Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Medusa as Female Eye or Icon in Atwood, Murdoch, Carter, and Plath

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Medusa as Female Eye or Icon in Atwood, Murdoch, Carter, and Plath

Article excerpt

Medusa becomes again what she was once for women, an electrifying force representing the dynamic power of the female gaze.

--Susan R. Bowers, "Medusa and the Female Gaze"

The electrifying Medusa archetype, with her staring eyes and snakes for hair, petrifies her object. Since her force operates as an evil eye--"apotropaic, literally warding off or turning away the evils it embodies" (Garber and Vickers 2), protecting as a talisman--she also creates, through her reflected gaze, a symbiosis between viewing subject and viewed object. Herself a victim, Medusa, through her gaze, avenges her own rape and decapitation by controlling her objects, while also embracing the needy with her mantle of power as apotropaic or deflective evil eye or icon. Angela Carter in "The Bloody Chamber" embodies Medusa's glare in a figure of avenging maternal justice whose Medusa gaze petrifies the enemy. Margaret Atwood in Cat's Eye shows two girls trapped in a perniciously symbiotic doppelganger gaze; this gaze is deflected by a divine maternal icon rescuing Elaine in extremity. Sylvia Plath in her "Medusa" finds this same "Lens of mercies" (5) unbearable, yet Mary Lynn Broe considers Plath's "mother-hierophant" in her "Medusa" poem as an inspirational force, hovering between creativity and petrification (qtd. in Davidson and Broner 227). In Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head, Medusa projects an objectifying, erotic look of knowledge, at once monstrous and divine. Thus the works considered in this essay strikingly present the dual power of Medusa rather than asserting her well-known, petrifying force. Not only threatening aggressors, Medusa's stare also defends those who need her as a prophylactic or amulet, enabling victim and victimizer to switch places through her mirroring gaze. This symbiosis of Athene and Medusa, goddess and monster, which Elias-Button calls the "Athene/Medusa constellation" (qtd. in Pratt 33), occurs between the Virgin Mary as second Eve and the monstrous Lilith or Melusine. In statues in Brittany, the Madonna stands supported by a Lilith snake woman holding the apple of the first Eve, incorporating both goddess and demon within the same powerful "serpentine force" field (Alban 40).


This Medusa effect in poetry has been extensively evaluated. Plath's "Medusa" stretches out paralyzingly as divine mother, causing the poetic subject "death-in-life" or "mock-death" (Kroll 59) while attempting to escape from the mother's altruistic "terrible knowledge" (258). Plath's need for boundaries between herself and her self-denying mother is approached by Adrienne Rich and Lynn Sukenick as "'Matrophobia' [...] the fear not of one's mother or of motherhood but of becoming one's mother" (235, emph. Rich's), suggesting the daughter's fear of her mother's encroaching symbiosis. Annis Pratt refers to the Medusa effect as engulfment, or a "frozen, stunned state of life fixed in stone that many poets associate with Medusa's creative inspiration as muse" (54). Arturo Graf calls Medusa a "lugubre M[ed]usa," also implying her inspirational character as muse (qtd. in Defendi 27, emph. Graf's). Frank Davey discusses Atwood's "Gorgon Touch" as flesh turning to marble, while Susan Poznar analyzes the paralyzing Medusan gaze in Atwood's Cat's Eye. Susan Bowers affirms that through reclaiming this potency, Medusa becomes "an electrifying force representing the dynamic power of the female gaze" (235). Instead of female objectification under the male gaze, as theorized by Laura Mulvey, the writings considered here vindicate Medusa's redemptive power, while defying any "fear of decapitation (or castration)," as Cixous states (888)--showing their "sexts!" (885). This essay thus asserts women's empowerment through the Medusa trope in these texts, as her petrifying gaze is deflected apotropaically against the aggressor, while her inspiration transforms (see Fig. 1).

The beautiful snake goddess of the life force, Medusa, whose name means "ruleress" or "queen" (Elias-Button qtd. …

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