1 Dec. 2009
In Robert Marsh’s The Beetle, a company of protagonists struggle against the ideological apparatuses of economic, social, and political relations that begin as their primary situations, but fall prey to the greater danger of the religious apparatus created by the Egyptian cult of the children of Isis. All these subjects consider themselves oppressed by the ever-changing beetle character, when the real subjects of interpellation are the women that must be sacrificed and the people who act out religious rituals, possessed by the supernatural power of the beetle.
The first subject created by Marsh, Robert Holt, acts as someone with the consciousness of a poor clerk and activity of being unable to make money. His economic situation places him as a victim of the bourgeoisie, reflecting that some of the original tenets of Marxism are still active in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” As the poorest subject in the book, it follows that in the Marxist paradigm, Robert Holt faces the worst consequence, dying, in the final chapters.
Sydney Atherton’s situation demonstrates how hierarchy plays exists in the social and political sphere. A wealthy woman turns him down for an outspoken political radical, barring him from raising his political stature and obtaining the girl of his dreams. In addition, this radical, Paul Lessingham, falls in love with the same woman, Majorie, making both men subjects. They both choose to love, and are bound by the love making them active subjects. Althusser describes this complicated process, writing “There are no subjects except by and for their subjection” (1272). Both men are acting as lovers, and yet
captives of their own desires. Another dynamic of interpellation in the ideology of romance is how men change for their wives. Paul admits, “I suppose that men sometimes do change their coats to please their wives, — even their political ones” (Marsh 190). Men respond to the ideologies of their wives.
Paul takes up politics after his youthful mishaps in Egypt, asserting himself as society’s spokesperson. He explains his job choice, saying “I flattered myself that I had once more become as other men. . . . I devoted myself to politics” (246). His superiority in this field comes at the cost of having opposing ideologies from Majorie’s father, and he is forced to choose whether or not to proceed pursuing her without her father’s approval. Althusser explains how an active subject functions with conflicting choices: “a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority [in this story, the father or the object of his affection, depending on how Paul acts], and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission” (1271). Paul’s choices reflect both his autonomy and captivity as a subject who decides to be subjected.
Finally, all characters in the story who face the hypnotism of the beetle– this could possibly be extended to include the members of the cult and the Arab– are material subjects of religious ideology. The phenomena of hypnotism works as a way subjects assume they make choices of their own volition, but are in fact following some other willpower. Comparing this to Athusser’s theory, this could be an example of meconnaissance. The characters all periodically react to the will of the beetle, placing themselves within the ideology of something outside themselves and assenting to its government.
The voice of the narrator in The Beetle conflates race with an evil that is “neither born of God nor man” (Marsh 322). A strange, ambiguously-gendered Arab person is watched and condemned throughout the novel, revealing how “the other” is viewed through the words of Marsh, a Londoner and
graduate of Oxford University (9). Written in 1897, The Beetle is an example of the spirit of prejudice in British literature created, in the words of Henry Gates, by “the citizens of the republic of literature . . . [that are] all white, and mostly male” (1893).
Gates states that history has made arbitrary distinctions in the subject of race, noting the negative connotations that follow these distinctions. He explains that “Language use signifies the difference between cultures and their possession of power, spelling the difference between subordinate and superordinate, between bondsman and Lord” (1894). Thus, power is established, power is maintained, and power is pursued by focusing on the differences of foreigners. In many cases, these are visual differences, like color or other physical attributes. Gates further describes this problem, writing “We carelessly use language in such a way as to will this sense of natural differences into our formulations. To do so is to engage in a pernicious act of language, one which exacerbates the complex problem of culture or ‘ethic’ difference” (1894). Marsh exacerbates racism, exploiting ethnic differences, through the character of the Arab.
Robert Holt, the narrator at the beginning of the story, first encounters the Arab, the “other” of the book, and describes the experience as giving the feeling that “the presence with me in the room was something strange, something evil” (Marsh 49), and revealing the vision of “eyes [that] ran, literally, across the whole of the upper portion of his face,– remember, the face was unwontedly small, and the columna of the nose was razor-edged” (53). None of the descriptions of other characters come with such eerie feelings and unsightly features. Whenever someone encounters the Arab throughout the book, the same disgust based on physical appearance is conveyed.
Miss Louisa Coleman is an old woman who deals with the Arab in a non-hypnotized state. Both her clarity of mind and her age should serve to give her credibility, but she too represents how prejudice travels through history. When the Arab tries to conduct a business transaction, she resists, thinking “Well,
Mr. Arab, or whatever, or whoever, you may be, I’ll take good care that you don’t go out again before you’ve had a word from me. I’ll show you that landladies have their rights, like other Christians, in this country, however it may be in yours!” (Marsh 273). With this outcry, Miss Louisa attacks the foreigner on many counts, questioning whether or not he’s a person, highlighting that he is different from Christians, and emphasizing that this is not his country.
The driving force throughout The Beetle is the fear of dark, mysterious foreign things. Unlike the seemingly innocent band of white protagonists, the Arab represents what is outside of understanding, something neither male or female, neither human nor animal, and neither natural or supernatural, reinforcing the hideous monster that is racism.
To compare Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” to Robert Marsh’s The Beetle requires one to account for some of the changes that have occurred in the time between the two works, recognizing a shift from the mystery of the supernatural in the late 1800s to the mystery of technology in the late 1900s. The Beetle is an example of the “informatics of domination” that transition from the Bourgeois novel into science fiction. Although Haraway writes a century later, the theme of a fear of the unknown, especially in relation to women, characterizes both of these works. The fear of the beetle represents men’s fear of women. The beetle is manifested as a goddess, similar to Haraway’s cyborg.
Although the beetle is a loathsome object to the characters in Marsh’s book, the book is nearly an ode to the beetle’s greatness, the enigmatic marvel that it is, with the unleashing of its unapologetic sexuality, its history that goes back to Egypt, making it older than London, its supernatural quality, in a time when religion was esteemed by society, and its ability to manipulate reality. In fear, there sometimes
exists admiration for things that cannot be controlled. The beetle is a metaphor for something strange, intriguing, and forbidden. Similarly, a cyborg is a metaphor for an existence women are growing into that is so powerful it is, according to Haraway, like blasphemy.
To give a fixed definition of the cyborg, Haraway calls it “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (1967), and uses paradoxes to describe the cyborg as “committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. . . . oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” (1969). With these requirements, women have much to live up to, in order to retain this complex, controversial identity. The goddess in the beetle’s lair is also without innocence, initiating sex and singing siren songs to enact her power in a way that is unacceptable for women in Marsh’s time.
In Haraway’s ideal world there lives cyborgs that are “illegitimate cyborgs, not of Woman born, who refuse the ideological resources of victimization so as to have a real life” (1984). In a similar way, Marsh writes of a creature “neither born of God nor man” (Marsh 322). If the beetle in the book can emerge from the author’s negative, demeaning portrayal as misunderstood by the characters, as a representation of women unconsciously written into metaphor by the writer, then the beetle is no longer a victim of society’s judgment. After all, the beetle’s main victim, Marjorie, is a victim of her father’s dogmatic politics that bar her from her own wishes. Perhaps death represents the vanity of her situation, the inability to break out of patriarchal society.
Marsh, Robert. The Beetle. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2004. Print.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts
and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter. 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.
Gates, Henry Louis. “Writing, ‘Race,’ and the Difference It Makes.” The Critical Tradition: Classic
Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter. 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,
2007. 1891-1903. Print.
Marsh, Robert. The Beetle. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2004. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late
Twentieth Century.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David
Richter. 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 1967-1990. Print.