The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women's Fiction:
Petryifying, Maternal and Redemptive
Gillian M.E. Alban, ©2017
Cambridge Scholars Publishers
Mine Özyurt Kiliç
Fulbright Visiting Scholar Department of Comparative Literature
Published in Oxford Academic Contemporary Women's Writing
Volume 12, Issue 2, 26 july 2018
Written by a scholar – an expert in the field of women and writing, with a focus on the representations of women in mythology and women writers’ re/vision of these myths – this book can be read as the product of an extended interest, already evident in her earlier study Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology (Lexington Books, 2003). Alban’s 2003 book pursues the figure of Melusine, the serpent woman, into French medieval folklore and ancient myth, and inevitably compares it to the Medusa myth. Now, in this dense investigation of the Medusa figure in contemporary women’s writing, Alban focuses on many works in various genres by [a diverse collection of] writers...
BY Gamze Sabancı Uzun Ph.D
İstanbul Aydın University
Published in Journal of American Studies of Turkey
Number 48, Spring 2018
Much has been written about the Medusa myth recounting Medusa’s rape by Poseidon and her subsequent outrageous imprisonment and transformation by Athena. She became a symbol of discrimination, objectification, victimization, alienation, fury and finally power. In short, she has represented the position of women in a patriarchal environment within numerous significations.
In her book, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive, Gillian Alban uses the Medusa myth primarily less to present the patriarchal objectification of women by the male gaze, but more to demonstrate that instead of being pacified or defused by the male gaze, woman rather gains an objectifying power by wielding her own gaze. To prove her thesis, Alban makes a thorough use of the theory of the Gaze, both of Lacan’s and Sartre’s, in order to conclude that Medusa is not only castrated by the gaze of others, but also castrates others with her own gaze. While describing this dual function of the gaze, she also takes it beyond male-female relationships to include the mother-daughter relationship, since maternal force can be simultaneously castrating and castrated. The Medusa Gaze Schema she provides after the Introduction clarifies this interplay of power and nurture as an effective response to destruction and powerlessness through succinct quotation from writers like Cixous and Ettinger as well as Lacan and Freud.
While castration seems to be a key aspect of Alban’s argument, she consciously and skillfully refrains herself from complying with the Freudian theory of the castration complex, since the novels she deals with are not limited to the putative “lack” of women that threatens men, despite the level of cultural castration women suffer. For Alban, “Discussion of women bound together even as they are generationally severed starts from Sigmund Freud’s view of the mother as a terrifying Medusa” (116). She underlines the implied meaning that Freud’s view of the Medusa “expresses his fear of the female, while connecting the mother’s genitals to the Medusa head [… since] he sees the mother archetype as petrifying, while at the same time offering the male a reassuring stiffening or erection” (116).
The first part of the book evaluates the dual function of the gaze as the Self in the petrifying gaze of the Other, and the deadly gaze of the Self toward the Other. The first function serves as a medium to form identity through various interactions with others as “they see themselves mirrored in those around them”: Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Leonie and Thérèse in Michèle Roberts’ Daughters of the House, Julia and Cassandra in A.S Byatt’s The Game, Elaine and Cordelia in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Some remain trapped within doppelgänger interrelations, while others evade objectification, even “under a panoptic gaze, [managing to] wield the power of the gaze themselves” (111). The deadly gaze of powerful women may be destructive rather than constructive, petrifying her objects, as seen in Marianne in Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains, Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, and Honor in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she elaborates how Sethe’s “outrageous fury, her tigress-like, savage protection of her young children”, looking her oppressors “dead in the eye”, forces them to give up on their attempt to reclaim their “property” (55-56).
In the second half of the book, Alban moves beyond the gaze of Medusa to examine further Medusa functions such as the position of women in society in relation to Freud’s androcentric perspective of the mother as a terrifying Medusa, to which Alban clearly objects in suggesting that “it is frequently mothers’ onerous duties and life’s harsh circumstances that turn them into fierce maternal tigers” (120). As examples, she scrutinizes Annette Cosway Mason of Wide Sargasso Sea, the Mother in The Passion of New Eve and Mrs. Winterson of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Readers, especially those interested in the presentation of social restrictions on women and its metaphorical demonstration through mythic women’s presentation in literature, will enjoy reading Alban’s book. Appreciating the nine contemporary writers and numerous cross references she discusses in her book helps readers to wholeheartedly ratify the journey of women from petrification to redemption.
