I am teaching an Introduction to Literature class, a basic one that covers different genres. We discussed Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae.” The students had extremely different reactions to Atwood’s style and exploration of monstrosity. For the basic summary of the story, I would suggest just reading it. It’s only 3 pages, and is available online.
The protagonist is an unnamed character, a “lusus naturae” (which really means a freak of nature), and is rejected from society. She is born a healthy girl, but soon becomes monstrous and deformed. She is neither fully human nor animal, we are unsure what exactly she “is.” As readers, we are simply aware of the vagueness of her state of being. Her family eventually gets rid of her, because they are ashamed of her, and are afraid of what the neighbors would say once they notice that she is not a “normal” girl.
At first, the students took this text as a purely fictional, imaginative work. Once I drew their attention to the term “monster” and the permeability of the boundaries between human/animal, healthy/unhealthy, man/woman, they were able to question their assumptions about normalcy and deviancy. The monster, the freak, the outcast, the reject is a symbol, a metaphor for all that is foreign and other to us. As always, we drew on our own experiences of marginalization, as women, as lacking in one way or another. The conversation, of course, drifted to the idea of the “ideal woman” and perfection. I joked about how when wrinkles start appearing on our faces, or when we gain a bit of weight, we are told to quickly hide it, to take care of it, to attempt to look good again, by society’s standards of “looking good” and “normalcy.” Anything else is ugly, deformed, and monstrous. We look away when we see someone deformed or disabled. We claim we don’t judge, but subconsciously at least, we judge. We blame people who are overweight for not going to the gym, for eating too much junk food. We criticize the girl who doesn’t have makeup on to conceal the dark circles under her eyes. We feel superior to those “others” that reconfirm to us our own “goodness” and “normalcy.” They, the others, are the monsters, and we are the “humans.”
The question I posed in class, and the question we kept thinking about: who are the real monsters? The monster figure is so important because of its multi-layered meanings and definitions. Edward Cullen, of Twilight, is yet another “monster”, a vampire that is capable of love, and yet isn’t fully human. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, typical monster/human boundary, is able to find love once Belle sees through his deformity. Yet does that mean the Beast got lucky? Are there real Belles in the world? How much are we really willing to look past ideas of perfection and normalcy? What is your personal standard and definition? What do you look for? Are you a monster? How many times have you hurt others, harmed them and excused it? I have quoted Mark Twain in the past, and I’ll do it again: “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.”
Of course, as always, the board went crazy (or I went crazy) with ideas and keywords.