Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jessi Snider: “Milton’s Monstrous Feminine”

Jessi Snider
Texas A&M University
Milton’s Monster: Sin, Abjection, and the Monstrous Feminine in Paradise Lost

Woman, as sign of difference, is monstrous. If we define the monster as a bodily entity that is anomalous and deviant vis-à-vis the norm, then we can argue that the female body shares with the monster the privilege of bringing out a unique blend of fascination and horror.
     -Rosi Braidotti

1> Samuel Johnson writes that the portrayal of Sin and Death in John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an “unskillful allegory” which is “one of the greatest faults of the poem” (Johnson 167). While allegorically Sin may not be all that Johnson desires, psychologically she serves a vital function in the poem. One of only a few female characters in the epic, Sin represents the “monstrous feminine,” as she exists in the realm of the abject, utterly “other,” disturbing in a way that only a female character can be. Sin is not a great fault of the poem, but a masterful depiction of female monstrosity employed to delight and horrify. Milton, like Christian art depicting Hell as a “lurid and rotten uterus” (Usser 2), utilizes patriarchal constructions of the feminine as monstrousness to achieve his ends of portraying Hell as the vilest place conceivable. Hell, quintessentially beyond human understanding, is drawn into focus by grounding it in images one can understand: the treacherous and defiled body of woman. Further, Sin’s representation serves to highlight Satan’s perversity by showing that he dwells in a realm of utter depravity coupled with an equally vile female companion.

2> Milton’s Sin has received relatively little critical attention compared to other characters in the poem, and far less than Eve, the main female character in the epic. Since the nineteenth century, and continuing today, scholars have labeled Sin as “bad, boring poetry” (Kilgour 339), and questioned her role in the epic. Scholars have been particularly interested in determining Milton’s inspiration for the allegory of Sin and Death, with Robert B. White calling the pairing little more than a ripe “hunting ground for sources” (White 337). Though Sin’s role as a victim of rape[1] received sporadic attention in the 1990s, the character has yet to receive sustained critical consideration. While some scholars do note the birth imagery in Sin’s representation, no study looks at why and how such imagery is employed. I make my intervention here to suggest that understanding how Sin is framed as monstrous is vital, in that Milton blatantly constructs and correlates femaleness with abjection. Milton’s monster, Sin, represents an early, understudied iteration of the monstrous feminine, later popularized in horror fiction and films. She, like her sisters to follow, is rendered grotesque through imagery of incest, the fecund female body, and graphic birthing.

3> The monstrous feminine is the monster-woman produced, in literature and film, through abjection. Barbara Creed, a scholar writing on the monstrous feminine in modern horror films, asserts that “all human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” (44). Creed conflates the otherness of woman as being “mediated by a narrative about the difference of female sexuality as a difference which is grounded in monstrousness” (44). She writes:

…definitions of the monstrous…are grounded in ancient religious and historical notions of abjection-- particularly in relation to the following religious ‘abominations’: sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest. (46)

4> The feminine body is teamed with otherwise violent, filthy, and horrific phenomena, meaning that femaleness is constructed as monstrous, in and of itself. Sin acts as a repository for a number of these abominations, providing an opportunity for Milton to inject not just one, but two instances of incest, for example. Sin possesses a deformed female body which experiences pregnancy, pseudo-pregnancy, and two different types of disturbing birth. Sin comes to represent a wide variety of perversions and pains, an abject otherness intuitively understand, yet little explored in Milton studies.

5> Satan, though ostensibly male, produces Sin via a parthenogenic birth sequence where she springs forth from his head. Sin developing from the body of Satan is by no means unique in literature, as Eve is derived from Adam's rib, Athena from the forehead of Zeus, and Aphrodite from the phallus of Uranus (Fischer 5). However, by having Sin develop in such a way, Milton is suggesting that Sin’s “birth” is unholy. Minaz Jooma argues that “Adam and Eve stand in precisely the same relation to one another (father-begettor to daughter-begot) as Satan and Sin,” and therefore, their union is just as problematic as Satan and Sin’s relationship (33). However, the unions are dissimilar in that Eve is a creation of Adam and God, while Sin is a creation of Satan’s narcissism. God formed Eve for Adam, but Satan created Sin incidentally, only to then see himself in his creation. These are different origins resulting in different outcomes. From her very conception, Sin is written as unnatural, wrong, and unlike the other creatures of the poem, for she is not the creation of God. She is an abomination, the female embodiment of Satan’s unholiness; the monstrous feminine from the start.