Hi Gill ! Just finished The Medusa Gaze.
First of all I'd like to tell you how much I appreciate the amount of work you put into it. All the analyses, the reading, research, cross-referencing that you have done is incredible and I can see the blood, sweat and tears that you must have put into it. Also, congrats on getting it to a calibre which has enabled it to be published by such a prestigious publisher.
Although I am familiar with the Medusa tale, your interpretation of her powers was intriguing. I had a rather superficial idea of her capabilities (even though I was familiar with the sexual connotations of her tale as they apply to psychology) so the dualities you have presented in her gaze (destroyer and creator; the me and me-in-the-eyes-of-the other, the object and the objectifier etc.) I found to be fresh and very interesting. I was familiar with some of the works you have focused on and was happy that you have provided enough info on others so as to enable me (the reader) to understand your point. Knowing that you are a feminist, I can see how the – excuse the usage of a rather masculine term for want of less sexist one – the castration of women is an issue dear to your heart. It is very difficult not to agree with much of your basic premise as someone who has lived her life in a part of the world where misogyny is rampant. We are the "aggrandising mirrors" to men, as Woolf put it so cleverly. How many times have our endeavours to find ourselves led to us getting lost between becoming – in your words – the witch or the doormat? And worse – schizophrenically ending up a bit of both? Also the book was of significance to me personally cause maybe – come to think of it – my mother was a bit of a medusa too.
I think the best non-fiction books are those that want to make you read further. Your Medusa has made me go back to my mythology 101, Lacan and Freud; look up Melusine and even try to find a new reading of the Şahmeran tale. And I must find copies of Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.
This is quite demanding a read. I see that you want to present a scholarly work that places you in the academic realm and I think you have accomplished that; it is a scholarly book. And a very good one at that. (I think I have managed to understand most of it, thanks to being a former lit. teacher!) A reader interested in women's fiction who might be enticed by the wonderful cover, might get something far more intellectual than she/he bargains for. But as I said before, that is not entirely the reader you are aiming at, so I guess it is O.K. My one criticism would be the last part of the book about the redemptive quality of the gaze. I think there you fall back on myth more than its manifestations in women's literature.
All I can say is: What's the title of your next book? Really and honestly looking forward to it.
Afterthought: Sadly though, I can fully empathize with most the characters you dissect-including Medusa herself! My only consolation is – thank God – I'm not one of those women growing increasingly haggard with passing time, any woman who can only express herself through her appearance is doomed to defeat and failure.
Füsun Elioğlu, with much admiration.
by Glenys Livingstone PH.D
Published on magopoolcircle.net, 4.10.2017
Gillian M. E. Alban’s The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction
Beginning with some quotes from this ovarian book The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive by Gillian M.E. Alban:
“Alban reflects throughout this book on the myriad ways women and girls are gazed upon within patriarchal cultures as well as examples of how women assert their right to look, stare, or claim an apotropaic gaze of power and anger…”. from the Foreword by Margaret Merisante, Ph.D., Feminist Comparative Mythologist.
“Women are by no means merely the passive object of the other’s gaze; these writings show them asserting agency…I thus reclaim the gaze for women as active agents in their own right.” page 6.
“…women are now defiantly asserting their independent scopic force under the banner of Medusa, staring down any attempts to diminish them.” page 22.
“The dominant social gaze in our societies is male … which objectifies them as sexual beings, whether admired, or dismissed as unworthy of observation and lacking the dignity of complete human beings. Objectified through such looks, women are evaluated as merely female rather than appreciated as human.” page 24.
