Corps de l’article

No two bodies of work may seem more different than the late eighteenth-century Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and the science-fiction/horror films of the Alien series. Beyond the obvious differences in media, generic differences lead Radcliffe's novels to linger over the proprieties of a romantic feudal past and the Alien films to take a grim look at a post-industrial future. Yet even as Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997) belong squarely in the tradition of science fiction cinema, they owe much to the Gothic for their effects and narratives. The films draw not only on stock conventions of Gothic architecture, such as labyrinthine tunnels and cathedral-like vaults, but, to propel the plots, the Gothic dynamic of heroine versus villain, pitting the determined Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) against both the unnatural horrors of the aliens and the avarice of a military-industrial complex. [1] Perhaps the strongest connection between these works, however, is their concern for economics and property. The castle, for example, that centerpiece of the Gothic, its defining structure and most recognizable convention, is first and foremost real estate. Colonized planets and corporate spaceships offer similarly proprietary structures in the Alien films. But most suggestive of the economic parallels between Radcliffe's novels and the Alien series is their examination of the body, especially the female body, as subject to proprietary claims. Both scrutinize the Enlightenment grounding of personhood, liberty, and self-determination in property rights, a triad later named "possessive individualism" by C. B. Macpherson. Moreover, in spite of very different historical contexts, they do so through the lens of Anglo-American feminism and its continued, ambivalent figuring of women as property. Both conclude that even as grounding personhood in the metaphor of property rights seems to grant women self-possession, such grounding also creates the potential for these rights to be taken away, making them simultaneously inalienable and alienable.

Both Radcliffe's novels and the Alien films foreground their mutual concern for the values and limits of the female body as property through a broader interest in economics. The centrality of real estate in Radcliffe's Gothic is hardly accidental since property is a crucial theme in eighteenth-century literature and culture, what Douglas Hay calls "the measure of all things." As William Blackstone proclaimed in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), "There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property." [2] Radcliffe's "imagination" too was struck by the "right of property." Central to the plot of three of her works, The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797), as well as to the subplot of her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), is a plot of ground over which the heroine and villain struggle for ownership. In Athlin and Dunbayne and Udolpho, the heroines' tales begin with real estate, opening with descriptions of the property Louisa and Emily are to inherit. Similarly proprietary origins emerge with Adeline's and Ellena's stories in The Romance of the Forest and The Italian. As several critics have pointed out, the major conflict of these works, the heroine's and villain's relationship, is essentially economic. [3] Indeed, most of the villain's machinations are devoted to usurping the heroine's property and maintaining his false claim. Malcolm, the villain of Athlin and Dunbayne and Louisa's brother-in-law, not only falsifies her husband's will to steal her property but also imprisons Louisa and her daughter for nearly twenty years. Udolpho's Montoni goes to even greater lengths, imprisoning Emily and her aunt, attempting to marry Emily off, and finally threatening her "life, perhaps her honour" in order to usurp the rights to her estates. [4] Montalt and Schedoni, the villains of The Romance and The Italian, murder their brothers for the paternal property and exile the real heirs, the novels' heroines, to be raised in obscurity. In spite of these transgressions, the heroines finally claim not only their family estates but properties to which they previously had no rights, their stories offering what Radcliffe calls "an example of . . . virtues greatly rewarded." [5]

The Alien series also pits heroine against villain in an economic struggle. Ripley battles not only the brutal, amoral aliens that threaten to wipe out humanity but an equally inhuman foe, the omnipresent and omniscient corporation known only as "the Company" in the first three films and modified slightly as "United Systems Military" in Alien Resurrection. Like Radcliffe's villains, the Company is prepared to do whatever it takes for economic gain, this greed making it the more reprehensible of Ripley's opponents. Nearly betrayed in Aliens by the cupidity of Company front man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), Ripley fumes, "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them [the aliens] fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage." [6] Although the "late capitalism" of the Alien series represents a means of production different from that of Radcliffe's feudal past, the films are likewise dominated by economics. [7] The series is a Company town in which major properties—the colonized planets, the ships, their cargo—are Company acquisitions and individuals must be content with few or no possessions. Early in the first film, Alien, the "commercial towing vehicle 'The Nostromo,'" with its "20,000,000 tons of mineral ore," alludes to Joseph Conrad's imperialist mining novel, setting the proprietary terms of the rest of the films. The second film, Aliens, opens anticlimactically with Ripley's rescuers, a "deep salvage" crew, disappointed to discover that they cannot claim her shuttle since she is alive (though Ripley, as a Company employee, doesn’t own the shuttle either). A prisoner on the decaying foundry planet, Fiori "Fury" 161, in Alien 3 tells Ripley, "all we got here is shit," and at the end of the film the Company decides to sell the "remaining refining equipment…as scrap." [8] More importantly, in the irresistible pun of the series, workers are presented as "classically alienated laborers." [9] Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the literal underclass of Alien who attend to the bowels of the ship ("where the work is"), gripe in the very first conversation of the film that their shares in the Company are not at "an equitable level" with the rest of the crew and later vaguely threaten to strike. These complaints echo throughout the series. A soldier in Aliens grumbles, "They ain't paying us enough for this," and in Alien Resurrection Call (Winona Ryder) reveals that she is among the last of a heroic self-made breed of robots who have thrown off the shackles of compulsory labor (the original meaning of "robot") only to be stopped by a government "recall." [10]

