culturalstudies

Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:

intro

Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.

*_*_*_*

I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.


Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.


Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.

Part II: Wicked Women and the Negotiation of Female (Dis)empowerment (1 April 2016)

“Not only did she dupe me into believing she still loved me, she actually forced me to implicate myself. Wicked, wicked girl. I almost laughed. Good Lord, I hated her, but you had to admire the bitch.” – Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, (Flynn 345) [1]

The majority of Gone Girl’s masterful storytelling depends on Flynn’s fascinating, journalistic style of characterization and description, a thriller’s requisite plot twists and explosive reveals, and the unreliability of the two narrators, Nick and Amy Elliott Dunne.[2] Throughout the majority of the novel’s first part, “Boy Loses Girl,” while Nick narrates the present-day events concerning the disappearance of his wife, readers learn about Amy through various diary entries, the first of which details the night she and Nick met at a writer’s party – a charming, witty, and thoroughly romantic meet-cute scenario that plays perfectly into the image of a happy couple destined for a wrong turn, somewhere, somehow. After all, no one is perfect, least of all Amy Elliott herself.

The thing is, though, Amy knows this. From the start, she laughs at her own claims of being a writer – even as the author of the diary, Amy undermines her own narrative authority by admitting that she only writes personality quizzes for tween magazines. Such a confession makes Amy likable and relatable, with a sweet girl-next-door kind of charm. She acknowledges her shortcomings as a daughter, and tells the story of how her parents actually created a literary avatar of a perfect child – aptly named Amazing Amy – that represents, in Amy’s words, a plagiarized correction of all her life’s faults, which “was not just fucked up but also stupid and weird and kind of hilarious.” (27). In comparison to her husband, Amy is refreshingly honest. She is forthright, self-conscious of her own faults without being too teeth-grittingly self-effacing, and tries so hard to be a decent, good woman – a good wife. She faces the economic downturn, the loss of financial security, and the gradual dissolution of her marriage to Nick with the occasional emotional outburst. These, however, are quickly quelled by confessions of “being a girl,” coupled with declarations to rise above the stereotype of the embittered wife: “I won’t blame Nick. I don’t blame Nick. I refuse – refuse! – to turn into some pert-mouthed, strident, angry-girl” (65).

She is also a skillful liar, a schemer, an angry sociopath, and a very, very vengeful scorned wife.

The title of the novel’s second part is “Boy Meets Girl,” and insinuates a re-discovery, a recovery of alternate meaning. Just as Nick unravels his wife’s treasure hunt of punishment, humiliation, and retribution that frames him for her murder, readers are also made aware of their own identification with Nick[3] – outsmarted, outwitted, and duped by an unreliable narrator and a literary lie. Even if we don’t share in Nick’s philandering ways, repressed misogynistic impulses, or his present role as entrapped husband and suspected killer, we too have been beguiled by Diary Amy and her romantic fiction.

“I’d like you to know me first,” Amy writes. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of a woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand.” (220)

And yet, from this point on, the narrative spirals into a multiplicity of Amys: Diary Amy finds herself cast off by Actual Amy (220), who merges in and out of Dead Amy (234), Ozark Amy (244), Other Dead Amy (246), and under the pseudonyms of Lydia and Nancy. Besides these alternate versions of her self, Amy has had close to four decades to cycle through a laundry list of “people I’ve already been” (236), which reads like a closet of Barbie-identities, suitable and discarded as soon as the wearer begins to tire of it.

As a first-time reader, I understood some of Nick’s reluctant admiration. Personally, my moral compass didn’t encourage identifying with or cheering on a wicked woman who accused a man of rape just to teach him a lesson, who would gaslight a teenage girl into nearly committing suicide, or vindictively wish for her husband to be ass-raped in prison.[4] On the other hand, Amy Elliott had significant truth bombs to drop, and drop them she did. “I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable…She’s easy to like…I wrote her very carefully, Diary Amy. She is designed to appeal to the cops, to appeal to the public should portions be released. They have to read this diary like it’s some sort of Gothic tragedy…They have to like me. Her” (237-8), Actual Amy now confides to the reader, and the shock – dare I say the magic – of the narrative manipulation is no less deft for the revelation of such.

Ironically, in successfully duping the reader alongside beguiling her cheating husband, the cops, and the entire American public, Amy shows her hand. Actual/Real Amy’s anger lies in the fact that Nick fell in love with one of her personas – Cool Girl Amy, specifically – and then out of love with her unadorned, real self. “Can you imagine,” she seethes, “finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” (225). Add infidelity to the list, Nick has thoroughly shaken his wife. By his inelegant actions, he has reduced her to “Average Dumb Woman Married to Average Shitty Man. He had single-handedly de-amazed Amazing Amy” (234), and toppled the wicked woman from her throne. Not only does it sting to be thrown over for a younger Cool Girl model, but Amy’s anger mingles with shame – to rekindle the romance, she had actually been willing to retry her hand at being the Cool Girl that she so deplored, and Nick loved.

