Discussion: The Gray Wolf

Brooklyn Museum: Birth of the Wolf (Geburt der Wölfe)

If you want to see other thoughts and links to online copies of this story, you can go here.

My discussion assumes that you’ve read the story–that is, I don’t summarize it–but, if you haven’t, hopefully it will encourage you to.

Read my commentary, and discuss.

“Weeping and Howling”: Frame, Sex, and Otherness in “The Gray Wolf”

“The Gray Wolf” (1871) is among George MacDonald’s most complex and troubling tales. It contains at first blush little to startle the reader of gothic fiction—the blasé traveller who lost his way, the seductive she-werewolf, the growing sense of horror and threat. And yet it does not feel like a typical gothic tale. It leaves the reader puzzled, to return to it questioning.

Further readings only augment the difficulty. The she-werewolf’s description and behaviour are, on closer inspection, less predictable than it appeared at first. MacDonald’s evocation of the storm-whipped Shetland Islands lingers in the imagination. With continued readings, the story begins to feel less Gothic and more anecdotal—as if it were an account of something that really happened.

The setting and background of any MacDonald story are significant and, I would argue, often a key to its interpretation. What is remarkable about this tale is that it seems to exist in isolation. It has a setting that reveals MacDonald at the height of his powers, with lyrical recreation of the remote island. But it has no background. MacDonald gives us some patter about the student from England who got separated from his companions, and nothing more. We are left to infer school holidays, perhaps, genteel Englishman touring rural Scotland. All of that depends on the reader. MacDonald gives us nothing more than the island and the storm itself.

What MacDonald does give us is a profound sense of otherness. The English student lost on the Shetland islands is a somewhat disarming image. We enter immediately into his bewilderment, his impetus for survival as he scrabbles round the moor in the rain, looking for shelter. It is not an altogether undesirable adventure, for those who care to hike in the Shetlands. With cunning deliberation, MacDonald engages our sympathy with the other, in the form of the supposed protagonist.

A close reading of the story, however, reveals that MacDonald’s emphasis is not on the student at all. He remains featureless and predictable throughout—too easily empathetic, a Victorian writer of traveller’s tales. The true centre of the story is the girl, the she-werewolf. She, not the student, is the protagonist. “The Gray Wolf” is not the story of a student who happens to meet a werewolf; it is the story of a werewolf who happens to meet the student. By not providing us a frame, and by not using his protagonist as his point-of-view character, MacDonald draws the reader into a deep empathy with the young woman—the true ‘other’ of the tale, whose duality and internal conflict are reflected in the island around her.

It would be possible to read “The Gray Wolf” as a proto-Lilith, where the powerful woman employs her eroticization to manipulate a weak man. The story would then be an allegory of seduction, a stern Victorian parable against sexual desire in woman, from which man is blessed to escape. Yet MacDonald is consistently progressive and encouraging to women in his writings, giving them greater freedom and dignity than most of his contemporaries. To find such an anti-sexual allegory in Victorian literature would not be surprising. That is the role of the old woman, sternly tearing off the younger woman’s protective scarf to reveal the shame of her otherness (302). But to find it in MacDonald would be an utter shock. To reduce the Gray Wolf into the proverbial seductress, as the old woman seems to do, is to underestimate the complexity of the character.

This is not to deny the erotic undertones of the story. Certainly the description of the girl—in many ways a classic Gothic stunner—is eroticized, with ‘bare feet’ and ‘garment scanty and torn’ (296). But these details are provided from the student’s point of view; the hunger in the woman’s eyes as she looks at the student seems, in this instance, to be literal—hunger for human flesh after a long diet of small animals. It is the student, not the she-werewolf, who eroticizes the encounter, so much so that even after the attack, ‘[h]e was gradually yielding to the temptation of braving another night in the hut, and seeing what would follow’ (302). The woman’s aggression is clearly gone; MacDonald takes some length to clarify that all the ‘fierceness’ of her eyes ‘had vanished.’ The upper-class man is flirting with the idea of seducing an intriguing country girl.

So who is she, this she-werewolf? As mentioned earlier, it is the setting of MacDonald’s stories that often provide the key to their interpretation, and the setting of this tale provides some intriguing insights. MacDonald describes Shetland as ‘a desert moss’ giving way to ‘a verge of a cliff’ and ‘over the brow of it […] a ledge of rock’ (295). The student finds here two caves, one strewn with bits of the bones of small animals, the other inhabited by an old island woman and her werewolf daughter. The darkness of the storm besets both dwellings; as the storm abates, ‘[t]he wind had fallen, but the waves were tossing wildly’ (301). It is a landscape of subtle contrasts. It appears flat and bleak, but drops suddenly to the storm-swept sea. The wind is still, but the waves wild. It is, in other words, a landscape constructed around the duality of the she-werewolf, both wolf and girl, predator and prey, victim and saviour.

