The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women's Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive.
Turning her forceful gaze against aggressors, [the Medusa gaze] protects the innocent against attack through her forceful, talismanic evil eye (262), reclaim[ing] the gaze for women as active agents in their own right. (6) The mirror as a paradigm represents the physically reflected sight of the subject returning to them [...] demonstrat[ing] how we create our personality in the light of the perceptions we receive through our eyes, as well as our hearing and other senses" (19); The mirror [also] presents the inexorable reality of time that stalks every attractive women. (67) This book evaluates women in literature, seeing how they shape themselves within competing passions and struggles [...] through the writings of nine significant contemporary women novelists of the second half of the twentieth century, seek[ing] to recover the force of women's Medusa gaze. (8)
However little the reader knows about Gillian Alban, a scholar in the field of women's writing, through the pages of this book, they may touch the passion she draws out from mythology and literature as a force for women, as she reconstructs traditional myths. In her book, Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt's Possession and in Mythology (2003), this same writer examines the figure of Melusine in French medieval folklore, enlarging her grasp to contain pre-patriarchal goddess myth, comparing Melusine to mythic figures such as Medusa. In this her present book, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women's Fiction, Alban examines female characters through various genres, as both bearers and receivers of the Medusa gaze. Through many texts of Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, A.S. Byatt, Jean Rhys, Jeanette Winterson, Michele Roberts and Iris Murdoch, she presents her characters not merely as "objects but as objectifying others, both men and women, and destroying them through the force of their own gaze" (6). She thus assigns Medusa a multidirectional and redemptive power to use her gaze both to protect and to objectify.
The Medusa figure has been presented by writers and scholars as the symbol of the victimized woman, a figure of both power and anger. Alban offers a wide perspective in her arguments regarding the Medusa gaze, offering the reader multiple insights through an array of literary texts. This book presents the interactions of female characters from different cultures who employ a similar gaze, demonstrating the commonalities of women of various societies. The book's cover symbolizes the multiple cultures and colours represented here. Indicating the dual nature of Medusa's serpent hair as venom as well as its antidote, Medusa as queen and monster of doubles (2), Alban shares Susan R. Bowers' belief expressed in "Medusa and the Female Gaze", that woman who was once cast "as a dreadfully gorgeous victim [...] is now reconstructed as an 'electrifying force representing the dynamic power of the female gaze'" (2). She concretizes Bowers' insights into Medusa as representing female empowerment and freedom, personifying women's fearless look turned back against patriarchal authority (217). Alban demonstrates the transformations women undergo in order to "empower themselves against the men who oppress them" (243), dwelling less on patriarchal oppressions and objectifications of women, but more on the power of the female gaze, encouraging women to appreciate the power of their own gaze and how to turn it back forcefully, rather than remaining as terrified victim; she demonstrates "the ongoing determination of women to claim their rights and assert their will against considerable obstacles, refusing to abjectly submit to hostile forces that threaten to overwhelm them" (263).
Differing from others who have seen Medusa as a victim, the writer utilizes the Medusa myth to manifest woman's power as she wields her own gaze, even to castrate others. Alban uses the "mirrors" of both Freud and Lacan in order to mirror back their own theories presenting women as castrated by the gaze of others. She rather shows how women turn back their gaze on their objectifiers. The introduction and conclusion clearly present the summation of her arguments and perspective. Through analysis of the chosen texts, Alban enables the reader to live alongside the characters, imagining their plight and returning to the amazing texts under scrutiny in order to experience them more deeply. Through the combined symbols of mirror and the Medusa gaze, four aspects of Medusa are illustrated. Each chapter offers a condensed title for her readers, such as "The Apotropaic, Petrifying Medusa Gaze" or "Medusa's Redemptive Evil Eye", provoking readers' curiosity and passion to read.
