ate-Victorian imagery and language returns almost obsessively time and again to the portrayal of woman as devouring, serpentine, and all-powerful, often using the motif of ambiguously embracing yet ensnaring hair to reveal masculine neurosis. In the late nineteenth-century, the iconography of woman's hair increasingly prefigures Freud's famous interpretation of the ancient meaning and power of Medusa. Freud reads Medusa's sinuously feminine, serpentine hair as standing for male terror of the female genitals and a threatening reversal of phallic imagery appropriated to female hair as mitigating this male neurosis of fear. Sharon Weltman has elaborated John Ruskin's preoccupation with snakes and serpentine transformative qualities: "A phallic symbol, the serpent becomes feminine for Ruskin in The Ethics of the Dust...[when he] emphasizes the serpent's sinuous curves and feminine beauty...[T]he snake's importance for Ruskin rests in its ability not only to transcend gender but also to represent another stereotypically feminine principle, that of change and metamorphosis" (Weltman 363). Pre-Raphaelite artists and their follows seized upon the metamorphic qualities of serpents and their applicability to woman through a wealth of text and imagery that often allows woman a multiplicity of meaning. However, the male terror and obsession with projecting woman as devouring and increasingly grotesque permeates the portrayal of femininity. The ambivalent Pre-Raphaelite portrayal of woman as silently containing a kaleidoscope of meaning witnesses an increasing male subjugation as Aesthete and Symbolist artists limit themselves to the representation of woman's demonic and devouring sexual force, of which many art historians have found "[t]he independent power... [to be] more than a compositional motif: through it, realistic representations acquire the resonance of icons" (Auerbach 48).
An early, almost iconic example of the ambiguous late-Victorian projection of the woman's power that hints at serpentine motifs, but whose beauty seems not yet transfigured by the grotesque, occurs in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings of mythic subjects. In Proserpine (1877), Rossetti accompanies a characteristic femme fatale, with wavy black hair, solemn eyes, curved mouth, and long, sinuous neck, with a specific identity. Rossetti employs the figure of Greek and Roman mythology, Proserpine, a young woman who the god of the Underworld, Pluto, kidnaps to be his wife while she innocently gathers wild flowers. Pluto carries Proserpine into the Underworld where, desperately wishing to return above, she eats only a few seeds of a pomegranate. Having tasted even a morsel of the Underworld's food, Proserpine becomes trapped there as Pluto's wife. Ceres, Proserpine's mother, strikes a bargain with Pluto in which Proserpine remains bound in the Underworld for half the year, but is free to return to the living for the other half, resulting in six months of winter and six of spring. Rossetti's image of Proserpine takes the shape of a beautiful, radiant woman with delicate features and flawless pale skin. Without the pomegranate clutched in her hand, which takes up the center of the composition, and without the specific identity of Proserpine, Rossetti's image would seem little more than a beautiful woman with a veiled gaze and ambiguous, yet powerfully feminine, expression. However, Rossetti gives us Proserpine prominently holding the pomegranate, also the fruit of passion, reminding us of her abandon to temptation in the Underworld. Her hands clasp together oddly, almost awkwardly, and her neck twists, revealing the sinuous muscles of her back and neck. Her wavy hair, combined with the curves of her flowing robe, the smoky tendril of incense, and the climbing, twisting vine in the background, create a "gyre" of serpentine movement "along which we move up to the face and hair" (Auerbach 48). The placement of twining female hands at the center of the composition, and along with the contrasting glimpse of light through the background window, emphasizing the dark mood of the interior, give the work an undeniably sinister feel. According to Nina Auerbaqch, the circularity of movement reminds us that Proserpine's "strong curled hand has the power to effect a dark transformation that injects an innocent world with evil" (Auerbach 48). Rossetti's Pandora (1878) and La Donna della Fiamma (1870) similarly employ the compositional motif of curled, serpentine hands, necks, and thick, wavy hair to evoke the ambiguous powers of feminine beauty.
