The Monster Metaphor: What is it, and why is it always gendered?

In Middle March, George Eliot compares four of the characters to vampires in folklore. Such subjects were not lost on her readers, one of her reviewers suggesting that Rosamund is “a kind of well-conducted domestic vampire”. Eliot’s character Lydgate later describes her as a “his basil plant […because] basil was a plant that flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains”—she has effectively transformed into a sort of parasite or cannibal, no longer human. She bears little resemblance to the hideous vampire of folklore, or even the sexualized female vampires in Stoker’s 1897 thriller.

The original mythic image of the vampire is merely altered in realist fiction. It never disappears.

The mere fact that a human being is represented as a creature in realist literature means that there is some sort of break from realism occurring if merely on the didactic level. There must, therefore, be some sort of ontological connection between the realist object, in this case, Rosamund, to the surrealistic creature, the sea-nymph. With the demon metaphor oftentimes this connection is almost certainly always gender.

We customarily hold truth to be a relation of correspondence between knowledge and reality but, Nietzsche declares, it is in fact “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms’ due to the fundamentally metaphorical nature of concept-formation, a series of creative leaps from nerve stimulus to retinal image (first metaphor) to sound as signifier (second metaphor)” (Nietzsche 2000, p. 55).

Even the metaphors that we use in every day language rely on the fact that there is something in common between the signified and the object of the metaphor. This is in the case of the sea nymph, that something in common is the feminine essence of both characters as well as their demonic nature. She is described as a monster who is particularly feminine. The sea monster and Rosamund are of course connected by their evil intent, but that which allows the metaphor to function fluidly is the feminine traits that they share.

We see throughout the 18th and 19th centuries that there are male monsters and female monsters and rarely an in-between. Rarely is a depiction of the monster separate from the gender of the monster described. The gender neutral monster or monster with non-binary gender identities, for example, is relatively nonexistent. As in the case of Dracula or Frankenstein it is widely accepted that the characters embody masculine anxieties of something gone wrong in the production of a man. In both descriptions of them as monsters, the author draws careful attention to the details of their monstrousness as being constitutively male or female. The description of their appearance as a creature or like that of a creature is influenced directly by their gender.

It is the creatures characters are referred to as however, that expose something about the way the ethical implications of said character. As though the creature they look like on the outside is merely a reflection of that they are on the inside. They are described as not human in order to reveal certain anxieties, fears, or superhuman qualities about them as a character. It is possible, in this way, that the creature becomes internalized in realist fiction. The vampires, the angels, they never really disappear, they can never really disappear from fiction because they are engrained in the minds of their readers.

“Metaphor is, of course, not only a system essential to writing but a system essential to the philosophy of language and communication in general,” (Metaphor, Derrida, and Davidson, David Novitz, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Winter, 1985), pp. 101-114). If we believe Novitz, then the act of comparing a woman to an angel does not merely compare her to one; but communicates that she is the same thing as that which she is described as being like. If the angel is a purely Christian idea, then traditional models of Christianity have invaded the public’s very foundation for understanding of good and evil, morality, and therefore, if comparisons like these are happening on a mass scale, of gender roles.

According to Derrida, whenever a metaphor is made it is somehow an extension of reality. Metaphor can be used when trying to capture something that is not present in the reality of the situation, but is a larger-than life model of the present reality. In the case of Rosamund and the mermaid, it’s impossible to describe what Thakeray wanted to express without resorting to the making of a parallel between some supernatural being and a human being.

He is comparing a human being to a creature such that the connecting strings that attach them both are the fact of their gender.

If my major claim is going to be that metaphors are drawn between characters and supernatural descriptions of characters, then I should study the meaning of metaphor. Why are they used? The most common connectors between the metaphor and the logocentric object which it signifies is gender and this will be reflected in topic modelling. In the case of Gothic and gothic-inspired literature, metaphors equating characters to creatures of myth; to name a few, the vampire, the angel, the demon; their connecting factor is usually the gender of the character being described and the traits characteristic of that gender are in these descriptions amplified more than any other connotative trait.

“In general, we might think of a metaphor as the use of some term ‘M‘ in order to talk about something literally referred to by some term ‘L’,” (Metaphor: The Department of Philosophy, S. Cohen). In this case of the mermaid, term ‘M’ being the mermaid, and the thing which is being signified, ‘L’ is the moral quality of the character. They are connected by a gendered description:
“combing their hair”

“fiendish marine cannibals”

“pretty”

“twanging on their harps”

These are all images associated with a binary feminine, or feminineness. The combing of the hair, a tidying or ordering of the chaotic mane of hair on the tandled mermaid’s head; the word “marine” before cannibal, invoking the sense that water, like in the Homerian myth of Calypso, is a female space, “pretty”, being a female descriptor, and “twanging” being gentle, modest and unpresuming.

The thing which is used to connect, in the Derridean sense, the image of the mermaid to the woman is her femininity. The thing which is being signified, ‘L’ is an assertion about both the ethical nature of the woman and of the mermaid. That they are, the sea nymph and the human woman, both “no good”.

This is reflective of this time period’s tendency to create parallels between gender and monsters based on ethics. Why did this specific type of metaphor occur on such a mass scale?

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