“Devouring mothers cause their daughters trauma, as do those who abandon and fail to care for their child, leaving the child longing for her mother…Most mothers fall between these two extremes. They are neither devouring or monstrous, nor abandoning or negligent, but as fallible humans, they often fall short of the high standards required in the task of mothering remaining condemned as not-enough for their demanding task. Mothers may embody the monstrosity of Medusa, or they may simply be inadequate in fulfilling their arduous mothering role, however desperately they do their utmost…” page 201
Some decades ago I reflected on my childhood experience of being observed:
A strong part of the cultural milieu in which I grew, was that I felt identified as sex object…with no subjectivity, no space to Be. Pornographic magazines of the day depicted women being constantly pursued by salivating men – either there was an assumption that she desired this, or they did not care to ask her. And Christian cosmology appeared to condone the imposition of a dominant will upon another – at the very heart of it is “the sacrifice of the lamb”. Women have been especially vulnerable, with their submission openly advocated.
“Marilyn”, they sometimes called me, simply because of my babyhood waved platinum hair…Marilyn was suggested to me by this naming, as someone I could model myself after.…I don’t remember any other significant famous women in the first decade of my life. As a child I was very conscious of being looked at, and perhaps on reflection, it was because I was female. I felt transparent and vacuous. I remember believing that others (particularly adults) could see my thoughts. The Great Male Metaphors of the day – God and Santa – knew everything about me. The male humans imitated the Deity with constant Gazing, in magazines, movies, wall calendars. I could only hope to be chosen to be worthy of his desire, yet at the same time it was known that he could be dangerous.
I felt acutely the identification of myself with the “inanimate” world, as it was understood to be – dead and inert.
I remember the first time that I consciously felt being seen/heard as human rather than sex object. I was forty-two years old, and speaking on the phone to the organiser of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Australia, about volunteering to assist; I got off the phone and contemplated this novel vision of myself…human being.
I love the Table of Contents of this book: this table in itself could bend a few brains, give cause for pause. Here is just a sample, though you may select others as alluring.
The Self in the Petrifying Gaze of the Other
The Gaze of the Double in the Mirror–My Sister!
Mother as Monstrous
Medea: the Mother’s Devouring Love.
Gaia and Demeter: Mother Earth
Sacrifice in Mothering
Birth and Mothering: The Thing Itself
Demeter/Persephone; Mother-Daughter Longing
Medusa’s Redemptive Evil Eye
This book offers many insights as the reader is taken through multiple literary works. It could be a journey through hellish places you have been, or quandaries you have known, and how your spirit intuitively coped, put strategies in place to ensure your survival. In the section “Medusa’s Redemptive Evil Eye”, the author describes how Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye “creates a Madonna for herself in the shape of an apotropaic Medusa eye in her moment of direst need, and this force rescues her by fortifying her against the hostility of so-called friends.” The journey could also be into the hellish places of other women you may have heard about in popular press and opinion, who have been harshly judged; and there may be evocation of another vision from within her frame, and compassion – a rethinking of popular judgements. In “Devouring Clytemnestra and Electra”, Alban notes: “Domineering, interfering, or infanticidal mothers do suggest the monstrosity inherent in mothering. The commonest cause of maternal infanticide has been illegitimacy; …” wherein a woman remains “helplessly trapped within sexual and moral mores, …”.And another wherein the mother is “caught in the terrible dilemma of exerting Medea power over her daughter by killing her in order to prevent her return to slavery.”
In a patriarchal, androcentric context, even everyday choices for women, such as, about how to raise a child in a hostile environment, whether it is safe to go out, how to dress, how to exercise authority, take the lead – have had to be considered more carefully and strategically, often defensively. As woman (again) cloaks herself, situates herself, regains vision of herself from within her own skin, she is able to take action with greater clarity and integrity, and confidence that she can hold her own. This book The Medusa Gaze is an empowering reflection on the complexities of woman’s situation, across diverse cultural experiences and personal particularities, gazing as it is from within female eyes, thus speaking a truth – which could change the world, as small particles may.
Gillian M.E.(dusa) Alban is a contributor to the anthology Re-visioning Medusa: From Monster to Divine Wisdom
 Glenys Livingstone. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion, p. 74-75.
