"You, who disturb my sleep..." - The figure of the mummy in 19th and 20th century American Literature

Term Paper 2006 25 Pages

American Studies - Literature




I. Historical Background

II. Themes and Motives
1. Flowers
2. Beauty, attraction and eroticism
3. The protagonists – Character and Fate
3.1 Character: Julie and Evelyn
3.2 Fate: Evelyn, Paul and Henry – Julie and Elliott
4. The Egyptologists
5. Revenge
6. Terror
7. Race

III. Gothic Literature


1. Primary Literature
2. Secondary Literature
3. Audiovisual Media


The fascination with old Egypt, which came up in the western world after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 and reached a peak in 19th century America, was uttered in a vast amount of novels and stories concerned with Egypt and its symbols. One of the most important of these symbols, among pyramids and Pharaohs, is the mummy - the human body, which has ‘survived’ not only centuries but millenniums. The mummy was unwrapped and dissected for scientific research as well as for the private pleasure of wealthy hobby-Egyptologists and the attendants of their mummy-parties.

The interest of novelists with Egypt in general and the mummy in particular may have been in its zenith in 19th century, but it has never completely ceased, as the great variety of books about mummies recently published shows. Those range from nonfiction books for children to children’s literature (examples are Horrid Henry and the Mummy’s Curse by Francesca Simon or The curse of the Mummy’s tomb by R. L. Stine), adult’s fiction (The Strange Mummy by William H. Blazier, The Green Mummy by Fergus Hume) and even fantasy role plays (World of Darkness – The Mummy by Conrad Hubbard).

In this paper, Louisa May Alcott’s “little-known short story” (Trafton 2005:126) Lost in a Pyramid or the Mummy’s Curse, which was published in 1869, will be compared to a novel by Anne Rice: The Mummy or Ramses the Damned, having been published in 1980, but having chosen a setting at the beginning of the 20th century (1914).

This paper wants to show, that in spite of having been written with 111 years’ time distance, the two texts, use a surprisingly similar set of themes and motives to develop their story. After a short exploration of the historical background of the two texts, I will try to identify and analyze these elements. The examination of the single motives will then lead to the question of a general classification of the two texts, answering the question if, or if not, they belong to the Gothic genre.

This paper will also try to make clear, that regardless of the similarity of the set of conventions used in the texts, the means with which this set has been used differ very much.

I. Historical Background

One of the major differences in the reception of Egypt in the 19th and the 20th century is the different amount of knowledge a writer could lay hands on. Still, in 1869, when Alcott wrote her short story, people knew a great deal more about Pharaonean Egypt than just 50 years ago. The Stone of Rosetta, which enabled scholars to read hieroglyphics, had been deciphered in 1822 (cf. Jacq 2003:14), the deciphering had been confirmed in 1829 (cf. Jacq 2003:17), then – some years later – scientifically acknowledged. Until this moment, knowledge about Ancient Egypt had been very scarce. Egyptologist Erik Hornung even states: “Von einer wissenschaftlichen Ägyptologie kann erst seit der Entzifferung der Hieroglyphenschrift […] gesprochen werden.” (Hornung 1967:9). Egyptology then developed steadily in mid-19th century, but didn’t reach its peak till the end of the 19th/ the beginning of the 20th century (cf. Hornung 1967:10) – after Alcott wrote her novel.

Anne Rice’s possibility to link her piece of fiction to historically acknowledged facts has been much greater than Louisa May Alcott’s, as this peak had been reached and been passed already when she wrote her novel. She therefore had much more information about old Egypt to base her novel on. This difference of possibility shows in the comparison of the two texts: Rice tries to link her storyline – even the supernatural part of it - to history: Ramses II or Ramses the Great, who is the model for Rice’s resurrected mummy Ramses the Damned in The Mummy, has become exceedingly old for his time: he was 92 years old when he died and had survived the deaths of his twelve oldest sons.[1] In addition, he tried to establish himself as a god in people’s eyes. These two facts could well have initiated Rice’s imagination of the story of Ramses the Great as an immortal man, as he is depicted in her novel. At least it must be assumed, that the author was aware of them and therefore chose Ramses among all pharaohs for her story. Most historical details Rice gives throughout the novel are correct: i.e. information about Abu Simbel (the temple of Ramses II) (cf. Rice 1989:120/208), about Ramses having a son named Meneptah, who followed him onto the throne (cf. Rice 1989:118 and 208), as well as the fact that the mummy of Ramses II lies in Cairo (cf. Rice 1989:118).

