The Other in ‘Beloved’ and ‘Under the Skin’

The concept of the Other refers to something, or someone, that is dissimilar to the norm and outside of the realm of the familiar.[1] What is exclusively classed as the Other in both novels is not so clearly defined. This complexity prompts the reader to question what truly is the Other, and in turn, what this means for understanding its opposite, the familiar. This essay will explore how the Gothic novels ‘Beloved’ and ‘Under the Skin’, complicate the trope of Otherness through the use of physical forms, such as the home and the body, intangible concepts, such as language, the subconscious and the conflicting nature of characters’ thoughts and actions. The conflict that arises from attempting to identify the Other leads to attempts at self-destruction and suicide for both of the novels’ protagonists, Sethe and Isserley. 

The physical form of the home may be considered the ultimate familiar, but this is disrupted in Beloved, complicating the trope of Otherness. Anthony Vidler describes the home, as the seat of ‘domesticity, its residue of family and nostalgia.’[2] There is nothing abnormal about domesticity, and it appears as fairly banal. The presence of the family and memories make the home an ‘intimate shelter of private comfort.’[3] The privacy of the home enhances the security and familiarity of it, which Vidler attributes to the presence of loved ones. This safe space shields its inmates from harm, and by extension, from the Other. The first line of the novel subverts this conception of the home and personifies Sethe’s own home by stating that it was ‘spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.’[4] Sethe’s home harbours a malicious force which intends to poison its inmates. This contrasts with the readers’ preconceptions of the security and familiarity of the home, forcing them to realise that it may in fact be the opposite.[5] This blurs the line between familiarity and Otherness, which is further complicated by Beloved’s physical presence in the home.

Sethe allows Beloved into her home, believing Beloved to be the embodiment of her deceased daughter.[6] Beloved’s physical body is used to examine and complicate the trope of Otherness, as she initially appears as a ‘young woman’[7] who possesses ‘good skin, bright eyes.’[8] Paul D notes that she is ‘strong,’ portraying Beloved as a familiar image of beauty and health, prompting Sethe to accept her.[9] Despite Beloved’s youthful appearance, she moves like an ‘older’ person, demonstrating a conflict between Beloved’s physical appearance and physical capabilities.[10] Beloved grows in strength as the novel progresses, and physically weakens when she is deprived of Sethe’s attention, which is shown by Beloved’s loss of a tooth, and her own lamentation that next it would be her ‘arm, her hand, a toe.’[11] Beloved is revealed to be a parasitic figure, who must draw nourishment from Sethe in order to survive. This perhaps explains her lack of strength when she first appears. Such a being closely aligns with the concept of the Other, due to its lack of familiarity and similarity to a human being. Beloved’s physical body hides her true nature, again blurring the distinction between familiarity and Otherness.

Sethe’s scars are also tied to Otherness, as the presence of such scars are not the familiar for others within the novel. They represent the physical cruelty of slavery, and imply that Sethe’s body is still owned by the slave owners.[12] However, Sethe reclaims the scar, by seeing it as a metaphorical ‘sculpture’[13] of a ‘chokecherry tree.’[14] The beauty of the tree contrasts with the ugliness of slavery, and although the presence of such scars may not be the familiar for most people, Sethe’s reclaiming of them ensures that they become the familiar for her, in spite of the Otherness that they initially represented.

Isserley’s physical body in ‘Under the Skin’ too complicates the trope of Otherness. Like Beloved, Isserley is initially presented as a familiar representation of female ‘beauty,’[15] and is even described as ‘page three material.’[16] Isserley’s reflection of the highly sexualised females that appear in the media ascend the idea of familiarity, portraying her instead as the perfect example of female beauty, from the male perspective. She later reveals that, in modelling her body, a ‘magazine’ was used as a ‘guide.’[17] Her hyper familiarity is not natural but synthetic, highlighting the inherent Otherness of her deceptively familiar appearance.

