articulate and dignified approach to the misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages, first speaking to the damaging effects of her own internalization of misogynistic rhetoric, then later countering the insidious, inflammatory antifeminist literary tradition by building a City of Ladies. In turn, she offers a “new” type of perspective on women in literature: the perspective of a woman, from a woman author. Through the poignant use of allegorical figures—in this case, the embodiments of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice as women— Pizan illustrates her own lived experiences with this kind of rhetoric, and how through her encounters with these “women,” is prompted to “come back to herself” and “not trouble [herself] anymore over such absurdities,” being restored in her own observed truth that, “Causing any damage to harm one party in order to help another party is not justice – and likewise, attacking all feminine conduct is contrary to the truth” (Pizan 8; 10).

In this feminization of virtue, Pizan’s ultimate goal seems to be that of, as Marina Warner puts it, “moral tutor,” to rehabilitate her sex and to replace the portrait of the “bad woman” by calling back to memory the “lives and deeds of virtuous women of the past,” who have been overlooked by history (Foreword xii). As Warner astutely reflects in her foreword to Pizan’s literary triumph, Pizan “restores speech to the silent portion of the past,” giving a voice to these women who have been scorned or ignored by scholars and thus altogether “silenced” (xiii). Thus, Pizan can be added alongside Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath as a so-called “nasty woman,” for her challenging of the misogynistic norms of the period, as a woman who takes the negative stereotypes of women and reclaims them as empowering, debunking the assertions that women are inherently wicked. In a voice of controlled indignation, Pizan offers thoughtful arguments to counter society’s attitudes and opinions towards women, arguments that hold just as much relevance and resonance today as they still ring true in the modern world.

To begin, it is significant to point out Pizan’s title, which is The Book of the City of Ladies, not of women. While this may seem like a word choice meant to exclude rather than include, to speak only about the educated and elite ladies of the time, rather, I’d like to offer that Pizan has instead taken over the traditional term “lady” and invested in it an innovative significance: that is, a “lady” for Christine refers to the nobility of the soul rather than the nobility of the blood (Richards xx). In this way, Pizan “transposes the dignity afforded to noble women in the late medieval class structure to women who have proven their worthiness through their achievements, whether military, political, or religious” (xxx). Therefore, just as the word “nasty” has been infused with a new significance of empowerment in contemporary society, Christine reclaims the word “lady” to express that “every woman possessed the potential for true nobility” (xxx). Pizan cunningly names her new kingdom “Kingdom of Femininity,” the City of Ladies rather than the City of Women, in order to make readers clearly understand her underlying point: that is, that all women could find a place in a city of ladies by realizing their “feminine potential” (xxx). Thus, the word “lady” becomes a symbol representative of inclusion and empowerment, a plea for the recognition of women’s contributions in social and political life.

Moreover, Pizan’s adept manipulation of language can be attributed to her education as well as her desire to “disprove masculine myths and appeal for change,” as her “learnedness served as a springboard for her to address the question of women’s role in society in more extensive terms” (xxx). Pizan immediately asserts her superior education from the first few lines of the novel, suggesting that education will be the foundation of much of her argument. This hypothesis proves to be accurate, as Pizan repeatedly uses her education as the basis by which to criticize authority: by page three she is already disregarding Maltheoulus’ work with the biting criticism that not only is it a conglomeration of lies, but that is has a “lack of integrity in diction and theme,” and she resolves to “turn [her attention to more elevated and useful study” (3). Yet, it is after this encounter with Maltheoulus’s work that an apparent shift is felt in Pizan’s tone, as the derision she has read puzzles and troubles her deeply. Using logic and reason, she desperately tries to work through one of the most critical questions of this misogynistic rhetoric: How it happened that so many different men, and learned men among them, have been so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior?(3) “I do not know how to understand this repugnance” she sighs, “It all seems they speak from one and the same mouth” (4). Since, as she notes, “they all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice,” and “it would be impossible for so many famous men – such solemn scholars… to have spoken so falsely on so many occasions,” she finally resolves that she has no choice but to rely “more on the judgments of others than on what I myself felt and knew,” and finally decides “God formed a vile creature when He made woman… I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature” (4). This section of Pizan’s text reflects her keen ability to use deduction and reason, illustrating her immense intelligence.

Yet, the real point Pizan seems to be making is the psychological toll that internalizing this rhetoric has on real lives – real women – that are deeply affected by this constant outflow of derogatory slander against women by men, so much so that even women start to believe it. Similarly, though the Wife of Bath was not educated or literate, she internalized oral readings of this literature and thus understood the implications this literature had against women; here, Pizan is able to read the very words themselves, and both examples demonstrate how medieval women, regardless of class and status, would have felt about this literature. Their responses, though marked by their differences in education, are again, essentially similar: whereas the Wife of Bath was so outraged by this type of literature that she impulsively incinerated it, and attempts to use her voice to help build a female tradition of good women through her fairy-tale like story, Pizan similarly works to extinguish these accusations about women and make something new, too – a metaphorical City of Ladies, with her book itself standing as a temple of solace in literature for which women can find shelter. As the first of the three Ladies reminds Christine, “you know that any evil spoken of women so generally only hurts those who say it, not women themselves,” reminding Pizan not to acknowledge these evils as truth or actual reflections on the character of womankind, and to instead help build a new feminocentric and realistic literary tradition of women, by women (8).

Similar to the Wife of Bath once more, Pizan directly engages with the misogynistic rhetoric and literature of the time, which is done in order to further her emphasis on the importance of the erudition of women, as well as their participation in literary and cultural life. Pizan fervently objected to the treatment of women in “The Romance of the Rose,” for instance, and was supported in her counterattacks by the influential chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, seemingly giving her voice, thoughts, and opinions validation and credibility in the public, educated sphere. “If women had written the books we read, they would have handled things differently, for women know they have been falsely accused,” she writes in response, an argument quite similar in fact to the Wife of Bath’s (11). Furthermore, she cleverly sets forth that:

Those who attack women because of their own vices are men who spent their youths in dissolution and enjoyed the love of many different women, used deception in many of their encounters, and have grown old in their sins without repenting, and now regret their past follows and the dissolute life they led. But Nature, which allows the will of the heart to put into effect what the powerful appetite desires, has grown cold in them. Therefore, they are pained when they see that their good time has now passed them by, and it seems to them that the young, who are now what they once were, are at the top of the world. They do not know how to overcome their sadness except by attacking women, hoping to make women less attractive to other men. Everywhere one sees such old men speak obscenely and dishonestly, just as you can fully see Maltheoulus, who himself confesses that h was an impotent old man filled with desire. You can thereby convincingly prove, with this one example, how what I tell you is true, and you can assuredly believe that it is the same with many others. (19)

This carefully rendered retort that gives reason to the misogyny of the period, instead of blaming women’s lack of moral integrity for their representations in literature, allows Christine to begin to rebuild her own confidence and self-assuredness, as well as rebuild the reputation of women in the Middle Ages.

It is important to note, too, that for men, there is this recurrent theme of their sexuality being at stake in most of these motives for them to vilify women, as when they perceive inferiority in their own bodies, they project this vulnerability onto the women they cannot satisfy, accusing women of being inherently weak in mind, character, and constancy rather than facing their own shortcomings. As Christine contends that these sorts of men are, “evil, diabolical people who wish to twist the good as well as the virtue of kindness naturally found in women into evil and reproach” (26). From this line, she then goes on to detail in great length the stories of other “good women” from all sorts of religions, myths, and cultures—from Mary Magdalene, to Queen of Sheba, to Marie of Blois, Hippolyta, Zenobia, Minerva, etc.—who’s stories act as the actual building blocks that support and shelter her city of ladies, as they correspondingly support her overall thesis. Not coincidentally, all the women she calls to memory are strong women with formidable ideas and thoughts who have helped the growth and well-being of civilizations and often of humanity as a whole, thus reversing the assumptions that these traits, when found in women, must necessarily be threatening, or “bad.” A keen example she draws forth refers to the Bible, in that, “If anyone would say that man was banished because of Lady Eve, I tell you that he gained more through Mary than he ever lost through Eve,” thus tying in the Church to her logic to support her assertions on both intellectual and religious grounds, and consequently adding another layer of credibility to her arguments (13).

From these justifications, Lady Rectitude finally critically implores, “How many harsh beatings, without cause or reason, how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help?” (119). The Book of the City of Ladies, thus, seems to be Pizan’s own “battle cry,” of sorts, her valiant defense of women and their inherent nobility and “goodness.” By adding her voice and views into the literature of the time, she stirs a conversation about women’s role in the Middle Ages, and counters much of the inflammatory accusations wrongfully flung against women, women who could not defend themselves because they did not typically have the education to do so. “Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming…” she asks, metaphorically symbolizing that such defamation exists against women only because their morality could not be properly fortified, as most women of the period were uneducated and illiterate and therefore could do little to deflect or denounce any such assaults (Pizan 13). Yet, in her building of the city, and in her feminization of virtue through the personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, Christine offers a strikingly successful attempt to not only remind, but rewrite the true history of women, as she represents a womanly eloquence, the affinity women have for learning, the power of the educated woman, and the double standards of men, who she suggests should examine their own morality before attacking others. In this way, Pizan’s novel “represents a determined and clear-headed attempt to take apart the structure of her contemporaries prejudices” through the interspersion of “formidable and exemplary heroines of the past with down to earth remarks about the wrongs done to women by society’s attitudes and opinions,” and thus is a triumphant endeavor to reclaim agency and authority for women in the Middle Ages (xiii).

2. Nasty Women Of The Victorian Era; Or, Virtue Befouled

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” – Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


In the early modern era, women writers continued to struggle with the complex query of how to claim authority in a culture that obstinately and steadfastly denied it to women. Prolific poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea [1661-1720], attempted to challenge societal limitations set upon women and advocated the capability and right for educated women to share their voice in the public sphere through writing. However, Finch was an elite woman expected to only fulfill certain patriarchal standards of being and was therefore unsurprisingly met with many obstacles in attempting to enact these beliefs and broaden the scope of accepted female behavior. Thus, as a way around these limitations, Finch tended to legitimize her work through another male agent—which in turn could be perceived in contemporary culture as undermining her own work or supporting or legitimizing misogynistic rhetoric about the inferiority or inability of the female to speak for herself. Moreover, Finch, like Pizan, uses examples of other women to carve out a space both for herself as well as for the woman writer, though despite this, continued to authorize her own work through the authority of prevailing male figures, which again seemingly exposes an underlying, crucial tension between effectively legitimizing women’s authorship yet paradoxically marginally acquiescing to the exact patriarchal codes set up by society that impeded and discouraged women’s writing. Yet, in deeper examination of her poetry, it becomes clear that Finch often toyed with this authority in a playful way that nearly parodied this need for male approval and acceptance, while using this male authority to her own advantage. Likewise, I would like to suggest that in her vital work, “The Introduction,” Finch uses this type of male authorization as a strategic attempt to gain tolerance and agency for women. By using the highest male authority (God) to contest this cluster of patriarchal gender codes, and in a sense finding an ingenious “loophole” to the constraints set upon women, Finch contends that an educated woman fulfilling her intellectual potential is a critical component of society and rebuts the negative stereotypes prescribed to her and her sex as innately less intelligent than men, ultimately adding herself to this collection of “nasty” women.

In her poem “The Introduction,” Finch insightfully confronts the gender politics of her era by first challenging the stereotypes set upon women, then resourcefully interweaving biblical references of theological men and women in order to legitimize her own authority as a woman and women’s writer—much like Pizan does centuries prior. Finch begins by mordantly noting, “A woman that attempts the pen/ Such an intruder on the rights of men,” instantly calling into question this “right” of men to write that women are consequently seen as imposing upon because men believed that women should be occupying their time with more “suitable” matters (Finch 9-10). Likewise, she perceptively continues “They tell us we mistake our sex and way;/ Good breeding, fashion, dance, dressing, play/ Are the accomplishments we should desire,” pointing out the vapid lifestyle that men expected elite women to assume, as “To write or read or think or to inquire/ Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time, / And interrupt the conquests of our prime” (13-15; 16-18). Finch sardonically scrutinizes and denounces this notion that elite women’s time should be filled with activities merely to enhance one’s beauty and satisfy the duties of “a servile house,” maintaining that this is not, contrary to the patriarchal principles ingrained within her society, the “utmost art, and use” of women (19-20).

After setting up this series of dismaying circumstances and standards prescribed to women, Finch turns to the authority of the Bible to make her case in favor of elite women’s capabilities and right to write, bringing in the figure of Deborah as the ultimate paradigm of the importance and sway of strong female figures historically:

A woman here leads faintly Israel on,

She fights, she wins, she triumphs with a song,

Devout, majestic, for the subject fit,

And far above her arms, exalts her wit. (45-48)

While this reliance on the prominent male figure of God to stake her claim could be viewed as undermining her credibility and agency, rather, I believe it serves as a tactful way to argue for the rights of women writers using the highest male authority of all, since no earthly man would contest the word or will of God. Furthermore, by referencing Deborah, Finch makes the critical point that had Deborah been told to merely focus on her vanity and live a submissive existence, her country would have been left in chaos and shambles, illustrating the importance and necessity of enlightened females intellectuals within society. The notion of Deborah as a key leader, judge, and even advisor of military strategy asserts that the disparity of social influence between men and women is not immutable, and reinforces Finch’s claims that an elite woman should not be confined in her intellect or restrained by societal ideologies of women’s femininity, but should rather be educated in order to become an illustrious member of society. Likewise, by aligning the early modern woman’s writer with figures and stories from the Old Testament, Finch not only claims the own significance of her voice and creates this space of authority for the elite female writer endorsed by God himself, but further posits that women are not historically or innately inferior to men, but rather, have lacked the education to become intellectually equal with them, “fallen by mistaken rules and education” and thus “debarred from all improvements of the mind” (53). The deliberate use of iambic hexameter in Finch’s last line asserts her overall mastery over the poetic form and thus situates herself within this tradition of knowledgeable, powerful women, valued for their wit and ability over their passivity. Thus, Finch’s use of the ultimate male authority, as well as another powerful woman, emphasizes and deepens her credibility and the credibility of other women’s writers.

Ultimately, through her poetry, Finch skillfully faces the problematic question of how a woman can reclaim authority by (rather ironically, and ingeniously) using powerful men, Christian ideology, and other women to legitimize the status of the female. The notion of gender politics is inextricable from this question of authority, and thus in legitimizing herself, Finch also cunningly comments upon the power relations between elite men and women of the era, using the highest male authority (God) to authorize her work. By reclaiming the often patriarchal teachings of the Church as advantageous to women’s rights to write, Finch carves out a space for the female writer that mortal men could not rightfully contest, thus “taking a stab” at misogyny with the poetics of the pen. Finch, therefore, played a pivotal role in shaping various ways in which women’s work could be legitimized, supporting a female community of women’s writers, and in stipulating how women’s compositions should be judged and received within society.


Both Aphra Behn [1640-1689] and Eliza Haywood [1693-1756] were prominent authors who wrote during the Victorian era, a time in which many believed women’s voices to be all but silenced in the public sphere. Yet, both women wrote copiously, often calling into question the biases placed against women and the privileges men, and male writers, seemed to enjoy freely. These women were pivotal in the gradual acceptance and success of female artists; it was Virginia Woolf who once claimed, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 116). Likewise, Behn can be considered one of the first (if not the first) professional female writers, meaning she made a profit from her writings, and thus when met with the obstacles imposed by men for women to make strides in the public arena of writing and entertainment, she often skillfully objected and replied. For instance, in the Preface to her play “The Lucky Chance,” Behn demands of her critics, “All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part, the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well” (Behn xi). By contesting the overly sexual nature of her plays –plays that, were they written by a man, would not have been so derided— and by asserting that the pen is in fact her phallic part, Behn lures men into this conversation about the terms of the gender “contract,” refusing these pure categories of the male and female arenas and instead offering a dialogical response. Therefore, Behn uses this defamation against her work as an empowering agent, and rather than be silenced, uses this idea of being “overly sexual” and other smears to her advantage, adding her (and Haywood, later discussed) to this tradition of “nasty” women.

Consequently, women writers of the Early Modern period such as Behn and Haywood were met with the profound challenge of representing a “female desiring subject” in literature within a society in which male prerogatives and perceptions of how women should behave dominated culture. As aforementioned, “good” women of this period were expected to be well mannered, submissive and altogether naïve about sex and sexuality; thus, this was the depiction of women encapsulated in much of the prominent literature of the era. As a result, both Behn and Haywood radically explored and experimented with the question of what would happen if the woman attempted to claim the role of the partner in power in a sexual exchange, rather than guileless victim? Both Behn, in her work “The Fair Jilt” and Haywood, in Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, pointedly and playfully rewrite, revise, and in fundamental ways, reverse the common tropes, scripts, and scenarios of the emblematic male “libertine” within amorous fiction in order to allow the typically marginalized zone and perspective of the woman to prevail. Moreover, both writers were fundamental in opening this space in Early Modern literature for the desiring woman to be represented, as they allow each of their female protagonists to devise and control the “means of seduction” and, in turn, gave women readers a sense of autonomy otherwise rigorously denied to them in this arena. Thus, authors such as Behn and Haywood helped mold and contribute to a “feminocentric” literary collection that offers different views of the ways women of the Early Modern period attempted to manage and work through the “double bind” that Eros posed to them—in this case, by depicting the “female rake.”

I’d like to propose that this “female rake” is demarcated by her active role and use of deviant, devious tactics to craft and execute seductive schemes in efforts to sate her own pleasures and desires. While notions of sexual freedom for women remained somewhat illusory, this ironic inversion of gendered power in literature nonetheless exposed gendered hypocrisies within society and served to highlight and publicize notions of feminine artfulness, skill, and agency, as seen in both “The Fair Jilt” and “Fantomina,” within key instances of deliberate deceit and calculated manipulation by their female protagonists, dually allowing women writer’s to rewrite female characters as strong agents and claim their own sense of sexual indulgence just as men were able to.

Behn’s protagonist in, “The Fair Jilt,” the cunning sybarite Miranda, masterminds a series of plots to seduce a sequence of young men in order to satisfy her own sensual motives, thus perfectly embodying this notion of the female rake. Moreover, by upholding the typical “sex-as-force” literary scenario of the era but reversing the traditional gendered roles—the female becoming the predatory agent while the man is rendered the powerless object— Behn consequently provides a refreshing depiction of the lady-in-love as an active, autonomous being. This is superbly demonstrated in the scene in which Miranda proclaims her love for young priest Henrick in the church, as when he is openly resistant to Miranda’s initial ploys to win his affections, she expresses her outrage in the characteristic “codified language of the male seducer,” exclaiming, “Answer my flame, my raging fire, which your eyes have kindled; or here, in this very moment, I will ruin thee” and “take away your life and honour,” a proclamation which leaves the hapless priest “trembling” (Bowers, “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility” 56; Behn, “The Fair Jilt, 46). For a woman in society to behave this way would have been perceived as subversive and appalling, and yet not so for the man—therefore, by not completely overhauling the expected power dynamics in scenarios of courtship, but merely reversing them, Behn offers a powerful testament to the gendered double standards cemented into amatory culture. Furthermore, by positioning female characters like Miranda as “both the central subject of the narrative and the possessor of active sexual subjectivity,” rather than as mere recipients of desire, authors such as Behn ultimately, “threaten[ed] traditional male prerogatives based on female subjugation and objectification, and provide [d] space for readers to imagine something new” (Bowers 58).

This striking demonstration of female adroitness is further asserted as the church scene progresses, as in response to the priest denying her advances, Miranda convincingly stages her own pseudo-rape, a fabrication so persuasive in fact that Henrick is arrested and put in prison for many years. Miranda is not only able to regain power over the situation through this deceptive performance, but exhibits the artful abilities of the female subject to, like the archetypal male profligate, mold a situation to fit her agenda and subsequently “triumph” over the male object of her desire, epitomizing the characterization of the female rake (Behn 50). It is indisputably Miranda that maintains the control within this sexual encounter, for though she does not have the physical ability to actually rape the priest, her ensuing scheme, in which she casts herself as the target of the very atrocity she herself attempted to commit, impressively and inventively condemns the priest but also “beats patriarchy at its own game” (Bowers 57). Therefore, while a unique, specifically female model of sexuality is never quite realized, the importance of moments such as these lies in the effort of Behn to at least open this space in literature for female desire to be explored and acknowledged, and to provide readers with a feminocentric version and vision of otherwise male-dominated situations, as in scenarios of lust. The lasting value and appeal of Behn’s work lies in her keen capability to overturn conventional, gendered stereotypes of who was permitted to act upon desire in society, as the misogynistic portrayal of the passive, defenseless woman of standard amatory fiction is—if rather comically—confronted and replaced by Behn with the image of the quick-witted, conniving female rake.

Similarly to Behn’s Miranda, in Haywood’s Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, the protagonist epitomizes this notion of the female rake by exploring and quenching her own sensuous urges, passionate yearnings, and steadfast objectives by artfully and continually duping and outmaneuvering the clueless Beauplaisir. Fantomina is essentially the female equivalent of the male libertine, gaining agency and garnering a fulfilling sense of power through the active use of subterfuge and duplicity to con and seduce the object of her affection; yet, instead of using this power to conquer a series of different men, Fantomina uses her power to attempt to confound only one. Specifically, Fantomina plays out her role as female rake by assuming an assortment of fraudulent identities, such as the Widow Bloomer and Incognita, masquerading as entirely new women each time in order to experience “the first time” with Beauplaisir again and again without his knowledge, using his libertine faithlessness to her advantage and ingeniously allowing him to garner a false sense of control. This is the type of calculated plan that typically the man would devise, and Fantomina discovers that she too finds, unsurprisingly, immense satisfaction from accomplishing her ruses. “How could she not forbear laughing heartily” she reflects in one instance, “to think of the Tricks she had played him and applauding her own Strength of Genius and Force of resolution, which by such un-thought of Ways could triumph over her Lover’s Inconstancy, and render that very Temper, which to other Women is the greatest Curse, a means to make herself more Blessed” (Haywood 243). It is this active engagement in shaping her own future, this questioning of social norms of pleasure and conquest, and this ardent pursual of her own desires that prominently defines the female rake—which, undoubtedly, Fantomina embodies. Moreover, this harkens back to Pizan’s remarks about the hypocritical nature of men, and how they should examine their own morals before libeling the morals of women.

One of the most superb mechanisms of deception of Haywood’s female rake (along with Behn’s as well, though Miranda’s skillful letters are not provided) is her ability to all too easily craft deceitful letters of courtship to her male object, which seems to, in a way, further highlight women’s literary skills, thus accentuating women’s abilities and indirectly authorizing women’s writing. This letter-writing serves as a means of seduction, but also offers a certain agency to Fantomina through the concealment of her true self, while the back and forth literary exchange between man and woman depicts a woman’s equal ability for adept artifice, to write not just an outpouring of passionate ramblings, but as part of a premeditated strategy to achieve her aims. Moreover, like her letters, Fantomina’s continual façade made up of distinctive wardrobes, disguises, and personas convey and celebrate a specifically feminine artistry and cunning. For instance, when dressed as Incognita, Fantomina cleverly hides her face so as to conceal her true identity, and when Beauplaisir confidently attempts to catch the sight of her by the morning light, she is already one step ahead, having “taken care to blind the Windows in such a manner, that not the least Chink was left to let in day” (Haywood 245). Through moments such as these, Haywood illustrates Fantomina as having the supreme control and foreknowledge in each sexual interaction with Beauplaisir, reversing this trope of male domination and thus, in a way, undermining the domineering masculine control of traditional Early Modern courtship. Through her endeavors to stay on equal footing with Beauplaisir by this constant recreation of self, each new persona subsequently allows Fantomina a new freedom, an agency otherwise denied of women, and allows Haywood to boldly explore this realm of the desirous female, while also exploiting the gendered hypocrisies regarding male/ female conduct inbuilt and ingrained within Fantomina’s society. “O that all neglected wives, and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!” she proclaims, “Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” (251). In an era where women’s virtue was revered and advocated to the most stringent degree, Haywood offers her female character and female reader instead—however short-lived— a sense of female agency, expression, and insight into a male dominated realm, and through Fantomina’s astute trickery, overturns the perception of women as incapable of being anything but the innocent, submissive sexual conquest.

Despite the agency and cunning both Haywood and Behn seem to be attributing to their female protagonists, the query lingers as to why, then, both female characters are eventually caught in their own web of transgressions – in other words, why must the female rake fall? While it is true that each writer’s female protagonists do suffer consequences as a result of their “licentious” behavior, I’d like to suggest that this is not an ultimate condemnation or denunciation of desiring women, but rather another key avenue in underscoring hypocritical gendered codes of conduct, as well as a necessary literary stratagem to enable their work to be published and circulated in the print marketplace. Both Haywood and Behn’s characters have fleeting experiences with being able to act upon their sexual desires, as within their society, the “wanton” sexual desire of the woman was seen as necessarily needing containment and eventual restriction in order to uphold the moral principles of Early Modern culture. Yet, Behn and Haywood handle this obligatory entrenchment of their characters back into the reality of female expectations in subtly ingenious ways: for instance, Miranda is guilty of countless morally reprehensible acts, but is not imprisoned or put to death like the males involved, and gets to live the rest of her life in relative comfort and leisure in Holland. As libertine men were rarely denounced or punished for their wrongdoings, free to act however they pleased, the conclusion to “The Fair Jilt” delivers its protagonist a realistic, didactic end, but doesn’t make her suffer anything too severe or extreme, allowing Miranda to perhaps retain a sense of the liberation enjoyed by innumerable male libertines. Haywood’s ending is not quite as forgiving: Fantomina ultimately gets pregnant, goes into labor publicly, and is sent to spend the rest of her days in a convent.

This ending could be read as a moralizing conclusion of Fantomina’s lewdness, but could alternatively be interpreted as a biting, stark depiction of the circumstances and reality of the female rake, whose biological make-up and societal expectations of innocence and decency made it nearly impossible for her to get away with the kinds of sensuous folly men could heedlessly enjoy and indulge. Therefore, the necessary fall of the female rake in both Behn and Haywood’s fictions represents an endeavor for female authors to still be publishable while attempting to navigate the realm of female sexuality and taking this delicate, censured private notion into public life. While the actuality of the female rake might not be entirely plausible, her presence in literature nonetheless enabled readers to ascertain a new feminocentric perspective in literature, exposed societal gendered hypocrisies, and, in turn, allowed women “a sense of involvement in the outside world—which for all its dangers and disappointments, had great advantages over restrictive domesticity” (Bowers 62).

Ultimately, by inverting the roles of men and women in amatory fictions, both Behn and Haywood were instrumental in opening up a space in literature for the desiring female perspective to be acknowledged and signified. Rather than creating a new kind of female sensuality, however, Behn and Haywood invert the typical aggressive predator-prey structure and power dynamic of Early Modern patriarchal courtship through the “female rake” in order emphasize the craft and wit of the female individual, but dually call awareness and perhaps critique to the double standards of moral behavior expected by men and women in love. In this way, both Fantomina and Miranda embody the notion of the female rake, a characterization that touches upon the gender codes and politics of Early Modern fiction and attempts to work through the double bind of Eros that amatory fiction put young women in. As Bowers contends, the proper approach to works such as these, thus, is not to judge them by a “good” or “bad” literary standard, or whether they are worthy of the literary canon, but instead to ask “how our capacity for pleasure might be augmented by respectful engagement with works we have been trained to resist or dismiss” (70). By refusing to downplay the lustful aspects of love in both sexes, intrepidly prescribing these sensuous passions to women as well, these authors have often been scandalized, villainized, and criticized—both in the past and present. Yet, their powerful insights into the perspective of the desiring, loving female subject have helped pave the way for other female writers to describe the realistic, uncensored experience of the female in love, in lust, and in life. This leaves a powerful legacy in women’s literature and in culture, as their “bad” characters are able to find autonomy in their “nastiness,” to reclaim certain roles otherwise limited to them and subsequently empower themselves and women’s writing. Thus, much like Behn herself, these characters find power in owning their sexuality, their stereotypes, and their “masculine” parts – most prominently, the pen.

3. The Nasty Woman Of Modernity: Virginia Woolf


“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

In this final section is a turn to the Modern period, in which prolific modernist author Virginia Woolf [1882-1941] helped illuminate the farcical illusion of women’s equality in modernity and dually emphasizes the female experience within the realm of literature. In the 1920’s, while suffrage movements and the age of the “New Woman” did help progress women’s rights, and allowed women perhaps more freedoms than ever before, certain damaging patriarchal norms and ideologies remained firmly engrained in Western culture. Particularly, Woolf’s work A Room of One’s Own was a revolutionary feminist milestone, as it eloquently articulated the circumstances of the modern woman when faced with misogynistic discourse.

Like Pizan, the wording of the title of her work is particularly invocative of her forthcoming denunciation of patriarchal values and ideologies since, as literary critic Jane Goldman points out, the title “not only signifies the declaration of political and cultural space for women, private and public, but the intrusion of women into spaces previously considered the spheres of men” (75). Moreover, this “room” seems to stand as an underlying metaphor for a space, a shelter, for women’s self-expression, but also as a space in which women could cultivate their own identity, and ways of writing separate from the typical, traditional modes of the man –

which Woolf was incredibly instrumental within her fictional career, employing such methods as free indirect discourse, etc. As Goldman argues, women have had little to do with the ways in which gendered roles have been divided in society, as even the “category of women is not chosen by women” and “it represents the space in patriarchy from which women must speak and which they struggle to redefine” (78). Woolf’s chief aims as a “nasty” woman in writing A Room of One’s Own seem to be to find a voice of her own in the literary world, to advocate for women’s ingenuity and creativeness and explain women’s seemingly inferior triumphs, and to express the need for a literary language “appropriate for women to use when writing about women” in order to carve out a space for women’s expression (78). Thus, as Woolf reflects on both women’s continual oppression in both the past and present, she seems to tie together many of the ideas in the works previously discussed in this paper, while leaving lasting, powerful sentiments of her own.

Woolf ultimately argues that the vastly different and unequal circumstances and expectations of women throughout history have inhibited women’s ability to write, even if they possessed the genius to do so. Woolf dually makes a powerful point about the institutionalized patriarchal codes that are threaded throughout our society, and how gender norms hinder a woman’s ability to participate or reach her full or greatest potential. One of the most moving parts of her essay is when she speaks about how men believe that if they proclaim something, it must be so, sarcastically proclaiming, “How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare” (Woolf 46). She then ingeniously approaches this claim by discussing the idea propagated by men that women do not have the abilities to write such grand works as Shakespeare (yet mentions in previous paragraphs, too, the paradox of women’s relationship to literature, as they are represented as highly central within the text itself, yet cast aside in reality as “insignificant”), revealing the domineering patriarchal perception of male authority and control within society, and thus reflected in literature. While the more common argument of the period was that there was no real women’s literary history or wholly impressive works by women merely because of their intrinsically inferior creative capabilities, Woolf takes the contrary stance. Rather, “it would have been impossible” for women’s work to rival men’s achievements, she purports, not because they were lacking in the potential, but because they were not afforded any of the same advantages, education, etc., as women were merely expected to marry and bear children throughout history (56). To demonstrate this, she cites the lack of diverse characters women have played in the literature of men as part of the reason women have been oppressed from reaching such literary acclamation: “Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques—literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women” (62).

This exclusion of women from certain roles, particularly spheres of higher knowledge, are highlighted throughout Woolf’s work, and she skillfully interweaves the anguish and struggle women of prior periods could have felt –precisely because there is a lack of facts to rely on to build a different narrative—and stresses how these constructed codes of women’s inferiority would have been eventually internalized by women as well, damaging and oppressing even the most brilliant women throughout history. This is exemplified in her example of Shakespeare’s sister “Judith,” who she describes could have been just as talented in writing as Shakespeare, yet because she was a woman, never could have reached the acclaim of her brother and thus died in obscurity. Judith stands for the “silenced woman writer or artist,” yet is dually “a figure who represents the possibility that there will one day be a woman writer to match the status of Shakespeare, who has come to personify literature itself” (Goldman 78). Therefore, she is the embodiment of the struggles of women’s writers in the past, but also stands as a testament to the hope for women’s writers in the future.

Woolf’s overarching, repeated solution to rebutting the patriarchal codes of her society is through women’s education, specifically through literature. She describes the infuriating persistence of men to keep education out of women’s reach, explaining, “Possibly, when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price” (33). She rebuts this sexist monopoly on knowledge by declaring emphatically the right for all human beings to learn, to read, to write, and to create—as these things are fundamental and individual entirely to the human experience. “Literature is open to everybody,” she declares, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (28). Woolf believed that education was the key tool to success—so long as women were so staunchly denied this, as her fictional character was denied entry into Oxbridge’s library in the text, so long would women be held back from their greatest achievements.

Woolf herself was exactly the educated, fierce, intelligent, and wealthy woman that misogynists feared most, precisely because she had her own means and her own wits, thus taking these stereotypes of women who protest men as being “bad women” and using them to empower women’s voices. Once a woman is educated, she believed, she must have then certain basic tools in order to thrive: “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (21). Woolf’s claims emphasize how women were routinely bound to the inferiority prescribed to them by men precisely because they had little opportunity or authority to challenge or rectify their situations, in which they were typically legally and financially obliged to their husbands or fathers, and thus denied such basic freedoms. These revolutionary assertions by Woolf ultimately recast the accomplishments of women in a more frank, yet more positive light, as it called attention to the notion that women had been confined in their intellect, and thus, in their potential, and consequently by no fault of their own were limited in the scope and quality of their success. Woolf proves with her own work of fiction, A Room of One’s Own, that women could write with stunning eloquence and adroitness, thus adding her voice to these other “nasty” women that have contested this misogynistic culture in society, (re)claiming a space and a language for women in literary culture, and assisting in redefining and building women’s literary tradition.

4. Conclusions: Time’s Up, Misogyny

“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson

Ultimately, the primary question remains: how do we as advocates of and for women fight misogyny in the “Trump and Weinstein” era, a period in which misogyny seems to be becoming more normalized and circulated by powerful men than objected to and denied? By looking at these texts, I believe that the common thread of thought among all these equally “nasty” women is that women’s most powerful weapon against misogyny is language, and how she can use it to her advantage. This skillful use of language to counter misogynistic attacks, to reclaim men’s slurs against women into powerful agents, or by redefining the very social mores and codes that limit our potentials and abilities comes from necessarily educating women. Educating people delivers them from the servitude of ignorance and engenders progress, allowing them to perceive the world in new ways and empathize with one another, while literature specifically allows one to put their mind in relation with and to another human beings’. Thus, women’s ability to tell and write their stories, to voice their opinions and beliefs in logical and articulate ways, to renegotiate the gender contracts of our culture and to enter into these conversations with men who attempt to silence and belittle women into submission requires that women have a working knowledge of the rhetoric that confines them. Through the written word, through creation, through imagination, through oratory storytelling, etc. women can pave new pathways and ideologies to further advance women’s literature and women’s equality.

Each of the texts explored in this paper—the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, The Book of the City of Ladies, “The Introduction,” “Preface to “The Lucky Chance,” “The Fair Jilt,” Fantomina, and A Room of One’s Own –directly internalize, reinterpret, and then interact with language and formulate responses to misogynistic literature, stereotypes, and expectations, creating a powerful conglomeration of women’s voices each using similar, though often different and profoundly unique, techniques to achieve the same ends – that is, reclaiming women’s agency, reappropriating defamatory and maliciously intended labels to be emboldening and enlightening, and redefining women’s history and women’s place in literary culture. By continuing to educate women, we can provide them the creativity and the ability to imagine new truths for themselves, new realities, and new ways of defending themselves through the very rhetoric that attempts to imprison them. Thus, women can fashion new opportunities for themselves, along with new visions of better and more egalitarian lives. In this way, we can hopefully prompt a culture of tolerance and equality rather than a culture that validates the oppression of women’s voices, that hates, shames, violates, and harms women, and that turns a blind eye to the struggles of countless women around the world. As Oprah Winfrey exquisitely put it in her 2018 speech at the Golden Globes while discussing the “#TimesUp” movement, “I want all of the girls… to know, that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women… fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” Therefore, by educating women—and all people—about how to define misogyny, how to identify it, and how to not only cope with but actively combat it, the “nasty” women of contemporary culture can continue to wear this name proudly, as they will triumph over the imposing male intimidators that threaten to drown them out.

Did you hear that, misogyny?

Looks like your time is just about up.  


PDF Version



Behn, Aphra. “The Fair Jilt.” Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. Edited by Janet Maclean Todd, Penguin, 2003, pp. 27-71.

Behn, Aphra “The Lucky Chance, or, The Alderman’s Bargain.” Edited by Fidelis Morgan. Methuen in association with the Royal Court Theatre London, 1984.

Bloch, R. Howard. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations, vol. 20, 1987, pp. 1–24.

Bowers, Toni O’Shaughnessy. “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility: Amatory Fiction from the Restoration to Mid- Century.” The Columbia History of the British Novel. Edited by John Richetti. Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 50-72.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Chaucer: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation.” Edited by L.D. Benson, 8 Apr. 2008, https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/wbt-par.htm. Accessed 26 Nov 2017.

Finch, Anne, Countess of Winchilsea. “The Introduction.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50564/the-introduction. Accessed 2 June 2018.

Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze.” Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Edited by Paula Backschider and John Richetti, 1996, pp. 42-50.  

Lozada, Carlos. “How to Define, Survive and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era,” The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/12/01/how-to-define-survive-and-fight-misogyny-in-the-trump-and-weinstein-era/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ffd537a9c0fe. Accessed 2 June 2018.

McTaggart, Anne. “What Women Want? Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 19, 2012, pp. 41-67.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 26 September 2017.

De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, Foreword by Marina Warner. Persea Books, 1982.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. “Medieval Feminist Criticism.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Goldman, Jane. “The Feminist Criticism of Virginia Woolf.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Seller, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Treharne, Elaine. “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.” Essays and Studies, 2002: Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker. D. S. Brewer, 2002, pp. 93-115.

Woolf, Virginia. Women & Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. Published for the Shakespeare Head Press by Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

The House Settling: Race, Housing, and Wealth in the Post-Recession Horror Film

By Juan Valencia

I. The Psychoanalysis of Colorblindness

Beginning in 2009, horror films underwent a major thematic shift with the popularization of the “haunted house” subgenre. These new films attracted American audiences very much familiar with the threat of home loss. Around the time of the 2009 wide release of Paranormal Activity, at least 6.9 million American households with subprime loans faced impossible-to-pay charges. Approximately 2 million households were projected to be lost, the numbers increasing each year thereafter (Ernst & Goldstein 273). The instability of homeownership was horrifyingly palpable, and on the screen, these fears were projected with an unsettling familiarity. In the haunted house film, typically white, perceptively middle-class couples and families live comfortably in their affluent, pristine suburban homes. Such stability is soon threatened by a demonic entity which seeks to rob them of their peace, or, often, a family member. The wife and sons are typically the main targets. The mass appeal of the subgenre in America experiences a boom after the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, which soon evolved into the historic Great Recession. The Blumhouse film production company took the lead on the reproduction of this subgenre, releasing 16 haunted house films between 2009 and 2016, many becoming significant box office successes. The Paranormal Activity (2009-2015) and Insidious (2010-present) franchises raked most of the revenue.

The horror film’s adaptability to this nationwide crisis makes it a reactionary genre: writers and directors perceive what people fear, and work to embody that fear into the celluloid. Horror films about the loss of the home seem a logical result of the nationwide crisis regarding housing. The very nature of this anxiety about the house however, raises many questions as to what affective responses this horror subgenre incites in its audiences. As Robin Wood writes in “the American Nightmare,” the horror genre is “the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror” (75t). The social machination of repression, which is to restrain and hide desires and fears in the unconscious, is a process that the horror film labors to undo. What repressed anxieties and fears, then, are embedded in the American collective unconscious regarding the threat to the house being portrayed in these films?

Borrowing from Wood, I go beyond the surface-level of a reactionary reading regarding the haunted house subgenre as a simple iteration of the subprime mortgage crisis. Instead, I argue that taking the elements of the subgenre and analyzing them against the backdrop of U.S. housing history and legislation reveals the deep-rooted racism, classism and narratives of segregation and redlining embedded in the symbol of the house. Demonic presences in these films always appear as disrupting home comfort and stability, and are always represented as black, looming figures. Demons are thus affectively-charged iterations of a threat to the American home. Based on this, I assert that the true horrific subject matter explored in these films is that of contemporary American, fear-imbued colorist divisions around housing. This will be a symptomatic reading of the subgenre’s components as telling revelations of something much more monstrous lurking beneath the surface. As David Cronenberg states, horror filmmakers undergo the process of reaching into the “dark pool of the unconscious” to see the reemergence of a repressed monstrosity (Cherry 98). His description is an especially salient one when it comes to the analysis of the American haunted house films I will be undertaking, in which this “darkness” becomes all too literal.

To demonstrate the complex relationship between anxiety, desire, fear, race, and housing in America, I turn to concepts of colorblindness and the discipline of psychoanalysis. Colorblindness, defined by Richard Bonilla-Silva, is a contemporary cultural understanding in which “most whites assert ‘they don’t see any color, just people’; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances” (1). I therefore oppose this “colorblindness,” which in relation to the haunted house subgenre, is an assertion of blindness to the deeply racist history of discrimination, segregation and racist language involved in the very construction of the American home. In other words, I seek to undo Oliver and Shapiro’s perception that “class perspectives usually wash away any reference to race” (37). In my analysis, class and wealth are the most revealing factors that point to lingering racial inequality. If the “house with the white picket fence” is evocative of the American dream, the foundation upon which it is built is evocative of a true “American nightmare.” If we understand that “racial considerations shade almost everything in America (Bonilla-Silva 1), and that this shading is repressed, hidden, or ghost-like, we must look towards a non-colorblind language that allows us to unveil these American ghosts present in history and in the mind of every citizen, whether acknowledged or not.

I also turn to psychoanalysis and affect studies to describe the racial feelings motivating the political forces of discrimination. Psychoanalysis will be important to understanding how American history and legislation are embedded with symptoms of fear and anxiety, as critic Paula Ioanide claims that “the terrain of politics depends primarily on triggering and shaping affectively charged beliefs” (180). The horror genre itself, like Ioanide’s analysis of politics, also operates in evocations of affect, particularly those of fear and terror. Frantz Fanon’s own formulations on blackness as a “phobogenic object” that produces anxiety around the concept of whiteness (129-130) will prove useful in approaching the affect found in racialized housing legislation. I argue that racist beliefs constructed by redlining and moral panic regarding the home portray blackness as a monstrous threat to white homeownership, and by extent, stability, and comfort

Throughout this argument, I analyze the highest-grossing and most critically well-received Blumhouse haunted house films from 2009 to 2014: Paranormal Activity (2009), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Insidious (2011), Sinister (2012), and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014). Having raked in the most revenue and having had the most positive reception among audiences and critics, these films are an accurate sampling of the major exposures of haunted house film conventions America had during this time. Section 1, “This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film,” analyzes the concepts of homecoming, wealth, and property, which are in full display in the setup of these films, and their relation to white racial identity. Section 2, “A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House,” concerns the racist formulations around housing, such as redlining, moral panic, and subprime mortgage, in relation to the demonic forces threatening white stability in the films, also paying attention to actual, racist depictions of minorities in the genre. Section 3, “It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity,” explores the symbolic meaning of women and children in these films, both in terms of the reproduction and transferring of wealth, as well as affective symbols that construct white innocence. I will also look at the relationship between the victims and the attackers as an evocation of a monstrous, racial blackness and its threatening force against the idealized suburban, white home space. The fourth and final section, “Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror,” turns to more recent horror films and their attempts to stray away from the formulaic haunted house film. These films contain a much more subversive take on cultural fears and anxieties based on the house, and prove horror film’s prowess as a critical force. They pose the question: What would it mean to depict whiteness as the true American monster?

This analysis is important in questioning the problematic notion that race and fear are intrinsically tied, in even the most quotidian aspects of our lives. By coming to understand the source of these fears, we can also come to understand how the dichotomy of good vs. evil, in the American sense, is only another iteration of the oppressive structures of racism.

II. This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film

The revamped reproduction of the haunted house subgenre in the late 2000’s is best illustrated, thematically, as a retreat into the home, away from the outside. Previously, the horror film genre privileged the reproduction of “torture porn,” dominant during the earlier half of the decade. Films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and the Devil’s Rejects (2005) were often seen as a reactionary genre in the wake of 9/11, dealing with subjects relating to public sphere. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas observes, the genre shifted, beginning with the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009, away from films “linked to post-9/11 America and the supposed ‘War on Terror’” (130). If what scared us during the early 2000’s was international conflict, terrorism, and war, as represented in torture porn through hyperviolence and foreign villains, the beginning of the massive reproduction of fears imbued in the home space in the later part of the decade is telling of the calamitous social and emotional impact the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the subsequent economic recession had on the American public. Film audience and production trends alone reflect this massive shift. Before, American haunted house films received rather sporadic releases, with the Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) being the only ones matching the late 2000s films in terms of financial success, and 1999’s remake of the Haunting, although financially successful, is more infamous now for being critically panned. Post-2009, however, haunted house films became the norm in the United States, and among the best-reviewed horror films ever.

The popularized conception of anxiety over the home space through the haunted house film is telling of the massive amount of economic, social, and emotional investment that the U.S. has historically placed on homeownership and the conception of the American dream. Issues around the home space are as emotionally potent as those of terrorism and war, as American horror film audiences are telling of. Analyzing the American history of homeownership reveals that a threat to the house, as the Subprime Mortgage Crisis was, for the American public means a threat to the very essence of American identity. We must examine, however, how this value of the home in turn displays an exclusively middle-class, white, heteronormative American identity, and how these anxieties affectively resonate with an American identity fixated on consumer goods, wealth, and property to an obsessive degree.

Homecoming, and by extension the concept of homeownership, is always expressed in the opening sequence of the post-recession haunted house film. These opening sequences right away stress the importance which the house represents for our main characters. Paranormal Activity (dir. Oren Peli, 2009) is a film centered on a white, perceptively middle-class couple experiencing increasingly violent supernatural attacks in their suburban San Diego home. Before such paranormal attacks take place, however, the film opens with the tranquil setting of the suburbs in full view. It begins from the perspective of the male character Micah filming his girlfriend Katie returning home from school.  His handheld camera captures her pulling into the driveway, lingering on a shot of her convertible, the sparse garage, and the identical suburban houses briefly seen in the distance as Micah utters, “Hey, baby.” He holds the door open for her, in turn welcoming us, the audience, home as well. After our brief glimpse of the surrounding outside space, Micah shuts the door as Katie questions him about his new camera. This small, two-second glimpse of the surrounding suburbs, as well as a brief scene taking place in their backyard later in the film, are all we ever see of the outside world for the film’s duration. The audience is thus invited home, and simultaneously isolated within the four walls where all the film’s action takes place. The welcoming of the haunted house film is an obsessive lingering in the home space, central to all escalating action and dramatization. Nothing else is offered but the thrill of being welcomed home, where one is to stay put.

Paranormal Activity 2 (dir. Tod Williams, 2010) opens in a similar fashion with another homecoming. This sequel, released a year later, deals with a similar premise, this time with the same demonic presence haunting Katie’s sister, Kristi. The action is only moved a few miles away from the first film, to Carlsbad, CA. The similarities in setting and opening premise are at once striking, and telling of the haunted house film’s formulaic obsession over isolating its characters in the home space. As the film opens, Ali, the daughter of Kristi’s husband, Daniel, is recording her front yard as she sees her parents pulling onto their street. She exclaims, “Welcome home, Hunter. This is your house!” as her parents return from the hospital with her newborn baby brother. Ali then turns the camera to reveal a beautiful, suburban two-story house, a towering wooden front door highlighting this homecoming as we get a view of the colorful plants and neat, trimmed lawn that surround the property. Much like the previous installment, this is the primary glimpse of the outside world that the audience receives, aside from later, fenced-in backyard scenes. Kristi’s family, as the idyllic white, middle-class, traditional nuclear family, thus becomes the central American identity which is to remain comfortably positioned within the house.

The tranquility and neatness of suburbia becomes our permanent setting. The tone of these films evolves into an obsessive treatment of white, middle-class suburbia. As we retreat into the house, we are isolated in a world entirely made up of property and consumer goods. This seclusion limits our view, and constructs the perception that affluent, pristine suburbia is an exclusive world, isolated to only the white, heteronormative couples and families we see in these films. What the films begin to represent, then, is not a national housing crisis sprawling across all American identities. It is instead the idea that the suburban world which will, as the film progresses, be put at risk from outside forces, is an exclusively white, middle class world.

Insidious (dir. James Wan, 2010) and Sinister (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2012) also open with homecomings, as they both introduce us to two new white, middle-class families moving into their new homes. This representation of homecoming is different from those in the Paranormal Activity series in that it evokes of homeownership much more strongly. Whereas the previously discussed films merely show us family members returning home, these films portray the actual arrival and experience of beginning to own a home, and thus obtaining its wealth and benefits. In Insidious, the familiar story of a family being attacked by a demon attempting to steal the eldest son, begins with harmonious shots of the central family, the Lamberts, performing morning rituals in their new home. Move-in boxes are scattered throughout the house as the wife, Renai, briefly occupies herself with the unpacking of her personal belongings, longingly handling and sifting through them, before directing herself to the kitchen to make breakfast. We vicariously experience, along with Renai, the thrill of settling into a new space. It is useful to imagine the audiences, among them thousands if not millions who had recently experienced the loss of their home, being fed this idyllic iteration of comfortable homeownership to a fascinating, deeply emotional result. It is also of interest to point out that both Insidious and Sinister show the family moving into a new house not once, but twice, as both families in these films flee to a new home after the first one displays paranormal activity. To be shown a move-in twice in the same running time is telling of the excessive extent to which homeownership is languidly portrayed. The haunted house subgenre thus feeds us a romanticized homecoming that evokes American suburban pleasures and security, while ominously promising its audiences to disrupt it in later scenes.

Why would audiences pour into theaters by the millions to spectate this romantic portrayal of homeownership and the threat to it during a nationwide housing crisis? Do American audiences, in their compulsive drive to witness the pleasure and anxiety of homecoming in the haunted house film, reveal their own emotional and historical investment in what the house represents nationwide: wealth, whiteness, and citizenship, and a simultaneous, ever-present threat to them? As Christine Herbes-Sommers’ historical documentary, The House We Live In, explains, the American fixation on the home is decades old and directly tied to economic and racial identity. The homecoming of soldiers after World War II and the consequent high demand for housing called for the construction of new neighborhoods as veterans took advantage of the opportunities provided by the newly enacted G.I. Bill. One of the many benefits which army veterans enjoyed was low-cost mortgages. The Federal Housing Administration’s introduction of mortgage loans simultaneously provided more affordable housing at lower rates. All these elements aided in the construction of suburbia as the emblem of American opportunity. It was now possible for the “average American” to afford housing. As the documentary states, beginning with this legislative shift, “the American dream had a new name: suburbia.” The goal for American prosperity was now to take advantage of this homeownership opportunity. Historically, the cultural importance of the house thus begins to take on the meanings of comfort, opportunity, and above all, wealth. However, also implicated in this cultural shift towards the house as a sacred space was the idea of race: that indeed, housing was the principal way in which wealth and property all became concentrated within white America, as the opportunity of owning a home at low rates was exclusively extended to whites.

