A Student Response to The Beetle

In Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, the Woman of Song is intentionally separated from the Western characters in order to emphasize her otherness. No perspective is given to her, no femininity except in her moment of naked exposure to Sydney, and no true voice as the other characters do not speak languages other than English and her version of it is garbled and rough. By viewing her through the interpretation of Edward Said’s Orientalism, with traces of Freud’s uncanny and a smattering of othering, the Woman of Song becomes a stereotype for the Orient as a whole, effectively so as Sydney is unable to identity where she belongs altogether. No characters can identify her other than her physically bizarre body, her rasping voice, and of course her nose hooked like a beak. The Woman of Song is intentionally separated from the other characters in order to emphasize the orientalism of the Orient and the view held by Western society at the time.

The various characters of The Beetle describe the goddess/child of Isis/Beetle as being either foreigner, Oriental or describing coloration as yellow. Even the way she speaks is marked as “guttural tones” that were “reminiscence of some foreign land” (55). Yet, each character seems to peg her differently. Ranging in descriptions between male, female, and androgynous, and only given a name once, Woman of Songs, she proves to be outside the scope of the human in this text. Which is of course only fair as she is portraying either a deity or a follower of one who has the power of transfiguration of self. In his introduction to Orientalism, Said describes the orient as a place of “exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1866). Marsh effectively covers these three pins. The Woman of Songs is an exotic being, Paul Lessingham is filled with haunting memories, the area near the Nile where he was kidnapped and the house Holt and eventually Sydney, Marjorie, and Paul go to, creates a haunted landscape, and all of the text is a remarkable experience.

The separation of the “morbid organisations” which are said to be found more “in the east than in the west” from the idea of “Westerns [being] among the rudiments” while “Orientals leave us at the post” makes clear the division in the text between East and West (105, 263).  The characters of The Beetle separate themselves by describing the Woman of Song as being inherently inhuman and by constantly reminding the reader of the foreign characteristics. With “yellow fangs,” a “queer foreign twang,” a “thin, yellow, wrinkled hand,” as physical characteristics versus the assumed whiteness of the other characters, put forth in an example of Marjorie in her virginal whiteness, the Woman of Song becomes dirty and “grimy-looking” in comparison (86, 85, 231, 176). This separation is based on the Orient as “European invention” and “European Western experience” and the “Orientalized” form it takes on when viewed and studied by Western identities (Said 1866, 1870). Marsh presents the Woman of Song as only through observation rather than through her own viewpoint. Holt, Sydney, Paul and Champnell are given their own perspectives of the Woman of Song and of her victims.

By othering the Woman of Song and placing her in a separate location, Marsh effectively reinforces the psychoanalysis of Freud and Said. The interactions between the characters and the Woman of Song are described as uncanny and othering while the refusal of a first-person perspective creates a separation and a sense of the orientalism Marsh is setting up. Roughly twenty-five quotes mention the Woman of song as yellow, foreign or Oriental. However, the characters seem to fail in their ability to separate the differences in the Orient. Often confusing the Woman of Song for an Arab (or Harab) or by Sydney by simply being unable to place amongst the many Oriental identities he had known. Again, this falls back to a power dynamic Marsh uses to position the Western view over that of the Orient. As Said argues, “[t]he relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, [and] of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (1870).

Works Cited

Marsh, Richard. The Beetle, ed. Julian Wolfreys, Broadview Press, 2004.

Said, Edward W. “Introduction to Orientalism,” Norton Anthology of Writing and Criticism, Second Edition, Norton, 2010, pp. 1866-1888.

4 thoughts on “A Student Response to The Beetle

  1. This was a very interesting focus on The Beetle from an Edward Said perspective. I had never considered that Richard Marsh made the reader a fellow dominator intentionally before. At first I considered this as a potential “of his time” moment, but I am certainly giving it more thought now. If it was an intentional trick on the part of Marsh, it would interesting to know whether he provided any hint in the book that the Beetle was far violent and extreme as Paul Lessingham’s recollections make him appear. Come to think of it, Paul was recovering from a fever…so maybe?

    The use of otherness is certainly worth picking up on, as it allows a critical thinker the experience of peeling back the layers to understand what is on other side: what makes the other different, and are we afraid of this “difference” because it may be something we’re afraid to admit we have in ourselves that we worry about? This is a great topic for this text. Awesome job!


    • Honestly, Paul imagining the whole thing never crossed my mind until now! But the fever thing would do the trick, being drugged (or drunk) and getting lost (or kidnapped) would make sense. The way that the Woman of Song represents herself as the spurned lover is also interesting in this respect because maybe Paul is just trying to cover up past transgressions and promises he never fulfilled?


  2. I like how you focus on the way Marsh created the feeling of the other in this work. I think you are right, the emphasis is powerful. Though in this work, Marsh uses Orientalism, it is easy to see parallels with Dracula. They were published the same year and both deal with the gothic, but Dracula also deals with a form of the other. Dracula is a stand-in for Slavic or eastern European cultures which were threatening to an English audience. That work also deals with femininity and sexuality through themes of seduction and the transfer of fluids. It seems like the creation of the other is an essential aspect of gothic fiction.


    • Thanks Andrew! I will have to read Dracula to be able to comment better. I would go as far as to suggest the creation of the other is an essential aspect of most fictions. Not always an Oriental other, but an other nonetheless


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