Red, Blonde, and Blue: Human Characteristics and the Origin of Myths surrounding them in Literature

 

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Throughout history, the color of one’s hair has determined temperament as well as trustworthiness. The origin of these determinations may be harder to compose, as many cultures and time periods have aided in the establishment of these myths. But, the Victorian era is a perfect location to find renowned literary artists who used these stereotypes masterfully, from the dark psyches of Bram Stoker, to the inspiring, feministic touches of Henry James. This analysis will encompass the basic foundation of how these authors may have chosen the winning combination of personality vs. genetics to produce timeless classics- with primary focus being on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Bram Stoker’s Dracula– by chronicling popular myths surrounding the belief that dark features equate to evil, light qualities emulate purity, and bold colors are symbols of high spirited and stubbornness, with primary focus on hair color and how this structure works in literature as a whole.

Red

The most volatile of hair colors comes in the fiery pigments of the red headed mischievous one. Red hair has been given a bad name, due to its association with perceived negative attributes, such as witchcraft and the betrayal of Christ. Chelsea Anderson sums it up nicely in her honor thesis when she states ¨ Physical traits, such as hair color, have become identifiers of certain traits a character has, and have since developed into signifiers of those certain to both other characters in literature as well as the readers….The representation of redheads within literature is an example of how appearances have become a signifier of specific characteristics. Because of religious and historical influence, literature has used red hair as a trope for specific characteristics countless times.˝ (Anderson, 1)

This observation shows the psychological effects of continuous association of character traits and behavior, which forms the connotation of the myths at play, and solidifies Roland Barthes semiology theory, where ¨myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it…it is a second order semiological system¨(Rivkin, 81).  One of the most popular examples that Barthe used was a picture from a French magazine, Paris Match:

french

He broke the meaning down into a tri-fold system: the actual picture=sign, the literal image illustrated by the picture=signifier, and the meaning of the sign, in which he stated was ˝that France was a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called- oppressors˝(Rivkin, 82).

Just like in this picture, most people may not realize the origin of bias assumption that is connected with color, whether skin, hair, or eyes, because most have been programmed since youth with fairy tales and urban legends surrounding stereotypes. This thought process has been introduced into main stream therapy, as some psychiatrists choose to study folkoric myth as a way of assisting patients. Eric Berne, wrote a compelling analysis within the Journal of American Folkore in 1959, which declared that ¨the psychiatrist, seeking to evaluate possible environmental influences on mental and emotional disturbances, must take special view of folklore¨(Berne,1). He goes on further to explain the importance of folklore within such cultures as Haiti and America, and further elaborates the connection of perceived ‘possessions’ and other mental problems stemming from ‘oral and written folklore…and how seriously it is believed, or once was believed by the individuals¨(Berne,1)

For instance, the red haired rebellious type, such as Fiona in the movie Shrek, is the out of the box princess who chooses the smelly ogre instead of the strikingly gorgeous blonde prince, without actually knowing that semiology is at play. She chooses the mate most ‘relatable’ (according to society) to herself, the large bright colored, uncontrollable monster. This type of movie would appeal to the unreserved side of humanity, as opposed to the cookie cutter decent portrayal of the princess tales in such tales like Sleeping Beauty-which shows the changing of the times, as this kind of tale would have been frowned upon even a hundred years ago.

Also, in Harry Potter series, there are a number of characters such as the main character’s best friend, Ron Weasley, who is clumsy and unreliable- along with his family, who have a mixture of the stereotypical traits of untrustworthiness and sneakiness about them. Of the traditional classics, one of the most noticeable of character vs. trait combination is that of Peter Pan, whose hair foretells his nature of never wanting to grow up or choose responsibility.

Within literature of a more mature nature, Peter Quint from The Turn of the Screw has red hair, and is promoted as being a potential child molester and overall bad apple. From the dialogue describing him, it becomes clear that his features symbolize his untrustworthiness, especially when the governess declares that “He has no hat…˝(James) as if this first detail declares that he could not be a proper male. She goes on to elaborate due to the housekeeper’s reaction:

˝Then seeing in her face that she already, in this, with a deeper dismay, found a touch of picture, I quickly added stroke to stroke. “He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are, somehow, darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully; but I only know clearly that they’re rather small and very fixed. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor.”

“An actor!” It was impossible to resemble one less, at least, than Mrs. Grose at that moment.

