fannishliss (fannishliss) wrote,

Wincest and Romanticism

Hi, here is a bit of an essay on the echoes of Romantic Incest in the idea of Wincest. No, it's not crack I swear!

First of all, some definitions.  By "Romanticism" I'm referring to British writing between 1780 and 1830 and not to continental or American writings, which I'm largely ignorant of.  However, a lot of Romantic themes, especially the Byronic Hero, continue on in the popular imagination even today.  See for example, Atara Stein's book, The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction, and Television (2004). Plus Atara is a slashgirl so she's one of us! And just to position myself:  I have been reading slash online since the late 90s and first came in through the X Files.  I was a natural to slash -- I used to write love poems between Kirk and Spock and didn’t even realize what was up with me when I was like 14. I read a lot of Sentinel and Obi/Qui, and was a huge Harry/Severus fan till book 7 came out (weeps into hankie, wipes eyes). Now I'm living in the handbasket that is Supernatural fandom, and this thing about wincest really has me intrigued. It seems like we flashed back to 1816 all of a sudden in a lot of ways!

To begin, here is some background about rumors and themes of incest during the Romantic period.  Both Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were thought to have committed incest and basically exiled from England-- of course, they were both mad and bad in other ways as well! In Byron's case, he was believed to have been in love with his half sister Augusta.  In Shelley's case, he was believed to have slept with both Mary Godwin and her step-sister Claire Clairmont.   The facts are still argued by scholars today, but the belief that incest occurred was very damaging to the reputations of both these poets and central to their socially transgressive mythic personae.

Incestuous themes appear in Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein (1818).  In the original version of the novel, Victor, the protagonist, is basically given his young cousin when she is born and expects that she will become his wife.  In parallel, the Creature demands that Victor make a wife for him -- if Victor is her "father" then she would also be the Creature's sister.  But Victor refuses and the Creature, driven to rage, destroys Victor and all he loves. 

P. B. Shelley also wrote a long poem with incest at the heart.  It was called Laon and Cythna, and was about a brother and sister who foment a revolution of love.  They are killed but are reborn in a just afterlife. He also wrote a play called The Cenci, which portrays a wicked father who rapes his own daughter, inspiring her to murder him.   The Cenci deals with the horrible, destructive effects of incest and may be seen to be in dialogue with Byron's Manfred, in which Manfred feels great guilt over the death of his sister, who seems to have been destroyed by their love. Mary Shelley's unpublished Matilda features the destructive passionate love of a father for his daughter (and was suppressed by Mary's own father, William Godwin).

PBS writes in a letter of 16 November 1819: "Incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance.  It may be the excess of love or of hate.  It may be that defiance of every thing for the sake of another which clothes itself in the glory of the highest heroism, or it may be that cynical rage which confounding good & bad in existing opinion breaks through them for the purpose of rioting in selfishness & antipathy."  (Quoted in The Shelley-Byron Conversation by William D. Brewer, a well-respected Romanticist.)  Brewer also notes that Byron speaks of brother-sister incest in Cain (1821) -- I haven't read that one.

Besides these literary instances, there are also real life circumstances, like the long-term relationships of brother/sister couples Charles and Mary Lamb, or William and Dorothy Wordsworth.  I'm not implying these were incestuous, just that they were more intense relationships than you might expect from siblings today.  There's also a crazy sister-marrying scheme that Coleridge and Southey entered into as part of a utopian plan, but I can't go into that here, except that it turned out not to be that great of a plan.

Now turning to the relationship between Sam and Dean, we can see several important tropes of Romantic incest. First, Sam was literally given to Dean, first when Dean was four, second right before John's death.  John gives Sam to Dean to care for, and he even gives Dean the obligation to decide whether Sam should live or die. This is in direct parallel to the situation of a couple like Victor and Elizabeth, except that Victor sees his receipt of Elizabeth as a birthright rather than a responsibility to be shouldered.

Second, the Winchester brothers are raised apart from the common man.  John especially is a type of the Byronic hero:  superior, aloof, tormented, cursed with knowledge and powers other men don't possess.  His sons inherit that superiority and that alienation, but whereas Dean is comfortable outside society, he doesn't consider himself cursed, and whereas Sam does seems to consider himself superior, he initially at least doesn't want to remain outside society. So the two brothers seem to split the gamut of Byronic qualities.  In terms of disdain, Sam's is intellectual, while Dean's is disdain for the normal life's shroud of ignorance.

