I am four weeks into the second semester and already enjoying it so much more than the first. This is mainly due to the new graduate course I am teaching, which focuses on monsters. At first, I was less than enthusiastic about the chosen theme (this probably had something to do with a colleague’s mention of King Kong) but as I thought it over, I became really excited. Greek mythology, the Bible, and European literature are full of monsters, which appear under a wide variety of guises, revealing both the complexities of the term “monster” and the deep fascination such creatures have exerted upon the imagination of writers throughout the centuries.
Originally from the Latin monstrum, meaning a sign or portent which, by disrupting the natural order, bears evidence of divine displeasure, the term “monster” refers first of all to a freak of nature. Abnormally large, lacking the usual number of limbs or organs, or compounded of elements from various creatures, the monster is physically repulsive and its appearance inspires horror. Associated with evil, the emphasis has gradually slid away from appearance towards behaviour, the monster’s horrifying physical attributes going underground, so to speak, so that the term has also come to designate a being either psychologically or morally hideous. Inevitably, it is when boundaries between categories become blurred and clear-cut definitions can no longer be applied that things are most interesting!
I have compiled a catalogue of literary monsters, which is by no means exhaustive, but which features the most famous and the most interesting to study (to my mind). The focus of my course is on English literature, but I cannot resist the temptation of slipping in a few other examples from French or German literature…
- The Kraken: Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 sonnet “The Kraken” takes up the Norse legend of the huge sea monster which was said to lurk off the Norwegian coast, preying on ships. It created a whirlpool so strong when it submerged that it could drag down even the largest ships to the bottom of the ocean.
- J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-55) is full of strange and horrible creatures, from Wargs to Shelob. None is more terrifying, however, than the Balrog, the winged demon, shrouded in fire and shadow, which resided in the deepest regions of the Mines of Moria and which fought Gandalf with flaming sword and whip on the bridge of Khazad-dûm.
- Technically, the Hound of the Baskervilles in Conan Doyle’s eponymous 1902 novel isn’t a monster (in fact, it’s a fraud). But that doesn’t make its appearance any less monstrous: huge and black as coal, with red-ringed eyes and phosphorescent fangs, and a roar that echoes across the moor, Dr Watson describes it as a creature more terrifying than anything nightmare or madness could have conjured up.
- Appropriated by Christian theology, the monster becomes charged with allegorical meaning. In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), before Christian can emerge from the Valley of Humiliation and proceed on his journey towards the Celestial City, he must defeat Apollyon (literally “the Destroyer” in Greek), lord of the City of Destruction and one of the Devil’s companions. Dragon-like in shape, Apollyon has bats’ wings and is covered in scales. He takes darts from his own body to throw at his opponents.
- Arguably the best-known of monsters in the Christian bestiary is the dragon, popularized thanks to the legend of Saint George. In Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 children’s book Dream Days, a chapter entitled “The Reluctant Dragon” takes an irreverent look at the patron saint of England and his evil reptilian foe, portraying Saint George and a completely benign dragon staging a mock battle in order to satisfy the townsfolk and introduce the dragon into society.
- Far more disturbing is when the monster quits the animal realm and takes on human form: my distaste for horror stories has so far made me stubbornly refuse to read Bram Stoker’s vampire story Dracula. But the novel, published in 1897, has become a classic of the genre, and no catalogue of monsters would be complete without Count Dracula.
- I am also resigned to reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Victor Frankenstein’s creature, composed from mismatched bones salvaged from slaughterhouses and human burial grounds, remains unnamed throughout the novel – an indication of the horror it inspires. But for the first time, we have a monster for which it is possible to feel pity as well as fear: for the creature did not ask to be brought to life, and it suffers cruelly from loneliness and exclusion.
- Though Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature have human attributes, they are still more monster than human. The protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), on the other hand, starts out as completely human. Experimenting in his laboratory, the apparently respectable Dr Jekyll invents a potion which enables him to transform into another being, free from the constraints of a moral conscience. Mr Hyde is hairy, repulsive, and savage, and Dr Jekyll is consumed with horror at the deeds he commits when he transforms. When he loses control over the transformations, Dr Jekyll realizes that only by taking his own life can he put an end to Mr Hyde’s.
- Oscar Wilde takes up this theme of the monstrous double in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). When Dorian Gray wishes for eternal youth and beauty, his wish is unexpectedly granted: his portrait will age in his stead, while he remains unblemished. Delighted by the freedom this arrangement gives him, Dorian throws himself into a life of debauchery. But as the years pass, the portrait grows uglier, and Dorian locks it away, afraid that it will betray to the world the truth about his life. One night, in a fit of rage against what he sees in it, Dorian takes a knife to the painting, not realizing that to do so, he is actually committing an act of violence against himself. With his death, the charm breaks: the portrait becomes perfect once more, while Dorian’s body finally reveals his depravity – it is so disfigured that his own servants do not recognise him when they find him.
