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 a 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 writers as different as Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson, Jean Rhys, and Michèle Roberts. Studying the female characters as both the bearers and receivers of the “petrifying, nurturing and redemptive” gaze of Medusa, the “dreadfully gorgeous victim” (2), she views them through the vision filters of such giant figures as Freud, Lacan, Laing, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Irigaray, Spivak, Klein, Winnicott, and Chodorow.
With a huge body of original texts, as well as secondary sources from diverse fields, the book seems to be a gargantuan attempt to cover all of the cultural and literary reverberations of the Medusa myth. Alban manages to offer a close reading of a very broad array of texts by women writers to show these different facets of Medusa symbolism. What makes the study exceptional is the passionate voice of a feminist scholar who wants to reach those outside academia. Apparently, with such an intention in mind, Alban often inserts quick explication of the complex theories and discussions she employs in her reading, as well as helpful yet sometimes digressive plot summaries. This intention is also evident in the enthusiasm of the finale. She concludes the study by contending that the overall discussion of the Medusa force–the gaze and its echoes–displays “the ongoing determination of women to claim their rights and assert their will against considerable obstacles, refusing to abjectly submit to the hostile forces that threaten to overwhelm them” (263).
While offering a feminist analysis of the Medusa gaze, Alban visits various representations of motherhood and femininity. What makes the book’s discussion dense and complex is partly her rightful emphasis on Medusa’s double role, at once preserver and destroyer. To show this double aspect of Medusa in contemporary women’s writing, she covers as many genres as short fiction, poetry, the novel, memoir, autobiography, the letter, biography, and the essay by the above-mentioned writers, and the detailed close reading of these various texts is often informed by a rich web of references, both inter- and intratextual in nature. For instance, in the seven-page subsection, “Looking-Glass Vision and the Double,” to explicate the way “girls observe others at a formative stage and see themselves reflected back through their perceptions” (62–63), Alban makes numerous references. She starts with Woolf’s critical comment on women’s role as men’s magnifying mirrors in her A Room of One’s Own, moves onto John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to argue that women are often presented as “the objectified spectacles of men,” and then makes back-to-back references to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Angela Carter’s The Snow Child, and Sylvia Plath’s “The Mirror,” as well as to the critical views of Joanna Russ and Gilbert and Gubar. At times, the writer’s focus shifts from a comprehensive study of a theme through various texts to an analysis of a single work; however, that each subsection starts and ends with a comparative outlook at the texts under discussion provides a consolidation of her intense writing. With the titans of the contemporary women’s writing in her cup, Alban not only offers a kaleidoscopic view of the Medusa figure but also gives her reader a kaleidoscope through which s/he can delve into the myriad ways s/he is constructed in this patriarchal culture.
contact MINE OZYURT KILIC at email@example.com
Università di Urbino Carlo Bo
Published in Rivista di Storia dell‘Educazione ('Italian Journal of the History of Education'), [S.l.], v. 5, n. 2, p. 373-376, nov. 2018.
Gillian M. E. Alban, Melusine The Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2003,
& Gillian M. E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017
Gillian Alban’s works are not only fascinating, especially for those who, like Virginia Woolf, cannot live without books, they are also supporting scholarly research. Indeed, if we are to effectively deconstruct the patriarchal imaginary, a continuous, coordinated and symbiotic interaction needs to be established between author and reader. It also essential that we have faith in this type of investigation. In this regard, a book can be much more successful than a host of other publications, and this is the case with Melusine The Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology (Lexington, 2003)
This book raises intriguing questions about myths, legends, the oral transmission of such, and contemporary literature. The reader is drawn into different temporal dimensions—from the Neolithic to the present day, into cultural and psychological experiences regarding the phenomonology of the snake-woman. Alban shows how, in an androcentric system, a powerful and sacred female icon was gradually replaced by an image of monstrosity and evil. Through her analysis of A. S. Byatt’s seminal work, she confronts and documents the consequences of gender hierarchy, dualism, and the obliteration of the gylanic cultures—discovered by Gimbutas and Eisler—that characterised Old Europe. In other words, she sheds new light on many passages in human history that progressively divided the world up between men and women, and how, with the advent of monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), we began to worship a single supreme power and to consider transcendence as the only cosmic force. This transformation enabled the vital force of immanence—perfectly represented by the original Melusine in the neolithic pantheon of serpent gods—to be overturned.
For centuries male narrators performed complex acrobatics in order to persuade us that evil, violence and ugliness were the result of two opposing powers, two phenomena that were largely dependent on femininity. This is only one of the flaws in the dualistic, transcendent world-view, as the Western accounts of snake-women (goddesses, faeries and monsters) repeatedly demonstrate. In particular, the vigilant gaze of Alban settles upon the way in which mental representations can safeguard or destroy—through images and language—the equilibrium in relationships between the sexes.