Third, and this is where the Winchesters' situation becomes blindingly Romantic: because of their shared experiences and their destiny which is beyond that of the common man, the two brothers are destined to spend their lives together. Neither is really complete without the other, and no other can really fill the gap created by the loss of the other. In fact, Dean becomes Manfred when faced with the death of his beloved sibling, and uses necromancy to bring him back, resulting in his own destruction. In Manfred, the motive of incest, passionate love between siblings, is only thinly veiled -- how veiled is it on Supernatural?

I originally scoffed at Supernatural.  I missed the pilot and sat scoffing through Wendigo. It seemed a mere pastiche of the X Files.  And who could believe that two such different yet extraordinarily good-looking young men could be brothers?  I didn't come back until lured in by the knowledge that Ben Edlund was writing episodes for the show. Hooked by Nightshifter, by all accounts one of the best episodes of season 2,  I was lost. Suddenly all of this Sam/Dean stuff on the internet began to make sense. I don't think Jensen and Jared mean to portray Sam and Dean as lovers.  But even Jensen surely couldn't deny that Dean is entirely wrapped up in Sam.  Although he's devoted his life wholeheartedly to fighting evil things no matter what the cost, he regards Sam's well-being as his first and most important mission. Fighting and thinking side by side, the two brothers move as one, always hyper-aware of one another, always in one another's space -- provoking the many “king or two queens” type jokes that the show itself uses to acknowledge and defuse the brothers' unusual dynamic.

In the situations of the Lambs or the Wordsworths mentioned earlier, the deep bond between siblings is acknowledged yet is not presumed to have any sexual component.  In the case of the Wordsworths, Dorothy remained with her brother even after he married; in the case of the Lambs, Mary, in a violent episode, stabbed their mother to death, and Charles became her lifelong guardian, embittered and alcoholic.  In both cases, the brother acknowledges his responsibility and bears it, just as Dean does.

Dean in fact takes on more than merely the role of brother.  He becomes the mother Sam never had, making sure Sam is fed and looked after as a kid, and mediating between Sam and John as Sam gets older and more fractious. Dean is unable to step outside the roles he's taken on:  he is forced to choose between John and Sam, and recognizing that he has to let Sam go (what mother wouldn't when her baby tries his wings?) he must remain the "good son," ossifying himself in a restrictive role that denies his full potential and traps him in perpetual adolescence.

Fandom is largely utopian, a fact that I cherish. Outside the subgenre of torture fic, most writers want to work through the troubles inflicted on their beloved media characters by canon, gifting the characters with perfect love and perfected lives. For many writers (a number I have no statistics on, given the decentralized nature of LJ as opposed to the old collected slash archives), the perfect life for Sam and Dean is a life shared by Sam and Dean.  Even the show itself, dreaming the perfect life for Dean, has Dean reject a life where Sam is happy, pursuing his lawschool goal, and engaged to Jess -- overtly, Dean is compelled to correct the lives lost because the Winchesters were not hunters, but the fact that his relationship with Sam is non-existent clearly makes that dream life less worth living.

The necessity for Dean to move beyond his adolescent womanizing (and the potential alchoholism Dean projected in the Djinn’s dream) is addressed by many writers committing Sam and Dean exclusively to one another.  Although “mpreg” is usually avoided in this fandom, Sam and Dean often take on children who have been orphaned by monsters or who are destined to become hunters. (One of my favorite writers has spun an epic tale of Sam and Dean knit together by biological offspring borne by surrogate moms!) Sam and Dean choose one another, and choose lives together, fulfilling the utopian potential they are perpetually denied by the dramatic necessities of an ongoing TV series.

If the Winchester brothers have an overtone of incest to their relationship, is it the good kind -- imagined by PBS to be the purest, most dedicated love? or the bad kind -- leading to self-destruction and destruction of the beloved?  As Dean's arc of selflessness brings him closer to his own destruction his only chance is that he and Sam together can break the deal  -- implying that Winchester love is truly selfless and ennobling rather than base and destructive.

In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Wincest may be an "incorrect thing" and it "may be that defiance of every thing for the sake of another which clothes itself in the glory of the highest heroism."  In the story of these two brothers who are forced to cleave unto each other, forsaking all others, a new mythic story resonating with Romantic incest has captivated the slashy hearts of untold legions. In the words of an  LJ icon, "Legend has it that on a Thursday night you can hear the squee of a thousand fangirls!"

Tags: meta, romanticism
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