 The full Table of Contents as well as an excerpt is available at
 Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 221-222.
 Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 121.
 Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 122.
 Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 121.
 As Luce Irigaray says woman must, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p.10-11.
Alban, Gillian M.E., The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive.
UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. (trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill)
NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion.
Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.
Margaret merisante PH.D
feminist comparative mythologist
In The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women's Fiction, Gillian Alban once again becomes a multidisciplinary detective who utilizes both a magnifying glass and a telescope to look intently into certain enduring stories that we Westerners have told and continue to tell ourselves. Through the symbols of Medusa and mirrors within the mediums of feminist literary fiction and psychoanalysis, Alban examines the often harsh gaze of the Other toward the self as well as the self toward the Other. Readers will find that her passion as well as her academic knowledge ignites a bright light of feminist analysis within these pages.
The two symbols of Medusa and mirrors are especially apropos. As an ancient Mediterranean goddess of Fate, Medusa has had an exceptionally enduring vibrancy throughout the ages in our collective consciousness. Furthermore, her mythology is rich and deep. Alban employs one form of Medusa in particular—the Gorgoneion (the visual depiction of Medusa’s head—either beautiful or repellant, fierce or simply otherworldly) to serve her overarching examination into both patriarchal and feminist gazes. The word “mirror” derives from the Latin mirari meaning “to wonder at.” On the surface, mirrors seem to be a particularly female object that appears to point only towards attraction, self-reflection, physical examination, or vanity. However, in numerous cultures worldwide, women have also used mirrors for significant purposes such as prophecy, visions, protection, and as a potent representation of the sun. Here in The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women's Fiction, Alban takes these two symbols and deftly uses them to give the reader a timely investigation into how we look at ourselves and others.
Currently we are subjected to increasing and pervasive voyeuristic surveillance, narrowed perspectives, and visual profiling. Alban reflects throughout this book on the myriad ways women and girls are gazed upon within patriarchal cultures as well as examples of how women assert their right to look, stare, or claim an apotropaic gaze of power and anger as a way of asserting female or feminist agency. In patriarchies, women’s anger or defiance is typically disallowed publicly and privately. Emotionally, anger can serve as movement toward action and change. Suppressed or thwarted anger can result in deep depression or, in certain cases, madness. Oftentimes when a woman displays any righteous defiance, protective fierceness, sharp anger, flaming fury, or steamy venting of suppressed frustration arising from oppression, she is labeled monstrous, mad, hysterical, or dangerous.As a remedy to this common state of affairs, Alban comments in chapter one that “In societies that commonly place women under the power of a panoptic gaze, the Medusa gaze is an inspiring force available for women to claim for themselves [… in order to] remain strong against assault under the public eye, which values women as more or less attractive objects.”
Within this detailed, scholarly, yet accessible investigation of “the power of the gaze” on and by women (which may empower, alienate, protect, or destroy), Alban offers insights gleaned from the novels, short stories, and poetry of several female feminist writers. Additionally, she pulls in Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic “mirror-gaze theory” of human development as yet another lens in which to scrutinize, deconstruct, critique, and re-imagine this social “power of the gaze.” As a reader, I found that the psychological and psychoanalytic gazes of Lacan, Sartre, Freud on the topics of looking, subject, object, ego, and self to feel, at times, as if I was caught in a carnival hall of mirrors because of these men’s twisty visions and privileged blindness to their own sexism, classism and racism. Turning her own powerful gaze back onto these theorists, Alban offers keen insight into common psychoanalytic and therapeutic biases against mothers.
Helping the reader find her way out from the fragmented and restrictive mirroring that women endure, Alban wisely introduces a chorus of female voices through her feminist literary selections. By doing so, Alban also exposes the gaze of patriarchy that distorts and freezes human sexuality and violence as concretized forms of interlaced intimacy. Chief among these literary selections are many works by Angela Carter (Heroes and Villains, The Sadeian Woman, Nights at the Circus, The Magic Toyshop, The Bloody Chamber, and The Passion of New Eve). Carter specialized in writing original and revised folktales and fairytales, often paired with mythic elements. Additionally, Alban gives the reader a rich smorgasbord of authors who directly reject, adopt, or reframe Medusa’s or the mirror’s gaze. These include Iris Murdoch (A Severed Head, The Time of the Angels); A. S. Byatt (Possession, “Medusa’s Ankles” in The Matisse Stories); Toni Morrison (Beloved, Sula); Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea); Sylvia Plath (“Medusa,” The Bell Jar, Journals), and Margaret Atwood (Cat’s Eye).