Her examination of the medieval folkloric tradition of Melusine in French texts reveals a solid example of this mechanism. In the Europe of four thousand years ago, when human communities tended to be egalitarian, female potential was certified by the sacred authority of Melusine; it is only by being aware of this heritage that we are able to understand—together with Alban’s inspirations, Maud, LaMotte and Byatt—that the viruses spread by distorted historical choices which turned women (especially those accompanied by serpents) into marginalised and dangerous creatures, are destined to be eradicated.
On a similar note, Alban’s The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017) examines the interaction between ideas, images and narration in light of the perspective provided by feminist literature, as well as psychological and psycho-analytical theories. She explores the way in which two complex symbols, the gaze and the mirror, became inseparable from the dreaded Gorgon in Ancient Greece, and how, since then, these attributes have shaped and distorted communication between men and women. In the first two chapters of The Medusa Gaze, Alban reveals how Lacanian psycoanalysis, Sartre’s
phenomenology, and Freudian theory reassess and reinterpret the gaze, showing how the metaphor of vision is intimately connected with the construction of gender and sexual difference. Phenomenological interpretation of an encounter with the Other via a look deprives women of voice and identity. Thus a person—a ‘subject’—is ‘objectified’ by the gaze of another. According to Vernant, the petrifying Medusa—one of the most powerful images of women from Greco-Roman patricentric mythology—is emblematic of this dualistic and hierarchical process.
Alban’s approach is particularly interesting when she collocates the relationship between mother and daughter in the network of visual exchanges from the perspective that “the forceful agency of women [...] is also returned against them through their Other or alter ego” (111). This is the case of contemporary women writers, who, through literature, make creative use of the powerful gaze of Medusa as an instrument of empowerment and an icon of the female gaze.
This stimulating window onto the construction of identity and alterity guides the reader away from the historical view of the female monster’s trap. At the same time, it focuses their attention on the possibility of creating other images. The force for change liberated by a series of feminist authors of English, French and American contemporary fiction (from Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath to Hélène Cixous, Margaret Atwood and Amy Clampitt) has had the cumulative effect of transforming Medusa in a way in which no-one had imagined or desired, although Christine de Pizan would have heartily approved. Indeed, this extraordinary Medieval author dreamed up and, in her City of Ladies (1405), promoted a very special Medusa; in de Pizan’s account, Medusa is, for the first time, the best personification of Beauty, Benevolence and Peace. As a consequence, the reader understands that the masculine myths on Medusa are more powerful than it would have been possible to imagine. Alban shows how they erected insurmountable psychological barriers that promoted the passive acceptance of oppression and violence; the entire social apparatus was based on the conviction that the Gorgon’s Otherness in the Greek myths presupposed male supremacy.
The collapse of patriarchal narration began with those who ceased to identify with this type of imagination. Indeed, why would female writers, poets, novelists and literary scholars maintain an imaginary that they did not believe in? Hence the female voices of contemporary fiction incorporate—in the fabric of their daily lives and through their fairy tales, accounts, novels, poems, stories and images—a different imaginary order. In particular, the third and fourth chapters of Alban’s book bring into focus the effects of the representations of the malign powers of Medusa on the experiences of maternity, nurture, and relationships between mother and child. The Freudian association between femininity and danger/death has gradually snuffed out the vital spark that conferred value and meaning on this relationship, and generations of daughters have failed, and still fail, to understand their real value. According to Alban, this misunderstanding has the following effect: “The daughter’s journey from loving intimacy with her mother to maturity and independence may cause her to dislike her mother, even while the mother remains or retains a significant influence over her daughter into adult life” (116).
Indeed, the mother proposed by traditional psychoanalysis is, herself, the daughter of a monster, Medusa. To understand this psychological archetype is to discover that the destructive side of the Great Mother is the phantasmic Devouring Mother. Therefore, the mother–daughter relationship—another mirror of the experiences of the Self and Other—is marked by personal and collective traumas and lack of feeling. Alban urges her readers to look again at this process in order to comprehend the intrinsic meanings behind the deadly gaze of Medusa (an intricate matter that led me too to investigate the multifold forces responsible for the invention of the snake woman).
The final two chapters of The Medusa Gaze (the fifth and sixth) reinterpret destructive or protective goddess myths through contemporary women writers who embrace the female divine as a force of inspiration for women. In them, Alban investigates the textual strategies that are employed by women writers in order to subvert and revise the patriarchal ideology in ancient and Classical myths, and to come up with alternative definitions of female identity and their own, gynocentric, myths. By these means, Alban managers to free her readers from the chains of the established imaginary, convincing them of the necessity of revisiting the myths, and in this specific case, to leave behind the lethal gaze of the first female monster in Western history—the Medusa, symbol of a series of oppositions which slowly but surely became cornerstones of male-centered thought and emotions. She reveals how investigation into alternative routes in feminist literature (narrative construction of reality, symbolism, metaphor, myth, novels and autobiographies, etc.) is a fundamental tool for creating new potential worlds (in the meaning proposed by Bruner)—other realities, other identities and other possibilities for action.