6> After he creates her, Satan sees himself in Sin, and loving himself above all else, “Becam’st enamourd” and took “joy” with his daughter “in secret” (2.765-6). The incestuous relationship between Sin and Satan, occurring in Heaven prior to Satan’s rebellion, is described by Minaz Jooma “as a negative exemplum against the positive exemplum of Adam and Eve's prelapsarian marital union” with the unions dictating “appropriate and inappropriate forms of sexual appetite” (26). Jooma further argues that although “the monstrosity of female appetites was not a new idea in this period” Milton plays significantly “with seventeenth-century witchcraft fantasies that link insatiable female appetites with evil” (31). While Adam and Eve enjoy chaste marital love prior to the fall, Satan and Sin sneak around Heaven and engage in insatiable, consensual, yet vile, incestuous play. Because the abject “does not respect borders” and here “the border is between normal and abnormal sexual desire” (Creed 49), Satan and Sin flagrantly breach this border, revealing the debauched nature of both characters.

7> Yet it is not just her sexual appetite, but the fecundity of woman’s body that is central to her monstrosity. After the lustful dalliances with her father Satan, Sin becomes pregnant with Death, “A growing burden” in her abdomen (2.767). Here, the representation is clearly “pregnancy as abject embodiment” (Leane 236). Sin details the condition of this, her first pregnancy:

…Pensive here I sat
Alone long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes. (2.777-80)

8> The incubating of Satan’s “odious offspring” seems quite unpleasant indeed (2.781). The negative imagery summoned by usage of the words “burden,” “rueful,” and “odious” plainly illustrates the dark circumstances of the pregnancy. Gestation is an in-between, liminal state, where there are neither two complete people nor just one; instead, pregnancy creates a unique relationship akin to parasitism. Some pregnant women sense “the fetus as a foreign being” while in medical literature it has been described as “a parasite which exploits the maternal host” (Leane 244). However, it is the mother, not the child, who repulses the reader, as “the power and danger perceived to be inherent in woman’s fecund flesh, her seeping, leaking, bleeding womb standing as site of pollution and source of dread” (Ussher 1). Sin is made only more repugnant by the birth act itself.

9> While Satan’s “birth” of Sin is “well controlled, clean, painless...[with] no blood, trauma or terror...a primal fantasy in which the human subject is born fully developed” (Scobie 84), Sin’s birth of Death is viciously painful. At his birth, Sin’s son Death emerges so brutally that he alters Sin’s body permanently:

…breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform'd. (2.782-85)

10> This is significant for many reasons. Pregnancy and birth, historically, are dark terrain, shrouded in mystery and misconceptions, resulting in innumerable deaths. Here, “it is birth itself which is seen as monstrous, as a fearsome, bloody, inexplicable extrusion of the alien within” (Scobie 84). This could be described as “a very male fantasy; that is, a male fear of the mystery and unknown of women's power” (84) which is then contained through the powerfully negative connotations attached to these processes. For:

the changing pregnant body, the act of birth, the amniotic fluid, afterbirth, and blood…are the pinnacle of that which signifies abjection – leading to the claim that the essentially grotesque body is that of the pregnant, birth-giving woman. (Usser 86)

11> Reflecting these fantasies, Satan produces offspring asexually, while Sin, a female, experiences the vilest of births which permanently deform her sex organs. Female genitalia, apart from birth and birthing, present a site of monstrousness. Creed argues:

Freud noted that a display of the female genitals makes a woman ‘unapproachable and repels all sexual desires.’ He refers to the section in Rabelais which relates ‘how the Devil took flight when the woman showed him her vulva.’ Perseus' solution is to look only at a reflection, a mirror-image of [Medusa’s] genitals. As with patriarchal ideology, his shield reflects an ‘altered’ representation, a vision robbed of its threatening aspects. (66)

12> Milton offers no such mitigation of the castration threat represented by the female genitals; instead, he heightens it. By having Sin’s mutilated genitals on display post-Death’s birth, Milton does not rob them of their “threatening aspects,” but makes them doubly grotesque by stacking defect onto inherent horror. Sin’s inclusion thus allows for a ghastly birth experience and for a deformed, ruined vulva to be associated with Satan, Hell, and Death.