The extent of Isserley’s Otherness is explored further when her true form is revealed, which contrasts with her initial familiarity. Her physical form is antithetical to that of a human being, as she resembles a ‘tripod style’[18] alien being, with a ‘prehensile tail,’[19] ‘vulpine snout’[20] and ‘soft fur.’[21] Isserley’s true nature fully embodies the Other, as she is an alien, which is unfamiliar to the humans in the novel and the reader. Her intense strength is hinted at through her ‘prehensile’ tail. Her ‘vulpine’ snout implies that she is fox-like and cunning. Like Beloved, Isserley embodies both the familiar and the Other simultaneously, complicating the readers’ perception of her, and her own perception of herself. While the reader would consider Isserley’s human form to be the perfect form of female beauty, she sees it as a physical mutilation of her natural form, and believes herself to be monstrous in the eyes of her colleagues.[22] This conflict raises questions about identity, as Isserley and the reader find it difficult to categorise her as human or alien, and by extension, heroine or anti-heroine.[23] The physical body is used to complicate the trope of Otherness, as it conceals the true nature of Isserley and Beloved.[24]

Aside from physical forms, intangible concepts are used to complicate the trope of Otherness. Isserley’s use of language forces Otherness upon humanity and asserts herself as the familiar. She dehumanises the physical bodies of the humans that she encounters. By naming humans as ‘vodsels’ Isserley forces Otherness upon them, as from her perspective, it is the humans, and by extension the reader, who are the aliens, and therefore the Other.[25] She describes one of her hitchhikers as ‘bristly, wrinkled and scarred, with a mottled snout of a nose.’[26] By likening his features to an animals’, Isserley removes his humanity. She goes further by describing humans as ‘specimens’[27] and ‘fleshy bipeds,’ portraying them as pieces of meat.[28] She later likens two human heads to the ‘polyps of an anemone.’[29] By comparing them to a plant, Isserley strips the humans of their ability to reason, reducing them to inanimate beings in contrast. This further complicates the relationship between Isserley and the reader, as even though her Otherness has already been explored, we are encouraged, from Isserley’s perspective, to view human beings as the Other, despite their familiarity to us.

Humans are deprived of their language while they are being processed, as their tongue is ‘carved’ out.[30] Jacques Derrida declares that animals are non-human because they do not possess the quality of ‘speech.’[31] Isserley’s race judges’ humanity on their ability to communicate, and the division between the two races is based on language.[32] This could be comparable to humanity’s attitude towards animals. In the eyes of Amliss Vess, the son of Isserley’s employer, the possession or non-possession of language informs him whether it is acceptable to kill humans or not, and because of his preconception that they do not have a language, he believes it is acceptable.[33] Without language, Isserley’s race renders human beings as mindless beasts, making them appear as the Other. This allows Isserley’s race to emotionally distance from the humans being slaughtered, minimising their guilt. This could also act as a wider critique of humanity’s treatment of animals outside of the novel.

Isserley criticises humanity’s lack of intellectual capability, aligning them with the Other from her perspective. Derrida notes that animals are unlike humans because they do not possess the quality of ‘reason.’[34] Isserley feels similarly about humans, as they cannot ‘siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan.’[35] Isserley reprimands humanity as they do not possess the same intellectual capabilities that she does, which she believes is essential to any being. This is ironic as these are not human qualities, so it is unsurprising that humans do not possess them. Despite this, Isserley still tries to measure humanity by the intellectual capability of her own species, citing the former as the inferior.

Beloved’s use of language too brings into question her intellectual capabilities, further complicating the trope of Otherness. Beloved, presumably talking about Sethe, states that she is ‘not separate from her there is no place where I stop   her face is my own.’[36] Morrison’s use of free direct discourse allows for a stream of consciousness, and direct insight into Beloved’s mind. This mirrors Beloved’s belief that she does not ‘stop.’ The lack of punctuation implies Beloved’s infantile lack of coherency, highlighting the conflict between her physical appearance and intellectual capabilities. Beloved’s monologue merges with the monologues of Sethe and her sister Denver. All declare that ‘you are mine,’[37] and the lack of punctuation implies that there is no barrier or divide between the three characters.[38] Beloved wants to physically and psychologically merge with Sethe and Denver and wishes for them to do the same. In merging and becoming like Beloved, Sethe and Denver would too align with the concept of the Other as Beloved does.

