"The soul has bandaged moments": reading the African American gothic in Wright's "big boy leaves home," Morrison's beloved, and Gomez's Gilda.
The Soul has Bandaged moments-When too appalled to stir-She feels some ghastly Fright come up And stop to look at her-- --Emily Dickinson, #512
Alluding to Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe in his introduction to Native Son, Richard Wright invokes the American gothic tradition. Wright's "How 'Bigger' Was Born" concludes with the chilling announcement, "And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him." Native Son, with its invocation to James, Hawthorne, and Poe; its searing critique of the American Dream come-a-cropper; and the arrival of Bigger Thomas--like some rough beast out of Yeats's "Second Coming"--was an unprecedented literary and cultural event. Conjuring Poe is an act of repetition and revision, Wright seems to know, that acknowledges the literary significance of 19th-century gothic horror in American culture and its immeasurably more terrifying modern reality in the ordinary lives of contemporary Americans. Wright's use of the phrase "invent horror" ironically conveys the differences between 19th-century literary imagination and 20th-century social reality by implying that modern institutions exert far greater influence in socially constructing (or inventing) the horror of racism and economic determinism. The terror of the modern moment allowed Wright, as Joseph Bodziock puts it, "to bore into the white American psyche and find the anxieties and terrors that dwelled there. The American gothic replaced the social struggle of the European gothic with a Manichean struggle between the moral forces of personal community order and the howling wilderness of chaos and moral depravity" (33).
The 1938 publication of Wright's short story "Big Boy Leaves Home" and, later, Native Son in 1940, are benchmarks in the evolution of the African American gothic tradition that extends back to early 19th-century slave narratives and forward to Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Jewelle Gomez's The Gilda Stories (1991). (1) These writers and texts represent a significant Africanist presence--as producers of, and not simply as subjects in, the prevailing modes of gothic and grotesque narrative discourse in American literature and culture, a fact that has not been sufficiently explored. (2) "Big Boy Leaves Home" was the lead story in the collection Uncle Tom's Children. Later, when the collection was revised and reprinted in 1940, Wright added his polemical essay "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," to preface the five stories comprising the volume. In each edition, "Big Boy Leaves Home" is pivotal in its narratological relation to both Wright's introductory essay and to the four other stories. Wright's story is a metonym for the cultural critique and narrative strategies that African American writers throughout the second half of the twentieth century develop and deploy through gothic discourse.
"Big Boy" is divided into five concise sections that begin with the combative but harmless verbal game of put-downs, or "signifying," that Buck, Bobo, Lester, and Big Boy play; it terminates with Big Boy hidden in a secret compartment beneath the driver's seat of a truck speeding northward. The primary sites of gothic intervention occur in sections two and four. The central events in section two analogize the "mirror stage," or gaze, in Jacques Lacan's construction of ego development (Clark 450). In Lacan's radical revision of Freud's early childhood stages of psychosexual development, the mirror stage marks the crucial period when the individual's nascent sense of self is "mirrored" or oriented in the intimidating presence of another who, in turn, elicits aggressive reactions of self-preservation in the self. Consequently, this period is one of intense anxiety in which the individual develops against the potentially dominating influence, or gaze, of powerful "others." Lacan's gaze, and the equally important forms of the gaze expressed in the passages from Nietzsche and Dickinson quoted above, form a central idea and motif in African American gothic literature.
"Big Boy Leaves Home" deploys the gaze to perform transgressive acts that dramatically critique the "ethics of living Jim Crow" and the gothic horror of resisting those "ethics." In section two, the "swimming hole" reserved for whites only demarcates a separate and unequal racial division and can be breached only by defiant movements through a construction of space that is physical, emotive, and ideational. To reach any of the three kinds of space, the boys must climb "over a barbed-wire fence and enter a stretch of thick woods" (23) delimited by the intimating sign "NO TRESPASSIN" (25). Once there, the swimming hole evokes both fear and desire in the teenagers, emotions that the "gothic," in Judith Halberstam's definition, produces in the reader. Emotionality forms a crucial part of a "technology of subjectivity," that "produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy, and the pure can be known. ... The production of fear in a literary text (as opposed to a cinematic text) emanates from a vertiginous excess of meaning.... Within Gothic novels ... multiple interpretations are embedded in the text and part of the experience of horror comes from the realization that meaning itself runs riot" (Halberstam 2, italics added).
Fear and desire are yoked together in the heated exchange between the boys in "Big Boy Leaves Home" when they reach the water and in their consciousness of what the "idea" of trespassing means:</p> <pre>
They came to the swimming hole. "Ah ain goin in," said Bobo.
