Werewolves as a metaphor for illness

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Roslyn Weaver has written: “While vampires are proliferating in children’s and young adult literature, the increasingly popular werewolf figure also deserves attention, particularly given the intriguing links that particular authors draw between the werewolf and disability. These links are seen in not only the two works I discuss in this paper, but others as well (for example, in Howl’s Moving Castle, a man cursed into the form of a dog is said to have a ‘terrible disability’ [Jones 1986, pp. 119-20]). Readers might assume the authors are creating these associations with worthy intentions, but might also question if a werewolf, a monster, is indeed an appropriate metaphor for disability and illness. In this discussion, metaphor is understood in line with Fogelin’s (1994) definition where ‘both similes and metaphors express figurative comparisons: similes explicitly, metaphors implicitly’ (p. 23). This paper explores the werewolf as metaphor for disability and illness in the Harry Potter series (Rowling 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) and Jatta (Hale 2009).

The werewolf

Given the broad scope of this paper, I am less interested in providing a thorough classification or history for literary werewolves than in tracing the ways in which the notion of lupine shapeshifting intersects with disability and illness. However, to provide a brief background, we might look to Creed’s (2005) summary of the major tropes of the werewolf figure: they transform at night usually during the full moon, infect others by biting them, run with a pack, and have no tail. Death is by a silver bullet or fire, and the werewolf has a ‘terrible fury’ (p. 126). Contemporary fictions about werewolves sometimes conform to these tropes, and sometimes reject them.

In terms of critical readings, werewolves have been read in a range of ways, from gender and queer theory (Creed 2005, Bernhardt-House 2008) to dichotomies of the human-monster:

‘representations of lycanthropy have also been consistently conceptualised around the related poles of civilized-primitive, rational-instinctual, public-private and masculine-feminine. In this sense, the werewolf has modelled the dualistic subjectivity that emerged through the Enlightenment in graphic, exaggerated – or monstrous – terms.’ (Du Coudray 2006, p. 3)” (Weaver, p.69)

Weaver continues: “Du Coudray (2006) discusses the ‘grotesque imagery’ of the werewolf, suggesting that ‘In its monstrous lupine form, it is usually represented as an entirely alien other threatening the social collective’ (p. 4). Creed (2005) reads the werewolf as uncanny, representing instability, disorder, lack of borders, the breaking of taboo; Bernhardt-House (2008) similarly seizes on the werewolf’s ‘hybridity and transgression of species boundaries’ (p. 159). We can deploy these arguments outside the immediate context of gender, following Ward’s (2009) focus on the possibilities offered by the werewolf figure, who writes that Rowling’s Harry Potter werewolves are ‘characters of ingenuity, of difference; they upset readers’ expectations and force them to question their assumptions and beliefs, especially those about identity and difference’ (p. 3). The particular ideas that are useful for the purposes of this paper include the concept of instability, in the context of difference in society.” (Weaver, p.70)

“It is worthwhile considering some of the positive and negative implications of linking disability and illness with the werewolf, a traditionally monstrous creature. Certainly there are difficult aspects of a literal reading. Given Fogelin’s (1994) earlier stated distinction between similes and metaphors where metaphors provide implicit rather than explicit comparisons, it is more productive to dismiss literal attempts to read the werewolf as a metaphor for any of these conditions. Neither work sustains a literal reading because the werewolf figure remains dangerous, a malevolent force of contamination and monstrosity. For this reason, the werewolf will always fail as a direct metaphor for minority groups.

Yet Harry Potter and Jatta are two works that succeed in critiquing society’s perceptions of normality and difference. The social model of werewolves shows that society’s reaction to disability and illness can be ignorant and misplaced, and that the real monstrosity might just be located in particular social norms and concepts of difference. While the works discussed in this paper do not attempt to solve this problem, the werewolf figure nonetheless provides an intriguing way to conceptualise disability and illness in the social context. Despite the negative implications of rendering disability and illness as fantastical creatures, the werewolf as metaphor reminds readers that society’s treatment of those it deems outside the norm (the disabled, the chronically ill) is not always justified, morally right, or even helpful. Indeed, such a metaphor of monstrosity suggests that society itself can become the monster, rather than those who wear the label.” (79)

Ref: Roslyn Weaver (2010) ‘Metaphors of monstrosity: The werewolf as disability and illness in Harry Potter and Jatta’ Papers 20(2), pp.69-82

Note: Weaver states that “There are serious limitations in reading the werewolf itself as a direct metaphor for disability; the focus in this discussion is instead primarily on the use of werewolves as metaphors for society’s reaction to disability and illness in Harry Potter and Jatta.” (p71)

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