In Lady Lilith (1864-68), Rossetti provides another equally ambiguous image of feminine sexuality and culpability. Lilith displays the same long neck as Proserpine, accompanied by the strong chin, red lips, and thick, lustrous hair of the femme fatale. Lady Lilith's voluptuous form seems barely contained by her gauzy gown, and her left hand holds a mirror into which she distantly gazes while poised in the act of combing her long, wavy hair. The bush of flowers in the background oddly juxtaposes itself with interior objects like the chair and mirror, resting upon a small table and adorned with candles that meld interior and exterior into a curious world over which Lady Lilith reigns all-powerful. The reflection the mirror shows us a hectic, willowy world of blowing trees and overwhelming shrubbery, combining with the encroaching roses, poppies, and waves of Lilith's hair to create a world of curves and movement that take over the image, simultaneously enveloping Lilith and crowning her as its queen. She is at once passively enshrined in her surroundings and the receptacle of their power, as if by staring intently into her mirror she creates the torrent of movement that swirls throughout the sinuous current of the scene. Lady Lilith embodies the early Pre-Raphaelite depiction of the femme fatale in her ambiguity. As Elisabeth Gitter argues, "as Rossetti's Lady Lilith painting suggests, the grand woman achieved her transcendent vitality partly through her magic hair, which was invested with independent energy: enchanting - and enchanted - her gleaming tresses both expressed her mythic power and were its source" (Gitter 936). Gitter strikes upon the distance created between Lady Lilith's hair, face, and hands, as if each part of her body existed separately and independently of the others. "The totemistic aura parts of a woman's body acquire in disjunction from the woman herself...while in Freud's iconography of female hysteria, portions of his patients' bodies acquire a preternatural life of their own, assuming, like Stoker's wounded Lucy and Mina as well as Millais' blind girl, an eerie potency in dissociation," (Auerbach). Here, this distance extends to the viewer; since Lady Lilith stares self-absorbedly into the mirror, she leaves us free to gaze upon her unobserved.
Rossetti accompanied this image with a textual commentary provided by Sonnet LXXVIII of "The House of Life," entitled "Body's Beauty." The poem emphasizes the menacing propensity of Lady Lilith's beauty, making an image which before remained a powerful tribute and embodiment of feminine beauty into an equal acknowledgement of the sinister capacity of her seduction.
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair. [Collected Poems, 161]
The poem describes Lilith, identified as Adam's first wife, as a dangerous seductress whose powerful beauty seems as much fearful and grotesque as it does worthy of male worship. In Rossetti's text Lilith becomes at once serpent, spider, and feminine strangler. Like a spider, she "draws men to watch the bright web she can weave" (line 7) and, like a serpent, "her sweet tongue could deceive" (line 3). Rossetti tinges Lilith's beauty with lethal serpentine poison, ending the sonnet with the haunting word image of her ultimate power to leave "his straight neck bent / And round his heart one strangling golden hair" (line 14). Rossetti casts Lilith as a spinner of webs; the web she produces may prove to be a dangerous snare. Rossetti furthers this reading with an additional inscription of Shelley's translation of Goethe's description of Lilith in the WalpurgisNacht scene in Faust (Gitter 948), on the back of the 1867 watercolor edition of Lady Lilith. Eventually, Rossetti translated the passage himself. It read :
Hold then thy heart against her shining hair,
If, by thy fate, she spread it once for thee,
For, when she nets a young man in that snare
So twines she him he never may be free.
The image of woman's hair as a forming a strangling noose around her lover's neck had a powerful hold over the artist's imagination. However, Lilith herself remains passively silent, her proposed threat coming from a male voice and not her own. Rather, Lilith's only action is the combing of her hair, so that her hair becomes her source of a power and her only voice. "Woman's loom or hair is her instrument, in the fullest sense of the word: on it she may, mermaidlike, lure men to their deaths" (Gitter 938). Rossetti's obsession with the ambiguously powerful yet sexually inviting femme fatale belong to a larger body of imagery and pervasive myth in Victorian serpentine imagery.
