Monster Culture Series
(NOTE: This is the final piece
of this series)
The presence of the werewolf in literature can be traced back to the 12th century to a peculiar story titled “Bisclavret,” from the Lais of Marie de France. As with all literary devices, the meaning and purpose behind the werewolf transforms as one progresses through various pieces of literature up to present day. But, in the past, the werewolf served as folklore and a warning born out of superstition. Nature and the unknown are evil. Your inner human tendencies are evil. Etc. Etc. Today, even though we as a species have demystified many of the mysteries of the natural world, the werewolf remains relevant. No longer representing fear of the unknown, of curses and more, this figure now represents the need of and provides a safe outlet for traditionally socially unacceptable behaviors or tendencies.
As one progresses through the many examples of the werewolf, a pattern begins to reveal itself. In each story (generally speaking) this figure becomes more violent. The transformations become more painful. Finally, the form of the werewolf progresses from the visage of a traditional wolf to some sort of twisted human-wolf hybrid through which onlookers can identify the human behind the monster.
In “Bisclavret,” there is no evidence of a painful transformation. But in Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian’s 1876 tale, The Man-Wolf, the afflicted Count suffers from a plaguing illness throughout his transformation process. The narrator, a doctor, describes the Count as being close to death. His breathing is labored, he is bathed in a cold sweat. His pain suggests an existing unnaturalness to the wildness brought forth and it shows how his humanity fights against the beast in an effort to maintain its dominance. His struggle brings to mind the idea of flagellation as punishment for sin. A character in The Man-Wolf proclaims that “the crime of the father shall be visited upon the children until justice shall have been satisfied,” so this idea may not really be far off the mark (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15745/15745-h/15745-h.htm).
By exhibiting pain in transformation, the author makes it easier for the reader to sympathize and therefore forgive the actions of the Count because it provides them with enough distance from this character so that they do not have to fear the mirroring thoughts, desires and emotions roiling beneath their own carefully crafted surfaces. If the reader were to see a connection between him/herself and the Count, their self-defense-based reaction would be to instantly repudiate the Count, his actions, and everything he represents.
A similar literary device utilized in this sort of literature is the concept that the individual who transforms into a werewolf suffers from an affliction or a curse, often due to the family bloodline. This displaces blame even further so that the character can be redeemed. The Count in The Man-Wolf also endures this part of the tradition in his story.
The pain of transformation and the cursed familial bloodline both work to enhance the idea that this individual lacks control and is therefore blameless. Each device allows the reader to connect with this figure because, the physical pain that character endures mirrors the pain that a reader experiences daily within him/herself (whether or not he or she chooses to acknowledge its existence) and the ties to family remind the reader that there’s really not much you can do about it. Additionally, the pain and inevitability of transformation position the werewolf as both a victim and an aggressor, solidifying its relevancy and presence in literature for the modern reader. The werewolf becomes a being that can express itself truly without the hindrances of propriety expected by traditional human society and has a ready-made defense to offer for his or her actions.
Because of humanity’s growing affinity for the ability of expressing one’s true feelings and inclinations in a society in which this is unacceptable, the literary werewolf becomes more anthropomorphic in figure so that readers and writers can more easily live vicariously through this being. A perfect example of this would be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson. While this tale comments on many important issues during the Victorian period, at it’s heart, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the ultimate werewolf story. When Dr. Jekyll transforms, his alter ego, Mr. Hyde may not necessarily resemble the werewolf in its more traditional form. But in nature, the connection cannot be denied.
Similar to other werewolf stories, the transformation that Dr. Jekyll endures is extremely painful, though it is “drug” induced rather than a product of nature. Despite all the horrific things that Mr. Hyde does, Jekyll seems to become addicted to the transformation and to what his transformation truly means. He can do anything he wants and his good name is not tarnished. At times he is horrified by the things Hyde does when let loose, but this does not stop him from continuing his escapades. Eventually, Dr. Jekyll loses himself completely to Mr. Hyde, or what can be described as his “inner animal nature.” He is no longer able to transform back into himself. This fact serves as a warning to readers about the consequences of giving in to their inner-animal self and ties this tale back to the roots of the werewolf story.
In present day, the werewolf story remains relevant because of the scientific advances in our society and the desire to rediscover anonymity. In a world of DNA evidence, fingerprints and IP addresses, crime and even everyday actions are rarely anonymous (though yes, many still do get away with their crimes). The idea of changing one’s physical form in order to escape the pressures of propriety has a stronger appeal than ever before.
The relevancy of the werewolf to the modern reader is best described in the 1908 tale, Camp of the Dog by Algernon Blackwood. One of the characters in the story describes a werewolf as nothing but the “savage, and possibly sanguinary instincts of a passionate man scouring the world in his fluidic body, his passion body, his body of Desire,” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22349/22349-readme.txt). This story ends up being a romance between two individuals afflicted with werewolf transformation. The man desires the woman to a great extent and it is this desire combined with the natural elements (they’re camping in the wilderness) that ignite his transformation. The woman is inexplicably frightened by and drawn to this man. Their transformations into werewolves suggest their desire to deviate from proper society and it’s expectations, to be wholly themselves without fear of judgment or repercussions. And so, as with other monster figures in literature, the werewolf begins to take on a sexual undertone and the wild beast within comes to express the desire to be sexually expressive and to give into one’s wild sexual nature in a society that typically frowns on such behaviors.
When you get down to modern examples of the werewolf in literature, it is interesting to note that both avenues of transformation and configuration have survived. The fork in the road of the werewolf form makes sense in the wake of post-modernism, which hails the arrival of the individual and thus the fracturing of the group or any one organized concept. An important element of postmodern literature is pastiche, which involves the pasting together of multiple elements. Thus you have writers picking and choosing various aspects of the tradition to suit their story and their purpose, whatever it may be.
The sexual deviancy implied by the Blackwood’s story remains relevant, particularly through the postmodern lens (despite the story being written pre-postmodernism). Though we are a less puritanical society than we once were, the modern reader is still plagued by judgments concerning their sexual orientations and preferences. The anonymity of the werewolf remains appealing because it would allow the afflicted individuals to escape the judgmental eye of their peers.
Regardless of the contemporary individual writer’s use of the werewolf, as long as our society continues to suffer from a sexual psychosis and a generally judgmental attitude, the concept of the werewolf, in whatever form, remains relevant. While we remain tied down by societal expectations, our inner wildness remains caged within, in need of an outlet through which we can live vicariously and perhaps for a moment, experience what it means to be truly wild or, perhaps, truly ourselves.
Monster Culture Series Part I:
Why Vampires Can’t be Narcissists: A Case Study
Monster Culture Series Part II:
Reanimating the Zombie: A Case Study