University of Houston-Clear Lake
September 14, 2004
The figure of Satan, like that of God, has intrigued and frightened humans from antiquity to modernity. Propagandists, politicians, preachers, psychologists, and authors have manipulated the figure of Satan, adjusting his form, his personality, his purpose, and even his origin to promote their own agendas. This ever-present archetype becomes a significant entity not only of theology but also of anthropology, psychology, and literature.
The modern conception of Satan as the single archenemy of God developed gradually from religious personifications of evil in ancient texts. The Old Testament and writings of the Apocrypha contain several varied or vague depictions of evil, while the perception of Satan as a darkly glorified ruler of an evil empire seems to stem primarily from the New Testament and Western Christendom. The New Testament concept of the fall of Satan merged with the story of the morning star, Lucifer, in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Interpreters of the Bible have also shaped the character of Satan. For example, Saint Augustine is credited with attributing the human flaw of pride to the archenemy. Centuries of translations and interpretations of religious texts contributed to the mythical personification of Satan as an entity of extreme evil who directly opposes the divine will of God.
Synthesizing these various mythologies concerning Satan, John Milton creates in Paradise Lost (1667) one of the most popular conceptions of God’s archenemy. Milton’s Satan is eloquent, philosophical, powerful, and, at times, the object of human sympathies. Due to the sublime and heroic imagery that Milton sometimes uses to describe Satan, many critics claim that it is unclear if God or Satan is greater in Milton’s epic. Although Milton firmly establishes that God personifies a greater power than Satan, a number of subsequent writers promote their own agendas through a morally ambiguous representation of Satan.
Beginning in the 19th century and continuing into the modern era, many literary works depict an inverted satanic archetype that endorses rebellion in the pursuit of justice. The inverted depiction of Satan as an ambiguous entity may inspire sympathy, pity, and even admiration. Authors including William Blake, Percy Shelley, and Charles Baudelaire magnify the positive aspects of the satanic image inherited from Paradise Lost. Recent critics have speculated on Milton’s political or philosophical intentions regarding his “Grand Foe,” and diverse literary texts have endowed their satanic protagonists with righteousness, resolve, and a governing sense of self-worth. Whereas Paradise Lost represses Satan’s efforts at rebellion, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831), Mark Twain’s satirical essays (1870-1923), and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (1990) celebrate their rebellious protagonists by allowing them to achieve various degrees of power over their creators.
In developing cultural contexts beyond Milton’s political theology, Shelley, Twain, and Kincaid use satanic figures to endorse rebellion. These contexts are Romanticism, anti-colonialism, and post-colonialism, respectively. Additionally, all three authors address feminism. By manipulating Milton’s Satan, these authors challenge established perceptions and practices. The eloquent narrations of Shelley’s monster, Twain’s Satan, and Kincaid’s Lucy inspire sympathy which allows the reader to excuse or justify the characters’ obvious shortcomings and destructive behaviors. Often the Satan figure’s presentation of grievances is so convincing that the God figure assumes the role of antagonist.
In these texts Satan emerges as an emblem of liberation and independence who engenders the respect of the disenfranchised. If, as Marxist theory suggests, the ruling class dictates cultural values, then these values are sometimes expressed through paradigms of Satan and God. Ruling class beliefs often become associated with the will of God. Inversely, actions or ideas that go against the status quo become satanic. Members of the non-ruling class may identify with Satan, not because they love evil, but because they admire his reputation for revolution and autonomy. The exaltation of satanic figures in these texts seems to address a modern human need to rebel against oppression and conformity.
An inversion of this magnitude presents some problems that authors who adopt a positive attitude toward Satan must address. Because humans attempt to understand the world through a system of binary oppositions, the association of a main character with Satan threatens to upset standard delineations of good and evil as recognized by people of almost all cultures. If the usual antagonist becomes the protagonist, then it seems to follow that evil becomes good. Theoretically, a number of other oppositions may also be reversed, causing moral ambiguities and threatening chaos. The presence of a more positive Satan figure in literature might also suggest the desire to reverse other oppositions such as creator/created, good/evil, God/Satan, man/woman, omnipotent/impotent, oppressor/oppressed. Works containing positive satanic characters boldly question these hierarchical paradigms. The challenge issued by these authors dares the readers to drastically reconsider their received ideas concerning gender, race, and class.
Frankenstein provokes this confusion of polar opposites: Dr. Frankenstein assumes the role of God, while the monster appears as a sympathetic rebel. Both Satan and the monster undergo crises of identity that result from their turbulent relationships with their creators. Like Milton’s Satan, Mary Shelley’s monster adopts evil because he feels that it is the only way to assert his self-worth. The monster ultimately destroys Dr. Frankenstein because the scientist fails to affirm the monster’s identity and refuses to provide for the monster’s wellbeing. Frankenstein, then, depicts a victorious Satan figure who finally achieves autonomy through the destruction of his creator. Mary Shelley’s novel challenges the social constructs that place the aesthetically beautiful over the ugly and the political constructs that place the enfranchised over the disenfranchised. Shelley’s portraiture of Dr. Frankenstein as both a creator of life and a negligent mother encourages a reevaluation of traditional gender roles. Like other Romantic writers, Mary Shelley attempts to reverse popular conceptions of good and evil, men and women, and justice and injustice through her satanic yet sympathetic depiction of the monster.
Mark Twain, especially in his later anti-colonial satires, often writes from Satan’s point of view. Twain’s Satan presents God as an unfair creator who views the human race as his own scientific and sociological experiment. Like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and like Frankenstein’s monster, Twain’s Satan is eloquent and frequently captures the sympathy of the reader as he comments on his exile from heaven and the tragedy of man’s fall. Through the musings of Satan, Twain reveals the frequency and foolhardiness with which many religious people use the biblical story of Genesis to support the modern institutions of racism and sexism.
Like Frankenstein and like Twain’s satires, Jamaica Kincaid’s postcolonial novel Lucy illuminates contradictions in the ideas of autonomy and identity from evolving social, political, and gender perspectives. The protagonist Lucy embraces disobedience in her pursuit of equality and authority. Lucy rebels against the British regime that “created” much of her cultural self. In her narrative, she rejects the authority of the white, English-speaking culture that oppressed and exploited native Antiguans. In the same way that Satan views God and Shelley’s monster views Dr. Frankenstein, Lucy perceives her mother as an unfair creator and collaborator who is an impediment to her quest for autonomy and personal identity. In Lucy’s eyes, her mother also perpetuates female subjection to male authority. Lucy embraces her name only when she realizes that her mother, assuming the role of God, gave it to her as a female form of Lucifer. In Lucy’s eyes the name reinforces her desire to rebel against authority. Both Frankenstein’s monster and Lucy verbally assert their identification with Milton’s Satan in the spirit of rebellion and in the pursuit of justice.
Characters based strongly on a “romanticized” or inverted archetype of Satan address the psychological and theoretical issues of identity and autonomy in diverse contexts of the modern era. The archetypal adaptation of Satan found in these works by Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and Jamaica Kincaid links the creator figure with oppression and the satanic figure with personal individuation and social, political and cultural authority. Frankenstein, the satirical essays of Mark Twain, and Lucy challenge popularly recognized hierarchies concerning gender, race, and class. The image of Satan shifts to meet new needs in our fallen world.