Anya Heise-von der Lippe M.A. (TU-Berlin)   -   anya.heise-vonderlippe@berlin.de

 

Deconstruction(s) of the Human -

Monstrosity, Otherness and the Postcolonial Gothic

 

Vampires, monsters, ghosts, and the villains of gothic and horror literature - have one thing in common: they are, although humanoid in many ways, not completely and unquestionably human beings. They are scientific experiments gone wrong, aberrations of nature, the outcome of satanic and weird magical rituals.

Famous examples of these are Frankenstein's Monster and Count Dracula as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The conflicts in Gothic literature often arise from situations in which human beings are forced to deal with the inhuman reactions of the other, the outsider, the monstrous. The common denominator is the threat that arises from the otherness, from the part that is not human in these beings. The solution of such conflicts is often made difficult by the combination of good and evil, human and inhuman traits in the same personality.

Even the early Gothic novels, which appeared at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, showed good and evil tendencies combined in the personalities of the villain and the hero: the byronic heroes had a tendency to possess dark sectrets and the villains sometimes showed unexpected signs of humanity. What ensued in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gothic novel was a blending of hero and villain as is for example the case in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, thus creating characters that are strange and familiar, human and monstrous at the same time.

The rigid distinction between good and evil, between the familiar and the other was thus undermined by the tendency of the narrator - and subsequently the reader - to focus on and identify with the ambivalent hero-villains and to make them appear as 'one of us'. The strange, the different, the other has thus become part of the familiar. This tendency also accounts for the strange combination of subversiveness and popularity that often characterizes the Gothic.

 

The concept of 'the other' is also strongly represented in postcolonial literature and literary theory that deals with the confrontation of colonizer and colonized, the submission of the 'otherness' of the colonized and the subversive return of the repressed. The influence of postmodern deconstructive literary theory has led to a shift of focus in postcolonialism and elsewhere: clear oppositions like black vs. white, center vs. margin, civilized vs. uncivilized, colonizer vs. colonized, East vs. West, culture vs. nature, male vs. female, good vs. evil are no longer valid. Postmodern texts have a tendency to blur these manichaean oppositions in favour of a multilateralism and a lack of clear characterization, which can also make them hard to pin down.

What unites postcolonial literature and the Gothic is a common interest in the return of the repressed (be it the colonized no longer controlled by the colonizer or the dark unconscious set free from the controlling effects of the rational mind). Both are concerned with the strengthening of the other, with the margin becoming the centre. This similarity may account for a combination of these literary genres by postmodern authors.

Consequently, the term 'postcolonial Gothic' applies to texts which use the aesthetic concepts of Gothic literature to deal with postcolonial themes. Two novels which do exactly this are Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm.

In Beloved Morrison shows the inhumanity of the system of slavery that drives a mother to kill her own children rather than let them return to the oppressive condition she escaped from. The character of Sethe combines motherly protectiveness and the destructive forces of a killer turned against her own children. The monstrosity of the slave-holders is set against the monstrosity of the mother killing her child.

Sethe has been hurt physically and mentally. Her body was mutilated by beating. She can't overcome the horror she felt, when the slaveowner's sons took away by brutal force the milk she had for her baby. Sethe has lost part of her family and her belief in even the vaguest possibility of humanity. Monstrosity is the cause of monstrosity, when she kills her daughter.

The personification of Sethe's guilt returns as the baby's ghost and invades her house. The character of the ghost is as ambivalent as Sethe's. A conventional haunting at first, Beloved later on actually returns as the young woman she would have been, had she lived; but her mind remains that of the young girl she was when she died. Beloved is nurtured by Sethe like a baby, although not with milk. Unlike a natural baby, Beloved feeds on Sethe's physical and mental forces like a vampire.

Beloved's return from the dead underlines her monstrosity. She emerges from the river with the outer appearance of a grown up woman, the smooth skin of a  baby, and the behaviour of a child:

 

"A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat. Everything hurt but her lungs most of all. Sopping wet and breathing shallow she spent those hours trying to negotiate the weight of her eyelids. The day breeze blew her dress dry; the night wind wrinkled it. Nobody saw her emerge or came accidentally by. If they had, chances are they would have hesitated before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling. ... She had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands." (Beloved, p. 50).

 

Beloved's looks and behaviour make her appear human and monstrous at the same time. As the narrator points out, the black comunity would probably reject her. She is the personification of strangeness and otherness.

Sethe gives birth to Beloved a second time symbolically, when on first seeing Beloved she can't hold the contents of her bladder. The endless stream of water she sheds reminds her of giving birth.

From the first moment on Beloved can't take her eyes of Sethe: "Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes." (Beloved, p. 57), until Beloved virtually swallows Sethe by her declaration that: "I will not lose her again. She is mine." (Beloved, p. 214).

 

Sethe alone is incapable of dealing with Beloved, because her unrelenting feeling of guilt nourishes the greedy ghost and lets it grow stronger. She is happy that her murdered daughter has come back to her and willingly gives in to all of Beloved's wishes and needs. Only by the help of her living daughter Denver - who musters up the courage to venture out into the black community from which they have been separated - does Sethe get away from the consuming presence of her monster-child.

