Body Boundaries and Gothic Monstrosity in Dystopian Fiction

Amy Cartwright, (English Literature: University of Glasgow

In this paper I want to explore the monster as a symbol of transformation within the novels Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and to seek insights into the novels by assessing them in the light of the Gothic tradition. Throughout the course of these novels, not only does the monster offer transformation, but also the transgression of the boundaries upon which assumptions both within and without the novel are made. The very definition of what is monstrous becomes undefined and open to speculation.

2 I want to argue that each element in the Gothic framework has, as its point of reference, the body. The body is the site of repression and the locus of the fear that forms the core of Gothic theory. It is also part of the gothic narrative which can transform to become monstrous and which forms the crossroads of the boundaries which are transgressed. It is this focus on the body which makes the Gothic such a powerful influence on modern dystopian texts, shifting the focus from issues of power and control, to the site of the exercise of that power and control: the human body. Dystopias viewed through the Gothic lens unveil the bodies at their centre and the unconscious and hidden elements which play upon these physical spaces.
3  It would not be possible to accomplish an exploration of such a vast genre as Gothic fiction in a paper such as this, and I will therefore focus on the gothic monster in this paper. In her text Skin Shows, Halberstam engages with notions of the monstrous body and I here quote from her text:

Gothic fiction is a technology of subjectivity, one which produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy and the pure can be known. Within Gothic novels...multiple interpretations are embedded in the text and part of the experience of horror comes from the realisation that meaning itself runs riot. Gothic novels produce a symbol for this interpretative mayhem in the body of the monster. [1]

This uncertainty and ambiguity is central to my (mis-)understanding of the Gothic monster in dystopian fiction. It accounts for the unavailability of certainty as to which characters are indeed monsters and which are in the process of transgressing that boundary of otherness in order to question it further. Not only do the subjects of the novels provide difficulties in interpretation, but by placing the characters in such a futuristic setting, the reader is already suffering from a feeling of disorientation, heightened by the fact that this supposedly future world is rather more familiar than we are comfortable with, we are then confronted with situations which seem designed to defy interpretation. For Burgess, this difficulty is increased by his use of language, or rather by his use of a non-language. Orwell prefers the more simple technique of bombarding the reader with a sequence of events which are open to a multiplicity of readings, ending with an entirely ambiguous ending and a teasing appendix.

The importance of the monster figure in the dystopian text cannot be underestimated, since its very inclusion is the key to the structure of the text as a whole, providing the fear and the terror, but also the element of duplicity which brings the plot alive. The lack of insight into any kind of 'truth' with regard to which side of the 'good' and 'evil' dichotomy each character lies is due in large part to the multiplicity of interpretations. The figure of the monster also makes the false and intriguing claim to provide boundaries, to allow us access to certainty through our understanding of this type of deviance. However, at the same time as monstrosity seems to create a boundary within which we can begin to ascertain meaning, it is simultaneously transgressing and subverting that very value code within which we have begun to ascribe definition and build understanding.

The crude horror of physical abnormality is as nothing to the fear that human appearances cannot be trusted. So a character might suddenly shift from showing conventional behaviour to a 'suddenly feral, red-eyed, dissolving imitation'. Such changes enact a loss of self which Mark Rose has described as being characteristic of the Science Fiction genre: 'feelings of self-alienation typically express themselves as narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of men into something less than or more than human'. [2]

This is the definition of monstrosity which underlines the concerns of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, the uncertainty as to meaning and definition, who are the 'good-guys' and who are the 'baddies'. Although the novels have their moments of 'the crude horror of physical abnormality', it is the psychological fear which is the catalyst of the plots. Orwell delivers his people-monsters through the technique of dramatic irony, where the reader always feels that they are a step ahead of the protagonist, privy to an understanding of the situation which the characters themselves have yet to achieve. Burgess prefers to give the reader a smart narrator who, for the most part, shares in the awareness of the audience, allowing direct access to the fear of the situations. The novels are different since for a large part of A Clockwork Orange Alex feels in a position of privilege, the one who creates the fear rather than feeling the effects of it, but this is balanced by the outcome of his treatment. 1984 is a fear-filled novel from start to finish and builds to a climax of truly horrifying proportions. The transformations of the novels are carried out on the bodies of the main protagonists, Alex and Winston, but there is another mutation within which this evolves and that is the monstrosity of the Party and the state apparatus, which seems itself to transgress boundaries in the course of the novel, invading the bodies of the protagonists and transforming as it does so.

