Power, Possession, and Monstrous Women in The Exorcist and The Custom of the Country

monstrous women

Originally published in Sonder Magazine, now closed.


Both Regan MacNeil of The Exorcist and Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country attempt to avoid the gender roles into which they are being forced. Such rejection of traditional femininity leads to the perception of their characters as monstrous. Ellen Dupree writes about Undine’s “monstrous quality” (5), a description garnered by her actions regarding her husbands and child. The same descriptor is employed by Barbara Creed in her discussion of Regan’s character and her horrific actions while possessed. The negative depiction of female characters who step outside of socially defined gender roles as monstrous leads to the question of whether The Exorcist and The Custom of the Country are anti-feminist in nature, whether Wharton and Blatty meant to imply the proper place for women in society to be in the home, while men pursue accomplishment and wealth—traditional gender roles. However, such negativity regarding female pursuit of power is in neither novel illustrated as ideal. By the efforts of Regan MacNeil and Undine Spragg to escape traditional female gender roles, the novels provide commentary on society’s perception of women and elicit honest reactions from the reader, thus acting as couriers for a feminist message: the expectation for women to conform to traditional gender roles still persists.

A point of debate concerning The Exorcist is the authenticity of Regan’s possession. While many critics—as well as the 1973 film—interpret the novel as depicting a genuine possession, Blatty’s text is ambiguous. Each seemingly miraculous occurrence is met with scientific explanations from doctors and from Father Karras, such as convulsions to account for Regan’s bed shaking or her mind unconsciously directing blood flow in order to create raised words on her skin. Williams points out that “Chris’s reliability as a witness is questionable,” citing Chris’s statement about having thought she saw someone levitate in Bhutan (227). As the only witness to events such as the dramatic scene in which Regan’s head is supposed to have rotated 360 degrees, this leaves room for speculation by the reader. The narrator never takes a stance on the matter, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the actions recounted by characters who may or may not be reliable outweigh the explanations presented by Father Karras or those developed within the reader’s own mind. In 2011, however, Blatty clarified the nature of Regan’s possession:

I in fact did not base my novel on the 1949 case, but rather what my research made clear; namely, that in every period of recorded history, and in every culture and part of the world, there have been consistent accounts of possession and its symptoms going all the way back to ancient Egyptian chronicles, and where there is that much smoke, my reason told me, there is probably fire – and a lot of it, if you get my meaning. Do you? My faith is strong. (“The Exorcist’s’ Secret Message”)

It is clear, then, by Blatty’s own words, that he intended Regan’s possession to be real. She is literally inhabited by a demon.

While the literal narrative is a tale of demons, the symbolic nature of that same narrative reveals a social commentary on the state of female empowerment. Blatty uses the literal story of possession and exorcism to discuss a topic that is much closer to readers’ lives—society’s view of the female struggle for power. While Regan is possessed by a demon, she becomes the possessor of something that is typically reserved for males: power. Blatty constructs Regan’s character to represent a female who has, by whatever means, rejected traditional ideas of femininity in favor of undertakings typically construed as masculine, including the pursuit of physical and sexual power. Therefore, The Exorcist becomes a portrait of society’s reaction to female possession of power. The choice by Blatty to represent such a character in a form which readers are expected to find revolting and monstrous emphasizes the outlook of society—women with power are viewed as unnatural.

The Exorcist and The Custom of the Country are alike in their monstrous portrayal of women who seek power. They are also alike in suggesting (as a societal comment, rather than instruction) that a woman can only possess power if she is simultaneously possessed by a man. In the case of Undine, she can only gain economic power for herself while she belongs to a husband, or her father. In the case of Regan, her power only belongs to her while her body is possessed by a masculine spirit. This relationship between possessed and possessor highlights the boundaries within which the two characters must work to escape their socially imposed gender roles. In seeking power and the right to pursue accomplishment, Undine and Regan are forced to yield control over themselves to masculine influences.