"Done got scared?" asked Big Boy. "Naw, Ah ain scared.... "
"How come yuh ain goin in?" "Yuh know ol man Harvey don erllow
no niggers t swim in this hole." "N jus las year he took a shot at Bob fer swimmin in here," said Lester. ... "See that sign over yonder?" "Yeah." "Whut it say?" "NO TRESPASSIN," read Lester. "Know whut tha mean?" "Means ain no dogs n niggers erllowed," said Buck. </pre> <p>Having already performed physical and emotive transgressive acts, the friends commit the one that is irrevocable by defiantly jumping into the water. This moment, in which the boys read race in the "NO TRESPASSIN" sign, is full of significations, as Buck clearly implies in the answer he constructs: "no dogs n niggers erllowed" expresses their full awareness and defiance of the convoluted logic in the "ethics of living Jim Crow."
However, the moment when their collective consciousness and the text become "gothic," in Halberstam's sense--when it "emanates from a vertiginous excess of meaning"--occurs later when, virtually naked, the boys are shocked by the presence of a "white woman, poised on the edge of the opposite embankment" (29). Big Boy's terrified announcement that " 'It's a woman! ... A white woman!'" captures the full, vertiginous excess of meaning and locates this moment within a racialized gothic discourse. Sematically, Big Boy's horrified response opens a space between the words "woman" and "white," then collapses it, with emphasis, into a single terrifying idea, "white woman," which, semiotically, expresses a vertiginous proliferation of irrevocable meanings that each boy immediately understands: their lives are in mortal danger, and the "crime" they have committed is punishable in unspeakable ways-beatings, public humiliation, adjudicated fines and/or imprisonment, and greater still, "their" crime summons the specter of family suffering, loss of property, and death. Lynching, itself a semiotic sign of vertiginous excess, given its myriad forms--including whipping, shooting, castration, immolation, drowning, and hanging--is a violent abridgement of "due process" under the Constitution. (3) The pyrotechnic combination of meanings that this scene evokes is also located in the reader, who knows what the characters know and, consequently, participates in the production of gothic meaning. Transfixed, locked in each other's gaze, in this moment "multiple interpretations" abound and both characters and readers are "embedded in the text and part of the experience of horror comes from the realization that meaning itself runs riot" (Halberstam 2).
Each character in this scene is almost paralyzed with fear, and the only movement possible is akin to the slow-motion effect of walking underwater. The white woman who "stands twenty-five feet away" and has "her hand over her mouth" (30) also stands between the teenagers and their clothes. In a sense, she is paralyzed by a fearful conjunction of historically codified racial myths--the inviolate white female and the bestial black male, on the one hand, and the Jim Crow laws and customs that both prescribe and proscribe her responses to black men, on the other; she is cast into the historically-determined role of victim/ victimizer. Blackness and whiteness are constructed within Wright's text as transhistorical or absolute ideological categories, which gothic discourse, as Teresa A. Goddu argues, attempts to "disrupt" and deconstruct (4-5). Thus, both Bertha, already abstracted as "white woman," and the "black boys" are powerless to act outside of the separate or conflated roles of victim/victimizer. Each is locked, in Frederic Jameson's phrase, in "the prison-house of language" and behavior inscribed in American racial ideology and the history of lynching.
When Big Boy takes cautious steps toward the white woman to get his clothes, Bertha yells at him to "go away!" but her own movements are limited to a few backward steps, "her eyes wide, her hand over her mouth" (30) into the tree "where [the boys'] clothes lay in a heap" (30). For the terrified white woman, this is Dickinson's "bandaged moment,"</p> <pre> When too appalled to stir-She feels some ghastly Fright come up and stop to look at her--. </pre> <p>For her, the "ghastly Fright" that materializes is semiotic: its sign is the sudden appearance of four naked, young black men and its gothic signification is fear and desire, complex emotional responses that keep Bertha from advancing or fully retreating. The trope here of the paralyzing gaze is reversible because while Big Boy takes cautious, slow-motion steps toward his clothes, so long as the "ghastly Fright" stands there looking at him, he, too, is "too appalled to stir"--to make the movement that would accomplish his aim. Only the "CRACK" of Jim Harvey's rifle shatters this frozen moment, breaking the mutual gaze in which the characters are locked, and returning them to real time.
This moment of gothic cathexis has its corollary in "Book One: Fear" of Wright's Native Son as Bigger Thomas stealthily tries to deliver Mary Dalton, who has passed out from drugs and alcohol to her bedroom without being discovered. The mansion of the rich, philanthropic Dalton family becomes the archetypical haunted house where, in Stephen King's commentary on horror fiction, "universal forces collide" (267). The catalytic, binary forces in this scene from Native Son are fear and desire, whiteness and blackness, privilege and poverty. Each pair of binaries is embodied in the complex exchange of emotions between Bigger and Mary. For Bigger, "something urged him to leave at once, but he leaned over her, excited, looking at her face in the dim light, not wanting to take his hands from her breasts" (73). This scene, however, reaches the zenith of gothic possibility when Mary's blind mother appears in the doorway to Mary's bedroom, triangulating the action and accentuating the tension in the last two binaries: whiteness and blackness, privilege and poverty. When Bigger sees Mrs. Dalton, his terror follows from a vertiginous excess of reasons to fear her and to dread his situation, trapped as he is between two terrifying symbols of whiteness and femininity. Mrs. Dalton's sudden appearance freezes him with terror, and she becomes literally a "ghastly Fright" that locks him in her blind gaze. Through the irony in the text, Wright signifies on several interdependent gothic tropes: the gaze, paralysis, and supernatural or ghostly terror: Bigger "turned and a hysterical terror seized him, as though he were falling from a great height in a dream. A white blur was standing by the door, silent, ghostlike. It filled his eyes and gripped his body. It was Mrs. Dalton. He wanted to knock her out of his way and bolt from the room" (85, italics added).