William Holman Hunt captures the Victorian ambiguity and multiplicity of feminine beauty in his illustration of "The Lady of Shalott" (1886-1905). The painting captures the fateful moment when the Lady of Shalott, in the midst of weaving her tapestry, glimpses the reflection of Sir Lancelot in the mirror and looks out of the forbidden window onto the outside world, thereby breaking her vow. The columns of Camelot seen through the window provide a glimpse of the outside while simultaneously imprisoning the Lady behind bars. In the background Hunt placed reliefs representing the Virgin and Child to the left, Hercules in the garden of the Hesperides to the right, who reaches to pick a fruit but gazes in the Lady's direction, as frieze of cherubs looks down overhead (Wood 109). Hunt combines elaborate symbolism, swirling richness of decoration, and Tennysonian themes to create a powerful composition and a key Pre-Raphaelite image. The Lady of Shalott's hair floods and dominates the upper portion of the work, while her swirling, spider-like, threads loop and whirl around her figure and throughout the space of the composition. Hunt casts her as either frenziedly weaving her web or struggling to be free of the entwining and ensnaring threads. She becomes simultaneously the skillful weaver and the desperate slave who has lost control of her web. Hunt reinforces this ambiguity by the iconography of the painting: twisting and spiraling serpentine columns support the loom, and the devouring aspect of the threads seems emphasized by the icon of the self-destroying sphinx at the foot of the table in the lower right. The weaving, circular patterns on the carpet, the loom's spiraling legs, the series of circles framing the reliefs in the background, the dashing, darting threads creating a web-like illusion, and the twist of the Lady's body, at once casting threads and struggling to escape their snare, create a frantic, desperate pattern of movement that reflects the terrifying sense of the loss of control of the Lady's artwork and life. By capturing the Lady at the moment of her fall from omniscience, Hunt reminds us that her tapestry must unravel and the all-powerful lady will die in a confusing trap created by her own artifice. While Rossetti's Proserpine hints at undermining the all-powerful woman by suggesting her corruption with serpentine imagery and mythic reference, Hunt likewise uses iconography, narrative and selection of moment to show the Lady of Shalott's fall from power, while both images allow her ample, swirling hair and twisting figure their undeniable beauty.
The green, scale-like bodice of Hunt's Lady of Shalott appears reminiscent of another Victorian and late Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse, who proved his own preoccupation with feminine sexual power in the form of strangling, ensnaring hair and mermaids who possess their own slick and dangerous locks. As Wood notes, "The destructive power of woman is the theme of many of them, such as Echo and Narcissus, Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, Phyllis and Demophoön, and many more" (Wood 146). We can find another remarkable example in Circe Invidiosa (1892), wherein Waterhouse depicts the Homeric character in the act of poisoning the water where her enemy goes to bath, focusing on the supernatural power of her gesture, her hair billowing out behind her in a swirling cape that mirrors the slick, entwined coils of the serpent upon which she stands.
In A Mermaid (1900), Waterhouse gives us an image of sexual exhibition in the figure of the mermaid perched provocatively on a rocky cove, surrounding by reeds and grasses so that viewer and creatur become enclosed in an intimate, circular space. The mermaid's blank, downward gaze invites observation and objectification. We catch the mermaid in the intimate act of self-grooming, as Waterhouse paints her in the midst of combing her long, voluptuous hair, reminding us of her appeal to human sexuality and using her hair as her instrument to ensnare the male gaze. Elisabeth Gitter refers to Vanity Fair to remind us that mermaids "may look pretty enough when they sit on rocks with their harps and looking glasses, combing their hair, 'but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, reveling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims'" (Gitter 941). The absence of a specific narrative and an emphasis on evocative mood rather than iconography mark the painting as belonging to the late movement of Pre-Raphaelite followers. Auerbach wrote of mermaids that it "arrests us because nonhumanity in human form looks out at us...The painter need not show the tail for us to see that human moral categories are inadequate to her preternatural intensity...In her mysterious hybrid nature whose humanity is only an appearance the mermaid becomes an emblem of Victorian womanhood generally, promising human repose but exercising preterhuman powers" (Auerbach 94). Waterhouse's mermaid invites the viewer's gaze and sexual objectification; since she's not a real Victorian woman, she becomes freely provocative.
Unlike Rossetti's Lady Lilith, Waterhouse's mermaid seems comparatively unconscious of her own beauty; instead of dictating the movement of nature and infusing her surroundings with the force and flow of her beauty and lustrous locks as Lilith does, the mermaid takes shelter in a watery haven where the absence of a mirror stands for the parallel lack of self-awareness. Waterhouse's image appeals even more to the male gaze by removing the neurotic male fear of woman's self-empowerment. Waterhouse offsets her erotic and womanly upper half with the inherent serpentine quality of the mermaid's sinuous, scaly tale, wrapped around her lower half and tucked almost felinely underneath her. However, the absence of self-awareness the makes Waterhouse's mermaid seem at first less threatening to the male gaze becomes itself a dangerous, trancelike force that can lure victims to their death through serpentine sexuality.