Thus, the portrayal of the obsessive, isolative homecoming that the haunted house film shows is only an iteration of this historical isolation of the house as a white, middle-class American concept. A catastrophic event for housing such as the subprime mortgage crisis, as embodied by the demonic hauntings which the disrupt the home in the haunted house film, is thus a horrific attack on the American dream, which soon descends into a nightmare. This disruption of American stability is exclusively constructed as a disruption of middle-class white identity.

Primarily, the representation of a house larger than life in these films breathes even further meaning and emotional investment to the concept of the home. Like the very notion of the American dream being synonymous with the house as an owned object, these films make a point to show that wall after wall, room after room, the house is embedded with symbols of wealth. This is evident in Paranormal Activity and its sequel in their use of the “property porn” aesthetic. “Property porn” is defined by James D. Stone’s own analysis of the two films as “images that advertise desirable homes—viewed online, on TV, or in real estate flyers,” and more specifically in reality shows featuring properties for prospective buyers, that result in a fetishized portrayal of property and consumer goods (54). The use of this aesthetic makes it obvious that the primary concept endangered by the demons’ disturbances in these films is that of capitalist wealth.

Paranormal Activity starts with the question of wealth and value itself. As Katie notices Micah using a new camera, she asks, “how much did this cost you?” bringing economic concern to the forefront of the opening sequence. Later, when a spiritual consultant, Dr. Fredrichs, arrives at their home as Katie looks for answers on how to get rid of the demonic entity, the evident use of “property porn” comes into full play. As they walk through the house, the walkthrough and display of the property is one suggestive of American solvency. Even Dr. Fredrichs claims, “I never hesitate when someone says, ‘will you come to San Diego?’” noting the idyllic comfort which the home’s very geography represents.

As Katie and Micah walk Dr. Fredrichs through the house to show him where the paranormal activity has taken place, the sequence is unnervingly reminiscent of a real estate walkthrough. Their first destination, the living room, shows neat, leather furniture, the cheetah print rugs lying on the wooden floors and the zebra-print cushions on the couches, a wooden coffee table, and a large flat-screen TV at the forefront of the area. As they go on to explain happenings around the house, in each room we take in in full detail the plethora of decorations. Beyond the living room there is a big, imposing bookshelf stacked with material and Micah’s own work station consisting of a double-monitor set up. As we go into the kitchen, we get a shot of a large, stainless steel fridge, and the kitchen’s very own built-in counter. Katie then takes us to her bedroom, where we see their large, king-size bed crowned with an ornate headboard and two bedside tables, looking towards a window lined with wine-colored curtains. The bedroom has its very own bathroom, complete with shower (masked with equally ornate shower curtains) and a double sink. Katie then takes us down the hallway across her bedroom to two other guest bedrooms which we never even get into, suggesting that there’s even more property to explore, but we are cut short due to lack of time. Micah longingly records everything, showing us detail by detail the entire makeup of his wealth. This use of property porn essentially expands the house in terms of meaning and devotion. It is no longer a simple setting where the film’s action takes place, but rather a world of excess of commodities and an emblem of conspicuous consumption.

Paranormal Activity 2 takes this a step further by giving us a literal rundown of the house as Ali and then Daniel record the house for their new family member, Hunter, to see once he grows up. We begin outside, being shown the large, two-story façade of the exterior of the house. As we move in, we see the wooden floors, the decorations lining the walls and the many coffee tables spread across the house. The kitchen, with its own built-in island, has a stacker of pots and pans raining down from the ceiling, the walls lined with towering kitchen cabinets and cupboards as the front leads to the living room, with yet another ridiculously large flat-screen TV (Daniel even takes a pause to describe this as his “fifty-inch monster”). Next to the kitchen, we see a glass sliding door leading to the backyard, where a pool, with its own jacuzzi built in to the side, rests with clean, chlorine water. As we go upstairs through the carpeted staircase, we are shown the bedrooms, one for Kristi and Daniel, complete with vanity dressers and another king-size bed. We then go to Ali’s room, with its own built-in bathroom, and finally, Hunter’s room, lined with new toys and decorations and an antique crib in the center. This extensive camera work devoted to present property in its full, affluent glory in both films is reflective of the obsession our main characters have with the hoarding and documentation of wealth which, as described before, is an iteration of the long white American history of wealth and property. The world which our characters inhabit is a fully consumptive, decadent one. Their introduction in the film cannot be done without the introduction of the property which comes to define them.

We understand that within these homes is imbued the very concept of wealth, a concept which Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro define as “the command over financial resources that a family has accumulated over its lifetime along with those resources that have been inherited across generations” (2). We begin to question the fact that Micah, a day trader, and Katie, a college English major, have been able to easily gather wealth and property, and we must question where such wealth comes from. Their incongruent youth and affluence is perhaps evocative of the racial privilege which easier loan systems and extensions of opportunity have historically granted young whites (Oliver & Shapiro 105). Even simpler still, however, the film might just be demanding us to realize that they own such a large, wealthy home simply because it “clicks” with their middle-class, white identity. Indeed, their youth evokes the feeling that opportunity and wealth are easily available to everyone, even day traders and college students. However, we cannot shake the fact that, historically, they represent epitomic benefactors of the wealth which America generates and grants only to whites.

Daniel, a fast food corporate manager and Kristi, a stay-at-home mom, possess an even larger amount of wealth, reflected by their larger home and their backyard pool, due to their higher standing in the corporate ladder. Again, this is evocative of the exclusivity of their privilege. That they live in comfort, isolated and unbothered, is to say that they live basking in the long American history constructed to benefit middle-class whites. Thus, the house inhabitants become synonymous with their houses because the audience understands that whatever may begin to threaten the house will not only damage them, but also the property that they have so painstakingly shown us in detail. The hoarding of wealth, kept within the same family across generations, is anxiously and viciously guarded by the homeowners to maintain the inhabitants’ privileged comfort.

While Stone is right to point out the abundance of the “property porn” aesthetic present in these films, his visualization of wealth in the haunted house is not complete, for he ignores that the house not only symbolizes wealth, but also produces it within its walls. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the purchase of a home has now become the primary mechanism for generating wealth” (41) due to its ability to increase in market value and provide geographic advantages in regards to where labor is located. Historically, “taxation policy, for example, provided greater tax savings for businesses relocating to the suburbs than those who stayed and made capital improvements to plants in central city locations” (Oliver & Shapiro 40). Suburbia in the United States has meant not only the symbol of wealth and stability but also its producer, a concept which these films take head-on as they construct the home as a microcosm which neatly encapsulates both wealth and labor production.

Perhaps an even stronger bond between American audiences and these films emerges because the home space encompasses not only comfort and material possessions, but also the stability of a well-paying job. In most of these films, wage-labor is performed in the house. As discussed previously, Micah works as a day trader and the home includes his office set-up. The evocations of wealth and consumerism are salient in the setting: Micah is surrounded by a flat-screen TV, leather couches, wooden floors, and innovative technology. At the center of the house is his office set-up from which all this wealth emanates.

Renai, the mother from Insidious, is an aspiring musician who works on her music from home while caring for her three children. We see her at work in front of a piano and abruptly distracted from her task to check on her children. Her job, although creative and unconventional, is challenged by increasing childcare demands. When her son Dalton seems to fall into a coma, an entire hospital set-up is placed in his room. Renai must learn to check his blood pressure and administer his injections in addition to her other motherly and professional duties. Imbued from wall to wall is the devotion to labor production at a frenetic pace, as embodied by Renai’s constant undertaking of different labors, sometimes all at once. The home represents a center within which this frenetic representation of laborious duties flourishes.

In Sinister, the protagonist Ellison Oswalt, the father and head of the household, also labors behind closed doors. As a true-crime novelist who works from a home office, within which a major part of the film takes place. we see the home as a sacred place of labor. Ellison’s entire endeavor is to finish his latest novel, one that he repeatedly claims will bring his family unlimited riches. Unbeknownst to his family, the novel he’s writing concerns a series of murders that have taken place in their new home. His daughter, Ashley’s initial concerns, however, are with the new home itself, claiming that she will miss her old school. Ellison simply replies, “If we don’t like it here, once I sell my book we’ll move back.” The importance of Ellison’s labor is deeply imbued in the ability to obtain property: the labor produced in the house is the same that makes the obtainment of the house (and future ones) possible. We see that the home not only embodies and contains wealth, but also produces it within its walls through enclosed labor. The inside of the house expands not only as a center of American property and consumption, but also the labor which upholds it. Ellison even recites various monologues throughout the film concerning how rich the family will be once he finishes his novel, and how they’ll be able to live anywhere they want.

At this point, one cannot examine all the American values of homeownership and wealth implied in these films and ignore the racial implications behind them. The exclusion of ethnic minorities as homeowners in these films is particularly telling since, as discussed previously, the iteration of homeownership in the films, and by extension, in American legislation, is a racially exclusive one. The “property porn” aesthetic, stable employment and wealth as encapsulated neatly within the homes in these films constructs the issue of homeownership and all its benefits as a strictly white endeavor. The historical context of housing legislation is key to understanding how the haunted house merely reasserts what has already been embedded into the collective conscious of American society as to who can own a home. As the House We Live In documents the legislative procedures through which homeownership becomes the primary concentration of American wealth, the documentary also details that, to put it simply, “whiteness means living in the suburbs,” and thus the very concept of racial whiteness grows to be synonymous, equal to, exclusive to, the ownership of a home.

Racist legislation, from redlining to white flight, which I explore in the next section, demonstrate that in the realm of housing, white families are favored and the same access is denied to people of color. We see that the demon that invades the house in these films embodies not only the disruption of homeownership due to the subprime mortgage crisis, but also a white, middle-class anxiety about white dominance of wealth and property being threatened by outside forces that are represented as nonwhite and non-middle class.

III. A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House

The American home, as constructed in the popular haunted house films primarily from 2009 to 2014, is the center of middle-class American labor, security, prosperity, and life. The demonic entity that haunts the house however, is of equal importance, for it disrupts desirable comfort and stability. These “boogeymen” enter the house and desecrate, one could say, the very symbol of the American dream. They often break things, thrash rooms, and turn home life into a nightmare before revealing their more “insidious” agenda. Often, they attempt to take away a family member or simply kill everyone in their way. What then, is the cultural resonance of these beings in contemporary American culture? If the home is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and dreaming, what is at the flipside, excluded and marginalized? To answer this, we must again turn to the history of housing legislation in the U.S., and more specifically, what or who it leaves out and how, and which concepts America has deemed as the threat to the production of wealth that the films so religiously celebrate.

First, we must observe how the demons’ arrivals are always portrayed as antagonizing the safety and structure of the house. While the family members are always welcomed, in the same way white, middle-class American audiences are invited relish in the film’s display of wealth and property, the demon always enacts a forceful break-in that provokes white, middle-class, and suburban “moral panic.” Stuart Hall defines moral panic as “[coming] into play when this deep-structure of anxiety and traditionalism,” that is, the same traditionalism and anxiety built around the conservation of suburban tranquility, “connects with the public definition of crime by the media, and is mobilized” (165). This mobilization of moral panic, which Hall also argues is deeply embedded in class and racial divisions, is precisely the same intrusion enacted by the demon’s arrival in these films.

In Insidious, the demon’s break-in is literalized. As the Lamberts sleep peacefully at night, the security alarm goes off. Josh, the father, runs downstairs to find the front door broken open. He runs back upstairs to warn his wife and children to stay put and lock themselves in the baby’s room. The demonic haunting is correlated with the threat of a criminal break-in, of an outsider intruding into the home space, threatening to rob, or harm its inhabitants. What we come to understand is that although demonic haunting is the thing of fantasy, in the haunted house film it is grounded in moral panic and real anxieties over protecting the home.

Moral panic is explored further in Paranormal Activity 2, where everyone in the house is impacted by the demon’s initial attack and the damage that it has caused to their property. Daniel, the father, walks through the house as he documents with his camera every single transgression that has occurred against his material goods for insurance reasons. The tour lets the audience see the violence that has desecrated what at first had been longingly and obsessively introduced to us through the “property porn” aesthetic: broken glasses and cups, overturned furniture, clutter from the tables and cabinets now lining the floors. As we move into the bedrooms, we see ransacked drawers, thrashed beds, torn bedsheets, toppled dressers, flung clothes all over the room, unhinged paintings, and torn portraits. Despite the violent and intrusive assault, Daniel is most relieved to learn, “The watches are still here.” He then turns to his wife Kristi and says, “All your diamonds are here.”  What the family seems most concerned with is the threat to their wealth and status symbols. The invasive force has attacked family’s wealth accumulated within and through their house. We instantly realize that the demonic presence symbolizes a facet of “anti-wealth,” seeking destroy or undo symbols of affluence embedded in American capitalist culture.

The film incites the audience to wonder: who would do something like this? Legislation about exclusion and segregation enable us to examine what is perceived to threaten the stability of suburban space. “Moral panic” is also useful in helping us to understand the divisions drawn by these break-ins. This division is precisely one racial in nature, as the protection of wealth and property is synonymous with the protection of white symbols of status and affluence. The wealth of the families, as mentioned previously, is encoded in their race: wealth gathered through privileges and legislations made to advantage whites. What threatens them, then, must be figured as the exact opposite, class-wise and racially speaking. These configurations of race, although only symbolized by moral panic, are also often literalized in colorist terms.

These white families, when made uncomfortable by an otherworldly presence, often highlight the horror-based colorism that divides them from this demonic entity. Even in literal terms, monstrous blackness is present in the films, given that horror antagonists are always presented as “black,” described as “dark” or “shadowy” demons. Even the figurations of racial difference are present, encoded either symbolically or literally. For example, the demon that haunts the entire Paranormal Activity franchise is, in Katie’s own words, “a shadowy figure,” a black mass of ethereal goop lurking through the corners of the house. Even more is that in the franchise’s third installment, its name is revealed to be Toby. Evocative, perhaps, of Kunta Kinte from Roots, the allusion to black representation in American popular culture is evident through the demon’s blackness and the popular resonance of its name. “Blackness” is exclusively represented as monstrous within the haunted house, and indicates tensions in racial relations in these films which fully formulate historical racial divisions around housing.

The symbol of the tall, looming black figure is also evoked through the speechless, purely evil entity of Buhguul in Sinister. The framing of this entity is further evocative of moral panic: outside in Ellison’s backyard, Buhguul stands menacingly in the distance, a suggestion of impending crime or violence to be perpetrated by the “menacing black figure.” These symbols of “blackness” as dangerous and threatening to white wealth and labor are easily recognizable, for, as Hall states, they are popular media evocations of what the crime that threatens traditional stability looks like (165). This is not to claim that “light vs. dark” is a new form of antagonism created in this subgenre of films. However, in terms of wealth and the threat to that wealth in the U.S., the colorist tensions drawn by these films reflect the racialization of crime and the history of racial segregation.

I call this colorist dynamic “horror-colorism,” or the color-based tensions that these films construct through demonic presences and their broader implications regarding U.S. race and class relations. Robin Wood notes the particularly problematic nature of the representation of the monster in many horror films. He views “the presentation of the monster as totally nonhuman,” noting that “one can feel little for a mass of viscous black slime” (Wood 192). In this quote, Wood refers in part to horror’s refusal to afford human considerations as to the monster’s origins or motives. Micah, as he researches demonology to get answers as to what could be haunting their house, illustrates the difference between demons and ghosts, congruent with Wood’s evocation of the sympathy-less monster. When Katie says that the haunting presence “doesn’t feel human,” Micah replies, “Well that sounds like a demon. Ghosts are spirits of human beings. Which is bad, cause demons suck. Basically, they’re these malevolent, evil spirits that only exist to cause pain and commit evil for their own amusement.” Not only is Micah’s description of the monster in agreement with Wood’s, but Toby, the dark demon, and Wood’s viscous black slime point to the figuration of horror-colorism: that part of the monster’s lack of sympathetic evocations, besides its asymmetry and abject physicality, always ties back to its demonic black color. Horror film constructions of blackness, therefore, are popularly tied with monstrosity, and such an evocation of monstrous blackness is telling of its significance in regards to American housing: that it is outside of the human, white realm of comfort and stability which housing produces, and directly antagonizes it.

Psychoanalysis is helpful in understanding the neurotic “negrophobia” constructed in these films — the idea that blackness is the antagonistic force directly opposed to white comfort. Frantz Fanon discusses the figurations of racial otherness in relation to collective catharsis: “In every society, in every community, there exists, must exist, a channel, an outlet whereby the energy accumulated in the form of aggressiveness can be released” (Fanon 124). In his description of how this catharsis is embedded in cultural products, he argues that the figurations, authored by white men for white children, of catharsis exist as “the Wolf, the Devil, the Wicked Genie, Evil, and the Savage” which are “always represented by Blacks or Indians” (Fanon 124-125). This further gives credence to the concept of a horror-colorism as embodying racial anxieties and fears from white audiences in the form of blackness. This resonates with James Baldwin’s figurations in “Stranger in the Village,” where he comes to understand that the Swedish children that run from him in fear do so because “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach” (171). The figurations of black demonization through the racial other are, as these examples illustrate, culturally resonant across global definitions of whiteness. We come to understand Wood’s “black viscous slime” not only as a generic, nonhuman “other,” but as a very specific form of racial otherness. In the example of the haunted house, blackness is specifically pitted against the American symbol of dreaming and prosperity: the home. The lack of empathy or sympathy for such a being leads to a monstrous embodiment of racial otherness in relation to their involvement in home desecration.

Besides symbolic representations of blackness and racial otherness, when characters of color are present in these films, they embody racial stereotypes congruent with definitions of demonization. In Paranormal Activity 2, Martine, the Mexican nanny hired by the Reys to care for their new baby, embodies the mysticism and demonic power embedded in perceptions of other races. As soon as Toby makes his presence known, Martine ritualistically cleanses the house of his presence, lending an exotic understanding of the demonic forces at play. She knows how to perform ceremonial cleansings, so that when Kristi becomes possessed by Toby, Daniel goes looking for Martine and admits, “she tried to warn me but I didn’t listen.” Martine, her culture, and her otherness are presented as being in the same realm of otherworldliness as the villainous demons. Kinship seems to exist between minorities and demonic entities.

This kinship is illustrated to an even more severe degree in the Paranormal Activity spin-off, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (dir. Christopher B. Landon, 2014). The film takes place in the “barrio” of Oxnard, California, where our entirely Latino cast falls victim to the hauntings of Toby and its pawns. The main character, Jesse, becomes possessed by a demonic entity after performing a ritual inside a church. What’s curious is that the relationship between Jesse and the demon plaguing him is not so much one of horrific invasion, but one of familiarity amongst the two. The principal signs of possession that Jesse displays are levitation and superhuman strength. His friend, Hector, after witnessing such abilities, exclaims “this is fucking awesome!” and “that’s insane, Jesse!” again illustrating the familiarity between the demons and the racial others whom it visits, as their interactions always incite amazement and laughter.  When Jesse’s possession gets particularly nasty, his grandma, like Martine, knows exactly who to go to for advice and what to do to battle the demon. The familiarity between ethnic minorities and demons reduces people of color to the same level as demonic entities.

Racial otherness is also present in housing legislation and residential segregation which the films also embody through demonic and literal ethnic representations. The haunted house film comes to reflect a racist facet of American culture that has existed for decades in relation to property. It often portrays “realms” inhabited by either actual ethnic minorities or by demonic entities as entirely antithetical of the pristine, comfortable microcosm which the suburbs embody. These “anti-suburbs,” spaces entirely opposed to the idyllic representations of suburbia, are fully embedded in actual histories of American segregation. The account of the “construction of the ghetto” in its early stages, as Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton describe in American Apartheid helps us to perceive the racist forces imbued in living spaces:

As the tide of violence rose in northern cities, blacks were increasingly divided from whites by a hardening color line in employment, education and especially housing. Whites became increasingly intolerant of black neighbors […] Those blacks living away from recognized Negro areas were forced to move into expanding “black belts,” “darkytowns,” “Bronzevilles,” or “Niggertowns” […] in white eyes, black people belonged in black neighborhoods no matter what their social or economic standing; the color line grew increasingly impermeable (30).

Denton and Massey’s observations of the construction of the ghetto and the rise of northern segregation in the U.S. point to the fact that social and economic standing are always secondary to race when it comes to separatist housing actions. In other words, the very geography of housing is embedded in racist segregation, and the idea that suburbia, in its idyllic construction of housing, is always intrinsically separated from racial otherness, much like the human vs. demon separations enacted in these films.

These films also represent an unconscious manifestation of “redlining.” Redlining, which Oliver and Shapiro describe as “institutional mechanisms that help to destabilize black communities” by “making it difficult and/or expensive for homes and businesses to secure coverage” (43), is the central racist procedure through which suburban housing communities became segregated. Redlining is the practice of “rating” communities and neighborhoods based on the scale of “financial risk” or poverty which they represent, with the objective of seeing who would obtain mortgage loans and at what rates. Historically, however, racism is evident in this ranking system, for the simple fact of being a person of color was enough to devalue property, and for whiteness being favored in the system. As the House We Live In explains the process of redlining:

Those communities that were all white, suburban, and faraway from minority areas received the highest rating, and that was green, while those that were all minority or in the process of changing, those got the lowest rating, which was the color red. Most of these mortgages went to suburbanizing America, and they suburbanized it racially.

In the process of suburbanization blackness becomes “undesirable” and “anti-value.” In other words, the physical condition of a home was as much a factor of its value in the market as the racial makeup of who lived in or near it. What this does, primarily, is construct blackness as a “blight” on neighborhoods and against wealth. The proximity of blackness to one’s home signals the decrease in value and depletion of wealth.

With this information at hand, understanding the dynamic of the racially other demon vs. the house in our set of films becomes clearer. In Insidious, for example, demons emerge from the Further, “a world far beyond our own, yet it’s all around us, a place without time as we know it. It’s a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead, a place not meant for the living” (emphasis mine). The figuration of this demonic realm is the figuration of where demons ought to stay and where they belong, and their infiltration in the realm of the living (where our white characters live) is what sets in motion the film’s central disruption of the house.

When Josh travels to The Further to rescue his son, we see even further configurations of horror-colorism, this time also imbued with notions of anti-wealth: The Further is just like our own world, but darker, less glamorous, and less vibrant, and filled with vengeful entities anxious to escape and invade the world of the living. Insidious constructs a version of redlining while invoking the anxiety of a violation of borders as demons begin to pour out of the Further and invade the Lambert house. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “materially, whites and blacks constitute two nations” (3), and the Further acts as a literal embodiment of this idea. If the demon enters the house, it will inevitably disrupt wealth and labor production, because its very existence, in our understanding of race-based housing legislation, is what haunts the possibility of a decline in comfortable living. When a white homeowner in these films stands his ground, raises a crucifix, and implores, “leave my house, demon!” therefore, our understanding of this struggle is one steeped in a history of racist segregation.

Insidious and Sinister, which show us that the result of these hauntings is the white family’s attempt to flee, is evocative of the concept of white flight that, like redlining, contribute to segregation. White flight is the departure of many white families from increasingly non-white neighborhoods to ensure that their property does not suffer an unwanted decrease in value. The Lamberts and the Oswalts opt for a literal representation of this when things go awry: they pack their bags and leave. They do so in hopes that this will result in the finding of a place where darkness is not so predominant, where demons do not bleed through into their realm. Their main desire is that the stability of their comfort and wealth can flourish once more, without demonic disruptions, which illustrates the separatist nature of suburbia in terms of escaping the tightening grips of otherness.

The Marked Ones once more proves useful in understanding the racial and economic separations that come because of redlining by its evocations of the Oxnard barrio as a place completely antithetical of all iterations of suburbia previously shown in other films. Like Massey and Denton’s study of the construction of the ghetto, we see the construction of the barrio in more contemporary terms. Everything about the environment that ethnic minorities inhabit portrays anti-value and anti-wealth. Jesse’s family is unconventional in contrast to the Lamberts: his father is a working-class man who only comes home to sleep and his grandmother is often busy with household chores. Jesse lives in a small, cramped apartment that is decorated in dull beige and gray colors. His best friend Hector also states that he cannot take romantic interests home because “there’s like 50 people” residing in his home. Furthermore, Ana, the bruja that lives below Jesse’s apartment, is evicted after a mysterious murder takes place in her home. As Jesse and Hector enter the now empty apartment, we see its squalor: filth and waste lining the walls and floors, discarded litter, dust everywhere, as well as the various grotesque brujería objects: voodoo dolls, human, jars with mysterious contents. Ana’s apartment, in the heart of the Oxnard ghetto, is the antithesis of the “property porn” displayed in our other films. Like Hector cleverly formulates, “if she can travel through time why did she stay in this nasty ass apartment?”

Besides this, the film also constructs the barrio as the source of moral panic which is a constant source of white anxiety in relation to suburban stability. Two main acts of violence are seen in the first two Paranormal Activity films: the first film ends with the death of Micah, and the second begins with a break-in at the Reys’ home. In the Marked Ones, these assaults are revealed to have been perpetrated by Mexicans. The film introduces the concept of portals, which allow one to travel across great geographic and temporal distances. Hector and Jesse travel through a portal that lands them in Katie and Micah’s living room, seven years in the past in the final moments of the first Paranormal Activity, where they soon encounter the homeowners and a struggle ensues. The scene depicts Micah’s unconscious, suburban white worries as being materialized: that, indeed, minorities have broken into his home, and one of them, the possessed Jesse, is now a demonic accomplice to the now possessed Katie who then kills him. Essentially, all the troubles that plague their San Diego home are figured to have emerged from the Oxnard barrio.

In Paranormal Activity 2, we find out that the only thing that was missing after the apparent break-in at the Rey house was a box of old videotapes stored in the family’s basement. These tapes, we later discover, contain evidence of Katie’s and Kristi’s demonic hauntings from childhood. These same videotapes are one of the many things that Jesse and Hector encounter when they break into Ana’s now-abandoned apartment. We as audiences are meant to figure that Ana, or one of her possessed Mexican henchmen, were the ones who forcibly broke into the Reys’ home to disrupt their peace and steal their belongings. The film series seems bent on confirming white anxieties to a full-blown extent: that the barrio produces a monstrosity bent on transgressing against the domestic tranquility of the suburban home space.

“No other recent economic crisis better illustrates the saying ‘when America catches a cold, African Americans get pneumonia’ than the sub-prime mortgage meltdown,” Melvin Oliver writes in “Subprime as Black Catastrophe” (The American Prospect, 2008). The subprime mortgage crisis is conceded to have resulted from the “toxic and predatory loans” that plagued African-American homeownership. “Households of color were more than three times as likely as white households to end up with riskier loans with features like exploding adjustable rates, deceptive teaser rates, and balloon payments,” Oliver continues. “Good credit scores often made no difference, as profit incentives trumped sound policy.” Eventually, when the housing market collapsed, “in hindsight, many critics now describe the sub-prime mortgage crisis as the consequence of bad loans to unqualified borrowers.” Indeed, the language employed by many critics is to blame black people for being ‘irresponsible’ in their homeownership. Even popular news media outlets like CNBC often concentrated on the usage of this language of personal responsibility. Rick Santelli, CNBC editor, famously proclaimed in a fury during a news broadcast on February 19, 2009, that there should not be a break for the “losers,” and instead rewards should be given “to those who can carry the water, and not drink the water.” Santelli’s outbursts reflect a deep, yet “colorblind” resentment towards financially unstable, victimized homebuyers. The perceived “black blight” of homeownership reflects the resentment, hatred, and fear that such blackness seemingly introduces to white homeowners. “It just feels gross, knowing someone was in here,” Ali, the daughter in Paranormal Activity 2, proclaims as she observes the wreckage made in her room after the break-in. The subprime mortgage crisis, then, is synonymous with blackness in the sense that they both embody the violent transgressions against white homeownership and prosperity, as we completely forget that people of color suffered the biggest blows. “Gross,” “losers,” and “blight,” connote the overt abjection central to the racially divided housing market of the U.S. The darkness of the demons in these films is the harbinger of the racial sentiment that sprouts from housing legislature, leaving racial otherness as something undesirable and grotesque that must be done away with.

A great source of anxiety in many of these films is the idea that something dark, evil, and previously lurking below has risen to take revenge. Although the demon’s intentions in relation to the white family will be explored in the following section, it is crucial to stipulate that its homecoming is perhaps a manifestation of white audiences’ projections of their modern racial fears; “at one point, we had explicit laws that said whites are on top and blacks on the bottom,” the House We Live In states, continuing that “today we have many of the same practices without the explicit liners, and those practices are largely inscribed in geography.” The demons emerge from the Further, their own realm, and intoxicate and infect the pristine realm of white suburbia. These anxieties are partly imbued in the history of recovery from the housing crisis. Sarah Burd-Sharps and Rebecca Rasch explain that “white home equity began to recover quickly after the housing crisis stabilized, this was not the case for blacks; again, this difference likely emerges because of blacks’ disproportionate exposure to predatory loans and other deceptive mortgage schemes” (13). White recovery and black struggle represent the normative dynamic in which black homeowners are “crawling out,” emerging from their debt, and suffering the biggest blows. However, as in the films’ devotion to presenting the demons as evildoers, their “crawling out” is not an action of self-sufficiency, but rather evocative of a figuration of blackness that has gained the awareness that the housing market has transgressed against them, and perhaps now wants revenge. Thus, their violation of segregated borders reads not as an attempt towards upward mobility, but as an act of abject violence and danger.

The haunted house film thus serves as a reminder that white homeownership is not at peace, that something angry is always within its periphery, and perhaps wants revenge. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the disadvantaged status of contemporary African Americans cannot be divorced from the historical processes that undergird racial inequality. The past has a living effect on the present” (52). The past reemerging into the present, very much like ghosts do, is the enactment of a legacy that continues to haunt people of color and white wealth.

IV. It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity

The construction of “horror-colorism” within the haunted house film allows us to see clearly the economic and even psychological racial divide that still “haunts” modern American legislation regarding housing and wealth. The division between who is white and who is other in these films constructs a rigid set of roles as to who owns wealth vs. who covets wealth or seeks to destroy it, who lives comfortably vs. who disturbs that comfort, and most importantly, who is the victim and who is the villain. If whites remain at the top and blacks at the bottom, how can these films construct a narrative in which the opposite is seemingly true, with whites being the victims and blacks the oppressors?

The construction of this villain/victim dichotomy is one that is especially guided by affective responses in relation to the way white people are portrayed in the films. White women and white children are consistently the main targets of the films’ demonic entities, evocative of a patriarchal notion of fragility and innocence, and thus we must explicate what this means in terms of the construction and passing on of wealth, as well as the construction of an American white innocence and a black demonization. In short, I argue that these films allow for continuous transgressions against people of color, such as being blamed for the subprime mortgage crisis and being constructed as monstrous criminals, to remain by masking said transgressions as a facet of white innocence. What this means is that by heightening the way in which blackness in the films is made monstrous, the film leaves no choice but to consider whites to be the true victims of the various demonic transgressions depicted on the films.

Women and children in the films, and by extension, in American capitalist notions of wealth, represent not only a fragile innocence, but a reproduction and continuation of the wealth established within the haunted house. They are often depicted as mere extensions of the consumer goods and property shown in the films. A particularly telling scene from Paranormal Activity depicts this notion, in which Micah, having grown tired of the demon’s imposing powers and its effects on his comfort, and particularly its accosting of his girlfriend Katie, denounces, “Nobody comes in my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” The figuration here is clear: Micah places “my house,” and “my girlfriend,” on equal terms and as extensions of the property under his ownership. Moreover, the inflection on “fucks with my girlfriend,” while referring to the demon harassing her physically, can also be read as an allusion to the demon’s sexualized haunting of Katie. Indeed, most of the film’s haunting happens in the bedroom. Even Dr. Fredrichs, upon his visit to the house claims “Most of the activity’s in here, isn’t it?” while pointing to the couple’s bed. Micah’s anxieties over his white girlfriend (who, through the inflection of “my,” is presented as being part of his property) being “fucked with” by Toby is equally about a threat to his property as to his masculinity and patriarchal leadership. Even as Micah says that he has everything under control regarding the demonic haunting, Katie lashes out at him and insults his masculinity saying, “No, you haven’t been making progress and you’re not in control! It is in control. If you think you’re in control you’re an idiot!” The entire narrative of the film is thus a portrayal of white anxiety over who is “in control” of the house and of the woman.

The narratives of racially othered demonic possession and white masculine (re)possession of the white woman are at play here. In Micah’s articulation of Katie as his property, it follows that the demon’s attempts to possess her are attempts to both disrupt his property as well as his masculinity. The word play here suggests that possession films in this context are films of re-possession: repossessing the house, its wealth, and its inhabitants. Psychoanalytically, this resonates with white anxieties over the black man and his sexual transgressions on the white woman. Frantz Fanon offers an extremely appropriate articulation of what this “negrophobia” means at the sexual level among white men and women. As he states, everything in relation to the fear of blackness “takes place at the genital level,” as he further articulates what he figures must be the anxieties of whiteness in relation to black threat: “Apparently, they fornicate just about everywhere and at all times. They’re sexual beasts. They have so many children they’ve lost count. If we’re not careful they’ll inundate us with little mulattoes. Everything’s going to the dogs” (135). “Black” transgressions against white women in these films, thus, speak of a usurpation of the white man’s dominant stance. As Fanon explicates, this white anxiety is sexual in nature, yet his writing devotes even more importance to reproduction. The true source of Micah’s anxiety is the possibility of a miscegenation of demonic mulattoes, through the claiming of his white girlfriend by the black demon, which transgresses and poisons his idyllic, white, suburban space, and his hopes of continuing this white purity. As Fanon also explains, a black man’s desire to be with a white woman is supposed to represent a black man’s desire to be white himself (45), further asserting the idea that what Micah is truly fearing is that the black demon will grow to take his place as the white man of the house.

Women and property are also congruent in these films because women are literal reproducers of wealth. In Paranormal Activity 2 the wife, Kristi, has already produced an heir for Daniel in the form of their newborn son, Hunter. Children, like women, are an extension of the patriarchal notion of wealth because they are implicit in its transfer between family members. The female reproductive system, in this sense, can be read as another center of wealth production. As George Lipsitz explains in the Possessive Investment in Whiteness, regarding the hoarding of wealth among white families, young whites “can often rely on gifts and bequests from family members for transformative assets that help build wealth, for money that enables them to pay for an education, start a business or buy a first home” (107). In other words, the production of wealth that is emblematic of American solvency, is also paired with the equal importance of hoarding the spoils of racist legislation through the intergenerational transfer of wealth and assets. Women’s implication in this as the (re)producers of wealth, is essentially to produce this heir that will continue to uphold white wealth. This is explicitly evoked when the Reys display their property in the family video being recorded at the beginning of the film. As Ali begins the video, she explicitly says, “Welcome home, Hunter! This is your house!” (emphasis mine) before they walk through the property. Hunter, the first male born of Kristi’s side of the family, is emblematic of the continuation of the patriarchal notions of the production and transfer of wealth. As we later find, being the first male born in Kristi’s side of the family is what makes him Toby’s target, thus increasing anxiety over the endangerment of the patriarchal homeowner system. In another scene, Daniel points his camera at his large flat-screen TV, and describes it as his “fifty-inch monster,” an obvious reference to the phallus. Thus, wealth and material goods are here constructed as the patriarchal figure’s extension of his own masculinity, a doctrine which he plans to further inculcate in his son when his time comes.

In Sinister, Ellison undertakes a new writing project about the murders that occurred in the house which he has now moved into. Ellison is primarily concerned with amassing a fortune and restoring his sense of celebrity through his writing, while his wife Tracy worries about her children and the potential psychological damage the home’s previous history can have on them. Herein lies the amalgamation of white, middle class America’s most pressing concerns regarding wealth: who produces it and who is there to pass it on to. As the couple argues over what’s best for their children, they debate whether to stay in the house so that Ellison can finish his novel and make his family rich, or leave to protect their children from any harm the home’s environment could cause. Ellison urges, “Don’t you understand that writing is what gives my life meaning? These books are my legacy,” to which Tracy retorts, “Writing isn’t the meaning of your life. You and me, right here, this marriage, that’s the meaning of your life, and your legacy, that’s Ashley and Trevor [their children].” Ellison is evidently confused as to what “the meaning of his life” is: Is it the production of wealth, or those who will uphold his legacy by having his wealth transferred to them? In the machinations of how white, patriarchal notions of wealth are produced and sustained, one could say that both are correct answers, as labor, wealth and children work together to produce the cycle of white wealth. Ellison juggles producing wealth and protecting those who will sustain it, for if the production of wealth doesn’t run smoothly on both accords, the entirety of his existence as a white, middle-class male will overwhelm him.

The evocation of endangered children is one that undoes notions of the “bootstraps” mentality by showing where the real production of wealth takes place. This bootstraps mentality, as the House We Live In defines it, is the belief that wealth and success are accessible to anyone who works hard. However, this is an articulation to justify white people’s hoarding of the spoils obtained through a deeply racist system. Wealth is transferred intergenerationally and stubbornly protected. The final moments of Sinister, which show Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, being carried off by the demonic Buhguul, is evocative of this formulation of white anxiety over wealth: That this and other demons carry as their purpose the stealing of women or, in this case, the eating of children (as Buhguul is aptly subtitled “the eater of children”) is figured the same as a foreign, appropriately black entity invading and appropriating white wealth and property. The true white anxiety over wealth, therefore, is not over disruption of hard-earned property, but a disruption of the generations-old hoarding and transferring of wealth.

Having thus observed the roles women and children play in the symbolic representation of wealth, we must also observe how they are implicit in helping to protect said wealth. More specifically, I seek to define how exactly children have a hand at controlling the affective responses that audience members have when viewing these films. These haunted house films are so provocative and telling in relation to racial injustices in contemporary America, yet they are often viewed as tales about the victimization of whites at the hands of monstrous blackness. I turn, then, to the following schema that helps us understand this process by which white victimization is produced: White adults in these films opt for ignorance, which in turn produces white innocence in their children. White children, upon assimilating this white innocence, heighten the sense of black monstrosity that threatens to destroy them.

I borrow Charles Mills’ own definition of white ignorance, especially in relation to memory, as most of these films’ white protagonists enact an individual amnesia which then translates into the larger implications of a collective white amnesia. As Mills states:

“As the individual represses unhappy or embarrassing memories that may also reveal a great deal about his identity, about who he is, so in all societies, especially those structured by domination, the socially recollecting ‘we’ will be divided, and the selection will be guided by different identities, with one group suppressing precisely what another wishes to commemorate” (29).

Mills’ definition of a collective memory, in short, is a useful tool for understanding dominant power structures, so that a cause (such as racism, as he later articulates) is validated both by what we remember and what we choose to forget. In these films, then, when characters choose to forget a troublesome history, they are opting to do so out of protecting and inculcating innocence in their children.

In a particularly telling example from Insidious, to save his eldest son, Dalton, from the demonic being which threatens to devour him, Josh undertakes the task of traveling to the Further by means of astral projecting, an ability which he himself possesses due to having been victim of a similar haunting when he was young. We find out that the psychic medium helping them, Elise, has prevented Josh from knowing the truth about his ability to astral project, and therefore about the existence of the Further, where dangerous demons lurk. “I kept those photos hidden from you ever since,” she says, referring to photographic evidence that depicts a demonic entity haunting Josh. “I advised Lorraine [Josh’s mother] to hide them, to stop taking your picture, to just let you forget.” Elise explains here both that Josh’s mother was always aware of the existence of demons and that she kept Josh ignorant of this information. Lorraine is aware that there is a disturbing, demonic past that will probably reemerge and danger her son’s children, which it eventually does. However, she chooses to “just let him forget,” have Josh lead a normal life, fully aware of the negative implications this could have. Likewise, this figuration of white innocence is the same as real-life scenarios regarding the passing on wealth. To pass down comfort (which is tied to wealth and solvency) to children, is to pass down the racist doctrine of discrimination and segregation which is the wealth’s source. However, for the comfort to remain, children must be made unaware, innocent of the racial tensions that plague the origin of their wealth.

White innocence, created thus by parents’ opting to let their children “forget,” is then heighten as they make first contact with the monstrous otherness that endangers them. In all these films where children are present, they are always the first to witness, even befriend the demonic presences that later jeopardize their well-being. In Insidious, Dalton, as an astral projector, is the first to be able to travel to the Further and encounter the demons that put his soul in peril. In a scene from Paranormal Activity 2, Hunter, as he cries alone in his crib, ultimately quiets down at the sight of something off-camera, which the audience can assume is the demonic presence of Toby. In Sinister, as well, Ashley, the Oswalts’ young daughter, is the first to be able to see Buhguul and his past victims’ ghostly apparitions, and an apparent friendship is stricken. “I wanted to paint her picture,” Ashley says as she shows her parents the ghostly finger paint she’s made on the wall. The children’s contact with the demons, and by extension—since demons are a manifestation of the deep, troubled history that runs in these families—their contact with history is one which the films have carefully fabricated as an enactment of white innocence. Whereas people of color’s proximity to these demons is a heightening of the exoticizing and othering of their race, children are always portrayed as victims, being perverted, or taken advantage of. Whereas Jesse in the Marked Ones giggles and stands in awe at what his demonic possession has enabled him to do (float in midair, even give him the confidence to go pick up some girls), the children in these films do not know what they are facing, and when they find out, the films opt to portray this reckoning through a rigid predator-prey dichotomy. Children, upon realizing what they’re facing, scream and cry, in Hunter’s case, or remain in a catatonic trance, in Ashley’s case, highlighting her role as a submissive prey to the demon’s influence. Their parents, even fully knowing that they implicit in the misfortune that has befallen their family, continue this narrative, inciting audiences to affectively respond, along with them, “think of the children!”

The psychological process through which this predator-prey dichotomy is formulated, even at the face of whites’ own implications in the monstrous aspects of the film narrative, is best exemplified by Frantz Fanon in his own description of an encounter with a white child on a train. After repeated exclamations of the child saying “Look maman, a nigger! I’m scared!” Fanon comes to realize the following:

I couldn’t take it any longer, for I already knew there were legends, stories, history […] As a result, the body schema, attacked in several places, collapsed, giving way to an epidermal racial schema […] I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered by blackness, my ethnic features; defined by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders […] Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body (92).

Fanon offers the gruesome depiction of becoming of the monster, through the ignorance and fear that the white child enacts and uses to lacerate Fanon’s very skin. The white child also undergoes the transformation from aggressor to victim. “Maman, the negro’s going to eat me” (Fanon 93), he exclaims as he runs to his mother’s arms. Fanon describes the process through which white monstrosity and black victimization are inversed. The white child is the aggressor in this scene, enacting what Fanon examines as the historical, racial stigmas that translate to physical assaults against his own body. However, by exclaiming, “the negro’s going to eat me!” the child effectively flips the roles, and presents himself as the victim to the black monster which, just seconds ago, he created. Thus, the fabrication of white innocence is fundamentally tied to the construction of the black monster. One cannot be sustained without the presence of the other.

When the parents in these films opt for ignorance, they effectively choose to ignore the monstrosity which they themselves have assigned to the racial other, in favor of playing the victim. In the Paranormal Activity series, we find out that Hunter, Kristi’s son, is destined to be Toby’s prey, for he has been promised, as the first-born male of her side of the family, to the demon by his great-grandmother, a witch in exchange for riches and fortune. Past generations are implicit in the dangerous, threatening history that now victimizes their children.

In Sinister, Ellison, who knows very well the dangerous history of the ancient Buhguul and the potential threats he represents to his family, for he has been researching it extensively as he attempts to write his novel, willingly chooses to keep his family ignorant until the demon arrives and kills them all before taking Ashley away. Although Ellison chose to hide the dangerous history from his family, the audience assigns blame for the tragedy to the existence of the demonic presence itself. The subgenre thus relies on audience’s active “forgetting” of the white characters’ implications in their own demise, and must choose to see white innocence for the films to fully realize their villains as all-evil, and without any evocations of sympathy. The audience is thus directly involved in an enactment of white ignorance.

It is precisely this very same articulation of white innocence and victimization which makes the narrative of “home loss” during the subprime mortgage crisis seem an exclusively white tragedy. As Oliver, Burd-Sharps and Rasch have shown us, the subprime mortgage crisis was an overwhelming catastrophe for families of color who suffered the major losses and still struggle to undo the damage that this housing crisis meant for their economic wellbeing. These authors are also aware that the main cause for this crisis was the predatory lending practices which plagued people of color. As Lipsitz notes, this is part of the racist legislation and American system of wealth in which people of color “are not so much disadvantaged as taken advantage of. Their unearned disadvantages structure unearned advantages for whites.” Lipsitz, also notes, however, the role which white innocence plays in this economic structure, for he says “yet [people of color] find themselves portrayed as privileged beneficiaries of special preferences by the very people who profit from their exploitation and oppression” (107). Fanon’s formulation of the white child is the same formulated by Lipsitz, albeit in economic terms. As Lipsitz further notes, “By failing to reckon with the rewards that come to them because of racial privilege, whites prevent themselves from seeing how privilege actually works in this society” (105-106). Likewise, by opting to play the role of innocents, whites are undeniably implicit in denying democracy to fully come into play to critically approach disasters like the subprime mortgage crisis. The very predatory nature of legislation and lending practices which landed people of color in still-lingering hardships around housing, are the ones that resulted in their violent, gruesome “hemorrhaging,” as Fanon would put it, into the villains of the story, the “irresponsible losers” who allowed for such a tragedy to bleed onto white homeowners.

The representation of white innocence is particularly telling in a sequence towards the end of Paranormal Activity. Katie and Micah, haunted and tired, sit in their couch, huddled closely together, as Katie says, “I can’t even be in this house, Micah. We can’t even be in our house.” The evocation of such a scene, two young Americans losing their home, was particularly provocative to audiences still feeling the effects of the housing crisis. However, what this scene chooses to erase is the history behind such a tragedy, and the marginalized people that took the most severe blows. Instead, we get the simplistic, extremely damaging view of white victimization and black monstrosity that goes on to plague later films. Such formulation is dangerous: We, along with the filmmakers, are opting to forget, to not see what lurks beneath, so that when it rears its ugly, monstrous head, we are surprised to find it so angry and threatening. Through this process, whites’ history and actions never come under scrutiny. Instead, we get the simplistic notion that whites are the victims of demons they themselves have bred.

V. Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror

The post-recession haunted house film portrays middle-class white anxieties and fears in a palatable fashion, so that the films only work to reassure America’s obsession with wealth and comfort. The genre employs the monster-victim tactics which leave people of color and working-class groups marginalized, criminalized and demonized. Dominant, middle-class white people are left without scrutiny. As Robin Wood rightly points out, the horror film, under the constraints of major Hollywood production and “crowd pleaser” aesthetics, becomes a “puritan” arrangement of repression that only works to reassure said repression instead of subverting it (156).

The haunted house genre, with its representations of wealth and power structures uninterrogated, leaves little room to imagine a subversive perspective that challenges these repressive depictions of “white victim vs. black monster.” However, as the genre evolves, just as it evolved away from torture porn dominance into a retreat into the house at the onset of the Great Recession, so too, given the changing political climate and the passing of years, we are beginning to see films that think outside of the haunted house conventions to deliver truly thought-provoking, subversive portrayals that dismantle previous constructions of white innocence and black monstrosity. In this section, I analyze three of these recent films: It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015), Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Alvarez, 2016), and Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017), paying attention to the way they destabilize associations between wealth, homeownership, and white patriarchal normativity. These recent films negate the construction of white victimization, ignorance, and innocence. Instead, they construct a concept of “white monstrosity” unlike any of the haunted house films discussed previously. By white monstrosity, I refer to the socially damaging aspects of patriarchy, white privilege, and wealth-hoarding which have been implicit in the unjust, racist notions of redlining and segregation which have kept racism alive and well. These issues have been hidden under the façade of white innocence and ignorance. In short, these three films perform the labor of “unmasking” white innocence and showing whites’ racist and discriminating actions for what they truly are.

The pristine, suburban setting, a staple of the haunted house subgenre, is completely absent from It Follows and Don’t Breathe. Both are set in Detroit, a city that has come to represent the antithesis of suburban American comfort and wealth. Detroit’s history of abandonment and poverty emerges from America’s history of greed and hoarding of wealth. Privatization and the extradition of labor to cheaper regions have turned Detroit into a state of abandonment. As Carlos Salazar’s “The Assassination of Detroit” illustrates, “For years, vacancy, dressed as blight, has been the bogeyman of Detroit.” The evocation of a haunting, monstrous history of capitalism and corporate greed (Salazar’s bogeyman) is portrayed through the seemingly apocalyptic abandonment audiences see in Robert Mitchell’s and Alvarez’s films. The results of capitalism and wealth-hoarding celebrated in the haunted house genre disappear from these films. Instead of prosperity the films portray a city that has been abandoned, leaving behind poverty and chaos.

From the opening shot of It Follows, we’re presented with a bleak, decaying vision of suburbia. The opening shot and most of the film take place outside. From the beginning, we’re torn from the obsessive treatment of the home’s interiors and instead forced to witness the suburban decay that has been harbored by greed. The film concerns a young college student, Jay, trying to fight off a mysterious curse she has contracted after having sex with her boyfriend, in the form of a stalking creature which relentlessly follows her and her friends and can take on any human form. As they try to find answers as to the origin of this STD-themed monster, they navigate the streets of Detroit looking for Jay’s boyfriend, who has disappeared. A melancholic synth soundtrack accompanies extensive shots of the results of massive evictions, abandoned buildings desecrated with graffiti, entire lots of empty land, and the cracked pavement and sidewalk which line the city. Even indoors, we are treated to an undoing of the “property porn” aesthetic common in previous haunted house films. Jay’s own home and its cluttered decorations are evocative of poverty and kitsch. Unlike the Reys’ massive backyard pool, jay lazily floats in a rubber pool littered with fallen leaves and tiny bugs. Her friends sit inside, huddled in a tiny, crammed living room, decorated with dull orange and avocado-colored wallpaper. The walls are lined with black and white, fading portraits.

The evocation of poverty is amped when Jay and her friends finally find her boyfriend, Hugh’s house, which is an abandoned squat, windows papered with newspaper clippings, debris and plaster peeling off the walls and ceiling, and old tin cans hanging from the rusty windowsills. This evokes a shocking turning away from the glamour and anxious documenting of property into a much bleaker depiction on the adverse effects of wealth hoarding, as represented by a city which has been literally sucked dry.

Even bleaker still, Don’t Breathe, which concerns a group of three teen colleagues who work together by breaking into homes in the more affluent sections of Detroit, follows their plight to ultimately gather enough to say, as the female member, Rocky, puts it, “bye, bye Detroit and hola California.” Alvarez’s vision is of a Detroit that is completely abandoned, and reflects the protagonists’ own anxieties to someday leave this dried out city behind. Like It Follows, the opening shot of this film lets us see the cracked asphalt, the abandoned property, home structures all around made up of rotting wood and unkempt grass that bleeds through the concrete. As Money, one of the members of the group, surveys the neighborhood surrounding their next target, the house of a blind Iraq war veteran who, after a settlement, was paid at least $300,000 in cash (we later find out this sum is much larger, at least $1 million), he comments, “at least for blocks around, the houses aren’t occupied.” The house that is occupied, that of the blind man, is represented as a property imbued with monstrosity and grotesqueness. The unconventional, dim lighting gives the inside of the house a somber, demonic feel, much like lighting techniques used to portray the Further in Insidious. However, unlike Insidious, the Further here is real, embodied in the cluttered, decaying husk of suburbia which Alvarez wants us to consider as the real iteration of American values as represented in housing: The hoarding of wealth which has produced a monstrous, marginalized realm of poverty and suffering.