Despite Bigger's sense of "falling from a great height" and his desire to "knock [Mrs. Dalton] out of his way and bolt from the room," he stands by Mary's bed--"too appalled to stir"--with his hand over her mouth, transfixed by the gaze of the "white blur" that he fears will discover him. That Mrs. Dalton is blind only enhances and ironizes the gothic gaze by extending it to Bigger's other senses as well primarily audition and tactility, each of which has the capacity to produce paralysis: "He knew that Mrs. Dalton could not see him; but he knew that if Mary spoke she would come to the side of the bed and discover him, touch him" (85, italics added). As in "Big Boy Leaves Home," race and gender are gothicized. They elicit fear and desire and a "vertiginous excess of meaning" where physical space and psychic space collide, transgressing culturally constructed "ideas" of what is permissible-traditional, normal and/or natural--and, therefore, not monstrous. In conventional gothic discourses, which African American literary texts repeat and revise, "monstrosity," by definition, is a "deviation from the natural order; unnatural" and "abnormally formed; malformed" (OED 1351). This pivotal scene in Native Son depends on a form of doubling (of characters) and repetition (of plots and situations) to produce the gothic effects that inform Wright's social critique. What occurs in the two narrative spaces--Mary's bed and her bedroom doorway--confirms the semiotic logic that links blackness with monstrosity in the cultural mythology and racial politics that the novel explores. Conversely, Bigger fears discovery by a second instance of physical contact with Mrs. Dalton that has the power, indirectly, to inflict pain and suffering on him. Bigger could lose his job and the income his family desperately looks forward to; be arrested for a vertiginous array of false charges stemming from his compromised position (a poor, young black man hired to chauffeur found in his wealthy employer's daughter's bedroom); and, at the very least, be made to feel shame and a further erosion of his self-esteem.
And yet, in these crucial moments of gothic intervention for both Bigger and Big Boy, in their respective texts, there are what culture critic bell hooks calls "spaces of agency" that open up, "wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back ... naming what we see" (116). Bigger grasps clumsily for such agency through his transparent scheme to throw the blame for Mary's disappearance onto the novel's Communists and through his convoluted logic, in the final scene, that locates both self-vindication and affirmation in the violent deaths of Mary and Bessie Mears. In contrast, the spaces for agency that materialize for Big Boy in sections four and five employ a "critical gaze" that is not only rebellious, but also" 'looks' to document, one that is oppositional" (hooks 116, italics added). As Trudier Harris notes, "from Big Boy's limited perspective, we witness the end of the chase as it culminates near his hiding place in a kiln on the hill where Bobo is burned" (106), lynched by the mob before he can safely reach Big Boy. Although a "limited perspective," the act of seeing is fully invested in agency through the documentary evidence of lynching, of human rights violations, that Big Boy carries with him on his exodus north. Like the gothic interventions in Beloved, the "festival of violence" (Tolnay and Beck x-xi) that Big Boy witnesses is "not a story to pass on" (Morrison 274), but nevertheless must be a story that Wright tells.