In the end, while Amy gives into her misreading of Nick’s rekindled love for her true self, and the marriage continues with both partners acting their part – for the arguable betterment of both – Amy nearly gets the last word on her self-fashioning and the definition of her identity. She is no mere “psycho bitch,” as Nick accuses; she sees through his attempt to label her as a lazy cop-out. “It’d be so easy, for him to write me off that way. He’d love that, to be able to dismiss me so simply” (Flynn 394) – which indeed, Nick takes morbid pleasure in having married “the world’s foremost mindfucker” (271). But despite her success, the thought of waking up every morning, and being herself, doesn’t thrill like she thought it would.

What then, wicked woman?

“It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side?” Gillian Flynn writes, calling for a triumph of “violent, wicked women” over the watered-down “girl-power” rhetoric of a supposedly post-feminist era. “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”[5] If exposing wickedness by showing its construction gives such women a chance to shine, it also weakens the mystification of the wicked woman’s power – dispelling the myth, tarnishing the shine of glorification, and making wickedness just a little bit more human.

[1] Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Broadway Books, Random House. 2012.

[2] The majority of this blog post will examine both Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation, of which Flynn wrote the screenplay. Given the emphasis on acting, deception, and the unreliability of signs in reading the self, I consider the literary and visual text alongside one another to heighten the instability of self-depiction/description and markers of identity.

[3] In some ways, life imitates art: Ben Affleck’s partial Irish heritage, working-class roots, and troubled relationships fit characterizations of Nick Dunne perfectly. “I have a face you want to punch: I’m a working-class Irish kid trapped in the body of a total trust-fund douchebag” (32), Nick admits soon enough, and most of my students agreed that Affleck had been a rather stellar casting choice for that quality alone.

[4] Gillian Flynn responds to accusations of misogyny and anti-feminist rhetoric in the novel by turning the tables on such a script, and argues for an expansion of feminism to include villainous women. For more, see The Guardian interview: “Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny” (May 2013).

[5] “I was not a Nice Little Girl.” For Readers – Gillian Flynn. Web. 20 March 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

Part I: Wicked Women, Active Deception, and Narrative Opportunity (25 March 2016)

 

Recently, my thoughts have been preoccupied with wicked women.

As a student of the humanities – namely, English literature, and even more specifically, Victorian literature, in all its verbosity – whose field of study recognizes the pivotal inextricability of words from complex networks of cultural meaning, contemporary and historical connotations, and critical scrutiny, I feel the need to explain what I mean.

Just that assertion, the typical aha, gotcha! factor necessary for any captivating opening line, required some consideration and several revisions. “Evil” brings to mind Miltonic images of Eve’s “golden tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved”[1] or of equally mythic personages such as the so-called Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, who bathed in the blood of virgins – an apt model for Stoker’s brides of Dracula. “Naughty,” on the other hand, has already been so thoroughly appropriated for the weirdly incongruent rhetorical camps of child-minders and the marketing of adult entertainment, which intersect in disturbing cases of the Lolita-inspired schoolgirl: the jailbait, childish version of the seductive vixen, all grown-up save in physical form. “Bad” may suit well enough, but those who have experienced attempting to explain ‘90s slang to an older or younger generation may understand the shortcomings of that particular descriptor.

Meanwhile, there’s a secret thrill that accompanies the concept of the wicked. The very concept invites a conspiratorial grin, a winking with the one eye while closing the other against the injunctions of a too-stringent, too-prudish society; an empowerment, a tantalizing call to action for personal gratification, or just enough fun in the rebellion to make any censure worth the risk. When gendered, the mystique becomes doubly attractive – male wickedness seems tame, in comparison to the female strain of the same.

Sing along; you know you want to…

The greater part of this peculiar interest stems, as it should, from my current reading material: amidst the host of blushing heroines of angelic disposition, graceful white arms and nary a selfish thought in their heads, much less the least shred of wickedness in their souls, I happen to stumble across a Jezebel and a Delilah, a Lady Macbeth and a Cersei Lannister. Presumably, any a reader may hesitate to define what “wicked” means, but could beyond a shadow of a doubt name a fictional female representative of such an epithet.

If pressed to apply an admittedly narrow descriptor to such women, one befitting their literary status, and in homage to another house bearing green iconography, we might find ready meaning in the words of the Sorting Hat: “Those cunning folk use any means // To Achieve their ends.”[2]

Image 1 (1)

(Credit: Slytherinhouserules.tumblr.com)

“There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” they say. I say: Slytherins, represent! 

For those more comfortable with the precise, authoritative statements given in reference texts, the following may provide an apt grounding for the following investigation:

Wicked, adj (n. and adv)[3]

Etymology: Middle English (13th cent.)