13> Death, an abomination unto himself, was born wicked. He “overtook his mother all dismayd, / And in embraces forcible and foule” (2.793) impregnated her with the Hell Hounds which torment her ceaselessly. Here, “the primal scene is represented as violent, monstrous…and is mediated by the question of incestuous desire. All re-stagings of the primal scene raise the question of incest” (Creed 57). In the case of Paradise Lost, Death does not have to fantasize about “the primal scene,” the sexual act between his parents resulting in his conception, because he instead reenacts it. This primal scene is monstrous because it does not allude to incest, it is incest. Milton radically manipulates the concept of family by violating “the prohibition placed on the maternal body” (Creed 49). This prohibition, or taboo, acts “as a defense against autoeroticism and incest” forcing “the maternal body to become a site of conflicting desires” (49). However, Death does not seem conflicted; he sees what he wants and takes it. The crossing of the incest taboo for the second time, the not respecting of established borders, is yet another glaring instance of abjection in Milton’s construction of Sin.

14> Later in the poem, Satan does not recognize Sin’s mutilated figure. When he first comes upon her post-fall, she “seemd Woman to the waist,” but had “many a scaly fold” from her midsection down (2.650-1). Satan declares “I know thee not, nor ever saw till now / Sight more detestable then him and thee” (2.745). Rather than experiencing a scopophilic pleasure in gazing at Sin’s body, Satan recoils from the anxiety it incites in him. The confrontation with the monstrous feminine is disconcerting, even for a figure written as intrinsically villainous. Sin’s monstrosity trumps even Satan’s. She belongs in “the world of the pre-symbolic, represented by woman aligned with the devil…where the foulness of woman is signified by her putrid, filthy body” (Creed 52). Milton’s inclusion of misshapen Sin in Satan’s entourage allows him a unique opportunity to harass and agitate the reader as Sin wears the scaly folds of her genitals like a Scarlett A: they are visible signs of an inner, innate, and thorough degeneracy because she is woman.

15> Sin’s lower body is not just “scaly fold[s],” but has dogs attached to it which never cease barking. They “creep” in and out of her body (2.656) causing “perpetual agonie and pain” as they on her “bowels feed” (2.861-4) and “gnaw” (2.799). These “Hell Hounds” (2.654) are the abominable, incestuous result produced by Death’s rapes of his mother; therefore, they are the product of a double inbreeding. The hounds scream day and night and are “hourly conceiv’d / And hourly born,” meaning that Sin experiences this pain endlessly (2.797). This scene brilliantly aligns birth with death and reveals the crude, thin line existent between the two events. Yet it does a great deal more. The hounds are born repeatedly, return to the womb ceaselessly, and are never dead but never independent of the mother’s abject body. Sin too, though ostensibly in the throes of death, does not succumb to the pain; it merely continues unabated. The description of the Hell Hounds’ repeated births mirrors "a long... labour terminated by rupture of the uterus and death of the baby and mother” where it appears “as if the baby has burst up out of the womb" (Kitzinger 30). Sin does not die, but lives this torture eternally, suffers this condemnation permanently, always bursting, always enduring.  Thus Sin subsists in a perpetual state of "’doubling’ and ‘splitting’-the former at conception; the latter at delivery” (Jooma 34). Her entire existence consists of conception, incubation, and birth. Because “pregnancy is a ‘liminal’ or ‘marginal’ state” (Fischer 7), and Sin cannot escape it, she is rendered not subject nor object, but abject. She is utter slave to her reproductive capacity, owned by it. She does not own her body and her body is not her own.

16> These Hell Hounds, Sin’s children and grandchildren simultaneously, howl and bark even when they are inside Sin’s womb. These “bestial sounds remind us that to bear young is to be, not spiritual, but animal, a thing of flesh, an incomprehensible and uncomprehending body” (Gilbert 373). As a “thing of flesh,” an embodied female, Sin is defined by her body and subjugated to it. Her experiences are the sole models of gestation and birth present in Paradise Lost, though Eve is eventually condemned to suffer birth’s anguish as well. Significantly, we do not see Eve gestate or birth. This horror is reserved only for Sin. Sarah Gilbert argues that “as a model, Milton’s monster provides a hideous warning of what it means to be a ‘slave to the species’” (373).  It is not Eve in the poem, but Sin who is that slave. Likewise, Ann Dally observes that "throughout history, until recent times, motherhood was always close to death” (26). Sin births “Death,” but actual death would likely be a welcome relief to her ceaseless agony; alas, no such reprieve is offered.

