The body and the construction of an identity in Michel Faber’s "Under the Skin"

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2018 21 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Introduction

2. The Body in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin
2.1 The Human Body as Lost Identity
2.1.1 Isserley’s ‘Human’ Body
2.1.2 Isserley’s Beauty Standards
2.1.3 Further Difficulties: Class and Gender
2.2 Animating the Familiar Non-Human Body
2.2.1 The Non-Human Animal
2.2.2 The Inanimate
2.3 The Vodsel-Body as Source of Conflict
2.3.1 Isserley’s Appeal and Outer Appearance
2.3.2 The Denying of Similarities
2.3.3 Who’s the Bait? – The Question of the Woman and the Animal
2.4 The Linguistic Development in the Construction of an Identity
2.4.1 Keeping Distance Through Linguistic Animalisation
2.4.2 Pulling the Linguistic Trigger: The Rape Attempt
and Murky Divisions
2.4.3 The Process of “Becoming”
2.5 The Final, Disembodied Identity

3. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Having been here before / between impossibles / […] / that whack you back and forth between yourself”

These first lines of the poem Choose (Atkinson 52) metaphorically get to the heart of Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin (2000) in which the protagonist, Isserley, is caught in a constant struggle of defining herself. Being a hybrid result of surgery, she shares similarities and differences with more than one species. This inevitably influences her perception of herself and others. The process of shaping her identity based on appearance is characterised by continual constructions and deconstructions in which the murky demarcations between bodies prove to be an additional difficulty. With his novel, Faber addresses “limitations of society and identity” (Petrie 167), which are typical themes of modern Scottish arts as well as the Scottish mentality to maintain an own identity, which is based on opposites (cf. Crawford 89). According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term “body” describes “the physical structure […] of a person or an animal […] as opposed to the soul or spirit” (Oxforddictionaries.com).

Bearing this in mind, the following question arises: in which way is Isserley’s process of constructing an identity problematised in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin ? Assuming that body and identity are mutually generative and that an identity is thus partly constructed through the body, the essay firstly explores the ‘natural’ body of Isserley’s species as a lost marker for identification. Secondly, the body of the non-human animal is brought into discussion due to its familiarity. Thirdly, there will be a focus on the vodsel-body as a source of inner conflict for Isserley with regard to the issue of gender in relation to animals. After analysing the linguistic development in the protagonist’s construction of an identity, the essay takes a closer look at the final scene and ultimately closes with a conclusion.

Before diving into the topic, it is necessary to mention that the novel uses the expression ‘human being’ to talk about the main character’s extra-terrestrial species. The alien term ‘vodsel’ describes the reader’s species, the homo sapiens. This process of renaming is an initial hint for the hierarchy among human-beings and vodsels, hence the power of name-giving is a privilege of the superior (cf. Dillon 5f). The novel’s terms are adopted in the essay.

During my research, Sarah Dillon’s article “It’s a Question of Words, therefore: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin” and Marco Caracciolo’s essay ““Murky Mercy”: Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and the Difficulty of Reality” were of great use. Moreover, the book Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, and Meat Culture gave fascinating insights into the subject.