With the concept of the home and the suburbs turned monstrous in these films because of the truthful unmasking of what capitalist greed has done to Detroit, we then turn to the perpetrators: white people, and more specifically, how their representation is noticeably different from those within the haunted house subgenre. The unsympathetic “viscous black slime” that Wood discusses in his analysis of modern horror monsters, which plague clean, idyllic suburbia are here given a different face, and much more noticeably, a different color. Except for It Follows, the monsters in these films are human, specifically white people, which literalizes their standing in the racial, class-based politics of their real-life scenarios, a drastic move away from the symbolic, “colorblind” depictions of black monstrosity in previous films. Even so, It Follows is usefully peculiar in that its monster, the titular “It,” despite its supernatural capabilities to “take on any form,” as the film explains, always opts to morph into grotesque iterations of white human beings. We see it briefly turn into a tall, eyeless, menacing white man, a small, white child with bloodshot eyes, a half-naked, toothless white woman urinating herself, among other forms of disturbing, aging white men and women. This monster helps us to not only combat the trend of “horror-colorism” in which darkness is placed at the side of evil and corruption, but also to ground the villainy in the horror film as a purely human(oid) facet of American suburban nightmares. We begin to understand that we have no monsters to blame for monstrosity, but rather ourselves.

More so than this, the creature’s true monstrosity comes from the explanation of how it feigns innocence. When Hugh is explaining to Jay the rules by which the creature plays, he states, “It could look like anyone, but there is only one of it. And sometimes… Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you.” Through this representation of feigned innocence which the monster enacts to get closer to its victims, the creature becomes emblematic of the very same supposed white innocence which is so meticulously constructed and embedded in the machinations of the haunted house film. Whereas in other iterations, and in dialogues regarding white victimization during the subprime mortgage crisis more specifically, the concept of white innocence is portrayed as real, here it is revealed as being only an ill-intentioned, reductive façade that hides the true intensions of the film’s monstrous whiteness: to accost, emotionally damage, and eventually kill its victims.

Don’t Breathe and Get Out, in turn, labor to completely embody monstrosity with a racial and social class sensibility. Don’t Breathe presents as the main villain a white, old army veteran who, at surface level, is monstrous through his physical representation of whiteness. He has milky, foggy eyes, his skin is jagged, scarred and cracked and his attire (a dirty wife beater) suggests disheveled uncleanliness, if not a gruff, intimidating masculinity. His embodiment is one which evokes patriarchal authority, reclusiveness, and anxiety over the home, as exemplified by the excessive locks and alarm systems he has placed throughout his house. These qualities are all amalgamated into a monstrous white body, so that we begin to understand that not only is the real monster in the history of housing human, but it is white in appearance.

Even more so, however, the concept of the hoarding of wealth is presented to American audiences as a grotesque form of white reclusiveness, which the blind man enacts through a monstrous drive to protect his property. As the premise of the film follows the three main characters attempting to rob his house, so, too, it follows that the blind man’s only drive is to kill them to protect what is his. The subversive twist of Don’t Breathe is its reversal of the “home invasion” thriller: the invaders are placed in the role of the victims, threatened by the blind man’s gruesome anxiety and protectiveness of his homeownership and wealth. This makes the homeowner the true monster, with those invading only desperate, impoverished individuals attempting to better their lives by obtaining the wealth which the blind man has so greedily hoarded.

Alvarez is also not afraid to profusely explore the misogynistic notions of patriarchy and the nuclear family as they are embodied in his villain. On top of his previously described exterior monstrosity, the blind man’s true intent is what truly obliterates the façade of white innocence in this film. Towards the end of the film, we learn that he has kept the girl that ran over and killed his daughter (from whom he received the settlement money) kidnapped in his basement, whom he has artificially inseminated for her to give him a new child to replace the one she took from him. After he accidentally shoots her while attempting to kill the invaders, and thus killing her and his unborn child, he decides to kidnap Rocky as a replacement. As he prepares to artificially inseminate Rocky, he explains his entire plan. “Cindy took my child away from me,” he explicates, “I thought it’s only fair that she gives me a new one.” The blind man is here explaining that the settlement money was not enough, coincidentally implying that what’s missing in this formula is an heir for him to enjoy and transfer his wealth to. Children and wealth are here confused in a grotesque way, much the same as Ellison does in Sinister, where he proclaims that his job is his legacy, while his wife corrects him and explains that his children are.

The blind man, however, is not confused, like Ellison is, but rather much too knowledgeable in the notion that wealth and children are interconnected in the process of maintaining and hoarding goods and benefits. There’s even a narrative of possession that gets constructed here, far different from the demonic one we see in the haunted house. Toby of Paranormal Activity possesses Kristi and then Katie in a symbolic embodiment of white male anxiety over the ownership of the white woman as part of his assets. Don’t Breathe, however, literalizes the concept of white possession: The blind man, quite literally, possesses Cindy, the kidnapped girl, and then attempts to possess Rocky, as part of his property, locked up in his basement along with his money. “9 months, and I’ll give you your life back,” he says as he approaches her with a turkey baster filled with his semen. This sexual transgression is, in his view, only a loan, a financial transaction in which he will see the (re)production of his wealth enacted through the female reproductive system. When Rocky protests that he cannot do this to her, he simply says, “There is nothing a man cannot do once he realizes there is no God,” further asserting his dominant, patriarchal role as the keeper of wealth and power in this encounter. Alvarez lets us see the monstrous possession and reproduction of white wealth and the protection of the patriarchal nuclear family as the keepers of this wealth. However, he lets us see this in a disturbing, subversive fashion that reveals the truly sickening nature of white wealth and power that the haunted house genre is fixated on lauding.

White monstrosity is taken to even more explicitly sociopolitical and satirical levels in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. White monstrosity here is no longer symbolic through implications behind actions and indirect evocations but instead takes on an overly literal form. Although not the first horror film of the decade to directly deal with racism and white supremacy in a monstrous way, it is the first to directly tackle the horrific notions of contemporary American race relations, both in class and sexuality-based terms, as well as providing a biting commentary on the problematic and aggressive nature of colorblindness as it relates to property and power structure. In this film, Chris, a young black photographer, is about to meet his white girlfriend, Rose’s family. As they travel to her parents’ secluded lake house, we are presented with an evocation of a whiteness that is monstrous through the cracks in the façade of their innocence. As one critic, John McDonald, writes, “the movie seems singularly uninterested in trying to present a narrative that addresses itself to white audiences,” meaning that conventional, mass-produced narratives of white innocence and the maintenance of black monstrosity are entirely absent at the core of this film. Furthermore, this review is right to point out that “Get Out forces us to confront the subtler aspects of racism in a supposedly color-blind society.” In other words, Get Out may well be a new facet of horror filmmaking in which the façade of white innocence and the forceful usage of colorblindness when approaching strictly racial social issues are entirely absent.

Through Chris’s interactions with Rose’s family and their friends, we see, in full, painstaking detail, the damaging nature of racial micro- (and later macro-) aggressions which they enact upon him. From comments on his genetic makeup holding the possibility of making him “a beast” at wrestling, to Rose’s father’s seemingly well-intentioned claim that he would’ve “voted for Obama for a third term,” to a later display of Chris’s otherness in front of excited whites who we later learn are plotting to steal his body and transplant their consciousness into it, the aggressive nature of contemporary race relations finally rears its ugly head, in full detail, onto the celluloid. This film presents us with a quotidian, everyday representation of whiteness, which is enough to let us see how truly monstrous it is. Even through comically calm and subdued visuals and sequences, like Rose’s father, Dean, claiming that he dislikes deer and that they should all be killed off (which, through Chris’s look of discomfort, we understand to be the encoded language of eugenics), or Rose calmly sitting in her bed, eating cereal, and sipping milk through a straw while listening to “The Time of My Life” as she looks for her next victim online, white monstrosity prevails even within its mundane, normalized setting.

Ultimately, what emerges from Get Out is the display of the racial power structure nascent in American culture and hidden away in its often-unexplored underbelly. Part of the process of stealing Chris’s body is for Rose’s mother, Missy, to hypnotize him and suppress his consciousness into a dark, vacuous area in his unconscious, aptly called “the sunken place,” losing complete control of his body. This works as an iteration of the power structure which the haunted house strives to restore in its endeavor to stop the demon from attacking the home: that the demon should stay in its place, in the Further (which is aesthetically like “the sunken place”), stored away in darkness so that we may never see suburban tranquility disturbed. This racial repression of Chris can also work, however, as an iteration of colorblindness itself: that the issue of race, and Chris’s own racialized existence must be stored away, unseen, so that whites’ own process of possession (here again, literalized, as whites seek to literally “possess” Chris’s physical prowess) can continue, undisturbed by any claims of foul play or injustice.

Pointing out all the injustice imbued in white monstrosity and its effects on American society, in relation to wealth, housing, race relations and patriarchal power structures, the three films here discussed also seem to offer a common resolution: that we must, if we want to escape these oppressive and problematic forces, “get out” of the house, as well as out of the notions of the nuclear family that must hermetically inhabit it. It Follows lays this claim through the loss of innocence. Jay, upon failing to combat the creature, instead resolves to stay in constant sexual relations with her friend, Paul, so that they may pass the curse back and forth in hopes of surviving. The final shot of the film shows Jay and Paul holding hands as they walk out into the suburbs, escaping the suffocating constraints of the definitions of white innocence and female reproduction. This sequence calls James Baldwin’s own critique of white innocence to mind, in which he iterates that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (178). Yara, Jay’s friend, appropriately articulates this by quoting from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in the film, where she says, “I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…” Jay, in a symbolic refusal to accept the traditional role of a reproducer of wealth, to simply “sit down” in her house “and wait,” as the haunted house so rigidly imposes upon its women, instead opts for an escape from these constraints, through casual sex, and through the evocation that the death of her innocence only means the protection of her life.

Likewise, in Don’t Breathe, the primary motivator for Rocky to escape Detroit is to provide her little sister with a better life, away from their abusive mother and her alcoholic boyfriend. Although the film does not do much to critique the power structures that have led Detroit to its state of decay in an overt way, nonetheless Alvarez is right to point out that Rocky is seeking to escape the constraints of a normative, traditional family structure and instead act as a confidant, sister, friend, and mother figure for her little sister. After she is successful in stealing the large sum of money from the blind man, she is bent on picking up the pieces of her family life, to overcome any emotional or physical trauma her nuclear family, and later her bout with the blind man, may have caused. If it’s too much to denote that her cooperation with her friends in robbing houses and attempting to survive through scavenging and pawning material goods is an evocation of the same community-based efforts many Michigan neighborhoods have undertaken to similarly survive, then it is at least safe to say that Rocky refuses to constrict her options to simply following the normative restraints that patriarchal structures impose for her. She is offered her life back by the blind man after 9 months, for her to sit quietly and wait to give birth to his heir, and yet she fights, escapes his grasp, and leaves Detroit with her sister, never to look back.

Get Out is much more overtly telling of a refusal to assimilate into the normative restraints of the house and the nuclear family, instead favoring a racial solidarity which Chris enacts with his black friend, Rod. The Armitages are, at first, the promise of a family for Chris, a replacement for the mother that he lost when he was a child. Even as he is about to undergo a brain transplant, the instructional video playing before him stipulates that he may still have the chance to be a part of the Armitage family (albeit with a white brain transplanted into his cranium). Like Rocky, Chris fights against this, and though the nature of his violence comes under question as he brutally murders the entire Armitage family, it is still the evocation of freedom that prevails in his triumphant escape from their home. After attempting to strangle Rose to death, his friend Rod arrives, and swiftly takes him away. Like how Micah and the Reys in Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 welcome audiences to experience a homecoming along with them, the Armitages also welcome Chris with open arms. However, as things get awry, and we realize this homecoming is the setup of a trap that threatens to continue racist violence and oppression, Rod lets us hear his concise figuration of a solution to this problem. As Chris gets into Rod’s car at the end of the film, after a moment of silence, Rod turns to him and solemnly states, “Man, I told you not to go in that house.” The solutionist message of the film is clear: if we are to comment on the racist notions of wealth, solvency, and stability in contemporary America, we must look for solutions outside these very constraints, embodied in the American home, that so monstrously suffocate us.

Juan Valencia

March 27, 2017

Advisor: Professor Felice Blake

Honors Undergraduate Thesis

For the Department of English

University of California, Santa Barbara


                                                                                                          Works Cited

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Oliver, Melvin, and Thomas Shapiro. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge, 2006.

Paranormal Activity. Directed by Oren Peli, Blumhouse Productions, 2009.

Paranormal Activity 2. Directed by Tod Williams, Blumhouse Productions, 2010.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Directed by Christopher B. Landon, Blumhouse Productions, 2014.

Salazar, Carlos. “The Assassination of Detroit.” Jacobin Magazine, 14 Oct. 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-assassination-of-detroit/. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Sinister. Directed by Scott Derrickson, Blumhouse Productions, 2012.

Stone, James D. “Horror at the Homestead: The (Re)possession of American Property in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity II.” The Great Recession in Fiction, Film, and Television. Edited by Kirk Boyle and Daniel Mrozowski. Lexington Books, 2013, pp. 78-93.

Wood, Robin. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 70-94.

Wood, Robin. “Horror in the 80s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 189-201.

To Feel Friedrich’s Death in Front of His Canvas

An uncertain depth, as if something were lurking behind what we see…
Like a picture, or a personal vision.
The young woman peering curiously out the window-­‐
The window is closed, there is no way through.
There the artist in the fallen contemporary world.
Grief, pensiveness, solitude,
Embittered, self-­‐pitying and distrustful.
A believer who struggled with doubt.
A celebrator of beauty haunted by darkness.
The symmetries so essential in an icon-­‐
Jagged, helter-­‐skelter, fragments of horizontals and verticals juxtaposed.
Dramatic geometry and tantalizing fragments of what lies beyond:

The top of a ship’s mast, half a house, sections of shoreline

Silhouetted mountain top of firs and rocks

Barren trees and ruins rising against wintry skies

Rotting wood enclosing an overgrown and hollow mound

Cemetery gate posts tower unnaturally…

A thin and empty world of absences.

Of branches overlapped on branches overlapped on void.

Symbolic forms imbued with mysterious prescience,

And, once spotted they can again be lost-­‐

So that they retain always their potential status as mirages.

A landscape beheld by a halted traveler.

A traveler in this Eigentumlichkeit.

What is solid there has now become a fissure in space,

The image of saturation and overflow.

The visionary through painted light.

The turning away of God’s eye toward the hidden sun

Where religion would be merely a remembered promise-­‐

Only the universal blank of pigments evenly applied,

Emptied of all human reference, all continuities of scale and space.

The infinite through the bathetic collapse of evocation.

To plunge suddenly…

A series of strokes

Elizabeth in 1782 and Maria in 1791 and Johann Christoffer in 1787

May 7, 1840

‘pulmonary failure’

This wall rears up like a barrier, blocking off the space that lies behind it, Which is discernible only as a sense of light offering a kind of promise…

Maybe this is one more personal reflection on death and the world to come…

An allegory on the transience of life and the promise of redemption beyond…


The anchor, sometimes just an anchor, rises before a wholly natural scene.

Is the deep notch carved in the white cliffs a rising accent or a falling one?

It is both.

An expiation:

This poem is built of stolen words. It is made of blocks of beautiful, intelligent fragments robbed, stripped, and manufactured into a new thing. A thing that is uncomfortably my own creation, and yet, not a single word can be called mine. A thing that is at once an artifact, an artistic piece in and of itself, and the embodiment of it’s own process of creation. It is perhaps best to explain it as such;

The process, an exploration:

This poem is a found word piece assembled from phrases copied out of Art History books and articles about the18th century painter Caspar David Friedrich and his paintings. The creative act consisted of me frantically reading these books, occasionally jumping randomly between sections, and transcribing down the fragments that struck me in the form of bullet points devoid of context. I then cut and pasted my favorite bits to fit the thematics, flow, and meaning of the poem I found myself wanting to create. Although, to be honest, the poem I found myself wanting to make changed with every phrase I copied. I edited as little as possible from each phrase, opting rather to let them stand on their own merits. But, why shamelessly abduct and adulter the words of esteemed Art Historians?

The most basic answer is that I love the language of Art History and Art Theory. It has a beautifully poetic, yet scholarly accent, a vocabulary and movement that, to me, begged to be resurrected in the guise of a poem. The charm of the language of Art History is especially apparent in the prose used to discuss the work of Caspar David Friedrich, who many view as a particularly poetic painter. His choice of color, his use of light, his subject matter are near impossible to put into language without sounding dactylic. In the end, I think it was both the subject, Caspar David Friedrich, and the scholarly lens of Art History that led me to this poem, and to this process.

From Friedrich’s own ideals I got the desire to investigate the notion of the creator and creativity through using a found poem technique. To find, for myself, where the impetus for a piece came from. He wrote, “a picture must not be invented, it must be felt.” and I wanted to explore that process. I wanted to create a work, about his paintings, from both an invented and felt source. It was for that reason that I gathered the phrases first, before any idea of the kind of poem or subject, besides a general notion that it should be connected to Caspar David Friedrich, and allowed the poem to develop from an already predetermined source. I wanted it at once to be an act of mimicry and creativity. A creative thing, a poem, built of the critique and an analysis of an entirely different creative thing, paintings and a life.

The poem itself, an object:

This poem, as its title perhaps too blatantly suggests, is about viewing the work of Caspar David Friedrich and thinking about his descent into obscurity and death, while simultaneously, it is about dealing with ones own mortality, and the way that fact influences the perception of his paintings. Friedrich as a painter was obsessed with personal perspective. His paintings were reflections of his own experiences of nature composed in a way that invoked both universal human perception and drew out the real experiences of individual viewers. He wanted to provoke the enormous feeling, the sublime feeling, that one experienced while sensing God’s presence through the natural world. Yet, by the end of his life he questioned his relationship with God and the project of his art itself. The poem plays with the notion of personal perspective as well, particularly in regard to the influence of education on the individual lens. It is about dealing with the depth of the

feelings that Friedrich’s work forces one to confront while, because of an education in Art History, experiencing his work through a biographical and critical lens. It is a poem about the conflict between experiencing an artists work emotionally and viewing it through a critical analytic lens, to finally answer the question, which is the correct way to view art? “it is both.”

Works Cited:

Vaughan, William, and Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich. London: Phaidon, 2004. Print.

Koerner, Joseph Leo. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. Print.

Hofmann, Werner, and Caspar David Friedrich. Caspar David Friedrich. New York:Thames & Hudson, 2000. Print.

Grave, Johannes. Caspar David Friedrich. Munich: Prestel, 2012. Print.

Prager, Brad. “Sublimity and Beauty: Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Anton Koch.” Aesthetic

Vision and German Romanticism: Writing Images. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007. N. pag.


Vaughan, William, and Caspar David Friedrich. “Ch. 6:Engagements with Naturalism & Ch. 7:

Observations on Art and Artists.” Friedrich. London: Phaidon,2004. N. pag. Print.

Empathy, Voyeurism, & the ‘Alien Adversary’: Portrayals of Tragedies in News Media & The Devil of Nanking

The actuality of a mass tragedy creates ethical obligations in light of its representation, and the argument stands that these incidents require a portrayal that is exhaustive, detailed, and in the case of the press, immediate. Depictions that do not adhere to these qualities hold ramifications of an undoubtedly public nature, as their audience comes away from the piece misinformed and thus unable to understand the plight of those who actually suffered. The majority of authors who publish works in response to tragedy


are doing so with decent intentions, especially if, as with Mo Hayder’s 2005 novel The Devil of Nanking, the incident in question has long been obscured


from the public’s eye. Nevertheless, the author’s original purpose does not compensate for a problematic implementation of content, which includes aspects such as writing style, visual imagery, subject and theme, and even genre. These components of literature, if dealt with incorrectly, can override the benefits of depicting a tragedy. Although the quote “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity” (Pumarlo) comes from the Society of Professional Journalists and is thus intended for members of the press reporting on trauma, the sentiment extends to all media renditions of this nature. This foundational concept has an intriguing relationship to Hayder’s text, as the ethical duties associated with portraying the 1937 Nanking Massacre initially seem to contradict the novel’s genre as a thriller. However, Hayder appears to be aware of this potential misstep, and a comparison between her work and much of the coverage regarding recent acts of violence indicates that news media is instead the entity typifying the crime novel’s sensationalism and enablement of voyeuristic human instincts. The style of many of these news articles plays to the shock value of violent death, which encourages the


reader’s fascination with both the perpetrator and the pain of others. In contrast, Hayder’s treatment of the subject in The Devil of Nanking advocates

against this lurid approach by adapting the detective novel convention of








type characters for the purposes of representing tragedy. This work thus acknowledges the gravity of its subject through the severe opposition of its central figures: while the perverse character of Jason embodies the morbid fetishism that can be perpetrated by the press, the heroine, Grey responds to the text’s tragic content in a way that addresses the position of the victim and the importance of vicarious grief in the audience’s response.


Pumarlo’s journalistic claim, “[tragedies] are the type of stories that should be reported as a living history of communities” resurfaces in the piece “Vicarious Grieving and the Media.” This article, which focuses on the emotional response to loss, shows the media’s potential to affect healing. Its guiding concept is that one’s expression of grief “provides a psychological release that enables the mourner to vent his or her pain” (Sullender, 192). When the voicing of this emotion is put in a social context, Sullender argues that humans will instinctively respond with empathy that creates a shared sense of anguish (192-­‐193). Accordingly, this claim of cause and effect is the basis for vicarious grief, or “‘the experience of loss and consequent grief or mourning that occurs following the deaths of others not personally known by the mourner’” (193). The textual representation of loss provides a similar function in that it allows for bonding among victims, witnesses, and their larger audience, and the opportunity for this empathetic response is in fact heightened by the global expansion of news networks in the modern day. “[T]he media has increased our emotional attachment to places, people, and events in the larger world,” Sullender says, “thus setting the stage for a greater incidence of, and occasion for, vicarious grieving” (196). Nonetheless, more traditional functions of journalism are just as vital, and in conveying this argument he states that the move toward closure involves “a process of making meaning out of the tragedy” (196). The presence of the news media in relaying tragedy is crucial precisely because it can act as a “meaning maker,” an entity whose foundation in storytelling can be used to create respectful narratives of grief.


The end of Sullender’s article shifts its focus from the advantages of media coverage to the potential shortcomings in creating an “over-­‐exposure” to tragic material. The author mentions that, due to scientific advances that have extended the average human life, many of us are personally exposed to less natural death. Meanwhile, the media’s focus on unnatural tragedies means that this institution is the one “teaching all of us, particularly our younger generations, how to grieve and mourn” (199). Although this modified societal relationship to mortality is not automatically harmful, the








angle of emphasizing the more newsworthy and shocking fact of violent death and limiting reportage of grief to “a short, intense phenomenon” may contribute to “a whole generation being raised on a dynamic of desensitization” (199). Consequently, the lack of healthy outlets through which to express sorrow can give rise to emotions that are less rooted in responding to a tragedy and instead stem from curiosity about death. This approach to representation can be interpreted as verging on the Society of Professional Journalists’ warning against “sensationalism” (Pumarlo). Taking advantage of morbid drives diverts attention away from those suffering physically and emotionally, in effect compromising tendencies toward empathy that are paramount in communally understanding the repercussions of human atrocity.


A striking example of this type of media distortion appears as a result of the 1999 Columbine High School killings, which left 23 students dead and more injured after the two perpetrators attacked with guns and bombs, finishing by taking their own lives. Due to its horrifying scope, coverage of the incident was both detailed and timely, qualities that could theoretically aid the victims by helping the nation to vicariously grieve. Various studies, however, show the distorted nature of the news stories surrounding the incident. While information on the killers’ actions and their lives prior to the murder was arguably necessary in relaying the facts (Pumarlo), “most [of the coverage on individuals] referred to [shooters] Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold” (Schildkraut & Muschert, 35) rather than their victims. These skewed depictions give way to audience speculation and the notion of the incident as a terrifying scandal whose causes remain unfathomable, thus showing the link between the emphasis on “‘offender-­‐centered reporting’”


  • and the claim of a “discourse and politics of fear” (1356) that David Altheide makes in his piece on the tragedy. In the essay, he describes how depictions of the violence at Columbine expanded into discussions of societal issues, such as “youth problems,” “discipline concerns at school” (1356), and the national concern of terrorism (1357). While their broader relevance should not go unnoticed, the value of discussing these issues is limited by the dramatized mode of their portrayal. According to Altheide, the narrative format of news partially draws on “information technology, commercialism, and entertainment values” (1355) in addition to fact-­‐based reporting. The end result of this approach to representation is an atmosphere of public terror, casting the media as a “machine that trades on fostering a common definition of fear, danger, and dread” (1356).








The idea that tragedies can be distorted to exacerbate an audience’s panic is not dissimilar to the notion of their ‘entertainment’ potential. In this scenario, the author’s framing of events utilizes the reader’s understandable


emotions of fear and uncertainty, exploiting them for shock. In one report on Columbine, the Los Angeles Times constructs a lede that reads as if it were a

page from a hardboiled crime novel:


“Laughing as they killed, two youths clad in dark ski masks and long black coats fired handguns at will and blithely tossed pipe bombs into a crowd of their terrified classmates Tuesday inside a suburban high school southwest of Denver, littering halls with as many as 23 bodies and wounding at least 25 others. The gunmen, embittered youths reportedly fascinated with paramilitary culture, kept police sharpshooters at a distance for more than four hours before they apparently used their guns on themselves” (Cart, Slater & Braun).


In contrast to the factual, somber tone that one would expect, this opening plays to the audience’s imagination, utilizing images of heartless, crazed villains found within texts of this suspenseful genre. This article is in fact one of many to adopt that style of writing: TIME magazine, a respected publication known for thoughtful material, came forth with a cover story featuring the title “The Monsters Next Door: What Made Them Do It?” This cover returns to Schildkraut & Muschert’s concept of offender-­‐centered reporting, as the largest and most vivid color images on the page are those of Klebold and Harris; in contrast, the magazine affords lesser importance to images of the victims, which are considerably smaller and shown in black and white. While the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics endorse the duty to create a narrative for reprehensible actions, these representations attach unwarranted melodrama to the events that implies a disconnect from reality.


The mechanics of the crime novel work to create a sensation of excitement in the reader, which reveals further parallels between this genre of literature and the flashy, entertaining style found in coverage of tragedies. The constant in novels of this type is “the ‘whodunit’ question” (Pyrhönen, 24) that controls the arc of the plot; when applied to news media, this convention surfaces as the query of what motivated the offender. As the reader learns the cause of the issue at hand, he or she is provided with the feeling of relief from uncertainty. However, when this legitimate approach to coverage of tragedies is conflated with sensationalistic writing, the goal of providing an








audience with greater peace of mind and an opportunity to vicariously grieve becomes secondary to satisfying curiosity. In detective fiction this premise is often paired with the promotion of “national culture values” that ultimately triumph over the “‘alien’ adversary” (25), a stock character whose evil is horrific yet captivating. Columbine coverage such as TIME’s use of the word “monster” to describe the shooters arguably puts them in a similar role, painting the two as less than real. While crime novel plotlines with glamorized danger are in part designed to create that emotional rush of excitement, this framing is antithetical to reports on tragedies, which should be depicted so that the public can see the reality of the incident and empathize with those affected.


The claim that tragedy and vicarious thrill seeking belong to separate realms immediately calls into question the premise for The Devil of Nanking. Mo


Hayder’s recent novel is one of her many ventures in crime fiction, in theory problematizing her choice to address the Nanking Massacre. Furthermore, Hayder is tasked with being among the first novelists to portray this atrocity, which has largely been kept quiet due to a combination of global unawareness and purposeful denial on the part of the Japanese government. The novel’s opening includes words of thanks to Iris Chang, whose extensive


work on the massacre emerged as the first major undertaking of its kind. In The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Chang details


how Japan’s initial 1935 occupation of China led to the takeover of the titular city and a final death toll numbering between 250,000 and 350,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians (Whitten). The review of Chang’s book highlights her point that these killings were not only widespread but especially senseless and malicious in nature: “For the women, rape usually preceded their murder. Indeed, from Japanese Army reports and letters sent home by participants, the killing of captured Chinese soldiers became something of a sport with awards going to the Japanese captors who killed the most men in the shortest time” (Whitten). Given the severity of this incident, it seems that the style of Hayder’s text would create a glorification of evil almost identical in nature to some of the Columbine coverage. However, Hayder’s cautioning against voyeuristic urges seems to be a stronger undercurrent, which is achieved in the characterization of the protagonist, a British woman who refers to herself as Grey, and her foil, an American named Jason.


The latter character holds an unusual presence in that he is primarily defined not by his own interests, but by his manner of relating to others. Finding herself with neither means nor shelter upon arrival in Tokyo, Grey spends








the night sleeping in one of the city’s parks and wakes to a young man who has been watching her (Hayder, 29). This action signals Jason’s interest in the narrator, yet his declaration “‘you really are weird’” suggests that Grey is intriguing solely because of the unorthodox setting in which she appears and her odd clothing (30). Subsequently, his abrupt offer to rent her a room seems predicated on his belief that “‘You’d be funny in our house’” (31), as the implied allure of the “‘weirdo’” (31) is a motif that develops in increasingly disturbing ways throughout the text. After Grey has accepted his


offer, she learns that other tenants refer to him as “a strange one” who watches graphic videos with titles in the vein of Faces of Death and claims of Genuine autopsy footage! (78) Later, when Grey enters his room, she is met


with photos of “young Filipino men nailed to crucifixes [and] vultures gathering for human flesh on the incredible Towers of Silence at a Parsi funeral” (79). The structure of one’s personal space is often an indirect way to articulate elements of identity, and these images build on the idea that Jason’s passions lie in observing others thrust into extraordinary or tragic situations.


While the tactic of associating Jason mainly with voyeurism can be seen as a novelistic flaw, constructing him with an absence of true subjectivity instead allows Hayder to analyze a single aspect of human nature with regards to her text’s larger themes. The character’s emphasis on processing outside information shows broad similarities to the media spectator; furthermore, his personal compulsion toward images of others’ pain specifically parallels the lurid curiosity that types of news coverage can provoke in readers. This aspect of Hayder’s approach to characterization becomes evident in Jason’s interactions with Ogawa, the female bodyguard to the yakuza leader who frequents the nightclub where he works alongside Grey. Although Grey is puzzled by Ogawa’s “wide, masculine shoulders, long arms, sinewy legs crammed into large, highly polished black stilettos” (70), Jason takes a marked interest in this ‘difference,’ and even after he begins a relationship with Grey he lingers on this other character’s physicality. “‘She? Is it a she? I can’t help wondering,” he says. “I’d like to find out. I’d like to know what she looks like naked. Yeah, I think that’s mostly it’” (208). Although there is the implication of sex, Ogawa holds this appeal for Jason precisely because he assumes her body to be ‘malformed,’ with the looming question of whether she is even female.


Viewing Jason as a stock representation of the intermingling between interest and horror, one can see how this character addresses some of the








thriller conventions listed in Pyrhönen’s work. Jason’s desire to find “something mangled” (Hayder, 215) takes on added significance when the text reveals Ogawa’s connection to Nanking both as a murderer with methods of equivalent brutality (141) and as an employee of the elderly mob leader Fuyuki, who took part in the killings as a young soldier (348). The mystery and intrigue of the plot involving Ogawa and Fuyuki is more typical of detective fiction, making it in theory an ethically inadequate means of representing the Nanking Massacre. However, Jason’s presence in this scene instead helps assert that Hayder is both aware of her choices and active in shaping a certain reader mentality. Jason holds a detached view of Ogawa as the “’alien’ adversary” (Pyrhönen, 25) -­‐ an unnatural menace whose actions are cause for fetishism rather than vicarious grief -­‐ and his viewpoint is arguably comparable to the mindset of readers who fell prey to glamorized depictions of Klebold and Harris. Nevertheless, Hayder is able to prevent the reader from also perceiving Ogawa and Fuyuki in this manner by drawing on Jason’s value as a stock character. While his innate response to unsettling material represents one possibility within the range of human emotions, his analogous lack of empathy acts as a mechanism to warn the audience, ensuring that they recognize their own full agency. This technique of portraying Jason as a base, unfeeling villain is admittedly didactic but also necessary in this case, as it allows the reader to consider the effects of Ogawa and Fuyuki’s crimes rather than viewing them as mere ‘aliens’ or ‘monsters’.


The novel furthers its stance on the representation and consequent audience reception of tragedy by examining the motives of Grey. Throughout this plotline Hayder constructs a metanarrative that becomes apparent only when considering questions of genre and ethics in literature. Hayder establishes her protagonist’s self-­‐described obsession with the Nanking Massacre (19), and the tenuous circumstances of Grey’s fascination mimic the broader notion of whether a crime novel can represent such a topic without stirring sensationalistic appeal. As Grey seeks out Shi Chongming, a Chinese professor who specializes in the incident and is purported to have the historical account she has been searching for, she shows him examples of her work on the massacre. While her research is impressive in its precision, it is in fact this extreme attention to detail that Shi sees as eerie and even disturbing, given the gruesome subject matter. After Grey shows him an intricate sketch of “‘exactly three thousand corpses’” modeled after “‘the city at the end of the invasion,’” he warns her that the topic has been deeply repressed in Japan and then admonishes, “‘[t]his is my past you’re talking about’” (15). These last words show that he regards her preoccupation with








Nanking as uncaring, and the possibility that Grey’s interest is nothing more than voyeurism recurs in Jason’s claims that the two of them are alike in their fascination with morbidity (182). This question also marks a return to the metanarrative, and considering the novel’s events as a whole, Grey’s early interaction with Shi brings to light one example of the flaws that could stem from depicting the tragedy in thriller format. However, the text later comes to distinguish between Jason and Grey, using the downfall of their relationship as evidence of their difference in character.


As Jason and Grey grow closer, his impatience with her indicates that he merely wants to discover what she is hiding about her past (187). Although Grey is at first drawn to Jason’s charm and later becomes intimate with him, she is initially unable to show him the disfiguring scars on her stomach. However, when she decides to trust him with this personal trauma that has motivated her research on Nanking – her decision to stab herself while thirteen years old and pregnant, in order to ‘give birth’ alone – she does so as an act of confidence, with the hope that he will understand. Instead, he is captivated by the sight: “He got up and took a step towards me, his hands lifting up, reaching curiously to my stomach, as if the scars were emanating a glow” (211). He proceeds to examine Grey’s stomach, asking shockingly specific questions such as “‘Did [the knife] go deep here? …That’s what it feels like’” (214). Grey realizes, “there was something horrible in his voice…as if he was taking immense pleasure in this” (214), and she thinks, “I imagined his face, smirking, confident, finding sex in this, sex in the scars I’d been hiding for so long” (215). Jason’s cold response confirms his fascination with the trope of the “freak,” a quality that opposes the sensitivity required in portraying tragedy. The significance of this interaction is further clarified when theoretically transposed to the context of a news story. The sensitive, traumatic nature of Grey’s past places her in the position of the victim, who would be aided by this opportunity for narrative that would ideally lead to a community of support. In contrast, Jason is again perceived as the reader who appropriates this content, regarding graphic scenes with stunned awe rather than listening to the victim’s account, and thus failing to grieve vicariously. This scene also utilizes the flat portrayal of Jason to enhance the metafictional aspects of the text. There is no sense of empathy or remorse in his reaction, both of which would lend nuance to this character, and his villainy prevents the reader from forming a similar interest in the grim story behind Grey’s scars. Instead, the text works with the assumption that the audience will identify positively with its heroine, Grey, thus placing the reader into the role of the empathetic reader.









The sympathetic portrayal of Grey’s backstory is tied into the larger context of Nanking, and the novel concludes by using this protagonist to embody another facet of responding to tragedy. Both the reason behind Grey’s self-­‐ mutilating act and her subsequent interest in the massacre are initially ambiguous, and although she claims that her child’s death was not intentional (216), the audience is likely to not be convinced on either account. However, this withholding of information also works to a different end. An atmosphere of mystery is a central component of the crime novel, specifically with regards to the main character’s past and present motives;


consequently, one can see that Hayder’s emphasis on ethicality thus far does not prevent The Devil of Nanking from engaging with elements that make it


an authentic thriller. As the ending returns to the ethics of representation, though, the symbolic role of Grey’s character shifts from that of victim to that of the media consumer. At the end of the novel Shi plays the film footage that Grey has been searching for, as she believes it to show evidence of a particularly horrific practice that she once read about. She sees the image of a Japanese soldier ‘extracting’ a pregnant woman’s child through her stomach (352); however, we are surprised to learn that “[the infant’s] hands were moving. Her mouth opened a few times…she was alive” (353). This brutal procedure is done in the same manner as Grey’s attempt to ‘give birth’ as a teenager, suggesting that the death of her daughter was truly accidental, and that against all logic, she used this incident as confirmation that her own child would also survive. Additionally, Grey’s act can be interpreted as a response of mimicry that implies her emotional identification with the women of Nanking. It is possible that she chose to deal with giving birth in such an unusual and disturbing fashion because it would allow her to understand the massacre victims’ pain in a severe, literal way. Although Grey now recognizes the error in her decision, it is still crucial to interpret its meaning in strictly figurative terms that are reflective of the character’s unstable, desperate circumstances (215), not as a promotion of self-­‐harm when dealing with strong emotions. Nonetheless, Grey’s wish to put herself in the position of the victim shows that she is attuned to the realities of Nanking, marking a clear instance of vicarious grieving. The thematic implication of this type of response recalls the proper role of the media consumer, suggesting that the empathy of Grey’s act –not the act itself – serves as a template for processing tragic material.


Although the ‘alien adversary’ is drawn from texts of Hayder’s genre, its correspondence to real life has created settings in which many of these








offenders are seen as “freaks” whose violent actions border on harmless fantasy. This detachment from reality in textual representations prevents the reader from forming the type of empathetic response that has proven most


effective in helping victims cope. The ‘alien’ figure of evil in fact appears in The Devil of Nanking, yet Hayder is careful to ensure that it does so in altered


circumstances. While the first example, Ogawa, could be interpreted as attributing to sensationalism, Hayder uses Jason’s obsession with her to connote his shameful role as a perverse voyeur. As a result, readers are urged


to disassociate themselves from this character by not indulging their own morbid curiosities in response to the text. The Devil of Nanking hints that this


trope of voyeurism extends to Grey, as much of the novel’s mystery stems from the question of whether her concealed past and her present obsession with Nanking are indicative of evil. However, the end of Hayder’s text shows this character’s shocking yet symbolically valid roots in empathy, indicating that vicarious grief is one of the only appropriate goals in portraying a historical atrocity of this magnitude.



Works Cited


Altheide, David L. “The Columbine Shootings And The Discourse Of Fear.”American Behavioral Scientist 52.10 (2009): 1354-­‐1370. Academic Search Complete. Web.


Cart, Julie, Eric Slater, andStephen Braun. “Armed Youths Kill Up to 23 in 4-­‐Hour Siege at High School.” Los Angeles Times 21 Apr. 1999: n. pag.Los Angeles Times.


Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/1999/apr/21/news/mn-­‐29502> Hayder, Mo. The Devil of Nanking. New York: Grove, 2005. Print.


Pumarlo, Jim. “SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers: Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims.” Society of Professional Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web.


Pyrhönen, Heta. “Five-­‐Finger Exercises: Mika Waltari’s Detective Stories.” Orbis


Litterarum 59.1 (2004): 23-­‐38. Academic Search Complete. Web.


Schildkraut, Jaclyn, and Glenn Muschert. “Media Salience and the Framing of Mass Murder in Schools.” Homicide Studies 18.1 (2014): 23-­‐43.SAGE Publications. Web. Sullender, R. “Vicarious Grieving And The Media.”Pastoral Psychology 59.2 (2010): 191-­‐200. Academic Search Complete. Web.

Whitten, Robert C. “The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II


(Book).” Journal Of Political & Military Sociology 29.1 (2001): 192. Academic Search Complete. Web.

Time & Hyperreality in Twelve Monkeys

Terry Gilliam’s film, Twelve Monkeys (1995), experiments with temporality in ways that align with Jean Baudrillard’s theories on simulation simulacra. In this film, time travel serves an apparatus through which the characters are able to investigate the past in attempt to remake their understanding of the present. Protagonist James Cole explores the relationship between the past, present and future by traveling back in time whilst attempting to unravel the riddle of the recurring dream that has haunted him since childhood. Cole finds himself leading a de-­‐realized existence, wherein his inability to tell the difference between reality and fiction echoes Baudrillard’s assertion that postmodern reality is no longer real, but a simulation of a reality that has been lost. Cole’s return to the past is a return to Modernity; however, this Modernity has no place in the present, as it has been deconstructed past the point of relevancy. By rehallucinating the past and delving into a fictitious existence as experienced through time travel, Cole proves that Modernity’s ordered distinction between reality and fiction cannot be recovered: in fact, it never existed.


According to Baudrillard’s theories in “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” the “SF imagination is dead.” There is no longer enough distance between the real and the imagined for science fiction to exist. We exist in a state of hyperreality: “the implosive era of models.” Models previously existed as “an imaginary domain with reference to the real.” However, these models have now grown indistinguishable from the real. Because the real has been lost, the model now stands in for the real. The principle of reality has been replaced by the principle of simulation. The real “has become the pretext of the model in a world governed by the principle of simulation.” There is no longer the real: only simulation of the real. In this condition, fiction transitions from “a mirror held to the future” that reflects reality to “a desperate rehallucinating of the past.” We have reached the point of saturation wherein the





real and the simulated become synonymous. The “original essence” of reality is lost. Reality continues to function on traditional ideologies, yet these ideologies have become “defunct” and “empty of meaning.” In order to reestablish meaning and come to an understanding of reality in relation to the “events, persons…ideologies” that compose the real, it is necessary to turn to the past in search of some kind of “retrospective truth” (Baudrillard, 310).


Twelve Monkey takes place in an era where reality has reached the point of hyperreality and launched itself into an implosive state of reversal. Humankind has retreated underground and reverted to pseudo-­‐Industrial era technology. In the film’s opening, James Cole is presented as a character that exists “in a total simulation without origin, past, or future.” The opening scene of Cole awaking in his cage—one among rows and rows of identical cages filled with other humans—portrays him as a “volunteer” destined to fulfill a purpose preordained by a force greater than himself. After being selected to volunteer, Cole is placed before a panel of scientists who examine and interrogate him. The overly synchronized motions of the guards that lead Cole into this setting imply that they are more mechanical than human; the scientists also appear integrated with machinery, as they sit surrounded by various instruments, almost completely obscured by technology. The scientists, guards and the optic structure that hovers above Cole, seeming to record and observe his movements, all operate “like a huge simulated and synchronous machine.” In Cole’s world, humanity has become mechanized in order to achieve a specific end goal in the most efficient way possible. Cole’s existence is one of utility, not individuality. Individualism has perished at the expense of utility; human society has reached the “saturation point” of utilitarianism (310). This saturation point has prompted a reversal: the system must “evolve implosively” by returning to the past (311).


By investigating the past, the scientists endeavor to find information that will allow them to create a better future. They hope to achieve this by retracing the course of history in order to develop a better understanding of the present in terms of the origin and course of the disease that forced humanity underground. Though Modernity presents time as a linear, continuous sequence, “our experience of time is much more diverse, created by the intersection of multiple temporalities.” Time is nonlinear, and therefore cannot be reversed or retraced in a simplistic manner, as the scientists attempt. Linear time is “modernity’s own invention,” an attempt to rationalize existence through the application of order (Joanna Page, “Retrofuturism and Reflexivity in Argentine Fiction Film: The Construction of


Cinematic Time,” 8). However, Modernity only functions so far; it is doomed to reach a “saturation point,” from which the only direction to go is down. Time in Twelve Monkeys is


nonlinear and self-­‐reflexive; an individual’s understanding of time consists of “multiple, retrogressive and criss-­‐crossing temporalities” that cohesively form the present (8). Cole demonstrates the lack of definitive borders between the past, present and future. What Cole accomplishes in the past has a direct effect on the present, just as what he sees in the past ends up dictating his future. Cole is continuous unable to distinguish the real (the present) from simulated reality (the past). His understanding of the world crumbles as his timeline becomes increasingly mixed up due to multiple trips between the past and present. The “poly-­‐chronic” nature of time subverts the implementation of linear order; past, present and dream are tangled up in one another. When Cole attempts to impose order and division on these entities by reconciling them with one another and forcing them




to the point of simultaneous convergence, he ends up propelling himself towards his own death.


Cole’s recurring dream, a post-­‐traumatic flashback of a past experience, is the guiding doctrine for Cole’s actions during his pursuit of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. The dream sequence as a recurring motif serves to continuously dismantle reality by disrupting the “illusion of continuity” of the plot’s progression (Page, 8). The temporal space of Cole’s dream is neither past nor present; by inserting it between instances of Cole’s present and past, Gilliam demonstrates that time operates on a multifaceted level which is much more complex than the past/present division. Cole’s dream originates in the past, as a voyeuristic experience of his own later death. The dream then transcends Modern temporality by resurfacing in Cole’s present. Cole cannot experience the present, because he constantly defines his present by what has occurred in the past. Throughout the film, Cole interprets his dream as a premonition of the future, and is driven towards the realization of the dream’s events. In other words, a series of fragmented images from the past becomes the driving force behind all of Cole’s present actions. He desperately seeks to make his dream—a hallucination of the past—become reality. Like the scientists, Cole uses the past as a reference point. By reconciling the past with the present, Cole believes he can form a better understanding of his existence by creating a linear narrative. However, his attempt to do so is futile; the nonlinear nature of time undermines linear meaning. Cole’s attempted return to Modern conceptions of time and significance result in death: they are no longer attainable ideals.


By attempting to return to the past, the scientists set back into motion the very evolutionary process that led up to their present state of reversion. Just as Cole’s attempt to consolidate reality through realizing his dream leads to his death, the scientists’ attempt to assign new meaning to reality by investigating the past leads to their future demise. Moreover, the scientists and Cole seem to have a hand in generating the events of the past through their interference in the past. Cole’s presence in the past could have in some way prompted the destruction of the world through his influence on Dr. Railly, and indirectly on the man who released the virus around the world. The resurgence of the past in terms of its influence on the present, as well as the present’s pre-­‐occupation with the past demonstrate that time is unrestricted, reflexive and ambiguous in meaning or end goal. Time seems to function in the film as a clock ticking down to the hour of Cole’s death; yet, even this is contradicted, as the film continues after his death before finally returning once more to the dream sequence flashback of Cole witnessing his own death. The dream sequence/hallucination as founded in reality yet simultaneously estranged from it is the only defining factor of Cole’s existence. It is his reality, the model of his reality, and his simulation. By giving Cole’s dream the power to transcend the temporal boundaries of past and present, Gilliam achieves “an effacement of the temporalities that seemed to govern an older period of modernity” (8). Temporal existence cannot be ordered; all order imposed on human existence is a construct. The ideologies of Modernity fall flat in postmodern times because they were formed around chaos to give the illusion of order and control. Gilliam’s film serves to deconstruct this illusion by portraying ordered time as a series hallucinations leading up to nothing, resulting at best in the finality of death—but never meaning.





Cole’s existence in the past is a fictitious one because it functions on the principle of “the double.” Baudrillard defines “the double” as “artificial replication or imaginary duplication” of the real. Cole’s existence in the past is not real; his real existence occurs in the present. His presence in the past is a double of his presence in the present. Like an actor on screen, Cole (initially) plays the part laid out for him by the scientists. He is a simulation of the real, removed from reality; however, in hyperreality the real and the imagined are indistinguishable. “There is no more double,” as there is no original to be doubled (Baudrillard, 312). In hyperreality, everything is a copy of a copy. Cole looses his grasp on reality during his many trips between time periods, because he has no original to refer to when evaluating the difference between his real and fictitious existences. His life seems to take on more substance in its fictitious state than its real; far from being a piece of machinery trapped in a cage, fictitious Cole leads a life with meaning and direction. This however is paradoxical: the meaning and direction are pre-­‐determined by the scientists of the real Cole’s present. Lost in hyperreality, Cole demonstrates the confusion of an era where simulated reality is as good as actual reality. Cole’s traversing of temporal boundaries and his confusion over which time period to define as real demonstrates that “there is little to appreciate about ‘actuality’ that was ever ‘actual’ in the sense of being ‘of the moment’” (Page, 8). In hyperreality, actual reality and actual time are irrelevant. In the end, Cole chooses fiction over reality, announcing in his telephone call to the scientists that he is “not coming back.” In doing so, Cole demonstrates that in a world of simulacra, subjective perception determines what is real.


Since the original real has been lost, the distinction between reality and fiction is no longer definite or relevant. Whereas fiction has served as a reflection of reality, there is no more reality to be reflected. In the postmodern era, “there is neither fiction nor reality—a kind of hyperreality has abolished both.” Fiction once stood as mirror to reality; reality has come to reflect fiction by actualizing the imagined projections of utopia. We cannot “move ‘through the mirror’ to the other side” and find the original, in which meaning is rooted


(Baudrillard, 312). The original doesn’t exist; fiction has become reality and vice versa. Cole and Railly’s response and imitation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) demonstrate the extent to

which fiction and reality have become synonymous, yet devoid of meaning. Right before


heading to the airport, Cole and stop at a movie theater to disguise themselves. While watching Vertigo, Cole reflects, “It’s just like what’s happening with us” (Gilliam, Twelve Monkeys). Vertigo is an example of a work of fiction meant to reflect reality in an


imaginative way. However, Cole finds the movie so uncannily similar to his state of reality that the parallelism between the two renders them near indistinguishable.


Vertigo is realized by Cole and Railly: fiction becomes reality. Cole and Railly simulate Vertigo, which is itself a simulation of reality. The point at which reality simulates fiction


represents the point of hyperreality. There is no model, no origin, no past or future; only events, people and ideologies which seem to dictate reality without assigning it any real meaning. Cole and Railly’s reenactment embodies the endeavor to “reinvent the real as


fiction, precisely because the real has disappeared” (Baudrillard, 311). This reinvention is emphasized by the placement of the music from Vertigo. The transition from the diegetic


sound of the music in the movie theater to the non-­‐diegetic sound of the same piece of




music playing in lobby affirms Cole’s statement that his and Railly’s lives are “just like”


what occurs in the movie. This happens again as Dr. Peters enters the airport security checkpoint. The music playing as Judy announces her death in the showing of Vertigo is


played again non-­‐dietetically as Dr. Peters’ briefcase in inspected, just before Cole dies as a result of pursuing Dr. Peters. The ability of Vertigo’s musical score to jump off screen and


become the background music for Cole and Railly’s interaction further blends the distinction between real and replication, fiction and reality.