“I’ve never seen one, but so I suppose them. He’s tall, active, erect,” I continued, “but never—no, never!—a gentleman.”

My companion’s face had blanched as I went on; her round eyes started and her mild mouth gaped. “A gentleman?” she gasped, confounded, stupefied: “a gentleman HE?”(James)

This brief exchange of words is enough to convince the governess that whomever she has seen, be it the deceased Peter Quint or another, is up to no good-and instinctively considers the potential harm of the children. Had it been a person of a much fairer complexion, she would have reacted differently, as she has to the appearance of the children. This reaction, though, will be discussed in a later passage. Also, her association to him as with an actor may have been a subconscious effort to categorize him in the same area as one who is portrayer of fakeness.

In a recent controlled study, hair color preference and the stereotypes shown in literature surrounding them were studied and a poll was cast, and the conclusion was impressive; it seems that nowadays more people are using other factors to conclude the overall desirability of an individual. This could be due to more interracial relationships and genuine respect for others’ differences within society.

The researcher, Ms. Cavanaugh, concluded that ¨understanding and being sensitive to stereotypes is important….in counseling to be sure sensitive issues an individual might have are not inadvertently ignored or irritated. Also this is important in interpersonal relationships, sensitivity to a partners’ issues about being stereotyped would be very helpful to the relationship. The more we know about these stereotypes the more information we will have about each other and the best ways to interact. Stereotypes are the first way that many people decide how to interact with other individuals and can have an impact on how someone who is being stereotyped feels about themselves.¨(Cavanaugh)

Other classical stereotypes that may affect people with red hair can be found in David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, in the form of Uriah Heep, a nauseating villain and sinister figure of the Victorian age. The most notable of villains with red hair tends to come from the religious sector, in the shape of Judas Iscariot. He is the epitome of disloyalty for many, and this belief of his hair locks color may have been the pivotal reason behind the start of the myth.

But, upon further research, it can be found thousands of years before his existence, red hair color being a negative connotation. According to Baum, early Egyptians disliked those with red hair due to the belief that they followed the reddened god Set-Typhon. Greeks used red colored animals for sacrifice, and ‘red haired children were sometimes put to death among the Egyptians and Hebrews˝ (Baum, 525).

Regarding women, the connection to the color red becomes a bit more erotic: ˝the sexualizing of red-headed women stems from the belief of their direct connection to the devil. It was believed that menstrual blood was the way in which the devil entered women and infused them with the power of desire˝(Anderson, 8-9). Greek mythology is the most reasonable origin for this taboo, as the wife of Hades, and the love interest of Apollo both donned red tresses. The latter woman, Cassandra, becomes both raped enslaved for sex by multiple men, and the former lady, Persephone, turns into the epitome of fertile ground. Another woman to add to make the mix is the enchantress Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, who had many lovers whom she turned to swine after she had intercourse with them. Thus the stereotype of the oversexualized and provocative unruly woman progresses from there.

Blonde

On the opposite end of the spectrum, but still much a part of the progression, is the fair haired person. Unlike the separation of color vs. desire from male to female as we see in the red hair, this hue scheme tend to be privileged across the board. Both men and women of lighter complexioned hair are generally preferred both sexually and genetically. Anderson writes that ¨ fair hair symbolizes purity, possibly because fair hair is the least associated to pubic hair, making it the furthest from any sexual associations¨(Anderson, 9).

The first interesting depiction of the oversexualized woman in literature that will be used, comes, surpisingly not in the red haired woman, but the blonde. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the female interest that bites back is none other than the blond bombshell, Lucy Westenra. Stephanie Demetrakopoulos writes of the characters, in her detailed analysis of the story, that ¨Like Harker, Van Helsing is most moved by the blonde vampire. Harker describes her as so lovely that we envision her as a ‘dreamy fear’¨(Demetrakopoulos, 107). She further goes on to state that because of Lucy’s perceived pureness coming solely from her hair, she becomes the epitome of feminine sexual energy, and is unimaginably intoxicating due to this combination. There is also a distinction between the aura that is given off from Lucy, right before and after her turn. Her hair is briefly described as golden within this next text, taken out of chapter 12, and the struggle for her innocence becomes apparent when she is likened to a child:

¨Presently she woke, and I gave her food, as Van Helsing had prescribed. She took but a little, and that languidly. There did not seem to be with her now the unconscious struggle for life and strength that had hitherto so marked her illness. It struck me as curious that the moment she became conscious she pressed the garlic flowers close to her. It was certainly odd that whenever she got into that lethargic state, with the torturous breathing, she put the flowers from her, but that when she waked she clutched them close, There was no possibility of making any mistake about this, for in the long hours that followed, she had many spells of sleeping and waking and repeated both actions many times.