"Imagine the terror," bell hooks says, remembering childhood lessons learned about black female spectatorship, "felt by the child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one's gaze can be dangerous. The child who has learned so well to look the other way when necessary. ... Afraid to look, but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking" (115, italics added). hooks's assertion of an "oppositional gaze" that empowers the one being objectified and subjugated--who, in southern vernacular, engages in "reckless eyeballing"--revises the Lacanian construction of the "mirror gaze" discussed above. The power that results from daring to look, as Big Boy does in Wright's story, is a vehicle for social change and critique that comported well with Wright's agenda of communist propaganda--witnessing, public testimonials (on street corner soapboxes and before congressional committees), newspaper editorials, "speaking the unspeakable," in Morrison's words:</p> <pre> "There came a roar. Tha mus be Bobo; tha mus be Bobo.... In spite of his fear, Big Boy looked" (54) </pre> <p>and,</p> <pre> "He stared hard trying to find Bobo. His eyes played over a long dark spot near the fire. Fanned by wind, flames leaped higher. He jumped. That dark spot had moved. Lawd, thas Bobo; thas Bobo .... " (56) </pre> <p>and finally,</p> <pre> The flames leaped tall as the trees. The scream came again. Big Boy trembled
and looked. The mob was running down the slopes, leaving the fire clear. Then he saw a writhing white mass cradled in yellow flame, and heard screams, one on top of the other, each shriller and shorter than the last. The mob was quiet now, standing still,
looking up the slopes at the writhing white mass gradually growing black, growing black in a cradle of yellow flame." (57) </pre> <p>Beyond doubling and repetition and the gaze, both Book One of Native Son and "Big Boy Leaves Home" play on an important vampire motif through the ways that the central scenes in these texts construct inviolable spaces, thresholds that cannot be crossed--literally the Dalton mansion (Bigger stays in the chauffeur's quarters over the garage) and Mary Dalton's bedroom--and ideological spaces, such as the racial mythologies that delimit the physical space between Big Boy and Bertha. These thresholds are inviolable, psychically or literally marked "NO TRESPASSIN"; the monstrous "other" cannot enter uninvited. What is impermissible in these texts is codified in transhistorical, ideological "norms" concerning race and sexuality. To violate or transgress them as do Wright's characters, uninvited by patriarchal, that is, by either white male privilege or white female authority, is a monstrous act precisely because it destabilizes the myth of a naturally hegemonic social order.
Trespassing prohibited literal or ideological space is a central gothic motif within African American literature that signifies on vampirism--both repeating and revising it--particularly gothic literary conventions, cultural constructions initiated with Bram Stoker's publication of Dracula in 1897. However, in contrast to Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home" and Native Son, Toni Morrison's Beloved appropriates Dracula to gothicize the horrors of slavery and, more importantly, to defamiliarize the assumptions of 18th-and 19th-century rationalist discourse that elided blackness from essentialist arguments about what it means to be--and not be--fully human. In "Literary Theory and the Black Tradition," Henry Louis Gates, Jr., expresses the difference that race made in the "Age of Reason":</p> <pre> ... the creation of formal literature
could be no mean matter in the life of the slave, since the sheer literacy of writing was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen, object from subject. Reading, and especially writing, in the life of the slave represented a process
larger than even 'mere' physical manumission, since mastery of the arts and letters was Enlightenment Europe's sign of that solid line of division between human being and thing. (24-25) </pre> <p>Three pivotal, polemical moments in Beloved perform the "reading" about which Gates is generalizing between human and animal, object and subject as inviolable ideological boundaries, then trespass against them through challenges that disrupt their fixed, transhistorical status: schoolteacher's "lessons" to his nephews about the irreducible differences between Sethe's, and all black people's, animal and human "characteristics" (193); and Paul D's insistence that Sethe's killing her own baby is a savage act that obviates reason, the irreducible 18th-century "sign" of human superiority: "'You got two feet, Sethe, not four'" (165).
But the narrative space that most crosses the "threshold" between animal and human and disrupts these inviolable ontological categories also transforms Sethe into a creature with wings, claws, and a "beaked face" that "flew" to the barn, "snatching up her children like a hawk" (157), when she sees schoolteacher coming to take her and her children back to Sweet Home and to slavery. Running to the woodshed with her children--"all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful"--Sethe enters a temporary "safe place" where she can hide and be alone long enough to punch a hole "through the veil" big enough to "drag" her children "out, away, over there where no one could hurt them" (163). The woodshed is a liminal "safe place" that is violated by the uninvited presence of schoolteacher and the other white men who enter it. Seeing the two boys, Bugler and Howard, bleeding, "lying opened-eyed in sawdust," and the baby at Sethe's breast--whose blood pumps "like oil in her hands" and whose face has to be held "so her head would stay on" (251)--schoolteacher "beat his hat against his thigh and spit" to punctuate his disgust. The "lesson" that this wasteful scene teaches, schoolteacher stresses, when you "overbeat" an "animal"--"beyond the point of education" (148)--is that "you just can't mishandle creatures and expect success" (150). Sethe's humanity is challenged, contested through the authorial narrative voice, and the characters themselves, especially schoolteacher and Paul D, who compare her to a predatory bird, a horse, and hounds.
