Every other Thursday I go to a ‘Literature Society’ where surprisingly, we discuss literature. Each week is a different topic and though I regularly attend, this week intrigued me the most because of the questions that were asked. This is just a report of my thoughts and the discussions shared.
The point of discussion this week was monsters and we explored them in three sections: the epic tradition, the rise of gothic monster and exploring the monstrous nature of humanity and the gothic monster – the monster as divided self.
For monsters in epic tradition, we focused on defining society and what it is to be human. Given a passage from The Odyssey when Odysseus and his crew were in the cave of Cyclops, the question of “what makes the monster scary?” was posed. The definition of a monster can vary, but I would argue that a common ground of all monsters is high egocentricity, their ruthlessness to achieve a goal and their lack of mercy; empathy can be forgotten or deliberately pushed aside. The Cyclops is a monster because of its “devoid[ness] of pity” and only being satiated after having had its meal of men. Though Odysseus and his men are seen as trespassers, the barbarous actions of tearing the men “limb from limb” can only characterise the Cyclops as destructive and careless towards others but himself. It deals with some of them, the trespassers, with a gruesome death which also serves his needs. One of the actions it takes is dashing the victims “to the ground like whelps”. The use of “whelps” is ironic as of course we can remember Hades’ pet, Cerberus, but the description undermines the power of the humans and if humanity were to be made animals, we would only be able to compare as a vulnerable puppy and are absolutely no match to a beast.This then raises the question of what makes Odysseus is a hero? ‘Whelps’ can also refer to the the loyalty and motherly traits of dogs. Homer could possibly be referring to Odysseus being a parent-figure to his men, though this could easily be deflected as when the men were ate, he did not respond emotionally like dogs do when they lose a pup. He is more a leader as he thinks of the survival of himself and the rest of the crew, knowing his position (where he has a lack of power) that he would “certainly die”. Instead of making a rash move of trying to kill the cyclops, he ensures that his ego is not to control him and instead tries to think rationally. Next we were introduced to ‘Paradise Lost’ where Satan encounters sin at the gates of Hell. There is intertextuality between the two texts as both reference to Cerberus and dogs, though contrastingly where puppies were used to portray weakness before in The Odyssey, dogs here are “Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d”. Since it features the traditional monsters such as a “Serpent” and comparisons to “Furies” and “Lapland Witches”, Lucifer becomes even more dynamic, daunting and the ultimate monster as he is willing to face the creatures designed to terrify and warn us.
Moving onto the rise of the gothic monsters and exploring the monstrous nature of humanity, Frankenstein and Dracula were the main texts highlighted. Frankenstein can link with Paradise lost as “Lucifer rebels against God though ‘a sense of injured merit'” and Victor Frankenstein also shares Satan’s God complex as his ego is hurt because of the lack of “reward” for his “benevolence”. His recognition of saving a “human being from destruction” proves that Frankenstein sees himself as superior to the whole race; he segregates himself from humanity as he can create things akin to us and therefore surpasses the intelligence and the capabilities that can limit us. Shelley tries to ensure that Frankenstein is not someone the reader would usually empathise with as his arrogance and boastfulness is something that we despise, especially since she plays with the popular interpretation that God is omni-benevolent which we cannot see through Frankenstein. The passage we studied in Dracula, on the other hand, focuses on the physical traits of a monster. I find that Vampires having a distinct resemblance to us are what makes them frightening. Often when thinking aesthetically of monsters we tend to manipulate their features into something inhumane to disassociate ourselves, but Vampires are super-human in looks, speed and strength. Their nature is meant to be seductive to lure their prey: Lucy’s voice reminds Dracula of the “tinkling of glass when struck”and this could refer to the nature of Sirens as their voices captured men. Personally, what makes Vampires more scary than Frankenstein’s Monster is that they can remind us of the vulnerability of humans and that anyone could be turned. Vampires “bore” our “shape” and remind us of people we once knew, so the familiarity and bond the other characters have with Lucy is taken away and turned into something far more darker than they could imagine.
Finally, we looked at The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – The Carew Murder Case. The most frightening aspect of the passage was Mr Hyde’s psychopathic nature. As I am studying psychopaths for a project, I was reminded of their lack of empathy. Whereas in Paradise Lost dogs were used as one of the icons for Hell, Mr. Hyde lashes out with “ape-like fury” towards an old man, “clubb[ing] him to the earth”. Ironically, throughout the paragraph he is commonly associated with the colour white which we regularly associate with purity. This was to give us a false sense of security. Though we may hear news and stories of horrific events in the current world, subconsciously we may dismiss it as we are not the ones to experience those events ourselves. Mr. Hyde maybe one of the most alarming monsters of all as unlike Vampires or Cyclops, he is the closest representation (of all the characters we studied in the session) to humans we have today. Naturally we doubt whether someone can be trusted, though we are more inclined to trust those who look like us than those who appear in our nightmares.
I am still amazed that monsters have been a common ground for every culture for thousands of years, yet more famous and recent monsters have evolved to share more human traits.