  1. Bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to willful wrong-doing; practicing or disposed to practice evil; morally depraved. (A term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.)
  2. of a person (or a community of persons).
  3. of action, speech, thought, or other personal attribute; also transf. of a thing connected in some way with such action, etc.
  4. Designating a stock evil character in a fairy-tale, as Wicked Fairy, Wicked Stepmother, Wicked Uncle, etc. Freq. transf.

From the vast assemblage of personages inspired by this “term of wide application,” my subject of inquiry over the next two weeks will focus on two characters who thoroughly earn the infamously attractive epithet. They play their parts to beguile, to perform, and master the sympathies of the naïve and, significantly, even the knowing reader, who cannot help but stand amazed. In other words, a wicked woman, as proven by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, and Gone Girl’s Amazing Amy, must be an impeccable actress.

The Victorians held an ambivalent attitude toward actresses – some, like the celebrated Ellen Terry, enjoyed a prosperous stage career and earned enthusiastic acclaim particularly for her role as Lady Macbeth, as immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s painting. On the whole, however, most held suspect – especially those who could not, or would not give an “honest” account of her character. Like their maligned cousins, the French ballet girls or opera singers, these were women who not only dared to labor for wages, but stooped so low as to perform onstage and in public, to adorn their bodies with artificial rouge and roguery, to sell their person for entertainment – in short, to channel physical charms and feminine wiles through the unnatural art of deception. Despite the emerging trend in Victorian celebrity culture that patronized and flattered literary lions such as Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens, actresses represented a common, immodest kind of woman cultivated from the same fallen stock as prostitutes.

Image 2 (1)   Image 3 (2)

 (Credit:Wikiart.org)  (Credit: charlesdickenspage.com)

Mary Robinson as Perdita, (left) and Ellen Terry (right)

Mary Robinson (1758-1800) was an English actress, novelist, poet, and perhaps one of England’s first female celebrities. At the age of twenty-one, she played Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, caught the eye of the then-Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and became his first public mistress. Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) – who must not be confused with her contemporary, the aforementioned Ellen Terry – remains a much more controversial figure, and is best known as the young actress with whom a married and middle-aged Dickens engaged upon a sustained love affair, a secret intrigue starting when the former was eighteen years old.

Robinson’s constructed public persona worked greatly to her advantage: as the Prince’s mistress, she gave up her acting career and was left to negotiate the disastrous aftermath of a ruined reputation when her lover eventually broke off ties. Throughout the affair, she thus crafted a representative identity through careful stylizing of fashionable dress, and later reinforced that image through her own literary productions, determining who would have the privilege of seeing her, of reading her body through the scripts she wrote. The image of Ternan, on the other hand, has up until recently been largely ignored by the majority of Dickens’s historians, fans, and those who would guard his legacy; their correspondence burned, the woman herself effaced from the historical record.

Were these women wicked? By Puritanical standards, maybe.

But in comparison, neither Robinson nor Ternan fit the same type as William Makepeace Thackeray’s small, French, social-climbing governess, or Gillian Flynn’s calculating Manhattanite who wields a Master’s degree in psychology with more finesse than any weapon. The type of acting that interests me pushes beyond the bounds of mere self-fashioning; it is a rampant, powerfully manipulative, chameleon-like reinvention of the self. This clever and constant re-writing of one’s image implies more than a comprehensive knowledge of signifying codes; it urges readers to stand in awe at the character’s mastery of the fluidity of meaning.

The seductive reach of the wicked woman extends beyond her textual place. She threatens to hold both fellow fictional characters and readers enrapt, against better senses. She has elevated wickedness into an art form, manipulating social signs encoded through appearances, behavior, and culturally reinforced signifying practices.

Next week, I will discuss how Becky Sharp, an orphan who rises through the ranks of society through her quick wit, a penchant for intelligent scheming, and an aptitude for changing her manners with every elevation or drop in station dwarfs the position of the stock character that her satirizing author would make for her within the narrative. Against this vivacious but rather two-dimensional character, I will bring in the formidable Amy Eliott, the merciless, sociopathic trust fund daughter turned scorned wife, who uses the sensational media and private narrative to turn popular opinion against her philandering husband, and perhaps even earns a hearty cheer of support from the reader in the process. In these two characters, ambition mingles with the skill of dissimulation, and issues of modesty, silent long-suffering, and fidelity – the common lot of many a female character – quickly become irrelevant. Perhaps, then, we who have longed for so much more than these in women’s narratives, like their wickedness all the much more for it.

 

[1] Paradise Lost.org, (4.303-304).

[2] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 7: “The Sorting Hat.” (113-130). New York: Scholastic, 1998.

[3] “wicked, adj. 1 (n. and adv.).” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 18 March 2016.


 

Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.