This blending of fiction and reality is further developed when Cole leaves the movie theater, worried he has lost Railly, only to find her hanging up a payphone while donning a


platinum blonde wig, cat eye sunglasses and a light gray trench coat. Her outfit bears similarity to that worn by Kim Novak in her role as Judy, the female lead of Vertigo. Later,


Railly goes so far as to use the name “Judy Simmons” as a pseudonym to reserve flight tickets. Railly’s transformation into Judy represents “a hallucination of the real… reconstituted” into the real, “but totally lacking in substance” (311). Railly imitates the fictional character of Hitchcock’s film, which itself is an imitation of reality. Fiction, the model of reality, becomes reality itself. The model substitutes the real, because the real no longer exists. Railly becoming Judy demonstrates the reflexive nature of fiction and reality in an era where the original has been lost and the double no longer exists. Railly’s assumption of Judy’s identity is merely a disguise. Though this identity alludes to the ideologies of classic Hollywood romance, she fails to reassign meaning to these ideologies. Her transformation into Judy is a rehallucination of the past, devoid of substance or significance. Though she has undergone a process of reversal by reexamining the past in relation to the present, she, like Cole and the scientists, fails to assign meaning to reality. Her attempt to order the present by reconstructing the past does not enable her to prevent Cole’s death. Again, Railly proves that meaning cannot be constructed through a linear reexamination of the past, because time does not occur linearly.


Temporal circularity as dependent on the lack of distinction between real and unreal shown through the past’s continuous resurgence into the present demonstrates the dissolution of the model and the ideologies that framed the model. The scientists, Cole and Railly all approach their demise through a fallacious attempt to reinstate Modernity. The past is not a blueprint for the future; information from the past does not hold the ability to order the future. Death is the only certainty. Meaning is gone, and never existed to begin with. Modernity is dead; any attempt to resurrect it, as demonstrated by Cole, is suicide.




Works Cited


Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Science Fiction (Simulacres Et Science-­‐fiction).” Science Fiction Studies 18.3, Science Fiction and Postmodernism (1991): 309-­‐13. JSTOR. Web. 19 May 2014.


Page, Joanna. “Retrofuturism and Reflexivity in Argentine Science Fiction Film: TheConstruction of Cinematic Time.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 16.1 (2012): 227-­‐44. Project Muse. Web. 19 May 2014.




Twelve Monkeys. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe. Universal Studios, 1995.



Social Disease

The recent outbreak of ebola is a recent example of how quickly a terrible disease can spread. A new disease can move quickly and far, leaving behind countless victims. Discovering the pathology and a cure for new diseases is incredibly difficult, and controlling its spread can seem impossible. Keeping track of the expansion of a new disease is almost impossible. Cases do not always get reported, those who are infected can be in denial or may fear quarantine, and the systems in place to treat diseases often cannot cope with a large epidemic. Such a strong, microscopic force contaminates entire populations with fear. This fear has found its way into fiction, taking the form of vampires, zombies, or even in staying its original form. Fiction surrounding infection emphasizes the importance of fear, and how it shapes the public reaction to those who are infected and the official course of action when dealing with an epidemic. Disease breeds fear, and that causes those who are infected to become separated from those who are healthy in an often futile attempt to contain the disease.




Because diseases are so hard to trace, everyone is seen as a threat until proven otherwise. Finding this proof can be rather difficult, so when an outbreak begins there is no way to fully deem anyone safe. This essentially prevents anyone who is showing symptoms but is not actually infected from being saved. In World War Z by Max Brooks, people become so afraid of the zombie outbreak that they start showing psychosomatic symptoms of being infected. These people are known as “quislings.” The character Joe Muhammad describes them as “a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-­‐or-­‐die situation. They’re always




drawn to what they’re afraid of. Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it” (Brooks 156). Because the outbreak is so new and so large, those dealing with a threat cannot separate those showing symptoms from those who are actually infected. In this case, that means they are killed, but in real scenarios, uninfected people can be quarantined or hospitalized—exposing them to the actual illness—and using up resources that actual patients need. Alternatively, people often carry diseases without even knowing it, which can cause an outbreak to spread quicker. When news of an epidemic begins to emerge, how is one supposed to know that a simple cough or cold is not something more dangerous? This question is explicitly brought up in John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There. A group of scientists in Antarctica discover an alien (referred to as “The Thing”) that, upon awakening, can assume the shape and can possess the thoughts and memories of any living thing. The Thing imitates a body so perfectly that none of the men at the camp know who has been infected; they only know that The Thing can spread. Van Wall says, “I wonder how many of us are monsters? All the dogs were. We thought we were safe… It may have gotten every one of you” (Campbell 65). No one can trust anybody other than his own self. These two texts make it clear that separating those who are infected is a crucial first step to controlling an outbreak of a disease. This does not only entail a physical separation, but it also includes ostracizing the infected group.



Part of removing a group of people from a social group is to other them. As the infected


individuals are beginning to be picked out, their loss of identity is gradual and increases as the danger of the epidemic increases. A prime example of this is in Dracula by Bram Stoker.


Lucy Westenra is the first to be infected by Dracula, but her symptoms do not initially identify her. Seward is called upon to examine Lucy at the start of her illness, but writes that he “did not have full opportunity of examination as I should wish; our very friendship makes a little difficulty which not even medical science or custom can bridge over” (Stoker 123). Seward is unable to do a thorough examination of Lucy because she is not very ill yet and he therefore cannot cut of all of his emotional ties to her and behave as a professional. As the vampirism progresses and becomes more of a threat, these factors begin to fade and he and Van Helsing are able to give her more thorough treatment because they think of her in terms of her infection. This is epitomized when Lucy is stabbed through the heart by the men who love her once she emerges as a vampire. When Arthur stabs Lucy’s body, Seward describes seeing that “The Thing in the coffin writhed, and a hideous, blood-­‐curdling scream came from the opened red lips” (Stoker 231). Though Lucy’s body is still animate, she is no longer considered to be “Lucy.” She has transformed into a “Thing,” nothing more than the symptoms of her infection. Preventative measures were only taken when Lucy still considered a human, but once she becomes consumed by the infection, she loses her identity and is killed in order to stop the vampirism from spreading.




The termination of the disease proves to be more pertinent than the preservation of Lucy’s life. Becoming sick has made Lucy a threat, and she cannot be saved or reincorporated back into society without getting rid of the disease. The same holds true when Mina begins to be infected, and she makes the men promise to kill her if the infection goes too far (Stoker 328). Vampirism spreads like a disease, starting with nonspecific symptoms and eventually




taking over the entire body. As it progresses in both Lucy and Mina, they become more of a threat because they can pass it on to others. By using vampirism as a metaphor for disease (specifically, tuberculosis), “the consumptive ceases to be a passive recipient of the disease


  • and becomes a willing embracer of it, and one who will infect others in turn in order to survive” (Byrne 8). The idea that those who become sick are chosen makes it easier to remove those who are infected from society. Their disease is a distinguisher, like the mark of Cain. So despite the fact that Mina is a fairly passive woman who will do anything for her husband and proves to be quite necessary in tracking down Dracula, the sicker she gets the more she is viewed as an active threat. In this way, infected individuals during an outbreak are vilified and ostracized unless they are cured.




While infected people are still intermingled in society without being cured or killed, the disease will continue to spread. As more and more people become infected, a paranoid fear of catching the illness grows among the public. The fear is geared toward the disease, an


invisible foe. People act in almost an obsessive-­‐compulsive manner, questioning every step they have made since the outbreak began. For example, in Contagion, Dr. Mears tries to


trace the disease, which entails finding out who Beth Emhoff came in contact with. Her coworkers become overly concerned, and one of them even fears the possibility of


contracting the disease because Beth may have touched his coffee cup a week before she went to Hong Kong, where she was exposed to the disease (Contagion). When an outbreak


first becomes an epidemic, the sickness seems to be an invisible presence lurking everywhere. Beth Emhoff’s coworkers know that they have been around a person who has interacted with the virus, but they cannot see where it began and where it went. Fear of contamination becomes irrational because it takes a while to discover the pathology of a disease, and in the meantime false information can be spread. Whenever the disease does manifest itself in some visible way, fear increases and people stampede to get away from it.



In World War Z, a man from the West Indies describes the beginning of the zombie outbreak in his town. Though his neighborhood is not a good one, when the zombies start reanimating things become much worse: “This was lasting much too long to be an ordinary gang row. Now there were screams, shouts. I began to smell smoke… Dozens of people, most of them in their nightclothes, all shouting ‘Run! Get out of here! They’re coming!’” (Brooks 29). The people in this neighborhood run from the infected corpses to protect themselves, ignoring the fact that they are putting themselves in immediate danger by stampeding. When a disease is not visible, it is only scary in theory. When it manifests itself in a physical way it becomes a monster, and it becomes much more terrifying. This causes people to act instinctually and chaotically. When the initial terror wears off, it becomes important to find some reasoning within all the madness. Author Susan Sontag suggests that when tuberculosis was still mysterious and something to be largely afraid of, it was considered “a ‘disease of individuals’, an infection which singles out its victims,” (Byrne 2). Realistically, viruses just do what is necessary to survive. However, because disease is the enemy, this does not seem to be a graspable concept. For example, scientist Paul Ehrlich wanted to design a “magic bullet” to kill viruses, as if they were the enemies in war. Paul De Kruif describes these enemies as “Terrible beasts… sly, [and] tough” (Kruif 337). To the




public, these are not simple organisms, but vicious beasts. People personify viruses through metaphors like vampires and zombies to vilify them and make it appear as if they infect people with an offensive, malicious intent as opposed to the virus just being passive and trying to survive.




Turning a virus or disease into something evil that is consuming its host makes it easier to ostracize those who are infected. It is as if those who are sick are possessed by some sort of demon. During an outbreak, healthy people do not want to associate with anyone who may have been in contact with the disease because infection is undetectable initially. They are


working with an invisible threat, so they act with extra precaution. One example of this is appears in Contagion when Mitch Emhoff is in a grocery store with his daughter and


explicitly keeps his distance from a coughing woman begging for help, and immediately leaves the store once he sees her. He is so sure to keep a large distance between her and them; it is as if even breathing the same air ensures their death. She is not a human being in his eyes—instead she is treated like a ticking time bomb. This fear manifests itself in larger ways. Even the government treats those with even a chance of being sick as outsiders. In


the next scene, both Mitch and his daughter are denied entrance into Wisconsin because any outsiders could have been exposed to the disease (Contagion). People are immediately


perceived as dangerous without any sort of distinguisher. Every stranger is seen as a potential threat, and that fear causes people to faction themselves off. Anyone who has ever come in contact with the illness is shunned. This is a counterproductive strategy; by ostracizing everyone without proof of illness, healthy people are put at risk by being unable to leave infected areas. The reaction to the fear of becoming infected causes people and entities to act irrationally. World War Z demonstrates a rational and reasonable attempt at protecting healthy people. In the book, Israel takes healthy people in and quarantines them. They screen immigrants for infection, and practice no social or political prejudices. Healthy Palestinians are allowed into the country without any problems but an infected Jewish Canadian or American cannot. Those who are not allowed into the country are taken away in mysterious black vans to an undisclosed location (Brooks 41). Israel’s response in the book shows that fear of disease, especially when faced rationally, outweighs any other fear. The act of quarantining physically separates the ill and creates a stigma around them. Because of all the fear, not much attention is paid to how the sick people are taken care of as long as they are no longer a threat.




This disregard for the treatment of the sick creates a psychological boundary between those who are healthy and those who are not. In Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, the


scientist Paul Ehrlich is described as “a gay man” who “smoked twenty-­‐five cigars a day; he was fond of drinking a seidel of beer…” and he was “a modern man,” (Kruif 326). Ehrlich is constantly described in terms of his religion, nationality, and sexuality, which is a stark contrast to the description of the people with the disease he was trying to cure. Ehrlich’s “magic bullet” was saving them “from the ostracism worse than death that came to those sufferers whose bodies the pale spirochete gnawed until they were things for loathing” (Kruif 348). The people being described become nothing more than their symptoms. This is a stark contrast to the healthy doctor, who is described by his sociopolitical identifiers. He




is relatable and more human instead of a symbol or a figure. The sick patients, however, are personified illness. They cannot integrate into society unless they are healthy. In Contagion,

victims of the illness are dehumanized even after death. Mitch Emhoff is unable to bury his


wife and stepson, who are instead buried in a mass grave alongside other victims of the epidemic (Contagion). Families cannot pay their respects to loved ones. While a disease is


still mostly untreatable, people need to make peace with losing their loved ones before they actually pass. It is as if by contracting the disease, a person loses all humanity and dies with a diagnosis. The disease takes them over like getting turned into a vampire or sustaining a bite from a zombie.




While the fear of infection ostracizes everyone who is sick, the main villain is known as “patient zero.” This patient is the one who brought this disease upon the whole community—a face for the disease. The idea of an original carrier of the disease or an index case provides a scapegoat for those affected by the epidemic. By finding an index patient, there is a new basis on which to acquire fear. Knowing where a disease started gives a clearer idea of who may have been in contact with the disease and who is more at risk. But


it is also about placing blame. There is a mindset that bad things cannot happen for no reason, so somebody has to be the reason. In Contagion, when people are restless for


answers, Dr. Cheever calms the public by saying that they are looking for patient zero. They eventually decide that Beth Emhoff is the index patient, but in a global epidemic that is impossible to determine. While looking at footage of Beth’s interaction with other people who ended up being infected, it was unclear who was spreading the disease to whom. Also,


the closing sequence makes it clear that Beth was infected by a chef who was infected by a pig who was infected by a bat (Contagion). It is impossible to know who else the pig or bat


or even the chef came in contact with, so there could be countless index cases. Despite the obvious impossibility of finding a real patient zero, this is common practice. During a large outbreak of SARS in Singapore in March 2003, an index patient was found. However, the case study says that “a physician from southern China who stayed on the same floor of the hotel during this period is believed to have been the source of infection for this index patient and the index patients of outbreaks in Vietnam and Canada” (Li-­‐Yang). This proves that while an index patient can be found for specific, localized outbreaks, an overall patient zero is impossible to determine. However, scientists continue to search for the closest thing possible. If a real patient zero were to be found during an outbreak, this would give the public a visible enemy. There would be a name and a face to attribute all of the suffering to. Instead of being a victim of the disease, any index patients found become be the perpetrator.




While it is mostly those who are infected who are lose their identities, the general public in risk of contracting the disease lose their individuality. In World War Z, people being brought into quarantine in Israel were penned up in a camp described by Saladin as “the tents, the overcrowding, the guards, the barbed wire, and the seething, baking Negev Desert sun.” And although the people in the camps were eventually given papers and subsidized housing, they had no choice in where they went (Brooks 42). People in need of treatment are treated like cattle. Happiness or quality of life isn’t as important as simply




staying alive and healthy. Even if a vaccine is created, there is no strategic way of dispersing them. At some point, the risk cannot be contained. Fear becomes as widespread


as it can be, and everyone becomes the “other.” There is no more community, because everyone is afraid of everyone else. In Contagion, quarantining is not as easy. Sick patients


are still quarantined, but healthy people have no way of escaping the looming threat of contraction. The disease is more widespread, so the focus is on creating a vaccine. Once a vaccine is made, the vaccinations are given based on a lottery system. It is not a strategic way of giving out vaccines to stop the infection more quickly, nor is it based on need or even a first-­‐come-­‐first-­‐serve basis. In both ways of helping the public as demonstrated by the novel and the film, there is the fear that luck will not be in one’s favor. The public has to remain on edge in the hopes that their number will be called.




An outbreak of an untreatable disease is also an outbreak of fear, and mass panic always has negative repercussions. However, this fear is necessary. If the public empathizes with sick people, they will try to help which will involve contact. If people who are sick are turned into monsters, the public will try to keep a safe distance. Nevertheless, too much fear is a bad thing and can lead to mobs and riots. This is why the idea of a “patient zero” or an index patient is necessary. By knowing where a disease came from and where it most likely spread, people who were not in those areas or in contact with those people have less to fear. The public needs to be afraid enough to look to the government for help, but not so afraid as to not trust how the government handles the situation. This seems manipulative. After all, the people should control the government and not the other way around. But this controlled fear is necessary. The government has a limited supply of resources and it must be rationed out as best as possible. While bias is inevitable, revolting and looting is not. Citizens must feel like they need their government to protect them. By keeping the power dynamic of the government in tact, there is some sort of semblance of order amidst all of the chaos. After all, the necessary supplies cannot be rationed out if rioters steal or destroy them.



Works Cited


Byrne, Katherine. Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination. Cambridge, NY:

Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.


Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York, NY: Three Rivers, 2006. Print.


Campbell, John W. Who Goes There? N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Contagion. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law.


WarnerBros., 2011.


De Kruif, Paul. “Chapter 12.” Microbe Hunters. N.p.: Harcourt, n.d. 326-­‐50. Print.


Hsu L-­‐Y, Lee C-­‐C, Green JA, Ang B, Paton NI, Lee L, et al. Severe acute respiratory syndrome




(SARS) in Singapore: clinical features of index patient and initial contacts. Emerg Infect Dis


[serial online] 2003 Jun [2012 December]. Available from: URL:



Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

The Ethics of Representation: Rape, Torture, Genocide

Difficult topics in literature–rape, torture, and genocide–are often surrounded by ethical criticisms. The ethics of representing traumas in literature is a field replete with opposing views, and many authors have reservations about writing acts of trauma because of the effect it can have


on those who have been traumatized. As literary critic Cathy Caruth writes about this ethical dilemma: “the unremitting problem of how not to betray


the past” (Caruth’s italics, 27). In this essay I will discuss the various methods of representing trauma so as not to fall into the cliché–as Coetzee puts it–of “spy fiction” (Coetzee, “Chamber” 362). Iwillalsoaddressthe crucialroleofthereader,astheauthor’stargetaudience should dictate the depth of the trauma being described. Lastly I will prove that no matter the


trauma, literature must represent these times when humanity is at its lowest. Although novels like Disgrace may be difficult to read for victims of


rape, it is imperative to acknowledge its message is meant specifically for the person who does not understand it. This tactic to which critics refer as “Crossing the line” is necessary and integral to the ethics of representation, as the author’s goal should be to use the sensitive subject in a way that discomforts the reader. Giventhisstandard, I will study various authors’ methods of how they cross the line in a way that nevertheless ethically represents their trauma to the target audience. There are four parts to this thesis, which will outline and define ethical representation






through close readings of J.M. Coetzee’s novels Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace, ErnestHemingway’sshortstory “Hills Like White Elephants,”


Art Spiegelman’s graphic novelMaus, and theImmortalTechnique song “Dance with the Devil.




Ethical Considerations: Placing the Reader in the Position of Being “Traumatized”


Texts concerning the ethics of representing traumas like rape, genocide, or torture are often in danger of falling into a suicide gorge, positioned above a symbolic tightrope between immense cliffs. On one side lies the readers of the texts: those who will critique it, laugh and cry while reading it, and deem the literary worth and popularity of the text. On the other side lies the victims– past, present, and future–who have experienced the trauma portrayed in the text. Walking on the tightrope is the author, balancing his or her own representation of the trauma and trying to represent something that has often been labeled as “unspeakable.”


It is important for both the author and the readers to realize that the text should not be meant for the victims of the trauma. Maus was not written for Holocaust survivors, just as Waiting for the Barbarians


was not written for tortured individuals. Texts like this are meant to illustrate–and to a certain extend traumatize–the intended audience with little experience of the incident itself. Although some may argue that it is unethical to place the innocent reader into the shoes of the traumatized victim, I argue this is the essence of the genre. Trauma literature should impact the reader, give them a representation– however minuscule in comparison –of what it was like to be raped, to live through the Holocaust, or to merely witness a fellow life being tortured.


There are some critics who find the representation of genocide and other traumas deplorable. The often-­‐cited critic of Holocaust representation, Theodore Adorno states, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (34). Adorno’s premise is summed up well in a later book, in which he writes, “When even genocide becomes cultural property in committed literature, it becomes easier complying with the culture that gave rise to the murder” (35). Granted, by depicting topics as difficult as the Holocaust the author also allows the representation of Nazi totalitarianism to continue. However,






even if it were possible to show one without the other it would be an inaccurate version of the past, as the aim of representation is accuracy and depicting Nazis is thus a necessary evil in representing history. Adorno warns against reification within such a complex topic like the Holocaust, yet this does not signify it is hopeless to attempt. On the contrary, it is imperative to represent these topics, particularly in literature and media. The human experience is unique in that we commit atrocities against each other unlike any other animal species on Earth. Speaking of the Holocaust does mean speaking of Nazism, and humanity must remember this stain on human history to prevent similar atrocities from happening in the future. This is something that has been happening since civilization began and covering it up, misrepresenting it, only further perpetuates the arrogance that humanity is above committing these traumas. The purpose of texts is to illuminate readers about the human experience, and as trauma is no different, its representation must also catalogue all perspectives, not just the victim’s.


An obstacle many authors face when writing about trauma is offending victims. This could be due to how the victims remember their own trauma, or simply because it is a memory they do not wish to go through again. Even those who know victims of trauma may feel representations are insensitive to those who have been through them. Spiegelman struggles visibly with this, when Vladek tells Art, “No one wants to hear such stories” (Maus I 12). Vladek knows that his story is not one people read for comfort or pleasure, and it is apparent that Vladek literally runs out of energy remembering

his past. After


describing a





of around 100,000 Jews (including himself and his wife Anja) to Auschwitz, he looks sad and dejected:


(Maus I, 151).








Here we see Vladek, head in hand, visibly exhausted from retelling his past. His physical exercise on the stationary bike parallels the emotional toll of the victim reliving his own trauma through the act of retelling. Similarly, Vladek becomes upset and distant from his son upon reading his comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” because it forces him to recall his wife’s suicide. Thisisworsenedbyhavingto read it through the lens of his son and relive his trauma through another’s eyes. The act of re-­‐experiencing trauma is difficult, and consequentially requires meticulous examination within the ethics of representation. Inthecreationofthisbook, Vladek and Artie consequently make a sacrifice together to relive their trauma and represent it to the world.


There are several methods of ethical representation considering traumatic experiences. First person narratives such as Maus are ideal because they do not attempt to give a full description of an over-­‐arching traumatic event like the Holocaust. This narrowfocus allows the intended audience to put themselves into the mind of a single character, so they do not simply learn about the trauma, but experience it. However, ultimately it is difficult for the victim’s desire to relieve himself of traumatic memories to coexist with accurately educating the reader of the trauma. Maus addresses this issue as well, when Artie asks his father if he saved any of the letters of correspondence between himself and holocaust victims:



















(Maus II 98).


Here we see the Holocaust survivor attempting to distance himself from trauma through destroying evidence that it even occurred. The dichotomy






between the Holocaust survivor seeking to destroy evidence of his trauma and the need to represent the trauma is shown throughout Maus. When Vladek tells Artie he burned Anja’s diaries of the war, Artie calls him a “murderer” (Maus I 159), representing Vladek as an ironic survivor who himself is guilty of murder. This is what makes representation so difficult: those affected by trauma are often the ones who choose not to speak about it. In this way it is imperative to know that trauma representation is not aimed at those who’ve been affected by the trauma, but everyone else. It is up to one brave victim to sacrifice his own sensibility and relive the traumatic moment in order to speak to the rest of the world.


J.M. Coetzee touches on this same paradigm of representation in Waiting for the Barbarians. In this genre characters often question the ethics of placing

innocent people in traumatic experiences, which parallels the text’s own objective of traumatizing the reader. Although all trauma literature seeks to traumatize or educate the reader about trauma, it should also bring to light the ethical dilemma of doing so. The Magistrate is made to write up a report on the torture and death of a prisoner, and Colonel Joll tells him, “‘…the prisoner became enraged and attacked the investigating officer. A scuffle ensued during which the prisoner fell heavily against the wall. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful’” (6). When the Magistrate questions the guard with Joll to corroborate his report, he admits he was told what to say to the Magistrate and also confuses the facts on the incident (7). Still, the Magistrate’s own attempt at writing down Joll’s crimes in the form of a letter to the capital prove unsuccessful, which shows the difficulty of trauma representation (66). The inability of the Magistrate to write about torture alludes to the trouble many authors face when attempting to represent traumas like torture. Representing torture is rarely done accurately by objective texts like police reports and history books, so it falls to literature and creative texts to tell this story. Often those reading trauma literature are searching for answers about humanity and how we can commit these terrible acts against each other. The Magistrate’s healing of the tortured barbarian girl is his method of both distancing himself from Joll as well as attempting to understand torture: in a sense he “reads” the girl, trying to imagine himself in her position. However, his experience brings only confusion, guilt, and anger to the Magistrate. He does not find that his healing helps his own guilt, as he admits he “must assert [his] distance from Colonel Joll” (50). The Magistrate’s ultimate decision to take the girl to her people was an act of kindness, but it also stemmed from his need to take a stand against Joll the Empire, and possibly a subconscious






desire to be tortured himself and thus understand torture.


It is only once the Magistrate is tortured that he truly understands the experience. He says of his “fellow-­‐creatures”: they have “no recourse but to turn their backs to the wind and endure” (177). This alludes to the role empathy plays in ethical representation of trauma. While there is no way to wholly represent trauma, even placing someone in the role of the victim is important, and it creates a link between the reader and the victim through empathetic response and understanding, instead of guilt and anger. As the reader only sees the story through the lens of the Magistrate, his trauma is ours, and through that we understand a little of what he went through. Trauma representation seeks to place the intended audience into a position to empathize and understand difficult topics, and the Magistrate’s own struggle to understand trauma echoes humanity’s trouble solving the same problem.


Disgrace,alsobyCoetzee, reveals the ethics of traumatizing the reader through David Lurie’s attempt at understanding Lucy’s rape. Lucy Lurie owns a small patch of farmland east of Cape Town in South Africa, and shortly after the end of Apartheid, her father David comes to live with her. When Coetzee describes how three men rob their house and rape Lucy, he never fully places the reader into the position of the victim. Similarly, only once does Lucy attempt to describe the rape to David: “ ‘It was so personal…the rest was…expected.’ (157).


Lurie’s position as the bystander to the rape can be related to the reader, since neither one can help the trauma victim through any other method besides empathy and understanding. Coetzee emphasizes the impotence of the bystander when he has David unsuccessfully and repeatedly ask Lucy to move away from her native South Africa, as well as asking Lucy to get an abortion (197). David begins to understand the process of empathizing with trauma when he asks himself if he “has it in him to be the woman” (160). He admits that to empathize he must try to imagine what it was like for Lucy, which outlines the problem that crossing gender lines poses as men try to understand trauma. Putting the reader in David’s shoes leads to this conclusion for us as well, even though David is unable to actually place himself in this position. His desire to stay near Lucy and help her through this time, on her terms, does show that he is willing to empathize with her situation and her desire to stay on the farm, even though he does not fully understand it. The notion that we may not comprehend trauma, like David’s






inability to understand Lucy’s, does not mean that as authors and readers we should ignore the problem of its representation. Instead it is best to try to empathize, even if anger and vengeance are easier to represent and feel.


Although Disgrace tackles questions of ethical representation, Coetzee complicates simple readings of trauma by setting the novel in post-­‐ Apartheid South Africa. The easiest thing for Lucy to do would be to leave, to give up the farm and live in a new place, away from the men who raped her, like her father suggests throughout the novel. David notes to himself, “Lucy’s future, his future, the future of the land as a whole–it is all a matter of indifference,” but as much as South Africa is the home of the rapists, it is


also her home, and the new South Africa combines both the native African and the European descendantsofsettlers (Coetzee, Disgrace 107). David,


however is a member of the old South Africa, and he reflects, “In the old days one could have had it out with Petrus,” lamenting the power he has lost in his country (116). Lucy’s decision to stay at home reflects her desire to


become a part of the new South Africa, no matter the cost. She even asks, “what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on?” (158). Although her


question is in part due to Stockholm syndrome, she is also conflating her trauma with her role in creating a new South Africa. Lucy is not purely a martyr for her country, however, as her decision to stay stems from the pragmatic need for her to keep on living at her home. Lucy certainly does try to define the act as “justified rape,” only that the issue of post-­‐Apartheid South Africa is one with multitudinous positions, and ultimately the question of forgiveness and empathy is crucial to the success of the nation. In this regard Lucy acts as a hero, sacrificing her own happiness for her country, just like Vladek must sacrifice his own happiness to retell his story in Maus. However, this is complicated by her pragmatism, as she must accommodate her neighbors simply to survive. The duality of Lucy as both a martyr and a pragmatic survivor is an important notion in accurately describing her position as a white woman in post-­‐Apartheid South Africa.


The act of traumatizing the intended audience has become more common among underground hip-­‐hop artists who target urban criminals or potentially criminal youths. It is worth noting that although the realm of hip-­‐ hop is not characteristically thought of as a genre fit for literary criticism, I argue that in today’s media-­‐saturated culture and the internet’s help in self-­‐ publishing, the concept of what is literary is changing. Often it is the non-­‐ canonical texts that reach the most people and have the capacity to change the way the populace thinks. This is particularly true with music, because






often it reaches different audiences than novels do. The representation of trauma can often be a “preach to the choir” genre, where those who already feel that the trauma needs to be stopped are those praising the text for its


work. Few conservative misogynists will pick up Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble just as few criminals will read The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle.


However, a text like “Dance with the Devil,” must reach its audience forcefully and violently; to do anything else would risk falling on deaf ears. Its intense, vulgar imagery, though difficult to listen to, is done so to show rapists the horror of their own crimes. Coronel raps, “Billy was made to go first but they all took a turn / Ripping her up, and choking her…” (Coronel). Coronel’s gruesome descriptions are not just meant to disgust the listener for “shock value:” he raps “rape” graphically and revoltingly specifically because it is revolting. At his height of vulgarity Coronel raps, “he was looking into the eyes of his own mother…she cried more violently than when they were raping her” (Coronel). Ultimately the song reflects his audience, asking them the most difficult question: “What if she were your own mother?” Coronel’s message and underground rap genre cater to a mostly Black and Latino urban youth in the United States, some of whom live in the culture Coronel warns against and are more likely to be brought up by a single mother than other Americans. From 2000-­‐2012 a staggering 67% of African-­‐American children and 42% of Latino children were raised by single parents, compared with 25% of white Americans (Population Reference Bureau). Even the most hardened criminal has a mother, and most would wish her safety. Coronel’s representation of rape may be horrendous, but it remains a necessary evil, as the song targets the perpetrators of this crime and pleads with them to take a different path. The depth of abhorrence in trauma representation is dependent on the audience of the author. Coronel also places his listener into a role in which empathy is created, but his audience is the niche market of the criminal or rapist. That is why his lyrics are horrendous: he is speaking to a subculture of criminal that supports notions of drug dealing and gang violence.


The aim of trauma literature is to depict a traumatic event objectively while also traumatizing the reader so as to instill feelings of empathy and compassion for the victim. This requires a sacrifice be made for the victim, who often attempts to reconcile the damaging experience by forgetting it. Vladek burns letters and diaries to try to live after the Holocaust, lamenting, “All such things of the war, I tried to put out from my mind once for all…until you rebuild me all this from your questions” (Ellipses by Spiegelman, Maus II 98). It is a common coping mechanism of victims of






Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which Holocaust survivors undoubtedly have) to put their trauma out of their minds (“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”). In The Magistrate’s case, he is unable to understand torture until he experiences it himself. True empathy comes from feeling the pain of others, which he learns throughout his experience with Colonel Joll. Ultimately it is not only ethical to traumatize the reader in ethical representation, but it is necessary to understand trauma. Representation cannot ever fully represent trauma, but creating empathy and compassion through literature and music is necessary for remembering the past beyond death tolls and history books. In the next section I will discuss several authors’ methods of representation of trauma from different angles, including the act of trauma itself, the importance of the witness, on the impossibility of telling, and the role of the torturer.


The Aftermath: the Psyche of the Witness


When trauma enters literary discourse, often the victim is interpreted, analyzed, and decoded ad nauseam. However, there exists another party that is similarly affected by trauma: the witness. Often the witness of a trauma feels guilt or shame in witnessing, or perhaps that they did not do enough to help the victim. Trauma literature almost always contains witnesses who are traumatized themselves by an experience with the victim or the perpetrator of a trauma, and authors who deal with ethical representation must accurately represent those who witness, because often simply the act of witnessing a trauma is traumatic itself.


In J.M. Coetzee’s essay “Into the Dark Chamber,” he refers to his novel Waiting for the Barbarians as “the impact of the torture chamber on the life


of a man of conscience” (362). The novel begins with the arrival of Colonel Joll, a military emissary from the Capitol, and his torture slowly converts the Magistrate against the very empire he swore to protect and serve. Initially the Magistrate goes hunting with the Colonel and maintains a peaceful relationship with him, but throughout the novel the Magistrate begins to distance himself from both the Empire and Joll. When tending to a tortured child’s wounds, he says, “It has not escaped me that an interrogator can


wear two masks, speak with two voices, one hard, one seductive” (Coetzee, Barbarians 8). Even though he does nothing to aide in the torture of the


individuals, he is painfully aware he also does nothing to stop it. This makes him feel guilt and shame for complying with torture, if not executing it, and this emotionally traumatizes him. The Magistrate is troubled by his






connection to Joll, as they are both working for the Empire, and he struggles throughout the novel to personally identify in contrast to the Colonel. Simply witnessing torture causes the Magistrate to feel responsible for Joll’s crimes, and this creates guilt and shame, which provides a motive for his actions later in the novel.


The Magistrate’s transformation as a witness of torture is confined and swollen by his guilt. One of their first dialogues brings the Magistrate to think, “Who am I to assert my distance from him…the Empire does not require that its servants love each other” (6). The Magistrate goes on to oppose Joll in the privacy of his soldiers, saying, “[Joll] is ridiculous!” speaking in reference to the clearly innocent prisoners he has taken (19). However, he still does as Joll commands. As the novel progresses, the Magistrate’s action surrounding Joll changes. He takes in the barbarian girl whom Joll has tortured, seeking to rid his guilt by attempting to heal her. However, this is not enough to disquiet his conscience, as he states: “I undress her, I bathe her…but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate” (49). Again he blames himself for aiding Joll as the “innocent bystander.” He still finds himself relating to Joll, thinking “I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!” (WFB 50). He acts against Joll’s wishes in bringing the barbarian girl to her people, and while imprisoned admits, “I wanted to make reparation” (94). The guilt of witnessing torture is articulated clearly by the Magistrate when he says, “It is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it” (160). In addition to the Magistrate this occurs to Mandel, Joll’s assistant in torturing operations. He is unable to face the Magistrate when he asks how he can live with the guilt he must feel from being a torturer, and retreats away from him while hitting the Magistrate (146). Many of those who witness torture have the guilt forced upon them– or the shame of seeing torture’s reduction of humanity.


The psyche’s transformation due to a trauma can also be seen in Holocaust memoirs. My grandfather fought in World War II and liberated a Nazi concentration camp with his garrison. Upon seeing the debilitated starving bodies of those who were on the brink of death he and his soldiers vomited at the sight of the very people he came to free. My father would later tell me this, recalling the shame my grandfather felt at seeing those bodies, and the disgust he felt when looking at them. Trauma not only affects the victim, but brings shame and guilt to the witness as well. This is a central theme to Maus, as Artie acts as a witness–a second-­‐generation survivor–to the






Holocaust because his parents lived through it. The initial comic depicts a ten or eleven-­‐year-­‐ old Artie skating with his friends, who skate away without him. He cries to his father that his friends abandoned him. Vladek replies, “Friends? Your Friends? / If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… / …Then you could see what it is, friends!… (ellipses by Spiegelman, Maus I 6). This is a cynical response from a parent, someone who usually protects children from such vivid imagery, and shows how Vladek raised him with full knowledge of the Holocaust and his experience, even at an early age. Art also witnesses his own trauma directly when his mother commits suicide. Ironically he is expected to console his father instead of grieving with him, as seen in the inserted comic “Prisoner on Hell Planet” (101). Although the reader is left unaware of the trauma this caused Artie, he undoubtedly has deep seeded anger issues with his father over his


upbringing, and struggles to sort through those while simultaneously writing Maus (Maus II 44).


The trauma of the witness is also articulated in Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, through David Lurie. His sexual assault of an adult student, Melanie Isaacs leaves him feeling his own sense of shame and guilt. Although Lurie commits the crime himself, the scene should be treated differently than a traumatic scene with Lurie playing the “evil” villain. The altercation is “undesired to the core,” yet Lurie describes it as “not rape, not quite that” and this notion is strengthened by her helping him undress her (25). This encouragement does not excuse his actions, but simply means there are degrees of rape, and as such Lurie acts as both witness and villain to the trauma. Immediately after Lurie feels remorse for what he has done, calling it “a mistake, a huge mistake” (25). He even mentions a bath may be necessary to cleanse himself of the situation, an action traditionally done by women who are raped, not the perpetrator. Lurie attempts to shed his guilt by marking the Melanie a 70 on her midterm exam even though she was absent. Lurie is a man of conscience, and he tries to reason it was “Aphrodite,” god of love, that spurred him to act (25).


Lurie undoubtedly committed a crime in his assault of Melanie, but his remorse and the severity of the rape make him less a rapist and more a victim of what Freud would call the Id. Lurie is very careful during his preliminary hearing to not apologize for his action, but nevertheless takes his punishment. It would have been easy for David to lie and most likely keep his job, perhaps only suffer a suspension (54). Throughout the novel, he controls his desire even when he feels it, like when he meets the






Melanie’s more attractive sister Desiree: “[David] has an urge to reach


out…at the same instant the memory of [Melanie] comes over him in a hot wave. God save me, he thinks – what am I doing here?” (164). Additionally,


“desire” and “Desiree” can be read equivalently here, and Coetzee did not name Melanie’s sister this by accident. However, he asserts he is guilty of “whatever Ms. Isaacs alleges,” believing there is “no reason she should lie” (49). Lurie makes a calculated distinction here between crime and guilt: he believes he has committed a crime–namely deciding to succumb to his lustful fantasy–but he will not apologize for this original urge. He argues that the fantasy itself is beyond his control, and Lurie states that he often consciously decides not to engage in it. In his assault of Melanie he acquiesces to his darker nature by choice. Having said that, he still adheres to his punishment of disgrace, so much so that he refuses to submit a letter of repentance without sincerity, though a judge at his hearing asks him to (58).


Coetzee’s critique here lies in patriarchal society where those who commit crimes against women are often just told to apologize and they are forgiven. Lurie will not apologize for his own feelings of lust or animalism but nevertheless takes responsibility for his choice of acting on those feelings, and he takes more care throughout the novel to keep them in check, as evidenced by his experience with Desiree.


The trauma of the witness is also portrayed in “Dance with the Devil,” by Coronel. Although the song outlines the corruptive path of the “ghetto-­‐bred” youth named William Jacobs who turns to drug dealing, the perspective of the narrator is of a fellow gangster, one whom the main character aims to impress with the gang rape at the end of the song. Ultimately the narrator is similar to Lurie in his shame and regret doing what he did. He sings:


I was there with Billy Jacobs and I raped his mom too


And now the devil follows me wherever I go


In fact, I’m sure he’s standing among one of you at my shows And every street cipher listening to little thugs flow


He could be standing right next to you, and you wouldn’t know


The devil grows inside the hearts of the selfish and wicked White, brown, yellow and black color is not restricted


You have a self-­‐destructive destiny when you’re inflicted (Coronel).








Although in no way does his regret excuse his act, the narrator himself now fell victim to the life he is warning others against. Given the intended audience of Corone, it helps that the narrator participates in the crime to add to the ethos of the denunciation of the “live by the gun” mantra. The last lines of the quotation also serve to show that traveling down the path will inevitably cause you to “self-­‐destruct,” or “die by the gun.” This is a particularly crucial notion in the ethics of representation because as readers we are all witnesses of the trauma. If we are unaffected by reading the story of a rape, or a torture, clearly the author has not described it well enough. Coronel’s song also holds redemptive power, as the narrator was one of the hardened criminals whom Coronel pleads his audience to avoid. Often witnessing a trauma, as Coronel did can change people for the better, and if even one person is affected enough by “Dance with the Devil” to change their ways, then the song has completed its object.



The Act Itself, And the Impossibility of Telling


J.M. Coetzee writes on the subject of prisons: “[In South Africa] They may not be sketched or photographed, under threat of severe penalty…such laws have a particular symbolic appropriateness, as though it were decreed that the camera lens must shatter at the moment it is trained on certain sites” (“Chamber” 361). This simile can extend to all trauma, and is specifically similar to the common notion that the Holocaust is “unspeakable.” Often it seems that many traumatic events lack a certain “representability,” especially through the medium of language. How can one write about Auschwitz having never been there; describe burning bodies on a blank piece of paper, or a gang rape, or a scene of torture, with only a pen and paper? The clear obstacle in trauma representation is the notion that the act of trauma–meaning the literal murder, rape, or torture–cannot be fully represented simply in words, only a representation can give the reader a notion of the act itself. This is only exemplified by topics surrounding trauma, precisely because the equivocal nature of their portrayal.


Barbarians gives us the Magistrate–referred to Coetzee as “a man of conscience” in his essay “Into the Dark Chamber”–who is confronted directly with torture on three specific instances (364). First, Colonel Joll imprisons him for consorting with the enemy barbarians and left in solitude for three months, repeatedly being denied food and water. Coetzee writes on the depiction of torture in literature: “‘Torture without the






torturer’ is the key phrase…[torture is] beyond the scope of morality. For morality is human, whereas the two figures [tortured] belong to a damned, dehumanized world” (366). His forced solitary confinement acts like this notion of torture in its own way: “I realize how tiny I have allowed them to make my world…I [am] more like a beast or a simple machine…My requests


for clean clothes are ignored…What freedom has been left to me?” (Coetzee, Barbarians 101). The notion of the torture occurring without the torturer is


important because it is what the torturer desires; it is part of the method of torture itself. If the tortured victim fails to see who is torturing him, he will forget his enemy and forget himself. The Magistrate thinks, “they will never bring a man to trial while he is healthy and strong…they will shut me away in the dark till I am a muttering idiot, a ghost of myself,” and this is exactly the aim of torture; not exactly to acquire the truth, just to create something that will say what the torturer needs him to say. The Magistrate’s transformation is similar to methods of torture and degradation used in the Holocaust. The epigraph to Maus I states, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” which is a quote from Adolf Hitler (Spiegelman 4). Throughout Maus Jews, imprisoned Poles, and other non-­‐ Aryan Germans were all treated like animals for the aim of the Nazi cause. Torture makes humans un-­‐human, inhumane, and barbaric. Coetzee highlights this dehumanization with the animalistic representation of the Magistrate, and shows that often the tortured loses sight of the torturer.


The Magistrate’s most direct confrontation with torture occurs when he is humiliated in front of the whole town. It then becomes apparent to the Magistrate that Mandel is going to kill him. His walk toward the center of the town is marked by short, halting sentences: “I climb, [Mandel] climbs behind me, guiding me. I count ten rungs. Leaves brush against me. I stop.

He grips my arm tighter” (Coetzee, Barbarians 136). This halting, observational prose starkly contrasts Coetzee’s style earlier in the novel. This stylistic change occurs during the events of torture outside of the Magistrate’s consciousness, and shows that often in order to represent difficult traumas like torture, simple, objective sentences often serve to be more accurate than detailed illustration. By placing these short sentences dispersed throughout, the audience naturally steps inside of the Magistrate’s shoes as he is being tortured and preparing for death. When reading the short sentences readers are compelled to imagine the leaves brushing against themselves rather than viewing the Magistrate’s experience omnisciently. Coetzee ends the torture scene where the Magistrate is hung from his dislocated shoulders with one simple sentence:






“There is laughter” (139). This allows for the reader to feel what it’s like to hang there, if not in pain, at least in experience. While J.M. Coetzee cannot accurately describe what it feels like to be tortured, he can place the reader into a position of empathy, into the shoes of the Magistrate, to imagine what it may be like in his mind, because there is no language which can accurately describe pain to the individual.


This short, iceberg-­‐style writing carefully inserts the reader into David Lurie’s position when he is locked in the bathroom during the rape/robbery in his daughter’s house. When describing the actual trauma often Coetzee writes as objectively as possible:


He tries to stand up and is forced down again. For a moment his vision clears and he sees, inches from his face, blue overalls and a


shoe. The toe of the shoe curls upward; there are blades of grass sticking out from the tread (Disgrace 96).


Coetzee inserts the seemingly inconsequential facts, like the blades of grass, to show the effects of trauma on the mind. The brain uses disassociation tactics, or thinking about something completely benign during horrific events to steer itself away from the horror and into action. Another common cerebral response is to enter a “state of hyper-­‐


vigilance” (Howard and Crandall, 14). During this time Lurie is on fire, his focus is on blades of grass in a shoe instead of his scalding head. This allows him to quickly assess the location of his enemy while simultaneously allowing the burning to abate while he figures out his next move.


In addition to allowing the reader to insert himself into the text through objective writing, this style complements ethical representation because language often does not do trauma justice. Ernest Hemingway discusses the tabooed topic of abortion in “Hills Like White Elephants,” a short story about an American couple who argue whether or not to abort their child in


a Spanish train station. Hemingway points literally to the inadequacy of the word abortion as representing “abortion” by omitting the word from the


text entirely. The technique serves to heighten the intensity of the text, and leaves the reader guessing at the heart of the narration, while also illustrating the limitations of language. Abortion carries with it many negative connotations relevant to Hemingway’s contemporary reader: defying the religious dogma, the termination of a possible life, as well as breaking the law of the times. Therefore, by omitting the word, the






American man is able to assert abortion is “perfectly simple,” or “perfectly natural” (Hemingway, “White Elephants” 214). The woman clearly feels differently about it, but still does not dare to say abortion, because that would mean absorbing all of its connotations. Instead she simply says she will do it, “because I don’t care about me” (213). This can connect both to the health of the fetus, which the woman feels is a part of her, as well as her own health having an abortion, which can lead to both trauma to the


unborn child as well as the mother. The complexity of language is similarly portrayed in Disgrace, when David Lurie remembers thinking of all the


connotations of the word “rape” as a young man: “[I] wonder what the letter p, usually so gentle, was doing in the middle of a word held in such horror” (160). Through Lurie’s youthful innocence we acquire the important notion that words and language are often disconnected from what they may mean or imply. Particularly in the realm of trauma, words often betray the meaning of those who speak them.


Primo Levi, author of a memoir called Survival in Auschwitz about his experience in the Holocaust, writes, “We became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, this demolition of man” (26). Often authors insert this notion into their texts to show how difficult it is to truly represent trauma. Inherently, there must be a difference between a representation and the act or thing it is representing, and this dichotomy flirts with the boundary of the ethical. The loss from the act itself to its representation may cause offense, which is why many critics warn against representing difficult traumas like the Holocaust. One way to show the ethical barriers of representing trauma is showing the limitations of language. Spiegelman does this very clearly in Maus II, in which he draws an autobiographical representation of his struggle to represent Auschwitz:





























(Maus II 45).



Spiegelman bluntly points out the polarity of describing the indescribable. The third panel shows both Spiegelman and his psychiatrist (an Auschwitz survivor himself) without any speech bubbles after the Beckett quote praising silence. It’s almost as if he is “trying out silence” as a method of Holocaust representation. However, this method clearly is not an effective method of representation; it is the only panel in Maus with no speech bubbles in it, aside from this depiction of Vladek and Artie looking at photos of those who died in the Holocaust:



























(Maus II 115).


Here, Spiegelman seems to follow Beckett’s advice, as well as many other Holocaust thinkers who believe that silence is the best method of representation, since the dead cannot speak. This panel acts as a sort commemoration–a “minute of silence”–for those who cannot tell their stories like Vladek can. Spiegelman floods the page with graphics photographs of those who have passed, and they are untied to the normal borders of the novel. They fill in around the page and pile up, so the reader cannot see how many there are. The homage to those who cannot speak is important in ethical representation: while trauma literature often identifies its own limitations in a completely accurate depiction, this does not mean representation is futile. Texts concerning trauma are often self-­‐referential


ormetafictionalin nature due to their controversial topics. The self-­‐ referentiality of trauma literature is also portrayed in Waiting for the Barbarians. Throughout the novel the Magistrate is unable to discern


exactly what happened to the barbarian girl, other than Colonel Joll’s men tortured her. When asked, the girl responds, “ ‘I am…’–she holds up her forefinger, grips it, twists it. I have no idea what the gesture means” (31). Clearly the girl is gesturing she is broken, but the Magistrate is unable to understand this simple movement, echoing the impossibility of truly representing torture. The Magistrate also attempts to compose a letter, presumably to chastise and oppose Joll’s torture. However, he finds himself unable to write it. He asks himself, “A testament? A memoir? A confession? A history of thirty years on the frontier? All that day I sit at my desk staring at






the empty white paper, waiting for words to come” (66). The Magistrate here acts as a symbol of all authors who attempt to depict torture–or more broadly–trauma. Showing the difficulties depicting trauma is integral to its ethical portrayal. Trauma authors often identify the difficulty–and


sometimes impossibility–of representation of their own topic within their texts. J.M. Coetzee highlights the impossibility of telling in his novel Disgrace

as well.


David Lurie is a literature professor by trade–words are his weapon of choice; accordingly, he wants to use language and speech to publicize the trauma and catch the men who committed the crime. However, Lucy will not let him tell the police of her own trauma, namely rape, but only of his torture (he was burned with alcoholic spirits). She says, “ ‘David, when


people ask, would you mind keeping to your own story, to what happened to you? …I will tell what happened to me’ ” (Coetzee, Disgrace 99). Lucy


repeats herself throughout the novel, even lying to police to avoid accusing the men of rape, and ironically she is not truthful about what happened to her, though she tells David she will be (109). Lucy’s silence parallels Melanie’s silence: neither of their stories are elucidated firsthand. The “unspeakability of rape” is a common trope among canonic literature, and illustrates an important criticism within our culture. Women are not supposed to speak about rape. It is, in Lucy’s words, “a private matter” (102). Lurie even thinks it is “not [his] business,” showing that Coetzee is wrestling whether to represent rape at all (104). If, then, it is not Lurie’s business, and Lucy thinks it a private matter, who has the power of representation? Lurie comments that since Lucy will not speak, the rape has become “not her story to spread but [the rapists’]: they are its owners” (115). Similarly, he believes Melanie views the rape as his secret she must bear (34). The notion of rape becoming a prize for the rapists is something that David opposes, and this opposition is important in the ethics of representation. Just as history is written by the victors, often rape stories are owned by the perpetrators, which Coetzee warns against.


Lurie admits that although he can imagine himself as the men who raped


his daughter, but doubts his ability to imagine himself to be the woman (Coetzee, Disgrace 160). Coetzee does well to bring up this notion throughout Disgrace, and though he illustrates the after effects of rape, he


elides over the act itself. Coetzee highlights a major problem in society by acknowledging that many men cannot imagine what it feels like for women to constantly be in fear of rape, but Lurie knows he must try to imagine






“being the woman” (160). Men must try to be the woman, to empathize with the victim, and the notion that societal norms dictate rape is private complicates this notion. David attempts to reconcile the issues surrounding his own rape and its unspeakability. Coetzee brilliantly outlines the disconnect between men and women on this impassioned issue to show that although rape is a crime, often it goes unreported and unrepresented in both criminal proceedings as well as literature itself.