17> Just as pregnancy is a liminal state, Sin’s very bodily boundaries too are liminal. Her body is repeatedly possessed by those around her. Her offspring, though already birthed and ostensibly permanently expelled, all reenter the maternal body. In the case of Death, he reenters through rape, clearly violating her bodily boundaries while reenacting the primal scene. The Hell Hounds reenter the womb in order to feed and burst forth again. In each instance, a “breaching of inner and outer spaces” occurs (Leane 230). Sin’s “self-referential womb” is precisely that of "the generative mother seen only in the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to re-absorb what it once birthed" (Creed 62). Here, it is no mere threat. Sin does reabsorb her offspring, even if it is against her will. The imagery plays to the unconscious fears of the “carnivorous womb” (Ussher 2), devouring its progeny and man alike. Sin is that consuming, devouring womb. For

…the margins of the body, in particular the markers of fecundity…stand as signifiers of the difference between, within and without, male and female, necessitating containment through taboo and ritual, in order to keep the abject body at a safe, non-polluting distance from the symbolic order. (Usser 6)

18> Milton allows no such distance; he continuously, and blatantly toys with the violation of a number of taboos.

19> Abjection is represented also in Sin’s numerous positions in the family tree. Sin is concurrently daughter and wife to Satan, mother, wife, and sister to Death, and mother/grandmother/aunt to the Hell Hounds. In Sin’s representation, there are no boundaries; ambiguity reigns supreme.

20> Milton completes Sin’s monstrous construction by associating her with cannibalistic witches:

…Farr less abhorrd than these
Vex’d Scylla bathing in the Sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore:
Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when call’d
In secret, riding through the Air she comes
Lur’d with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland Witches. (2.659-65)

21> Witches, aligned with Satan, come to represent “popular and learned ideas about perverse female sexuality, women's infanticidal tendencies, bestiality, and quintessentially female ugliness” (Jooma 31). Linking Sin with infant-eating, animal-sexing witches adds a new layer to Sin’s depravity in that witches historically constitute femininity gone awry: witches do not act as loving caregivers for children, but steal and eat them. They do not tend or hunt animals-- they have sex with them instead. Anne Llewellyn Barstow argues that the persecution of witches, studied through the lens of gender, reveals that accusations of witchcraft arose surrounding

female sexuality: women were blamed for preventing conception, causing miscarriage, abortion, and stillbirth, making men impotent, seducing men, having sex with the devil, giving birth to demons. Underlying these charges lay the fact that women healers were the authorities on sexuality. (8)

22> Note again, even here, the emphasis on sexuality, reproduction, and birth. Writing Sin as witch-like allows Milton to include yet another instance of the monstrous feminine: that of the phallic mother.

Freud argued that the male child could either accept the threat of castration, thus ending the Oedipus complex, or disavow it. The latter response requires the (male) child to mitigate his horror at the sight of the mother's genitals-proof that castration can occur-with a fetish object which substitutes for her missing penis. For him, she is still the phallic mother, the penis-woman. In 'Medusa's Head' Freud argued that the head with its hair of writhing snakes represented the terrifying genitals of the mother, but that this head also functioned as a fetish object. (Creed 66)

23> Witches, with long fingers and a long nose, also act as fetish substitutes for phallic lack. Thus, Sin is both the all-creating, all-consuming archaic mother as she reabsorbs her children, yet simultaneously the witchy phallic mother. And while the emphasis on witches could easily be dismissed as a product of the period in which Milton writes, to take this view is to surrender to a “‘gendered critical discourse’-- a masculinist filter…that over the years managed to render the sexual politics of literature as harmless, as conventional or, most insidiously, as normal” (Schanfield 11). Witch imagery, employed regularly then as now, is based on a (re)presentation grounded in woman’s depravity and physicality. Sin’s construction, as witch, sexual deviant, archaic or phallic mother, in all its various iterations, acts a precursor to modern representations of the monstrous feminine by utilizing the same tropes and relying on the same conventions.

