Roundtable: Intersectionality and Lovecraft

These comments were part of the discussion on Intersectionality (Part 1 and Part 2), but I thought they might make an interesting series on their own.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

This puts me in mind of the recent controversy (now entirely moot) over Guillermo del Toro’s plan to put a female character in the period geological expedition in his adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, even though there was no such person in Lovecraft’s tale–the objective being to have a character in the movie whom women could relate to, so as not to alienate half (or more) of the moviegoing audience.

Sorry to fall on the Lovecraft crutch, as I often do, but his fiction is a perfectly good example to me of work that makes an impact, despite its failure to suggest credibly the greater world beyond the plot of the story. In Lovecraft’s fiction there is no sense of other races or non-male gender (except mostly in the negative sense). But Lovecraft isn’t interested in conjuring a view of society or its different people that one can relate to. He’s much more interested in evoking, broadly, the human race and human civilization and a cosmic context that diminishes them.

Of course, a lot of people would probably say that Lovecraft is not a good writer, or at the very least that he’s a writer whose work has to be taken on terms of its shortcomings.

Theodora Goss

OK, I’m going to disagree with this characterization of Lovecraft (sorry, Stefan!), but from a particular critical perspective.  And this is where an intersectional viewpoint can come in usefully for the critic.

In Lovecraft, female characters ARE alien.  As are characters of other races.  They are literally allies of the alien gods.  If a woman feels alienated by Lovecraft, it’s because she is, in fact, alienated (read as a verb!) by Lovecraft.  She is an other, and a symbol of otherness.

I don’t yet have my Lovecraft argument worked out in detail, but I’ve looked at 19th century texts that largely exclude female characters, such as Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and this is what I see.  In Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll describes Hyde as “closer than a wife” and describes the experience of being taken over by Hyde as “unmanning.”  Hyde himself exhibits hysteria.  In other words, there are ways in which Hyde is coded female.  In King Solomon’s Mines, the landscape itself is female (they pass mountains called Sheba’s Breasts, hello!).  In these works, femaleness is MEANINGFULLY excluded.  And it’s only by being aware of gender, of what seems outside the text, that you can understand the subtext.  I don’t think you can fully understand Lovecraft, Stevenson, or Haggard without thinking of gender, even though gender seems excluded from their works.  So the critic has to think intersectionally.  I’ll give you another example from Jekyll and Hyde. Homosexuality is certainly never mentioned in the novel, but after looking at the cultural context and the way in which Arthur Symonds, a closeted gay man and friend of Stevenson’s, responded to the novel, many of my students conclude that what Jekyll is Hyding is his homosexuality.  That the novel is about the difficulties of being a gay man in Victorian London.

I want to write a paper on female characters in Lovecraft.  But my main point here is, taking an intersectional perspective, which includes looking at what is seemingly excluded from these texts as significant, opens the texts to interesting and, I think, enlightening interpretations.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I want to write a paper on female characters in Lovecraft.

It will be a pretty short one, given the paucity of female characters in Lovecraft’s work. I don’t want to bog down in particulars, but I think you make an excellent about the female-as-alien in Lovecraft’s work. This may break down somewhat in “The Dunwich Horror,” in which the sole female character is more victim than victimizer, and arguably the least monstrous representative of her family.

I’ll give you another example from Jekyll and Hyde. Homosexuality is certainly never mentioned in the novel, but after looking at the cultural context and the way in which Arthur Symonds, a closeted gay man and friend of Stevenson’s, responded to the novel, many of my students conclude that what Jekyll is Hyding is his homosexuality. That the novel is about the difficulties of being a gay man in Victorian London.

Fascinating to read this in the context of the Mammoulian movie adaptation of the story. In an attempt to open up Stevenson’s story to reflect the world beyond the plot, the movie presents two types of female characters: the prim and proper Victorian lady whom Jekyll wants to settle down with, and the prostitutes and slatterns that the bestial Hyde consorts with. I doubt that you could read the film as a study of repressed, or hidden, homosexuality, but then it’s a completely different story, no?