5 The types of monstrosity the novels engage with fall into two basic categories: the monstrosity of the individual and the monstrosity of the state/ideological machinery. The fear of the individual regarding the integrity of the self manifests itself in visions of monsters, which leads to transformation and struggles to maintain the boundaries of the body. The power of the state operates to invade these carefully constructed boundaries with monstrous intent. The anxiety surrounding the individual and their threatened and invaded body creates what I will term 'people-monsters'. The definition offered by David Seed, and which I later refer to, centres around the monstrous fear that human appearances cannot be trusted, leading to the creation of people-monsters. These kinds of monsters transform and transgress throughout the course of the novels, never providing fixed boundaries and challenging ideas of fixed identities. However, even this type of person-monstrosity does not remain fixed in the individual sense, since certain individuals within the scheme of the novels operate as part of the larger machinery of the 'power-monster'. Power monsters are most usually constituted by people monsters, power is a parasite on the human body, it needs it to survive. This term "power monster" refers to the state apparatus which serves to threaten the interiority of the individual, becoming monstrous in the process. Its monstrosity emanates from the ability it has to invade boundaries, question them and also restructure them in frightening ways.
6 However, the application of concrete terms when dealing with monsters is difficult since:

The body that scares and appals changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of that monstrosity. Within the traits that make a body monstrous - that is frightening or ugly, abnormal or disgusting - we may read the difference between an other and a self, a pervert and a normal person, a foreigner and a native." [3]

Yet some of the monsters I discuss are neither ugly nor disgusting, yet fit into categories of monstrosity which operate in different ways to contribute to a definition of 'monster'. There are as many characteristics of monstrosity as there are individual ideas of what is horrific. As individuals we define our own monsters in relation to ourselves and the boundaries we wish to create and operate within.

7  Think of the horror of Winston when he discovers the mutability of the human body, when at his moment of capture the junk-shop owner, Mr Charrington, seems to alter physically before his eyes into something horrible, no longer a nice man who rented them a room and kept them safe, but some unspeakable kind of 'thing'.

There was another, lighter step in the passage. Mr Charrington came into the room. ...The cockney accent had disappeared...Mr Charrington was still wearing his old velvet jacket, but his hair, which had been almost white, had turned black. Also he was not wearing his spectacles to him...He was still recognisable, but he was not the same person any longer. His body had straightened, and seemed to have grown bigger. His face had undergone only tiny changes that had nevertheless worked a complete transformation. The black eyebrows were less bushy, the wrinkles were gone, the whole lines of the face seemed to have altered; even the nose seemed shorter. It was the alert, cold face of a man of about five-and-thirty. It occurred to Winston that for the first time in his life he was looking, with knowledge, at a member of the Thought Police.(1984, p3)

