Gilbert and Gubar make the argument that when male writers depict women, they are “type-cast” into two distinct non-human categories: the angel and the monster.
An angel is a woman who lacks autonomy and lives a dull hapless existence of monotony and inaction. They are representations of purity, selflessness, modesty, and submissiveness. These women (in literature) are celebrated for their “purity of heart” (Goethe 815) and are often doling out advice and support to the struggling male traveler or husband. Some “angels” of literature also help lead men through the process of death as a sort of spiritual guide (which is bizarre) but we all know an angel when we see one. She’s sweet and sings with the birds and la-dee-da’s around the forest until a man is enchanted by her beauty and whisks her away. Easy.
A monster is slightly more complicated because there’s only one way for a woman to be a angel and there’s a million ways she can be a monster. Whether it’s ugliness, aggression, rebellion, autonomy, individuality, sexuality, etc. etc. etc, a monster is any woman who doesn’t fall in line with this idea of a passive and pure sweetheart. One of the most pervasive examples of a monster in literature is a woman who is aware of or god forbid USES her sexuality. We get a lot and I mean A LOT of stories where a cute little virgin suddenly strolls down the path of sin and is brutally punished for it. It’s that whole “good girl gone bad” trope that Lifetime movies shamelessly exploit time and time again. Even Gilbert and Gubar write that “the monster may not only be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside within (or in the lower half of) the angel.” (820).
I wanted to take a close look at one of the most extreme versions of this idea of a “monster within” in literature. Carrie (1974) by Stephen King weaves the ultimate horror story of an angel girl going “monster” (and by monster we mean murdering her entire high school class).
The story begins with Carrie getting her period for the first time while she’s showering in a locker room after gym class. She’s absolutely terrified because her mega-religious mother never told her about periods and she thinks she’s dying. The other girls respond to her confusion and panic with grace and charm by laughing and throwing tampons at her. When she gets home, her mother is furious with her for getting her period. She starts reading out of a book called “The Sins of Women” stating, “And the Lord visited Eve with a curse [for having sex]. And the curse was the curse of blood… if [Carrie] had remained sinless the curse of blood would never have come on [her]”. Menstruation signals womanhood in that it is indicative of a biological female body that is able to reproduce. It’s the climax of puberty. Since sex is the ultimate sin an unmarried woman can commit, this is the worst possible thing to happen to an “angel” as Carrie’s mother sees her.
Something else happens to Carrie the day she gets her period… she develops telekinetic powers. Although these powers are real in the story, I’d like to think they also represent the “power” that comes along with feminine sexuality. Something that can be “used” on other people (which is a grade-A monster woman move). Again, when Carrie’s mother discovers her telekinetic powers, she says to her “you must renounce this power, you must give it up, you must never use it.” Women are discouraged from acting on their sexual power as well. No good angel would ever dream of seducing a man (or telekinetically hoist a toaster across the kitchen).
What’s notable is that Carrie isn’t driven to kill her classmates because her reproductive organs start working. She kills them because they bully her for being naive and weird. Her mistreatment was due to the way her mother raised her. She was an outcast. Carrie’s mother was trying to breed an angel in a society that has accepted monsters. With her attempts to repress (whaddup Freud) Carrie, she ended up becoming an actual monster.