Similarities between the two characters provide the framework for their correlating narratives and the similar messages intended by Blatty and Wharton. Both Undine and Regan are portrayed as eternal daughters. For example, Undine remains financially dependent on her father long after leaving his house. Yoshino observes the predictability of this tendency “since Undine mentally remains a child and socially retains her status of daughterhood . . .” (44). Undine also maintains her status as eternal daughter by rejecting her relationship with her son. Yoshino states, “Her refusal of motherhood in spite of her embrace of the marriage institution, therefore, signals her eternal wish to prolong the validity of herself as a marriageable daughter under the tutelage of paternal authority” (54). This authority is represented by each of her successive husbands, who play the role of father figures to Undine. Even while entering into an institution that typically symbolizes a woman’s separation from her status as dependent daughter, Undine manages to maintain such status by avoiding responsibility and rejecting all that does not fit with her perception of herself.

Regan, on the other hand, is still a dependent daughter within the socially accepted age range for such dependency. However, at thirteen years old, Regan is edging on departure from her mother’s nest. She is becoming less dependent and will soon be expected to accept an increasing amount of responsibility for her own life. Raised by a single mother, Regan has an intimate bond with Chris, heightening her fear of losing her mother. She even asks her mother if she is planning on marrying Burke Dennings, the director of the movie in which Chris is starring. While possessed, Regan kills Dennings, a clear indication that—even though Chris’s answer was “no”—Regan is clinging to her mother in a possessive manner. Creed states, “One reason for Regan’s possession/rebellion appears to be her desire to remain locked in a close dyadic relationship with the mother” (“The Monstrous Feminine” 39). Regan rebels against the social pressure to separate from her mother.

The close connection between Regan and Chris is a driving force behind Regan’s rejection of traditional femininity. Regan is represented as a stereotypical female—passive, gentle, submissive—but through her connection with her mother, she desires to be something more. Thomas J. Kapacinskas notes, “Chris has become so successful and liberated that the traditional wifely role could no longer contain her” (178). As a single mother with a successful career, Chris’s position as the provider for her family places her outside the traditional female role—evidenced by her traditionally masculine name. The fact that Chris embraces traditionally male power and accomplishment sets the stage for Regan’s symbolic rejection of traditional femininity, especially in relation to the deep connection between Chris and Regan: “As Jung suggests, the child lives out the unconscious of the parent” (Kapacinskas 182). Creed expounds upon this connection: “The deep bond between mother and daughter is reinforced in the text at a number of different levels: Mother’s swearing becomes Regan’s obscenities; mother’s sexual frustrations become Regan’s lewd suggestions; Mother’s anger becomes Regan’s power” (“The Monstrous-Feminine” 39). Blatty uses the deep connection between mother and daughter as a natural transition to Regan’s acquisition of “male” qualities through her possession by a masculine figure.

Initially, the distribution of power in the mother-daughter relationship of The Custom of the Country is the inverse of that found in The Exorcist. It is Undine who possesses stereotypically masculine ambition, whereas her mother passively receives instruction. Upon being ordered by Undine to dim the light, “Mrs. Spragg, grateful to have commands laid upon her, hastened to obey” (Wharton 83). Mrs. Spragg exemplifies the stereotypical woman, who is incapable of leading or creating opportunities for herself. The discrepancy in the two women’s characters muddles the relationship between parent and child, as evidenced by Undine desire “to discipline her mother” (35). This inappropriate distribution of power between mother and daughter is mimicked in The Exorcist; though Chris begins as the stronger of the two, after Regan’s possession—her rejection of traditional femininity—Chris is weakened by the ordeal while Regan gains power. This power shift is both figurative and literal, as represented by “Regan’s great strength” (Blatty 256). The child who wields power over the parent is perceived as unnatural, and yet it is another boundary—another monstrosity—which must be overcome in order for ambition and authority to be as readily accepted in females as in males. For women in general to become stronger, each generation must be stronger than the previous, thus creating the very power dynamic seen in The Exorcist and The Custom of the Country.

In their attempts to escape the bounds of society-imposed femininity, Undine works within the system, while Regan breaks the system. Undine understands that, as a woman, her opportunities to obtain power are all reliant on her position in society, which will be entirely determined by her husband. Therefore, she aspires to make the best match possible, in terms of wealth, family prominence, social standing, and career. When Undine informs Ralph that she expects “everything,” Mr. Dagonet responds with, “My child, if you look like that you’ll get it” (75). Undine understands that using her beauty to manipulate men is the only path to success for a woman. She is working within the bounds of her opportunities, and though she may eventually get what she wants, it is a sad consolation prize, as “things she was entitled to always came to her as if they had been stolen” (Wharton 388). As a woman, she is not allowed to pursue avenues that may be more satisfying to her. She is not allowed to earn for herself; she must rely on others. This desire to earn her wealth and prestige is exemplified by her businesslike perception of her courtship: her flight with Peter Van Degen seemed “as logical, as free from the distorting mists of sentimentality, as any of her father’s financial enterprises” (Wharton 288).

