An unseasonable short story that Bram Stoker wrote in 1893 for Holly Leaves (the Christmas number of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News), “The Squaw” is set in Nuremberg, a city that Stoker had visited in 1885. A self-regarding, unnamed Englishman who is touring the region with his new bride, Amelia, narrates it. Also among the party is a boastful, uncouth man from Bleeding Gulch, Nebraska, Elias P. Hutcheson, who regales his companions with stories of his adventures in the American West and his cruel treatment of Native Americans. While visiting the city’s medieval castle, the three tourists climb up to the battlements. Looking down they see a mother cat on the ground playing with her kitten. Hutcheson drops a pebble down to help the play but misjudges his aim, and the stone crushes the kitten’s skull. The mother cat glares at Hutcheson, licks the kitten’s wound, and, realizing that it is dead, tries to climb up the wall looking “the perfect incarnation of hate.” The angry cat prompts Hutcheson to remember his encounters with the Native Indian Apaches and Comanches and, in particular, an Indian squaw who had lingered over the torture of a “half-breed” who had killed her papoose. The cat stalks Hutcheson, following him and his English companions into the notorious torture tower. Among the gruesome items on display is the infamous Iron Virgin, a “rudely shaped figure of a woman . . . Mrs. Noah in the children’s Ark.” The tourists learn that in earlier, less civilized times, the prisoner used to be put inside the heavy iron sarcophagus, whose door in front was operated by a rope attached to a pulley system. The queasy twist to the tale comes when Hutcheson insists on climbing into the contraption. As the attendant slowly feeds the rope, the vengeful mother cat appears. She springs at the attendant, who lets go of the rope. Inside, Hutcheson far from enjoying his deadly coupling, is impaled and castrated and his skull is crushed. The narrator retrieves the bloody corpse, and immediately the mother cat sits on it licking the blood that “trickled through the gashed socket of his eyes.” Furious at another man’s being unmanned at the hands of the unholy alliance of the iron woman and the cat, the narrator seizes an old executioner’s sword and cuts the cat in two. “No one will call me cruel for doing so,” he assures us.
As Lillian Nayder has noted, crucial to this gruesome story is the obvious anxiety about powerful women. According to Nayder, Hutcheson represents the colonist-as-rapist, who takes virgin territory and is subsequently punished. The story’s fears about women’s sexuality (figured in the Iron Virgin) invite Freudian readings. They are also intertwined with a wider anxiety about the figure of the murderous mother, Amelia, who stands at the center of middle-class ideology as the touchstone of moral and familial virtue. This story is also disturbing because it invites us to identify totally with the narrator’s point of view and embrace his system of values. The thrust of his ideology seems plain—women’s capacity for monstrosity and the need to keep a vigilant watch on them.
Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith, eds. Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Nayder, Lilian. “Virgin Territory and the Iron Virgin: Engendering the Empire in Bram Stoker’s The Squaw.” In Maternal Instincts: Versions of Motherhood and Sexuality in Britain 1875–1925, edited by Claudia Nelson and Ann Sumner Holmes, 75–97. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. London: George Routledge, 1914.
Categories: British Literature, Horror Novels, Literature, Short Story
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