Saturday, 28 May 2011

Wisconsin - A Marxist interpretation of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'

As I've been researching topics related to Wisconsin - two Wisconsinites in particular have caught my attention, Senator Joseph McCarthy and Jack Finney, author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Being Irish, it interests me that both men are of Irish descent and represent two aspects of my culture that are fairly typical (and seemingly contradictory) - ie. conservative Catholicism and belief in the supernatural.  The way Christianity was interpreted and adopted by my pagan ancestors has given Irish Catholicism an arcane twist that sometimes seems over-zealous and exaggerated.  Whilst these two aspects of Irish culture might seem contradictory, they're very much part of each other and, I believe, this cultural dichotomy is something that manifests itself in the (often unpopular) legacy of McCarthyism and the (generally popular) legacy of Finney's seminal work!

The Urban/Rural Divide

Perhaps it's no coincidence that there is another basic dichotomy at play, if we are to compare McCarthy and Finney, which is the fact that Senator McCarthy came from rural Wisconsin, but Finney was raised in Wisconsin's biggest city, Milwaukee.  The urban/rural divide exists in nearly every country I can think of and it's a theme I'm incredibly interested in, as I believe it has much more influence on the politics of modern democracy than any other factor.  McCarthy is remembered for his virulent anti-communism in the 1950's (the same decade that Finney's book was serialised in Collier's Magazine).  This included, amongst other things, a red witch-hunt in Hollywood, that sought to expose actors and film directors with communist sympathies. 

A Red under every Bed?

Being European, I don't really find the idea of communism all that controversial and I fail to understand the passion that this word rouses in the United States - even some of the most left-wing Americans that I know seem to find the idea of communism unpalatable.  As far as I can tell, McCarthy was a rabble-rouser and exploited the American public's fear of 'a red under every bed'.  That's not to say that there wasn't a reason to fear communism in the 1950's and it feels as though the US has some unfinished business, as far as communism is concerned.  Watching the news in Wisconsin during the past six weeks and that battle that is going on in the courts over Union rights, I sense that the US has still to come to terms with its political dichotomies.  I'm not sure that demonising every left-wing sympathiser is the way forward and hopefully, in a 21st century context, McCarthyism is a thing of the past?

McCarthyism and Science Fiction


Book cover
 It might seem a bit unusual comparing McCarthyism to Invasion of the Body Snatchers - but if you think about it, both McCarthy and Finney used fear to excite and arouse the American voter/reader.  When confronted with the idea that his novel seemed to endorse the principles of McCarthyism, Finney denied that there was any under-lying political message in his book.  Whilst I tend to believe him, it's very easy to interpret the themes of The Body Snatchers in the context of the culture the book was written in.  I've watched three of the four movies based on the novel (1956, 1978 and 2007) and it's interesting to see how each generation has interpreted the story in its own way.  Although it's teetering on the edge of being 'pulp fiction', it was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'd definitely recommend it.  Whatever you think about Finney's writing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic and has captured the imagination of successive generations readers and movie-goers. 

The Themes

When I studied English literature at university, one of the things I loved most about the course was when we studied James Joyce's Dubliners and interpreted the themes of the book by analysing specific aspects such as feminism, post-colonialism, Marxism etc.  For old time's sake, I'm going to try the same thing here.  There are lots of different ways of doing this, but I'm going to concentrate on just seven of them! 

A Marxist interpretation

Regardless of what Finney's intentions were in writing this novel, the theme of anti-communism is an obvious one, considering the time period and the culture the novel was written in.  The Body Snatchers are friends and family who seem to have changed overnight.  They still retain their memories, physical flaws and (on a very basic level) their personalities.  But they are emotionless and have no real drive or ambition.  They don't seem to recognise social or class differences eg. doctors start hanging around with mechanics, rousing the suspicions of the main character.  It's interesting that, in the novel (but not in the movies), only adults are body snatched to begin with - fathers, husbands, daughters - suggesting that the change was indeed a political one, as children weren't really involved. 

Another theme that is prominent in the book, but less so in the movie versions, is the gradual decay of a society without drive or ambition.  It's not that the Body Snatchers are evil or want to murder people, in fact, a Body Snatcher world is one without war or conflict - it's more that society starts decaying.  When something gets broken, no one bothers to fix it.  No one cleans their properties any more and, bit by bit, the industrious striving of a capitalist society is replaced by an uninterested and passive population that lets the world around it fall into disrepair.  From a Marxist point of view, The Body Snatchers is reactionary, if not counter-revolutionary.  It presents a positive image of an American society steeped in industry, consumerism and power with the negative portrayal of a Soviet society that is pacifist and lacking in material incentives. 



A Feminist Interpretation

The Body Snatchers gives us a fascinating insight into gender roles, not just in the 1950's, but also in the decades in which the movie versions were released.  The main protagonist of the novel is Dr Miles Bennett, a divorcee whose main interest is his childhood sweet-heart, Becky Driscoll, also recently separated from her husband.  Miles' approach to dating is probably somewhat forceful for modern tastes and Becky's character is mostly that of a helpless female, as one might expect of a novel written in the 1950's.  Interestingly, Miles and Becky's successful escape from the Body Snatchers hinges on the fact that Becky assumes a male role, in fighting back against the Body Snatchers, when they have overwhelmed Miles, rather than playing the powerless female cringing in the corner.  This is played out as a conscious plan that Miles hatches, recognising the fact that the Body Snatchers won't expect Becky to fight back. 

