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.
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.