Traditional female power is a moral influence on her family. The woman is expected to be a source of goodness, placing virtue above all else and acting in complete selflessness, placing all others’ needs ahead of her own. Undine, however, is not satisfied by this so-called “moral power,” which, according to Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, “is rendered transparent, for such compensatory power means nothing in a world where women have been isolated from the real centers of power . . .” (47). In her succession of marriages, Undine is searching for a traditionally masculine type of power, one that can only be acquired through wealth. According to Undine, “all she sought for was improvement: she honestly wanted the best” (Wharton 41). This aspiration for improvement through power and wealth is one not welcome in females and is therefore perceived as a monstrous quality in Undine.

Unlike Undine, Regan’s rejection of traditional femininity does not result in a calculated attempt to work within the system and rise above her assigned gender role, but rather a rejection of the system. Her possession is symbolic of her attempt to escape imposed gender stereotypes. In being possessed by a masculine figure, Regan acquires types of power that were previously beyond her reach: physical strength, verbal freedom, and sexual freedom. These types of power are not withheld from her because of her biological status as female. As a woman she is just as capable of developing her physical capabilities as is a man. Similarly, restrictions placed on her freedoms of verbal and sexual expression are not biologically imposed, but socially imposed. Society reacts negatively to females possessing and expressing these forms of power. The reader has already witnessed this reaction—specifically by men—in the case of Chris and Howard’s divorce: “Howard had wanted it. Long separations. Erosion of ego as the husband of a superstar” (Blatty 40). Regan’s acquisition of “male” power is an exaggeration of this sort of situation—of a woman rising above her husband by obtaining social and economic power through her sexual and verbal expression. She becomes unnatural, demonic, monstrous—society’s perception of a woman who does not comply with her prescribed role.

Upon casting Undine and Regan as characters who reject their traditional female gender roles, the question becomes whether The Exorcist and The Custom of the Country are anti-feminist novels. It has been suggested that they are. Olney states, “The Exorcist, while seemingly invested in the spectacle of the rebellious, possessed female body, actually works to preserve patriarchal order by purging it of the monstrous-feminine . . .” (561). The ending of The Exorcist may easily be construed as anti-feminist, in that Regan is ultimately stripped of her newfound power and returned to her initial state of passivity and dependency. Furthermore, her mother is forced to mutilate her career in the process of caring for Regan. Chris must turn down the opportunity to direct a film (a position of authority over men) in order to care for her daughter (a traditionally female role). This, along with Regan’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to break out of her feminine role, may indeed indicate Blatty’s notion of the natural order of things—women in the home with the children and men in roles of production and “economic mechanisms of exchange” (Voloshin 98).

Similarly, Undine’s attempts to escape her traditional female role are unsuccessful, as represented by her ultimate confinement within the system—with a husband on whom she is financially dependent and a child she did not want. However, because Undine’s strategy was targeted within the system of female repression, anti-feminist allegations concerning The Custom of the Country are centered more so around the tendency of the narrative to encourage a harsh judgment of Undine—of any woman who attempts to gain power for herself. Wharton’s novel may be construed as anti-feminist because it illustrates a woman stepping outside of socially accepted gender boundaries and depicts her in a negative light. After all, Undine from medieval legend is “a soulless water nymph . . . who, only by bearing a human husband’s child, can become a human herself” (Yoshino 48). Undine Spragg may be viewed as “soulless” in her refusal to conform to the social requirement of women to be completely selfless. By “position[ing] the reader as child in relationship to Undine’s failed maternity” (Kowaleski-Wallace 45) and evoking a negative reaction in the reader, it is possible to construe Wharton’s message as a rebuke of Undine—of any woman—for placing her own happiness above that of her child and ultimately rejecting traditional ideas of femininity.