These female narrative voices teach us how to modify the past, and Alban’s book, a highly successful reconstruction of such a complex reality, provides an important contribution in this regard. It has also achieved a strategic milestone: to make us desire the return of the vital force of the Gorgon in order to breathe life into an alternative imaginary with a different very different impact on our lives, to change our mental and emotional models. Indeed, thanks to authors such as Alban, we are able see that there is no further need for the world to be divided up into that which belongs to “us” and that which belongs to “them”.
(Università di Urbino Carlo Bo)
by Burcu Gülüm Tekin
Istanbul Aydin University
Published in ES REVIEW. SPANISH JOURNAL OF ENGLISH STUDIES
Number 39, 2018
E-ISSN2531-1654 | ISSN2531-1646
Fearful and intriguing, Medusa is also an oppressed and scorned mythological female figure of the ancient Greeks. Medusa’s iconic image has continued to influence artists and writers, while also directing the theoretical framework of scholars. In her recent study, Gillian M. E. Alban revisits this inspiring female archetype from the perspective of Medusa’s gaze. This study takes its cue from this gaze, as an impetus that petrifies the objectifying or diminishing force of the Other, leading to madness and death, while elsewhere fortifying and invigorating the psyche.
In addition to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytical perspectives, Alban employs the framework of leading names in the field of feminist theory (including but not limited to Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray). The book’s major concern is to explore women characters through the literary works of nine contemporary writers, analysing how these female figures regain their voice despite their oppressively debilitating societies.
In the first chapter, Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” (1979) and The Magic Toyshop (1967) are discussed in the light of Lacanian mirror stage as well as Mulvey’s gaze theory. Various women’s struggle against the debilitating gazes of both men and women in these works are investigated, while their voyeuristic elements are extensively explored. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) are amongst novels the second chapter delves into. Alban’s analysis concentrates on the hazardous entrapment of the gaze that is reflected through the mirror image within the lives of female characters in many texts.
The book also reflects on maternal concerns related to the Medusa gaze. Chapter three is dedicated to mother and daughter figures in contemporary writings like Tony Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977), Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Alban interlinks various works through the theme of motherhood, offering the reader a comparative analysis of colourful female characters. She invokes feminist criticism while supporting her thesis, underscoring the heavy duties of mothering. Alban ponders whether those duties may have transformed the castigated Medusa archetype into a wicked or devouring figure (115). The perspectives of daughters are also considered while evaluating the demands of maternal commitments.
Chapter four takes the reader to Gaia, mother earth. Compromising, self-sacrificing mother figures are explored through the theoretical perspectives of Melanie Klein, Nancy Chodorow and Julia Kristeva. Alban discusses the maternal experience with its nurturing and challenging aspects in works such as A. S. Byatt’s Still Life (1985), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Angela Carter’s Sadeian Woman (1978), Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). She demonstrates how a Freudian psychoanalytical perspective might be misleading as it encapsulates mothers within certain negative patterns.
The fifth chapter illustrates how Medusa’s potential serves as a lucky charm or evil eye in paralyzing her opponents with her cataclysmic gaze. The dichotomy between female power and goddess mightiness is discussed through literary works like A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), Michèle Robert’s The Wild Girl (1984) and Daughters of the House (1992). Alban traces the symbolism behind talismanic elements within these works. She underlines that these elements epitomize the concept of the female divine, providing a creative source for the women writers of these literary texts.
The binary between good fortune and the demolishing force of Medusa power is reflected in the last chapter. Alban underlines the multi-layered aspects of the Medusa gaze, a destructive force that may entrap women within a vicious loop of fury, resentment and atrocity. Here, she examines Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993) and Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head (1961), amongst other literary texts.
All in all, this study presents a wide spectrum of literary analysis which is not restricted to a particular milieu of contemporary women’s writing. Thus, this fascinating research offers an insightful guide and powerful reference to literary scholars, presenting strikingly appealing Medusas within its discussion of characters. Alban constantly supports the reader regarding ongoing arguments and offered conclusions within each chapter section. However, with its effort to analyse the varying aspects of the Medusa gaze in extensive detail, and probably concerned not to omit any significant literary work by the evaluated women writers from the sixties to the present, there are slight overlaps within the discussion. Nevertheless, literary scholars, particularly those engaged with contemporary women’s writing, will appreciate the rich resources of Alban’s analysis in this thorough and insightful study.
Contact Burcu Gülüm Tekin At firstname.lastname@example.org
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.