Sethe herself hears the "wings"--"little hummingbirds [that] stuck their needle beaks right through her head-cloth into her hair and beat their wings" (163)--that destabilize and blur the boundary between animal and human, and make her appear a monstrous mother. This, then, is a decidedly gothic moment that, as Theresa A. Goddu notes about the peculiarly American form of this genre, is "obsessed with transgressing boundaries" (5). Sethe's insistence, " 'I took and put my babies where they'd be safe' " (164), not only defies most definitions of "reason," but the murder of her own child collapses the either/or binary between animal and human into the both/and of monstrous motherhood. This destabilizing act at the very least compels both the characters in the novel and Morrison's readers to review and perhaps to revise normative ideas of what it means to be animal, human, white, black mother, and/or monster. The novel's ability to conjure the unspeakable in these textual places depends, in part, on vampire mythology, as it does when the authorial narrator describes the monstrous nature of the Ku Klux Klan: "Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will" (66). The historical figure of Vlad Tepes, on whom Bram Stoker based his novel, was a 15th-century Romanian prince whose name, like his father's, Vlad Dracul, meant both "devil" and dragon. Both the family crest and coins minted by the father during his lifetime bore the sign of the Dragon. "Dracula" literally means "son of the dragon" or "son of the devil" (McNally and Florescu 22). Morrison's monstrous metaphor, therefore, alludes to Stoker's text and to vampire mythology generally through the double reference to blood consumption and to Dracula. (4)
Halberstam persuasively argues that the vampire Dracula is a "technology of monstrosity" and that Stoker's Dracula is a "machine text" that "generates particular subjectivities," forms of otherness that his body and the text distill, including race, sexuality, gender, and class. Dracula is the essence of otherness, as Halberstam suggests, "a monster and man, feminine and powerful, parasitical and wealthy; he is repulsive and fascinating, he exerts the consummate gaze but is scrutinized in all things, he lives forever but can be killed. Dracula is indeed not simply a monster but a technology of monstrosity" (88). The technology, or gothic economy, that Dracula embodies is both figurative and fixed discursively within the 1890's Victorian "hegemonic ideal of bourgeois" womanhood, femininity, and class that Stoker's novel both challenges and reaffirms. In Beloved, Sethe is a technology of monstrosity "against whom," as Halberstam asserts of Dracula, "the normal and the lawful, the marriageable and the heterosexual can be known and quantified" (89). By murdering her own child and embracing the pariah-status that ensues, Sethe defines by negation the same Victorian hegemonic ideals that Dracula destabilizes.
Like Linda Brent in Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), paradoxically subject to but not protected by the codes governing the "cult of true womanhood" in the nineteenth century, Sethe exalts in the appropriation of powers and privileges codified in masculinity and whiteness. Like Sethe, Linda Brent reasons that killing her children is preferable to surrendering them to slavery: "I thought to myself that, God being my helper, they should never pass into [my master's] hands. It seemed to me I would rather see them killed than have them given up to his power" (80). And later, Brent muses, "As I held [my daughter] in my arms, I thought how well it would be for her if she never waked up; and I uttered my thought aloud" (87). Both Linda Brent and Sethe can speak, and in Sethe's instance do speak, the unspeakable because each, like Dracula, occupies a liminal space that challenges "normalcy," "lawfulness," and "marriageability." And Dracula, Sethe, and Linda Brent all embrace the power at the margins unapologetically, defiantly. Brent apostrophizes:</p> <pre> But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood,
who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws ... but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery.
(54) </pre> <p>Sethe, however, is made more monstrous than Linda Brent by the difference between thinking and doing the unspeakable, and by the intoxicating freedom of her act, which transforms, shape shifts, her into something "new," as Paul D says, that lies outside all the familiar social constructions of normal, human, mother, woman, lawful, blackness, and whiteness:</p> <pre> This here Sethe was new.... This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant
could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly [Paul D] saw what Stamp Paid wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him. (164) </pre> <p>What Sethe "claims" is her whole, expansive self and all that her body produces: "I was that wide" (162). The repeated pronouns "I," "me," "my," and "we," stress the new "something" Sethe has become, the self-birth her monstrous act conceives:</p> <pre> I did it. I got us all out. Without Halle
too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided. And it came off right, like it was supposed to. We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got them out and it wasn't no accident. I did that. I had help, of course, lots of that, but still it was me doing it; me saying "Go on," and "Now." Me having to look out. Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. (162, italics added) </pre> <p>As the proliferation of personal pronouns suggests, the claims Sethe makes about her own body and agency are all-consuming. And it is this wideness, this self-consumption--" 'Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't no love at all' " (164), Sethe says--that terrifies Paul D and transforms Sethe into a monstrous "new" thing. Beloved is, in fact, a veritable gothic grammar comprised of nouns and verbs conjugated in ways that both repeat and revise traditional gothic ideas, such as "haunting" and "possession" of the spirit; the enslaved, chattel body; and the "body" of the text.