Waterhouse transposes the watery, sensuous hair of the mermaid, suggestive of her lithe, serpentine tail, capable of twining and strangling, into many of his other images. In Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), seven pale, and wraith-like mermaids lure a shepherd to his death in the depths of a dark and mysterious pool. The nymphs, all with delicate yet identical faces, featuring darkly hypnotic and blank eyes, represent the characteristic female identity that Waterhouse uses again in both La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893) and Ophelia (1894). La Belle Dame Sans Merci incorporates a motif widely spread in contemporary Victorian poetry and brings the barely hidden Victorian male preoccupation with depicting woman as a dangerous serpentine force, often embodied in her ensnaring hair, to a head. In a dark and thorny forest a knight, perhaps Waterhouse himself, leans over the crouched, nymph-like girl, whose bare feet and silky gown seem out of place and otherworldly in the harsh environment of the forest. She embodies the Waterhouse type, unmistakably the same girl Waterhouse uses in all his other paintings of the 1890s. The girl's deadly pale skin contrasts with the dark mood of the forest, and her long, golden hair forms an odd, ensnaring noose around the neck of the knight. She seems at once saddened by the gesture and incapable of stopping it, trancelike in her gaze and posture, as if her hair "has trapped the trapper and ensnared the snare; the spider is held motionless by the strands of her own web; the lady is looped in the loops of her own hair" (Gitter 948). The knight as well appears trapped in the thick undergrowth of the forest and the strangling strands of her hair.
The motif of strangling hair occurs time and again in Victorian imagery and literature, most frequently in the poetry of Tennyson and D.G. Rossetti. Several poets communicate the idea of the sinister quality of hair by connecting it themes of the commerce. As Gitter effectively argues, Victorian authors used the image of money hidden in hair to express an element of disgust and loathing towards woman's beauty. While this becomes a less sexual expression of male neurosis, it represents an attempt, similar to that of grotesque, serpentine imagery, to undermine or undercut feminine power and empowerment achieved by means of beauty. In Rossetti's poetry, women who sell their golden hair experience an accompanying loss of it as a source of power. In "Jenny," Rossetti reveals a characteristically Victorian ambivalent combination of desire and contempt towards a golden-haired temptress, the prostitute Jenny. Jenny "embodies the fusion of lust and avarice, trading the golden wealth of her body for pleasure, like Laura [in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"], and for profit" (Gitter 947). Jenny's first loss of power occurs when she sells her hair, which Rossetti calls "countless gold incomparable" (line 11), in "market night in the Haymarket" (line 142), where "things which are not yet enroll'd / In market-lists are bought and sold" (lines 136-37). Once Jenny sells her hair and becomes, herself, a product to be bought and sold, she loses authority and force, at once becoming at least partially a victim. Rossetti reminds us that even
Our learned London children know,
Poor Jenny, all your pride and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties through the dirt;
Have seen your coach-wheels splash rebuke
On virtue; and have learned your look
When, wealth and health slipped past, you stare
Along the street alone, and there,
Round the long park, across the bridge,
The cold lamps at the pavement's edge
Wind on together and apart,
A fiery serpent for your heart. [Collected Poetry and Prose, 63, lines 143-154]
Jenny's act of commerce leaves her virtue, health, and wealth diminished; she becomes lost and alone, imprisoned in a cold and heartless city, where even the mocking children understand her compromised position. Rossetti traps Jenny "inland far from the pastoral paradise of her childhood innocence, forced to sell herself in the goblin market created as much by 'Man's transgression at the first' as by her own lasciviousness and greed" (Gitter 947). However, while Rossetti victimizes Jenny's role in Victorian society and reminds us that she is ultimately a prostitute and a fallen woman, the speaker recognizes his own blame and that of man when he asks, "What has man done here? How atone, / Great God, for this which man has done?" (lines 241-42). Furthermore, the speaker does not condemn his own attraction to Jenny, but rather justifies it by showing the reader Jenny's inherent beauty and man's part in corrupting it.