Scott McLaren has written at some length about the redemptive message of MacDonald’s gothic fiction (246ff). When MacDonald aroused our sympathy for the ‘otherness’ of the English student in the Scottish wilds, he was preparing us to sympathise with the young woman and her extremity of otherness. She lives, perhaps, on the island, feeding on what small animals there are, because the world at large would reject her. When, indeed, the student—who lusts for her when she is a woman—discovers her duality, he flees from her, repulsed by the wolf. She is other, and he will not love her.

The sharply contrastive geography of the island reflects, as McLaren notes, as ‘a single though conflicted individual who struggles with an almost overpowering temptation for slaughter and who must endure a consequent self-loathing’ (262). She falls on the student first as a wolf, ravening, and then as a woman, weeping. She suffers remorse that she cannot love or be loved, that to be close she must kill.

When, after he is attacked in the night, the student goes to the door and hears the ‘gruesome sound as of mingled weeping and howling’ (301). The longing of the wolf to feed and the longing of the woman to be accepted clash within the girl; she weeps for her otherness and rejection, howls for the kill she will not let herself make. In the end, the Gray Wolf is a tragic figure, to be pitied and given compassion. She is struggling deep within herself to reject her dehumanizing wolf; the world around her, however, including the old woman she obviously cares for, shuns and despises her for her struggle. When, at the last, MacDonald shows her to us, she is weeping as a woman, grieving and solitary. The wolf is unfed. But the woman is unloved.

Works Cited:

MacDonald, George. “The Gray Wolf.” In The Portent and Other Stories. 1909. Whitehorn, CA: Johanessen, 1994: 295-303.

McLaren, Scott. “Saving the Monsters? Images of Redemption in the Gothic Tales of George MacDonald.” Christianity and Literature. 55:2 (2006): 245-269.

19 thoughts on “Discussion: The Gray Wolf

  1. Wow – thanks for explaining that, Mr. Pond. And yes – the natural mise en scene was impressive. Very romantic era wind swept, literal sturm und drang of the times.

    Still – I’m not sure I understand why she let the man go. If the wolf is unfed and the woman is unloved – why not feed the wolf? He doesn’t love the “other” anyhow. If it’s a choice between love and a nice marbled student steak – I’d choose the steak. But no way would I let both slip away. 😉

  2. I would say that the woman who wants to be loved keeps the wolf from chomping down on the man, even though she knows the chances of him returning her love are nil.

    She let him go because she loved him.

    Or something like that.

    Which is a classic werewolf dilemma and outcome – whether to let the wolf (instinct, sexuality) rule or the humanity (reason, chaste love) prevail. Most of the time, team humanity wins.

    Think about it Joivre what kind of message would MacDonald have sent out if he’d let the wolf eat the student? It would have been interpreted as an affront to the values and mores of Victorian England.

    BTW, does this remind anyone else of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

  3. Mr MacDonald is trying to show in this tale, that the mighty power of redemption shows us so much more if the student and the young lady both can find peace-redemption (maybe not together at this time). The student says he would not hurt a woman even if she is a wolf on attack. She does attack because I feel she knows that the boy would sacrifice his life.

    We all have the monster inside. This story makes me feel that all is not said at the end. Perhaps the young man comes back some day, with a solution, that they both can live with.

    The young woman’s sickness has isolated her to the verge of the cliff, slowly dying.

  4. Reading the last comment reinforces my view that it’s a struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of nature, both between characters, and within.

    What keeps the woman half-starving is not her sickness, but her refusal to turn fellow humans into prey (I note that all the bones the student sees are small).

    The student’s disinclination to kill her because she’s a woman, and hence to be protected rather than attacked, is also a very civilised stance.

    They are both refusing to give in to their aggressive impulses.

  5. That’s very interesting. Because MacDonald lived and breathed during the Romantic Era – definitely emotion over reason was the theme of the day in distinct contrast to the classical age of reason, balance and restraint. Looks like Mr. MacDonald was an old-fashioned kind of guy.

    Even the structure of the story is classical. Starts on the moors, ends on the moors, a meeting, a parting, both going in opposite directions. It’s like a perfectly balanced set of classical columns, a Mozart sonata. Balance. Reason. Restraint. All Classical Era hallmarks. Good call, RR.

  6. Quick clarification, Joivre. MacDonald was a Victorian, b. 1825. So, yes, he was ‘old-fashioned,’ but by reaching back to the emotion of the Romantics during the primness and propriety of the Victorian era. The classical overtones come from his own wide reading, and the formidable influence of the German Romantics on his imagination–who were classical and structured, albeit weirdly, even in their Romanticism.

