Monday, May 3, 2010
Feminine Evil: Punishment or Choice?
Everyone has heard of the wicked witch. She is old and ugly and mean. She is an evil thing who wants to obliterate the forces of good. She will lure children with her gingerbread house and then cook them once they are fat enough. She will takes dogs away and euthanize them. She will imprison pretty girls with long hair in towers. No one likes wicked witches. However, that does not stop them from being fascinating. Though the very simple stereotype of the “wicked witch” with a green face and a pointy hat exists, female villains are much more complex. Women have had a very dualistic role in myth and literature, being viewed as the embodiment of both virtue and vice. Such notions can be identified in Western language, as Jack Tressider discusses in his book The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, “women personify the majority of the vices and virtues because these terms are grammatically feminine in Latin” (Tressider 522). As such, a female villain is not simply autonomous to her character, she is an extension of the vices of womanhood. As gender roles and notions of evil evolve, however, ways in which these vices are manifested evolve with them. The White Witch, Jadis, from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and the Witch of Waste from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle display competing notions of the nature of evil. Though upon the surface they are very similar, being beautiful women who retain their youth through magic, they operate in very different ways. Jadis displays a calculated and deliberate wielding of evil, whereas the Witch of Waste is essentially possessed by it. In the end they explore different paths: how a person comes to wield evil, and how evil comes to wield a person. Due to the fact that they both explore the connection between choice and evil, though, they are still connected. They explore different facets of the same concept.
Typical of women in literature, Jadis and the Witch of Waste embody both virtue and vice. Since they are villains, however, their virtue only applies to the surface, and vice is inherent to the basic essence of their beings. Their virtue only resides in their looks, as both women are beautiful. C.S. Lewis introduces Jadis as such:
The last figure of all was the most interesting -- a woman even more richly dressed than the others, very tall (but every figure in that room was taller than the people of our world), with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away. Yet she was beautiful too. Years afterward when he was an old man, Digory said he had never in all his life known a woman so beautiful (Lewis 53).
In a similar fashion, Diana Wynne Jones introduces the Witch of Waste as such:
The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress. Sophie’s eyes went to the lady’s wide hat first -- real ostrich plume dyed to reflect the pinks and greens and blues winding in the diamonds and yet still look black. This was a wealthy hat. The lady’s face was carefully beautiful. The chestnut-brown hair made her seem young, but . . . (Wynne-Jones 25).
Note that while both characters are beautiful, there is a sinister undercurrent in the authors’ descriptions. Lewis’ use of the sentence “Yet she was beautiful too,” implies an ugliness in Jadis’ fierceness and pride noted earlier. Wynne-Jones foreshadows the Witch of Waste’s ominous spirit by describing her face as “carefully beautiful,” implying artifice and dishonesty in her character. As each book progresses, the witches’ evil natures are revealed. However, each woman’s relationship to evil is very different.
The Witch of Waste is evil’s instrument rather than its wielder. Having given up her heart to a fire demon in exchange for increased power, her relationship with evil weakens her rather than empowers her. When Sophie encounters her later in the book, her appearance is distinctly fire-like, indicating the fire demon’s increased control over her: “Her face was different. Her hair, instead of being orderly chestnut curls, was a rippling mass of red, hanging almost to her waist, and she was dressed in floating flutters of auburn and pale yellow”(Wynne-Jones 193).
The note that her face was no longer “carefully beautiful,” implies that lack of command over her appearance that she had previously. At the end of the book, it is revealed that she has been essentially possessed by a fire demon she made the deal with. As Howl says, “No, you wont find her heart here. Her fire demon will have got that. I think it’s had the upper hand of her for a long time now. Sad, really” (Wynne-Jones 315).
Her path of evil is not a calculated choice, rather a punishment for temptation and exploitation of her power. As Howl’s teacher Mrs. Pentstemmon reflects, “It seems as if those of high ability cannot resist some extra, dangerous stroke of cleverness, which results in a fatal flaw and begins a slow decline to evil” (Wynne-Jones 180).
Her talent and thirst for power made her vulnerable. The fire of evil, like a parasite, invades her and feeds off of her, eventually coming to dominate. She is essentially a puppet. The implications of this characterization are significant. Evil is a consequence rather than a choice, starkly different from C.S. Lewis’ world.
Jadis wields evil; it does not control her. Her path down evil is a deliberate choice. Everything she does is calculated, her use of the Deplorable Word in Charn is an example of this. She educated herself in the magic of the Deplorable Word, waited until her defeat was guaranteed, and then unleashed the magic to assume victory. Being the only person alive in the world, she enchanted herself to sleep so that she may be awakened when another person entered Charn. From there, she would reassert her power over the world. At no point did she lose control. There is a slight shift, however, when she enters Narnia because she still has to pay for her choices like the Witch of Waste. Ironically, her knowledge empowers her, but her lack of wisdom weakens her. Due to Jadis’ thorough understanding of evil, she understands its opposite as well: good. Such awareness is illustrated when she first hears Aslan’s song, “she understood the music better than any of them. Her mouth was shut, her lips were pressed together, and her fists were clenched. Ever since the song began she felt that this world was filled with a magic different than hers and stronger. She hated it” (Lewis 109). Though she understands good, she only understands them as opposites rather than poles on a continuum. Evidence of this is her exploitation of the apples of youth. The apples have a very liminal power, for in granting eternal youth they bestow a great gift and incur an incredible curse. When she encounters the apple’s liminal power, she is able to identify them for what they are but not grasp the consequences of their power. She does not understand that losing mortality is equivalent to losing one’s humanity. Though eternal youth is a strength, it imposes significant vulnerability -- perhaps because it incurs a responsibility that many cannot handle. Only when it is too late does she understand what the power of the apples are, as Aslan recounts, “that is why all the rest are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after” (Lewis 190).
As an illustration of her curse, her skin blanches to the pale pallor that she is eventually known for. As the White Witch, she represents death, the very force she was trying to overcome. Discussing the symbolism of the color white, Tressider writes, “The pallor of a corpse and the whiteness of bones doubtless account for the fact that deities of the dead, ghosts, vampires and other grim spirits are white or white-faced” (Tressider 517). She does not let this consume her, though, as the fire demon does the Witch of Waste. Eventually, she comes dominate Narnia and spread her curse across the land with perpetual winter. She adapts and remains calculated. No matter what the consequences of her actions, she is in control.
Viewed in this light, Jadis of The Magician’s Nephew and the Witch of Waste of Howl’s Moving Castle are cut from the same cloth, but they explore the relationship to evil differently. As females, they are imbued with the traditional characterization of embodying both vice and virtue. Their status as villains, however, cast their virtue as surface detail and their vice as the true nature of their beings. They are both beautiful, but their baleful natures underscore their introductions. Despite their similarities, they each have a very different relationship to evil. The Witch of Waste is essentially a puppet for evil, whereas Jadis is the puppet-master of evil. The Witch of Waste falls through the temptations of incredible cleverness and power, and in her thirst for power loses it. Jadis, on the other hand, is more calculating. Though ignorance weakens her, she still manages to find a way to adapt to it and continue asserting power. Her characterization carries a very different message from that of the Witch of Waste. The Witch of Waste’s story implies that people are victims of evil. Jadis’, however, that people have power over evil. Though Jadis exploits it for evil means, her power over it illustrates that people can also overcome it. In the end, though, the Witch of Waste and Jadis can be united because they review different aspects of the same axiom.
Lewis, C.S. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: HarperCollins, 1955.
Tressider, Jack. The Complete Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
Wynne-Jones, Diana. Howl’s Moving Castle. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.