Rossetti casts Jenny as both temptress and victim, since the speaker leaves Jenny completely powerless against his judgments and thought projections, just as he casts her as powerless against the voyeuristic gaze of society, embodied in his self-conscious male eye. He can't help admiring Jenny, "Whose eyes are as blue skies, whose hair / Is countless gold incomparable" (lines 10-11), and he has after all been tempted enough to purchase her wares. With a movement that embodies the ambivalent and contradictory moral and sexual attitudes of the poem, the speaker says to the sleeping figure of Jenny, "I lay among your golden hair / Perhaps the subject of your dreams, / These golden coins" (lines 340-42). although the speaker claims that he does this kindly because he conjectures that she must be dreaming of money, it remains unclear to the reader whether he wants to remind her that she has committed the corrupt act of selling her body or of his own sexual possession of her. By comparing her to Dana‘, as when she rises she will "shake / My gold, in rising, form your hair, A Dana‘ for a moment there" (lines 377-79), the speaker seems to mock Jenny's loveless act of prostitution, making it painfully obvious that the falling coins will not ring of true love, as they did for Dana‘. Finally, the speaker concludes with,
And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame, --aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this? [lines 383-86]
The key question becomes whether Rossetti's poem ends with tenderness or contempt. The ambivalence with which the speaker places the gold coins in Jenny's hair, and the wavering between admiration, condemnation, and victimization make "Jenny" a commanding statement of the ambiguous Victorian attitude towards women and their beauty. While other Pre-Raphaelite and late Pre-Raphaelite artists we have looked at used serpentine imagery and recurring motifs of ensnaring hair in attempt to come to terms with the threatening sexual power of the Victorian imaginary, here we find a poem that seeks dominance through images of money and commerce. Rossetti shows us that "because the commercial use of hair [and women's bodies] is always a form of sexual entrapment, women who trade in their gold hair irretrievably undermine its transcendent potential" (Gitter 947). Jenny loses her potency through exchange; when the speaker gives her money he becomes able to in a sense belittle Jenny's sexual temptation; he gives it a price so that it becomes no longer omniscient but nameable. In the last lines of the poem he distances himself from Jenny, reminding himself that while he can pay and go, Jenny remains trapped in the circle of buying and selling, a "dark path" which he himself can "strive to clear" (line 390). Ultimately, he leaves us with an image of Jenny, alone and forsaken, with only her golden coins to comfort her.
Rossetti's imaginary woman whose transcendental beauty could be reigned in when it was assigned a price, as through prostitution, had an equal hold over contemporary poets and poetesses. In some of these texts, the artists cast the hair of the femme fatale not as an object to be sold but as a strangling force that could be braided to resemble a serpentine tale or whip, with powers to choke the easily seduced male. Similarly, in "Prince's Progress," Christina Rossetti shows us a prince seduced by an alluring, "wave-haired milkmaid, rosy and white," who "twisted her hair in a winning braid, / And writhed it in shining serpent-coils, / And held him a day and night fast laid" (Poems, 1:97). In Tennyson's "Merlin and Vivien," Vivien experiences a transformation that mirror's that of Christina Rossetti's milkmaid when he describes Vivien as "The snake of gold slid from her hair, the braid / Slipt and uncoiled itself..." (lines 886-87). We find a final, later example in William Morris's "The Doom of King Acrisuis," where, with another vivid inclusion of hair-serpent imagery, Perseus, "initially eager to murder Medusa, sees, as he flies closer, that the seeming monster is really the pitiable victim of Neptune's lust and Minerva's implacable rage" (Gitter 951). Morris interprets Medusa's golden locks not as turned into serpents, but rather as unwillingly taken over by them:
...the golden tresses of her hair
Were moved by writhing snakes from side to side,
That in their writhing often times would glide
On to her breast, or shuddering shoulders white. [3:203]
Here, Medusa experiences the serpents as painful, torturous invaders inflicted upon her rather than weapons she can use against man.