This emphasis on labor points to the most significant form of property in both Radcliffe's novels and the Alien series, that key Enlightenment location in the construction of possessive individualism, the body. "[E]very Man has a Property in his own Person," Locke writes in Two Treatises on Government (1690); "This no Body has any Right to but himself." [11] In Radcliffe as in Locke, locating property in the body can be enabling, suggesting, like the property plot itself, that the rights to this estate belong to the heroine. Indeed, in Udolpho, Emily's "empowerment," Steven Bruhm argues, is located not "in the maintenance of private property" but "is first affirmed at a more basic site, the one at which Locke originally located it: in the protagonist's body." [12] We find this affirmation in Radcliffe's metaphors for Emily, many of which are linked to eighteenth-century definitions of propriety. The word "propriety" was used interchangeably with "property" at least through the late eighteenth century; Coleridge, for instance, insists on the "essential identity" of these words as late as 1817. [13] Emily is marked throughout the novel by such proprietary determination, not only in her emphatic concern for her "propriety," but by her status as her "own mistress" and her "fortitude," which, through its etymological ties to "fort" and "fortress," links her to the most important estate in the novel, the castle of Udolpho, itself described as a "fortress." [14] Radcliffe’s emphasis on property develops further in descriptions of Emily's own limits as she endeavors to keep her "romantic imagination [from] carry[ing] her . . . beyond the bounds of probability" and to avoid "the wild energy of passion . . . bearing down the barriers of reason." (Udolpho pp. 341, 329). As April London holds, in Udolpho "the propriety of female description demands that the principles of real property be rendered psychologically." [15]

The final lesson of the novel, however, is that even as the Gothic heroine is self-possessed, the mistress of her own property, this property can also be usurped because it is embodied as her body. Inalienable rights depend upon and call forth structures of alienability. Once Emily discovers that Montoni has promised her hand to an ardent but unrequited suitor, Count Morano, in exchange for her estates, the three of them engage in a debate that situates her as property in no uncertain terms, easily "bought," "sold," or stolen. (Udolpho p. 262). Though less pointed, Emily and Montoni's final transaction also highlights her status as property and the tentative nature of her rights to it. In order to force the heroine to sign over her estates, Montoni indirectly, though quite tangibly, threatens Emily with rape; "to preserve her life, perhaps her honour," she meets his demands. London suggests that in this transaction Montoni effectively transforms Emily into her estates, "deny[ing] the elementary relationship between principle and possession by reducing female propriety to the condition of real property." [16] Though the exchange is another instance of Montoni's villainy, he does not so much create this position for Emily as exploit one that already exists.

Though Udolpho is set in sixteenth-century France and Italy, underwriting the construction of Emily's property arrangements are eighteenth-century British laws concerning women's property, specifically marriage laws and the notion of coverture. In Blackstone's famous phrasing, "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband," depriving her of the "property in her own person." [17] Thus, when Count Morano agrees to pay Montoni's "price" with "Emily's estate" once he marries her, he is articulating the not unreasonable expectation that as Emily's husband he will gain control of her property (Udolpho p. 273). The prime function of "patriarchal society rules concerning married women's property," as Susan Staves argues in her legal history of the subject, is "to facilitate the transmission of significant property from male to male." [18] Likewise, when Montoni makes Emily an offer she can't refuse, his threats only succeed because of what they both know to be true of the marriage market; without her honor, Emily will cease to be a valuable commodity. In signing over her estates to Montoni, Emily makes explicit what is already true about her status.