2. The Body in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin

2.1 The Human Body as Lost Identity

2.1.1 Isserley’s ‘Human’ Body

As a result of plastic surgery, Isserley’s body is severely modified. The consequence of her physical transspeciality is a fractured sense of self on the one hand and the increasing struggle to identify herself with other ‘human beings’ on the other hand. Artificial bodies are characteristic of modern Science Fiction (cf. Magerstädt 26). Usually, the designing of bodies is conducted for a purpose, e.g. work like in Isserley’s case (cf. Herbe 60f). Her job is to pick up well built, preferable single, male hitch-hikers on isolated roads of the Scottish Highlands in order to bring them to Ablach farm, a converted farm for agriculture, where they are then processed to sustain the wealthy upper class of Isserley’s home planet with ‘voddissin’ [meat of the human-animal]. Hence Isserley is in direct contact with vodsels she has to look like one of them. Nevertheless, the reader learns about Isserley’s original appearance through several descriptions in the novel in which she expresses a longing for her natural body. According to those descriptions she used to walk on all fours, have a sixth finger and a tail (cf. Faber 115, 232). She further possessed “real teats, budding naturally from her abdomen” (Ibid. 178) and “a smooth breast […]. Hard and sleek, glossy with auburn fur.” (Ibid. 250) Apparently her whole body used to be covered with fur, which, unless it is being shaved off, still grows “except in the places that were so severely scarred or artificial that nothing could grow there. She looked almost human.” (Ibid. 251) Although she doesn’t express her suffering directly it is implied when she mentions her deformation and non-functioning genitals: “her fingers had strayed between her legs, searching blindly for what was no longer to be found there” (Ibid. 148), and more precisely: “Her genitals […] were buried forever inside a mass of ugly scar tissue caused by the amputation of her tail” and “the tangle of knotted flesh between her legs she didn’t touch or examine; it was a lost cause.” (Ibid. 252) In a way, she hereby corresponds to the idea of the sexless alien or the asexual cyborg (cf. Jones 367; Haraway 307). Furthermore, one could be reminded of Linné’s description of hybrid “monsters” as anomalies contrary to nature which exist only on the margin of science (cf. Preuss 193, 200). The inevitable consequence regarding Isserley’s self-perception is the “blurring [of her] identity with the help of genetic modification” (Herbe 63) which then creates an “artificial personhood” (Pearson 289), that can no longer be equated with the previous self. Another aspect which contributes to Isserley’s interior struggle is the constant physical pain which she is enduring as a result of the modifications and the fact that her body is full of “scar-lines and alien clefts in which she had a dangerous lack of sensation: places where infections could grow and where wounds that never quite healed could slyly venture open” (Faber 147). As it turns out, Isserley has been the second person and the first female undergoing the “crude experiments” (Ibid. 276). She verbalises her frustration when she fantasises about taking revenge on her surgeons (cf. Ibid.). Despite her physical pain Isserley tries hard to perform in daily work life by exercising (cf. Ibid. 52, 145, 276). Consequently, Isserley’s previous sense of self has been harmed along with the deformation of her human body.

2.1.2 Isserley’s Beauty Standards

The human beings in Faber’s novel are essentially a combination of different animals (cf. Dillon 2). Isserley’s idea of human beauty becomes clear when she describes Amlis Vess, the employer’s son, as naked and quadruped with a tail and a long neck (cf. Faber 110). She further talks about “his long spearhead ears and his vulpine snout. His large eyes were perfectly round, positioned in the front of his face, which was covered in soft fur, like the rest of his body.” (Ibid. 110) Isserley is especially attracted to his flawless black fur (cf. Ibid 111). Yet, facing him also means being confronted with her own body and the inequality between Amlis and herself. “‘You don’t know what cruelty is’, she said, feeling all the places on and inside her body where she had been mutilated.” (Ibid. 229) Shortly after, Amlis mentions the visible brutality of her deformation:

“Do you think I can’t see that half of your face has been carved off? Do you think I haven’t noticed that you’ve had strange humps grafted onto you, your breasts removed, your tail amputated, your fur shaved off?” (Ibid. 232)

However, he recognises Isserley as one of his kind: “Do you think nobody is capable of noticing you’re a human being underneath?” (Ibid.) Here, the idea of an identity which is separated from physical appearance is expressed for the first time. Still, Isserley’s idea of being human is closely linked to physical appearance, which for the reader ironically resembles the body of an animal.

2.1.3 Further Difficulties: Class and Gender

Although Isserley, too, approves her human nature by telling herself that “they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?” (Faber 152), she struggles to identify with the human beings around her. This is owed to the experience of otherness, which manifests not only in her physical appearance but also in social class and gender. Isserley is neither a member of the upper class like Amlis Vess, nor does she belong to the “Estate Trash” like the other workers, since she did not stay there long enough to work in the underground (cf. Ibid. 118; Rogers 5). Nevertheless, her statement that “only desperate people with no prospects except being dumped in the New Estates would have considered [her job]” (Faber 63f) indicates that she belongs to the underclass. While intellectually feeling superior to the Estate-men, Isserley also feels physically inferior, which is demonstrated in a scene in which she accidentally admits sleeping in a bed (cf. Ibid. 92). Hence, she does not feel at eye level with the other humans at Ablach farm and isolates herself by e.g. taking her meals separately although the men seem willing to integrate her into their community (cf. Ibid. 57). Towards the end of the novel Isserley verbalises her isolation: “[s]he wasn’t anybody’s kind” (Ibid. 258).