Swinburne provides us with yet another instance of the devouring, serpentine woman in "Laus Veneris," whose speaker felt Our Lady of Torture's powerful grasp as "About my neck your hands and hair enwound, / The hands that stifle and the hair that stings" (Poems & Ballads, lines 322-23). In Rossetti's "Eden Bower" he returns again to the figure of Lilith, who coos and beckons to the golden serpent of Eden, persuading it to "...mingle our love's caresses, / I in thy coils, and thou in my tresses" (lines 151-52). Lilith desires the serpent's aid in tempting Adam, alluding to a perverse threesome with the commands, "Wrap me round in the form I'll borrow" (line 159 and "Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee" (line 188). This entwining of the limbs of Lilith, Adam, and the serpent will spurn bestial creatures, "Shapes that coiled in the woods and waters, / Glittering sons and radiant daughters" (lines 34-36). Lilith calls to the serpent with repeated imagery of fusion of her shape with its twisting coils: "In thy sweet folds bind me and bend me, / And let me feel the shape thou shalt lend me!" (lines 91-92). She gives us the image of the golden serpent entwined in her own golden hair when she coaxes, "Wreathe thy neck with my hair's bright tether, / And wear my gold and thy gold together!" (lines 139-40). In "Eden Bower," Rossetti makes the devouring quality of the femme fatale perhaps the most explicit in this of all his poems. Rossetti's demonic Lilith enjoys almost perverse sexual love with both Adam and the serpent, and hints at an emasculating fusion that takes the fear of the serpentine femme fatale to another level when she says, "That of Adam's flesh thou mak'st him a woman" (line 40). Lilith's description of sexual love alludes to an image fusing Adam, herself, and the serpent, causing Adam to lose his masculine identity and sex, becoming ensnared in the simultaneously feminine and serpentine embrace. Lilith desires to return to the serpent in order to borrow its shape, metamorphosing into a "snake that can not only ensnare and strangle but also, as Lilith's prediction about Cain Abel to her serpent-lover suggests, devour and bite" (Gitter 950). Rossetti grasps the ultimate threat to male identity; the usurpation of masculinity and the physical removal of their sex. Lilith takes on the snake's shape as she becomes its lover; as the serpent enters her, she herself takes on a phallic shape and force. These nightmarish and terrifyingly repeated images of aggressively serpentine hair that strangles and bites in Victorian poetry find an already established parallel in serpentine patterns of movement, iconography and narrative in Pre-Raphaelite art work and its followers.
That woman and the serpentine transfigurations applied to her by male artists proved such a compelling and gripping subject to the Victorian imagination was not lost upon revolutionary psychoanalytic thought. In The "Uncanny", an article by Sigmund Freud first published in Imago in 1919, he explains the uncanny as "that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar" (Freud 30). Freud's argument culminates with the idea of the castration complex as his paramount example of the uncanny, wherein man, encountering the female genitals for the first time, becomes overwhelmed by a terrifying fear of lack of a penis, reminding of him of the same fear he felt as a child and, paradoxically, of the familiarity of his mother's womb. Lurking behind this idea lies Freud's interpretation of the threat of Medusa, "that of the boy's first sight of the female's penisless, therefore castrated, genitals, surrounded by hair; the hair-snakes serve to mitigate his terror of castration because they replace the penis" (Gitter 950). According to Freud, the absence of a penis in the female genitalia terrified the male. Coincidentally, Freud need not have looked further for potent manifestations than the art, language and imagery of the last half of the nineteenth century, where portrayals of the female, "endowed with a reptilian phallus" (Gitter 950) in the form of her serpentine, devouring hair, manifest themselves repeatedly in the Victorian collective consciousness.
The myth of women who carry in their femininity a grotesque vagina with teeth or who have embedded in their being a serpent or snake with the power to castrate took root long before Rossetti's Lady Lilith but became increasingly unambiguous, bizarrely personalized, and widespread among the Symbolist poets and painters by the end of the century. Visual and psychoanalytic connections between hair and serpents become increasingly explicit in Fernand Khnopff's The Blood of the Medusa, Franz von Stuck's Fatality, and Edvard Munch's Vampire, wherein we see the complexity and ambiguousness that infused the imagery of earlier artists like the Rossettis, Waterhouse, Tennyson, and many others give way to an unrestrained fear and indulgence in the grotesque.