At six o’clock Van Helsing came to relieve me. Arthur had then fallen into a doze, and he mercifully let him sleep on. When he saw Lucy’s face I could hear the hissing in draw of breath, and he said to me in a sharp whisper.”Draw up the blind. I want light!” Then he bent down, and, with his face almost touching Lucy’s, examined her carefully. He removed the flowers and lifted the silk handkerchief from her throat. As he did so he started back and I could hear his ejaculation, “Mein Gott!” as it was smothered in his throat. I bent over and looked, too, and as I noticed some queer chill came over me. The wounds on the throat had absolutely disappeared.

For fully five minutes Van Helsing stood looking at her, with his face at its sternest. Then he turned to me and said calmly, “She is dying. It will not be long now. It will be much difference, mark me, whether she dies conscious or in her sleep. Wake that poor boy, and let him come and see the last. He trusts us, and we have promised him.”

I went to the dining room and waked him. He was dazed for a moment, but when he saw the sunlight streaming in through the edges of the shutters he thought he was late, and expressed his fear. I assured him that Lucy was still asleep, but told him as gently as I could that both Van Helsing and I feared that the end was near. He covered his face with his hands, and slid down on his knees by the sofa, where he remained, perhaps a minute, with his head buried, praying, whilst his shoulders shook with grief. I took him by the hand and raised him up. “Come,” I said, “my dear old fellow, summon all your fortitude. It will be best and easiest for her.”

When we came into Lucy’s room I could see that Van Helsing had, with his usual forethought, been putting matters straight and making everything look as pleasing as possible. He had even brushed Lucy’s hair, so that it lay on the pillow in its usual sunny ripples. When we came into the room she opened her eyes, and seeing him, whispered softly, “Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come!”

He was stooping to kiss her, when Van Helsing motioned him back. “No,” he whispered, “not yet! Hold her hand, it will comfort her more.”

So Arthur took her hand and knelt beside her, and she looked her best, with all the soft lines matching the angelic beauty of her eyes. Then gradually her eyes closed, and she sank to sleep. For a little bit her breast heaved softly, and her breath came and went like a tired child’s.¨(Stoker)

The only other time that her hair is described is in chapter 16, when she has become a voracious temptress and all her heavenly attributes have turned:

¨There was a long spell of silence, big, aching, void, and then from the Professor a keen “S-s-s-s!” He pointed, and far down the avenue of yews we saw a white figure advance, a dim white figure, which held something dark at its breast. The figure stopped, and at the moment a ray of moonlight fell upon the masses of driving clouds, and showed in startling prominence a dark-haired woman, dressed in the cerements of the grave. We could not see the face, for it was bent down over what we saw to be a fair-haired child. There was a pause and a sharp little cry, such as a child gives in sleep, or a dog as it lies before the fire and dreams. We were starting forward, but the Professor’s warning hand, seen by us as he stood behind a yew tree, kept us back. And then as we looked the white figure moved forwards again. It was now near enough for us to see clearly, and the moonlight still held. My own heart grew cold as ice, and I could hear the gasp of Arthur, as we recognized the features of Lucy Westenra. Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.¨(Stoker)

This simple change in hair color, especially in Stoker’s time- the Victorian era- was the biggest sign for the meaning of a lost innocence. She even feeds on a child that was like her, therefore, further signifying the binary temptation of the non-stereotypical woman of the day, a woman who abhors and feeds upon children, and renders a man helpless.

Within the novel The Turn of the Screw, an even more strikingly inappropriate twist preferences is seen as the undertone in language between the governess and her pupil Miles. This story chronicles a female who takes a position as a governess in a home void of parental guidance. She grows an unhealthy attachment to the male child, and also to his sister Flora, upon simply viewing them for the first time as evident by the following passages:

˝The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen, and I afterward wondered that my employer had not told me more of her. I slept little that night…