The topic of rape is incredibly contentious in South Africa, particularly during the publication of Disgrace. President Thabo Mbeka even denounced

the book as racist, and many critics agree that the novel plays to a classic


“black-­‐peril” narrative in which the white woman is brutally raped by the “savage” black man (Graham 434). Disgrace also contrasts this by showing


white man’s coercive abuse over minorities through David’s assault of “the dark one,” Melanie (Disgrace 18). It is imperative to understand this text


within the context of the new South Africa and the problems it faced–and still faces. Throughout the novel David Lurie is undoubtedly a protagonist and at his core a good man; he rightfully resigns from his post at the university, he does all he can to protect his daughter, and helps his daughter through her own trauma. However, though we know little of his own political views, Lurie is a liberal who undoubtedly morally opposed Apartheid, yet steered clear from any activism. Petrus, however, is a newly


liberated African, given freedom in a country previously dominated by small upper class whites. Disgrace does not offer a respite or solution to the


opposing forces, but merely shows their contrasting ideology, and Lucy attempts to bridge the two together in her own way: through compassion. David pleads with her to move away when he sees one of the rapists at the


party, but Lucy responds, “This is my life. I am the one who has to live here,” showing that the new South Africa is hers to create (Coetzee, Disgrace 133).


When David catches the younger, mentally troubled rapist named Pollux spying on Lucy, he beats him, feeling “elemental rage” (206). Lucy, however, protects the youth, stopping the violent encounter. Lucy wants above all else to create a harmonious new South Africa, because the country is hers as well. Lucy’s decision to keep the rape a secret also stems from her desire to return to the life she had before the trauma took place, to make peace. However, one critical aspect of the representation of trauma is that the victim is inherently and irreversibly changed due to the act, and they are no longer the person they were before it, no matter how much they may yearn to be.


All the trauma literature I have discussed details the categorical change of






the victim after the trauma. As hard as one may want to return to the way things were, the first step in moving past a trauma is admitting there has been definitive change in who the traumatized person “is.” This is an important notion in trauma representation, especially when many witnesses of trauma fail to see the victims as changed beings and instead treat them as if the trauma had not occurred. David sums up the effect of trauma on the individual clearly in this quotation: “In a while the organism will repair itself, and I, the ghost within it, will be my old self again. But the


truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out” (Coetzee, Disgrace 107). After Lucy’s rape she moves out of her room, the


scene of the crime, refusing to sleep there (111). A less physical change occurs when Lucy does nothing upon hearing Ettinger’s racist remarks about black people, which she would normally “fly into a rage” (109). David Lurie falls prey to pretending Lucy is still her same self during his attempts to persuade Lucy to leave her home, and she replies, “I am not the person


you know” (161). The notion of one dying after a trauma is depicted in Barbarians as well, when the Magistrate speaks to Mandel: “I have already died one death, on that tree” (Coetzee, Barbarians 145). Often instances of


trauma redefine those surrounding the trauma, whether if they realize it or not. In “Hills Like White Elephants” the woman knows that things will be different if she gets an abortion, but the man asserts that their life will be the same. She sarcastically remarks that she knows people that have had abortions and “afterwards they were all so happy” (Hemingway 213). Similarly, the narrator in “Dance With The Devil” remarks that the devil walks around with him, wherever he goes, as a constant reminder of the trauma he endured.


Vladek is also categorically changed from his experience in the camps, and Artie believes this is where Vladek got his miserliness. For example, he tries to return opened cereal boxes, collects copper wire found in the street, and grabs paper towels from restrooms so he doesn’t have to buy them. His wife Mala despairs about this, saying, “All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!” (Spiegelman, Maus II 131). The characterization of Vladek as being miserly his whole life is complicated because the only impression we get of his past is from Vladek’s own perspective. Though he may have always been overly careful or neat, his experience undoubtedly changed him as a person, and intensified his peculiarities. Vladek is a good person overall though, as he selflessly helped Mandelbaum in Auschwitz. Throughout his life Vladek has felt responsible for the people he loves and protected Anja throughout his life, and the notion that he could not save his son Richieu from death has changed him to the neurotic father figure for






Artie. For Vladek, control in his life has always been necessary, and his experience in the camps turned him from a neat individual into a neurotic miserly man.


The Torturer


The most difficult aspect of trauma representation is the question of how to represent the “inducer of trauma”. It is worth noting that although Coetzee only deals with torture in his essay, rapists and perpetrators of genocide can also be thought of as torturers, as all of them use humiliation, pain, and cruelty to dehumanize, kill, or cause its suffering.


Coetzee writes that the problem with representing the torturer to the novelist concerns “how to justify a concern with morally dubious people involved in a contemptible activity…how to treat something that, in truth, because it is offered like the Gorgon’s head to terrorize the populace and paralyze resistance, deserves to be ignored” (Coetzee, “Chamber” 5). This harks back to Adorno’s quotation mentioned earlier in the essay on the characterization of poetry after Auschwitz being “barbaric.” The contrast here, however, is that although Coetzee admits the torturer deserves to be ignored, he does not say he should be, and in his own novels concerning trauma literature does not omit the torturers. Ultimately Coetzee argues that torture lies beneath a moral compass, “for morality is human, whereas [the tortured and the torturer] belong to a damned, dehumanized world,” where the torturer is presumably allowed to do whatever he wants regardless of morals, since he is no longer on the scale of good and evil (Coetzee, “Chamber” 6).


Aside from drawing Germans as cats and Jews as mice, showing the “predator–prey” trope of the Holocaust, Spiegelman’s Maus stands apart from other trauma texts because of its biographical nature. Spiegelman wrote Maus as a memoir of Vladek Spiegelman’s time in Poland and Germany during the war, and he does not focus too much on the representation of the Nazi, instead on the life of a single Jew during the Holocaust. The author makes every Nazi the epitome of evil, both in and out of Auschwitz, which makes sense considering both Vladek’s place and the atrocity committed against so many millions of people. Undoubtedly there were moral Nazis who worked against orders, but since Maus is a memoir, it does not have to tackle the question of representing the torturer, as the torturer is the unambiguous evil Nazi.






Coetzee’s description of torture as being beyond the “scope of morality,” and


thus categorically non-­‐human can be read through the lens of the two torturers in Barbarians, Colonel Joll and Warrant Officer Mandel (“Chamber”


6). Canonically eyes are considered “windows to the soul”–Coetzee uses this phrase as well– and humans can read emotions and feeling into people’s eyes, and they are one of the most complex organs in the human body


(Barbarians 145). However, since the first page of the novel we are unable to see Colonel Joll’s eyes because of the “dark disks” he wears, we are unable to view his humanity (1). Joll acts as something inhuman, without feeling, and without a soul. However, when at the end of the novel Joll is driven out of the town and the Magistrate returns as civil servant, they see each other one last time. Joll is in his carriage ready to depart and the Magistrate has an urge to violently punish him. He says:


As though touched by this murderous current he reluctantly turns his face towards me…His face is naked, washed clean…Memories of his mother’s soft breast…as well as of those intimate cruelties fro which I abhor him, shelter in that beehive…The dark lenses are gone (170).


The Magistrate finally sees Joll without his glasses and can see his humanity, even though he is escaping the village. It is almost as if the torturer must keep a façade to mask own humanity so he can torture. The Magistrate is offered a similar view of Mandel. When the Magistrate sees his face he describes his eyes as “clear…as an actor looks from behind a mask” (90). He asks Mandel if he must go through some “purging of [the] soul” after torture, as he cannot imagine being both a human and a torturer. Mandel cannot answer the question, turning violent and shouting vulgarities at the Magistrate (146). Often the torturer is strictly viewed as dehumanized or mechanized, and their struggle to be both human and subhuman is thus an important motif of trauma literature.


Coetzee reminds us in “Into the Dark Chamber” of the isolation and dehumanization of the “tortured” and the disconnect between the torture and the actual man committing the atrocity. The Magistrate escapes his own cell, and watches a scene in which Colonel Joll tortures prisoners he has caught. This seems to contradict Coetzee’s earlier remark about distancing the tortured and the torturer, as Joll is clearly the man responsible for the dehumanization of the Magistrate. Joll, however, insists on the “torture without the torturer” paradigm. He brings out a little girl to whip the prisoners, and certainly a small little girl is an archetype of innocence, and






thus difficult to describe as a “torturer.” From this single instance the crowd


surrounding the scene grapple for the canes, with many taking a turn whipping the prisoners (Barbarians 122). It follows that for the torturer, the


paradigm is advantageous because the victim cannot put a face to the crime, and thus cannot be angry at anything tangible. The Magistrate realizes this because it was happening to him during his isolation, and is why when he sees Joll he becomes incensed. In fact, the Magistrate seems very intent on watching Joll. He says, “Though I am only one in a crowd of thousands, though his eyes are shaded as ever, I stare at him so hard with a face so luminous with query that I know at once he sees me” (121). The Magistrate does not want to reduce torture simply to the act, or his tortured solitude, and Coetzee seems to warn against this characterization, asserting that the men responsible should be tried. However, the Magistrate mentions he cannot do it himself: “Would I have dared to face the crows to demand justice for these ridiculous barbarian prisoners…Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr” (124). It is difficult to turn the anguish of torture into a call for justice, just as it is difficult for Vladek to relive his Holocaust, and just as Lucy does not accuse the men who raped her, it is easiest to try and forget. However, representation means remembering, and recalling as much as possible, a point Coetzee elucidates through the Magistrate’s confrontation with Joll.


The representation of the rapists in Disgrace is interesting because of the distinctions between David Lurie and the three men who raped Lucy. The relationship between Melanie and David is a complex one, and critics have interpreted David’s forced sexual encounter with Melanie as both a rape as well as simply an “affair [that] blossoms but soon sours” (Graham 440).


David cultivates a relationship with Melanie through their first encounters, and he undoubtedly holds power over her: Melanie is David’s student, he is much older than her, and in a certain sense holds a power from their difference in race within the context of South Africa as Melanie is not white.


David uses his power to seduce Melanie, and on one specific occasion their copulation was “undesired to the core” (Coetzee, Disgrace 25). There are


most definitely degrees of rape, and the violent brutal rape against Lucy is represented much differently than David’s. Two of the three men are never heard from again; it seems they almost don’t deserve to be represented.


The third turns out to be a young mentally challenged boy named Pollux who is related to Lucy’s neighbor Petrus. Pollux ultimately can be sympathized with, because of his mental deficiency, whereas the other men are violent criminals, and are described little, because of their atrocious crimes are left out of representation. Coetzee represents the rape, but not






specifically the rapists, which shows that although rape must be represented, leaving out the perpetrators is important in defining rape ethically. This problem lies beyond the scope of literature, breaking into current event coverage.


This is a current problem in most news stations’ coverage of school shootings: they tend to focus on the perpetrator and not the victims. Elliot Rodger has become a household name, but those he murdered during the 2014 Isla Vista Massacre are less publicized–and unknown outside the sphere of Isla Vista. Dr Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, warns against creating “anti-­‐ heroes” out of school shootings, which can lead to further shootings through the high level of coverage about these shootings (“Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe 25/3/09”). However, the media ignored his advice, and since the Isla Vista Massacre, five people died in a Las Vegas shooting, with others occurring in Myrtle Beach and Moncton, Canada. Even upon editing this thesis, another shooting has occurred at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon on June 10th, 2014 (Springer). In our increasingly global society, it is important to acknowledge the ethics of representation and go about representing difficult topics with care to both depict trauma accurately as well as ensure the trauma does not repeat, which means taking care when “over-­‐representing,” glamorizing, or glorifying the torturer, or perpetrator or trauma.




Throughout history authors have struggled with the concept of ethical representation. From Ernest Hemingway to J.M. Coetzee there has been criticism and praise for those who attempt to tackle portraying traumas like


rape, torture, and genocide. J.M. Coetzee received the Booker Prize for Disgrace and his representation of the clash of cultures in South Africa and


two rapes. Answering Cathy Caruth’s question of “how not to betray the past” is difficult, especially when considering representing ethically ambiguous topics, the ultimate difficult topic being the Holocaust. Although it may be difficult, placing the reader into a position to be traumatized is a necessary step in representation. It is the job of literature to sometimes make the reader uncomfortable, and understand what it may be like to live


through a trauma. The reader makes an acknowledgement of this when picking up a novel like Waiting for the Barbarians, and even though it may


not be enjoyable to read about torture, it is necessary to create empathy and compassion for the traumatized. This is the aim of trauma literature, because it is impossible to put someone directly into the shoes of the






traumatized, but to give a representation can enlighten a formerly apathetic individual. It is important to represent honestly, objectively, and accurately. Often apt representation of trauma necessitates objective, cryptic, halting description, which serves to place the reader into the position of the trauma in place of viewing it from afar.


Just as in life everyone will react to a trauma differently, placing the reader into the position of trauma allows the reading to be different based on the reader. The self-­‐referentiality of trauma literature is also crucial in accurate objective representation. All of the texts I’ve discussed question their own ethics, precisely because rape, genocide, and torture are such difficult topics to grapple The self-­‐referential nature of the texts allow for a more accurate representation because depicting these topics is not easy. Finally, the representation of the torturer is difficult because the act of torture in subhuman, and utterly unnatural. Because of this the torturer is represented as un-­‐human. Though true ethical representation is difficult, there should be no trauma that can go textually unrepresented. Though the Nazi or the rapist certainly deserves to be forgotten amidst history’s books, this does not mean he should be. As societal critics and historicists it is the obligation of the author to accurately represent things that may not deserve to be represented. However, this does not allow them to escape judgment and remembrance. Nazism, rape, torture–all were created and perpetrated by humans in the most literal sense, and because of this they cannot be forgotten. Closure from trauma is from compassion, acceptance, and empathy.


A Brief Coda


During these past ten weeks I have spent countless hours reading, writing, editing and re-­‐ editing my thesis on how to represent the “un-­‐ representable.” On May 23, 2014, a devastating mass shooting took place in my college community of Isla Vista, killing seven people and injuring thirteen more. I was not in Isla Vista when this occurred–I was on the road to Las Vegas, a trip meant to celebrate our near-­‐completion of college. After phoning everyone I knew to ascertain whether they were safe, I realized that my friends and I were all physically unharmed from the killing. Despite this I still felt deeply saddened by what happened, and asked myself a question so many probably did, why? Every time a car drives slowly by me, my heart jumps into my throat.


Over the next few weeks I watched, unsure of how to continue writing, as






everyone else picked up their pens and keyboards. People who never post to Facebook were posting “solidarity” statuses, Twitter was ablaze with #Yesallwomen and later #Notonemore, and major news networks filled their airtime with their trauma porn. The immediate politicization of the incident was a little shocking, and of course the perpetrator’s manifesto and his Youtube videos added to the fiasco. Richard Martinez, father of one of the victims, vehemently spoke for gun control in the wake of the murders, and a Dr. Robi Ludwig suggested it could have been his “homosexual tendencies” that provoked the man to murder (“Fox News”).


More than ever I am convinced the ethics of representation does not simply take place in the classroom, or the library. It takes place in our lives everyday. I did not know how to write after the massacre, and spent much of the next week playing basketball to slow my own brain down, un-­‐think, to forget. The reality of the trauma hits everyone in different ways, for me trauma has always been dealt with through sports, my own escape from thought–where the debilitating “Why” question fades away on the court. However, representation of difficult topics must occur, and there exists a tactful method for this. Just as history books do not tell the whole story, neither did CNN nor Fox News. They did not comment on the protesters outside their vans, who pleaded with them to go, to please leave us alone. They ignored Dr. Dietz’s warning about creating an anti-­‐hero, and four more shootings have taken place around the United States and Canada in the span of three weeks. All of my work on theory and the literary texts which I looked to could not prepare me for driving back to Isla Vista’s haunted streets on Tuesday, the “Day of Mourning” decreed by the University of California. All this defense of representation and here I am, unable to write about the massacre myself! Life often acts thus, it is the most brutal of ironies. Although it may be simpler for the outsider to depict my own trauma, it is up to one of us (or more), to sacrifice our own method of coping, to write, sing, act, or paint our own truth of the Isla Vista Massacre– many people have already been doing this. All around Isla Vista I see survivors. Soon, when a car drives slowly by, I know my heart will leap from my chest no longer.




Works Cited


Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Prisms. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. Print.






Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore:


Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.


-­‐-­‐-­‐. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.

Coetzee, J. M., and David Attwell. “Into The Dark Chamber.”


Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. 361-­‐ 68. Print.


“Fox News ‘expert’ suggests ‘homosexual impulses played a role in Calif. massacre.” lgbtqnation.com. Youtube.com, 25 May 2014. Web. Accessed 12 June 2014.

Fry, Paul. Theory of Literature. New York: Yale University Press, 2012. Print. Graham, Lucy Valerie. “Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2003): 433-­‐444. Jstor. PDF. Accessed 26 May 2014.


Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner’s, 1987. 211-­‐14. Print.


Howard, Sethanne and Mark W. Crandall, MD. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Happens in the Brain?” Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2007. Web. Accessed 27 May 2014.


Immortal Technique. “Dance With The Devil.” Revolutionary Vol. 1. Comp. Felipe Coronel. Viper Records, 2001. MP3.


Katoi. “Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe 25/03/09.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 25 March 2009. Web. Accessed 1 June 2014.


Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Print.


Population Reference Bureau. “Children in Single-­‐Parent Families By Race.” National Kids Count. Feb 2014, Tab. 1a. Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014. Web.

Accessed: 20 March 2014.


“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, 2014. Web. Accessed 10 June 2014.


Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New York:


Pantheon, 1986. Print.

-­‐-­‐-­‐. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1991. Print.


Springer, Dan. “Gunman in fatal Oregon high school shooting likely killed self, police say.” Fox News. Fox News and Associated Press, 10 June 2014. Web. Accessed 10 June 2014.

Bleak December: Religious Fervor in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”



Despite considerable attention being paid to this curious posthumous entry into the published works of Poe, there remains as yet no adequate confrontation of the poem’s complex imagery. A number of the poem’s images indicate a focus on religion, making the words of Paul O. Williams from the late 1960s as relevant as ever: “Although the poem seems to discourage exegesis because it conveys its meaning as much by the resources of music as by those of language, more things can, nevertheless, be said about its literal meaning than have been” (Williams 24). What follows is a reading of “The Bells” which will justify a claim that the poem is a conspicuous treatment of spiritual themes, then present what a reading of the poem consistent with its orientation toward religiosity would look like, and finally support these assertions by appeal to evidence of Poe’s ideological development. This is in no way a discarding of the existing interpretations of the piece. Indeed, there is contained within the following analysis implicit agreement, to varying degrees, with each of the extant interpretations of the work, from a simple onomatopoeic exercise tracing four variant bell-sounds (Graham 1) to a dithyramb on the triumph of “discord and death” (Williams


  • to the much-favored birth-to-death narrative map following Schiller (Cameron 37), as well as the sourcing work tracing the poem to Dickens (Pollin 221), Schiller and Romburg (Cameron 2, Dameron 368), a number of contemporary articles (Dedmond 520, Dudley 298, Pollin 469), and many subtler influences. As opposed to a defiance of the existing scholarship, this intends to be a statement regarding a large dimension of the poem on which said scholarship has remained oddly silent, and on which this paper will take the following stance: the bells within “The Bells” figure a religious outpouring, likely Christian in nature, into which the speaker sinks in accordance with an inability to reconcile doubts about religion’s promises and cognizance of mortality.









  1. The Rapture that Impels


The text of the poem is littered with allusions to religion. Temporarily ignoring occasional diction of “Heavens,” “wedding,” and “rapture,” (lines 7, 15, 30) one notes four images which may not seem suspicious taken alone, but which sum to something so conspicuous that their being ignored in other studies of the poem is truly curious. These images are the “turtle-dove” in the second stanza—and the recurrence of its “moon” (lines 23-24, 50), the “deaf and frantic fire” in the third stanza (lines 44-45), the steeple-dwelling “ghouls” in the fourth stanza (lines 79-88), and the merry pæan-rolling “king” in the fourth stanza (lines 89-112). Now, there are more existing theories than those referenced above, three of which stand out as more thorough because they find themselves somewhere along the path toward addressing some of these lines; those theories are the reading of the work as a descent into madness (Fusco 121); the reading of the work as a tale depicting the death of a beautiful woman from the perspective of her lover; and the reading of the work as a jazz-like expression of inner turmoil exacerbated by droning rhythms (Du Bois 242). All, it can be remarked, may be fair guesses as to the content of any of Poe’s work, not least of all his later poetry.


In Richard Fusco’s madness reading, the images of the fourth stanza come into play as the expression of a speaker no longer of his right mind. Indeed, there is clearly something preventing the speaker from having total lucidity or total control of his expressions in the fourth stanza, which one could perhaps trace to a trauma in the third stanza. Fusco, like Williams, opens by identifying—as does this paper—the inadequate readings of the poem which had become critically prominent. Yet there is a certain implicit weakness to his interpretation as well, as it seems like a catch-all interpretation to which any difficulty may be subjugated. That is, one may, as in the pure bell-sound reading of the poem, discount any lines which offer interpretative issues; one may imagine a similarly ‘convincing’ reading of Finnegans Wake as an expression of madness, seeing as it is far less easy to try to parse every image the work offers. And, even ignoring this complaint, this interpretation fails to confront the images of the second stanza in a meaningful way, despite its insistence that the speaker is still sane during their presentation, except as a frame of mind to which the third stanza refers back.







The death-of-a-beautiful-woman interpretation, apparently more of a hint in the scholarly community than an officially expounded or individually championed notion—and as likely derived directly from Poe’s comments in “The Philosophy of Composition”—subsumes within it the descent-into-madness interpretation as the result of the woman’s death and does a better job of addressing the third stanza’s fires (as the instrument of the woman’s demise). Yet this interpretation fails to adequately cover the images of the second stanza aside from the explicit references to marriage; fails to cover the images of the fourth stanza; and even seems to ignore the beginning of the third stanza, wherein it is clarified that it is not the speaker (who at the outset asks the reader to listen to the bell-sound) who makes “a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire.” Rather, it is the bells themselves which make this appeal, despite this interpretation’s stance that the bells are not an instrument, i.e. not a form of expression for the speaker, but are, as in most interpretations, objects of the speaker’s observation.


Finally, Arthur Du Bois’ jazz reading of the poem is compelling. But, again, like the pure bell-sound reading of the poem and Fusco’s madness reading, much of its power stems from being able to stop wondering at the meaning of difficult lines by deferring such concerns to questions of sound. In an odd maneuver, Du Bois’ article, trying to preface his reading of “The Bells,” attempts to reconcile every interest, inclination, and theme of Poe inside of a handful of pages, with each sweeping claim lacking any citation or sufficient internal justification. Despite these weaknesses, this is one of the most complete interpretations of the poem; while it may not do justice to the images of the first and second stanzas, it does provide a thorough tonal reading and its efforts are eminently respectable. Needless to say, however, not one of these three admirable efforts offers a full reading of “The Bells.” Before such a reading may be attempted, it will be fruitful to clarify the aforementioned inclination of the poem toward religiosity.


With attention to manuscript evidence, it becomes clearer that Poe is treating a religious subject. Initially, one may be tempted to interpret such details as the references to “moon”, “monody,” and “pæan” (lines 24, 72, 91) as evidence that the poem is treating its subject in pagan terms, and so classify the four images enumerated above as extensions of Poe’s affinity for classical allusions. Yet, in addition to those already-much-bandied four images, one may provide a line present in the February 1849 manuscript version of the full poem’s fourth stanza, though not in the published version of the poem: “They are neither brute nor human, / But are pestilential carcases disparted







from their souls / Called Ghouls:—” This division of the steeple-dwellers from their souls brings into consideration directly (perhaps its excision implies ‘too directly’) the conversation going on at this time over both what may possibly happen to a Christian soul after death and whether any such thing actually exists. Further, one may consider why this clarification of the steeple-dwelling ghouls as distinct from their souls was removed. Perhaps it was done so as to reintroduce ambiguity as to whether these “people” can be categorized as either “people” or “ghouls,” even as their ‘ghouldom’ is being affirmed over their humanity. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was removed so as to fall into line with the notion that souls either do not exist independent of their bodies, or that the two things’ connection cannot be severed. Either of these latter notions would be consistent with the last of the four models for Poe’s consideration of death according to J. Gerald Kennedy’s essay, “Phantasms of Death,” writing at this point on “The Colloquy of Monos and Una:” “Poe appears to suggest that the total annihilation of body and soul must take place before the rebirth or transformation alluded to at the beginning of the work [to Poe’s “vision of infinity”]” (129). At any rate, it is clear that Poe is concerned not only with a class of being conspicuously inhabiting a steeple, but a class of being not necessarily “disparted from their souls.”


Attention to sourcing evidence reinforces this perspective and points more specifically toward Christianity as a source of the poem’s religious fervor. Wesley Britton has pointed out the ignored legacy of John Milton in Poe’s poem: “But to date, the similarities between the first stanza of ‘The Bells’ and stanza 13 of Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ have not been noted or explored” (Britton 1). Britton goes on to enumerate the many interconnections and parallels between the two poems, and to highlight borrowed diction in the named stanzas of each. Britton opens his article on this with a nod toward the cradle-to-grave pattern as the most compelling reading of the poem. Even conceding the poem’s clear tracing of Schiller, Britton nevertheless here fails to adequately appreciate the value of his own discovery. Contextualizing the opening stanza of “The Bells” not only in terms of a winter birth, but in terms of the quintessential Christian birth allows the reader to more easily understand how this stanza differs in content from the wedding scenario of the second stanza, and provides a path into the speaker’s initial happiness as a traditional celebration of the Christian miracle schema.







III. A Sort of Runic Rhyme


The poem can be read as a progression from birth to death, from sanity to insanity, and from romance to mourning, provided each is in accordance with the speaker’s religious fervor as signified by the bells. All that follows is in keeping with Roger Asselineau’s claim, in his brief biography of Poe, that in Poe “a poem becomes an end in itself. [. . .] [Poe] would undoubtedly have subscribed to Archibald MacLeish’s prescription that ‘A poem should not mean / But be'” (Asselineau 38). “The Bells” is not a description of the speaker’s interaction with bells, but an embodiment of that interaction. This reading of the poem revolves around the theory, original here, that the bell-sound itself is symbolic of the audible expression of celebration of religion, in hymn or organized prayer, and that the speaker’s relationship with religion may be traced by studying the uses of the bells in the poem and the poem’s flux of images.


The first stanza subtly anticipates the difficulties the speaker is to have with the bells later in the work while depicting the speaker’s early perception of religion (possibly the speaker’s first experiences of religious fervor). The poem opens with the speaker’s call to listen to the bells. This auditory proselytizing draws the listener into the audience of the bells. The allusion pointed out above by Britton places the winter birth of the stanza, already common in Schiller-dependent readings of the poem, in a Christian context. One need not pause unnecessarily on this opening, except to conjecture that this stanza signifies the happy celebratory tradition of Christmastime by which one may, in their youth, be drawn into religion. The one truly significant line in this stanza is that concerning “Runic rhyme,” whereby the audible celebration of the Nativity by nature is said to be “Keeping time, time, time, / In a sort of Runic rhyme, / To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells” (lines 9-12). So, the rhythms of nature are keeping time with the bell-sounds. Yet the language of that celebratory outpouring is “a sort of Runic rhyme.” This unresolved note, that the bell-sound and nature’s religious celebration are related only through an unsolved code, introduces a mysterious tension into the apparent pleasantness of the youthful hearing of the bells. All is not well, or even entirely understandable, in paradise.


The second stanza showcases the living of a pious adult life, as signified by the bells’ reaction to the sacrament of marriage. Rather than simple exclamatory happiness, the bells here bring assurances of a happy life-to-







come. The “turtle-dove” in this stanza evokes idealized monogamy, and is associated with the Bible via both the Old Testament (in the Song of Songs) and the New Testament (at the Nativity). Like the first stanza’s nature, we have an image of the aspiration of religious language toward immaterial significance, here figured not by the logically unattainable “Runic rhyme” of the bells, but by the physically unattainable position of “the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats / On the moon!” (lines 23-24). The promises of religion are becoming more obviously untenable. One feels the taunt of the turtle-dove, from its portentous religious position able to “gloat,” for it already occupies the heavenly space of the “moon,” a space toward which the bells will madly clamber in the desperation of the third stanza. Where the first stanza had nature, through an unintelligible intermediary, keeping time with the bells, the bells of this stanza instead urge the future: “How it dwells


  • On the Future! how it tells / Of the rapture that impels / To the swinging and the ringing / Of the bells” (lines 28-32). To this language of prognostication, Paul O. Williams would add the foretelling by the bells in both of the first two stanzas (Williams 24). Williams goes on to point out that this foretelling of “a world of merriment and a world of happiness” comes in contrast to the immediacy and reality of the destruction and death in the third and fourth stanzas with their emphatic mention of the present (Williams 24-25). The happiness of the future is not actual or known, but is foretold and promised. The recognition is vaguely present in the speaker’s experience of the bell-sound that none of the glorious, beautiful promises brought by the bell-sound are coming into existence. Along this vein, note that the mystifying “jingling and the tinkling” of the first stanza have been replaced by the man-made, measured “rhyming and the chiming” at the end of the second stanza.


The third stanza is the religious crisis of the speaker, as the bells react to the fearful flip-side of the coin of the Christian afterlife and so fight themselves. Again, the speaker asks that we listen to the bells, which now “shriek, shriek,


  • Out of tune, / In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire, / In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire” (lines 42-45). Unlike Schiller’s fire, which possesses both positive and negative aspects, the fire in Poe’s poem is unfeeling and does not yield to the appeals of the bells. The assurance of hellfire instills terror into not only the speaker, but into the bells whose interactions with the fire the speaker details. The bells—or possibly the bells’ envisioned fire (the syntax is ambiguous)—now make one last attempt to claim the beautiful promises of the second stanza: “With a desperate desire, / And a resolute endeavor / Now—now to sit or never, / By







the side of the pale-faced moon” (lines 47-50). This desperation belies the confidence of the gloating turtle-dove in the prior stanza, a notion underscored by the fading of the moon’s brilliance. Immediately following this, the speaker finally provides in this stanza his own comment on the bells, saying (almost sympathetically), “Oh, the bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells / Of Despair!” (lines 51-53). In these lines, the speaker as good as says outright that the bells’ “desperate desire” and “resolute endeavor” is a failure. For the remaining half of the stanza, the waxing and waning of “horror,” “danger,” and “anger” (lines 55-65) present the efforts of the bell-sound to maintain its optimism in the face of the fear which it itself expounds. Ultimately, there is nothing to be said but a redundant reliance on the same doctrinal formulation “Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells—” (lines 67-68).


The fourth stanza, at last, portrays the state of religious adherents, their leadership, and of the speaker whose experience has paralleled them. The bells of this stanza are no longer warning bells of immediate danger, but final, definite funeral bells. While the object of mourning in this stanza is certainly up for debate, the context of the bells’ “despair” in the third stanza points to the foretold happiness as a contender as valid as a lover of the speaker. As shown by “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe is assuredly no stranger to allegorical implementation of death. The two key images in this stanza are the “Ghouls” and “their king” (lines 88, 89). The ghouls are specified to be “the people—ah, the people, / They that dwell up in the steeple, / All alone, / And who tolling, tolling, tolling, / In that muffled monotone, / Feel a glory in so rolling / On the human heart a stone—” (lines 79-85). These vindictive steeple-dwellers seem reminiscent of the gloating turtle-dove, and one would be hard-pressed not to read a parody of prayer or hymning into “that muffled monotone.” Crucially, the language of these steeple-dwellers, as they are to be found “tolling, tolling, tolling,” is precisely the bell-sound; here, at last, is the crux of this reading’s theory that the bell-sound figures religious outpouring. This image explicitly conflates the language of the steeple-dwellers with the sound of the bells. Conflated also are the bells themselves and the religious adherents, as each image associated with the latter as easily maps to the former—and one should be cautious to point to these lines as unambiguously regarding the bells alone, as does Fusco. As to their identity as “Ghouls,” Kennedy points out that, in Poe, “the preternatural [. . .] commonly dramatizes the interpenetration of life and death, the mingling of metaphysical opposites” (Kennedy 111). They are figures evocative of living mortality, even as they are evocative of a







congregation. Their king, meanwhile, must then be religious authority, “And he rolls, rolls, rolls, / Rolls / A pæan from the bells; / And his merry bosom swells / With the pæan of the bells, / And he dances, and he yells:” (lines 90-95). For all that Fusco said about the speaker’s madness, surely there is no figure in the poem more mad than this jolly overlord of the ghouls. The revelation of this figure’s introduction is the revelation of the originator of the bell-sound, whose own expression is “Keeping time, time, time, / In a sort of Runic rhyme,” (lines 96-97) and for whom the promises of the bells never lose their potency. The “Runic rhyme” of the first stanza returns, now clarified as having acted as intermediary between a celebrant nature and the bells only by willful invention; the speaker recognizes the same “sort of Runic rhyme” and so utilizes the exact same phrase. Notable, also, is the word “pæan,” potentially implemented so as to defamiliarize religious outpouring by associating it not with Christianity but with paganism. This notion is supported by the use of the word in Poe’s earlier poem, “Lenore,” wherein a celebration of one who has ostensibly gone to heaven is called “a pæan of old days” (line 21). In the end, from the realization of the “Runic rhyme” onward, the sound of the bells and the celebration of the mad king become an inextricable mess. The happiness of the king becomes “a happy Runic rhyme” (line 107) while the sound of the bells attempts to overpower all doubt simply by fervency, here symbolized by quantity of “bells.” At last, the mortal reckoning of the funeral bells ends the poem with the uncharacterized loudness of the third stanza’s “clamor and the clangor” being replaced by the unambiguously negative “moaning and the groaning.”


That each stanza ends in a repetitive string of “bells” is no mistake, nor is it an error that the number of lines and quantity of concatenated “bells” increases in each successive stanza. The further the speaker sinks into considerations of religious fervor while recognizing the interaction between that fervor and mortality, the more wholly the speech of the speaker becomes replaced by “a gush of euphony” (line 26). One is asked, at the outset of each stanza, to listen to the bell-sound, and in doing so, to undergo the ideological, physiological, psychological journey of the speaker with respect to the those same bell-sounds. So, yes, Poe does follow the eight-stanza cradle-to-grave pattern from the middle of Schiller’s “Das Lied von der Glocke,” but he does so in a way which exemplifies his own unique, macabre conception of spirituality.







  1. A World of Solemn Thought


There is, of course, evidence in Poe’s other later works—and in their contrast with earlier works—that Poe was moving into a place of more ideological certainty with regard to spirituality. In the introduction to Poe’s Cambridge Companion, the resource’s editor alleges that critical interest in Poe’s verse waned in favor of interest in his prose due to the verse’s failure to sufficiently interact with Poe’s social milieu (Hayes 4). One may note, however, that “The Raven” and “A Dream Within a Dream” (and “The Bells”) have no less interaction with nineteenth century mourning culture and prevailing discourses on death than do “MS. Found in a Bottle” or “The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar.” Indeed, Poe contends throughout his literature with consciousness and death, and especially with the issues of how or if one may experience the divine and what follows death. To say, however, that Poe was not spiritual or that he denied the existence of the soul would be to miss the tenor of most of his writing. Rather, Poe moved during his life from a fascination with the emptiness of promised paradises to the heroism of existential despair to a conjecture at the soul’s divine potential (Carlson 7-20). In his last group of writings, Poe had absolute conviction about his at-times-contradictory vision of the universe. As Asselineau puts it, “For his part [Poe] was ready to accept the existence of a mystery at the center of the universe, but his intelligence, as Eureka shows, strove to pierce it and eventually reached, instead of Emerson’s vague pantheism, what Allen Tate has called a form of panlogism. Poe’s rationalism [. . .] resisted the fascination of the abyss and refused to be engulfed by a hazy spiritualism” (Asselineau 33). As elucidated explicitly in Eureka, “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Poetic Principle,” the later Poe (despite his distaste for the Transcendentalist movement) outwardly subscribes to the transcendental idea that all matter is part of the divine consciousness of a God entity, and to the semi-transcendental idea that death allows the soul to be re-subsumed by that omni-perspective.


Yet, for Poe, when one wonders whether there is a continued individual experience after death, one asks a question to which one already knows the undesired answer, as does the lore-student in “The Raven.” Poe sees such a hope as a juvenile affair, associated with his own early literary scheme of the lost paradise, and leading to the paralyzing resignation of the lore-student in the closing stanza. The argument of this paper is not that Poe denies the notion of an afterlife, but that Poe does deny the Christian afterlife with its pleasant persistence of embodied consciousness, and that he may thereby







betray an abiding anxiety about mortality. Poe, near the end of his life, puts forth a more-or-less consistent cosmogony, yet one suspiciously similar in practical human experience to an existential worldview with a weakness for art. Indeed, despite his avowed version of spirituality, Poe seems constantly to link whatever may be termed ‘soul’ with body. As Kennedy perceptively writes:


What seems significant about the cycle of spiritualized dialogues is Poe’s inclination to see body and soul as inextricably bonded. Despite the conception of an unearthly, astral form, an odd materialism informs Poe’s notion of the spirit world; [. . .] It is as if, for all of his mystical inclinations, Poe cannot escape an empirical vision of a bounded world. [. . .] Poe’s visionary texts [. . .] project a false transcendence, a phantasmic existence after death, conceptually embedded in a cosmos of matter and energy, a system that culminates in irreversible dissolution: entropy. (Kennedy 130)


For Kennedy, “Poe’s visionary texts” include any wherein the model of death is what he terms “separation” or “transformation” (roughly, popular or transcendental models), as separate from any wherein the model of death is what he terms “annihilation” or “compulsion” (roughly, destructive or obsessive models). The latter two, it is clear, were the primary focuses and central thematic concerns of nearly all of Poe’s literature. What is remarkable, which Kennedy exhaustively illustrates among Poe’s prose works, are the ways in which the former two are informed by the diction and thematic underpinnings of the latter two. What Carlson identifies as Poe’s “existentialism,” Kennedy shows spreading into the visionary texts which Carlson finds indicative of Poe’s “transcendentalism.” Even as Poe formulates a spirituality of his own, it is a spirituality as full of reason as the body of works he associates with “ratiocination,” i.e. the studied reason of his detective stories and interest in cryptography. So, even as the later Poe maintains an absolute certainty of his own transcendent paradigms, he showcases a certainty about the finality of death and loss of one’s self and one’s acquaintances.


The development of the poem “Lenore” provides a glimpse at this move toward inward ideological certainty in Poe’s works. Bradford Booth and Claude Jones’ Concordance of the Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe points to the word ‘pæan,’ as mentioned earlier, as being present in both “The Bells” and “Lenore.” There is, however, another, earlier use, unlisted in this concordance. The reason for its absence is that the earlier use is actually an







early form of “Lenore,” titled “A Pæan.” In keeping with being differently titled, “APæan ” and “Lenore” are drastically different poems. The earlier version, published in 1831, is a work in a variation on hymnal common measure wherein the speaker proclaims that no one needs to mourn his young lost love, for she is happily in heaven (Hecker 67-70). The later version, surfacing around 1842, is a work in one of Poe’s characteristically complex invented meters wherein the speaker addresses a character named Guy De Vere, imploring him to mourn his lost love; De Vere responds that he does not need to do so, for she is happily in heaven. Now, this figure of De Vere is one with a number of possible sources, but which clearly exemplifies wealth, pride, and inflexibility (Pollin 4). In the eleven years between the release of these two versions, Poe eventually decided that the earlier version required emending. The obvious differences between the two are the changes to the structure and form of the poem; the subtler difference, but more important difference for this study, is the movement of the speaker from identity as the heaven-proponent to allegiance with the mourning-proponents against the wealthy, proud, unmoving, heaven-advocating character, Guy. This ‘Guy,’ onto whom Poe forces the perspective of the earlier optimism, has none of the subtlety which the Poe of the 1840s is wont to imbue in his morose speakers. The revision is a clear abandonment of the earlier ideal, a denial of the religious hopefulness espoused by both the earlier speaker and the earlier meter. It is not to be discounted, after all, that Pollin points out that the name De Vere is associated with wealth, an association whose lack beleaguered the aristocratically minded, yet ever-impoverished Poe throughout his life; the figure then holds more than one of Poe’s bitter feelings.


Also telling, the fate of the ideology of Lenore’s young lover is not left to chance. A lost Lenore is the reason for the lore-student’s melancholy in 1845’s “The Raven.” While there is no positive identification of the speaker of “The Raven” as Guy De Vere, the re-use in poetry of the name ‘Lenore’ for the lost love is too conspicuous not to explore. If the speaker of “The Raven” is Guy De Vere, one sees a thoroughly interesting development. Lenore’s lover, distanced in both outlook and identification from the De Vere of “Lenore,” is now convinced, much to his own dismay, that there is not “balm in Gilead,” that Lenore does not occupy a space wherein the two can be posthumously reunited—even if the speaker is in denial about the inward source of this revelation. This kernel of meaning is obvious without extending the figure back into the earlier poem. But, if one does presume the re-use of ‘Lenore’ to be more than coincidental, the fact that the lore-student (and De Vere-figure)







is once again the speaker presents an acceptance of the character back into Poe’s usual formula of writing in the first-person singular. To support this, one may map back onto Poe’s “lyric outbursts” the claim by Asselineau that “for all their rational construction and narrative contents, [Poe’s] tales are lyric outbursts in disguise, in which the ‘I’ of the speaker corresponds less to fictitious characters than to Poe himself if he had let himself go” (Asselineau 34). The re-acceptance of the Lenore-loving speaker’s point-of-view coincides with the speaker’s acceptance of a materialist conception of death. It is as though Poe would neither leave the figure of De Vere to his spiritual optimism nor associate the speaker of “The Raven” with the optimistic character of De Vere. The move from “A Pæan ” to “Lenore” to “The Raven” is one instance of a progression in Poe’s literature from heaven-based religious idealism to a rebellion against that idealism to, finally, a resigned pessimism about religious idealism. Though it cannot be said that Poe explicitly holds any of these positions during his life, the progression is nonetheless instructive, and it is that final state-of-mind that informs the analysis of Kennedy and Asselineau, and is implied by the analysis of Carlson.


There already exist refutations of the above theories on Poe. One bold 2010 dissertation by Adam Bradford, for instance, uses Reader-response Criticism to argue that the ultimate effect of Poe’s literature was a subtle affirmation of prevailing nineteenth attitudes toward death and mourning (the latter much more tenable than the former). The problem with drawing such conclusions about Poe is that, while consistent with the culture surrounding Poe and a thread to be found among Poe’s works, they are at odds with both complex studies of Poe and Poe’s works—such as those by Mabbott, Asselineau, Carlson, and Kennedy (which confront the many contradictions among Poe’s philosophies)—and basic knowledge of their thematic content, in ways that are neither intuitive nor illuminating. Based upon some remarks from Poe’s metapoetic essays stretched into his script and several poems, the dissertation alleges that only those readers who immediately rejected any kernel of meaning or iconoclastic sentiment in Poe’s writings truly understood him. Clearly there is a problem here. Any author against whose ideas there is or was significant backlash, in this mode, could be seen to have been writing precisely to please the lowest common denominator. In other words, it is impossible to write anything which challenges one’s own culture, as a reader-only reading of such work will always reveal that the effect of that work is to maintain the status quo, thus discarding any notion of the value of art to present new ideas. That said, all secondary criticism is, to some extent, obviously a reader’s response, and this particularly unfortunate example







misses the point even of the schools of New Historicism and Reader-response Criticism to which it attempts to adhere; the issue only arises when one’s interpretation of a work is based near-solely upon the contemporary public’s readings, with no serious attention paid to the work, the author, scholarly readings, or the public’s readings in subsequent cultural moments. Such an interpretation can be said to be a worthwhile study of those painstakingly gathered pieces of writing which are the responses, though not of the work on which they comment.


  1. Conclusion


Whether “The Bells” is the rich product of Poe’s mature mind, written around the same time as the poignant “Annabel Lee,” or is the sonorous contrivance of a poet in desperate straits—Poe was indeed destitute at the time of its publication (Lanier 17, Schultz 172)—will no doubt continue to be a subject of debate. That the poem treats religiosity, however, is clear. And that the poem may be read as the rich product of a mature Poe is also clear. It seems of dubious value, then, to hold fast to a less content-encompassing interpretation of the poem which is less consistent with Poe’s ideological situation near the end of his life. It is, however, understandable that a reading of “The Bells” in this mode has not supplanted the aesthetic and archetypal readings of the poem. Returning again to the superior insight of J. Gerald Kennedy, he concludes his essay on “Phantasms of Death in Poe’s Fiction” with the following: “While Poe could entertain visions of transcendence, he was finally too much the victim of our own crisis of death to exorcise its dread. [. . .] Little wonder that for many, Poe cannot be taken seriously: to do so is to confront the fearful yet vitalizing truth that our century has done its best to deny” (Kennedy 133). While it cannot be denied that Poe occasionally sinks too deep into the mire of repetition and obscurity in his poems (“Ulalume” seems an obvious case-in-point), he nowhere writes nonsense, and in his most effective poems practices an exceptionally seductive combination of complex ideas with musical intricacy. The ending of “The Bells,” at last, seems every bit as haunting as the shadow at the close of “The Raven,” for it, like that shadow, reveals nothing more than the speaker coming to terms with a knowledge of mortality which had been hidden by beautiful, rhetorical, heavenly idealism.







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Probient Festive Misrule of Del Playa Drive, or, Halloween in Isla Vista: An Abbreviated Version

Del Playa Drive is a difficult walk and an impossible drive on Halloween weekend nights in Isla Vista. If one is walking and there is a crowd big enough, one can be squeezed, lifted and whirled around in and out of a sea of bodies. Anonymous scantily or elaborately dressed princesses, firefighters, mummies and sexy black cats flirt, shout from balconies, laugh, and tread on gravel, red cups, costume feathers and horse excrement. The damages that are the result of the liberal spirit of those nights have led apprehensive local law enforcement officials into developing costly crowd control and safety preparations; and have led UCSB to implement strict residence hall policies. Both of these official responses in turn create disgruntled Santa Barbara taxpayers and student resentment. In the dialogue that ensues in the aftermath of Halloween in Isla Vista, taxpayers blame the “party school” UCSB for misusing a significant portion of the county’s resources and students blame out-of-towners for “trashing” their home. It is tradition for news outlets to speedily report the damages of the yearly, unsanctioned event. These conflicts are very real; this essay however, will focus on how the topsy-turvy nature of Halloween in Isla Vista reflects national culture functioning at a local level in this college-town. Modernity, consumerism, local politics, and American youth ideology are cultural factors that are reflected and also heavily explored in the event through humor, speech and the body creating a potential for social change. A close analysis of participant performances based on Carnivalesque and English medieval drama studies provides such insight.


With civilization comes the curtailing of freedom because some degree of subjugation is the price people pay for law and order. Inevitably, cultural factors such as ethnicity, class, and gender generate communal conditions that often render the state of subjects chafing and foment a collective yearning for individual sovereignty; and this in turn creates a demand for the disruption of established ruling systems, whether it be from the dominant cultural norms of a society or the government, the church or the state. Evidence of this cultural phenomenon can be traced to the Roman Empire’s most popular holiday out of the calendar year, the Saturnalia. During this holiday, deities representing harvest, heaven and earth were celebrated with a festival that lasted up to a week and during which “license was the rule. Criminals went unpunished, social rank dissolved” (Shalleck 13) and thus, slaves appropriated the pompous deportment of the rich while the rich rid themselves of quotidian customs and conventions of propriety. Other ruling institutions and forms of suppression have fueled the existence of this communal craving for revelry globally. Within Catholicism for example, feasts were created




for “a moment’s indulgence before the penance of Lent” (Shalleck 12) and in England and America, secular events such as masquerades enabled the “bravado and promiscuous flirtation” (Shalleck 13) that was often shunned by Church morality and patriarchal tradition. Briefly liberating events and rituals like these expose the sources of the repressions of the people they temporarily free and have the potential to bring forth social renewal. Moments of such nature are described as carnivalesque; a term coined in the 20th century by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin.


Bakhtin recognizes all carnivalesque moments, in both literature and cultural customs (i.e. Lent) as spaces of transgression with the potential to liberate individuals from social norms. In Rabelais and his World he specifically studies popular humor and folk culture from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and he posits three main components of the carnivalesque that can achieve this, namely, festive laughter, speech in the marketplace, and grotesque realism. In Bakhtin’s words “carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter,” (Bakhtin 8) a laughter that is “universal” because it is not directed at any one person, is all-inclusive and is all belonging (Bakhtin 11). As a consequence of its inclusivity, it is also non-derisive, unlike the targeted parody comedians and critics often use in modern life. This universal laughter does not chastise or impose ethics the way parody does. Bakhtin explains that carnival rituals of the Middle Ages were often linked to agrarian, biological, or social moments of change or death that people viewed as “moments of crisis” but also as conduits to “renewal” that in the end inspired a “festive perception of the world” (Bakhtin 9). He adds that even customs such as official feasts during that time that asserted all that was continual, authoritative, and hierarchical, could not displace festive laughter. Festive laughter was an important aspect of folk culture that was “turned over to the popular sphere of the marketplace” where unrestricted, more liberal forms of “speech and gesture” developed among those who were “usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession and age” (Bakhtin 10). In other words, festive laughter was used to temporarily resist authority and social norms and to view the world through a different angle in the face of adversity or death.


The speech of the marketplace works simultaneously with festive laughter to foster other carnivalesque inversions in texts or social events. The way it works is by leveling people of all ranks and lineages to one equal status. People speak to one another without restraint in the speech of the marketplace through “inappropriate” language, that is to say, language that is “appropriate” for the carnival space as well as mockery that can either debase those of high ranks or exalt those from the lower ones; Bakhtin illustrates the leveling effects for us:


When two people establish friendly relations, the form of their verbal intercourse also changes abruptly; they address each other informally, abusive words are used affectionately, and mutual mockery is permitted. The two friends may pat each other on the shoulder and even on the belly. Verbal etiquette and




discipline are relaxed and indecent words and expressions may be used (Bakhtin 16).


This type of uninhibited interaction and the suspension of “verbal etiquette” have the power to uncrown the most powerful, authoritarian figures of regular, daily life as well as to crown the weakest and poorest fool.


Finally, the bodily themes of “aging, copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, disintegration and dismemberment” (Bakhtin 25) operate within Bakhtin’s definition of grotesque realism together with contradiction, overemphasis, hyperbolism and immoderateness to create powerful images of “the living sense that each man belongs to the immortal people who create history” (Dentith 253). An exaggerated image of those themes that show humanity’s immortality through the regenerative essence of the body is for example an old hag1 giving birth, symbolizing death and birth. Another is that of mouths wide open, alluding to swallowing, a symbol of death and destruction yet also reminiscent of indulgence in food a form of sustenance. Finally, a third example is that of birth and death as the “gaping jaws of the earth”, which means Mother Earth both acts as a womb that gives us life and nourishment and then as a mouth that swallows us in death through burial. Based on this line of thinking, to humiliate or degrade the body or an object cannot simply be negative, destructive or damaging but also restoring because humans are not complete, closed entities but unfinished and open to the processes of “death-renewal-fertility” (Dentith 235) through the “convexities and orifices of the body” (Dentith 226) where acts such as “eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination” processes of the body take place (Dentith 227). All of these orifices and images interweave the “beginning and end of life” (Dentith 227) to create Bakhtin’s grotesque realism, the part of the carnivalesque that exaggerates bodily life to assert “fertility, growth and abundance” (Bakhtin 19).