Aubrey Beardsley's illustration of the final scene from Salome by Oscar Wilde (1893) ascribes to the interpretation of this story, often interpreted as representing the "bundle of insecurities produced by the fin-de-siècle gender system" (Kramer 271), as the metamorphoses of a young woman's dangerously uncontrollable sexual power into a "desexualized old woman" (Kramer 272). In another attempt to assert control over female sexuality, the story shows that once Salome hands the head of John the Baptist over to the old woman, she disappears from the story, making the male head the object of subjugation. Salome's hair extends in a tangled snare of serpentine and vegetal tendrils, simultaneously a spider's web and a serpent's nest that envelops a large portion of the picture frame. John the Baptist's hair, however, seems even more snaky and serpentine, and Salome stares rigidly at the head, perplexed, as if not quite sure what to do with it. If we use Freud's interpretation of the medusa's head as "an image that both expresses male horror at the supposedly castrated female genitals and mitigates that horror with the profusion of phallic snakes" (Kramer 277), then Beardsley's illustration gives us the ultimate male subjugation of feminine power, with John the Baptist's head's resemblance to Medusa seizing "the very core of female power" (Kramer 277). This medusan role reversal turns the illustration from an image of castration to one of a phallic power that transfixes its subject, almost evoking the frightened and withdrawn response of the girlish Mary in Rossetti's earlier "Ecce Ancilla Domini" (1850).
For earlier Victorian artists, Freud's Medusa held a multiplicity of meaning and identity, a simultaneous appeal, sympathy, and terrifying power that found its way into much of their literature and art. "[F]or the Victorians, the Medusa was not a single, universal type: she was a complex, ambiguous figure whose significance shifted with the perceptions of each Perseus who approached her" (Gitter 951). Often she was cast as a goddess worthy of worship as in Rossetti's Lady Lilith and Proserpine--yet never without a hint at her sinister side--a simultaneous victim and lustful temptress, as in Jenny, a saddened and surreal, mermaid-like nymph as in Waterhouse's imagery, or a powerful master of artifice captured at the moment of destruction and unraveling as in Hunt's Lady of Shalott. These images often incorporate ordinary women, like Rossetti's famous Elizabeth Siddal, who served as the model for many of Rossetti's paintings and sketches, yet these women only become Medusas through the filter of the male's imagination. Sometimes the serpentine hair of these femme fatales acts in retaliation to the male's guilty imagination, which often conjures up a Medusa only to bask in the accompanying opportunity to debase or victimize her. In one scholar's reading, this Victorian ambivalence towards women "lets the other language speak - the language of 1,000 tongues which knows neither enclosure nor death...Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible. When id is ambiguously uttered - the wonder of being several - she doesn't defend herself against these unknown women whom she's surprised at becoming, but derives pleasure from this gift of alterability" (Cixous 889). Each figurative Perseus saw Freud's Medusa in a different light, often layering meaning upon meaning so that her beauty, if sometimes compromised by threats of serpentine coils and ensnaring hair, was always communicated as a powerful channel through which the Victorian imagination never ceased to find inspiration. In any case, the prevalent myth of the potency of female sexuality gave women a poetic and resonant voice in the late Victorian imaginary before long before she found one in politics.
Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1982.
C. Rossetti. Complete Poems. Penguin paperback.
Cixous, Helene; Cohen, Keith; Cohen, Paula. "The Laugh of the Medusa" in Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), 875-893.
Freud, Sigmund, "The 'Uncanny'" first published in Imago. Bd. V., 1919.
Gitter, Elisabeth G. "The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination" in PMLA. Vol. 99, No. 5 (Oct., 1984), 936-954.
Hays, H.R. The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil. New York: G.P Putnam's Sons, 1964.
Haynes, Kenneth. Algernon Charles Swinburne: Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon. Penguin Books, 2000.
Kramer, Lawrence. "Culture and Musical Hermeneutics: The Salome Complex" in Cambridge Opera Journal. Vol. 2, No. 3 (Nov., 1990), 269-294.
McGann, Jerome. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Collected Poetry and Prose. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. "Mythic Language and Gender Subversion: The Case of Ruskin's Athena" in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Vol. 52, No. 3 (Dec., 1997), 350-371.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, Cassell & Co, 2000.
Last modified 16 December 2004