This African American gothic grammar also extends to slavery and blackness the play on "consumption and production" that Halberstam argues forms a capitalist "gothic economy" in Dracula. Beloved typifies such black revision. Gothic novels and monsters are 19th- and 20th-century tropes for class struggle, particularly the rise of and assault on middle-class sexual conventions, desires, and fears. As Halberstam notes,</p> <pre> gothic novels, in fact, thematize the monstrous aspects of both production and consumption--[Mary Shelley's] Frankenstein is, after all, an allegory about a production that refuses to submit
to its author and Dracula is a novel about an arch-consumer, the vampire, who feeds upon middle-class women and then turns them into vampires by forcing them to feed upon him. (12) </pre> <p>Beyond his blood lust, Dracula is a symbol of a dying, that is, bankrupt, aristocracy, and in Stoker's novel he hoards gold, refusing to allow it to circulate freely back into society where his wealth would "transfuse" a burgeoning middle-class economy. Instead, Dracula "consumes" the middle class, becoming, as Halberstam notes, "an image of monstrous anticapitalism, one distinctly associated with vampirism. Money, as the novel suggests, should be used and circulated and vampirism somehow interferes with the natural ebb and flow of currency just as it literally intervenes in the ebbing and flowing of blood" (102).
The institution of slavery in the nineteenth century is a powerful, multileveled play on consumption and production with its own unique kind of "gothic economy," which Beloved revises through Sethe's efforts to "consume" the "product" of slavery, her own children, that law and custom mandate as chattel property. Thinking of killing her own children, Linda Brent notes: "they must 'follow the condition [i.e., the enslavement] of the mother'" (Incidents 42). Chattel slavery is a monstrous gothic economy precisely because, de jure, it made the slave-owner a machine, a producer of property, profits, and pleasure bound by no other strictures than supply and demand and lust. The unassailable right to "consume" his human property and profits in almost any manner imaginable is what differentiates masters from slaves. Sethe's desperate efforts to kill her children challenge both the legal and linguistic authority implicit in what are, in other contexts, reversible terms (producers and consumers) and human arrangements (freeborn and enslaved). Sethe's act, therefore, is not only a monstrous theft of her own body and her children's, but it is made more monstrous by the equally great offense of claiming language--the proliferation of first-person pronouns aforementioned and the radical re-definition of "safe" and "safe place" (163, 164)--that undermine the proposition that "definitions belonged to the definers--not the defined" (190).
Through these challenges to legal and linguistic authority, Sethe writes herself into a text in which literacy is claimed by everyone white, including Amy Denver, the fugitive white girl fleeing the horrors of indentured servitude who nonetheless can read and translate the violence lacerated on Sethe's back as a chokecherry tree in "full bloom" (79). Amy's "reading" is an irreducible interpretation that cannot be erased or altered, a metaphor as dead as the cable-thick, insensate welts of skin on Sethe's back. Paul D touches them, sorrowfully responding, "'Aw, Lord, girl'" (17). Literally, neither Paul D nor Sethe can read or write and cannot use the power of literacy to dislodge the authority of Amy Denver's chokecherry tree imagery. Amy's irrepressible, the-glass-is-half-full optimism, is Emersonian in its rejection of absolute evil and unshakable belief in a principle of correspondence. (5) Whether Sethe accepts the idea that everything in nature mirrors itself and embodies its own opposite--beauty in ugliness, good in evil, for example--she has no power to change what is written. She can only right the wrongs done to her by enlarging the space where the culturally constructed "truth" about what it means to be a black female slave mother can accommodate other possibilities that both juxtapose and oppose the definitions of the "definers" without necessarily eradicating them.
In Beloved, black characters struggle against being subjects, commodified by custom, law, and language within a (con)text controlled by white others, particularly schoolteacher and Amy Denver, who, despite vastly different motivations, are "definers" whose "definitions" appropriate black voices. The "measuring string," chalk, and pages with columns for differentiating Sethe's animal and human "characteristics" (190-92) are the reading and writing instruments that schoolteacher particularly, and the institution of slavery generally, uses. These tools are corollaries of the "writing machines"--pencil, primitive dictaphone, journals, and letters--used by Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, and Lucy Westenra to write Dracula into a text in which he has no first-person voice (Halberstam 90-91). Like Sethe, who is both "penned and penned in" (6) by schoolteacher's writing and Amy Denver's "reading," Dracula is trapped, safely contained, within the authorial agency of the principle narrators. The words, by and large, used to describe him are not his words, and, like Sethe, he is powerless to change them, despite the terror he embodies.
Beloved, however, unlike Dracula, is gothic precisely because it succeeds in speaking the unspeakable about the haunting effects of slavery on the human psyche and the desperate attempts that dehumanized persons make, as Morrison puts it, to survive "whole" in a world "where we are all of us, in some measure, victims of something" (Bakerman 40). Monstrosity is the unspeakable--institutional slavery, inhuman bondage in manifest forms against people on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, class--but it is also, in African American literature, the response that is spoken, that "claims" a retaliatory, self-affirming monstrous difference, as Sethe does and as Bigger Thomas does at the conclusion of Native Son. Embracing both the accidental killing of Mary Dalton and the brutal murder of his girlfriend Bessie Mears, Bigger says to his horrified attorney, Max: "Maybe it ain't fair to kill, and I reckon I really didn't want to kill. But when I think of why all the killing was, I begin to feel what I wanted, what I am.... I didn't want to kill! ... But what I killed for, I am! ... What I killed for must've been good!" (428-29). Bigger repeats this last statement twice, as if first to state a newly comprehended fact and then to affirm it, emphatically. All that Max can to do in response to Bigger's declaration of monstrosity is grope "for his hat like a blind man"; he cannot comprehend the black man he is seeing for the last time. At this moment in the text Max is like Paul D, confronted, incredulously, with Sethe's monstrous shapeshifting into something "new"--and terrified of it.