Renewal is still the key term. All the concepts involved in Bakhtin’s carnival are linked by the concept of renewal. Fundamental to Bakhtin’s method of inquiry in Rabaleis and His World was the conviction that there was significant meaning behind the exaggerated, grotesque and caricaturist writing of Rabelais. The same should be thought of the carnivalesque in contemporary culture. However, critics of carnivalesque theory argue about its power to generate any lasting or traceable change. That can be seen argued about Halloween as well. The collective revelry of the night reflects in great part, very conformist behaviors and as a result revelers and observers alike remain disconnected from the progressive potential of the event. In The Politics of Carnival, Humphrey communicates the idea that “the most ‘successful’ kind of direct action is that which deliberately explodes for a brief moment and then allows its perpetrators to slip away” (Humphrey 57). This can be easily understood to be the result of “perpetrators’” or revelers’ ability to act more freely, with less fear of repercussions within the temporarily relaxed space of carnivalesque events. Such a spirit is not usually embraced



  • An evil spirit, demon, or infernal being, in female form (OED online).




however, because the carnivalesque quality of writings and events creates a festive façade that is either solely attractive to willing participants or strongly repulsive to spectators depending on each person’s role and identity in the community. As a result of those ways of viewing carnivalesque spaces, participants and spectators of Isla Vistas’ Halloween focus on contentions over the responsibility for financial, environmental and personal damages of Halloween in Isla Vista. This lessens the meaning of the annual tradition as a carnivalesque moment by limiting the interpretation of it to that of an exorbitant party space for youth and especially, UCSB college students. It is not to say that the efficacy of Halloween in Isla Vista as a carnivalesque moment requires that participants and onlookers be aware of the social role the event has because many of the carnivalesque performances during the event are individual, unconscious processes. It is necessary to interpret those performances and the effects of the event in a specific way—in a way that conservative underlying themes of youth sexuality, nostalgia, consumerist attitudes and national ideologies can be recognized amidst that deception of purely anti-authoritarian chaos. In this essay, the potential change-generating essence of the carnivalesque within Halloween will be demonstrated, but first, I shall establish the definitions of terms that make the best us of the carnivalesque components and allow for an empirically based analysis of Halloween in Isla Vista.


Chris Humphrey’s book The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England discusses the arguments about the social function of the carnivalesque as previously explained, but Humphrey replaces the term carnivalesque with the term “festive misrule” in his analysis of events in medieval England in order to examine them with accuracy. The association of the word carnival to the season before Lent overpowers the meaning of the word carnivalesque and the different components of the carnivalesque (e.g. festive laughter, the speech of the marketplace and grotesque realism). Also, that same association has led to a wide and ambiguous use of the term so that it is often used to refer to “any season or course of feasting, riotous revelry, or indulgence” (emphasis mine; definition from OED online), a usage that is too inclusive and turns the term carnivalesque into a heading that “lumps together” (Humphrey 43) unruly cultural activities. This makes it difficult to distinguish festive misrule from other cultural activities such as charivari, which were “ritualized forms of punishment” (Humphrey 43) during which people were punished for breaking social norms or laws. There are stark differences between these types of misrule activities, one of them being that the punished were not willing participants, another being that the laughter involved in charivari was extremely chastising and derisive. Humphrey offers an example of the “imaginative humiliation” (Humphrey 43) suffered by a couple in the city of York during the year 1536. They were punished because they admitted to distributing defamatory papers around their town and their punishment was to be placed “on horseback and parad[ed] about the local area facing toward the tail-end of [a] beast” (Humphrey 43). This activity would fall under the broadly encompassing heading “carnivalesque”, but not under the term festive misrule. The term festive misrule has not been applied to analysis of events to the extent




that the term carnivalesque has, and in order to retain the meaning of the word, only activities such as Halloween in Isla Vista in which willing participants’ rowdy behaviors are analyzed through empirical evidence with the end of discovering where transgressions “derive from, [what their] nature and scale is and the reasons and interests motivating them” (Humphrey 42). Furthermore, those transgressions should be analyzed without any preconceived expectations, but because the carnivalesque has been analyzed in terms of the safety valve and social protest theories, words such as “subversion” or “disorder…load interpretations in advance” (Humphrey 42) with conclusions about political changes under creation within the space of the carnivalesque. In festive misrule, the word “transgression” has a neutral definition however; it “captures[s] what both misrule and charivari share [topsy-turvy elements], while avoiding any implication that they were closely related kinds of activity” (Humphrey 43). Let us conclude with the definition of festive misrule as a “genre performance which makes strong use of the theme of transgression [which] captures what all instances have in common, while leaving us room to consider the use to which it is put in particular cases” (Humphrey 42).


Therefore, the term carnivalesque will not be used interchangeably with other terms in this continuing analysis of Halloween in Isla Vista; the term that will be used along with other words such as “celebration”, “festival”, “ritual” and “performance” will be probient festive misrule. This hybrid term has stemmed from Adrienne Marie MacIain’s dissertation and Chris Humphrey’s The Politics of Carnival; and it represents the Isla Vista Halloween community most accurately. Halloween in Isla Vista is a carnivalesque space unrelated to the season of Lent and therefore the ambiguity of the “catch-all term” (Humphrey 3) carnival shall be avoided. Festive misrule encompasses both carnival ritual (i.e. Halloween in Isla Vista) and “carnivalized writing” (i.e. The York Play of the Crucifixion) (Dentith 67) or, in other words, it spans the division in this research project between text and event. I use festive misrule to analyze ethnographic evidence about a specific contemporary community, as well as literary analyses of writing and research that “describe art or activities” that involve “copiousness, abundance or transgression, from ancient times through to the present day” (Humphrey 3) and especially within youth culture. The term “festive misrule” allows for those carnivalesque characteristics of “copiousness” and “abundance” to be analyzed independently of all other carnivalesque moments and allows for the focus to be placed solely on the probient community in Isla Vista.


Probient, a term coined by Adrienne Marie MacIain “referring to those individuals experiencing… the life-phase between adolescence and adulthood” will be used to form the term “probient festive misrule”. Probient “with the root “prob” from the Latin probare meaning to test or prove worthy” (MacIain 15) communicates that the participants of this event are highly engaged in identity formation and exploration. It is the term that best represents the majority of the Halloween in Isla Vista participants because it is not biased in a way that implies that the individual is getting closer to adulthood and farther away from




adolescence, but rather, it focuses on the in-between state that renown psychology research Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett acknowledges within the definition of what he calls “emerging adulthood” or the “period from roughly ages 18 to 25 in industrialized countries during which young people become more independent from parents and explore various life possibilities before making enduring commitments” (Arnett 8). According to Arnett, both adolescents and emerging adults are a part of a youth culture that is “based on the subterranean values such as hedonism, excitement and adventure” (Arnett 234) or in other words, the pleasure seeking and explorative personality characteristics that are heightened during misrule events and that MacIain wishes to emphasize through her term “probience”. Furthermore, Arnett communicates that within youth culture it has been proposed, “there are three essential components to the style of youth culture,” (Arnett, 235) which are: image, demeanor and argot. Image is defined in Arnett’s text as “dress, hairstyle, jewelry and other aspects of appearance” and (un-surprisingly) the example given is that of “rings worn in the nose, navel or eyebrow” all that are orifices or places near the orifices of which the hyperbolized images of grotesque realism subsist. In addition, demeanor and argot as the other two components of the style of youth culture, show how probients are predisposed to engage in behaviors that can forge meaningful reflections about specific communities. Demeanor refers to “distinctive forms of gesture, gait and posture, for example certain ways of shaking hands” and argot is defined as “a certain vocabulary and a certain way of speaking [such as] the word “cool” to refer to something desirable and “chill out” to mean to relax or calm down” (Arnett 236); these two components of the style of youth suggest that youth make use of behaviors within quotidian spaces that are in line with those that form the speech of the marketplace that belong to the spaces of misrule and that challenge societal norms or parental expectations. In summary, the in -between state found within youth culture is more accurately represented through the term “probience”, which does not allude to any progression toward adulthood, but a strong sense of exploration that consists of behaviors that are further enabled in misrule spaces. Sociologists argue that “youth culture is a way of constructing a coherent and meaningful worldview” when society “fails to provide one” due to diversity and increasing individualism in modern communities; having drawn the parallels between youth culture style and festive misrule images and behaviors, I argue in turn that probient festive misrule is a way of constructing a convoluted, mirror image of the dominant values present within local communities despite the diversity (to any extent) and individualism that exists among the probients involved, and in this case, in the United States college-town of Isla Vista. Politics of race, gender and sexual preference are three of the themes represented in that convoluted image. The following first person, research and footage-based narratives will show how such an image can result from the “individual, [and] socio-cultural experimentation and exploration” (MacIain 18) probients experience during Halloween in Isla Vista.


Here is the probient image presented in UCSB PhD candidate Adrienne Marie MacIain’s dissertation example. It is an improvised scene that occurred on




“October 31st at approximately 11 pm” during Halloween in Isla Vista. She calls it “Finding Nemo on Del Playa Drive” (MacIain 1). This scene encompasses misrule’s elements and reinforces the instability, in-between state and explorative image of the probient:


“NEMO!” a male voice calls out, “It’s Nemo!” The crowd shifts as a sailor holding a video camera wades over toward where a young man dressed as “Nemo” is facing the opposite direction. The sailor…declares “I have to find Nemo,” partly as an explanation to those he must push out of the way, some of whom turn to follow him, joining the quest. Having arrived he calls out once more, “Nemo!” at which point the orange-and-black fish head turns to face the searching sailor and his camera, revealing an expression of genuine surprise. The newfound Nemo, sporting a lose fitting orange tank top and black jeans, holds up an open container of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey… declaring dramatically, “Oh my god, you fuckin’ found me Dude!” The two strangers hug to the tune of a communal “awwwww”: a conscious collective parody of so many sentimentalized Hollywood-ending reunions. Having played out their scene, the two unceremoniously part, carried off in opposite directions by the chaotic currents of the chuckling crowd. (MacIain 2).


At the moment the theatrical performance dissolves, the “chuckling” of the “chaotic currents” is not directed at anyone in particular. This is festive laughter working to unify the crowd of probients. It worked in three ways; the first was by confirming that there was shared knowledge or a collective understanding of who was the 2003 Disney, Pixar animation fish character called Nemo. Secondly, the embrace that culminated the performance also created a narrative reminiscent of the sentimental movie endings that abound in everyday American entertainment, making the crowds’ mocking laughter directed at themselves, for being so acquainted with the Hollywood culture and according to MacIain, directed at Hollywood’s happy ending culture; a ridiculing of that common fantasy narrative. Once again, festive laughter transcends the boundaries of performers and spectators, misrule space and everyday life to critique social customs through humor.


The speech of the marketplace also plays its part in this scene. The pushing and shoving, the cursing, the communal “awwwww” and the unceremonious parting of the two main actors in this improvisation are all part of the feigned familiarity that enables the participants to partake in the humor of the imitation being performed. As evident, within the carnivalesque festive laughter and the speech of the marketplace often co-exist. Let us not forget the third factor in the study of this misrule however, the grotesque body, which is also simultaneously at work. To reiterate, grotesque realism is the exaggeration of “apertures or convexities [such as] the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly [and] the nose” (Bakhtin 26). In her description of the mini-rendition of “Finding Nemo” put on by the Isla Vista Halloween revelers, Adrienne MacIain notes




Nemo’s presumably agape “orange-and-black fish head” adjacent to “an open container of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey” (MacIain 2). Under close scrutiny grotesque images presented in Isla Vista’s Halloween prove to embody the “unfinished metamorphosis” of young individuals caught between the stages of adolescence and adulthood. At the same time, these grotesque images can reflect behaviors that conform to national ideologies about the stage of life they are living, and Nemo’s scene is one such example.


Nemo’s drinking is an image of death and renewal. The act of swallowing is an action that symbolizes death and destruction (as previously discussed) and the swallowing of alcohol portrays the culturally derived idea of happiness within the probient life stage. There are many costumes worn during Halloween that reinforce the expectation that probients partake widely in substance abuse such as a human-sized walking breathalyzer, human sized beer cans and t-shirts with messages like “Life is a Bitch, Flirt with Death”. MacIain states that Halloween in Isla Vista is “an emblematic expression of what are commonly regarded to be “the best years” of a Westerner’s life, performed by those who are assumed to be in a prime position to enjoy those years to the fullest” (MacIain 4). That enjoyment turns out to have a conformist end even though it is misrule and even though it may seem, on the one hand, to be purely rebellious. The performances of the night conform to ideologies or expectations of how the young community is told to “live” through celebration: in this case, that of over-indulging in alcohol, even breaking the law and drinking on a public street because “the attainment of individual happiness via consumption is the sacred goal upon which postmodern capitalist culture is based; [and] it therefore stands to reason that our (culturally-determined) desires have become the ultimate authority” (MacIain 44), an authority above law enforcement. Probient festive misrule at Halloween in Isla Vista is ultimately safety valve behavior, but it does not fail to offer the opportunity for renewal however. The orange fish head ultimately hyperbolizes life at its prime in a destructive moment to magnify the beliefs that exist in the college town community and perhaps even in the nation. Nemo (from MacIain’s passage) is participating in the destructive and conformist action of drinking but at the same time, through that action, he is giving life to a powerful image. Drinking in public during Halloween in Isla Vista is behavior that is in line with the conformist views about growing up in college in United States, and those beliefs are magnified through his costume choice of the Bildungsroman, Disney character Nemo. The mixed images of a Disney cartoon and the consumption of alcohol reflect the ongoing process of metamorphosis into adulthood—the in-between state that came with the newfound independence of college life and a past of dependence. The grotesque image of Nemo drinking alcohol, the substance that “disappears with what it burns [and] is the communion of life and of fire” and that “incorporates itself within that which is striving to express itself”(Dictionary of Symbols 15) in this case magnifies the state of the probient, that is, performing two polar opposite behaviors, acting both as kid and as an adult, donning a children’s animation costume and drinking whiskey.




The elements of probient festive misrule (festive laughter, speech of the marketplace and grotesque realism) are undoubtedly at work in Halloween in Isla Vista as shown through the Nemo scene. Besides depicting the continual in-between state of the probient community in the college town of Isla Vista, ideologies about youth happiness in the United States and offering a critique about Hollywood entertainment, other performances I witnessed in person or found through online footage research, accord with other themes established in MacIain’s analysis, particularly her insight that “racial and/or class privilege [is defended] through the practice of ethnic stereotyping and mimicry” (MacIain 288) during Halloween in Isla Vista, and that it is sexually charged and “aggressively heterosexual” (MacIain 274). The following passage shares examples of probient performances that show dominant cultural norms related to race and class. She mentions how it is common that Caucasian probients dress in stereotypical costumes of international ethnicities, and minorities within the United States to assert class and race privilege as well as to appropriate certain parts of others’ cultures that white probients deem lacking in their lives:


Caucasian men seem particularly predisposed to don, for example, an exaggerated sombrero and poncho, Japanese “Ninja” gear, a Hawaiian shirt with fake grass skirt and plastic lei… In 2004, the streets of Isla Vista were awash with Caucasian boys dressed as jive-talking “Homeys,” Chicano gangsters, and blaxploitation-style, Afrosporting pimps. Another fairly ubiquitous costume piece, for both men and women, was a Bob Marley style hat, complete with attached dreadlocks… One apparent point of fixation is potency: many of the ethnic stereotypes presented by the Halloween revelers hinge upon sexual, physical, or financial prowess. The Latin lover, the Indian warrior, the black athlete or rap star, the Saudi oil millionaire: all of these express what is most attractive, and most threatening, about the imagined Other. Another common theme is serenity: the peace-loving, ganja smoking Rasta, the laid-back tropical beach dweller, the wise Yogi, and so forth. These identities have come to represent those things that Euro-Americans view as lacking in their lives: balance, harmony, and calm. The portrait of the Other painted by these revelers is an ambivalent one: representations of strength are often accompanied by the insinuation of unscrupulous or sinister behavior, and peaceful portrayals tend to include an implied laziness and/or lack of intelligence. In this way, stereotype allows maskers to simultaneously transcend, and implicitly reaffirm the superiority of, their racial subject-position (MacIain 288-290).


She also adds that white female probients tend to wear costumes that are “of exoticized portrayals of non-white sexual stereotypes: Middle-Eastern Belly dancers, Japanese Geishas, Indian Princesses [and] Chinese Concubines” while non-white female probients often wear United States “icons of femininity” such as “Madonna, Marilyn Monroe


Probient Festive Misrule



and the Disney Princesses” (291). Ultimately, MacIain believes “the act of masquerading as the Other contains simultaneously a fear of, and a desire for, that Other” (289). In MacIain’s opinion this shows that stereotypes can be used to facilitate colonial relations. These relations do not challenge the established social norms however because “mimicry and mockery [of] the Euro-American male remains more or less untouchable territory” (MacIain 292) and this is seen in how probients react to “white” masking or costumes. She gives one example:


…one black reveler who was dressed in a suit and tie was repeatedly asked by a group of white males “Are you supposed to be a Mormon or something?” When he declined to reply, the group taunted him loudly, and made rude gestures behind his back. Yet the same group greeted a white man in fake dreadlocks with an enthusiastic high-five, saying, “What up, my brotha?”…From all this I conclude that the white male is still considered the invisible, unspoken “norm” in Isla Vista. Therefore, to dress as a “white guy” is not to be dressed up at all. (MacIain 292-293).

YouTube sensation and California On’s host, Kassem G experiences that untouchableness of the white Other when he introduces Halloween in Isla Vista during 2013 as a land of dangerous experimentation. Kassem and his film crew begin their video with the arrival of adventurers on a helicopter onto the Jurassic Park island, except the helicopter lands in Isla Vista, as a sign that dangles amid the mystic greenery of the island suggests while the theme song of the American science fiction film plays in the background. Sporting a black leather jacket and a curly, dark haired wig, Kassem professes at first to be Dr. Ian Malcolm. Later however he explains to the camera his need to change his character to Lionel Richie due to other costumed revelers’ failure to identify him as the former. What made the difference between Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park and the singer Lionel Richie? Skin color. Both characters shared the same essential characteristics, which were the dark curly hair and the black leather jacket, but Kassem could not pass off as Dr. Ian Malcom because the actor Jeff Goldblum was White and therefore Kassem’s choice of costume was not recognized. Although Kassem pointing out that he must change his costume is a conformist behavior, one that conforms to the expectation of dressing up as a non-white Other, his action also serves as an opportunity for social critique as it exposes the White male to be an “off limits” costume.


The rest of his Jurassic Park themed filming crew consisted of the perhaps less recognizable fictional pioneers John Hammond (Jurassic Park’s owner in the film) in a beige jacket and hat and Dr. Alan Grant (a paleontologist) in a blue, button-down long-sleeve, white hat and a red bandana around the neck as well as two dinosaurs, one in a white t-shirt with “T-Rex” written in black permanent marker and the other in a


Probient Festive Misrule



bright green and orange, neon dinosaur costume. The five of them walked down Isla Vista’s Del Playa Drive to show their online audience what the beachside attraction was like. Dr. Ian Malcolm in one last attempt to claim his initial identity asks a male probient in a dark, low V-neck and kitty ears whether he is into “ uh, chaos theory? Non-linear equations? Strange attractions? ” To which the male feline probient replies, “That’s what I major in”. Kassem’s insistence here provides an example of the possibility that one may be able to dress as a White fictional character from the land of science fiction, but it also reinforces the idea that MacIain projects through her narrative and analysis about the generic white businessman who remains untouchable. The YouTube clip later moves on to other small performances and interactions between Kassem G and other costumed participants of the night.


One of those later interactions is between him and “North West”. Kassem asks the Latino probient, “every other day of the year what are you?” to which he replies “Any other day I am just a regular beaner walking down campus”. To this Kassem comments “but not today” and North West replies, smiling at the camera and saying “not today, today I am North West”. His costume is the sign of a compass on a pink shirt. He is wearing white-framed sunglasses, an adult sized diaper and a pink bow in his hair; he is North West the daughter of reality show star Kim Kardashian and the musician Kanye West. Through this costume the Latino probient expresses his desire to be the celebrity baby born into fame and wealth and at the same time with a very simple part of his costume, the paper compass pointing to the north and the west, he mocks the odd name of the celebrity baby. The social inversion of class that is permitted within probient festive misrule is highlighted when the male probient refers to himself as a “regular beaner” or in other words, a Latino of humble (or non-wealthy) background who gets to be a rich baby for one night. Ironically, festive laughter is at work because his costume invites spectators to laugh at the absurdity of being born into fame and wealth at the cost of satisfying a consumerist, media-absorbing nation with an ongoing, filmed representation of the what the ultimate pleasures of their American dreams could be like.


Other interactions and footage by Kassem’s film crew demonstrate the sexually charged and “aggressively heterosexual” (MacIain 274) nature of the misrule in Isla Vistas’ Halloween. They ask girls to kiss or twerk (dance sexually) and suggest that all the girls dressed as Miley Cyrus “assemble and create a giant whore voltron”. The definition of the word voltron cannot be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the following is an entry from Urban Dictionary Online, a dictionary for unstandardized words that are trending in popular culture:


“Also known as a “Whore-nado,” A Drunk Bitch Voltron is the result of 3-5 inebriated females at a social event linking




together. This usually begins as a group hug of sorts, and then is used in order to keep balance. A Drunk Bitch Voltron can last from anywhere from five to forty minutes, but can occasionally result in skin grafting, which is referred to as a Drunk Bitch Voltron King. Drunk Bitch Voltrons are notorious for knocking over drinks, crying, and collectively screaming.


Causes of a Drunk Bitch Voltron include but are not limited to; “their song” coming on, a group talk about boys, general drunk affection, and the completion of a social shot.

Sometimes one member of a Drunk Bitch Voltron will lose stability, resulting erratic swaying or even a complete structural collapse (odds are increased when heels are involved).


DBV’s cannot be reasoned with, because when forming Drunk Bitch Voltron each member sacrifices their individual hearing to become one being. It’s like…. science or something”

(Urban Dictionary Online).

Most of the interaction and dialogue that occurs between Kassem (and his film crew) and women is objectifying and derisive of women. The definition of the word Kassem uses, as well as the sexual nature of his requests highlight a patriarchal and strongly heterosexual ideology. As the YouTube video moves on, he continues using lines like “here’s some drunk ones for ya” and at a house party he asks a male to choose a female without the two girls being spoken of even being asked first if they are interested in any sort of flirtation with the opposite sex. The profanity and familiar interaction with strangers that occurs through the facilitated, feigned familiar interaction of the speech of the marketplace does not invert patriarchal and aggressively heterosexual social norms but rather to reinforces them and enables the males involved in these scenarios to automatically perceive women to be available and approachable. These values are so strong within the Isla Vista Halloween participants that even when probient female performances seek to challenge them, they are immediately rebuked with disgust and condescension. MacIain provided an example from her own experience during the last Halloween night of the year 2004 when she decided to “dress as a storybook prince” (MacIain 279):


“The most strongly negative reaction I received came near the end of the night…[A] young man, who was dressed as a“redneck” in roughed-up overalls and boots, approached me with a couple of friends, asking, “Hey Princess, what Kingdom do you come from?” “Prince,” I corrected, and showed them my royal “package” to illustrate. The three men began hemming and hawing loudly, one side-kick repeating over and over, “that is fucked up,” the other lamenting, “what a waste.” Most alarming, however, was the reaction of the” “redneck” ringleader. With what appeared to be genuine hurt and anger, he shook his head for a moment before asking me point-blank, “Why’d you have to




go and ruin the mood like that, huh?” The three then turned their backs to me and proceeded to commiserate with the other men at the party about my offensive costume choice. The redneck’s statement, along with his and his friends’ behavior in general, told me a number of things about the expectations placed upon female revelers at Halloween in Isla Vista. As a woman, I was apparently expected to create and maintain a romantic/sexual mood for the benefit of this male audience” (MacIain 279-280).


The grotesque image that MacIain presents by donning a “royal package rivals the normative expectation of the male Prince Charming and the objectified woman. MacIain takes an assertive position against the expectation that she has to please the male audiences by instead “pushing masculinity to a grotesque extreme” (MacIain 281), an image in which the phallus is completely exposed. There are also male probients who cross-dress like MacIain did when she dressed up as a prince, and although not all male probient cross dressers may share one same experience, there is a noticeable trend in how males choose to cross-dress. So what happens when a male decides to cross dress? I shall present a scenario from my own Halloween experience. It was Friday, October 2013. I remember probients walked with their eyes bouncing from the live action on the street to the houses that lined it, looking for a party with alcohol, the occasional costume rating or for the gangs of spectators a-top fences and balconies to interact with. We caught a glimpse of Clifford the Big Red Dog2 with some pals on top of a wooden fence, inciting brief sporadic gatherings around girls who leaned upside-down against the fence, placing their hands down on the ground and using their toes for support while they twerked3. Out of nowhere, a tall guy came jogging towards us with an awkwardly arched back (presumably accentuating his chest and buttocks), sneakers and a tight-fitted pink floral dress. He didn’t bother to adjust the back of it all the way up; he had a (highly noticeable) bulky athletic build. Pulling one of his loose shoulder straps up with one hand and pushing his blond long hair back with the other, he whined at the top of his lungs “Why won’t anybody kiss me?” I laughed at his whiny desperateness and yelled back at him “Wait, who do you want a kiss from? A girl or a boy?” He briefly scanned through his audience to find me and reply “You.” As he approached me, I hurriedly moved my head back and laughed and hopped nervously with fists in front of me, when much to my relief, my friend Kevin offered a kiss. They tantalized each other with a few very close to being real mouth-to-mouth kisses, tilting and moving their head back and forth, but finally, simultaneously said “Naaaaah!” Kevin laughed saying “Yeah, I don’t roll that way” and they gave each other a pat on the back and parted. We saw seaweed men (or rather stinky



  • American canine cartoon character from children’s storybooks and animations by author Norman Bridwell, published since 1963 (About Norman Bridwell in works cited).


  • Twerking: the act of moving/ shaking ones ass/buns/bottom/buttocks/bum-bum in a circular, up-and-down, and side-to-side motion. Basically a slutty dance derived from strip clubs (Urban Dictionary online).




seaweed men with actual seaweed from the beach over them), Drunks 1 and 2, an astronaut, the regular sexy black cats and angels, and even a shower! “That shower is going to get a lot of action,” Kevin said.


The speech of the marketplace, that feigned familiarity between strangers was embraced by the loud, whining, male, cross-dresser, but why? The truth is that it is not possible to establish with certainty the male probients’ motives for choosing to dress as a woman, but there are a couple very viable possibilities. The male probient’s attire was only enough to let him “pass” as a female but in a way that was safely male enough. He did not wear makeup and he wore his dress and blonde wig messily enough so that his “bulky” and unfeminine-like clumsiness remained to assert his masculinity. In this way, the male probient could whine at the top of his lungs about his romantic desires from the safe space that the female costume provided him. In other words, dressing up as the female he wishes to have a kiss from and putting his desires in her mouth created a safe distance between the performed identity and his real male identity to protect him from being ridiculed. Another possibility, would be repressed homosexual desires that would place the male probient at the same risk of being ridiculed within the aggressively heterosexual space of Halloween in Isla Vista. Based on the following testimony which was given after the speaker was called a “hag” and threatened by another male probient who was offended by the speaker “grabbing him”, it can be deduced that male probients who do dare embrace femininity in gender traversing costumes are strongly antagonized by other males:


“A boy can walk around with his dick hanging out of a mini skirt, no problem. But if you actually have the balls to shave your legs and really […] look the part, you’re asking to have your ass handed to you, apparently” (276).

MacIan argues that had the speaker’s female costume been less convincing, the other male probient may have not reacted so aggressively because he would not have felt his own masculinity threatened and therefore might have even played along. These are of course conjectures, but thus far, these conformist, heterosexually aggressive, and patriarchal values have been identified within the space of probient festive misrule and its elements of festive laughter, speech of the marketplace and grotesque realism have mainly worked in a way that reinforces those values or that has been met with displeasure (e.g. MacIain’s “package”).


From this analysis, I have arrived at the conclusion that social change happens a different way in the community if it happens because of Halloween in Isla Vista. It starts with onlooker curiosity and anger. Poor infrastructure, university communication, and relationships with law enforcement are annually repeated discussions amongst community members in the aftermath of Halloween in Isla Vista. The probient community itself begins to question misrule. “Why are we fighting for the right to party, we shouldn’t be doing that, people used to have riots for political causes” said a graduate student during a Deltopia aftermath forum this year; an event that is growing to be very much like Halloween. We




wear what we see on TV and magazines and social media etc. and we play out the role of the party student or party-goers, which just reinforces the opinions that we are the product of mechanized education and Western youth ideologies: that we are stressed out college students that “need to blow off steam” and that we are young and therefore party and drink on weekends. “Indeed…the extreme, excessive, decadent, self-indulgent behavior witnessed at carnival time is precisely not a reversal of capitalist culture, but rather its ultimate outcome” (MacIain 44). So there is an illusion of wild freedom during Halloween on Del Playa Drive, but in reality, most behaviors of that night fall within the safety valve theory. There are some cultural boundaries and ideologies being challenged by probient performers, but mostly in a limited, temporal way. The rich can pretend to be poor, the poor to be rich, males to be females and vice versa, but the patriarchal, heterosexual and sexually charged values of everyday life never leave and status quo returns after Halloween is over.


I am not arguing that Halloween in itself is a socially transformative event, the case studies presented have shown quite the opposite, that Halloween functions as a safety valve at best. I am however emphasizing how the malleable, explorative nature of the participants of Halloween in Isla Vista creates probient festive misrule; an unfiltered image of a part of the culture of our nation, the college town probient festive misrule of Halloween in Isla Vista which both participants and outsiders should understand for what it is—an event that appears to be, in a way purely rebellious but which is in fact very conformist and that fails to challenge the status quo in a lasting way. It reinforces patriarchy, skewed beauty aesthetics, consumerism, class and race privilege, female objectification and a dominantly heterosexual culture. Because of this, the way we see these things has to change.


As eager consumers of the national culture and participants of the intense festive misrule space of Halloween, probients explore, challenge (in a limited way) and magnify local cultural values in a way that other age groups are not allowed to because of the committed lifestyles they live and that other probients in other locations cannot (for this specific, local, college-town community). If national and foreign ideologies about the prime moment in young people’s lives in the west coast is about partying and sexual liberation because of the larger cultural forces that have helped to construct this image, then that is what Kassem and his film crew will capture. If patriarchal tradition is still dominant in our nation, the guy in the dress will whine and portray a romantically starved woman, instead of his own romantically starved male image, and his female costume will be as masculine as possible to ensure that the lines are blurred in a way that does not threaten his male identity. Cultural themes present themselves in Halloween in Isla Vista through probient misrule. The image reflected thus far is a grim one. This does not mean that Halloween can only function for the community by reminding us of the problems we need to face, it also holds the potential to be a space of real social transgression and social change. At the moment I have failed to find any positive change-bringing performances from the annual tradition. However,




probient festive misrule on Del Playa Drive is the closest we can get to a mirror reflection of our local, college-town culture.


I have been writing this paper to the sound of sirens, amidst the Isla Vista Deltopia riots in February and a recent massacre in late May. The reasons for which those things happen in our community are difficult and complex, perhaps even impossible to attain, but I know one thing, that probient misrule in Isla Vista makes the problems in our culture visible so that we can name and address them and also so that we can understand what contributed to those tragic incidents. I invite all of us to get a better understanding of the probient community. We are much like kids yet we are very powerful. What we come to value or want will make the difference in what happens in our community. So Halloween is at the moment a safety valve, with the potential to show us who we are. It can turn into social protest, and although I have not seen any traceable positive changes I still think it can happen. It begins with those questions, why the right to party? Why the riots? And then noticing, oh we are patriarchal, we are consumerists and this leads us to harmful ways of thinking. Whether Halloween will merely reflect forever or whether an improvement starts within it, I do not know but I believe both things are possible. I would argue even that this paper is already a brake away from it just being safety valve, now at least Halloween in Isla Vista has been studied twice, but there is much more work to be done.





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Reverse Colonization as a Function of Criminal Atavism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

The Victorian period brought new fears to Britain. With imperialism at its peak, the British began to fear what their colonies would bring to them. The “foreign other” was portrayed as diseased, criminal, and primitive. As the foreign began to be conIlated with the criminal, anthropometry, “the classiIication of individuals and population groups through physical measurements” (Towheed 11), was used to describe criminals in addition to ethnic groups. “Criminal Anthropology” emerged as a science, relying heavily on the concepts of atavism and degeneration. Atavism, a tendency to revert to ancestral type, and degeneration, a progressive deterioration of physical characteristics or reversion to a simpler form, were both inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Proponents of the theories believed that if humans could evolve, they could also do the opposite by becoming degenerate or atavistic. Criminal anthropologists purported that criminals were a class of atavistic human. Critic Stephen Arata points out that “the study of degeneration was. . .an effective means of “othering” large groups of people by marking them as deviant, criminal, psychotic, defective, simple, hysterical, diseased, primitive, regressive, or just dangerous” (Arata 16). It was used, for example, to classify epileptics as inherently criminal, and to claim that certain ethnic groups were “less evolved” than others and therefore more inclined to crime. But while the science of Criminal Anthropology did not “possess anything resembling a coherent terminology or rational methodology” (Arata 15), it strongly inIluenced the literature of the time. The mark of theorists such as Max Nordau, Havelock Ellis, and


Cesare Lombroso can be seen in the work of authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, both


the novel and the Count himself, is clearly inspired by contemporary theories of atavism and Criminal Anthropology. Count Dracula represents one of the greatest fears of Victorian Britain—the atavistic criminal who is also the foreign other, and substantiates the threat of reverse colonization.





The science of Criminal Anthropology, though now thoroughly disproven, had a marked inIluence on the Victorian period and beyond. Its foundational concept of degeneration was “considered a form of ‘common sense’” (Arata 16). Victorians took for granted that such concepts were true, and thus the concepts, and the so-­‐called sciences that they led to, inIluenced every aspect of Victorian life, particularly literature.




One of the primary means by which the criminal was identiIied was physical description. Physiognomy, the art of determining personal characteristics


from the features of the body, particularly the face, was the basis of criminal classiIication. Cesare Lombroso published his book, L’uomo delinquente, or The Criminal Man, in 1878, which “would have been available to Stoker in the


French translation” (Byron 468). Lombroso originated the idea of Criminal Anthropology, which created through extensive measurements and examinations of the skulls, faces, and bodies of criminals. He decided on a set of physical characteristics that were common to criminals and indicative of a criminal type. These anomalies include “voluminous jaws”, “extraordinary development of the canines”, and “high cheek-­‐bones” (Lombroso 23, 114, 118). Lombroso also notes that perpetrators of different types of crime may have different identifying features. He gives this description of an archetypal murderer: “The eyes of murderers are cold, glassy, immovable, and bloodshot, the nose aquiline, and always voluminous, the hair curly, abundant, and black. Strong jaws, long ears, broad cheek-­‐bones, scanty beard, strongly developed canines, thin lips. . .which bare the canines in a kind of menacing grin” (Lombroso 119). When compared to Jonathan Harker’s Iirst impression of Dracula, there seems to be a direct inspiration:


His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline—with high bridge of the thin nose. . .The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was Iixed and rather cruel-­‐ looking, with the peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips. . . For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks Iirm though thin. The general effect was


one of extraordinary pallor”         (Stoker 48)


Dracula and the archetypal murderer share aquiline noses, long or distinctive ears, and sharp teeth. Dracula’s “broad and strong” chin correlates to the “voluminous jaw” that Lombroso described. Dracula’s close resemblance to the “murderer” type is appropriate since, while the victims he kills come back to some form of life, it is not as themselves, and it is in such a way that they are, barring outside interference, forbidden from reaching the next life. To a




Victorian, this would have been even worse than a normal murder because most British people in that time period would have believed in a redemptive afterlife of which the Count robbed his victims. Two of the other vampires that Jonathan encounters in the castle are described similarly to Dracula, having “high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes”. They also have an additional feature of murderers as identiIied by Lombroso. “The lips of. . . murderers are Ileshy, swollen and protruding” (Lombroso 24). The two dark vampire women are said to have “voluptuous lips” (Stoker 69). The word voluptuous says that they are large and full, but also implies a sense of sexuality that is present in these vampires that is distinct from human women. The other female vampire is fair and it seems that, like Lucy, she is a victim of the Count’s inIluence rather than an instinctive criminal type like the Count himself. Lombroso wrote that the hair of the criminal was generally dark, “especially in murderers” (Lombroso 25). When Jonathan meets Dracula, the Count’s hair is white. As the novel progresses and the Count gains strength, his hair turns black. Lombroso writes that murderers have dark hair, and Dracula’s hair becomes darker as his murders increased. As he embodies the murderer character more in action, he embodies it more in appearance as well. Dracula’s eyebrows are also described, as “very massive, almost meeting over the nose” (Stoker 48). This almost exactly matches Lombroso’s description of a criminal’s eyebrows as “bushy and tend[ing] to meet across the nose” (Lombroso 25). Physically, Dracula clearly matches Lombroso’s criminal archetype.




Another aspect of the criminal’s physicality described by Lombroso was his vitality. Lombroso believed that criminals generally had a “greater insensibility to pain” and were “generally agile and preserve this quality even at an advanced age” (Lombroso 29). Dracula is of a supernaturally advanced age—he is likely centuries old—and yet he is faster than any of the men in the novel and, according to Van Helsing, possesses the strength of “twenty men” (Stoker 276). Vampires are shown as stronger than and more aggressive than humans. Arata notes the “robust health” of the vampires in the novel and contrasts it to the British since “the undead are, paradoxically, healthier and more fertile than the living” (Arata 117). This fertility is of a different sort than that of the living, since vampires reproduce by turning existing humans into vampires, but it is much more present in the novel than any living reproduction. The birth of Mina and Jonathan’s son at the end is contrasted to all of the death that constituted vampire fertility. Dracula’s health and strength at his impossibly advanced age, as determined by his accounts of centuries of wars in which he was directly involved, not only




marks him as a criminal but highlights the fear of the foreign other overtaking the British. Jonathan is weak compared to Dracula and almost falls prey to him in his castle. He is only able to defeat him later on while working in a group.


Facial expressions were thought to reveal similarities to non-­‐human animals


and thus, through the theory of criminal atavism, might indicate criminality. In Charles Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he devotes a chapter to hatred and anger. Darwin writes that “the


Iirst symptom of an approaching passion was the rushing of the blood into his bare scalp” and conversely that “the action of the heart is sometimes so much impeded by great rage that the countenance becomes pallid or livid” (Darwin). Both of these effects are consistent with Dracula’s appearance when he expresses his “hate and. . .hellish rage” to the men who are tracking him down (Stoker 347). Seward describes “the red scar on the forehead. . .on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound” (Stoker 347). Though generally pale, Dracula looks particularly pallid in his rage, and the the scar on his forehead is more noticeably red and inIlamed, consistent with the blood rushing to the scalp that Darwin described. Darwin also writes about


the importance of the teeth in expressing rage. Teeth are mentioned often in Dracula. The Count’s teeth are one of his most distinctive and dangerous


features. Darwin writes “the appearance is as if the teeth were uncovered, ready for seizing or tearing an enemy” (Darwin). Darwin goes on to note that the majority of people rarely use their teeth as weapons. Dracula, however, is an exception—his teeth are his primary weapon. Darwin writes of a doctor, who works with “the insane whose passions are unbridled” and has conIirmed that biting is more common among these mentally ill criminals (Darwin). Dracula would likely be classiIied as such, and he acts out his crimes through biting. This would have been considered a primitive trait, since according to Darwin, “our male semi-­‐human progenitors possessed great canine teeth” (Darwin). Since large canine teeth and biting would have been more common in early human ancestors, they are atavistic traits.




Lombroso and his contemporaries described the criminal mindset in almost as much detail as the physical description. The main problem in a criminal’s mind, as described by Lombroso, is that “the ability to discriminate between right and wrong, which is the highest attribute of civilized humanity, is notably lacking” (Lombroso 30). It is through the narrating characters’ sense of right and wrong that the reader views Dracula, and with this sense in mind, it is clear that the count is, as Van Helsing describes, “devil in




callous” (Stoker 276). This is also consistent with Lombroso’s descriptions of criminal “cruelty” and “indifferen[ce] to the sufferings of others” (Lombroso 35). Dracula chooses his victims based on a general sense of revenge rather than any personal reason. The choice of Lucy, for example, seems random at Iirst to her friends since she had never met Dracula, nor personally wronged him or his people. She seems to be a complete innocent, and therefore Dracula’s targeting of her is a mark of cruelty. Another quality found in the criminal mind is, as Van Helsing describes, that “the criminal always work at one crime” (Stoker 382). The criminal is determined, but single-­‐minded. After calling the Count “a criminal and of criminal type”, according to “Nordau and Lombroso”, Mina says of Dracula: “he conIines himself to one purpose. The purpose is remorseless” (Stoker 383). Dracula does not give up on his goals. Van Helsing notes how tireless he is with “he be beaten back, but did he stay? No! He come again, and again, and again. Look at his persistence and endurance” (Stoker 361). It is obvious to Van Helsing that the Count has been Iighting this particular battle for hundreds of years even if he hasn’t been speciIically Iighting it against them the whole time. He doesn’t care that they are not his original enemy. They are representative of his original enemy and that is enough, which speaks to his indifference to individual suffering and his persistence.




The criminal was considered similar to both “primitive” races and to “lower” animals. Lombroso framed this as a kind of revelation. When he was examining the skull of a criminal, he “seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a Ilaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal-­‐-­‐an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals” (Lombroso 15). This is based on atavism, which was seen as the opposite of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory “was unsettling to Victorians because it dissolved the boundary between human and the animal” (Danahay 19). This view betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. The Victorians thought that existing lower animals had evolved directly into humans, and that the process could be reversed. This misunderstanding could be partially attributed to the inIluence of the great chain of being, a medieval concept that ranked all beings. It began with god and other supernatural Iigures, then humans, ranked by class and race, then the other animals, ranked approximately according to their similarity to humans. This chain was confused with evolution, giving many people the idea that evolution was a straight line connecting all animals and “leading to the conclusion that if something—individual or nation—could evolve, it could also devolve or





degenerate” (Byron 20). Lombroso was among those who believed this. He compares criminals to “apes. . .birds of prey. . .snakes” and writes that “all these characteristics pointed to one conclusion, the atavistic origin of the criminal who reproduces. . .qualities of remote ancestors” (Lombroso 21). The more a criminal resembles an animal, and the lower that animal in the great chain of being, the further he is from civilized humanity. This distance is one of the main things that Lombroso emphasizes throughout his writings, asserting that the criminal is uncivilized because of his atavistic tendencies. Dracula himself is compared to “the rat, and the owl, and the bat. . . the fox, and the wolf” (Stoker 276). These are animals associated with particular traits. The fox, the wolf, and the owl are all thought of as intelligent, though the fox in particular generally has emphasized its cunning, which is has negative implications. The rat and the bat are both common disease carriers. This is signiIicant since Dracula “infects” his victims with vampirism. Dracula’s physical description also points to a similarity to lower animals. His nose is described as aquiline—like an eagle’s beak. Birds of prey are one of Lombroso’s examples of animals that criminals might resemble. The count is also unusually hirsute. He has his thick hair, bushy eyebrows, and, as Jonathan notices “hairs in the center of the palm” (Stoker 48). This resemblance to lower animals is another indication of criminality.




Lombroso and those who built on his research classiIied criminals according to different types. The type that he called “most important” were “born criminals. . .because the crimes committed by them are of a peculiarly monstrous character” (Lombroso 21). Count Dracula is a vampire, quite literally a monster. While this is probably not what Lombroso had in mind with the word “monstrous”, his crimes of murder and mutilation would certainly have fallen under this category. RenIield, Dr. Seward’s insane patient, represents another classiIication of criminal. Lombroso writes of “the idiot”, who “is prompted to paroxysms of rage to commit murderous acts on his fellow-­‐creatures” and “the imbecile, or weak-­‐minded individual” who “yields to his Iirst impulse, or, dominated by the inIluence of others, becomes an accomplice in the hope of some trivial reward” (Lombroso 49). What Dr. Seward terms RenIield’s “zoophagy” is the extent of his murderous acts that are described in the novel, but the latter classiIication points toward his devotion to Dracula and hope that the Count will come to him with instructions or assistance. Havelock Ellis, who expanded on Lombroso’s theories, writes of “the insane criminal” (Ellis 3). Dr. Seward seems to classify RenIield as this himself, referring to him as “my own pet lunatic” (Stoker 272). RenIield is clearly a psychological curiosity, and his




criminal tendencies are linked to his mental illness or, as it would have been called, insanity. The Iinal representation of criminals in Dracula comes with Lucy and the other female vampires.




Lucy’s condition is similar to the then-­‐popular diagnosis of hysteria, which Lombroso attributed to criminality in women. Women were often diagnosed as hysterical when experiencing psychological difIiculties or even just because they did not adhere to the strict ideals of femininity expected of them by their family and society. Lombroso writes that hysterical women have a particular “Susceptibility to suggestion. Of still greater importance for the criminologist is the facility with which hysterical women are dominated by hypnotic suggestion. Their wills become entirely subordinated to that of the hypnotizer” (Lombroso 57). Dracula seems to target women for this reason. He is able to hypnotize them into carrying out his will, and thus they are particularly useful to him. The symptoms of hysteria we “hallucinations, sudden change of character. . . .loss of strengt trembling” (Lombroso 57). Lucy’s loss of strength is one of the Iirst symptoms of her attack by Dracula. After her death and subsequent transformation, the change of character becomes apparent. When the men see her as a vampire, they see “Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness” (Stoker 249). That word “cruelty”, as used so often when applied to criminals, is now applied to Lucy. The “voluptuous wantonness” in the latter half of the sentence is also important, since Lombroso states that hysteria can cause “erotomania” (Lombroso 58). Lucy is more sexual after her transformation. The other female vampires are also sexually aggressive, which undermines conventionally passive femininity and shows “the breakdown of traditional gender roles, the confusion of the masculine and feminine. . .one indication of cultural decay” (Byron 20). The aggression and sexuality that the female vampires show would have been more often attributed to males, so the female vampires confused this border between masculine and feminine. Border-­‐crossing was one of the greatest driving forces behind what the Victorians believed was cultural decay.




At the height of imperialism, Victorians feared what Arata called “the late-­‐ Victorian nightmare of reverse colonization” (Arata 115). As the British expanded their empire, they also experienced an inIlux of immigrants from the new colonies. Some worried about the effects this immigration might have. Lombroso thought that “the agglomeration of population produced by




immigration is a strong incentive to crime” (Lombroso 80). Many Victorians agreed, and feared the natives of colonies coming to Britain would inIluence British culture, in what they felt would be a negative and regressive manner. This phenomenon is relevant to the works of Lombroso and hi contemporaries because “reverse colonization narratives are obsessed with the spectacle of the primitive and the atavistic” (Arata 109). Lombroso’s criminal as a Iigure of primitiveness and atavism is the perfect Iigure to enact the revenge that the Victorians feared, and Dracula Iits that archetype.




Dracula shows a warlike nature and a history of militaristic aggression. Narratives of reverse colonization show an exaggerated invasion, and the leader of such an invasion is appropriately a general. Dracula’s home of


Transylvania has become synonymous with vampires, but it was with Stoker and this book that the association began. Before Dracula, “Transylvania was


known primarily as part of the vexed ‘Eastern Question’ that so obsessed British foreign policy in the 1880s and 90s. The region was Iirst and foremost the site, not of superstition and Gothic romance, but of political turbulence and racial strife” (Arata 113). The instability of this region meant that it was the site of many political disputes. It would have been immediately associated with war, and Dracula with “the numerous warrior races-­‐-­‐Berserker, Hun, Turk, Saxon, Slovak, Magyar, Szekely-­‐-­‐inhabiting the area” (Arata 114). Dracula, as vampire, is the strongest of these warrior races. The count shows pride in his conquests and even in his defeats.


Was it not this Dracula, indeed who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkeyland; who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody Iield where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph? (Stoker 61)


This shows his persistence, as it seems he has fought the same battle many times. When he tells Jonathan of his family history, his greatest glory is in the “bloody sword” (Stoker 60) and he laments that “the warlike days are over” (Stoker 61). The juxtaposition of words like “bloody” and “slaughter” with “inspired” and “triumph” suggest that the count takes as much pride in the bloody scenes themselves as in the victories they signify. This afIinity toward blood is because of his nature both as vampire and warrior. Arata writes that “by continually blurring the lines between the Count’s vampiric and warrior activities, Stoker forges seemingly “natural’ links among three of his principle concerns: racial strife, the collapse of empire, an vampirism” (Arata 111). Dracula’s fondness for violence also emphasizes his





criminality. Lombroso writes of criminals having “the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its Ilesh, and drink its blood” (Lombroso 15). The count is a Iigure of evil, who leaves his mark on the people he attacks, tearing the Ilesh. Blood is is his main source of sustenance and the source of his inIluence. His lust for blood shows him as vampire, criminal, and warrior at once. Dracula easily crosses borders and inhabits all spheres of transgression that contributed to the fear of reverse colonization.


A transgression of class barriers was one of the main fears contributing to the idea of reverse colonization. Dracula confuses class barriers from the beginning of the novel. Jonathan is surprised to not “[see] a servant anywhere” in his castle (Stoker 50). The meals are prepared and placed entirely out of Jonathan’s sight, but it seems that the only person who could possibly be doing it is the Count. This is strange for him, as a noble, to act as a servant in his own home, especially to a foreigner who is not of noble birth.


He soon reveals his feelings about traveling to England to Jonathan: “Here I am noble; I am boyar. . .but a stranger in a strange land, he is no one. . .I am


content if I am like the rest. . .I have been so long master that I would be master still—or at least that none other should be master of me” (Stoker 51). The Count is concerned about standing out as a foreigner in England, because it would mark him as lower than the native English, while he is used to being recognized as higher than those around him. He wants to blend in with the English to make it easier for him to inIiltrate them from the inside.




