The Gendered Gothic: Dorothy Hewett’s Alice in Wormland

By | 1 April 2010

The effect of this withdrawal from and distrust of female figures is the rejection of conservative expectations regarding female sexuality. Alice loses her virginity at a young age, and is attacked by her mother, who ‘sliced her legs/with the iron ruler / Great Gawk!' (‘Alice,' 9, lines 10-11) The image of the iron ruler is symbolic of the conservative expectation that women uphold virtues of chastity and modesty, in preparation for marriage and motherhood. These views, prevalent in early to mid-twentieth century Australian society, are suggested by potentially autobiographical elements that have been highlighted in the collection. Despite this treatment, Alice is almost impassive, already separate from the female members of her family, a fact hinted at in the beginning of poem nine, with the observation that Alice is ‘Hallucinating in the daze of summer/flushed with sex & shame' (‘Alice,' 9, lines 1-2). Even though Alice apparently feels shame for her actions, there is no suggestion that this knowledge will impact on her life; indeed, the highly sexualised nature of the rest of the collection implies a contrary conclusion. Alice's solution to her mother's hostility is to go and sit by her grandfather's bed, while the landscape outside takes on a more vicious edge:

blind armoured figures
plumed & helmeted
bled in the green woods
outside the window
the lamb of God hung upside down
in the stable yard
sodden with rain
	I'm as good as ever I was
	death smote his boastful tongue' (‘Alice,' 9, lines 16-24).

Death is never far away in Wormland, particularly when it comes to the protagonist's statements about herself, and reflections of her own nature. Even though Alice does not openly appear to react to her grim surroundings, there is a considerable amount of ominous foregrounding within them. Not only does the environment suggest that conflict will rise, or emphasises that which has already arisen, but it also serves as a mentor figure in this situation. The lack of an approachable female role model beckons the introduction of fantastical, otherworldly elements to the young persona's imagination, to compensate for this absence. As a frustrated child, Alice recognises her ‘otherness' compared to the rest of her family, and aligns herself more closely with a compassionate natural environment:

I'm a changling 	she cried
I don't belong with them
she imagined they'd found her
under the rhubarb plants
swaddled	glistening with frost
like an afterbirth' (‘Alice,' 5, lines 29-34).

Of course this sympathetic, nurturing environment that coddles her as an infant is a fallacy which Alice admits to almost straight away: ‘the blood of them all swam in her / she was caught in the web of their history' (‘Alice,' 5, lines 36-37). Alice's fixation on the natural environment as a source of instruction and comfort is not extinguished until the final poem of the collection. The effect emphasises this idea of Alice's surroundings as representative of a Gothic, mocking mirror of her mistakes and troubles. After losing her virginity, Alice goes into ‘the Dream Girl's Garden' to think. During this period of reflection, the persona contemplates moving outside this arguably domestic, controlled area to explore the wider world, and also ponders over what it means to be loved. Despite these independent thoughts, this action is accompanied by the statement that ‘Alice ringed her hair & wrists with chains,' made from flowers, during this scene (‘Alice,' 10, line 12). The flowers here play a symbolic role in that they represent ‘naturalised' restrictions on Alice. Not only will Alice later become ‘chained' by stereotypical expectations of women – namely that she will eventually get married, have children, and play the role of wife and mother – but she will impose these expectations on herself, through her own actions. Alice, almost absentmindedly, sets the floral chains drawn from her Gothic-tinged environment on herself, with the result that she will be fighting with their restrictive implications for the rest of the collection.

Alice's obsession with (and ironic self-denial of control over) her life is also highlighted in her construction of ‘Nim': a character alternately identified as Alice's child, lover, muse and poltergeist. The ‘Nim' section revolves around Alice's creation of her own ‘sinister boy' (‘Nim,' 1, line 2) which leads to her acknowledgment that:

Why I can make him live
	or make him die (‘Nim,' 2, line 3)

However, as the rest of the collection reveals, Alice's control over Nim is practically non-existent, and the character haunts most of the sections of the poem which represent Alice's pervasive feeling of loss of physical and psychological control. This semi-tangible figure is more a symbolic representation than a character, since only Alice appears to acknowledge his existence. This reconnects Alice with the supernatural elements of her childhood imaginary friend, and strengthens connections with the Gothic. The return to the supernatural is partially in keeping with Robert Hume's observation that while the direct use of the supernatural in fiction contravenes readers' ingrown idea of ‘the essential realism' of narrative fiction, this same symbolic usage bothers us much less in poetry (1969: p 284). While Nim is certainly not the villain of Wormland, he is representative of Alice's creativity, and also her sense of self. The loss of Nim, or separation from him, is symbolic of the isolation from Alice's own creative abilities, and her inability to enact control upon her life. John McLaren takes this interpretation further, claiming that Alice and Nim are ‘mythic projections of the inner self,' which seem to be

reaching back beyond history and time to when Adam and his first lover, Lilith, were still as one in a garden when the wholeness of the mind and the senses was still intact (1995: p 34).

This is certainly an interesting allusion, and the biblical level of these constructions is backed up by Bennett's earlier comments, as well as his claim that Nim may also anticipate ‘other idealised figures of the lost ‘other half' of Hewett's Romantic yearnings… idealised males whose evil is never quite realised for what it is because she is rebelliously attracted to it' (p 25).While this autobiographical interpretation is not wholly convincing, it is still intriguing to consider in light of the traditional, Gothic fixation on what was lost, or warped by disillusionment. Alice's desire to control Nim could be seen as a basic need to control her own desires and abilities, yet ironically it is this control that threatens to subjugate her to Nim himself.

The ‘Nim' section is full of warped Romantic imagery: ‘her secret garden' (‘Nim,' 2, line 1) where ‘she lives her magic life' (‘Nim,' 2, line 3) is dotted with ‘sheep carcasses in calico/blood-spotted shroud the verandahs' (‘Nim,' 2, lines 6-7). These bloody, violent images are paired with the description of Nim appearing as

 ... a shadow on the shivery grass
hanging between the sun & the round hill
a falcon on his wrist a white owl on his shoulder
she sees his doomed face waver at the bottom
					of the well.
the sky darkens with locusts
the dry scratch of wings
		& the jaws working
hand in hand they fly
Alice & Nim, the falcon & the white owl
		from the blackened garden (‘Nim,' 2, lines 19-29).

Fairytale elements mask more threatening undertones: while freedom is offered by the creative, rebellious and masculine spirit of Nim, his ominous appearance, shape-shifting, and foreshadowed destruction suggest a similar fate for Alice. The darkening sky, the presence of locusts, and the ‘blackened' Edenic garden all suggest biblical vengeance, from which Nim and Alice only temporarily escape, as Alice is pulled back to reality (and societal constructions of femininity) by the beginning of her menstrual cycle. Nim, despite his best efforts, is not able to survive Alice's transition into womanhood, nor is Alice able to maintain contact with him, a fact symbolised by Alice's setting adrift of their newborn infant on a wooden raft. The baby and Nim both ‘die,' and while Alice surveys Nim's grave, she does not express comprehension of the significance of these events. Devoid of emotion, she steals the falcon and white owl, an action that only leads Nim to shout ‘Thief! … on the winter wind' (‘Nim,' 7, line 15). This distance from emotion, and the grim depiction of a childhood flanked with the death of innocence and muffled creative abilities, is powerfully suggestive of the issues that will confront Alice for the rest of the collection. Her theft of the falcon and owl feature as recurring symbols that lead to her ultimate embrace of the Gothic image of physical transformation and metamorphosis, in order to rise above the conflicts in her life.

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