In the beginning Winston still thinks of the person before his eyes as 'Mr Charrington' but by the end of the passage he has been transformed into 'a member of the Thought Police', no longer a named individual, but part of the monstrous organisation which Winston has been seeking to avoid. The idea of 'imitation', of a pretence at being human is critical to an understanding of the horror which Mr Charrington represents. Winston can barely believe what he sees before him. The transformation which has occurred is nothing short of a miracle, Mr Charrington has not only altered beyond recognition, but has become so much younger that it is a frightening vision. He is described as not only growing younger, but bigger, colder and more alert, not at all the kind old man from whom Winston believed he had rented the room. The imitation of this figure was very effective since Winston never considered him anything other than an old man until the very moment he is confronted with these changes and realises he is actually a member of the Thought Police. Mr Charrington first seems to fit the category of a person monster since he physically undergoes transformation, however he is in fact part of a larger power monster which works its own transformation to utilise his corporeal form to further its own ends. The power monster is parasitical, it needs to live in and feed off human bodies. It cannot exist for and of itself. The alterations to Mr Charrington are described as 'tiny' yet they were enough to convince Winston for an extended period of time. This suggests some element of self-deception, Winston wanted to believe that it was possible to escape from the rule of Big Brother, to exist outwith the constant surveillance of the telescreens, so he allowed himself to be duped by the illusion. He could not accept that the boundaries of his life were fixed so he sought the gap through which he could slip, and ensured he did not look too hard for the catch. Mr Charrington has shifted from a faceless element of the power-monster, to become a person-monster with a body capable of action. He has become more than human, transferred all his power into a corporeal form to confront those who thought they were safe from a large, faceless power-monster.

8 The boundaries under which the individual operates are also explored in A Clockwork Orange:

Skin houses the body and it is figured in Gothic as the ultimate boundary, the material that divides the inside from the outside. The vampire will puncture and mark the skin with his fangs, Mr Hyde will covet white skin, Dorian Gray will desire his own canvas.... Slowly but surely the outside becomes the inside and the hide no longer conceals nor contains, it offers itself up as text, as body, as monster. [4]

The moment when the interiority of Alex begins to be threatened is when his 'treatment' begins and they pull back the protective covers of his eyes in order to fully penetrate below the level of the exterior. The marks which are left on Alex are invisible, the invasion has been one of the 'not-me' of otherness from outside his own body but without visible traces on his skin. The boundary of his skin is peeled back to at once reveal the 'me' and allow it to be swamped by the 'not-me' flooding in from outside.

I do not wish to describe, brothers, what other horrible veshches I was like forced to viddy that afternoon. The like minds of this Dr Brodsky and Dr Branom and the others in white coats, and remember there was this devotchka twiddling with the knobs and watching the meters, they must have been more cally and filthy than any prestoopnick in the Staja itself. Because I did not think it was possible for any veck to even think of making films of what I was forced to viddy, all tied to this chair and my glazzies made to be wide open. All I could do was to creech very gromky for them to turn it off, turn it off, and that like part drowned the noise of dratsing and fillying and also the music that went with it all."(CO, p79)

Like Winston in 1984, they do not want him to simply be cured on the outside, but they want the transformation to be from the inside out. His skin is no longer allowed to offer him any protection, because no matter how hard he tries he is unable to close his eyelids and put an end to the images which are invading him. This transgression of boundaries is then not engineered by Alex himself, but is entirely outwith his control and contrary to his wishes, although he did initially volunteer for the treatment in full ignorance of its implications. The marks left on Alex are far more than 'skin-deep', they have penetrated to the very inside of him as they were intended to, providing a complete transformation.

'Of course it is horrible,' smiled Dr Branom. 'Violence is a very horrible thing. That's what you are learning now. Your body is learning it.' 'But,' I said, 'I don't understand. I don't understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before. I used to feel like very the opposite. I mean, doing it or watching it I used to feel real horrorshow. I just don't understand why or how or what - '(CO, p81)

However, this process of re-education, of learning is not a method which engages with the mind, but rather is based on the cooperation of the body. In his mind Alex never really changes his opinion of violence but his bodily reaction is what becomes altered. The sickness he feels is separate from any logic which his mind employs during his treatment. Dr Brodsky and his fellow enthusiasts are able to papal back the skin to expose Alex, but the success of this invasion is limited. They fail to invade his mind at the deepest level, that which structures his thoughts and shapes his emotions. Instead they only tinker with meaning. The love of violence remains but what it triggers in Alex's body is different. The meaning has become altered and rather than such scenes being pleasurable, a different sensation fills the body at the sight of violence, the meaning of such scenes works differently upon the physiology of Alex. As a reader you are torn between the belief that those who treat Alex are monsters, and that he himself is monstrous. However, even this distinction is further complicated by the fact that there is a "before" and "after" Alex to consider. He may very well have been a monster prior to his treatment, but has its use made him less of a monster or more, is he more or less human as a result?