It is through a lack of language, that Beloved is eventually expelled from the narrative.[39] She is ‘disremembered and unaccounted for,’ as Sethe and Denver do not give life to her, through their speech.[40] By not talking about her, Beloved is effectively removed from their lives. Luce Irigaray tries to explain this, by arguing that a mothers’ love is needed for a woman to ‘retain’ her identity.[41] Sethe’s decision to not speak about Beloved could imply her lack of love for her, causing Beloved to lose her place in Sethe’s heart and therefore the physical home. This again demonstrates Beloved’s Otherness, as she is destroyed by a lack of attention, something which cannot physically harm an ordinary being.

An exploration of Isserley’s subconscious is also used to complicate the trope of Otherness. After being sexually assaulted, Isserley realises that humans can inflict pain upon her, as she can on them.[42] This brings an unexpected, and unsettling, level of equality between Isserley and humanity.[43] Isserley then wishes to see a vodsel suffer and enjoys watching one being butchered.[44] This destabilises her, as her emotional response means that she cannot treat the vodsels as mere animals, and she begins to see them as living beings.[45] She later tries to ‘see herself as a vodsel might,’ in an attempt to accept her human form.[46] Isserley now finds herself identifying with humanity and their pain, complicating her own conception of the Other. This inner conflict gives voice to her own internal Other.[47] Isserley finds herself torn between her physical appearance and who she identifies with subconsciously. Her growing internal Otherness and rejection of herself, in favour of her humanity, marks a conflict that escalates throughout the remainder of the novel.

Sethe’s thoughts and actions provide a similar internal conflict in relation to her role as a mother. In anguish Sethe frequently mentions that her ‘nursing milk’ was stolen from her.[48] Her continual grief at this development emphasises her strong desire to be a mother, which also implies her suitability for the role, as her grief shows how much she cares, and how attentive she would be. Sethe believes that her primary function was to be a mother, and that this opportunity was partly stolen from her upon the death of Beloved. Sethe’s suitability as a mother is later reinforced by Sethe’s conviction that her ‘world’ was in her house, implying that her children, Beloved and Denver, are all that she needs to feel complete.[49]

This image however is disrupted when the reader learns that Sethe ‘meant’ to kill all of her children.[50] Carolyn Dever argues that mothers in the Gothic narrative are ‘constructed as an emblem of safety.’[51] Sethe however decapitates Beloved with a ‘handsaw,’ and this behaviour of a mother towards her child is antithetical to the familiar conceptions of motherhood.[52] The complication of the trope of Otherness is examined in the conflict between Sethe’s own thoughts and actions, as her desire to be a mother conflicts with her action of killing Beloved.

However, following on from Dever’s belief, that the mother represents ‘safety,’ perhaps Sethe’s actions maintain her status as a perfect mother, as she sought to shield her child from the horrors of slavery.[53] Out of context, her action of infanticide would likely be condemned, but some may be more sympathetic because Sethe’s intention was to shield her child from future harm, despite the pain that the act would cause to herself. This further shows how the conflicting thoughts and actions of characters complicate the trope of Otherness, and also lead to their self-destruction.

The escalating conflict of internal Otherness leads to attempts at self-destruction. Sethe wishes to care for Beloved as ‘no mother ever tended a child.’[54] Sethe’s willingness to let Beloved into her home is self-destructive, as Beloved ‘ate up her life.’[55] Sethe does not care for Beloved in the conventional sense, but instead metaphorically ‘yielded’ her life force to her, in her desperation to care for her.[56] This threatens Sethe’s own life, as physically evidenced by Sethe becoming ‘smaller,’ and Beloved becoming ‘bigger.’[57] Sethe’s internal guilt over personally Othering the familiar conception of motherhood, and her desire to be a mother, blinds her to the reality that, by letting Beloved remain in her home, she risks her own life.

In contrast, Isserley’s internal conflict with the Other results in her suicide. By this point in the novel, Isserley does not feel exclusively human or alien, due to the conflict between her subconscious mind and physical body, and therefore does not exclusively belong on Earth or her home world.[58] Isserley is more attracted to the idea of becoming ‘atoms,’ and a ‘part of the sky.’[59] The climax of Isserley’s internal conflict with the Other is suicide, as she ascends from her physical body to a realm where there is no exclusive identity that she must conform to. She frees her ‘soul’ from her physical body, and with it, the judgement of where she should belong.[60] Isserley’s suicide allows her to literally and metaphorically, rise above her internal conflict between her physical appearance and who she identifies with subconsciously.