- Though not everyone may agree with me, I would argue that the Marquise de Merteuil, in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), is Dorian Gray’s female counterpart. Held up as a model of virtue, Mme de Merteuil is in fact scheming, manipulative, cruel, and vengeful. Responsible for the unhappiness and/or deaths of most of the other protagonists, it is only when the dying Vicomte de Valmont, her former lover and confidante, makes public the letters she wrote to him, that Paris becomes aware of her perfidy. In a final twist of fate, the Marquise contracts smallpox and is left horribly scarred by the disease: thus, she is forever after condemned to wearing upon her ruined face the outward signs of her inner monstrosity.
- Mme de Merteuil opens up the discussion to include a new theme: that of the monstrous woman. One example which has haunted literature over the centuries is that of Lamia, depicted as half-woman, half-serpent. She appears first in Greek mythology, where, to punish her for having an affair with Zeus, Hera transforms her into a child-devouring monster. In 1819, Keats made her the subject of a narrative poem, in which Hermes shows his gratitude to her for a service rendered by returning her to human shape, so that she can marry the man she loves. But on the night of the wedding, her true identity is revealed, and she disappears, grief-stricken. I see many similarities between Lamia and the French legend of Mélusine, immortalised by the fourteenth-century writer Jean d’Arras. Interestingly, though Mélusine bears monstrous children, she herself is not considered a monster but a fairy.
- Also drawing on Greek mythology is the protagonist of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), the beautiful but terrible Helen. The product of yet another strange experiment, Helen is the child of a Welsh girl named Mary, and of the Greek goat-footed god, Pan. The focus of masculine desire wherever she goes, Helen is nevertheless surrounded by a dark aura: for what her lovers discover during their first and only night with her drives them to madness and suicide. And the truth, when finally revealed, defies logic, and science, and all Victorian values.
- Also blatantly in defiance of the Victorian model of the chaste, decorous, and submissive woman is Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Her addiction to alcohol, foul language, vicious temper, and unseemly carnal appetites make her an object of horror to her husband long before her actual descent into lunacy. Locked away in the attics of Thornfield Hall, she grows increasingly bestial, running about on all fours and snarling. In the horrible episode where she attacks her brother and tears at the flesh of his shoulder with her teeth, she bears a close resemblance both to a wild dog and to a vampire. And when she breaks into Jane’s room one night and rips her wedding veil in two, her matted hair, red eyes, and swollen, purple face turn her into a veritable demon.
- As deserving of pity as Frankenstein’s creature is Erik, the mysterious “ghost” who lives in the subterranean caverns of the Opéra Populaire, in The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux (1910). Lack of affection has turned him into a monster as surely as his deformed face, which is said to resemble the rotting flesh of a corpse. His ambiguous status as a monster is heightened by his link with art: for he has a voice of such beauty that when Christine, the chorus girl he loves, hears him singing, she thinks he is the Angel of Music her father told her about as a little girl. Angel of Music on the one hand, kidnapper, torturer, and potential murderer on the other, the Phantom represents the dual nature of the artist, torn between good and evil. He raises the issue of the artist’s status in society and forces us to consider the question: does genius excuse everything?
- The last example in this somewhat lengthy catalogue is that of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the anti-hero of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel, Perfume. Born odourless, Grenouille grows up being constantly overlooked as a consequence, or else rejected by those who become aware of his deficiency and are frightened by it. He becomes obsessed with finding a scent that will earn him the notice and the appreciation of his fellow men, and being gifted with an exceptional sense of smell, he trains as a perfumer in Grasse. When he realizes that the scent he is in search of is only to be found on the skin of young virgins, he starts murdering young girls in order to bottle their essence. His total lack of feeling or moral conscience, more so than his abnormality, make him a monster, but in his ultimately failed quest for an identity and a sense of purpose, he also incarnates the tragic figure of the artist.
Thus, from mythological beasts to unconventional women to murdering artists, via every gradation of physical and moral hideousness, literature gives multiple meanings and (dis)guises to the term monster. In the end, perhaps what emerges most clearly from all the ugliness and violence is how earnestly – how urgently – man has felt the need to justify his exclusion of any being which deviates from the accepted social norm.
© Florence Berlioz 2012