Theodora Goss

Oh, I once wrote a seminar paper on Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice!  She has no speaking lines in the novel.  (And then I wrote a story from her perspective that came out in Asimov’s last year.)  Blame graduate school, where one is taught to write 20-page papers on ANYTHING . . .

I think talking about Lovecraft from a feminist perspective would actually be fascinating and informative (and article-length!).  Even in stories where no female characters appear, to the extent those stories are about heredity, women are implied and implicated.

N. K. Jemisin

Oh dear God, Dora, thank you.  Was about to asplode!1! at that characterization of Lovecraft, myself.  I’ll also point out that his fear of not just women but brown-skinned folk is represented in his work — not only in allegorical form as incomprehensible eldritch monsters, but also in overt and hostile form (per his 1912 poem “On the Creation of Niggers”, which I was unfortunately shown by Nnedi Okorafor recently).

Stefan, his (not at all credible, to me) exclusion of women and people of color from his depictions of “the human race” strikes me as a clear implication that we weren’t human to him.

And this is a lovely example of how the intersections of identity affect each person’s perceptions of an author’s work.

Theodora Goss

There’s also “Medusa’s Coil,” the story he co-wrote with Zealia Bishop.  (At least that’s my understanding, but I’m not a Lovecraft scholar and I don’t know the exact extent to which either was responsible for the story.)  It’s about a beautiful woman who turns out to be a monster and is also revealed at the end to be, “though in deceitfully slight proportion,” black.  (Quoting from my edition of The Loved Dead and Other Revisions.)  The monstrous woman who is also racially other is so common in late 19th c/early 20th c fiction that you could write a whole book about her.  This story is very much a standard example.

What these lenses allow us to do is see that what seems excluded from a text may actually be at its center.  For example, to the extent that Lovecraft’s stories are about biological degeneration, what he excludes (women and sex) are actually central.  You can see this in The Shadow Over Innsmouth: toward the end the narrator says, “One night I had a frightful dream in which I met my grandmother under the sea.”  (Quoting from The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.)  The horror of the story comes from interbreeding with monstrous women who are associated with racial otherness.

I’m using Lovecraft as an example because I think he fits so well.  He wouldn’t be an interesting writer if his monsters didn’t involve this intersection of gender, race, nationality, etc.  I don’t think we can usefully read him without taking these issues into account.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Lovecraft’s intellectually broad but sociologically, psychologically, and emotionally narrow perspective is what shaped his chilling–and chilly–cosmic worldview. But that’s what you would expect, given that Lovecraft wrote to reflect on the insignificance of humanity in the grand scheme of things. I don’t go to Lovecraft expecting to find any compassionate, inclusive, or comprehensive depiction of the world beyond the plot of his stories. As he alluded in more than a few of them, the world beyond the small circle of familiarity illuminated by our feeble cave fires abounds with monsters that we can’t even begin to comprehend.

14 thoughts on “Roundtable: Intersectionality and Lovecraft

  • January 19, 2012 at 2:54 am
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    Nt t dvrg t mch frm the sbjct, bt I qt ltrlly lghd t ld t pr N K Jemison’s [sic] trmnt ftr xpsr t HPL’s “n th Crtn of Nggrs.” Mn p, fr Gd’s sk. f y cn’t tk n ffnsv pm, hw r y gng t rd bt hstry? The Hlcst? Th Rp of Nnkng? Ths r nt plsnt sbjcts. f yr snstvts r s frl, prhps y shld vd the wrttn wrd ltgthr. Wrds cn b dngrs–tht’s th pnt (xcs the pn) fr thrws th pn cld nvr b mghtr thn th swrd.

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  • January 19, 2012 at 3:15 am
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    The above comment has been disemvoweled for being a condescending piece of man-splaining trollery.