24> Sin’s geographical position in the poem, at the Gates of Hell, solidifies her abject status. She exists neither here nor there, in Hell but not, free to build a highway to Earth when so inclined. Elizabeth Grosz, building on Kristeva, conceives the abject as “that which is undecidedly inside and outside (like the skin of milk), dead and alive (like the corpse); autonomous and engulfing (like infection and pollution)" (90). Sin is arguably all of these things: she is inside and outside of Hell, she is technically alive but exists at the precipice between life and death due to her eternal birthing. Her duty beyond gatekeeper is to tempt mankind, for she is both Sin and “sin,” in a sense “colonizing” (Burfoot 24) the bodies of humans. She is a being and a concept, tormentor and tormented. In Kristeva’s work, the abject is "placed on the side of the feminine" and "opposed to the paternal, rule-governed, symbolic order" (Grosz 93). Thus “Sin” had to be female: to utterly undermine the will of the Father, a female’s presence is necessitated; a male figure alone would not be properly subversive. Yet “the feminine is not per se a monstrous sign; rather, it is constructed as such within a patriarchal discourse which reveals a great deal about male desires and fears but tells us nothing about feminine desire in relation to the horrific” (Creed 70). Though such constructions did not begin with Milton, he utilizes them to his advantage to construct a suitably depraved Hell.

25> Ultimately, the monster of Milton’s poetry acts as a warning. The term “monster” derives from the Latin monstrum meaning “something marvelous; originally a divine portent or warning,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The verb moneo, “to warn,” acts as its root (Heiland 100). Monsters generally

function as uncanny doubles of our societies, reflecting back to us images of everything that we have cast out as undesirable or threatening to the status quo, and forcing us to face that which we would prefer to leave hidden. … The monster functions as monster…when it is able to condense as many fear-producing traits as possible onto one body. (100)

26> Sin, deformed, bursting, bleeding, yet still tempting, proves that “sin” itself is simultaneously alluring and wicked, just like woman.

27> The conception of the feminine as monstrous is prolific in literature and film today, yet finds an early iteration in Milton’s masterpiece. The loathsome and despoiled body of woman correlates so seamlessly with the notion of “Hell” that readers and scholars alike rarely question the means of Sin’s characterization. Read psychoanalytically, and not merely allegorically, Sin’s function in the poem is obvious: she helps make Hell possible. The grotesque body of woman is a conceivable Hell; it is something with which we are familiar. Because our predominant discourse is still largely a patriarchal discourse, when reading Milton’s Sin today, we intuitively understand Sin’s representation; it still works. Milton brings our mistrust of, and disgust with, the monstrous feminine to the forefront by aligning femaleness with depravity and Hell. In Sin, Milton has produced a wicked yet motherly being, grotesquely sensual in her horridness. Perhaps this partial study may act as the beginning of a more robust scholarly examination of Sin, her construction, and its larger implications, for like Death, contemporary villainesses find their mother in Sin. Let us then bring her out of the shadows.


[1] Myers, Alexander A. "'Embraces Forcible And Foul': Viewing Milton's Sin As A Rape Victim." Milton Quarterly 28.1 (1994): 11-16. Web.

Works Cited

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Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “On Studying Witchcraft as Women’s History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecution.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 4.2 (1988): 7-19. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2010. Web.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Mothers, Monsters, and Machines.” Writing on the Body. 7th ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, Sarah Stanbury: Columbia University Press, 1997. 59-79. Print.

Burfoot, Annette. "Surprising Origins: Florentine 18Th-Century Wax Anatomical Models As Inspiration For Italian Horror." Kinoeye 2.9 (2002): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 May 2013.

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Dally, Ann. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. New York: Schocken, 1983. Print.

Fischer, Lucy. “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in "Rosemary's Baby." Cinema Journal. 31.3 (1992): 3-18. Web.

Gilbert, Sandra. “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey.” PMLA 93.3 (1978): 368-382. Web.

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Leane, Elizabeth. “Locating the Thing: The Antarctic as Alien Space in John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" Science Fiction Studies. 32. 2 (2005): 225-239. Web.

Scobie, Stephen. “What's the Story, Mother?: The Mourning of the Alien.” Science Fiction Studies. 20.1 (1993): 80-93. Web.

Schanfield, Lillian. “Using Sexism to Enlighten: Robert Herrick and Other 'Wanton Amblers'.” WILLA Online-Only Journal 7 (1998): n. pag. Web. 3 May 2010.  Web.

Ussher, Jane. Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

White, Robert B. “Milton’s Allegory of Sin and Death: A Comment on Backgrounds.” Modern Philology 70.4 (1973): 337-341. Web.

Jessi Snider is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University. Her areas of research include women's and gender studies, Gothic literature, horror studies, and critical theory.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting essay, but I'm suprised to see no engagement with Louis Schwartz's Milton and Maternal Mortality (Cambridge, 2009). Certainly Chapter 8 is relevant here, as well as aspects of the overall argument.