As Jewelle Gomez states about her own vampire novel The Gilda Stories, what African American gothic texts frequently do is "remake mythology" ("Recasting" 86); that is, they revise monstrosity. Writing the African American gothic, then, allows monstrosity to do exactly what Dracula cannot do, given the modes of textual, authorial control that Brain Stoker imposes on the narrative: dominate, take over the page. "Recasting the mythology" of the vampire, Gomez writes, into a black, lesbian, fugitive slave politicizes a nexus of issues, including sexuality and race, and pushes the "boundaries outward for women, lesbians, and writers" (85). Like Sethe, Gomez's lesbian vampire Gilda is identified with issues of "power, isolation, recreating family, fulfilling desire, maintaining honor, [and] sharing" (86)--all central themes in Gomez's novel. The authority that Sethe appropriates by her own vampire acts of consumption--"I was that wide"--subsumes each of these central elements as well. Like Gilda, who has survived slavery, attempted rape, and the death of two blood mothers--her biological mother and an older vampire also named Gilda, who "makes" her through the ritual "sharing of the blood"--Sethe is empowered by the desire to reconstitute the family that slavery takes from her. Doing so is a matter of honor, of pride, as the tone of her explanations to Paul D (162, 164) and her defense to Denver and Beloved make clear: "The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing--the part of her that was clean" (251). As all vampire texts do, Sethe's defense involves a play on blood, on multiple kinds of sharing, including passing on her story to her daughters, Denver and Beloved.
In Beloved, there is a particular kind of trope or play on blood involving sharing and theft (a form of consumption) figured in the trinity formed by baby's blood, money, and mother's milk. The first two elements signify on Dracula and vampire mythology through their associations with capitalist forms of consumption and the "gothic economy" that Halberstam explores. The institution of slavery's economic dependence on human commodification and its unimpeachable hegemony over black bodies--the savage forms of punishment and control codified by law and custom--are corollaries to Halberstam's commentary on Victorian fears about social class and capital. This blood play in Morrison's novel lays particular stress on the theft of women's bodies and the loss of reproductive authority, which aborts a woman's choice to nurture, to share what slavery's commodification of the feminine steals: a mother's milk and the natural right it implies to protect the lives one creates." 'And they took my milk'" (17), Sethe repeats twice to Paul D to emphasize that the act of being held down while one of "the two boys with mossy teeth," sucks her breast and their "book-reading teacher" watches, "writing it up" is as humiliating as, if not worse than, the "cowhide" that the nephews use to beat her (70).
Monstrosity, then, is measured by the extent to which an act deviates from social constructions of what is "natural," "normal": the greater the distance, the more monstrous. This moment that erupts from Sethe's "rememory" of Sweet Home grossly perverts and violently disrupts the natural bond between mother and child and is the catalytic experience, for the black community, that transforms Sethe into a monstrous mother. Having been robbed of her mother's milk Sethe believes that she has only desperate expressions of love to offer. Accordingly, the gothic epicenter of the novel is the earlier scene in the barn at Sweet Home where the first monstrous theft of mother's milk occurs: it makes the later scene in the woodshed of the house on Bluestone Road both possible and necessary, and it transforms Sethe into a creature with wings, an animal with "four feet."
Monstrosity, Morrison's gothic novel argues, can be qualitatively differentiated by the complexly layered cultural circumstances involving ideology and power, race and sexuality, definitions and definers, rather than the transhistorical abstractions that prejudice and privilege engender. African American literature situated within gothic discourse opens up discursive spaces in which revisions of identity are possible and geographies of the imagination can be remapped. Within these narratives, the "gothic" becomes a recuperative, revisionary idea that makes monstrosity not only a fixed, paralyzing moment of horror, but also a catalytic space where agency and progress, hope and being are possible--as they are for Big Boy, and Gilda, and Sethe and Paul D in the closing pages of their respective texts. Finally, for each of them, "The Soul," as the third stanza of the poem that begins this essay proclaims, also has</p> <pre> moments of Escape-- When bursting all the doors--
She dances like a Bomb, abroad, And swings upon the Hours (7) </pre> <p>Big Boy speeding North carrying the ocular, documentary evidence of unspeakable human rights violations; Gilda walking south toward the companions with whom she will build a brave new world; and Sethe and Paul D, who, like Big Boy and Gilda, "need some kind of tomorrow," and have found their "best thing" in themselves and each other: all transformed by the terror and the beauty of gothic possibility into Bombs dancing abroad.