    Red Rocker, MacDonald’s view of humankind was–interesting. I’d say it was grim but optimistic. He has some thoroughly horrible characters, not just for sheer meanness but for their very human meanness. He was under no illusions about the goodness of humankind, but still believed everyone would eventually get to heaven. C. S. Lewis put it succinctly: He believed everyone would be saved, because he believed everyone would repent. McLaren actually explains this in some detail in his article, it’s very much worth reading if you can get your hands on a copy. And do read more MacDonald!

    Great discussion, everyone. Keep it up!

  7. I would like to go back to my initial interpretation: that it’s a depiction of a man’s response to an attractive woman, repulsed by her sexuality, aroused by her “modesty”, whatever that means, and eventually frightened away because the sexuality is too strong.

    It’s not quite a Lilith interpretation – the woman is not a seductress, at least, not all of the time. She has strongly human traits, she weeps from loneliness and perhaps shame as well. I find the use of the weeping a particularly strong indicator that in her human form she is not “the other”, because it makes her, in the reader’s eyes, frail and stereotypically feminine. But her “otherness” can’t be denied and does eventually drive away the would-be lover.

    Metaphorically, I do see this as a rejection of sexuality in women. Accepting – which of course you may not – that the hunger of the wolf represents sexual yearning, the man is sexually attracted to the woman only when she is not to him. It repulses him when she clearly shows her sexual feelings for him. He likes his women modest and chaste and weepy, not strong and aggressive and hungry.

    Different strokes for different folks: it makes me think of Dwight, one of the protagonists of Sin City, and his relationship with Gail, the dominatrix and how he is totally turned on by her ability to stand back to back with him, Uzi in hand, blasting away their mutual enemies, fishnet stockings and all. Dwight wouldn’t have fled away across the moor.

  8. Oh – thanks for the clarification, Mr. Pond. The Romantic Era in Music stretches longer than in literature. I must be confusing my Eras. Times are a-changin’.

    I still like the story – whether it’s about chasteness or sexuality and an individual’s preference. I actually like the compactness of it. It’s a beautiful jewel about shape-shifting. It’s interesting that it evokes such sympathy for the wolfwoman. If it was a comment about a woman’s rejection of her sexuality – MacDonald makes it clear that it’s painful to do so. I think MacDonald wants her to bust out as well. If he wanted to punish her for her sexuality – I think he would have had the student kill the wolf.

    Never seen Sin City. Keep wanting to. Heard about it – seems like the opposite end of the pole from MacDonald. And in this Era that we live in now (the Bellevue-Crazy Era) I honestly think a woman’s sexuality is celebrated (phew! What a relief) – if not exploited (too bad). So yes – to each his or her own.

  9. The violence in Sin City is beyond extreme. What Rourke does to Frodo (well, Elijah Woods, channelling an extreme psychopath) is matched only by what Bruce Willis does to the Yellow Bastard. Well deserved, in both cases, but still.

  10. The Gray Wolf
    I’m enjoying the discussion as much as the story! Mr. Pond, thanks for your helpful insights on the setting.
    The striking thing about this story is the reader’s sympathy and identity with the werewolf.   
    Red Rocker, great point about the conflict between female sexuality (often seen as the downfall of men… like it’s our fault) and benign femininity. 
    Viewed from the perspective of our times, what would the monster within be? Greed? Intolerance?
    Whatever that monster may symbolize, MacDonald seems to be saying that we have the power to overcome temptation, deny our baser desires, for the… Greater Good? 😉 For the sake of saving ourselves? Or saving each other from our power to do harm? 

  11. The story also reminds me of Cat People, both the 1942 and 1984 versions. In those movies, the werepanthers turn into panthers when they have sex (“get aroused” in the 1942 version). In the 1982 version they can’t transform back until theykill someone.

    If you have not seen the two movies, stop reading now since spoilers follow.

    What is interesting to me is the reaction of the male protagonist (Oliver) in the two versions. In 1942, he rejects Irena and she ends up killing someone and then committing suicide. In 1982, he ties her up and has consenting sex with and then keeps her in a cage, presumably so she won’t kill anyone. It’s hard to say which is the worse fate.

    I think that the theme of male fear of female sexuality runs strongly through all three tales. I also note that the writers (all male?) can’t seem to find a happy ending for the female protagonist in any of them.

  12. He’s used the wolf as a symbol of otherness, cruelty and separation elsewhere. In “Day Boy and Night Girl” there’s this passage: “Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself — only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel.”
    Here, it could be almost a depressive disorder.

  13. You know, if the recent poll had included an option for “George MacDonald”, I would probably have chosen it. These were good threads.

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