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  • January 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm
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    Why not have a female character? I think it would be okay as long as you stuck to the basic story line. Lovecraft may not have been a great writer, but he did leave his mark.

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  • January 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm
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    Well, I for one am relieved to hear (per Stefan Dziemianowicz’s first comment) that when Lovecraft offers “no sense of other races or [the] non-male gender” it’s only because he was “much more interested in evoking, broadly, the human race and human civilization”. So ‘human race’ = white men. Got it.

    And this is *not* something that benefits from an intersectional reading because…?

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  • January 20, 2012 at 3:19 am
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    While I understand the issue, I am not entirely sure that ATMOM is the best example to use here when it comes to issues of race and gender. Scientific expeditions of this time period were notoriously comprised of white males. And yes I agree that that was unfortunate, but it was a reality. I have to wonder how the story would have been received if it had included a woman or a minority. Would it have been believable at the time?

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  • January 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm
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    The more things change…. I am reminded of the recent “Cowboys and Indians” in which the only principal female character is in fact an alien.

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  • January 22, 2012 at 6:52 pm
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    “The above comment has been disemvoweled for being a condescending piece of man-splaining trollery.”

    Meaning, naturally, that I believe in freedom of expression, so long as I agree with what you’re saying. Unless this fellow’s post was explicitly racist in a nasty way or vilely obscene, I think you should have allowed it to remain up uncensored. Now, no one can read it, or respond to it. ..And, seriously, what on earth is “man-splaining”?

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  • January 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm
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    I wrote a note complaining as to why Neo Noircat’s message had been deleted. To my mind, unless this person were writing something explicitly rasist for trolling purposes or something vilely obscene, he should have been allowed to express himself. Unfortunately, my own message was censored. Is this how these boards are “moderated”?

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  • January 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm
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    Ah, sorry, my apologies for the last message. My own message seemed to disappear in my browser then reappeared, so I shouldn’t cast aspersions for that.

    Still, why not let this person speak?

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  • January 22, 2012 at 7:51 pm
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    RJW – Thank you for withdrawing your censorship accusation about your post, given that the problems were on your end. That’s very kind of you!

    NeoNoircat’s message was not deleted – it was disemvowled. You can see that it’s there, and you can probably work out roughly what it said. It was treated as it was because it contained a personal attack on N. K. Jemisin, not because I disagreed with it. As you can see in the other posts on this thread, I have let them stand even though I don’t personally agree with all of them.

    I personally invite participants to the Locus Roundtable discussions, and I would be a very poor host if I then allowed others to insult them in my space. I don’t demand that everyone agree, but I do require a certain level of civility.

    As for mansplaining, it appears that you have a computer and an internet connection. Perhaps you could look it up?

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  • January 22, 2012 at 9:20 pm
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    Neo Noircat’s message was hardly a personal attack – I’m sure N. K. Jemisin and others are mature enough to read the message without being in the slightest bit put out by the point being made.

    In the interest of tolerance and inclusivity, I think the fair thing to do would be to return the message to its prior state.

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  • January 22, 2012 at 9:29 pm
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    Nope! Anyone who feels that they need to lecture World Fantasy and Hugo nominated authors on the power of the written word can take their comments elsewhere. Neo Noircat hasn’t been silenced, just muted.

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  • January 29, 2012 at 12:32 am
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    Thoughts on moderating aside, I’ve always suspected a story from the perspective of Joseph Curwen’s wife Eliza Tillinghast would be rich in possibilities:

    Ingredients include a forced marriage to the “horribly enigmatic” individual (echoes of Le Fanu’s “Shalken the Painter”), the fact that the relationship was intimate enough to be consummated, and the likelihood that Eliza would have gleaned some idea of his necromatic activities before the finale of whaling harpoons and celestial voices. Lovecraft reduces her uneviable predicament to the facts necessary for the plot to hold, so basically a writer would have few constraints to explore the dire situation from her perspective.

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