Another factor that leads to Isserley’s social marginalisation is her gender. As the only female character, Isserley is constantly conscious of the ‘male gaze’ because both, male humans and vodsels, observe her outer appearance (cf. Rogers 4, 5). The issue of gender will be discussed in more detail at a later point.

Consequently, Isserley can neither identify with human beings by appearance nor by her social status. Therefore, she feels the need to associate with other beings.

2.2 Animating the Familiar Non-Human Body

2.2.1 The Non-Human Animal

Isserley feels connected to one animal in particular: sheep. When she encounters a sheep, she recognises it as a “fellow-traveller” (Faber 63). Due to its physical alikeness to her own species – they remind her of innocent human children (cf. Ibid. 150) – she finds it “hard to believe the creature couldn’t speak. It looked so much as if it should be able to. […] there was something deceptively human about it, which tempted her, […] to reach across the species divide and communicate.” (Ibid. 63) Although her attempt to communicate fails, she later tells Amlis that ‘sheep’ is a self-given name and that she can speak “a few words” (Ibid. 240) of their language, although naming oneself is usually a privilege of the human(-animal) (cf. Dillon 1; Vint 2014: 91). Possibly, Isserley recognises that sheep, too, have a “system of signalling” and therefore humanises them (Derrida 122). It is more likely, though, that she sympathises with the animal because she desperately wishes to identify with other creatures based on physical appearance. This is clearly expressed when she explains the following: “They’re on all fours, Amlis, can’t you see that? They’ve got fur – tails – facial features not that different from ours …” (Faber 240). Therefore, Isserley is willing to overlook the linguistic boundary between herself and the sheep. Approaching this aspect from a feminist point of view, it could be argued that women and animals share the experience of ‘the other’ (cf. Vint 2014: 27). Consequently, Isserley is tempted to recognise the (non-human) animal as similar to herself. Moreover, the sheep could be a ‘mirror’ for Isserley’s situation as a human being which is caught in an animal-body. The novel offers further comparisons between Isserley’s species and animals, e.g. the scream of owls as an equivalent to “human women in orgasm” (Faber 274). In one scene Isserley even dreams about being the dog, which is left behind in a car, doomed to die (cf. Ibid. 275). Not only does this scene express Isserley’s sympathy with the non-human animal, but it can also be read as a metaphor for Isserley’s situation, i.e. being trapped in her skin, and a foreshadowing of her seemingly inevitable death. The ‘real’ dog does not die though, but is set free by Isserley, who describes it as “a miniature Amlis in animal form” (Ibid. 281), which again underlines physical alikeness.

2.2.2 The Inanimate

Not only non-human animals but also inanimate “objects become uncannily vital” (Dillon 8). This happens frequently through comparisons with living things when Isserley’s car, in which she spends most of her time, is being mentioned. For instance, Isserley compares the car’s need for fuel to her own need for food, but notices the difference that she cannot “buy fuel for her own body as easily” (Faber 130) hence her body is unable to digest vodsel-food. Furthermore, Isserley describes her car’s production of exhaust gases as “breathing aromatic gas” (Ibid. 156) and believes that the car too has an ability to communicate, which is clearly expressed when she asks herself “what it was trying to tell her in its quaint foreign language. Was the rattle a plea for help? […] A friendly warning? She listened some more, trying to imagine how a car might make itself understood.” (Ibid. 5) It seems as if Isserley does not differentiate between the sound of a living creature and the rattle of an object and that she imagines the car to have familiar emotions. The murkiness of this boundary is created by Isserley’s use of language. She can sympathise with her car and at the same time her construction of a stable identity is further complicated. Moreover, the mentioning of the car’s rattle in the first chapter already hints at the existence of difficulties which are slowly revealed in the novel.

Although Isserley sympathises with some non-human animals and even with her car, she cannot cross the boundary of communication. Therefore, she fails to fully identify with either one of them, although she is willing to grant them a certain degree of humanity.

2.3 The Vodsel Body as Source of Conflict

Probably the most suitable species for identification based on appearance would be the vodsel, since Isserley’s body is altered to meet the requirements of a vodsel-body from the outside. Yet, identifying with the vodsels is a very problematic issue and source of inner conflict for the protagonist.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Passau – Department of English Literature and Culture
Under the Skin Michel Faber Scotland Scottish Literature Body Identity Alien Gender Animal Disembodiment meat industry animal rights English Studies



Title: The body and the construction of an identity in Michel Faber’s "Under the Skin"