In Ripley, the Alien series too presents a heroine with what Fred Botting calls "self-possession." [19] She is strong, willful, and in all but the third film a formidable survivor. Ripley's self-possession is most apparent through her contrast with the countless characters who are violently dispossessed of themselves. The greater horror, the series proposes, is less the alien than being possessed by the alien during its parasitical gestation cycle, and consequently alienated from one's body. This process constitutes a literal fate worse than death for those subjected to it; in each film, cocooned potential hosts and hosts about to be violently discarded by their parasites beg, "kill me." [20] A life without self-determination, without control of the property in one's body, these scenes say, is not worth living. That such alienation is Ripley's worst fear and recurrent nightmare emphasizes the thematic importance of her self-possession.

Just as successful as the aliens in usurping bodily claims, though more insidious, is the Company. As critics have pointed out, the anti-corporate sentiments of the series are introduced in Alien by the Company's treatment of the Nostromo crew, summed up by Conrad's pun on "'nostro homo,' our man" and underscoring their status as Company men and women. [21] Having learned that the Company considers the crew "expendable," Parker demands, "What about our lives?" His question needs no answer, however, since the crew’s lives are not their own and since for the Company "all life is a commodity." [22] In the later films, the Company exhibits its claims to its employees through increasingly alien behavior, "surgically" implanting the colonists of Aliens with "personal data transmitters" just as the aliens implant them with alien larvae, and taking possession of a sleeping crew in Alien Resurrection just as the aliens do at the beginning of Alien 3. These parallels reflect not only the "doubl[ing]" of the Company and the aliens, [23] but the Company's all-consuming desire for the creatures. Ripley guesses in Alien that the Company wants them only for its "weapons division," yet the yearning voiced by Company representatives throughout the series—for this "perfect organism," its "purity…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality" (Alien), its "magnificen [ce]" (Aliens), "all we can learn from it" (Alien 3), its "wondrous potential" for "new alloys" and "new vaccines" (Alien Resurrection)—suggest a desire for the totality of the alien's properties.

As in Radcliffe's novels and eighteenth-century marriages, the female body in the Alien series is most valued when it serves to "facilitate the transmission of significant property from male to male." In Aliens Burke plots to use the bodies of both Ripley and her surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn), to transport the significant property of alien specimens through quarantine (rehearsing the Company's plans in Alien for a feminized Kane [John Hurt]). Once the nightmare finally comes true for Ripley in Alien 3, Company men arrive on Fury 161 to remove her doubly significant property: Ripley carries not only an alien but a queen, another female body capable of transmitting valuable properties (and referred to in Alien Resurrection as "the real pay off"). Just as Emily will be able "to preserve her life, perhaps her honour" if she signs over her estates to Montoni, Ripley is told she can "have a life, children" if she gives up the property she holds. But this crucial moment in Alien 3, with Ripley poised at the edge of a vat of molten lead, pondering the Company's proposition, also reveals how the series' meditation on the female body differs from that of Udolpho.

To examine these meditations in detail, we’ll leave Ripley poised at the brink of destruction for the moment. Though female bodies in both Radcliffe's novels and the Alien series are properties that transmit other properties, the exact nature of the transmitted properties is crucially different. Emily, like the eighteenth-century wife, facilitates the movement of real estate. Ripley, by contrast, carries something the films consciously compare to a fetus. [24] In its opposition between marriage and motherhood, this contrast points up two key considerations in the history of Anglo-American feminism: the late eighteenth-century protest against coverture and the mid- to late twentieth-century demand for reproductive rights.

