Imagine you’re living in the 12th Century, chatting to your friends in Latin and someone uses the word ‘monstrum’. You know immediately that they’re taking about a divine omen (probably one indicating misfortune) – an object of dread, a bad sign, that kind of thing. You also know that the word ‘monstrum’ is derived from ‘monere’ which means: ‘to warn’.

Okay, now picture yourself in 14th Century France. People are using the word ‘monstre’. It means: ‘malformed’ – and people born with birth defects are regarded as signs or omens of impending evil. By the 15th Century, the word’s being used to describe animals of vast size, persons of inhuman cruelty and wickedness, and people regarded with horror because of moral deformity.

Fast-forward to the present day and Natalie Lawrence writes that: “The word (‘monster’) conjures up figures from gothic horror, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, classical images of exotic peoples with no heads or grotesquely exaggerated features. (These) monsters (are) indicative of the moral and existential challenges faced by societies.”

Lawrence tells us that: “Dr Walter Palmer, who illegally shot Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, has been labelled a ‘monster’. He had to flee his home and hire armed guards to protect himself and his family as a result of public disgust at his actions. He even received death threats and (was) described as ‘barely human’. Trophy hunting, and anyone who takes part in or has involvement with it, has been similarly vilified in the media and by animal rights groups.”

“Such public ‘monsters’ serve a similar role to gothic monsters, images that embody the cultural or psychological characteristics that we as a society find difficult to acknowledge. By excising them, through fantasies of execution or simply exclusion, we rid ourselves of the undesirable attributes they are perceived to carry. The ‘murdered’ lion becomes the innocent white-robed victim of the archetypal gothic tale, while murderous Walter Palmer plays the role of social scapegoat.”

For modern writers, then, the monster is not defined by a physical imperfection or any kind of superficial ‘shortcoming’. The monster is almost invisible. We currently live in a world where those words ‘monere’ and ‘monstrum’ are way more appropriate than ‘monstre’. And yet we have to remember that lots of the texts we encounter were informed by the idea that the way a person looked did determine people’s understanding of whether they were good or bad. But let’s get to that later.

First, let’s take some time to do what we enjoy doing more than anything else.

Headphones ready? Good. Listen to this…

You’ll have noted the line: “Monsters walk around / How did silence get so loud?”

It feels like Chrissy Costanza is battling with her own anxieties. The monsters are probably the voices in her head, the voices telling her that she’s not good enough. You know that voice, right?!

It doesn’t really matter, though, exactly what the monster is.

We realise that in simply using the word, she’s alert to the warning signs that something is wrong. How do we know that? Because – as highlighted in the opening paragraph – that word ‘monster’ is rooted in the Latin ‘monere’. So… now we can take an informed leap in the direction of working out how Chrissy Costanza is feeling. I mean, how do any of us feel when the warning signs start flashing? Maybe we panic, maybe we take action – certainly, we become alert. The ‘monster’ metaphor, then, helps the reader to understand Costanza’s need for vigilance. A warning implies an imminent threat. So that’s what the word ‘monster’ suggests: threat.

Also – and even though it doesn’t necessarily matter exactly what the threat is – it is worth remembering that the motif has come to signify those “undesirable attributes” Natalie Lawrence referred to.

But let’s fill ourselves up with JOY by listening to more Against The Current before coming back to those somewhat less joyful, “undesirable attributes”.

This time, Costanza asks: “who is this monster wearing my skin?”

Again, if asked to analyse the “monster” motif, we would explore those ideas about warnings and feeling threatened – not to mention the stress that comes along with having to live a life on full alert. We would also be tempted to investigate the “undesirable attributes” Lawrence says are inextricably linked to that monster imagery.

The “monster” motif might not necessarily serve as proof of its actual existence. But it does confirm Costanza’s belief in it. By using that “monster” image, she allows us to understand how anxious, insecure and uncertain she feels. What has made her feel this way? Maybe it’s something she has done. More likely, it’s the way she’s been conditioned to feel by a society that makes life especially hard for women. The motif is hugely significant as it offers us, the listeners, a window into Costanza’s state of mind as well as the state of the world she inhabits.

(It’s also interesting to note at this point how far we’ve come from the ‘monstre’ idea. As discussed, we shouldn’t believe anymore that we can judge a book by its cover. If one’s cover isn’t perfect, then that DOES NOT infer a dark and despicable interior. Costanza helps to debunk that ‘monstre’ myth by differentiating between her surface – her “skin” – and the “monsters” living underneath it.)

All of the above ideas can be used to inform your reading of the monster imagery in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (“He is not a monster”), ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (“He was such a monster”), ‘Othello’ (“Heaven keep that monster from Othello’s mind!”) and whatever other texts you’re studying.

The ideas about warnings, threats and “undesirable attributes” will always be relevant to your own analysis. Although, to ensure you define your thoughts with the kind of sophistication that thrills your examiners, just make sure to tweak those ideas dependent on context. What year was your text written in? What did the word ‘monster’ mean to audiences of that era?

To finish, why not listen to ‘lullaby’? Note Costanza’s question: “Are monsters made or are they born?”

If you’ve studied Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’, you’ll have certainly considered this question before. What would your response be to Chrissy’s question?

Send in your thoughts on any of the above. Or pick out a ‘monster’ quote from a text of your choice and send us your analysis of it. We would definitely love to publish the most exciting writing!.

Then have a go at another Against The Current lesson!

Main pic thanks to the amazing Danny Peart.