Dracula also transgressed racial and cultural barriers. Lombroso writes that “There exist whole tribes and races more or less given to crime” (Lombroso 77). Among other ethnic groups he asserted were more likely to be criminals were some Eastern European groups with which the English might have associated Dracula. That may have been part of the reason he felt the need to study so hard to blend in with the English. He wanted to avoid appearing “criminal” so he could commit his crimes unnoticed. “To impersonate an Englishman, and do it convincingly, is the goal of Dracula’s painstaking research into ‘English life and customs and manners,’ a goal the Count himself freely, if rather disingenuously, acknowledges” (Arata 124). While he claims that the goal is simply to blend in, he plans to use that ability to infect people with vampirism without them realizing that he is a foreign other. This aligns with the fear that Victorians had of foreign cultures and diseases infecting Britain. Dracula’s type of reverse colonization is a particularly apt metaphor because “if ‘blood’ is a sign of racial identity, then Dracula effectively




deracinates his victims. In turn, they receive a new racial identity, one that marks them as literally ‘Other'” (Arata 116). Dracula’s use of blood makes blood as racial identity literal. Dracula is taking Lucy, who has “English blood” and giving her instead “Vampire blood”, which she can then spread to others. The spread of vampirism shows the fear that the British “race” would decline in favor of that of immigrants. However, with Van Helsing’s guidance, the men are able to “’re-­‐racinate’ [Lucy] by reinfusing her with the “proper” blood” (Arata 118). They give her blood transfusions each in turn. The order of the donors is “Holmwood, Seward, Van Helsing, Morris” (Arata 118). This order reIlects a strict hierarchy. Holmwood, British and of noble birth, is Iirst. Morris, American and of common birth, is put behind even the other foreigner Van Helsing. Though they are unable to save Lucy with this technique, it shows how racial, cultural, and class order were strictly established. Dracula’s attack on the body “endangers Britain’s integrity as a nation at the same time that he imperils the personal integrity of individual citizens” (Arata 115). He simultaneously invades individuals and the nation.




The Count’s campaign is a form of revenge against imperialism. Considering his location and his history of war, he often fought against conquering imperialists. These people were, like the British did with their colonies, attempting to assimilate Dracula and his people. Dracula takes great pride in his cultural heritage, as vampire and as a member of his country Lombroso writes that “pride, or rather vanity” is a feature in many criminals (Lombroso 33). It is because of this pride that Dracula fought so Iiercely against those who sought to assimilate him and his people, and that he held on to his hatred for them for so long. Through his many experiences in war, he developed a hatred not only for those people, but for any who conquer. Lombroso claims that criminals have “an extraordinary thirst fo revenge” (Lombroso 34). Dracula is consistent with this description. He says that he “spread [his revenge] over centuries”(Stoker 347). He is so dedicated to it that it does not matter that those who initially spurred the revenge are gone. He has moved on to another enemy. The British are not the ones who repeatedly attempted to take away his power and identity. However, as the strongest empire, England is representative of empire in general, and according to Van Helsing “the place. . .most of promise for him” (Stoker 356). Because of this, Dracula takes his power there, to strip the British of their identities in revenge and make them work for him. Dracula says to Mina, “They should have kept their energies for use closer to home” (Stoker 328). This seems not only to refer to those men who are currently Iighting him, but to serve as an indictment of imperialists in general. He hates imperialism and





wants to Iight against it, but he does this by being imperialist himself. Through the spread of vampirism, the Count is forging his own empire. When he infects people, he acts as the ruler of an empire. He forces the ones that he feeds on to become like him, as an empire attempts to make natives of its colonies assimilate. They become his “jackals” (Stoker 347). This is not only a position of servant who helps when he wants to feed, but also like a soldier, helping him spread his regime by making more people into vampires. He expresses a desire to have Mina as his “companion and. . .helper” (Stoker 328). He likely envisions her to have a similar role, as companion and a type of second-­‐in-­‐command, turning as many people as possible into vampires. He wants to create a race, an army, of people who look and act like him, generating even more of the Victorians’ fear of that which is atavistic. Were Dracula allowed to continue on this path unhindered, he would eventually be able to take over by creating an army of vampires and killing or infecting everyone in the country. Arata writes, “Dracula not only mimics the practices of British imperialists, he rapidly becomes superior to his teachers. The racial threat embodied by the Count is thus intensiIied.” (Arata 125). He is able to assimilate people more effectively than the British imperialists because he can change their race and their alliance with his bite. The British feared the people that the Count created, or the people that they worried that real foreigners might create, but even more, they feared becoming one of them.




Stephen Arata writes that “degeneration was a term no late-­‐Victorian thinker could do without” (Arata 2). The Victorians, including Bram Stoker, thought frequently about degeneration and how it might affect their country. The work of Cesare Lombroso and others who explored the Iield of Criminal Anthropology, describing how criminals were a degenerate and atavistic race of humans, inIluenced Victorian thinkers and writers. Bram Stoker’s Dracula


shows how the atavistic criminal and another major Victorian Iigure of fear, the foreign other, could be the same person. Dracula is a gothic horror, a


travel narrative, and an epistolary novel. Each of these literary forms individually concerns itself with boundaries. The gothic crosses borders of natural and supernatural, the travel narrative geographic and cultural, and the epistolary crosses narrative borders to allow the reader directly inside the mind of several characters in one book. These genres combine to make the perfect format for a narrative of reverse colonization, which is based on transgression of traditional boundaries. Count Dracula is a transgressive character in several ways. His status as vampire puts him on the border between dead and alive, human non-­‐human, natural and supernatural. His role as atavistic criminal puts him on the border between human and animal.





He attempts to cross other boundaries—of race, culture, and class—and forces others to cross them. The fact that he crossed these borders knowingly, intentionally to undermine British imperialism, makes him the embodiment of the Victorian fear of reverse colonization.





Works Cited


Arata, Steven. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire.

Cambridge:         Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Project Gutenberg:


  1. E-­‐book.


Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. Ed. Shafquat Towheed. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2010.


Ellis, Havelock. The Criminal. London: Walter Scott, 1892.


Lombroso, Cesare and Lombroso-­‐Ferrero, Gina. Criminal Man According to the ClassiGication of Cesare Lombroso. New York: Putnam. 1911.


Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ed. Martin A.


Danahay. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005.


Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Glennis Byron. Ontario: Broadview Press. 1998.






Arata, Steven. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire.

Cambridge:         Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Project Gutenberg:



  1. E-­‐





Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. Ed. Shafquat Towheed. Ontario: Broadview

Press, 2010.

Ellis, Havelock. The Criminal. London: Walter Scott, 1892.


Lombroso, Cesare and Lombroso-­‐Ferrero, Gina. Criminal Man According to the ClassiGication of Cesare Lombroso. New York: Putnam. 1911.


Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ed. Martin A.

Danahay.         Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005.


Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Glennis Byron. Ontario: Broadview Press. 1998.

Facing the Sublime: The Zombie Figure, Climate Change, & the Crisis of Categorization

To wonder about the monstrous idea of an incessantly hungry horde of the Undead is to face the Sublime, or that which causes mind-numbing terror, yet the zombie monster continues to romance the American public. Beholding the sublime in full view renders minds unable to do anything from terror and despair, and so readers of the 21st century have turned to literature. With novella I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, we explore how the zombie creature psychologically affects readers through main character Robert Neville. We include viewpoints by Edmund Burke with his ideas of terror and


the sublime as well as Marjorie Garber on the crisis of categorization. We chose the 1954 work I Am Legend, as it is widely accepted as the starting


point of the current zombie monster’s incarnation, which we will use to illustrate the zombie figure as an essential, and obviously popular, introspection-­‐causing literary monster through its crisis of categorization.


The voluntary engagement with the zombie literature genre points to our society’s hunger for induced introspection. Both engendered from our cultural anxiety and is reflective of our cultural anxiety, the zombie literature genre provides this introspection when we no longer know up from down, or indeed, life from death. The figure of the zombie provides a welcome relief in its crisis-­‐causing appearance, forcing readers to stop absolutely everything else in order to reflect upon questions they might rather leave alone during day-­‐to-­‐day life. Through the veil of fictional literature, however, readers voluntarily face the sublime, and thus are given the chance to conquer it.



The Sublime and the Third


“Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear isthe most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom.”

–  Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God



The zombie monster, as it is rendered in late 20th and early 21st century American literature, causes in the reader’s mind a unique psychological








experience of not just facing the sublime in nature in all its horrifying and awesome powers, but also of witnessing the binary codes of the First World culture being razed to the ground with a crisis of categorization.



We begin with Edmund Burke’s explorations of terror and the sublime in order to lay the foundation for our argument that the zombie figure, as a fictional symbol of terror, efficiently represents overwhelming anxieties


(such as climate changes) and induces introspection. In his 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,


Burke declares that terror, or any thing that may “excite the ideas of pain and danger…is a source of the sublime” (Burke). In this sentence Burke describes


the relationship between terror, pain, and the sublime. Pain, as a herald of death, an “emissary of this king of terrors”, increases in strength in the mind because of its status as signifier to the most terrifying state of being – that of not existing at all (Burke). Burke goes on to explain how, as “an apprehension of pain or death,” the state of being afraid “effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning” (Burke). In fact, fear causes our bodies to react as if we were in “actual pain” (Burke). As it is “impossible to look on anything as trifling… that may be dangerous”, it matters not what dimension or size the thing causing the fear is (Burke). If the viewer “consider[s them] as objects of terror”, these objects are then “capable of raising ideas of the sublime” (Burke). This sheds light upon the fact that living creatures smaller than us, such as spiders or snakes, can cause immense fear, because of the danger they pose to our beings.


In the context of zombie literature then, the mere suggestion of a creature that once was human, is the size and shape of a human, and once could feel, think, and reason like a human, but is neither alive nor dead, proves nearly impossible to kill, and only preys upon living human beings for energy to


continue their existence, proves more than adequate to create substantial terror. Though entirely imaginary, this idea of the zombie, of an (almost)


unconquerable threat posed to our beings is just as “capable of raising ideas of the sublime” as, say, the immeasurable ocean (a terror to mankind for many centuries until recent domestication through scientific and technological advances). The idea of the zombie monster astonishes readers, and, as Burke says, “astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Burke). The astonishment that arises from engaging with zombie literature comes not from the concrete details of the zombie monster itself, but rather from the fact that this creature absolutely defies categorization. It is this loss of ability








to place, name, categorize, and through the act of scientific sectioning, understand an object, that causes fear and horror – more precisely, the


horror of losing one’s understanding of reality. It is this defiance of categorization we explore next.



In her book Vested Interests, Marjorie Garber eloquently argues that cross-­‐ dressing is a “third” category that interrupts the societal construction of the gender binary; we intend to borrow the argument for the “third” category and apply it to the zombie figure. Garber clearly states in her introduction


“the ‘third’ is that which questions binary thinking and introduces crisis” (Garber 11). It is not itself another category, but a possibility of something


other than the two choices presented as inevitable fact. Therefore, introducing a third choice to a stable binary has the effect of “reconfigur[ing] the relationships between the original pair, and put[ting] into question identities previously conceived as stable, unchallengeable, grounded, and ‘known’” (Garber 13). She argues that the spectacle of a cross-­‐dresser or transvestite confuses and provokes a society that has been taught to neatly and unhesitatingly categorize every human as either strictly female or male. With the insertion of the cross-­‐dresser, a crisis of categorization occurs, “disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (Garber 16). Individuals new to the experience of entertaining the idea of the transvestite, or the “third”, are given the opportunity to monitor and question their reactions. The “third” category incites introspection regarding


the hitherto solid, comfortable, familiar binary. The idea of a cross-­‐dresser or transvestite implicitly asks: Why shouldn’t a third category of gender exist?


The same crisis of categorization occurs with the introduction of the idea of the zombie monster – but to a greater degree, we contend, for what binary seems more “stable, unchallengeable, grounded, and ‘known’” than that of being alive or dead?



As interrupting the binary is the effect or purpose of the “third” category, it should now be self-­‐evident as to why the idea of the zombie monster provides such terror to contemporary readers – it is neither alive nor dead, yet has qualities of both. Its body rots, yet needs energy to survive. It moves, but does not breathe. It is capable of action, but does not have (or does not appear to have) volition of thought. Zombies have no sex or gender once they have left the realm of humankind and become zombies – they are an uncategorizable, unnameable, unknowable “it”. The idea of the zombie implicitly asks readers: What defines alive and what defines dead now?








Garber explains the crisis of categorization further as “…a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of


border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another” (Garber 16, emphasis mine). The main horror of zombie literature comes from forcing readers to imagine their familiar world with one exceptional difference: the once clearly defined and upheld binary of life and death is now, astonishingly, “permeable”. The reader is thrown into psychological chaos, having come face to face with the sublime, an occurrence so great their minds are filled with only one object: the living dead.



A discussion of the general characteristics of the zombie monster shows that the living dead ironically evolve with each new piece of writing. Consider, first, how obscurity deepens mystery and fear. Edmund Burke states “When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes” (Burke). An object that is terrible must have elements of mystery that prevents one from gaining full understanding; the lack of knowledge heightens the fear of the object. The contradictory and evolving nature of the zombie then understandably keeps contemporary readers (and characters) fully engaged – until the monsters are fully understood, they can never be fully conquered.



All zombies have the same beginning: while the length of time spent officially deceased does not appear to matter, they must be dead first, and then come back to “life.” This stems from the Haitian legend of the voodoo masters who commanded the dead to rise again and labor in the fields (Kee). Since the zombie monster has since passed into American consciousness and literature, however, the conversion from human to zombie has changed from a voodoo master’s call to virus left unexplained, and the creatures’ only purpose seem to be devouring those still alive. They have the power to convert live humans into undead zombies, but they do not seem aware of it. With this basic foundation, each North American rendition of the zombie


monster changed slightly. They started off slow, as discussed in detail in the anthology Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-­Human

(Christie). They shambled, they walked, they crept, they lurched, they


crawled – but they never stopped. The slow but steady persistence gave a feeling of the inevitable – you can run, you can hide, but we will eat you. The


first zombies also were assumed not to have physical sensations – limbs might have been hacked off, blown off, and still unfazed, the undead continued to hunt the living down (Christie). They seemed immortal, except








that the brain was still the weak point. Though they did not seem to be able to think, reason, communicate, talk, or remember their human lives, that particular organ was still essential to their survival: the brain had to be


fatally wounded to finally stop a zombie. This tradition continues today, as seen in texts like Max Brooks’ World War Z and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies.



However, along the way, many of these characteristics inexplicably changed.


Speed no longer remained an issue. Zombies can move quickly now, as in works such as I Am Legend, World War Z, and Warm Bodies, and as discussed in Better Off Dead. The inability to talk has also been overcome, the gift of gab


granted, showing there is capability of thought and reasoning, as in I Am Legend and Warm Bodies. In Warm Bodies particularly, most expectations


and stereotypes of the zombie are broken. Written from the perspective of a zombie, who is ultimately responsible for starting a revolution – and evolution – readers finish Warm Bodies expecting from now on thinking, talking, and endearing zombies. The highly unpredictable, evolving nature of the zombie – that of an unstoppable, essentially immortal cannibal who nonetheless spends its downtime slouching, drooling and staring at walls, and who in recent texts have been given the power to think and communicate – forces characters and by extension readers to consider nothing else but this sublime monster. Coming face-­‐to-­‐face with this fantastic creature, readers undergo a crisis of categorization and ask themselves many questions: Is it alive? Is it dead? Am I alive, or am I the one who is dead? The killer question of course, is: what defines “human” anymore?



The boundary-­‐breaking zombie creature, the sublime, and the “third” cause necessary confusion, and ultimately, introspection. By presenting the zombie as the indiscriminate enemy against all of mankind, authors of zombie literature force readers to ask themselves what, exactly, is this creature doing that is so evil and inherently wrong? The answers are disquieting. One: the zombie endlessly consumes the dominant species to sustain its destructive way of life. Two: its existence throws the entire planet out of balance. Three: it never thinks about what it is doing, and never dies. Four: it converts everyone else into a zombie. In other words, the zombie existence parallels the First World culture and treatment of the planet. One: in the First World, outsourcing work overseas to Second and “Third” Worlds (only called “third” because of their non-­‐status as either first or second) is a common practice, saving corporations money by buying cheap labor akin to slavery. Two: the human race has unarguably caused havoc with the environment in the








shortest amount of time. Weather patterns have changed; entire species of animals and vegetation have gone extinct. Three: with each generation, our culture’s exploitation of the Earth and its inhabitants only grows more and more sophisticated with all our rapid advancement of technology. Four: The Second and Third worlds want to be modern, but as “modernity” is actually a code-­‐name for “Westernity”, we can safely say that they want to be like us. Thus we as readers are forced to acknowledge that the zombie is our reflection, distorted, grotesque, but true.



The sublime encounter between the human and the zombie creates a third space for readers to consider the environmental consequences of First World culture. This horribly familiar creature so terrifies us because it is a monstrous figure not born of humankind, not purposely created by humankind, but is humankind – and constantly evolving, just as we are. Unable to express itself, the zombie, hungry for life, feeds off of the living. Unable to face head-­‐on the overwhelming truth that our beloved culture encourages killing the planet, our society, hungry for introspection, turns to zombie books so that readers may glance at the truth from an angle, out of the corner of their eyes, quickly looking away and back again, slowly processing though literature what seems unbearable in direct words. The zombie monster, in all of its obscure contradictions, deftly represents what the First World culture fears most and is guiltily aware of: not that the secrets to immortal life will continue to elude us, but that the quest for immortality through godlike knowledge and technological power over the entire planet ultimately strips us of our humanity.


The Other Reflection


“There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”


– Raymond Williams, Culture and Society



This paper chooses to analyze an example of zombie literature instead of the more established zombie film genre, as studies show that the act of reading has a more profound effect psychologically than of watching a film – engaging with a text, which technically consists of mere black marks on a page, triggers reactions in the brain invaluable to our ideally constantly developing psyches. The act of reading is akin to entering the mind of another, an experience that can be both traumatic and uplifting. With words, a system of symbolism, inherently obscure in form, readers’ minds are presented with an idea of a world within to enclose themselves during the








duration of reading. The idea must be compelling and concrete enough that readers feel as if they were there, but vague enough that the readers’ minds are allowed to stretch it to infinity with their imaginings. As Burke says, “…the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very


obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion by the description than I could do by the best painting”


(Burke). (Indeed we might say the act of reading is in itself a “third” space, allowing readers to traverse the great length between absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance.) More importantly, reading literature encourages development of empathy for others different from ourselves. If we consider the “Other” as someone else on whose differences we focus on, rather than the similarities, the zombie figure best represents the ultimate Other of this generation and time period.



The perspective offered in I Am Legend yields insights on how, depending equally on our will to live and our willingness to understand, our behavior towards the sublime Other in the form of the zombie changes drastically. In I Am Legend, Richard Matheson chooses an omniscient narrator to present the main character’s thoughts and movements. Though Matheson calls his living dead ‘vampires’, “we know a zombie when we see one,” says Peter Drenell (Christie). Robert Neville, the last man alive in Los Angeles because of his immunity to the plague causing vampirism, spends his days fortifying his house and killing the undead as they sleep, and spends his nights safely inside his home, drinking his mind into oblivion as an attempt to ignore the calls from the undead that he come outside (Matheson 6). Through flashbacks and scientific explorations on Robert’s part, it is revealed that the cause of the living dead plague is indeed a bacteria, which spread across the globe via sudden, strange, and violent dust storms, decimating the entire population save, apparently, one. The occurrence of these mysterious dust storms coincides with the rise of the mysterious infection, pointing towards a connection between the fates of the dying and undead human race and the unnatural environmental happenings. However, the reader is left to wonder at the scarcity of acknowledgments towards the environment during this apocalypse.


The few mentions of the environment in I Am Legend effectively reflect Robert’s state of being. The novel opens on a “cloudy day” (Matheson 1). Even with the threat of the undead coming awake at sunset, he clings to the “lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky [which] on cloudy days… didn’t








work” (Matheson 1). He periodically endangers his own life because of this “habit” that he is unwilling to change. Consider, too, the mural on Robert’s living room wall, which is the only constant mention of the environment in the novel. It is a stark piece with a “cliff edge, sheering off to green-­‐blue ocean that surged and broke over black rocks… over on the right a gnarled tree hung over the precipice, its dark branches etched against the sky” (Matheson, 5). Other than this artificial representation of nature inside his home, his environment, Robert rarely comments on the state of the world outside, and when he does, it is with bitterness and an urge to control. When he visits his wife’s crypt, he hears birds chirping and dismisses it as “senseless singing. Once I thought they sang because everything was right with the world, Robert Neville thought. I know now I was wrong. They sing because they’re feeble-­‐minded” (Matheson 24-­‐5). This dismissal of birds seems to act as proof of his dominant intelligence and status. Safe in his home with a “giant freezer” which, with “jaded eyes”, he surveys “the stacks of meats down to the frozen vegetables, down to the breads and pastries, the fruits and ice cream,” he does not ask questions about the connection between the environmental destruction and the simultaneous destruction of the human race as he knows it (Matheson 5). His mind is occupied with not just staying alive, but specifically maintaining a First World lifestyle, complete with four-­‐course meals and luxurious liquor every evening after a hard day’s work of hunting the infected ones. After going to the burning fire pit to “shove” bodies into the “great smoldering pile of ashes”, “he stopped at a market to get some bottled water” (Matheson 14). It shows of a great disconnect between Robert’s internal state and the reality of the external world. Like the mural, he remains static for the majority of the novel, obsessing with keeping his house, his castle, his world, in order, ultimately losing his humanity in the process.


As readers we follow Robert’s point of view, naturally falling in line with the thinking that he is right to protect his house, that he is right to kill as many of the living dead as he can – in short, that he is right to uphold the status quo of humanity as it was before. This is a mistake. Through Robert’s obsession with routine and order, Matheson asks whether struggling to perfectly contain every problem in neat little boxes is the solution to processing traumatic events. Robert is understandably severely traumatized from having his deceased baby daughter Kathy snatched from his arms and thrown unfeelingly like “a bundle of rags” into a huge fire pit where, as the law commands, all infected persons must be taken in order to keep the unknown plague from spreading (Matheson 58). After this, his wife Virginia








soon dies from the infection as well, but Robert refuses to suffer the same anguish and horror of watching his beloved burn with faceless others. From this decision arises the consequence of having to bury her twice. The first time is after she dies from the plague; the second, after she awakes from death and comes home for him (ostensibly to convert him to join her in the ranks of the undead), necessitating that he kill her to exact his survival as a human being (Matheson 66). Desperately alone and burdened with guilt at killing his beloved in her undead form, Robert Neville reacts to the sublime Other by labeling all those infected as the enemy to be destroyed at all costs, and decides that as the last man alive, it falls to him to do the job.


He obsesses with schedules, neatness, and keeping order. When he approaches the crypt where his wife is, he thinks in sorrow, “Why couldn’t he have Kathy there too? …If only she could be there, lying across from her mother” (Matheson 25). Finding the door to the crypt unexpectedly open, he sees a “man lying in one corner… body curled up on the cold floor” as if he were cold and had just searched for a slightly warmer place to sleep (Matheson 25). Robert reacts in immediate rage: “grabbing the man’s coat in taut fingers, he dragged him across the floor and flung him violently out onto the grass” (Matheson, 26). A minute later, he “threw out the flowers… and cleared away the few leaves that had been blown in because the door had been opened” (Matheson, 26). This scene in the crypt is telling in a couple ways. First, Matheson calls the intruder a “man” -­‐ not a “vampire”, or the “living dead”, but quite simply a “man” that Robert throws out without a second thought, like the flowers and leaves that were dirtying the place where he had lain his wife to rest. Second, he is firmly holding onto the idea that every thing has its place – the dead (his wife, his daughter) belong in a cemetery, and anything else (flowers, leaves, the man) will be kicked out. He must have things a certain way: the sacred space he has set apart for his wife’s dead body must be kept clear, clean, and neat, without nature stumbling in or invading. He likewise “destroy[s]” the living dead with a calm, calculated eye (Matheson). By focusing obsessively on his idea of how the world should be, essentially closing himself off to any other viewpoint, Robert Neville becomes the monster.


Robert’s transformation from man to monster becomes especially apparent


in the third section, when he meets Ruth, a live woman. At first, the phenomenon of “A woman. Alive. In the daylight” is “such an incredible


sight… that his mind could not assimilate it (Matheson 109). After three years without human contact, this is akin to seeing the sublime, so amazing that his








“brain refused to function” (Matheson 109). But after three years without human contact, he reacts to her running away by chasing her down in the field, thinking, “He had to catch her” (Matheson 111). He, the living, thinks it natural that he should hunt down and capture this other being in order to gain knowledge. When he does catch her, the woman is so terrified she starts “battling” him as “his hand lurched out and he caught her by the right shoulder” (Matheson 112); finally at the limit of his frustration, “With a snarl of rage he drove his right palm across her face. She staggered back, then looked at him dizzily. Abruptly she started crying helplessly…Neville stood there gasping, looking down at her cringing form. He blinked, then took a deep breath. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to hurt you’”, seconds after he had struck her, hard (Matheson 113). What would have been considered an act of unforgivable violence just three years prior now does not register on his moral scale. After three years alone in his world, Robert has “learned to stultify himself to introspection… I am predominately vegetable, he often thought to himself. That was the way he wanted it” (Matheson 109). Beyond morality and internality, another detail shows plainly that he has lost the will to live, but on a biological scale: Robert – who in the beginning of the novel was always angrily forcing down the “wordless, mindless craving of his flesh” (Matheson 8) – now, when a woman has appeared before him, has “no physical desire for her” (Matheson 124). Soon he admits to himself that the idea of establishing a relationship again between a husband and wife and having children and responsibilities to others, well, “that was more


terrifying” than if Ruth were not infected (Matheson 128). As Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, life wants to live – the never-­‐ending battle for life


drives entire species for generations, and yet Robert feels nothing at all. He might as well be dead.


The redemption comes from the discovery that Ruth not only has the vampiris bacteria and lives with it, but that there is an entire society of these beings. He has been killing them in his daily hunts, unable to discriminate between the infected but adapted vampires and the insane vampires who have been unable to adapt to the bacteria. With the explanation given in Ruth’s letter (recall Burke’s argument about the importance of words affecting a stronger emotion), Robert Neville is able to finally open up his mind, seek to understand the Other, and thus regains a bit of his humanity by acknowledging his guilt and monstrosity: “He had killed their people and they had to capture him and save themselves. He would not fight.” Encountering the Other allows him to reflect on his destructive way of life, helping him realize that he has become the monstrous Other. Captured and








fatally injured by the new society’s military, he looks out the window at the new society and sees how terrified they are of him, for he is the abnormal one now. “Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many, and not the standard of just one man” (Matheson 159). In his final moments he understands that he has been living a dead life; that his standards for humanity are outdated and wrong; and that, for this new society to succeed, he, the threat, “a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with”, must be eradicated, and he does not blame them for it (Matheson, 159). With this understanding of the Other, he dies, and passes into legend for the next evolution of the human race.


Matheson shows in I Am Legend that an obsessive fixation on the status quo of the past culture and a refusal to look at the Other as an opportunity for introspection leads to the main character’s demise after a late realization of his capacity for inhumanity. However, late, as the saying goes, is better than never. At the end of his life, Robert Neville exchanges violence against and fear of the Other for knowledge and understanding of the Other. In other words, he exchanges inhumanity for humanity. He inspects his kinglike


mentality of bestowing upon himself the power to kill everything that was ruining his idea of the world should be, and exchanges that mentality for


acceptance of how the world is, coming to understand how his role as living legend of terror in this new world must end. His choice to make this positive exchange, of ignorance for knowledge, and fear for understanding, is symbolic of his having had to live with the unbearable sublime, traumatized, and process it. From interacting with the crisis-­‐causing monster, truth about the past emerges, and also instigates a process towards new truth; that is, readers gain the ability to see truthfully how the world works now – how we are acting now – which in turn helps us to begin to change the future, so that it is precisely not like the present. If trauma is having to glimpse the unbearable sublime, then zombies are the perfect monster to symbolize our overwhelming problems, because we are forced to look at the zombie head-­‐ on, even though we would rather face our overwhelming problems askance. Through zombie literature, we encounter the fictional Sublime Other, and in this safe space of literature, are given the chance to process real trauma.


Full Circle: Conclusion


The zombie literature genre induces the necessary introspection for which our society is hungry. While we in the First World may be subconsciously aware that we are destroying the planet with our lifestyle, it feels too overwhelming to face this truth head-­‐on. It is much easier to conjure up a








monster in the realm of public fantasy and point fingers: There is the problem! That is the enemy! Of course, in reality, the enemy is ourselves.


Most scholars studying the zombie figure argue that it is a critique of the consumerist lifestyle, which we agree with, but have added onto. The zombie figure allows readers to face our collective societal guilt regarding climate change through literature, and offers reassurance in our creativity and ability to adapt to overcome this problem. The consumerist lifestyle and climate change are most certainly related. The dominant species (humans) has


crafted the planet (which includes the environment and all other species of animals and plants) to fit its ideas of how the world (for humans) should be.


Naturally this imbalance is not sustainable, and is in fact killing the planet. Zombie literature signifies this one and the same truth with the fictional device of a monster. In this particular subset of the horror genre, the


dominant species are zombies, and in order to sustain its destructive existence, they nearly end up wiping out the rest of the planet. There would


cease to be any more life at all, none, if they were allowed to have their way. However, zombie literature is always apocalyptic, not post-­‐apocalyptic – the duration of the apocalypse is explored, dealt with, and overcome.


What are the results of the traumatic encounter between the human being, the previously believed dominant species, and the zombie, the threatening-­‐ to-­‐be-­‐new dominant species? The human race unites under the common cause of survival and realizes two important things: One, the human races (African, Asian, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, etc.) are not all that different from each other, once one is able to (or is placed in a situation that forces one to) look past the societal constructs of politics, religion, etc. and two, the zombie race and the human race are not all that different from each other either.


Armed with that knowledge, characters and readers can then make decisions. As in I Am Legend, one can make a rigid schedule to continue the serious


business of living as life was in the past – but once one stops trying to understand the Other, one loses one’s humanity and becomes the monster.


There are reasons that the idea of a zombie apocalypse continues to romance the public consciousness, and they do not all have to do with the (for some) delicious feeling of inducing a state of terror while safe in the knowledge of being safe in reality. It is not just the ability to imagine the chaos of our human world coming dangerously undone, and then walking away after closing the book. It is not just the gore, the violence as both entertainment and solution; it is not just imagining the relief of finally giving in to our pent-­‐ up feelings of savageness and frustration without actually doing so during the day-­‐to-­‐day grind. It is because the zombie speaks to us in a way that








encourages us to listen. Yes, it is because inside every human is a zombie, and inside every zombie is a human. The figure of the zombie speaks to us because it tells us that yes, we have made mistakes, but also, that we are all capable of change. Yes, the zombie says: there is hope.


Works Cited


Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful. Bartleby.com. Web. 11 March 2014.


Christie, Deborah, and Sarah Juliet Lauro, eds. Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-­Human. Fordham University Press, 2011. 9-­‐23. Print.


Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-­dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York:

Routledge, 1997. Print.


Kee, Chera. “’They are not men…they are dead bodies!’: From Cannibal to Zombie


and Back Again.” Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-­Human. Eds.


Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. Fordham University Press, 2011. Print.


Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tor, 2007. Print.

Casual Encounters: Representations of Queer Counterpublics in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Edmund White’s Chaos

Starting in the 1970s, queer spaces in New York City epitomized not just an avenue for sexual exploration but spaces of community. In this post-­‐Stonewall era, venues such as the Christopher Street adult bookstore in Greenwich Village and the cruising zones of the docks by the Hudson River exemplify these queer social spaces around which communities were built. These venues produced at first a heightened sense of queer visibility and then a sense of specific community around them—hubs of activism, commerce and sociality. As Michael Warner explores in The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, rezoning laws in the 1980s and early 1990s sought to close or move


these traditional areas of queer sociality.1 Warner argues that this rezoning has had, and will continue to have dire consequences for queer community building. For example, moving queer adult bookstores, which on the inside constituted a venue for the exploration of queer sex, and on the outside, helped give economic viability to the surrounding neighborhood, to mixed-­‐use spaces would have a detrimental effect on queer safety, sexuality and community-­‐building. Queer sex zones would be adjacent to heterosexual ones in distant places, dislodging queer communities such as Christopher Street. At the same moment as these embodied sites of community were being zoned out of existence, social media, in its infancy at the late 20th century, began to open up new forms of communication between individuals through chat rooms and message boards. In the early days of internet sociality, the web was anticipated to become a platform where physical space was no longer a necessity to connect with fellow queers, a forum for a new type of communication, where the sender and the receiver were no longer tethered to physical space.2


This new form of interactivity was briefly examined in Warner’s work, “Publics and


Counterpublics.” In this essay, first published in 2002, Warner begins by reviewing

how the word “public” functions in contemporary usage. Warner then differentiates


1Michael Warner. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press, 1999. Print.


  • David F. Shaw wrote in 1997 how and in what ways this online sociality might be manifested within queer culture. Please see Virtual Culture, edited by Steve Jones. Sage Publications, London, 1997, pp. 133-




between “the” public and “a” public as it relates to the creation of an audience and the circulatory nature of discourse—the interactivity between the sender and receiver. After establishing his definitions of what constitutes “a” public, he introduces his concept of “counterpublics.” Warner argues that counterpublics not only have subordinate status to a public, but also instantiate their own specific forms of circulation and modes of discourse—address specific in its speech, topic and theme that would be met with hostility outside of the setting of a counterpublic. Warner describes queer social groups as counterpublics, arguing for the need of specific spaces as a means of socialization and “a poetic function of public discourse,” or as Warner argues, a “world making.”3


Given his descriptions of publics and counterpublics, and the age in which Warner writes—that of the dawn of internet sociality—Warner speculates on how queer reflexive discourses might be manifested online. Warner shrewdly seeks no conclusion; questioning his reader how this specifically temporal and circulatory discourse will be manifested on the internet.4 Warner investigates how community building, which at first depended heavily on physical spaces, self-­‐organization and temporality, manifests itself on the internet. How can public address, according to Warner’s definition heavily depends upon print media and its temporal episodes and flows of weekly and daily publications, manifest itself in the constantly “erase history” aspect of the internet? It goes without saying that internet culture has considerably changed from the time of Warner’s initial questions. It is no longer a question of “going on” the internet insomuch as merely diverting our attention from the physical to electronic, often at the same time. This negotiation, between a physical public and an electronic public, has slowly been depicted within literature. Classically, gay literature has centered around traditional “brick and mortar”


establishments: the hedonistic bathhouses in Kramer’s Faggots and the clubs in Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, both published in 1978, served to exemplify the


embodied sociality crucially prized by Warner in his essay co-­‐authored with Lauren Berlant, “Sex In Public”5 and The Trouble With Normal. However, one of the authors


who represented the embodied sociality of 1970s gay literature, Edmund White, produced a novella, entitled Chaos: A Novella and Stories (2007), that explores this


new world of online sociality. In part a roman a clef, White’s novella features a “sort-­‐ of famous” gay author named Jack as he navigates life in his sixties in the 21st century: a life framed by past relationships and current sexual liaisons.6 His main sexual and romantic contacts in the novella are Seth, whom he meets via Craig’s List, and Giuseppe, whom he meets by more traditional means—the adult bookstore. This trio personifies the rapidly changing world of sociality within the realm of gay literature.


  • Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2002, p. 82.


  • Other scholars have addressed Warner’s publics in relation to the internet. See Samuel A. Chambers, “Democracy and (the) Public(s): Spatializing Politics in the Internet Age,” Political Theory, 33, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), pp. 125-136.
  • Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. “Sex In Public,” Critical Inquiry, 24, No. 2, Intimacy (Winter, 1998), pp. 547-566.
  • Edmund White. Chaos: A Novella and Stories. New York: Carrol & Graf, 2007, p. 36.





These swiftly changing themes of Internet sociality manifest in White’s Chaos, and it is a critical charge of contemporary queer theory to readdress the concepts of counterpublics in social media suggestively raised, but not thoroughly explored by Warner in 2002. Drawing upon Warner’s concept of a counterpublic, in the following essay I will utilize his frameworks to Edmund White’s Chaos in order to address whether social media can constitute a counterpublic in social media.


This discourse pertaining to poetic world making is not exclusive to Warner’s work.


Although Warner never uses the specific terminology, it might be argued that he is addressing a certain concept of utopia. José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, published in 2009, states, “Cruising Utopia’s first


move is to describe a modality of queer utopianism that I locate within a historically specific nexus of cultural production before, around, and slightly after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969.”7 Munoz continues to suggest, through close readings of works by Frank O’Hara and Andy Warhol, amongst other queer cultural producers, a poetic world making of a future queerness, one in which society has not yet approached, but he argues should be strived for. Munoz, like Holleran before him, seems to be addressing venues and sites of embodied queer sociality—the club (as site for queer performativity—as basis for transformative world making.


Such sites of embodied queer sociality have, however, increasingly been under threat. As discussed in “Sex In Public” and The Trouble With Normal, formerly queer


spaces have disappeared in major metropolitan areas such as New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Warner states that re-­‐zoning laws have either moved or completely shut down traditional spaces for queer sex, such as adult arcades, bookstores, sex clubs, the riverfront and bathhouses, arguing that these closures have a variety of effects upon the queer counterpublic. Warner writes, “There is very little sense in this country that a public culture of sex might be something to value, something whose accessibility is to be protected.”8 Warner contends here that queer life can not only find expression through sex in the sense of hormonal release, but also build a distinctive culture; indeed, a world. “They recognize themselves as cultures, with their own knowledges, places, practices, languages, and learned modes of feeling.”9 Warner is arguing for the importance of the physical space within a queer counterpublic, and that the closure of these specific venues would have a detrimental effect on the counterpublic. Without free access to a physical site for a queer counterpublic, specific attributes—practices, languages, feelings and cultures—would be lost.


The circulation of discourse has changed dramatically in the 21st century, as the internet has arguably become the preferred means of communication in American



  • José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 3.


  • Michael Warner. The Trouble With Normal (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 171.


  • Warner, The Trouble With Normal, p. 177.




society. Not only do desktops enable this communication, but also cell phones, tablets, and laptops, with new devices brought out in regular cycles. Various sociologists have studied this new era of internet sociality in terms of queer sexuality.10 Of particular interest however is how this new form of discourse is explored in literature using Warner’s theories. By applying his notions of the unique characteristics of a queer counterpublic, how might these offer new sites for counterpublic building? Specifically, might it be possible to see queer hook-­‐up sites as queer counterpublics?


Edmund White’s Chaos: A Novella and Stories is an excellent example of queer sociality at this crossroads. The narrative focuses on Jack, a 64-­‐year old “semi-­‐ famous” writer living in New York City as he negotiates his life and sexual liaisons.


Given the character’s age and location he is a good example of both the embodied queer sociality of the 1970s we explored in Dancer and the rise of internet sociality


as it relates to queer sexuality. Warner’s discussion of embodied queer sociality is best demonstrated in a scene in which Jack, in an adult bookstore to buy a pornographic DVD, encounters the Italian immigrant Giuseppe cruising in the back arcade. Jack, given the time of internet sociality he lives in, is at first taken back by this act. “He was staring intently at Jack out of his dark, long-­‐lashed eyes—a look Jack seldom encountered these days.”11 This sentence is particularly telling itself


due to its reference to “the look,” the particular gaze of such importance to embodied queer sociality in Dancer from the Dance. Jack acknowledges that this gaze


is a rarity in present-­‐day queer New York; intrigued, he enters a video booth next to Giuseppe. “The wall between any two booths was of frosted glass that left an opening of about six inches high at waste high. There was some complicated way of pushing a button and lighting the room so that the divider went from translucent to transparent, from milk to water, but Jack had never figured it out.”12 This wall, with its opening of six inches, and its translucent/transparent properties might be seen as a traditional circulation of discourse within embodied queer sociality. Two queer spaces, as exemplified in the respective booths, are able to circulate given its translucency and the six-­‐inch opening at waist high. Clearly the maker of these booths, and the arcade in general, are aware of what queer men would be doing within these booths: engaging in queer sex. This opening helps facilitate this sexuality, along with the ability to turn the glass wall from translucent to transparent. It is within the queer individual’s discretion whether or not to engage in this behavior, but the bottom line is that this queer sexuality is allowed, even encouraged within this building.


However, this queer social embodiment is not without its conflicts, as represented when Giuseppe enters Jack’s viewing booth. “[…] and the Sikh was suddenly


  • See P.N. Halkitis and J.T. Parsons. “Intentional unsafe sex (barebacking) among HIV-positive gay men who seek sexual partners on the internet.” AIDS Care, 15(3), 2003, 367-378 and also Campbell, John Getting it on online: cyberspace, gay male sexuality, and embodied identity, New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004.


11White, Chaos, p. 70.

  • White, Chaos, 72.




pounding on the door and saying loudly, ‘No two people, no two people!’ and Jack said to the boy in his very approximate Italian, ‘Don’t preoccupy yourself, I live just fifty meters from here.”13 This intrusion by the security guard, the Sikh, could be seen as hostility within a queer counterpublic. Even though the specific language and ideas of a queer arcade dictate that sexuality would be present within this zone, this zone is still regulated by an outside public, hence the inclusion of the security


guard. Perhaps this is the future reality that Warner mentioned in the criminalization of queer sex zones in “Sex in Public” and The Trouble With Normal.


Either way, the guard’s exclamation of “No two people!” could be viewed as hostility towards queer sexuality, since, at the very least, this type of sexuality requires two people. Tellingly though, this importance of the physical encounter is further exampled in the fact that Jack lives just “fifty meters away.” This specific line brings to mind Warner’s ideas of the trickle down effect of the closing of bookstores as spaces for social embodiment. Had the bookstore not been there, how would Jack have met Giuseppe? How could Giuseppe, speaking only Italian, navigate an online sociality, which for the most part takes place in the English language? I suggest that this scene in the bookstore illustrates Warner’s notions of embodied sociality within queer counterpublics.


In the context of online sociality, this discourse is best seen is Jack’s relationship with Seth. At the beginning of the novella, Jack meets Seth online, cruising via Craig’s List. Under the heading “Men-­‐for-­‐Men,” Jack finds Seth’s profile, responding to his “twenty-­‐seven-­‐year old six foot three top” posting, offering his money in order to engage in oral sex.14 This type of interaction is both an extension of and departure from the cruising of the queer counterpublics from the 1970s in Holleran’s novel. In


both texts, sites of queer sociality are both embedded within and different from heterosexual sites of sociality. The club in Dancer is a club for gay men, yet the


building and the street would seem to be a part of a heterosexual culture. The club becomes gay based upon the circulation of discourse within it. Likewise, the internet sociality represented in Chaos is both a part of a heteronormative culture and separate from it. Craig’s List, which in and of itself could be seen as a traditional heterosexual platform, then becomes a site for queer sociality by arriving at the men-­‐seeking-­‐men category. This specific category—its language, its ideas, its pictures— clearly exhibits certain features of a queer counterpublic, for its language would be specific to men interested in having sex with men: as we can see in Seth’s posting “twenty-­‐seven year-­‐old six foot three top.” The term top—although it is known to some heterosexuals—is only fully intelligible within a queer context.


This negotiation between the public “Craig’s List’ and the queer counterpublic is also exemplified in the act of cruising itself. Jack searches this website for his next encounter, negotiating the public space of the general website to arrive at his queer


space of sociality. This could be seen as a parallel to the street cruising of the 1970s. As in Dancer From The Dance, the public streets of Manhattan must be accessed via



  • White, Chaos, p. 72.


  • White, Chaos, p. 30.




alleyways and side streets to the typical gay cruising area. Both Dancer and Chaos involve a negotiation between the general public and that of a counterpublic. However, in Chaos, no physical space is being accessed in the initial moment of socialization. From the physical act in the novel of viewing the website, typing and moving of the mouse, communication is done within the space of one’s home. Cruising can now be done in private.


This new form of socialization raises many questions in regards to Warner’s concept of a counterpublic. In “Publics and Counterpublics” Warner states “Anything that addresses a public is meant to undergo a circulation […] But […]—correspondences, memos, valentines, bills—are not expected to circulate (indeed, circulating them would not only seem strange but highly unethical), and that is why they cannot be said to organize to a public.”15 I would argue that Seth’s Craig’s List posting could be viewed as a hybrid “valentine” to Jack. I understand that Warner is referencing a valentine that is sent from a specific person and intended for a specific person and is not meant to be fully circulated, however, in both forms of discourse—a valentine and a personal ad—are sent from one individual to another meant to elicit a response from an individual. I would argue that this sort of discourse is apparent within hook-­‐up sites, specifically within the Craig’s List of Chaos. Seth’s profile, although circulated to many, could be argued to elicit a reaction or invitation to a specific person, as represented by Jack’s cruising for a sexual partner on Craig’s List. This “hybrid valentine” is not meant to assert a direct identity to Warner’s notion of a valentine’s circulation. I only suggest that a certain form of discourse, such as the valentine, could be applied to Chaos given the many similarities to that token of affection and the premise of a personal ad, specifically ads placed online. Warner


questions in this section of “Publics and Counterpublics” how specific one-­‐on-­‐one communication can form a public, but online sociality, as can be seen in Chaos,


complicates this narrative and perhaps requires further investigation in future scholarship.


This online sociality questions conventional representations of queer counterpublics. As the narrator states in Chaos, “actual spontaneous encounters in the flesh have been eliminated […] the photographic portrait had become the only physical reality […] something to be endured.”16 Here White is referencing the “profile picture” used in various hook-­‐up sites. Jack, at age 64—and from an earlier generation—chooses not to have a picture for any of his profiles. Perhaps this is an exemplification of traditional social embodiment— the choice of an “actual spontaneous encounter” which the text states a specific attribute of online sociality. However, in the world of White’s novel, this type of cruising, spontaneous encounters, has mostly vanished, replaced by a computer, mouse and modem.


Warner’s speculations on online sociality are mainly concerned with the differing temporalities of print and internet media. “The absence of punctual rhythms may



  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” p. 63.


  • White, Chaos, p. 71.




make it very difficult to connect localized acts of reading to the modes of agency that prevail within the social imagery of modernity.”17 These “localized acts of reading” could be seen in Jack’s refusal to post a picture of himself online. “Jack never bothered to reply (when asked about a picture online) since his disastrous statistics reveled an outsized waistline, a meaty, sagging chest and a body that outweighed by at least a hundred pounds anyone he would consider bedding. Sometimes he’d write, ‘My statistics are hopeless but the point is I would know how to worship YOUR body.”18 Here, Jack’s statistics could be seen as an example of Warner’s localization. Jack refuses to add a physical description or photograph to his profile, choosing to keep himself as untethered to the majority of discourse of circulation within the website. Jack has no desire to create any sort of sociality online beyond initial contact—his only objective is to create a physical encounter. Any language used by Jack, language central to a public and counterpublic, is primarily for embodied sociality, not online sociality. Furthermore, the specific language in the Craig’s List ad, such as Seth’s “twenty-­‐seven year old six-­‐foot-­‐three top,” the sexual community building Warner finds so intrinsic to queer sexuality—the learned aspects of sexuality that only come from the exploration of sex in embodied sociality—isn’t specifically present in initial communication of online sociality. Although only Craig’s List is mentioned within Chaos, it would be thought-­‐provoking to see how Jack and Seth’s profiles could be read within the context of other types of hook-­‐up sites—and how Warner’s notions of text-­‐based communications could be represented within profiles where one has to describe likes, and dislikes, sexual positions and turn-­‐ons in pre-­‐determined boxes.


However, as Warner states in “Publics and Counterpublics,” a public is still primarily text based. “The idea of a public, unlike a concrete audience or the public of any polity, is text based—even though publics are increasingly organized around visual or audio texts.”19 I would argue that for a queer counterpublic, and especially for an online queer sociality, “spontaneous” is relative. If a public is created by mere attention, then so are many forms of online sociality: a profile on a hook-­‐up site comes into existence when one reads it. It may have been created minutes or hours


before, but it becomes real to the person upon viewing it. This sense is presented within Chaos. No time is ever stated in regards to Seth’s Craig’s List posting. We, as

the readers, acknowledge its existence when Jack does—which we are left to


assume is spontaneously. Also it is important to pay attention to the “text” within Seth’s posting. Although it is text, written words, it should be noted that it is viewed


on a screen: a computer screen. In a sense a computer screen is just an extension of a television, or a photograph: millions of pixels in collaboration to form the picture of a word. Secondly, Seth’s specific text here forms a picture within Jack’s mind. His profile, “twenty-­‐seven year-­‐old six-­‐foot-­‐three top” is intended to form a picture of someone—imagery has long been a specific component of queer counterpublics. The traditional body language of the street hustler: one hand in the pocket, gazing




  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” p. 66.


  • White, Chaos, p. 71.


  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” p. 51.




for the night’s conquest has been replaced by the typed words in an online profile. This specific language taken apart may just seem like pixels, yet in the context of their usage—sender, platform, intention, recipient—creates a picture, a mosaic of a possible queer counterpublic.


This dynamic of online sociality and embodied sociality can be seen in Jack’s manuscript on the life of Nijinsky. Jack is writing a biography of the Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky and his collaborator/sexual partner Diaghilev. Speculating on their sexual activities, Jack ponders, “Did Nijinsky submit to Diaghilev’s [his lover] eager mouth as Seth to Jack’s?”20 Not only does the narrator imply that their relationships are similar, but Jack also attributes various stories about Nijinsky to his own life. White writes that one of Jack’s favorite details about the life of Nijinsky is the dance belt story. White writes:


One detail that fascinated him was Nijinsky’s dance belt […] Nijinsky returned to St. Petersburg to dance […] insisted on wearing what Igor Stravinsky described as “the tightest tights anyone had ever seen (in fact, an athletic support padded with handkerchiefs). In any event Nijinsky scandalized the Imperial Royal Family who were in attendance. Reportedly a Grand Duchess herself asked that Nijinsky be fired for this impertinence.21

This specific story may appear as an amusing anecdote, but I would argue that this could be seen as an example of a discourse of circulation. I suggest this dance belt incident could be seen as exhibiting a certain feature of the queer counterpublic—an example of a certain ideology and a circulation of discourse met with hostility outside of the counterpublic. It is important here to differentiate between a traditional queer performance space: that of a drag show or a particular queer theater troupe with that of a theatrical space that features queer elements. Even more so, it is worth noting that ballet is a traditional form of heteronormative public entertainment. Yet, Nijinsky has created a physical discourse between himself and the audience. For example, we could imagine some of the audience of the theater as homosexual, for what is a more classic example of embodied queer sociality then that of the ballet? This audience would serve as the recipient needed to circulate the discourse that started with Nijinsky and his re-­‐appropriation of the dance belt. However, this language, this specific sexuality of the dance belt was seen as “inappropriate” outside of its possible queer counterpublic, in this case, the Imperial Royal Family of Russia. In fact, one could link this display of queer sexuality on the ballet stage with the possible queer counterpublic of online sociality.


Indeed, in White’s description of Nijinsky dance belt incident, Jack states “And it was all, it seemed, a mountain made out of a molehill, since Nijinsky’s dick was disappointingly small… He should have lived in the Internet era, Jack thought, when one could declare “Tiny Meat” in a profile headline and summon up thirty enthusiastic responses immediately from Chattanooga and Bangkok, Rotterdam and





  • White, Chaos, 27.


  • White, Chaos, 15.




Dubai.”22 White is not so much preoccupied with penis size but rather with how this description of male anatomy serves as a symbol for queer sexuality, negotiating the differing forms of queer sociality offered by the ballet stage and the internet age. For example, Nijinsky, by padding his dance belt, is seeking to modify how he is perceived by the public, in this case the theatrical public. It is undetermined if he is specifically playing to other queer dancers or audience members, but he most certainly isn’t playing to a heterosexual public, as represented by the Grand Duchess. Equally, as White points out, this behavior could be compared to the era of internet sociality: specifically a queer counterpublic. This comparison is particularly telling in regards to physicality and online sociality. Both these scenarios engage with attributes of a queer counterpublic: both engage with a public, and in both cases demand an intended circulation between a sender and a receiver.