…..But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect; to watch, from my open window, the faint summer dawn, to look at such portions of the rest of the house as I could catch, and to listen, while, in the fading dusk, the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep. But these fancies were not marked enough not to be thrown off, and it is only in the light, or the gloom, I should rather say, of other and subsequent matters that they now come back to me. To watch, teach, “form” little Flora would too evidently be the making of a happy and useful life. It had been agreed between us downstairs that after this first occasion I should have her as a matter of course at night, her small white bed being already arranged, to that end, in my room. What I had undertaken was the whole care of her, and she had remained, just this last time, with Mrs. Grose only as an effect of our consideration for my inevitable strangeness and her natural timidity. In spite of this timidity—which the child herself, in the oddest way in the world, had been perfectly frank and brave about, allowing it, without a sign of uncomfortable consciousness, with the deep, sweet serenity indeed of one of Raphael’s holy infants, to be discussed, to be imputed to her, and to determine us—I feel quite sure she would presently like me. It was part of what I already liked Mrs. Grose herself for, the pleasure I could see her feel in my admiration and wonder as I sat at supper with four tall candles and with my pupil, in a high chair and a bib, brightly facing me, between them, over bread and milk. There were naturally things that in Flora’s presence could pass between us only as prodigious and gratified looks, obscure and roundabout allusions. ˝(James)

This enamor of the young girl is instant, and all of these expectations stem from the child’s blue eyes and blonde hair. This is the only assumption that can be made because the governess hasn’t spent any time with the girl as of yet, as this text is from her first day on the job. The characteristics of the child only shows up in later text, after the discussion of Miles before he comes home from school:

“And the little boy—does he look like her? Is he too so very remarkable?”

One wouldn’t flatter a child. “Oh, miss, MOST remarkable. If you think well of this one!”—and she stood there with a plate in her hand, beaming at our companion, who looked from one of us to the other with placid heavenly eyes that contained nothing to check us.

“Yes; if I do—?”

“You WILL be carried away by the little gentleman!”

“Well, that, I think, is what I came for—to be carried away…..˝ (James)

The arrival of Miles is when the story takes a more sensual tone, and the desire for this hair color becomes more intense.

As seen in the passages below, the discussion around the children are always focused on their traits, and furthermore, the governess solidifies her myth system by refusing to believe that children as blonde hair and blue eyed as them, could not do horrible things. This next few quotes elaborate more on their traits, as the governess equates Flora’s demeanor and traits to that of an enchantment, where the actual environment magically changes from an ugly estate to a fairy tale setting:

˝But as my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all color out of storybooks and fairytales. Wasn’t it just a storybook over which I had fallen adoze and adream? No; it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-replaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!˝(James)

The color myth within the governess’ psyche is solidified during the dialogue with the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, when she tries to reason with her as to how Miles could have possibly been expelled from school. His age is briefly brought up, but the real reason behind their refusal to even consider any bad behavior emulating from the child is simply because of his fair complexion and traits. It is safe to assume from the upcoming quotes that the author, Henry James, wanted emphasis placed on these actions, as the words are capitalized, and at the end of the discussion the loser is clearly the demonic letter:

¨…At this, with one of the quick turns of simple folk, she suddenly flamed up. “Master Miles! HIM an injury?”

There was such a flood of good faith in it that, though I had not yet seen the child, my very fears made me jump to the absurdity of the idea. I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically. “To his poor little innocent mates!”

“It’s too dreadful,” cried Mrs. Grose, “to say such cruel things! Why, he’s scarce ten years old.”

“Yes, yes; it would be incredible.”

She was evidently grateful for such a profession. “See him, miss, first. THEN believe it!” I felt forthwith a new impatience to see him; it was the beginning of a curiosity that, for all the next hours, was to deepen almost to pain. Mrs. Grose was aware, I could judge, of what she had produced in me, and she followed it up with assurance. “You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her,” she added the next moment—”LOOK at her!”

….We met, after I had brought home little Miles, more intimately than ever on the ground of my stupefaction, my general emotion: so monstrous was I then ready to pronounce it that such a child as had now been revealed to me should be under an interdict. I was a little late on the scene, and I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful, and Mrs. Grose had put her finger on it: everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence. What I then and there took him to my heart for was something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child—his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love. It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence, and by the time I had got back to Bly with him I remained merely bewildered—so far, that is, as I was not outraged—by the sense of the horrible letter locked up in my room, in a drawer. As soon as I could compass a private word with Mrs. Grose I declared to her that it was grotesque.˝(James)

If there was any reservation of color myth bias within the story, even after the continuous references to perceived ‘beauty’ within the first few days of the governess’ employment, then the next few texts should extinguish any doubt, as the governess’ ‘bubble’ is burst after Flora ‘deceives’ her, and takes upon the ghostly visage of the deceased Ms. Jessel:

