Gothic Penetrations of the Body in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle
Richard Marsh’s The Beetle reimagines Gothic penetrability to be something unsettling and uncomfortably horrific. Robert Holt comes in contact with a series of strange circumstances after finding a mysterious and presumably forgotten house. In this desolate house, Robert undergoes a degrading transformation at the hands of an unnatural force. Marsh describes this strange force as a creature mentally capable of understanding the world (language, knowledge), but physically has the appearance of something inhuman. The exact description of this being is purposely difficult to envision since it consists of an unorthodox combination of traits (such as having no chin and multiple eyes). Robert attempts to internally verbalize the atrocity of this being, stating it to be a “monstrous conception of some dreadful vision” thought up by his imagination (51).
The act of bodily penetration by a Gothic force reveals how delicate human minds and bodies are against an unknown dominator, or in this case, a grotesque being. Robert unexpectedly becomes under the control of this creature that has the “powers of penetration” through eye contact (55). As Robert physically (not mentally) remains at the mercy of his superhuman oppressor, he changes into something inhuman as well. Specifically, the creature compels him to remove every form of clothing from his body until he is in a naked a vulnerable state. From a post-colonial perspective, this transformation into something primal (not having the capability of clothing oneself) reveals how dominating the unnatural is over inferior humans.
An extremely intimate penetration occurs through the exchange of bodily fluids between the creature and Robert. While still being in a helpless state of paralysis, Robert experiences a transfer of “something evil…in the guise of a kiss” (57). Marsh does not clarify whether the creature was putting a part of himself into Robert’s body or if it was a transfer of possession (moving out of the old man and into a younger vessel). The lack of clarification in this scene establishes an uncanny sensation, leaving the reader to deduce what was in the kiss. Perhaps the kiss was meant as a contract or pact between Robert and the creature, or the creature was transferring part of itself into Robert as a way to gain more control. Either way, Marsh leaves it up to our imaginations to find out what the purpose of this kiss was.
Robert continues to forcefully undergo bodily penetration with more devastating effects once the creature gains control over his voice. When Robert first hears the creature’s voice through commands and questions, he answers with “passive obedience” (54). Whether it is due to the effects of hypnotism or some other force at work, Robert’s voice lands in the hands of his oppressor, leaving him to rely on his internal voice for some kind of mental expression (only heard by the reader). The creature’s inability to have complete domination over Robert physically and mentally may suggest consciousness is powerful enough to resist foreign invasion. However, Robert’s voice reforms into something monstrous and unrecognizable when he says “THE BEETLE” in a “low, hissing” sound (76). As simple as this word is, it has the power to call upon forces of evil and render the receiver of this word helpless.
Penetration initially seems to occur once Robert makes direct eye contact with the creature in the shadows or through its “most disagreeable voice” (52). However, there is an implication suggesting Robert was the first to penetrate the creature after sneaking into its space (the house). Based on how the creature is drawn out to be a spider-like being in combination with Robert’s entanglement with the creature’s plan to steal Paul Lessingham’s letters (as well as his entrapment in the house due to hypnosis), the narrative reveals the house to be the physical manifestation of a spider’s web.
Robert’s experience with this inhuman adversary is chilling to the bone because Marsh does not initially explain the reasoning behind this creature’s actions and demeanor. Marsh’s details toward the creature’s appearance are difficult to envision because its strangeness does not fit in the human world. At the same time, Robert slowly transitions into an unrecognizable character after the creature penetrates his body. This transformation suggests Robert is becoming just as grotesque in appearance as the creature. The only thing preventing him from completely crossing the threshold between human and inhuman is his consciousness. Gothic penetrations of the body are unsettling for both the characters and the readers because they truly show how easy it is to control human beings.
Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. 1915. Edited by Julian Wolfreys, Broadview Press, 2004, pp. 41-88.