My name is Briahna McTigue. I am in my second semester of the Literature profile in the ALC program. During my first semester, when this essay was written, I was enrolled in the paired Reflections seminar, The American Gothic – Homesick Horror. During this time, I discovered my passion for the Gothic genre and its gory intricacies. Having studied the Monstrous Feminine as a side interest, I decided to explore this motif and its effects in the novel, “Carrie”. I hope to continue dissecting (and hopefully creating) works that fall under this literary genre in the future.
The Womb’s Influence in the Novel Carrie
By Briahna McTigue
In reference to a child’s separation from their mother and the womb that housed them, Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection argues that, “it is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (13). This trope of the safe yet suffocating maternal hold is undeniably present in the novel Carrie, written by Stephen King. The dynamic between Carrie and her mother Margaret White is fundamentally flawed—climaxing with an obliteration of self, mother, and ultimately an entire town. According to Barbara Creed in her essay “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” the push and pull tactics between Carrie and her mother aren’t unique to the story. Identifying the “Monstrous feminine” as a recurring theme in Gothic works, Creed argues that it is most often the “all-devouring womb of the archaic mother which generates the horror” (63). Epitomizing this devouring mother is Margaret White, who shelters her daughter in a restrictive way. She keeps truths hidden from Carrie, stunting both her emotional and spiritual growth. A prime example of this omittance of truth is Margaret’s refusal to explain Carrie’s hormonal and telekinetic maturation. Believing that the following are directly linked to sin, Mrs. White leaves Carrie to discover her period and supernatural powers on her own, which—as will be explained later on—goes awry. Despite her mother’s violent and confining presence, Carrie can’t help but feel a pull leading her back home towards her mother and all she encompasses. This reaches its climax on the night of her prom, when Carrie seeks asylum in the arms of her mother and is met with a literal stab in the back. This night results in the destruction of the town, or as the narrator describes it, the moment the “world exploded” (King 210). In Carrie’s case, the very maternal hold that draws her near repulses her with its smothering: a hold that she herself comes to adopt — becoming a Monstrous Feminine in her own rite. This novel demonstrates the ambiguous influence a womb and its owner can possess over their former tenant and a child’s ambivalent feelings towards them.
Maternal suffocation is not uncommon in the Gothic genre and it is present throughout the novel Carrie. The story begins with the protagonist, Carrie, menstruating for the first time in the girl’s shower room at school. At the age of sixteen, one would peg a girl’s awareness of her period as a given, but this is not the case for Carrie. At the beginning of the novel this is illustrated through Carrie’s shock at the blood trickling down her legs. Regardless of menstruation hinting at the possibility of creating life, she is convinced that she is dying. This lack of common biological knowledge is intentional, the product of a tactic that Carrie’s mother uses to control her. Alongside anything having to do with puberty, Margaret christens menstruation as the “Curse of Blood” (63), which she deems as something dangerous and dirty. This association of “curse” and “evil” tied to natural elements of hormonal growth remains consistent throughout the novel. Comparatively, Margaret’s opinion of breasts, referring to them as “dirty pillows” (142), is equally condemning. The use of these terms can be attributed to the fact that a child’s development lends itself to a separation from the mother and womb. Margaret’s subconscious acknowledges this fear, which serves as an explanation for one of her outbursts… Upon learning of her daughter’s period, Margaret’s initial reaction is shock; she verbally acknowledges that Carrie is “a woman” (62). The tension elevates in a steady crescendo and climaxes with her kicking Carrie and locking her in a closet. Margaret’s fear of her daughter’s separation is validated once Carrie realizes that upon menstruating for the first time, certain memories, “like the knowledge of menstruation […} had come, as if some mental dam had been knocked down” (King 108). One of the aforementioned memories, which we come to understand as the first manifestation of Carrie’s telekinesis that she is aware of, pertains to her childhood. Carrie describes being abused (although she would never call it that) by her mother for watching their neighbour in a bikini outside whose breasts—“dirty pillows”—were exposed. Mrs. White responds in an alarmingly aggressive way, yelling at young Carrie and calling her a “slut” (109). This scene results in Carrie’s unconscious use of her telekinetic powers to penetrate the house with stones from the sky. Further encouraging this separation from maternal influence, the markings of Carrie’s telekinetic abilities and menstruation now leave her with the same desire for control, emanating from the womb. From this point forth, now provided with the prerequisites of a functional womb space, Carrie begins to adopt the Monstrous Feminine identity as well. Her thirst for control and power becomes increasingly apparent as she relishes her ability to “rain destruction on their heads if she so [desires]” (107). As this characteristic continues to develop within Carrie, Margaret’s grasp increases in strength and intensity, confirming Creed’s theory of the archaic mother that generates horror within a Gothic work.