I would not, however, classify either of these works as anti-feminist. In fact, I believe them both to be couriers of feminist messages. Neither work depicts the presence of non-traditional feminine qualities in women as intrinsically monstrous or directly rebukes women who seek power for themselves. Rather, by evoking negative reactions in the reader—whether ambivalence toward Undine or horror at Regan’s possession—both Wharton and Blatty reveal the societal interpretation of non-traditional women as monstrous.

Balter calls Undine “a perfect product of her society” (21). Yet it is not society that is blamed for the damages left in Undine’s wake. Kowaleski-Wallace points out that despite being depicted as a creation of the system, Undine’s situation garners little sympathy from the reader:

 I propose that readerly frustration with Undine’s character results from the persistence of a particular way of thinking about women. That way of thinking is yet another aspect of that same domestic ideology first articulated in the eighteenth century, and it demands that, as a woman, Undine be primarily shaped by—and responsive to—the needs of others . . . . (48)

The Custom of the Country itself is not anti-feminist; it is not Wharton who is misogynistic. Rather, the narrative reveals in the reader the impulse to judge female characters based on their consistency with gender-based stereotypes. By evoking anti-feminist sentiments in the reader, Wharton’s narrative reveals in the reader the same attitude toward women that created Undine in the first place—that forced her to become monstrous. Dupree notes that “readers often express frustration because they find it difficult to condemn (as they assume they are meant to do) a character who seems to have been unfairly treated by her creator, but this, of course, is precisely the effect Wharton intended” (10). By revealing in the reader the very misogynistic tendency that he or she condemns in the male characters of the story, the effect becomes much more potent. After all, it is not merely a comment on the fictional universe of The Custom of the Country which Wharton intends to make, but a comment on the pitfalls of our own social structure and attitude toward women.

In The Exorcist, Regan’s possession is not simply symbolic of a woman’s desire to escape traditional gender roles; it is society’s view of such a desire. Therefore, her eventual return to traditionally feminine passivity should not be construed as Blatty’s interpretation of the way things should be, but as a comment on the way things will be as long as women who attempt to step outside the bounds of traditional femininity are perceived as monstrous. The final line of the book, “In forgetting, they were trying to remember” (Blatty 340), emphasizes the necessity of applying the narrative’s symbolism to the situations of women in our world. By forgetting the monstrosities of the possession, the men of the story may remember what Regan may have become, had she been permitted. The reader should use this idea to alter his or her perception of women who reject traditional gender roles, abandoning the idea that such women are somehow unnatural or monstrous. By forgetting opportunities and confidence stripped from Chris during the ordeal, they may remember her as an independent woman, who did, at least for a time, free herself from the bonds of traditional femininity. Therefore Chris becomes both a representation of what women may achieve and a warning of the fragility of such a dream and the influence that social norms hold over even those women who disregard them.

Both Regan and Undine are portrayed as women who reject stereotypical femininity, whether literally or symbolically. Both women are received negatively by the reader, creating the tendency of the reader to assume anti-feminist intentions in Wharton and Blatty. However, the negative attitudes toward the female characters and their actions are simply reflections of the misogynistic tendency of society—the desire to pigeonhole women in traditional roles, while labeling those who attempt to escape such roles as monstrous. This is an observation that has been repeated time and time again, in settings both literary and political. It is not by merely pointing out such a societal tendency that it may be destroyed. Rather, one must be forced to discover similar ideas within oneself. This is what The Custom of the Country and The Exorcist accomplish. They reveal in the reader, by his or her negative reaction to Regan and Undine, a preference for women to remain stationed in socially accepted roles, therefore forcing the reader to examine his or her ideals and the way in which those ideals are manifested in his or her actions. After all, the idea of equality means nothing if it is not fully accepted and incorporated into society. This integration begins with the idea being accepted by each individual, not only intellectually but also in practice. It ends when equality has entered such a stage of normalcy that characters such as Undine and Regan no longer give readers pause, no longer bring forth feelings of ambivalence, no longer secure descriptions as monstrous. It ends when power may not be described as “male” or “female” and when a woman does not need to be possessed—by a husband or a demon—in order to possess any type of power to any extent she seeks to achieve.

Works Cited

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Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. Print.

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