The writer offers a solid theoretical backbone in the early chapters of this book through analysis of the concepts of Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Simone de Beauvoir. "The Self in the Petrifying Gaze of the Other" presents Lacan's mirror stage, Sartre's "Medusa Look", Freud's "Medusa's Head" and Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa". Alban critiques Laura Mulvey's "Gaze Theory" based on the work of Freud and Lacan, which merely shows women as "the erotic Object of the male gaze" (22-3), rather asserting how women claim and return their own gaze on their viewers. Alban encourages women to love and assert themselves in order to gain their rightful place in society. Against Freud and Lacan, she believes that while woman may be object of the gaze, yet she may also wield the gaze as "the power of women to return their own look onto men" (23). She thus skilfully returns Freud's and Lacan's theory of women's castration and lack back onto them. She demonstrates in the polemic of Cixous how "women are not bound within a single idol with clay balls [...] having power and laughter on her own side" (23). First, she shows woman's struggle from childhood to challenge the Other's gaze towards her, under derogative comments like those Virginia Woolf reports in To the Lighthouse, saying
women can't write, women can't paint". Then she demonstrates how woman builds up her own gaze through experience, learning to look at herself and her own body, through the internal power of the Medusa gaze, freeing herself from the male gaze on her, as well as the socially approved physical standards of beauty that capture women, encouraging women to follow Cixous' advice to "show them our sexts! (24)
Chapter two, "The Gaze of the Double in the Mirror--My Sister!" is a response to "the mirror [which is] generally assumed a facet of women's lives" (62), showing how the dominant male gaze leads women to seek assurance and acceptability in physical beauty. Alban here uses texts that "present both men and women as objects of a Medusa gaze that destroys through its powerful female agency", "examin[ing] how girls are debilitated under the gaze of their predatory Other into madness or suicide, becoming objectified dolls when the Other consumes them through her mirroring force" (58). These literary examples present sisters and doubles showing "the individual reflected back through the mirror of the Other. This may enable them to develop self-knowledge between narcissism, a positive sense of self returned through the image of the alter ego or ideal I [or] objectification through alienation by the Other" (109), thus she suggests how "the gaze may trap both subject and object in a reflective, destructive cycle" (6).
In chapters three and four, Alban explores the mother-daughter relationship; mothers as monstrous Medusa, according to Freud, daughters blaming their mother, and the Electra syndrome, showing the key nature of the mother-daughter relationship in building a girl's identity. Chapter three, "Devouring Clytemnestra and Electra", opens with a question that summarises the chapter: "Is the mother indeed the monstrous Medusa she has been shown to be, or has opprobrium been heaped on her head along with the heavy burdens of mothering?" (116); here she discusses 'penis envy' and 'the vagina dentata' together with the ideas of Cixous, Irigaray and Susan Bordo. Chapter four demonstrates the efforts of the mother to protect her daughter, the mother "represented by the elemental mother earth force of Gaia as mother goddess" (123). Mothers' care, even at times through their daughters' destruction, trauma or death is shown here; sometimes mothers personify the monstrous role of Medusa, "present[ing] the traumas and tribulations of mothers and daughters as experienced on both sides, as well as grandmothering and surrogacy as supplementing mothering roles" (201). In chapter five "The Female Divine as Talisman", Alban traverses diverse gender and goddess myths (237), including the Virgin Mary, Kali, Cybele, Artemis, Ishtar, Astarte, Demeter, Mother Nature and Medusa as protective eye, suggesting many ways in which "the female divine [may be] an inspirational force for women" (237) and evaluating the redemptive capacity of the divine aspect of women.
In chapter six, "Rivals and Monstrous Femmes Fatales", Alban addresses "the common view of woman seen as a predatory, monstrous Medusa" (239), showing the power of women's anger, "in savage rivalry [and] pure Medusa fury" (239). Here she shows that "the aggression and savagery of [woman's] desperate fury against her opponents turns back onto her, and destroys her in the end" (260), discussing protagonists' anger, as "Medusa embod[ies] female monstrosity and rage" (263). She shows how women may release the anger and fury which have been forbidden her, causing her to be classified as a madwoman, or dangerous monster.
In conclusion, Alban presents a powerful feminist perspective in this book; against the perspective of writers under the banner of feminism who have seen women as a victim of patriarchal authority, this writer asserts that woman everywhere can and must use her look as a force for power, turning back her assertive gaze without fear, drawing strength even from their agony, empowering themselves and refusing to be a victim. This book offers powerful insights for anyone concerned with the plight of women, in fascinating reflections regarding the powerful Medusa gaze in the writing of our female contemporaries.
Salwa Tariq Fizee received her BA (2013) from the Department of English Language and Literature at University of Tikrit. She is currently carrying out her PhD studies at Istanbul Aydin University. Her research interests include Black Feminism. E-mail: email@example.com