The Monstrosity of the Ordinary in George Langelaan’s “The Fly”
In the concepts surrounding the ideas of monstrosity, one tends to invoke images from gothic horror like Frankenstein, Carmilla, Nosferatu, etc., Or at the very least, extremely grotesque and eerie figures that possess abnormal features and forms. This is rightfully so, the etymology of the word suggests the disfiguration of a person and/or “misshapen being,” as the word derives from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French monstre during the first half of the 13th century. The Oxford English Dictionary bears to define monsters as “originally: a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening” (OED). However, the etymology of the word also proposes the functions and roles that monsters serve within society. They are demonstrative of important social tools because of their embodiment of undesirable characteristics and attributes that we as a society find it difficult to accept. Yet, despite appearance, what makes a monster monstrous is their ability to represent a formidable unknown and deviant form, that disrupts social boundaries and spaces. Thus, an ordinary or mundane item that is not daunting or deformed to the unaided eye, but actually natural and regular within our society can be considered monstrous by this notion. Our everyday experiences provide a plethora of objects like tables, trees, dogs, chairs, telephones, and so forth, that seem unproblematic in comparison with the other entities that occupy our lives. These objects do not seem to threaten anyone or anything inside of what is familiar. Nonetheless, in George Langelaan’s “The Fly,” the idea of monstrosity was constructed in relation to the mundaneness of a telephone because of its ability to intrude invade, and disrupt social boundaries from a monstrous perspective, as well as encapsulate an uncanny familiar. Therefore, using these two notions of monstrosity, in this paper I will explore how an “ordinary” telephone conjures an eerie sensation of horror in George Langelaan’s captivating yet bizarre short story.
In “The Fly,” the telephone summons the idea of monstrosity through two concepts that we attribute to monsters. The first deals with Sigmund Freud’s psychological experience of familiarity in his essay The Uncanny. The next ties into Mary Douglas’s thesis on pollution in her work Purity and Danger. Sigmund Freud attributes “the uncanny” to the perception of aesthetics. He does this because the term has to do with a kind of feeling or sensation that creates emotional inclinations or drives. In general, when one thinks of aesthetics, they tend to recall positive emotions of beauty and elegance. The types of positive emotions that are attractive and call up pleasant impulses of the sublime. However, it is Freud who rejects this rationale of the uncanny. He believes the word possesses a neglected and negative connotation because it refers to a sensation that it not delightful, but actually fearful and frightening. He defines the word uncanny “as the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar” (Freud, p. 195). This definition perfectly relates the mundaneness of the telephone in “The Fly” because even though the ordinary object implies no sensational pain or harm, there is this subtle awareness of horror resonating from the telephone. We see this within the first few scenes of the short story where Helen says “But, Francois! I can’t explain all that over the telephone. Please call the police and come quickly” (Langelaan, p. 2). The uncanny of the telephone is created in this scene because of the very function of this normal object; as a result of the telephone ringing and him answering the telephone, Francois learns about the death of his brother Andre. So now, every time it rings, Francois is again familiarized with that tragic and frightening sensation where he first discovers the death of a loved one. This sensation is a difficult one for Francois to grasp, a peaceful telephone has now turned into an object of monstrosity for the protagonist of the story, to the point where he says “I then disconnected the telephone – I always did this now at night – and turned out all the lights but the lamp on my desk” (Langelaan, p. 12). This scene is significant because it legitimately validates that neglected perception of the familiar. Francois does not want to be reminded of that monstrous event that took place, so he feels so inclined to completely discount his telephone at night. The ringing of the telephone creates that uneasy thought of horror, and the action of disconnecting it is his way of suppressing that thought.
The second notion of attributing the telephone to monstrosity revolves around Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger and her beliefs about pollution and how she portrays dirt as a “matter out of place.” According to Douglas, dirt is abhorrent to us because of the danger it brings through disorder, and its ability to change different structures and boundaries. Douglas concludes this statement by stressing the importance of protecting such boundaries from the unwarranted entry of pollution and uncleanliness as they disrupt social order. She also provides purity as a means for ensuring the preservation of such social boundaries. This concept of pollution is recognizable when Francois says “the sudden ringing of the telephone annoys me … in spite of doors and walls, some unknown person is coming into the room” (Langelaan, p. 1). This refers to Mary Douglas because the purity in the matter is the silence that Francois enjoys when he goes to sleep. The preservation of silence provides a restful night, but the ringing of the telephone disrupts that boundary of restfulness and purity like pollution “as a matter out of place.” Continuing on this point, the telephone has the uncanny ability to allow some random person to invade private space without consent as if it is a monster intruding on social boundaries. This rationale is clear as Francois continues to provide his justification on why telephones make him “uneasy,” he says “…with the telephone that is no longer true… even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle” (Langelaan, p. 1). The monstrous standard of the telephone as a disrupter of space becomes so severe that Francois is disposed to think that he longer assumes control over his very own. As long as the telephone is connected and working, the real heir of power and rule within the confines of Francois’s space is strictly dominated by this deceptive object. His consent is eradicated and now the telephone decides who is permitted to enter and pollute Francois’s household; a type of authority no longer lying in the hands of the space owner.
In general, the notions of monstrosity are usually encircled by grotesque and terrifying-looking creatures, who are daunting in size and are congenitally malformed. Monsters represent a context to demonize that which is considered deviant and deplorable. They have the ability to create an eerie sense of horror through their disruption of social boundaries and their capacity to bring out the frightening sense of familiarity. In George Langelaan’s “The Fly,” there are characteristics of malformation and grotesque transformations to the point where Helen was so horrified by Andre’s appearance, that she helped him end his life. However, in Langelaan’s short story, it is not physical appearance that conjures this perception of monstrosity; the idea is actually encompassed by the normality of some mundane object. The mundane object that I am referring to is the telephone. This object has the uncanny ability to conjure emotional states of fear through the familiarization of tragedy and terror. The ordinary object also has the power to disrupt social boundaries through its invasion of space and silence, much like the deviant behavior that we associate to the definitions of monstrosity. Therefore, what seems to be mundane and natural, actually ends up being repulsively unnatural, much like the principles that we observe in the notions of the monstrous in George Langelaan’s “The Fly.”
- ‘a monster, n., adv., and adj.’ OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/121738. Accessed 3 November 2019.
- “‘The Fly’ By George Langelaan.” The Unravelling Of Al Cook…, https://alancook.wordpress.com/tag/the-fly-by-george-langelaan/.
- Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. The United Kingdom, n.p, 1953.