By focusing on Sethe, Morrison makes the doubly marginalized the centre of the story. As a black woman and a runaway slave Sethe is an outcast from white society. Wanting to kill her children, even though she does it in order to protect them from slavery, makes her an outsider to her own black community too.

 

Sethe's way of telling her story, centered on orality and personal memory, is opposed to more general, written history. The true existance of the ghost and Beloved's return from the dead are  never questioned by Sethe or any of the other protagonists. Moreover, the omniscient narrator never calls into question what the protagonists see and experience. As in many postcolonial magical realist texts, the ghost is part of the novel's alternative reality, that focuses on the return of the repressed.

 

Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm is, as many other of her novels a variation on the theme of otherness and alienation. The protagonist, Rennie, doesn't fit into any context she knows. She rejects and is consequently rejected by her place of origin, smalltown Griswold but can't really connect to city life either. Her relationship with dominant but fun-loving Jake comes to an end, because they both can't cope with the diagnosis of breast cancer. When she is still recovering from her operation, she discovers she is being stalked by a potential killer and flees from her own flat. She simply can't explain to the police officers investigating her flat on account of her neighbour's emergency call, that it was one of Jake's little games to attack her and (pretend to) rape her.

Rennie is consequently alienated from her own world. The epitome of her alienation in the novel is Rennie's memory of her senile grandmother in search of her own hands, because it thoroughly undermines the front of normality and respectability smalltown Griswold represents.

 

"After that my grandmother began to lose her sense of balance. She would climb up on chairs and stools to get things down, things that were too heavy for her, and then she would fall. She usually did this when my mother was out and my mother would return to find her sprawled on the floor, surrounded by broken china.

Then her memory began to go. She would wander around the house at night, opening and shutting doors, trying to find her way back to her room. Sometimes she wouldn't remember who she was or who we were. Once she frightened me badly by coming into the kitchen, in broad daylight, as I was making myself a peanut butter sandwich after school.

My hands, she said, I've left them somewhere and now I can't find them. She was holding her hands in the air, helplessly, as if she couldn't move them.

They're right there, I said. On the ends of your arms.

No, no, she said impatiently. Not those, those are no good any more. My other hands, the ones I had before, the ones I touch things with.

... All I could think of at that time was how to get away from Griswold. ... I didn't want to deteriorate. I used to pray that I wouldn't live long enough to get like my grandmother, and now I guess I won't."

(Bodily Harm, p. 57 f.).

 

The broken china is a symbol of the grandmother's deteriorationg mind. The even more monstrous image of losing her hands means she can't connect to things anymore: she can't touch them with her true hands. The horror of breaking, of losing part of one's own body and personality is always underlying Rennie's narrative as an important subtext. The feeling of monstrosity towards her own amputated body makes relationships difficult for her. She has lost her integrity as a human being, because her body no longer feels whole.

Rennie comes to the caribbean islands of St. Antoine to get away from her own life, ostensibly under the pretext of writing for a travel magazine. As a white, female Canadian, Rennie is an outsider to the social and political community of St. Antoine and Ste. Agathe. Though she is never accepted or taken seriously, Rennie is rapidly drawn into the political conflict, when several parties use her as a courier and a scapegoat.

From Rennie's perspective none of the parties seems to be absolutely right. The conflict remains vague though threatening to her. Rennie is a spectator, an outsider; through her eyes political murder and revolution look dangerous and remote at the same time. She is 'the other' in terms of her Canadian origin. For the islanders she belongs to the financial colonizers, although she doesn't represent a threat in herself. On the other hand, the events and people on the island are described from Rennie's perspective, which makes them 'the others'.  

As she is drawn deeper into the conflict, Rennie loses contact with her former life. The novel culminates in her arrest and imprisonment by the local police. Her indifference or rather her inability to make a decision towards the political state of affairs falls back on Rennie, when she is arrested. Shaken by the horrors of the local prison, Rennie is forced to come to terms with her ultimate fears and her own personality. The open end oscillates between the possibilities of survival and escape or death in prison and stays as ambivalent as the whole of the text.

 

Both Atwood and Morrison have created ambivalent and multilayered characters with only the faintest resonance of the Gothic heroine in flight from the Gothic villain. Nevertheless there is a   constant threat underlying both their narratives which makes them Gothic in aesthetic quality if not in theme. The postcolonial aspect is strong in both novels, as is the prevailing theme of otherness.

Gothic literature has changed in the twentieth century. Even those texts, which keep to Gothic themes and the typical personnel of vampires and monsters have been influenced by recent literary developments. But this influence is even more striking in more obviously postmodern texts which combine the aesthetics and the underlying threat of the Gothic with the characteristic features and themes of other genres, as does the Postcolonial Gothic.

 

Literature:

Toni Morrison: Beloved. London: Vintage, 1997.

Margaret Atwood: Bodily Harm. London: Vintage, 1996.