If we focus on the monstrosity that is "the fear that human appearances cannot be trusted" [5] , then it would seem plausible to argue that by 'curing' Alex the state has in fact only served to create a new form of monster, one which acts as though it were different, but that this change is only skin deep. Alex the person has not changed, only his body now responds differently from how it used to. The treatment of Alex is an example of the interaction between people monsters and power monsters. As a people monster Alex strives to protect his carefully constructed boundaries yet he is happy for the treatment to take place as he believes he is capable of controlling events and that his continued pretence of goodness will be enough to convince them he is cured. What he becomes is an invaded body, transformed further than he would have believed possible. The cause of this transformation is the power monster which is capable of executing this invasion through the bodies of people monsters like Dr Brodsky, in the name of "interpretative mayhem" [6] .
10 Alex states that he used to feel 'real horrorshow' when confronted with or engaged in such acts of violence, but now the same acts have become to him truly horrific and beyond what he feels he can physically endure, leading him to 'creech' for the torture to end. The ambiguity of the phrase 'real horrorshow' is powerful in this context, since it is used at once to describe how Alex used to feel and also how he is being taught to see. By physically controlling his eyelids, the focus is on the visual impact of the scenes, that they become a real horrorshow. The emphasis is on the viewing of these scenes, that to see them under this new influence of drugs is what will penetrate Alex. Yet, it seems apparent that the alteration is only in a physical sense, that Alex retains an inherent love of violence but that it has been transformed as a sensation on his body. Like his beloved music, violence used to be a pleasure for him, but after his treatment its impact is entirely the opposite. Yet, he still loves his music and his violence, but they no longer have the same meaning in a physical sense to him. They have been transformed to be sensations of pain rather than pleasure. He is unable to withstand the physical side effects of engagements with violence but it has not changed the appeal of violence in itself. The horror of the 'show' has only become 'real' to Alex in a physical sense to his body, but the horror ends there.
11 This key moment of invasion, of the breaching of the ultimate body boundary of the skin is mirrored in Room 101 for Winston. The symbol of the threat to his bodily unity, to the coherence of what is held together underneath his skin, is the rat in the cage.

'I will have pressed the first lever,' said O'Brien. 'You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap onto your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.'(1984, p298)

The horror of this threat is more than that of the Gothic symbol of the vampire, because these rats will not only penetrate the skin and the flesh; but they will remain inside. The mark from a vampire penetrates, but only momentarily. The implication of the rats invasion is that it will be complete; it will not stop but will bore right through Winston, leaving the ultimate mark of death. The actions of a vampire seem less invasive because they bite and leave, while the rat will invade and remain. Although the impact of the vampire is lasting - since it signals a recruitment to the leagues of the Undead - it dos not symbolise the specificity of the rat. Vampires are symbols of horror for the vast majority, but the rat is a specific object of fear for Winston. It is important that this is what O'Brien chooses to threaten Winston with since it is privileged information which he has been able to gain from observing Winston. Thus, the rat is symbolic of more than just Winston's fears, but also of his existence as an invaded body long before his time in Room 101. His very thoughts and emotional states, his fears and desires are known to the power-monster of the state and it is this information which makes them monstrous, since they are able to use it in such frightening ways. The significance of their attack also rests on the areas which O'Brien predicts they will attack - the eyes or the tongue. If the rats bore through his eyes en route to the destruction of his bodily integrity they invade through the very body parts which would have been central to Winston's 'revolutionary' activity - sight and seeing are paramount in the novel. However, the other possible route is no better since this would deprive Winston of a voice while accessing his interiority. Yet again the multiplicity of meanings comes into play since there are many different interpretations of this event. He values his own bodily integrity above all other considerations since he is willing to sacrifice Julia in order to save his own skin. This is a moment of climax in the novel since it is the moment of truth for Winston. Although he maintains his bodily integrity, he exposes and destroys the layer on top of his skin; that of a decent human being.

'Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'(1984, p300)

Winston believes that by transferring the torture to his 'lover' Julia he has preserved his 'sense of self' by ending the threat to his body. However, he has lost more in the process, being transformed into a monstrous entity capable of such a lack of humanity. His boundaries have been breached and his humanity called into question. He is willing to sacrifice anyone but himself, the woman he supposedly loves can be 'stripped to the bone' exposed in the most basic and horrific way. She can have her face 'torn off', her very symbol of individuality rendered meaningless, anything that will protect Winston. He professes to love her and yet he is capable of such disregard for the sanctity of her 'skin' when faced with the choice of his own. When his skin is threatened it loses its capacity to conceal, his 'hide' can no longer hide. In a novel obsessed with lies, secrets and surfaces, Winston is shown as the ultimate deceiver, able to cover his true self in the mask of the rebellious hero until the dénouement when this mask is threatened. He is transformed into a monster, "a screaming animal" [7] capable only of the basic emotion of self preservation. But the irony is that in attempting to preserve his sense of self bound up in his body, Winston actually exposes what has been beneath the surface all along. What Winston loses in Room 101 is his right to choose, to be undetermined by the Party. He can no longer chose to hide his true thoughts and feelings after the rats; all his secrets are revealed.


In conclusion, the gothic trope of fear of the unknown and the consequences of the exposure of this frightening other, is explored in the dystopian texts of Orwell and Burgess. Through the vehicle of the monster the notion of boundaries is explored and functions to reveal many repressed monsters in the texts.

By focusing upon the body as the locus of fear, Shelley's novel suggests that it is people (or at least bodies) who terrify people, not ghosts or gods, devils or monks, windswept castles or labyrinthine monasteries. The architecture of fear in this story is replaced by physiognomy, the landscape of fear is replaced by sutured skin, the conniving villain is replaced by and antihero and his monstrous creation. [8]

Like Shelley's novel, the monsters in these texts are people, despite a dystopian obsession with issues of power and control, and with the power of the state to influence the individual, the most frightening aspect is the monstrosity of the individuals involved. They are the face of any larger monster one could attempt to fix and label; it is people who commit the acts of the novel and form the consciousness from which we view events. Dystopian novels stories of the antihero who strives throughout the novel to resist the forces at work within himself and his ideology, but eventually creates something hideous and outwith his control. But it also the hidden tale of the individuals like O'Brien and Dr Brodsky who personify the monstrosity of the state and carry out its invasions and transformations.



Armstrong, T., Modernism, Technology and the Body; a cultural study, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Burgess, A., A Clockwork Orange, Great Britain, Penguin Books, 1996

Halberstam, Judith, Skin Shows, Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, USA, Duke University Press, 1995

Hurley, Kelly, The Gothic Body, Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1999

Orwell, G., Nineteen Eighty-Four, Great Britain, Penguin Books, 1989

Sage, Victor, and Smith, Allan Lloyd, Modern Gothic, a reader, UK, Manchester University Press, 1996

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, UK, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994

Stoker, Bram, Dracula, London, Penguin Books, 1994

Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oxford, Oxford Universtity Press, 1998


[1] Halberstam, Judith, Skin Shows, Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, USA, Duke University Press, 1995, p2

[2] David Seed, 'Alien invasions by body snatchers and related creatures', in Modern Gothic, a reader ed. By Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith( UK, Manchester University Press, 1996) pp152-170 (p153)

[3] Halberstam, p8

[4] Halberstam, p7

[5] David Smith, Alien invasions by body snatchers and related creatures, p153

[6] Halberstam, p2

[8] Halberstam, p28

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Amy Cartwright 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.