Also pertinent to our discussion is White’s line “from Chattanooga and Bangkok, Rotterdam and Dubai.” His inclusion of these specific cities addresses publics and counterpublics that are very distant from each other and are not necessarily known as queer spaces. This distance illustrates Warner’s stress on how the third sense of a public is formed not just by a physical space but also by mere attention and a relation among strangers. In this case, the relation among strangers is a shared queer sexuality, mere attention being engaged by the intimate profile headline “Tiny Meat.” However, here we also see this is one of the main differences between the embodied sociality of queer counterpublics and that of internet sociality: physical location. Of course, images and descriptions of physical attributes can be found as part of diverse networks of circulation which predate the internet. But with the rise of internet sociality these pictures, alongside video, audio and text, have been able to circulate at greater speeds and to greater distances. One could imagine a similarity between possible pictures referenced within “Tiny Meat’s” profile and Nijinsky’s dance belt: arguably both are a specific language used within a possible queer counterpublic. However, the difference is that with “Tiny Meat’s” profile, this discourse is not longer tethered to an audience member’s sightline within a theater.


Warner argues of publics and counterpublics that, “The circularity is essential to the phenomenon. A public might be real and efficacious, but its reality lies in just this reflexivity by which an addressable object is conjured into being in order to enable the very discourse that gives it existence.”23 Thus circulatory discourse comes into being when the receiver gives it agency to do so. For example, a letter would not be the same form of discourse had the recipient not read it: it would just musings


written on paper—mailed off, destination and content unknown. Tellingly, both Dancer From The Dance and Chaos are bookended by letters, both serving as a response to “the novel” itself. In Dancer, two gay men, one living a quiet life in a

southern area of the United States communicates via letter with another man living


within New York City. The Southern man has written a novel (suggestively, the novel Dancer itself) and seeks his friend’s thoughts. In Chaos, the novella ends with



  • White, Chaos, 15.


  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” p. 51.




Seth writing an email back to Jack, responding to the “book” Jack has written entitled Chaos (presumably White’s novella itself). In both of these novels their respective authors have utilized specific attributes that align with Warner’s theories regarding the circulatory nature of discourse and its ability to come into being by constituting its own audience. Holleran writes, “I’ve started writing a novel that I want you to read. A gay novel, darling. Bout all of us.”24 On one level this technique creates a metanarrative, a self-­‐referential strand of the novel’s discourse that serves as a story within a story. This technique would function as a creation of a public itself, and a counterpublic at that. On another level, the reader is reading a novel: accessible via any bookstore, available via any public means.25 Yet at the same time, by having characters introduce, or conclude these stories, Holleran places their discourse within a specific counterpublic.


Both of these novels’ characters arguably belong to a queer counterpublic in which


their specific dialogue, ideas and mentalities are referenced in their letters. As shown in Dancer, the man writing from New York City is currently engaging in


embodied queer sociality, while the Southern man has chosen to leave this specific sociality for a different life in the south. This duality is also present in Chaos. Seth


relates Jack’s sex life to a person stereotypically aligned to queer sociality of New York City. “I guess I can’t get too worried about your—what do you call it?—chaotic


sex life? That just makes you one more Chelsea fag.”26 White’s specific language here—Chelsea fag—would be known specifically to a queer audience, those gay men


in New York City familiar with a particular type of gay men known specifically within this queer sociality.


The specific language used in these letters could be seen as aspects of Warner’s main theories regarding counterpublics-­‐-­‐ specific modes of address, the possibility of hostility outside of the counterpublic and a poetic world making—all factors leading to the specific discourse essential to queer literature. Holleran writes, as the Southern Man, “However, I must caution you, love: Those things may be amusing to us, but who, after all, wants to read about sissies?” This language parallels Warner’s notion of certain counterpublic discourse being met with hostility outside of the counterpublic. Holleran knowingly acknowledges that his novel would be met with resistance outside of the queer community of the 1970s. Those “things”— bathhouses, sex, clubs, partying, loves—the language itself of these words so a part of this specific group would be met with hostility outside of the counterpublic. Suggestively, Holleran states “read” here, as opposed to “know,” “learn” or “hear” about sissies. He is purposefully acknowledging this circulation of discourse between an author and the reader, leaving any judgments in terms of language and


  • Holleran, Dancer From the Dance, p. 14.


  • However, one would have to search within “gay and lesbian literature” within the bookstore, which could be argued as a counterpublic within itself. Also, this ability to pick up a novel at a bookstore is rapidly declining given the closing of many traditional “brick and mortar” bookstores. One would have to specifically search on websites for “gay novels” if one wanted to read this specific genre. In both instances one could argue either way in regards to accessibility of queer fiction.


  • White, Chaos, p. 93.




ideas within the realm of the specific discourse: the book and language. By using “read” Holleran keeps fresh in the reader’s mind the importance of language used, so important in Warner’s definition of a counterpublic.


Furthermore, this counterpublic is characterized within the concept of the sender and the receiver. Here, the letter writer who is penning the novel is sending his work to a specific audience—his letter receiver. However, this novel that he has written, has become the novel we hold in our hands. This type of discursive circulation, existing in multiple levels at the same time, coming into existence by mere attention, is, again, central to Warner’s concept of a counterpublic. Thematically, this bookending device allows the reader to identify with the two letter writers’ feelings in regards to New York City as a physical space of sociality. As one of the letter writers states, “I had to leave New York, you know, not for any practical reason but for a purely emotional one: I simply couldn’t stand to have it cease to be enchanted to me.”27 New York City not only serves as a destination, but as a specific character in the way it embodies so many of the desires and affiliations of the characters. The embodied sociality of so many of the venues described in the novel—the clubs, the baths, the parks—are intrinsically tied to the characters, their emotions, their world making,


It is telling that Holleran chooses the word “enchanted”: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the root word “enchant” is defined as “to influence irresistibly or powerfully, as if by charm.” I suggest that this terminology is akin to Warner’s notion that a counterpublic reflexively creates its own discourse in relation to a text or object. Both terms, a public and to enchant, require a sender and a receiver, a discourse of circulation and a transformative power. Here, Holleran seems to be stating that New York City, as both a public and as an entity, has come into existence through the transformative effect it has on the novel’s characters. This embodied sociality, this New York City, not only serves as the platform for the discourse of circulation but a discourse of itself. Holleran writes “Those streets, those corners. Malone was possibly more committed to it than any of us—whatever ‘it’ was—”28 Malone, and by extension, all the characters in Dancer, became so intrinsically linked to those city streets, those physical spaces become definitive of their characters and embodied within them.


Both novels address the concept of readership: specifically, the problem of viewing queer lives through a heteronormative gaze. One of the letter writers in Dancer,


upon hearing that the other is writing a novel states “Those things may be amusing to us, but who, after all, wants to read about sissies? Even if people accept fags out of kindness, even if they tolerate the poor dears, they don’t want to know WHAT THEY DO.”29 Seth writes to Jack at the end of the novel “All that sex talk, frankly, kind of disgusts me, especially when you talk about shit we’ve done. Really, really, that shit




  • Holleran, Dancer From the Dance, p. 240.


  • Holleran, Dancer From the Dance, p. 241.


  • Holleran, Dancer From the Dance, 14.




seems sort of sketchy and I really don’t like the idea of opening up the bedroom door and inviting everyone in from the street to watch you sucking my dick.”30 In both of these moments, the reader is forced to examine their own public, having the reader step out of their specific circulatory nature of the discourse of author to reader and address the concept of being a viewer in a larger scheme. The reader is forced to acknowledge how and in what ways they have become a part of those specific practices that the characters don’t want to see addressed, namely queer sexuality. I would suggest that this would be an example of Warner’s notion of multiple publics coming into existence at the same time, involving both the circuit between the author and the reader and then a reader at large in respects to queer sexuality. Also, these two novels address this notion of a discourse that intends to provoke a reaction in the reader. This is done to introduce the reader to these counterpublics in different contexts. In Dancer, by showing the reader the specific attributes of the queer counterpublic—a specific, sexually-­‐inflected language—at the beginning of the text, Holleran again is setting up his counterpublic by moving from a micro to a macro viewpoint, framing his language within the specifics of a dialogue between two people. This introduction serves as a preparatory examination of the specific language and ideas so intrinsic in the formation of a counterpublic. Placing queer sexuality in letterform, between two people, allows the reader to identify queer sexuality in relation to two people, not a public address. What we are reading at the beginning of the novel is a correspondence between two individuals—acclimating the reader to this queer world in a personal context.




Conversely, White’s admission of queer sexuality and readership is placed at the end of the novel and further situates the context of queer sexuality in Seth’s terms of public and private (“I don’t like the idea of opening the bedroom door and inviting everybody in from the street to watch you sucking my dick.”) Firstly it is telling how White’s concept of “street” differs from Holleran’s. In Holleran’s novel, the street serves as an extension of the characters’ lives: a physical destination that is also a metaphor for loneliness and an avenue for sexual liaisons. The street represents embodied sociality where cruising and socialization form a large part of how the characters define themselves as queers. In White’s reference, the street serves as a heterosexual population, the bedroom as a safe enclosure of queer sexuality. This of course might be put in dialogue with Warner’s notions of the loss of physical queer spaces within New York City, and Warner’s concepts of embodied sociality building. As previously stated, Warner argues that loss of such sites has an ossifying effect, leading to the loss of community building. Perhaps what the reader is seeing in White’s novel is the ramifications of this effect: the loss of physical space having an impact of this character’s views of sexuality. It is telling that Seth’s first objection to the story that is to be published is how it would specifically effect how his queer sexuality is perceived, as opposed to Holleran’s characters, who do not seem to mind how they are personally perceived, but how the heterosexual population views queer sexuality more broadly.



  • White, Chaos, 92.





To address this another way, Seth is concerned about how he is perceived within a heteronormative public, whereas Holleran’s characters question how the public views their queer counterpublic as a whole. Seth seems to be concerned with the very notions Warner is addressing, chiefly his statement regarding the importance of a public sexual culture benefiting what goes on “in the bedroom.” Warner writes “It is the pleasure of belonging to a sexual world, in which one’s sexuality finds an


answering response not just in one another, but in a world of others.”31 This exemplifies the sexual culture in Chaos. As Seth writes to Jack in his email “I’m not


saying you’re out of touch. You’re too much of a vampire to be out of it. You need fresh blood every day. I’m no better, don’t get me wrong. I have to hook up three or four times a day.”32 Seth finds a kindred spirit in Jack, in least of terms of their sexuality. What is important here is that Seth acknowledges this similarity having had a relationship with Jack, a relationship which is, of course, a form of embodied sociality. Although Seth’s view of Jack is shared via an email, a new form of communication by an online sociality, their relationship, and identification as similar sexual people, is only after their physical time spent together. Their experiences, although at first dictated by an online sociality, only grows via an embodied sociality.


Having examined Warner’s work in regards to the importance of embodied sociality


in regards to queer sociality, the decline of queer spaces within Warner and Berlant’s “Sex in Public” and The Trouble With Normal, and what constitutes queer


counterpublics in “Publics and Counterpublics,” I have shown how this scholarship might be put in dialogue with queer literature. While many aspects of both these texts could indicate their participation in forms of discourse associated with queer counterpublics, it would be problematic to simplistically state that the online queer sociality within Chaos constitutes a queer counterpublic. I would suggest that in the future scholars could examine how in and what ways publics and counterpublics could be seen within online sociality. At the very least it is important to acknowledge the need to readdress Warner’s criteria of “a” public in regards to online sociality. The internet that Warner references in 2002 is not the same as it is in 2013. The full manifestation of this discourse is still being shaped.33 However, in queer sociality, all of Warner’s work values the specific need within queer communities for world-­‐making and community building. As scholars begin to address online queer sociality, I hope to have shown that Warner’s stress on the positive aspects of social embodiment—an understanding of oneself and others by means of sexual and social interpersonal communication—should continue to be a part of this discourse. For regardless of physical or online sociality, world-­‐making is dependent upon sociality with others.


  • Warner, The Trouble With Normal, p. 179.
  • White, Chaos, p. 98.


  • A November 26th 2013 Michelangelo Signorile article for The Huffington Post focuses on the growing trend in queer online sociality within the past four years. Signorile, Michael. “Joel Simkhai, Grindr Founder And CEO, On Gay Social Networking App’s Worldwide Impact.” HuffPost Gay Voices., 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Never Let Me Go & the Necropolitics of Biomedical Engineering

Kazuo Ishiguro gained critical acclaim after publishing his third novel The Remains of the Day in 1989. The novel features a narrator named Stevens, a butler in a traditional English manor who reminisces over his years of service to his former lord, a Nazi sympathizer with sinister visitors, and in doing so ponders the traits that are required to be a gentleman and the meaning of class distinction, dignity, and purpose in life. As a narrative about interwar England concerned with class exploitation and the persecution of the Jewish community, we might put The Remains of the Day in dialogue with its post-­‐war English counterpart, Ishiguro’s later novel Never Let Me Go (2005), which dives into a world that is suggested by the aftermath of the austere scientific rationale of the war, further developing the ideas of class disparity addressed in The Remains of the Day.1

Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is told in the first person by a narrator in England recounting past experiences and coming to terms with loss and the cruelty of their personal service. Kathy H. narrates the story in the late 1990s as she is coming to the end of her life at the age of thirty-­‐one. She and all of her friends are bred through cloning to be killed by the rest of humanity in order to donate their organs to allow the outside community’s lives to continue, a fate they slowly become more and more aware of throughout their lives. Years of disillusion go by filled with attempts to assimilate into the society that oppresses them by trying to find their “possibles,” or those individuals whom they were cloned from originally, by parroting the social norms of the people they see on television, and through a failed attempt to escape their morbid fate involving a fabricated belief that if two of them prove they are in love they may escape or postpone their fate. Kathy eventually becomes a “carer,” one who looks over organ donors as they gradually die giving up their vital organs, a job the clones must take on before they themselves become donors. At the close of the novel she looks over her childhood friends as they expire, or “complete,” and Kathy is left alone to continue caring for donors until she herself must give up her body for the rest of society. In the closing chapter, she reflects upon her isolation in the world and the futility of her life before she calmly acquiesces to her fate. Kathy tells the story of her life and the development of her friendships from early childhood onward, highlighting her steadily increasing understanding of her social place in society as a member of an exploited class and/or race and the psychological turmoil such an understanding causes.2


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Vintage International Edition, 1993


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, Vintage International Edition, 2006





Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day have a great deal in common; both utilize a first person narration that occasionally addresses the reader directly, both explore themes of emotional isolation, loss, exploitation by other groups, a love life


never fulfilled, and cold calculability in the political treatment of human beings, and both take place in provincial England. The primary area in which Never Let Me Go differs from The Remains of the Day is in its more contemporary temporal setting and its thematic reach into the realm of science fiction. Never Let Me Go depicts a


society driven on the use of cloned human beings in a form of exploitation akin to slave labor, a system put into practice shortly after what the reader would assume is


the Second World War, a glimpse of the story’s history disclosed in the end of the novel. In this sense the novel can be seen as a continuation of The Remains of the


Day, an extension of the harsh rationality of Nazi Germany and the ideologies of the Second World War into the fervor of biological exchange and technological advancement in the contemporary moment.


The ambiguous genre of the novel reflects the eclectic assortment of themes it brings to light. Never Let Me Go contains elements of science fiction in its exploration of cloning, realism in its focus on the mundane, historical fiction in its post-­‐war temporal setting, the bildungsroman in the development of the characters since early childhood and the steady disillusionment they face, and even romance in their tragically thwarted relationships. Due to its mixed form, the most fitting genre that we might use to classify the novel is the broad umbrella term of speculative dystopian fiction. By utilizing this open genre, the novel incorporates a wide range of themes and sets up an entire discursive world. In this sense the novel traverses freely between themes in order to better express the multifaceted implications of biotechnology and exploitation of an underclass instead of being confined to potentially restrictive generic conventions. The use of elements from the bildungsroman establishes a psychology of otherness in the clones with which Kathy and the others must come to terms, science fiction allows for an insight into the biomedical aspects of our current technologically driven epoch, and an even more curious political exploration comes to life in the novel’s dystopian speculation which is, in turn, thrown into high relief by a jarring tendency towards the realist everyday. Without constraint, Never Let Me Go is able to escape the facile and achieve mobility across genres emphasizing the complexity of what remains in post-­‐ war England in the wake of the rationalized and political death regime of Nazi Germany.


This broad genre calls for multiple theoretical approaches. The most crucial elements of Never Let Me Go seem to be as follows: the ontologically altered


biomedical field and cloning, the psychological development of exploited demographics, and the political system that allows for such exploitation. I will use three different theoretical paradigms to address these three primary themes in the novel, drawn from respectively, Eugene Thacker’s The Global Genome, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics.”




A Destabilized Ontology


Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering have become prevalent areas of research and medical advancement, although many of the developments are still experimental. Thacker succinctly sums up the general logic of tissue engineering, stating it is “to combine ‘cells and materials’ to grow tissues and organs, and then to implant those tissues and organs into the patient’s body.”3 In basic terms, the most common model for tissue engineering involves taking a cell sample without damaging the donor site, implanting the cells into a biomaterial skeleton for structural support, inducing regeneration of the tissue or organ, and transplanting the engineered organ into the patient’s body.


Thacker highlights a crucial element of the procedure: “at no point in these processes are mechanical or nonbiological, nonorganic artificial materials or components incorporated as part of the core process of cellular and tissue regeneration. All ‘natural’ biochemical processes are maintained […] The regenerative tissue thus ultimately derives from the patient-­‐subject’s own biological resources.”4 With this in mind, Thacker claims that “tissue engineering is in the process of constituting a unique biomedical normativity based on a notion of the body as ‘regenerative’ and as self-­‐healing,” a biomedical ideology embedded in regenerative medicine.5 Of course, tissue engineering is not entirely “natural” because the body is not capable of growing, say, a new heart without outside intervention, but the “natural” processes of the body themselves are not altered, they are, so to speak, merely redirected. In addition, past concepts of biological normativity are typically grounded in the idea that medicine is applied to the body in order to return the body to a normal or healthy state, but tissue engineering does not utilize medicine outside the body, and there need not necessarily be a deviation from a healthy or normal state for tissue engineering to prove beneficial to the patient.6 Therefore, instead of conventionally treating the body as separate from medicine, “regenerative medicine purports to treat the body as marked by operational deficiencies open to improvement in design.”7 In other words, the healthy or normal state of the body is obliterated; if there is room for improvement, the body can benefit from regenerative medicine. The notions of sick and healthy are rendered obsolete and instead we are left with the potential for reaching beyond what is considered healthy in a form of regenerative augmentation. In this sense, the practice of tissue engineering is paradoxically both of the body, in that the engineered organ or tissue comes purely from the patient’s own biological resources, and beyond the body, in that tissue engineering enables the patient to transcend the natural restrictions of the “normal” human body.



3Eugene Thacker, “The Thickness of Tissue Engineering,” The Global Genome, p. 254

  • , p. 258


  • , p. 260


  • , p. 260


  • , p. 262




This state of being within and without the body works to redefine what we perceive as truly human. Theoretically a patient could be the subject of numerous organ transplants and regenerative practices, both transcending natural human capabilities as well as becoming more cloned parts than “naturally grown” parts, forcing us to consider where we draw the line to determine what we consider still human. Thacker poses a number of open-­‐ended questions brought to light by the practice of tissue engineering, such as:


Does the involvement of a range of biotechnologies fundamentally change the ontological status of the particular body part regenerated? Is the regenerated organ or tissue mass exactly the same as the “original”? What are the phenomenological and psychological dimensions of this process of autoalterity? If the biomedical body of tissue engineering is dispersed throughout these techniques and technologies, how and where do we situate the body that is supposedly “proper” to the patient-­‐subject?8


Additionally, due to the suggestion that tissue engineering opens up the notion of the body being “open to improvement in design,” the body becomes a sort of canvas for the patient to act upon and experiment with. Aside from the ongoing trend of bioart9 where such an approach to the body is evident, regenerative medicine upholds a new concept of the human: “a strange body that is constantly surpassing itself, a body-­‐more-­‐than-­‐body,”10 a notion idealistic yet chilling, playing into the modern fear of the loss of the human.


Ishiguro explores many of the implications of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine in the economic and medical purpose of the clones in Never Let Me Go. The


actual process of the cloning and organ donation in the novel is left fairly vague, but we know Kathy and the other students are clones created for the sole purpose of donating their organs to the outside society, a system of regenerative medicine that extends and explores the existing practices of tissue engineering described by Thacker. The clones in the novel thus exemplify the destabilized definition of what it means to be human in our biomedical epoch. When in public, the clones are indistinguishable from ordinary human beings,11 but when any member of the outside society becomes aware of the clones’ origins they recoil in horror.12 Towards the end of the novel, Kathy visits Madame, an old acquaintance from outside the cloned community who recognizes their status as clones due to her previous time with them. She describes the encounter, observing “I don’t know if she recogised us at that point; but without a doubt, she saw and decided in a second what we were, because you could see her stiffen.”13 Kathy does not describe Madame as deciding “who” they were, but instead as “what” they were, clearly showing that Madame does not consider the clones entirely human. The clones are objectified


  • , p. 264


  • , “Conclusion: Tactical Media and Bioart,” p. 305-20


  • , “The Thickness of Tissue Engineering,” p. 286


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, 163, 166


  • , p. 35, 248


  • , p. 248




despite the fact that they appear just as “normal” humans would. This discrepancy between what is considered human and what is visually apparent parallels the ontological complexities of tissue engineering addressed by Thacker. Like an engineered organ, the clones are seemingly indistinguishable from the original, all the biological processes of the body are maintained, and their bodies are comprised entirely of “natural” biological phenomena. And yet, again, like an engineered organ, the clones could not be created without some sort of “unnatural” biological manipulation, and the legitimacy of their very being is subject to question. As readers we empathize with Kathy and most likely consider the clones human, but cannot explicitly state why. By opening up the implications of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine into a narrative, Ishiguro creates a paradox of human and not human that arrests the reader in a form of ontological play.


The novel also addresses the notion of “improvement in design” that is perhaps the most profound aspect of regenerative medicine. Towards the end of the novel, Miss Emily, a previous caretaker of the students, describes to Kathy and Tommy a controversial scientific breakthrough by a scientist known as James Morningdale. She states, “What he wanted was to offer people the possibility of having children with enhanced characteristics. Superior intelligence, superior athleticism, that sort of thing. Of course there’d been others with similar ambitions, but this Morningdale fellow, he’d taken his research much further than anyone before him, far beyond legal boundaries.”14 In her description, not only does the Morningdale controversy allow for a brief speculation of “improvement in design,” but it also suggests the ethical issues such practices bring to light and the line that must be arbitrarily drawn between what is considered acceptable and “human,” and what is considered unnatural. The society is comfortable with creating clones in order to sacrifice them for the benefit of continuing their own lives, but there is an immediate refusal of notions of altering human design. Miss Emily continues, emphasizing the public’s rejection of such ideas, “It’s one thing to create students, such as yourselves, for the


donation programme. But a generation of created children who’d take their place in society? Children demonstrably superior to the rest of us? Oh no. That frightened


people. They recoiled from that.”15 This moment in the novel forces the reader to ponder further what it is that deems something human or not human. From the beginning of the novel, we consider Kathy human and through her life story we gain a deep empathy for her. The society’s refusal to accept Kathy and other clones as human therefore seems barbaric to the reader, but the scandal caused by the Morningdale incident appears strange in comparison, for its implications seem relatively mild. The seemingly arbitrary sentiments of the public in the novel reflect the difficulty in answering the open-­‐ended questions Thacker proposes.


Thacker suggests that in order for regenerative medicine to progress, society must rethink the dichotomy of biology and technology through what Bruno Latour calls hybridization, amalgamating the two instead of perceiving them as mutually


  • p. 263-64


  • , p. 264




exclusive. Without reconsidering these now pliable definitions, “it becomes all too easy to desire habitually, at any cost, the vision of a body transcending itself, sublimating itself, curing itself, and yet still ‘a body.’”16 Never Let Me Go does not necessarily suggest hybridization, but it experiments with the ontological implications of the biomedical field. The creation of life is becoming more and more hazy in its specifications, especially in a world that by and large accepts children born from in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood as entirely human; to question the legitimacy of life created in such a way seems absurd, but if we accept it then how do we approach regenerative medicine? Furthermore, if we consider the act of cloning an organ for donation as acceptable, but we consider the act of cloning an entire being like Kathy for donation as inhumane, where do we draw the line? At what point does an organ or a series of connected organs become human? The novel does not answer these questions and simply presents them for the reader to ponder, evoking a sense of trepidation over the potential ramifications of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and constructing a form of biomedical ontological play at the heart of the story that lays the foundation for the question of what it means to be human, a question shared by both the reader and the clones in the novel themselves.


The Human and the Other


The ontological play Ishiguro constructs manifests itself in the clones’ development of identity. Kathy and her friends are not immediately aware of their status as clones segregated from the outside community, or of the organ donations ahead of them, although she notes that there was always some notion that they were different in the back of their minds.17 Instead, much of the novel focuses on the various points in Kathy’s childhood where she slowly comes to grasp the extent of her social otherness and the exploitation of her life. The first moment of true realization arises when the children all rush towards Madame, a regular visitor from outside Hailsham, the closed community in which the clones are raised, only to be shocked by Madame’s revulsion towards their very existence. Kathy recalls the scene, stating


As she came to a halt, I glanced at her face—as did the others, I’m sure. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept walking, we all felt it; it was like we’d walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders. 18


Before actually surprising Madame, the act had been merely a kind of blithe childhood dare, and “if not a joke exactly, very much a private thing we’d wanted to settle among ourselves,” but afterward Kathy observes “we were a very different


  • Eugene Thacker, “The Thickness of Tissue Engineering,” The Global Genome, p. 274


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 69, 83
  • , p. 35




group from the one that had stood about excitedly waiting for Madame to get out of her car,”19 and the whole event takes on a seriousness unanticipated by the children. The scene is a turning point in Kathy’s life, for she notices at eight years old for the first time the difference between her and others in the world, and the brutality of such a realization. She continues, speaking of the scene as


the moment when you realise that you are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you—of how you were brought into this world and why—and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.20


Kathy’s social disillusionment in this scene is also reminiscent of Fanon’s concept of coming to consciousness of one’s racial alterity. Fanon writes of the subject: “As long as the black child remains on his home ground his life follows more or less the same course as that of the white child. But if he goes to Europe he will have to rethink his life, for in France, his country, he will be different from the rest.”21 Additionally, Fanon notes that “the black man is unaware of it as long as he lives among his own people; but at the first white gaze, he feels the weight of his melanin.”22 The clearest resemblance between the scene in Never Let Me Go and Fanon’s concept appears in his footnote to the previous sentence:


Let us recall what Sartre said on the subject: “Some children, at the age of five or six, have already had fights with schoolmates who call them ‘Yids.’ Others may remain in ignorance for a long time. A young Jewish girl in a family I am acquainted with did not even know the meaning of the word Jew until she was fifteen. During the Occupation there was a Jewish doctor who lived shut up in his home in Fontainebleau and raised his children without saying a word to them of their origin. But however it comes about, some day they must learn the truth: sometimes from the smiles of those around them, sometimes from rumor or insult. The later the discovery the more violent the shock. Suddenly they perceive that others know something about them that


they do not know, that people apply to them an ugly and upsetting term that is now used in their own families” (Anti-­‐Semite and Jew, p. 75.)23


When Kathy runs out to surprise Madame she feels herself placed under the “white gaze” and comes to consciousness of her otherness. Although there is no mention of race with regard to the clones in the novel, the clones are racialized by the outside community and are seen as ontologically inferior. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine suggest the question of what it means to be human, and


  • , p. 35
  • , p. 36


  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black Man and Psychopathology,” p. 127


  • , p. 128





Ishiguro addresses the question from a different angle as well. Kathy and the children not only exhibit an aspect of Ishiguro’s ontological play in the fact that they are clones in a system of tissue engineering, they also take on the psychological traits of a racially oppressed “other,” a form of otherness at the center of the brutal human ontology of colonialism. As Fanon starkly states, “I shall say that a Black man is not a man. […] There is a zone of nonbeing.”24 Like the racialized other, the clones are relegated to nonbeing, and are not considered human. Kathy feels something momentous shift in her perception of her identity, just as is mentioned in Fanon’s quotation of Sartre, she describes the sensation as a realization of difference, and like “walking past a mirror you’ve seen every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else.” Similarly, Sartre remarks of the recently disillusioned racial other that “suddenly they perceive that others know something about them that they do not know.” Kathy’s recognition of her racialized alterity is a critical moment in her childhood that initiates her into a life of otherness framed and defined by her impending premature death, a moment as significant as that which Fanon depicts. Kathy reflects upon it as so, noting, “it was the start of a process that kept growing and growing over the years until it came to dominate our lives”25


Later in the same section, Fanon notes that after coming to consciousness of one’s otherness, the racialized other must also understand that they are what Fanon calls “phobogenic”: “We have said that the black man is phobogenic. What is phobia? Our answer will be based on the latest book by Hesnard: ‘Phobia is a neurosis characterized by the anxious fear of an object (in the broadest sense of anything outside the individual) or, by extension, of a situation.’ Naturally such an object must take on certain aspects. It must, says Hesnard, arouse fear and revulsion.”26 In other words, the black man inspires fear and revulsion in the white community. Again, Kathy’s coming to consciousness parallels Fanon’s study, for at the moment of realization Kathy notes that people like Madame “shudder at the very thought of you


  • dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs,” and fear the other “in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders.” Ishiguro addresses the colonial society’s fear of the racialized other, more specifically he likens it to the fairly common phobia of spiders, arachnophobia. Even Miss Emily, the most


sympathetically drawn “guardian,” or pedagogic overseer at Hailsham, remarks on her fear of the clones. She tells Kathy “We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you almost ever day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look


down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion.”27 In setting up the social dynamic of fear in the relations between the clones and the rest of society in such a light, Ishiguro allegorizes the element of disgust involved in racialized otherness. The novel not only expresses the fear of the other but also its internalization, tapping into the deep revulsion that Kathy faces in coming to consciousness, constructing the identity of the clones as phobogenic.


  • , “Introduction,” p. xii


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 37


  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black Man and Psychopathology,” p. 132-33


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 269





After facing disillusionment and being forced into the realization of their otherness, the clones continue to exhibit psychological traits of a racialized other. After leaving Hailsham, Kathy and the others move into the Cottages, the last communal area for the clones. During their stay, Kathy observes the older students and in particular “how so many of their mannerisms were copied from the television. […] the way they gestured to each other, sat together on sofas, even the way they argued and stormed out of rooms.”28 Ruth, one of Kathy’s close friends, begins to mimic the older students and use body language seen on television. This bothers Kathy, who eventually tells Ruth, recalling “I just pressed on, explaining to her how it was something from a television series. ‘It’s not worth copying,’ I told her. ‘It’s not what people really do out there, in normal life, if that’s what you were thinking.’”29 Kathy berates Ruth’s behavior in a peculiar manner, highlighting Ruth’s attempt to appear less like a clone and more like a member of “normal” society through the adoption of language. Kathy acknowledges two crucial aspects of the behavior of her peers: the copying of the language of the community that oppresses them, and the fact that such mimesis reflects a desire to assimilate into the oppressive community. Fanon writes of this phenomenon “the more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets—i.e., the closer he comes to becoming a true human being. We are fully aware that this is one of man’s attitudes faced with Being. A man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.”30 In addition to attempting to appropriate the culture of the oppressive community through the mimicry of language, the clones declare their very being in an effort to be recognized as “a true human being,” an ontological status they have been denied.31


The clones’ effort to assimilate culminates in the search for Ruth’s “possible,” the original person from which she was cloned and a member of the outside society.



  • , p. 120-21


  • , p. 123-24


  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black Man and Language,” p. 2


  • It should be noted that Fanon focuses primarily on the appropriation of the French language by the black Antillean, a subject with a spoken language entirely different from the French. The clones in Never Let Me Go have been raised speaking English just like the outside community and frequently allude to the myriad of literature they have read, and therefore do not face as large a degree of separation as the black Antillean from the oppressive society in the utilization of language. Although this is the case, the clones still seek to appropriate body language and small mannerisms such as slang or idioms evident in the outside community to assimilate further. Fanon also addresses such mimicry, albeit briefly, writing, “Professor Westermann writes in The Africa Today that the feeling of inferiority by Blacks is especially evident in the educated black man who is constantly trying to overcome it. The method used, Westermann adds, is often naïve: ‘The wearing of European clothes, whether rags or the most up-to-date style; using European furniture and European forms of social intercourse; adorning the native language with European expressions; using bombastic phrases in speaking or writing a European language; all these contribute to a feeling of equality with the European and his achievements,’ (p. 9). In this sense, the mimicry of language is broadened into more than spoken and written language. Kathy and the clones from Hailsham, the more educated of the cloned communities as the reader learns throughout the novel, quite accurately display this form of mimicry.




While at the Cottages, two of the older students inform Ruth that they may have seen her possible, someone who looks exactly like her, and they gather the group together for a trip outside the enclosed Cottages. Kathy describes the fervor over the subject of possibles, stating,


One big idea behind finding your model was that when you did, you’d glimpse your future. Now I don’t mean anyone really thought that if your model turned out to be, say, a guy working at a railway station, that’s what you’d end up doing too. We all realised it wasn’t that simple. Nevertheless, we all of us, to varying degrees, believed that when you saw the person you were copied from, you’d get some insight into who you were deep down, and maybe too, you’d see something of what your life held in store.32


The clones’ desire to find the person they were copied from in order to get “insight into who you were deep down” reflects their abrogated identity. The clones have no positive sense of being, having been denied humanity by the rest of society, but they do not acquiesce to the idea that they are purely to serve for economic and medical purposes. They are left devoid of a sense of self, and the search for possibles is a representation of this psychological struggle. The racialized other experiences a similar desire, attempting to find whiteness within oneself. Fanon writes,


the black man cannot take pleasure in his insularity. For him there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world. Hence his constant preoccupation with attracting the white world, his concern with being as powerful as the white man, and his determination to acquire the properties of a coating: i.e., the part of being or having that constitutes an ego. As we said earlier, the black man will endeavor to seek admittance to the white sanctuary from within.33


Here Fanon is discussing the racialized other’s determination to be accepted by the white community by means of acquiring a white sexual partner, but the broader notion that finding whiteness within oneself allows one to establish an ego or self is applicable to the clones’ search for possibles. The clones seek their possibles in order to find themselves, or those who are apparently biologically identical to themselves within the oppressive community. By seeing copies of their bodies accepted in the outside society and leading normal lives, the clones are able to find the whiteness within themselves, so to speak, in the sense that they can observe their bodies and to a certain degree their selves as human and being treated as so. The clones cannot accept their rejection from the “normal” world, and their desire to find whom they were modeled from is both a grasp at identity and humanity and an attempt to psychologically become a part of the rest of society.


Race is never mentioned in Never Let Me Go until near the very end of the narrative in the most climactic scene in the novel. Kathy and Tommy find Madame and Miss Emily, two of the guardians at Hailsham, in order to ask for a deferral on their donations. Kathy and Tommy have heard from other students that such a deferral is possible on the grounds that they can prove they are in love, although Miss Emily


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 139-40


  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, “The Woman of Color and the White Man,” p. 33-34




tells them it is merely a rumor and there is no hope in escaping their morbid fate. In their meeting, Miss Emily has a Nigerian caretaker named George whose presence is subtle yet intriguing. Miss Emily recalls a previous moment when she passed Kathy in the street, stating, “you certainly didn’t recognise me then. You glanced at George, the big Nigerian man pushing me. Oh yes, you had quite a good look at him, and he at you.”34 Miss Emily tellingly dwells upon the gaze between Kathy and George, a character who has no purpose in terms of plot. In this moment she draws a connection between the two exploited social castes, the clone and the service worker. Kathy must care for the weak and eventually donate her body to serve the outside community, and George too cares for the now weak Miss Emily and must relinquish the autonomy of his body for the service of those in power. Ishiguro connects to the two characters in their similar exploitation, and also alludes to British colonialism in his use of a Nigerian caretaker, who reminds the reader of another dehumanizing method of racialized exploitation that has left class disparity and hatred in its wake.


The association between the clone and the service worker is even more apparent when considering Ishiguro’s attention to class in The Remains of the Day. Stevens is


humiliated one night when Mr. Spencer, a guest of Lord Darlington, accosts Stevens and presses upon him a series of questions about economics and politics that Stevens is unable to answer, replying “I’m very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter,”35 to every question directed at him, much to the amusement of the guests. Mr. Spencer goes on to conclude that the parliamentary system, which relies on the votes of lower classes, is obsolete due to the fact that Stevens clearly cannot answer any of the questions. Lord Darlington apologizes to Stevens for the mockery, but also tells him “Democracy is something of a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. […] The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he?”36 Lord Darlington ultimately supports Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, stating, “Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there.”37 He later excludes Jewish workers from his service staff as well, but instead of protesting, Stevens supports Lord Darlington’s position in order to justify his own life, declaring


Let us establish this quite clearly: a butler’s duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation. The fact is, such great affairs will always be beyond the understanding of those such as you and I, and those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by concentrating on what is within our realm; that is to say, by devoting our




  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 256-57


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, p. 195


  • , p. 198-99


  • , p. 198-99




attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destination of civilization truly lies.38

Similarly, after the failed search for her possible, Ruth flies into a rage, revealing the


clones’ recognition of their own pitiful class. Ruth denounces the entire search on the grounds that “They don’t ever, ever, use people like that woman. […] We’re not


modelled from that sort.”39 She goes on to make the fabricated claim, “We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from. […] If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that’s where you’ll find where we all came from.”40 Although it is highly unlikely that the clones are actually modeled from the socio-­‐economic group that she suggests due to the fact that the clones must be healthy, Ruth’s diatribe reflects the social class that the clones identify with: the lumpenproletariat, those who are bound to remain the lowest class without any hope of escape. The clones are both a racialized group and a class of their own, destined to be slave bodies for the oppressive community and nothing else. Their struggle therefore reflects both the psychological repercussions of racialization and rationalized class exploitation. The clones form a race and class of their own.


Death and Biomedical Hegemony


The focus of both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day on class disparity and those who give up their bodies for the service of others shows a trend running


across both of Ishiguro’s novels. The austere calculability of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in The Remains of the Day translates to Never Let Me Go in a modern


biotechnological form. Ishiguro transposes the mass extermination in the concentration camps of World War II and the brutal racism that implicitly justifies


the atrocity to the world of the clones, faced with a similar rationalized death regime. The comparison is even suggested in Never Let Me Go, when Kathy describes

an event in one of her classes, recalling,


We’d been looking at some poetry, but had somehow drifted onto talking about soldiers in World War Two being kept in prison camps. One of the boys asked if the fences around the camps had been electrified, and then someone else had said how strange it must have been, living in a place like that, where you could commit suicide any time you liked just by touching a fence. This might have been intended as a serious point, but the rest of us thought it pretty funny. We were all laughing and talking at once, and then Laura—typical of her—got up on her seat and did a hysterical impersonation of someone reaching out and getting electrocuted. For a moment things got riotous, with everyone shouting and mimicking touching electric fences.


I went on watching Miss Lucy through all this and I could see, just for a second, a ghostly expression come over her face as she watched the class in


  • , p. 199


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 166


  • , p. 166




front of her. Then—I kept watching carefully—she pulled herself together, smiled and said: “It’s just as well the fences at Hailsham aren’t electrified. You get terrible accidents sometimes.”41


The reader may infer from this scene that other institutions for the clones outside Hailsham are much more cruel, but most importantly, perhaps, the direct reference


to the death camps of World War II solidifies the continuation of themes explored historically in The Remains of the Day in the speculative dystopian world of Never Let Me Go.


Achille Mbembe writes of the Nazi regime, “According to Foucault, the Nazi state was the most complete example of a state exercising the right to kill. This state, he claims, made the management, protection, and cultivation of life coextensive with the sovereign right to kill.”42 In his essay, Mbembe uses Foucault’s notion of biopower as a foundation for his work, assuming that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”43 In other words, Mbembe analyzes the politics of death, or what he calls “necropolitics.” The exercise of precisely such necropolitics is a fundamental aspect of the dystopian society in Never Let Me Go; the society allows the outside world to live while demanding that the clones die. With this in mind, Kathy’s recollection of her class discussion of the concentration camps possesses a necropolitical bent. She says her classmate describes the concentration camp as strange because it is a place “where you could commit suicide any time you liked just by touching a fence.” The child describes the camp not by its restrictions or by its inhumanity, but rather by its strange instantiation of suicidal agency. The child seems intrigued by the possibility of suicide more than fearful of the injustice of the Nazi state. Mbembe states that in the contemporary sovereign state, “death and freedom are irrevocably interwoven,”44 and death becomes a last resort grasp at individual autonomy. He writes,


Far from being an encounter with a limit, boundary, or barrier, it is experienced as “a release from terror and bondage.” As Gilroy notes, this preference for death over continued servitude is a commentary on the nature of freedom itself (or the lack thereof). If this lack is the very nature of what it means for the slave or the colonized to exist, the same lack is also precisely the way in which he or she takes account of his or her mortality. Referring to the practice of individual or mass suicide by slaves cornered by the slave catchers, Gilroy suggests that death, in this case, can be represented as agency. For death is precisely that from and over which I have power. But it is also that space where freedom and negation operate.45


The child in Kathy’s recollection describes the electric fence as an available object of suicide due to his subjugation in the necropolitical regime of the outside community.


  • , p. 78


  • Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15(1), Duke University Press (2003): p. 17
  • , p. 11
  • , p. 38
  • , p. 39




Death becomes the only means of maintaining one’s autonomy, and thereby a beacon of freedom in an oppressive world. This power over death the subjects attempt to maintain and the hegemony over who may live and who must die by the state comprise the dialectical tension of necropolitics.


Mbembe states that while the factors leading up to the Nazi regime are multitudinous and complex, “according to Endo Traverso, the gas chambers and the ovens were the culmination of a long process of dehumanizing and industrializing death, one of the original features of which was to integrate instrumental rationality with the productive administrative rationality of the modern Western world (the factory, the bureaucracy, the prison, the army).”46 The dehumanization and industrialization of death is evident in the novel as well, primarily in the entire system of which the clones are an integral part, a system that raises them in contained environments in order to be sacrificed for the outside society. This dehumanizing rationality is particularly apparent in the clinical language Kathy uses to describe the donation process. When a patient dies from donating organs, Kathy says that they have “completed,”47 and when boasting of her adequacy as a carer, she tells the reader “my donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.”48 Kathy’s cold classification of emotions and pain and her use of almost technological terms to signify death reflect the industrialization of death through administrative rationality


that Mbembe describes. Ishiguro takes the dehumanized and calculated death regime of Nazi Germany and extends it into the speculative narrative of Never Let Me Go.


But it is not just in the systemized death of the clones that the novel expresses its ties to necropolitics, for Mbembe also writes of the dehumanization and industrialization of death, “This development was aided in part by racist stereotypes and the flourishing of a class-­‐based racism that, in translating the social conflicts of the industrial world in racial terms, ended up comparing the working classes and ‘stateless people’ of the industrial world to the ‘savages’ of the colonial world.”49 In short, he writes in observance of Arendt’s thesis, “what one witnesses in World War


  • is the extension to ‘civilized’ peoples of Europe of the methods previously


reserved for the ‘savages.’”50 Fanon’s study of postcolonial subjects becomes directly applicable to the psychologies of the clones under the system of necropolitics. Kathy’s coming to consciousness as a racialized other and the psychological traits the clones exhibit as a class and race of their own are byproducts of the necropolitics of the oppressive community. On racism Mbembe writes,



  • , p. 18


  • The first example of this term appears on page 101, Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • , p. 3


  • Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 15(1), Duke University Press (2003): p. 18
  • , p. 23




in Foucault’s terms, racism is above all a technology aimed at permitting the exercise of biopower, “that old sovereign right of death.” In the economy of biopower, the function of racism is to regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state. It is, he says, “the condition for the acceptability of putting to death.”51


The outside community racializes the clones in an attempt to justify the rationalized system of necropolitics they are attached to, and to allow themselves to continue putting the clones to death. If the clones were not considered something outside of humanity, something ontologically inferior, the society’s medical practices would cease.


The society in Never Let Me Go justifies its death system as a source of medical material for the outside community. This resource extraction from the death of the clones is again related to necropolitics, for the necropolitical state of Nazi Germany and to a degree all modern states “undertook to ‘civilize’ the ways of killing and to attribute rational objectives to the very act of killing.”52 Those who must die are relegated to communities or “colonies” separate from the rest of society where they may live and die. They are stationed in “the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of ‘civilization.’”53 This zone in the novel is Hailsham and the other institutions that raise the clones, communities isolated and excluded from the rest of society, contained areas for the exercise of the necropolitical. The rationalized purpose of Hailsham and its associates is to serve the rest of society in an austere, dehumanized, biomedical manner; the clones die so that the rest of civilization can continue to live. The clones are the subject “whose biophysical elimination would strengthen [the outside society’s] potential to life and security,”54 the victims, in other words, of necropolitics. In her last meeting with Kathy, Miss Emily tells her the entirety of her dehumanization, exploitation, and economic purpose:


After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that

they grew in a kind of vacuum. Yes, there were arguments. But by the time people became concerned about … about students, by the time they came to


consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer and curable, how can you as such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back. However uncomfortable people were


  • , p. 17
  • , p. 23
  • , p. 24


  • , p.18




about your existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die from cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease. So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter. And that was how things stood until our little movement came along. But do you see what we were up against? We were virtually trying to square the circle. Here was a world, requiring students to donate. While that remained the case, there would always be a barrier against seeing you as properly human.55


This scene expresses most directly the concern of this essay as a whole. Miss Emily states that the science, which created the clones, came after the war, thus again applying the cold calculability of Nazi Germany to the contemporary biomedical field. The ontological implications of biomedical engineering suggest the redefinition of what is human through the possibility of transcending the human, all the while the cloned beings are regarded as ontologically inferior and are relegated to the status of a racialized other. Miss Emily tells Kathy that people convinced themselves “that you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.” Such otherness serves to justify the exploitation of their bodies and the death that is imposed upon them by the state, that further justifies the death system by upholding the medical benefits the system produces.


Mbembe states that “to exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power,” thus posing the question to the reader, “What place is given to life, death, and the human body?”56 This question is emphasized by Thacker in his study of regenerative medicine and through it the potential for a human body without death. Thacker writes, “tissue engineering seems to be gearing itself toward a standard of the biomedical body that strategically eliminates one entire sector of the biological body’s contingencies (chromosome degradation, tissue aging and decay, and the markers of the body’s mortality).”57 Thacker notes that the many factors of regenerative medicine “point to a more general desire effectively to engineer biological mortality out of the body.”58 Similarly, according to Mbembe the negation of death is what ultimately defines the sovereign. He writes, “the sovereign world, Bataille argues, ‘is the world in which the limit of death is done away with. Death is present in it, its presence defines that world of violence, but while death is present it is always there only to be negated, never for anything but that. The sovereign,’ he concludes, ‘is he who is, as if death were not. […] he is the transgression of all such limits.’”59 Like the speculative implications of regenerative medicine, the sovereign does away with death by containing it in selective areas, the areas of the racialized other. The


  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 262-63


  • Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 15(1), Duke University Press (2003): p. 12


  • Eugene Thacker, The Global Genome, “The Thickness of Tissue Engineering,” p. 272-73


  • , “Regenerative Medicine: We Can Grow It for You Wholesale,” p. 285


  • Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 15(1), Duke University Press (2003): p. 16




sovereign’s control of life and death presupposes “the distribution of human species into groups, the subdivision of the population into subgroups, and the establishment


of a biological caesura between the ones and the others. This is what Foucault labels with the (at first familiar) term racism.”60 The ontological redefinition implied by


regenerative medicine necessarily also implies a “biological caesura” between those who must give organs and those who take, and therefore an “other” to be exploited. That is why, in the novel, the clones face the psychological turmoil of racialized others.


The title of the novel, Never Let Me Go, derives from a song of the same name that Kathy listens to as a young girl. Kathy tells the reader that she interpreted the song incorrectly, being the child that she was, confessing,


what I’d imagine was a woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies, who’d really, really wanted them all her life. Then there’s a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds the baby very close to her and walks around singing ‘Baby, never let me go…’ partly because she’s so happy, but also because she’s so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her.61

At one point Kathy listens to the song and begins holding a pillow as if it were her child, singing along, and notices Madame watching her, and when she looks at Madame she realizes Madame is crying. Towards the close of the novel, Kathy asks Madame about the scene, telling her the erroneous interpretation of the song, wondering if Madame interpreted it similarly. Madame replies,


I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.62


Madame’s interpretation of the scene is fairly straightforward. Madame sees the new scientific world as cruel and austere, and her idea of the “old kind world” cherished by “a little girl” reveals her nostalgia for a purer humanism, soon to be extinguished by the encroaching medical era. She directly laments the establishment of a rationalized world and the loss of a culture that still upholds humanist ideals. On the other hand, Kathy’s interpretation is “for an altogether different reason” as Madame says it is. Kathy’s interpretation of the song, although childish, reflects an aspect of the society in the novel from a surprising perspective not yet addressed. She focuses on a mother that, due to some medical condition is unable to produce children, only to miraculously be granted the opportunity. Recalling our societal acceptance of in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood, two forms of creating


  • , p. 17
  • , p. 70


  • , p. 272




life that push ontological boundaries and also allow motherhood for those previously denied it, Kathy’s interpretation recognizes the promises of biomedical advancement and the extent to which it actually propagates the humanistic ideals Madame extols. The two interpretations of the same song recognize the complexities of motherhood and birth, as well as the implications of the biomedical field as a whole, both in the fictional world of the novel and in the world of today. Never Let Me Go juxtaposes the necropolitical with the humanistic, death with birth, and the possibilities of the future with the danger involved, an assemblage that encompasses the expectancy and trepidation of the contemporary moment.


In the wake of regenerative medicine and necropolitics the question becomes: who now must die for our lives to continue? Despite the bleakness of the novel, Never Let


Me Go does not promulgate naïve Luddism, adamantly against the biomedical advancements of the modern era; rather, the novel expresses the urgent necessity for examining regenerative medicine because of its inherent possibility of creating another atrocity in light of the ongoing necropolitical paradigm. In colloquial terms, we must think before we leap, for after we do it will be too late. As Miss Emily states, “There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.”63 If we are trading in life, where do we draw the line? The world is on the brink of altering the human, and Ishiguro’s novel reminds us that we must keep in mind all that is at stake.


































  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, p. 263




Works Cited


Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove, 2008.




Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print. Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print. Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Trans. Libby Meintjes.Public Culture 15.1, Duke

University Press (2003): 11-­‐40. Print.


Thacker, Eugene. The Global Genome. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005. Print.