Even as she has been an important figure for feminist literary criticism since the 1970s, having originated the "Female Gothic," [25] Radcliffe has traditionally been read as a conservative writer, happily supporting the status quo. Robert Miles' and Rictor Norton's recent reexaminations of her connections to radical Dissenting circles, however, make a persuasive case for her liberal and feminist views, particularly through her family’s connections to "that circle of radical Dissenters that included Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft." [26] This affiliation, together with her novels' concern for women's property rights, suggests that Radcliffe considered, if not sympathized with, what historians Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall see as one of "the earliest feminist efforts," that "directed to extending women's property rights." [27] This effort was articulated in the 1790s by Mary Wollstonecraft when she argued repeatedly against the notion of coverture, what she calls, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), "The laws respecting woman, which . . . make an absurd unit of a man and his wife." [28] Though Wollstonecraft never completed the volume of A Vindication in which she apparently meant to address these laws in further detail, she does explore them in fictional form in her own ambivalently Gothic novel, The Wrongs of Woman: or, Maria (published posthumously in 1798). Like Radcliffe, she centers much of her plot on the laws that "make women the property of their husbands." [29] Offered as an alternative to these laws is "independence," which Wollstonecraft predicates on economic self-reliance in A Vindication: "for how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? Or, virtuous, who is not free?" [30] Radcliffe's property plots, then, can be seen as an elaboration of this early feminist argument.

For critics of the Alien series, these films too are a response to feminism, not only in the films' focus on a woman as the protagonist (a role originally written for a male actor) or its conflicting representations of motherhood, but in its ambivalence about the women's movement. [31] Differences between the representation of the female body in the Alien series and Radcliffe’s novels—as well as a crucial shift in feminist concerns—become most obvious in the series' participation in the late twentieth-century debates over abortion. Though continuing to examine the idea of women as property, late twentieth-century feminists have often done so not to dismantle it, but to ground rights to the body in Lockean possessive individualism. Feminist philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson, for instance, explicitly argued from a Lockean position in her 1971 article "A Defense of Abortion": "if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at all," she maintains, by way of establishing a woman's right to choose, "he [sic] has a just, prior claim to his own body." As she goes on to say, extending Locke's metaphor to compare the body and real estate, "what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house." [32] This comparison between the female body and property also informs an important feminist publication on women's health from this decade, Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973), which establishes selfhood and identity (Ourselves) through possession and ownership of the body (Our Bodies) and vice versa; being "alienated from [our] bodies," write the book's editors, "create[s] in us an alienation from ourselves." [33] Infusing Lockean possessive individualism with nearly two hundred years of feminist thought on the importance of women's property, Pro-Choice rhetoric bases the right to choose on the argument that a woman's body is her own.

In this context of the feminist argument for reproductive rights, we return to the final scene of Alien 3 which I discuss above. Though as John J. Cobb suggests, the Alien series addresses abortion from the onset, the series most directly examines the intersection of property rights, feminism, and Pro-Choice rhetoric when Ripley, confronted with the Company's ultimatum, stands poised over a vat of molten lead, facing what Louise Speed calls "Ripley's Choice." [34] Rejecting the Company's Pro-Life promises of "a life, children," Ripley asserts her right to choose by taking a backwards dive into the fiery depths, legs straight, arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, pressing the larval queen to her breast as it bursts from her chest in desperation. Like the series' other comments on femininity and motherhood, this scene offers conflicting messages. On the one hand, Ripley maintains her self-determination and possessive individualism by making the ultimate sacrifice of her life and body to the Pro-Choice cause. On the other, as critics point out, to destroy the alien and save humanity (or patriarchy) from destruction, Ripley is as much "sacrificed" as self-sacrificing. [35] Within the context of the abortion debates, then, Ripley's dive indicates both her freedom and lack of choice. Though the Company promises that it can now remove the alien parasite without killing the host, it will certainly keep the alien alive too, denying Ripley the option to abort. This denial, as well as the larval queen's bloody, violent expulsion from Ripley's chest before they both die, points back to another powerful narrative of Pro-Choice rhetoric, the age of illegal abortions, when the primary choice, particularly for poor women, was unwanted pregnancies or mutilation and death. "Ripley's Choice," as Speed writes, is merely between "suicide . . . and state-controlled compulsory birth." The series, to this point, Thomas Doherty holds, "refuses to liberate Ripley." [36]

Though addressing marriage rather than motherhood, coverture rather than abortion, Radcliffe's novels also end ambivalently, reinstating the heroines in their usurped properties while severely qualifying their final claims. In spite of what Kate Ferguson Ellis sees as the forward-looking, "woman-centered" economics of Udolpho, [37] the novel's ending points to an economics that is patriarchal. In keeping with contemporary marriage laws that prevented wives from distributing their property without their husband's consent, Emily "beg[s]" Valencourt on the novel's final page for permission to settle her estates as she wishes. [38]The Romance of the Forest too asserts a husband's rights to his wife’s property once Adeline gives "her hand to Theodore." (Romance p. 357). That Adeline gives her entire person and property to her husband with this familiar synecdoche is underscored not only when Theodore "purchased a villa" (presumably with Adeline's regained fortune since he himself is insolvent) but, as Diane Long Hoeveler points out, by the novel's tendency to treat Adeline as "an exchange commodity passed between powerful men" and as Theodore's "legacy." [39] Though Valencourt and Theodore will prove to be more fair proprietors than their villainous counterparts, in the end and despite the rewards of virtue, the heroines do not have final say over their estates. Radcliffe thus offers a proprietary cycle from which her heroines cannot fully escape, from which, like Ripley, they cannot be "liberated."