In contrast to that, Louisa May Alcott does not link her mummy and her pyramid to history perceivable way. Though the pyramid is specified as the Cheops, she does not refer to its specific qualities as its architecture, and Alcott’s mummy is not specified at all. As a result, Rice actually used the advantage she got over Alcott due to the now advanced Egyptology. But she does not do so properly – at least not perfectly – as some of the historical details are incorrect: Ramses II’s hair is continually described as brown in The Mummy (for example Rice 1989:68), but was red in reality. This fact has been known since 1976, 13 years before Rice published her novel. She therefore should have come across this information during her research. In another passage in The Mummy, Ramses describes how his son and successor Meneptah tried to kill him (cf. Rice 1989:206), although there has never been any hint the real Meneptah tried to do so.

One could argue that a) Anne Rice wrote a novel, not a work of science, therefore had poetic licence and that b) her novel is not a historical one and therefore had every right to deviate from the truth. But still I argue that by the way she uses history to ‘support’ her story and gives correct historical information, she tries to make her plot as believable as possible.

It has to be resumed that Rice uses her advantage over Alcott and includes a historical background in order to create a story as credible as possible. Especially the way she comprises the myth about Ramses increases the credibility of her story exceedingly. But she does not go to the end with her research and therefore gives away part of the credibility, which means part of her advantage.

II. Themes and Motives

1. Flowers

In Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid, the mummy of a sorceress does not come to life physically but symbolically by the blossoming of a deadly flower, whose seeds were found in her hands. The flower therefore becomes a symbol for the mummy’s reincarnation.

In Rice’s The Mummy, the flower is less obviously and certainly less predominantly a symbol for the mummy’s coming to life, but it is actually again used in this way. The symbol of the flower in both texts shall be compared in the following.

In both texts, the flower enters the story as a symbol for the mummy’s coming to life. In Lost in a Pyramid the flower is the sole incarnation of the sorceress, a substitute for the mummy’s body. In The Mummy however, Ramses II comes to life physically and then makes the flowers grow with the elixir, which rendered himself immortal, in order to try the powers of the elixir (Rice 1989:149). Here the flower is not a substitute: it foreshadows the reincarnation of a second mummy, namely Cleopatra.

The origin of the flower is different as well: in Lost in a Pyramid, the seeds of the flower are as ancient as the mummy itself. The growth is caused by a modern woman. In The Mummy, it is the other way round: the flowers belong to the present; the growth is caused by the ancient elixir. But in both cases, an element of old and one of the present are needed in order to bring the flower and - as the flower is a symbol for the mummies - the mummies themselves to life.

In spite of this difference of origin, the flowers in both texts share a common quality, which is beauty: “And once more the great lovely flowers startled her. The purple orchids and the yellow daisies, equally beautiful” (Rice 1989:157). The beauty of Alcott’s flower is described with equal enthusiasm: “And rank in their luxuriance were the vivid green leaves on the slender purple stems” (Alcott 1869:6). Startling in the descriptions of both authors’ flowers is the reference to blood, which is made in both texts as well: “little blossoms opening suddenly, blood red as wounds.” (Rice 1989:149), “its white petals spotted now with flecks of scarlet, vivid as drops of newly spilt blood” (Alcott 1869:7). This reference shows, that the symbol of the flower does not only depict the mummy objectively, but also hints at the danger and deadliness it conveys.[2] In Lost in a Pyramid though, the red spots only appear after the harm is done. They are a symbol themselves for the – now gone – vitality of the heroine. In The Mummy, the real harm could be prevented in the moment of the flowers’ blossoming (as Cleopatra is awakened later in the novel), but the flowers are not identified as being supernatural and representing a possible danger.