Bodziock, Joseph. "Richard Wright and Afro-American Gothic." Richard Wright: Myths and Realities. Ed. C. James Trotman. New York: Garland, 1988. 27-42.
Bakerman, Jane. "The Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison." Taylor-Guthrie 30-42.
Clark, Michael P. "Jacques Lacan." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 450-54.
Crow, Charles L., ed. American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." American Literature 1820-1865. Vol. B. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 2003. 1106-34.
Davis, Christina. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." Taylor-Guthrie 223-33.
Dickinson, Emily. "The Soul has bandaged Moments--." The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. 250.
Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.
Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Gomez, Jewelle. The Gilda Stories. New York: Firebrand, 1991.
--. "Recasting the Mythology: Writing Vampire Fiction." Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. Ed. Veronica Hollinger. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997. 85-92.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke UP 1995.
Harris, Trudier. Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End P, 1992.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
King, Stephen. "Horror Fiction." Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley, 1981. 241-358.
McNally, Raymond T., and Radu Florescu. In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Parker, Betty Jean. "Complexity: Toni Morrison's Women." Taylor-Guthrie 60-66.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. New York: Norton, 1997.
Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.
Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
Winter, Karl J. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.
Wright, Richard. "Big Boy Leaves Home." Uncle Tom's Children. 1938. New York: HarperPerennial 1993. 17-61.
--. Native Son. 1940. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998.
(1.) See especially Winter's persuasive study of cross cultural forms of feminine resistance and authorial agency between 19th-century British gothic writing and the African American slave narrative tradition.
(2.) For example, although the introduction to a recent collection of American literature, American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916 (1999), announces that "in assembling this volume of readings, the intention has been to show the breadth of the gothic tradition in the nineteenth century" (2), the editor omits altogether the African American slave narrative tradition. Consequently, he elides slave narratives' seminal relation to the "breath" of gothic discourse. Still more oddly, in an introduction that defines the American gothic as "a literature of opposition" in which "taboos [concerning race, gender, sexuality, and class] are often broken, forbidden secrets are spoken, and barriers are crossed" (1), no mention is made of the 19th-century authors--particularly Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet E. Wilson--who explore American society and its complex institutional practices in precisely the provocative terms quoted. What accounts, partly, for the elision of the slave narrative tradition here is the editor's restriction of race as a subject category in gothic texts by white writers--with the exception of selections by Charles Chesnutt and the "Frankenstein" section (xiv) of Paul Laurence Dunbar's novel, The Sport of the Gods (1902). Perhaps too the editor's criteria reflects the problematic middle-ground that the slave narrative occupies between fiction and autobiography and, consequently, the difficulty of including the latter in an anthology of short fiction, poetry, and excerpts from novels--although, interestingly, a section from Mark Twain's autobiographical narrative, Life on the Mississippi meets the criteria for inclusion. The effect, then, if not the intent, is that the slave narrative tradition specifically and African American writers generally are not represented as producers, as "doers of the word," who were, in fact, aesthetically and politically invested in 19th-century gothic discourse.
(3.) Dray stresses that "since early in the eighteenth century, before the founding of the American republic, due process has been understood to include a clear accusation of charges stating what law the accused has violated, a court made up of competent authorities, the right to confront one's accuser in a trial held under proper proceedings, and the right to be freed unless found guilty. So fundamental is it to our notion of justice that the Founding Fathers embedded it squarely in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which avows that 'no persons ... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law' by the federal government" (18).
(4.) My contention here is not that Morrison was aware that "dragon" in this historical-literary context carries references to vampires and to Dracula specifically. I do contend, however, that these significations are an irreducible part of the rich, intertextual life of her novel, which, like all myth-centered material, transcends time and space.
(5.) In the third chapter of his essay on "Nature," titled "Beauty," Emerson writes: "There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse hath its own beauty" (1110-11). Nature reveals itself through the limitless reflective relation between the phenomenal, outer world and cognition that together create a "correspondence." Emerson writes, "Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture" (1115).
(6.) This beautiful play on words is borrowed from Gilbert and Gubar's discussion of phallocentrism and 19th-century female creativity in The Madwoman in the Attic. The play on "pen," penis, and the patriarchal biases against creative women that reduced them to subjects within male-authored texts and gave them marginal access to publishers and publication is one of many powerful tropes Gilbert and Gubar use to explore the "anxiety of female authorship" (12-13).
(7.) I am indebted here to Winter's brilliant reading of Dickinson's poem # 512 as a feminist trope for power and confinement in the nineteenth century.
Cedric Gael Bryant holds the Lee Family Professorship in English and American Literature at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. This essay is dedicated to Gail, who teaches me daily that the Soul has "moments of Escape--when "She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours."
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|Author:||Bryant, Cedric Gael|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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