In Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, which I just reread this week, the main character Elena Michaels tells a story. It’s the story of an old European legend about a werewolf that is ravaging a town. In response, the local lord goes out to hunt the werewolf. He lops off its paw as they fight. The werewolf flees. The paw becomes a human hand.
The nobleman is baffled by this. He returns to his castle, hand in tow, and goes to seek out his wife – only to find her cradling the bleeding stump of her arm. Realizing that she is the werewolf that he injured, he kills her. The aggressive, destructive feminine, revealed, is destroyed. There is no place for it in a wife and mother.
This story is related by Elena as a piece of trivia, but it’s really commentary on how she sees herself. What I want to get into today is precisely that – the way that female protagonists in werewolf novels see themselves. I’ve picked three examples: Elena Michaels in Bitten, Vivian from Blood and Chocolate, and Anna from Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs. Full disclosure: This review is full of spoilers. I really enjoyed all three of these books, but there are some interesting parallels in the way that werewolfism is portrayed psychologically for the characters that really struck me.
Of these three characters, none of them chooses to become a werewolf. Elena is bitten by her lover in an effort to keep her with him. The agent of her change is undeniably a man, who is forcing a choice on her for selfish reasons – a metaphorical rape if not an actual one. Anna is changed as a literal act of rape, and is raped and abused continually throughout her early months and years as a werewolf. Again, the agent of her change is a man, and this time not someone she was even considering sharing her life with, but a predator who picked her out for explicitly sadistic reasons. Vivian breaks with the other two stories in that she was born as a werewolf (or loup garoux, to use the novel’s parlance). While she doesn’t choose the life, it is not forced on her but a part of her identity. That said, most of Vivian’s conflict with her identity comes from the fact of her sexuality. As a young female werewolf whose father was the leader of the pack until his death, she is seen as a prize for all of the male werewolves, a way to secure their role as dominants. She is even tricked into a mating ritual with the most alpha werewolf, a man several years her senior. (She does this in order to protect her mother, and in the process essentially weds herself by pack law to a man she had previously been avoiding and rejecting outright. Her mother does not protest.) In other words, all three of these women come into conflict with themselves and their werewolf identities as a product of male objectification or violence, or some combination of the two.
As might be imagined, the main internal plot of these three novels revolves around, to some extent, the desire not to be a werewolf. There is also a corresponding romance plot, wherein each of the three women struggles to find a man who will both respect her and accept her violent nature. In two of the novels (Bitten and Blood and Chocolate) there is a moment where the main character finds herself, either involuntarily or otherwise, revealed as a werewolf, a ‘monster’ that is summarily rejected, to a nice, respectful human male. They are forced back into relationships with their werewolf partners in part because of the circumstances of this reveal – partners that have not previously been partners at all, but manipulators and abusers.
The repetition of this idea is a little troubling. Only Cry Wolf stays away from that particular trope. Anna meets her werewolf mate at the beginning of the book, as a consequence of her own rebellion against her abuse. He is able to emancipate her (with her help) from that abuse, and to help her adjust to her new life by showing her that she is not a monster at all. The violent nature that she has inherited is a product of the violent world she has found herself in, and her goodness as a human being is made no less because of that. For Anna, her wolf becomes a source of solace very early on, protecting her from the worst ravages of her abuse, an alternate personality that keeps her human psychology insulated from what happens to her.
For Elena and Vivian, while they eventually come to terms with their wolf identities, the wolf represents a cost. They are forced to give up their humanity (in the form of their symbolic human lovers) and are essentially trapped by the violent wolf nature. While they each eventually decide that the good things about their wolfness outweigh the bad, and while I reveled in that decision for them, the core of the conflict still meant that accepting their status as a werewolf lost them some of their status as humans. They faced the same conflict as the lady whose story Elena relates, and while their human lords didn’t kill them outright, the symbolic cutting of these two women from the lives of their human lovers is no less a death.
Werewolf books are books about transformation. I’m a huge fan of them, and as mentioned I enjoyed all three of these books. I would still recommend them to people on the basis of my deep werewolf love, and because the main characters are complex and often relatable. I would argue they are relatable because werewolves are relatable, especially for women. The sense that one must conceal one’s negative, aggressive qualities, must play the quiet and passive feminine creature, is drawn out explicitly in Bitten especially. The ability to return to a primal identity as the feminine destroyer goddess – Diana the huntress, Kali the eater of men – is a fascinating and seductive one. But there are definitely troubling overtones in a version of this transformation that relies entirely on males – whether a mate as in the case of Elena, a predator in the case of Anna, or her father’s lineage in the case of Vivian. I would love to see a werewolf book that didn’t lean on these tropes of male domination and abuse.
Guess I’ll just have to write it.