The Gothic novel complicates the trope of Otherness, as it demonstrates that there can be no individual concept of the Other, as settings and people evolve throughout the narrative, and can embody established preconceptions, as well as the Other. Physical forms that the reader identifies with, such as the home, can be infiltrated and can embody the Other, as demonstrated by Beloved’s entrance. The human form also cannot be separated from the Other as Isserley and Beloved embody the familiar and the Other simultaneously, complicating the trope of Otherness in general. Otherness can also be forced upon concepts and characters through language. This makes the concept of the Other difficult to follow, and the conflict between such ideas can be straining for the characters involved within the genre, leading to attempts at self-destruction and suicide.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Stephen Frosh, ‘The Other,’ Discourses of the Other, Vol. 59, No. 4 (2002) p. 395.

[2] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, (London: MIT Press, 1994), p. 17.

[3] Peter Hutchings, The Horror Film, (Oxford: Routledge, 2004), p. 74.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Classics, 2007), p. 3.

[5] Hutchings, The Horror Film, p. 74.

[6] Morrison, Beloved, p. 236.

[7] Ibid., p. 66.

[8] Ibid., p. 67.

[9] Ibid., p. 67.

[10] Ibid., p. 67.

[11] Ibid., p. 157.

[12] Jean Wyatt, ‘Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’, PMLA, Vol. 108, No. 3 (1993), p. 478.

[13] Morrison, Beloved, p. 21.

[14] Ibid., p. 18.

[15] Michel Faber, Under the Skin (London: Canongate Canons, 2017), p. 2.

[16] Ibid., p. 181.

[17] Ibid., p. 178.

[18] Ibid., p. 110.

[19] Ibid., p. 110.

[20] Ibid., p. 110.

[21] Ibid., p. 110.

[22] Virginia Harger-Grinling and Chantal Jordaan, ‘Fifty Years On: “Animal Farm” Gets Under the Skin,’ Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2003), p. 249.

[23] Ibid., p. 253.

[24] Ibid., p. 252.

[25] Sarah Dillon, ‘“It’s a Question of Words, Therefore”: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2011), p. 140.

[26] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 1.

[28] Ibid., p. 3.

[29] Ibid., p. 169.

[30] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 214.

[31] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 135.

[32] Dillon, ‘“It’s a Question of Words, Therefore”: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, p. 135.

[33] Ibid., p. 138.

[34] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am. Translated by David Wills, notes by Marie-Louise Mallet, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 135.

[35] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 174.

[36] Morrison, Beloved, p. 248.

[37] Ibid., p. 256.

[38] Wyatt, ‘Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’, p. 481.

[39] Ibid., p. 479.

[40] Morrison, Beloved, p. 323.

[41] Diana Wallace, Female Gothic Histories: Gender, History and the Gothic (Wales, University of Wales Press, 2013), p. 184.

[42] Dillon, ‘“It’s a Question of Words, Therefore”: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, p. 147.

[43] Ibid., p. 147

[44] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 219.

[45] Dillon, ‘“It’s a Question of Words, Therefore”: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, p. 147

[46] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 250.

[47] Frosh, ‘The Other,’ p. 394.

[48] Morrison, Beloved, p. 236.

[49] Ibid., p. 215.

[50] Ibid., p. 179.

[51] Ruth Bienstock Anolik, ‘The Missing Mother: The Meanings of Maternal Absence in the Gothic Mode’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 33, No. ½, (2003), p. 27.

[52] Morrison, Beloved, p. 295.

[53] Bienstock Anolik, ‘The Missing Mother: The Meanings of Maternal Absence in the Gothic Mode’, p. 27.

[54] Morrison, Beloved, p. 237.

[55] Ibid., p. 295.

[56] Ibid., p. 295.

[57] Ibid., p. 294.

[58] Harger-Grinling and Jordaan, ‘Fifty Years On: “Animal Farm” Gets Under the Skin,’ p. 250.

[59] Faber, Under the Skin, p. 296.

[60] Ibid., p. 292.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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