¨Flora continued to fix me with her small mask of reprobation, and even at that minute I prayed God to forgive me for seeming to see that, as she stood there holding tight to our friend’s dress, her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. I’ve said it already—she was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly. “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never HAVE. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!” Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street…˝(James)

It is probably safe to state that the governess’ description of common and ugly, would have been the opposite of blonde and blue. Especially after Ms. Jessel’s ghost was described as ¨Dark as midnight˝, and her personage while she was alive was infamous. There is a binary within the following text, which would explain the discomfort that Ms. Jessel caused the governess, because it was struggling against her perceived notions of society’s standard for beauty:

After a little she turned round. “The person was in black, you say?”

 

“In mourning—rather poor, almost shabby. But—yes—with extraordinary beauty.” I now recognized to what I had at last, stroke by stroke, brought the victim of my confidence, for she quite visibly weighed this. “Oh, handsome—very, very,” I insisted; “wonderfully handsome. But infamous.”

She slowly came back to me. “Miss Jessel—WAS infamous.” She once more took my hand in both her own, holding it as tight as if to fortify me against the increase of alarm I might draw from this disclosure. “They were both infamous,” she finally said. (James)

At the end of this discussion both Ms. Jessel and Peter Flint are described as infamous, because, even with their negative hair colors, they were desirable. This shows the deep affect of myths and how it can confuse a person if they aren’t aware where the conflict is coming from, and how it enters their life.

Blue

An interesting phenomena within literature and hair color preference that didn’t continue on, possibly because of its unnatural occurrence in nature, comes within ancient Greek culture. There was a time when blue hair color-eyebrows included- belonged to the gods, such as Homer’s depiction of Zeus and Poseidon. ¨Greeks thought their gods human in nature, and of the same race as men¨(Griffith), but, often times, the hair color changed with mood, so this is a possible reason behind the bluish tint. Also, the ancient Mycenaeans and Egyptians used the color blue in their casting of divinity objects. The stereotypical hue of blonde gods gained momentum later on, possibly due to its natural, yet rarer manifestations in the world.

Throughout the ages, all of the stereotypes mentioned have aided in categorizing the perceptions of men, whether for religion or pleasure, and these stigmas will unfortunately continue as long as man exists. Hopefully, due to more equality within today’s society among minority groups, it will eventually just turn into a system for generalization and not prejudice, and never again limit any particular individual. Although myths have been engrained, sometimes against wills, it is up to the person to judge accordingly, each individual as unique and pertinent to be understood based on the whole of the person. This analysis was an attempt to illuminate popular human hair and trait myths, and explain the possible legacy so that the reader can adequately decipher true beliefs against the injustice of forced stereotypes that come through literature, film, and society as a whole.

 

 Works Cited

Anderson, Chelsea J. “The Importance of Appearances in Literature: What Does It Mean to Be                 Redhead in Literature?” The University of Southern Mississippi: The Aquila Digital         Community(2014). Web. 19 April 2015.

Baum, Paul Franklin.Judas’s Red Hair. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol.21,             No. 3. (1922):520-529.University of Illinois Press. Web. 19 April 2015.             http://www.jstor.org/stable/27702658

Berne, Eric. The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore. The Journal of            American Folklore Vol. 72, No. 283(1959): 1-13. American Folkore Society. Web. 19          April  2015.http://www.jstor.org/stable/538382

Cavanaugh, Shannon. The Effects of Stereotyping by Hair Color on Self Esteem. Department of Psychology Senior Thesis. Saint Anselm College(2005). Web 19 April 2015                 .http://www.anselm.edu/internet/psych/theses/2005/cavanaugh/shanweb.html

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie. Feminism, Sex Role Changes, and other Subliminal Fantasies in     Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 104-113. University of Nebraska Press. Web 19 April 2015.   http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346355

Griffith, R. Drew. God’s Blue Hair in Homer and in Eighteenth Century Egypt. The Classical      Quarterly New Series Vol. 55, No. 2. (2005): 329-334. Cambridge University Press. Web. 19 April 2015 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4493341

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Project Gutenberg, Ebook, 2012. Web. 19 April, 2015.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Print

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. The Online Literature Library. Knowledge Matters, Ltd.Web. 19 April,   2015. http://literature.org/authors/stoker-bram/dracula/chapter-01.html

 

Tamuriel L. Dillard

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