2. Beauty, attraction and eroticism

Beauty is not restricted to the flower-motive. In fact, it is so predominant and has such a wide range of consequences, that it will be analysed as a new motive in the following.

Beauty is attached to flowers in both texts, that much has become obvious. In Rice’s text, it is attached in the same way to the object, the flower symbolizes: the resurrected mummy. Both Ramses and Cleopatra are described as excessively beautiful: Julie’s first impression of Ramses - after he got rid of his bandages - is the following: “this thing, this beautiful man with the splendid body and the large gentle blue eyes” (Rice 1989:69). Elliott’s first impression of Cleopatra - with her face fully restored - is very similar: “High colour bloomed in the beautifully moulded cheeks. The mouth was exquisitely shaped and ruddy. And the flesh had over all a lovely even olive tone.” (Rice 1989:254) Queen Cleopatra, though, has had the reputation of extraordinary beauty ever since, so portraying her as beautiful is not out of the ordinary. But the following passage makes Rice’s intention clear: “Had she been that beautiful when she was alive” (Rice 1989:310), Cleopatra asks herself after having taken the amount of the elixir required to fully restore her body. This makes clear, that Rice intentionally portrays the resurrected mummies as more beautiful than the mortals, she thus associates immortality with beauty.

A second aspect, which is closely linked with the beauty-motive as it is a consequence of the latter, is attraction: in both texts, certain characters are attracted violently by the resurrected and give in to this attraction after a bit of resistance against warning or better judgement. Those characters are Evelyn in Lost in a Pyramid, Julie and – to a certain extent – Alex in The Mummy. Evelyn is attracted by the flower (and its beauty, of course) and wears the flower on her wedding-day despite the warning of her husband-to-be: “I would not wear it, for, in spite of its innocent colour, it is an evil looking plant […].” (Alcott 1869:5) Julie is attracted sexually by Ramses, although she is engaged with Alex and therefore tries to resist him (but is not very successful and lets him kiss her on the first day of his resurrection already (cf. Rice 1989:111)). Alex is equally attracted by Cleopatra (like almost any other man she meets). He is not suspicious of her or being warned about her, though. But he is attracted by her violently and immediately falls in love with her: “I love you, as I’ve loved no other woman. To live without you … it would not be life” (Rice 1989:337). In The Mummy, attraction is always linked, even equated with eroticism. In Alcott’s story, a more innocent, nearly maternal attraction is described: “[Evelyn:] I mean to wear it [the flowers], for I’ve learned to love it, having been my pet for so long” (Alcott 1869:5).

The characters which fall for the resurrected share a common feature: they are either female or (in Alex’ case) depicted as innocent and weak (cf. Rice 1989:13, 39), traits more common in female characters than in male ones.

The weak woman falling for the mysterious, attractive supernatural and not being able to resist is a popular motive in classic Gothic literature (cf. Roberts 1994:16) and hints at a connection with the genre.

It has been shown that both stories use the motive of beauty in connection with the (either bodily or symbolically) resurrected mummy and the attraction, which is linked to beauty, in order to underline a certain feminine trait in their protagonist’s characters. In Rice’s novel, this attraction is extremely sexual. The thus originated eroticism is very predominant and constantly present throughout the novel. Alcott uses the motive of attraction in a more subtle and not explicitly sexual way.

The way, the two authors describe or even alter their heroine’s characters by letting them give in to the temptation the resurrected mummies represent, shall now be further explored.


[1] All information given about Ramses II in this section is based on Noblecourt (2004)

[2] Though Ramses is not dangerous at all in The Mummy, Cleopatra – whose resurrection is foreshadowed in the flowers – is.


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University of Dortmund – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
American Literature Egypt Land



Title: "You, who disturb my sleep..." - The figure of the mummy in 19th and 20th century American Literature