If Radcliffe's property plot initially provides a narrative by which to imagine women reinstated as owners of their land and their bodies, it also contains a warning about the dangers of locating self-determination and rights in ownership. When Judith Jarvis Thompson extends her Lockean metaphor to compare the body to real estate, she is only writing the beginning of Radcliffe's property plot, setting the stage with a heroine "who owns the house." Indeed, as Celeste Condit shows, by the early 1980s, Pro-Life advocates (most famously, Ronald Reagan) were using proprietary rhetoric to argue for the "inalienable rights" of the fetus. [40] Perhaps in response, in 1993, just a year after Alien 3 appeared, one of the most important American institutional supporters of abortion on demand, Planned Parenthood, issued a pamphlet that reversed the earlier Pro-Choice argument. Instead of figuring the property in the female body as a source of power and choice for women, this pamphlet presents it as a sign of enslavement, portraying "anti-choice extremists" as villainously reductive in "their vision of women as little more than reproductive chattel." [41]

Intriguingly, and one might argue not coincidentally, when Ripley returns to the big screen in Alien Resurrection, she too is envisioned "as little more than reproductive chattel." Resurrected by United Systems Military (and Twentieth-Century Fox) by way of the smallest shred of property in her body, DNA taken from blood samples left on Fury 161, Ripley emerges during the first third of the film as Company product—or rather the "meat by-product" of producing "the real payoff," the alien queen. As Call pointedly reminds Ripley, she is "a thing, a construct, [grown] in a fucking lab." Alien Resurrection suggests, however, that Ripley is not destined to stay in this position. Through the mixing of her own and alien genetic material, Ripley gains not only excellent health, acute senses, and the glamour of full make-up and dark nails, but the strength, cunning, and acid-for-blood that allow the aliens to escape the Company's clutches again and again. Moreover, even as she displays alien tendencies, Ripley becomes more recognizably human: Call's initial distrust of Ripley because "she's not human" gives way to an acknowledgment that "at least there's part of [her] that's human." But Ripley's mixed heritage is nonetheless a mixed blessing. She is finally a "stranger" on her own planet, being only partially—if at all—the Ripley of the previous films. As a clone whose look and behavior are quite different from what we've seen before, whether the character Sigourney Weaver plays in Alien Resurrection is the Ripley of the earlier films remains uncertain. Alien Resurrection, then, offers its own kind of property plot, reinstating the heroine in her estate, but only in part.

Through their examination of the gains and costs of equating the female body with property, Radcliffe's Gothic and the science fiction of the Alien series interrogate what C. B. Macpherson found at the root of seventeenth-century "concepts of freedom, rights, obligation, and justice" that he would call "possessive individualism." At its heart, he writes, is "a central difficulty": "The relation of ownership . . . was read back into the nature of the individual." [42] Though Macpherson specifically had in mind the tension between self-possessed individuals and a society to which they felt no obligation, this "difficulty" also points to the metaphorical nature of possessive individualism. Property metaphors, to be sure, comprise a powerful language that envelops, and indeed constructs, the body in inescapable ways. But as mere tropes, these metaphors can offer no guarantee of stability. As Radcliffe and the Alien series remind us, the owner can all too easily become the owned, and inalienable rights alienable, because such ownership is necessarily predicated on an opposition between "our bodies" and "ourselves." Catherine Constable compellingly argues that Alien Resurrection succeeds in rejecting this opposition, constructing Ripley's "new identity . . . through her materiality," through the intersection of her own and the alien queen's DNA. [43] Such mixing allows Ripley to efface the opposition between self and body, identity and materiality. But at the same time, the ambiguity of her new identity suggests that, as with Radcliffe's heroines and their estates at the end of their tales, women always incur a debt in this proprietary economy.