All of these writers engage strongly, smartly, and honestly with the painful social restrictions placed upon women. This particular collection of authors showcase noteworthy female protagonists who struggle to obtain empowerment either against or within patriarchal strictures. Ultimately however, these female battles offer the reader no shattered glass ceilings and certainly no revised paradise. Rather, through the power of literature, we stand as witnesses to these protagonists using their bodies and sexuality as deliberate weapons that break, destroy, or demolish the objectifying patriarchal mirrors they are caught in and as power tools to construct new images of self, autonomy, and agency amongst rubble. As any woman alive can attest, these narratives reflect shared intense yet redeeming struggles toward freedom and agency. Thankfully, as Alban shows us, just to be able to steadily look upon oneself as a Self who determines her own fate may be the most powerful Medusa gaze of all.”
Margaret J-M Sonmez
Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey
The introduction clearly and cogently sets out the book’s focus, which is “to reflect four aspects of the Medusa archetype within the contemporary fiction of nine women writers” (2). These four aspects being, however, themselves wide-ranging and also identified in very many literary representations of women, the book may be seen as operating within the much broader remit of exploring how women are treated within and by life and literature, as indicated by many statements relating to “the strengths and weaknesses of women in fictional interactions” (5)—and indeed, as many times stated, in social interactions outside of the world of fiction. There is an emphasis on Mothers in the third and fourth chapters.
The first chapter presents the major theoretical background to the study, and very clearly introduces the many and interacting issues involved in this subject, presenting and analysing older and more contemporary discussions regarding the Medusa archetype, the gaze, psychological and feminist theories related to these issues. This introductory analysis provides the framework for the concepts that underlie the readings, while additional work on female psychology or feminist theories is provided where necessary in the following chapters, also in the context of extensive readings of novels and stories. As a result, the chapters present the literary texts under inspection as complexes of literary, biographically experiential and theorized elements, supporting the underlying perspective which is to find and explore the ambivalent but always strong message, implications and even function of the female figure in twentieth century fiction by women.
The six mirroring chapters of literary investigation are presented under titles reflecting the four aspects of Medusa that were previously introduced: “The Self in the Petrifying Gaze of the Other,” “the Gaze of the Double in the Mirror: My Sister!” “Devouring Clytemnestra and Electra,” “Gaia and Demeter: Mother Earth,” “The Female Divine as Talisman” and “Rivals and Monstrous Femmes Fatales.” Each chapter presents detailed readings of a large selection of English and American literature written by women, not entirely confined to but particularly commenting on works by Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, A. S. Byatt, Jean Rhys, Jeanette Winterson, Michèle Roberts and Iris Murdoch (9). The readings in these chapters incorporate, illuminate and often take issue with the concepts that were introduced in Chapter 1. This book thus demonstrates how a focus on the various interpretations of what one is tempted to call, in formalist terms, the Medusa function, can be applied to enrich our readings of literary works. In such discussions one may find a woman character who is presented as, for example, a producer of the Medusa gaze, as a “monstrous and terrifying Medusa” (260), or as an “icon of worship” (261). The topics and materials of the chapters, being both multi-theoretical and including examinations of many fictional texts, are organised into further subsections as, for instance, “The Look of the Medusa Head—Reverted with Laughter” (21), “Objectified Puppets” (75), “Mother as Monstrous” (121), “Matriarchal Survivors” (177), “Medusa’s Redemptive Evil eye” (216) or “Predator and Her Victims” (240).
In summary, this book introduces, explores and persuasively argues about the significance of the conflicting, troubling, powerful and fascinating Medusa roles of women in modern and contemporary fiction.