Keeping in mind the aforementioned violence, Carrie still remains ambivalent towards her mother and all she represents. Torn between wanting to flee and seeking solace in her mother’s presence, Carrie is left doing both simultaneously. This inner conflict can be explained by Creed’s idea that the womb signifies both “fullness” and “emptiness” (63). Despite the oppressive shelter Carrie’s mother inflicts upon her, the longing she feels for that “fullness” outweighs the latter on more than one occasion. This divide between the desire to run and the desire to return, translates into a distinction between narrative voices. Although narrated from a third-person perspective, the novel focuses objectively on Carrie’s thoughts. At times, it’s as though Carrie’s inner dialogue possesses the page, and her words are expressed from a first-person perspective. In these moments, King uses the text to illustrate Carrie’s internal conflict towards her mother wherein her more primitive urges override the narrative. This writing technique is used when Carrie informs her mother of an invitation to prom that she’s accepted. Margaret—interpreting this declaration as another detachment from the womb—once again responds in a violent way. Striking Carrie’s face, Margaret unknowingly prompts her daughter’s possession of the page where the narration, “she swung her whole arm into the blow, and the sound of her palm against Carrie’s face (“o god I am so afraid now”) was like that flat sound of a leather belt being snapped in air” (113) is interrupted by Carrie’s italicized internal declaration. This interruption demonstrates the intensity of her emotion, as the narrator has no choice but to let it slice through, monopolizing the focus of the text. Given the influential power that the womb holds over its former occupant, Carrie finds herself calling her mother’s essence and teachings to the forefront of her mind throughout the book. As a presence that lurks in her subconscious, Carrie unknowingly summons her mother’s voice on several counts. At the prom, moments before Carrie faces the cruel joke that unfolds, she expresses a premonition she has, warning her of an event to come. This premonition presents itself in the form of her “mother’s face” (190), demonstrating the lasting effect of Mrs. White’s presence. Once the cruel joke at the prom unfolds, something in Carrie snaps and her “route-a wandering, looping path of destruction through the town [has] an almost certain destination: home” (246). This return home should be expected. Despite Carrie’s description of her mother as both a “fanatic,” and “freak,” she still deems it “safer” and “easier” to stay with her, acknowledging that both Mrs. White and the house are “predictable” (147). The duality between Creed’s ‘fullness versus emptiness,’ and Carrie’s ‘freak versus predictable’ perspectives link together to explain Carrie’s ambivalence towards her home, Mrs. White, and the womb.
Carrie is a violently dysfunctional coming of age story. As a young woman entering her teenage years, Carrie has a predisposition—as most people her age do—to question her identity and existence. She, however, battles in the same war for identity within her own home: her mother, her largest antagonist. Creed refers to the womb as “that which threatens to destroy life,” but “also helps define life” (46). Serving as a fervent juxtaposition—the womb, a presence that housed Carrie and gave her life—contributes to her own lust for power and is ultimately the very thing that leads to her demise. Between the presence of the “Monstrous Feminine,” and Carrie’s longing to return to that which she flees, the novel illustrates the potential danger a maternal figure sparks and the surroundings it sets ablaze. A daughter’s separation from her mother’s womb lends itself to a connection with her own, and if not honed properly—as is the case for Carrie—allows the Monstrous to consume her.
King, Stephen. Carrie. Anchor Books, 2011.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982
Creed, B. “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: an Imaginary Abjection”.
Screen, vol 27, no. 1, 1986, pp. 44-71