In the 1970's film version, Becky's character (now Elizabeth Driscoll) is a much more liberated woman and even has a job(!) as a lab technician.  The 2007 version goes a step further, making Carol Bennell (played by Nicole Kidman) the main hero, with Ben Driscoll (played by Daniel Craig) being her side-kick.   How times have changed!

A Green interpretation

One of things that really struck me about the book, was the underlying environmental message about how man is destroying the earth.  In a typical confession scene, when the Body Snatchers explain their intent to turn the Earth into a dust bowl, in response to Miles' shocked expression, one of the Body Snatchers says:

'Don't look so shocked, Doctor . . . After all, what have you people done - with the forests that covered the continent? And the farm lands you've turned into dust? You, too, have used them up, and then . . moved on.  Don't look so shocked.'



A Spiritual interpretation

I also found the use of light/darkness in the novel, both natural and artificial, very symbolic.  Most of the action happens at night and natural light is the only thing that brings relief from the nightmare that Miles has found himself in.  The scene with the body lying on the pool table is incredibly powerful in terms of the intensity of the pool table light in a room that is, otherwise, shrouded in darkness. 

There is also a reference to the 'false dawn' that Miles sees, as he's driving during the early hours of the morning.  False Dawn (or Zodiacal Light) is a phenomenon that can only be observed on the darkest nights and has inspired the imagination of human societies the world over.  It could also be a heavily loaded political term, as many Americans of Finney's generation believed the Russian revolution to have been a 'false dawn' (which perhaps it was!)

A Sexual interpretation

Most surprising of all was the brimming sexual nature of some of the scenes and images in the novel.  Miles comes across as incredibly sexually frustrated and unable to control his feelings for Becky Driscoll.  The description of Miles' fear of being alone in the house with the naked man on the table is nothing short of erotic.  Miles seems to find the supine and passive naked bodies (both male and female) repulsive and exciting in equal measure.  His relationship with the real-life Becky borders on deranged, including the scene where he takes advantage of her emotional state to force himself on her.  He also seems to get a thrill out of seeing her dressed up in men's clothes!  A sexual interpretation of the novel is that it explores sexual repression which, again, fits in with the era the book was written in.

A Race interpretation

Generally speaking it's an incredibly white novel and seems to be written for a white American audience.  Any references to other races tends to be negative and the examples in the original novel seem to fall into two categories: anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans.  Is it a coincidence that the first named 'victim' of the Body Snatchers (therefore the first villain in the novel) is Uncle Ira Lentz, Lentz being a typical German/Jewish surname?  Rabid anti-communists often expose their anti-semitism in their belief that a lot of communists and communist ideas are Jewish in origin.  It's often pointed out that leading Bolsheviks, such as Leon Trotsky, were Jewish and The Body Snatchers, whether knowingly or not, perpetuates this idea.

The main scene involving an African American is the description Miles gives of the behaviour of Billy the shoeshine man.  Normally deferential and cheery, Billy initially sits comfortably with how Miles thinks the world should be, ie. that a black man should know his place in the world and should be genuinely happy to shine white men's shoes.  As part of Miles' growing evidence that a change is taking place in his society, he refers to an incident where he overheard Billy the shoeshine man mocking his own deference and cursing the white clients that he is forced to shine shoes for.  The incident has nothing to do with Billy being body-snatched and is a telling reflection of some of the real anxieties that the novel contains.  Other (minor) black characters appear in the novel, but they are portrayed as a brain-washed mob, carrying out the instructions of the Body Snatchers (read Communists!)



A Psychoanalytic interpretation

Miles is clearly bonkers and I did wonder whether or not the whole thing wasn't in his head?  Perhaps the world has indeed been taken over by Body Snatchers, or perhaps Miles has an extreme paranoid personality disorder, which manifests itself in his anti-social behaviour, insomnia and violent attack on the police officers! Psychology plays a big part in the novel, as the relatives of those who are body-snatched are, at first, considered to be suffering from a mass delusion.  There are references to other incidents of mass hysteria, such as the Dancing Plague that raged through Strasbourg in 1518. 

Perhaps, an even more poignant interpretation, is that the novel is, in fact, about psychiatric or cognitive breakdown?  What happens when someone close to you changes in ways that are only perceptible to those that know them really well?  Whether it's caused by depression, Alzheimer's disease or some other form of behavioural change - it must be really difficult to watch someone you love change in this way, sometimes overnight, as is the case with the people who are body-snatched.

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me on my iPhone and is 1978 Sphere Books Ltd edition of the novel published in the UK.  The cover depicts the 1978 movie of the same name. 

The trailers are all from YouTube and are from the three movies that I watched whilst researching this blog post. 
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