Dr. Loretta Clayton
Shapeshifting and Estrangement of the Social Mind in Whitley Strieber’s The Wild
Within the body of speculative fiction literature, one of the most enduring and captivating tropes to be employed is that of physical shapeshifting. Whitley Strieber’s The Wild, published in 1990, is an exception to the historic, cultural treatment of therianthropy and shapeshifting. Instead of the violent, gory, inhuman “monster” which has been associated most with the werewolf legend, The Wild employs the werewolf as merely human consciousness and its complexities simply bound within the body of a wolf. Through the main characters and their ordeals, the readers of the novel are offered not only a succinct environmental critique of socio-economic conditions in the thick of modern society and the impact of such conditions upon the human mind, but also a subsequent vision of the human mind and human socio-economic patterns on the edge of civilization.
The troubled state of the main character, Bob Duke, is most evocative of the psychological themes within the book. Bob, a computer consultant, works at the bottom rungs of society as he attempts to provide an income for his wife and his son. Simultaneously, he experiences frequent dreams and visions of turning into a wolf, apparitions which are often sensual and sublime or involve grotesque experiences (Strieber 10-11). This shapeshifting into a wolf state – by dream, by sublime bleed into his reality, by waking life – is only the most recent, and most violent, of many shifts which already frequently occur in his human life: he shifts between the roles of Bob the troubled father and husband, Bob the hopeless romantic poet, Bob the dead-end worker in the lower rungs of the corporate structure, and Bob the frequent patient in the practice of Monica, a long-time confidant and psychologist. When he ultimately shapeshifts into a wolf in front of Cindy, Kevin and Monica (Strieber 99-115), their own prior assumptions of how the world works are suddenly turned upside down.
The socio-economic consequences of his ultimate shapeshifting are palpable. The wolf, in essence, is projecting Bob as utterly stripped of most of the meager external trappings of what he considered as his humanity, having “fallen from the human state” (Strieber 116). As a wolf, Bob is deprived of his home, his job, his ability to speak a human language, “the power of speech [,] what he now saw as the great privilege of hands” (Strieber 116), his ability to freely walk the streets of New York City without molestation, “human” food, “human” clothes, his ability to express his anxieties, and access to his family. His wife, Cindy, and his son, Kevin, find themselves evicted from their home, travelling as far as they can to northern New York in order to find Bob as he escapes the pursuit of animal control and the general oppressive environment of the metropolis. This socio-economic alienation is described by Marx as entfremdung, or estrangement, from the gattungswesen (lit. “species-essence”), or human nature, as caused by the stratification of social classes (Marx 31, 66), the cracks through which Bob has inadvertently fallen.
Throughout much of the first part of the book, a frequent point of reference for the narrative is to Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis (Strieber 101). The novella depicts the strongly-similar situation of a salesman who finds himself transformed into a monstrous vermin (Kafka 3) and experiences the desolation of ostracization by an uncaring world. This is important, as The Metamorphosis, the story of which parallels the ostracization experienced by Bob in his transformed state, distinctly contrasts with The Wild in the depiction of both the fates of their main characters and their treatment by their families. While The Metamorphosis’ Gregor Samsa ultimately dies in the face of the isolation and abuse by his own family (Kafka 89), Bob, throughout his ordeals as a wolf, never lets go of his human consciousness (contorted as it is by his experience as a wolf), nor does he lose the attraction of his human family, as they follow him from afar to the northern Northeastern United States. This shows Bob to be one who rejects the false consciousness enforced by human ostracism and pathologization, adapting to the alternative mode of living in which he fends for himself and projects his most vivid dreams come alive.
Monica, meanwhile, personifies much of the damage of the false consciousness, as she attempts to provide her earnest diagnosis and support to Bob without understanding the root of his inner estrangement. Engels describes this approach as seeking a “more remote process independent of thought” (Engels), which is exactly not being done by “so-called thinkers” like Monica, who pathologizes Bob’s inner estrangement to the bitter end of her professional life and “works with mere thought material which [s]he accepts without examination as the product of thought.” Indeed, at their final session together, Monica comes to the realization that “her science, in seeking to penetrate the heart, locked the heart,” Bob feeling that “she had just at this moment discovered her own fraud” (Strieber 87).
As the book pushes onward, the narrative of Bob in his wolf state also becomes an unwitting, romantic reflection of his environment. Through his ordeals, he reflects the oppression and violence of the environments through which he finds himself. He finds himself caged in a kennel cell, perilously aware of the stench of death which pervades the atmosphere. His acute sense of smell becomes a discomfort for him as he even smells the fear of those around him, arising as “stench like acid wax” (Strieber 117).
His ordeal in the forested wilderness of northern New York places him in the midst of a pack of wolves, an hierarchical structure determined largely through violent tests of strength between members and reinforced by the harsh atmosphere in which they live. However, as structured and intimidating as the pack is to outsiders like Bob – “by degrees [..] realizing that he would not be welcome here” (Strieber 424) – the mobility within the classes of this pack is fluid and their usage of collective action in order to preserve both their young and their resources is exemplary of their level of economic knowledge. In this environment, in which he is not estranged for his new species, Bob finally begins to reconcile with his unconscious, the depths of which continued throughout his life through condensation (Dobie 59) of desires into the symbol of the wolf.
Bob’s unconscious desires, however that they manifest, are regulated by his families. Cindy, who often takes the unwitting role of the disciplinary superego, as she often calls him from the depths of his most intense dreams “in a shrill voice” (Strieber 11) and reminds him of his obligations to his human family. Kevin, and the pups who he has with his first wolf mate, also take the role of the superego, having regulatory effects upon his initial desire for reconciliation with his wolf self and later upon his despair over their future in the wilderness. Furthermore, as he watches the growth of his pups, he internally rejoices as he notices one of his pups aligning a line shape from a group of sticks, demonstrating a sense of constructing shapes at an assumedly-human level – “Made a line! They had to live!” (Strieber 479); this is a manifestation of his superegotistical sense of reward (Dobie 58) for not abandoning his progeny. The fusion of his cautious human mind and his wolf self act as the ego, balancing the id of the wolf self with the prior experience of humanity and human expectations. He eventually extends this experience to his wife and son as he transforms them into wolves of respective age (Strieber 491); in this act, he has finally regained both communicative and physical access to his family, and has also, ironically through his ordeal, become reconciled with his human nature, with his consciousness in a fuller state. In this way, he accomplishes a revolutionary symbiosis of the human mind and non-human body, and establishes his world in the outside.
In conclusion, The Wild manages to weave both psychological and socio-economic phenomena into a fantastic, ecologically-biased tale of human survival and reconciliation, both within and without. The alienation which plagues Bob through much of the book is painfully and painstakingly explored for what it is and for its causing agents, and he seeks an alternative from the outside world without ever exclusively recusing himself from his humanity, ultimately embracing and extending both the human mind and wolf body from himself to others. He becomes an agent of change by helping establish an alternative life for himself and others “deep into the freedom and safety of the wild” (Strieber 494).
Dobie, Ann. B. Theory Into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Boston, Wadsworth (2012). Print.
Engels, Friedrich. Letter to Franz Mehring. 4 July 1893. Marx and Engels Correspondence. International Publishers (1968). Web. 6 Nov 2012.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marxist Internet Archive (1932). PDF file. 6 Nov 2012.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Planet PDF (1999). PDF file. 6 Nov 2012.
Strieber, Whitley. The Wild. New York City, Tor Books (1991). PDF file. 6 Nov 2012.