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The Female Gothic

January 03, 2022

The Female Gothic


January 03, 2022

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  1. The Female Gothic

  2. Literary Women Ellen Moer coined the term “female Gothic” in

    her pioneering work of feminist criticism, Literary Women: “What I mean by Female Gothic is easily defined: the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic. But what I mean—or anyone else means—by ‘the Gothic’ is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear. In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare.” Subsequent critics may have problematized the a prioris inherent in Moer’s “easy” delineation of a “work [by] women writers,” but their own discussions of a feminist Gothic, Gothic feminism, women’s Gothic, and lesbian Gothic are necessarily indebted to Moers’ initial classification.
  3. Reading Women’s Fiction Although Moers was the first to posit

    that there is such a thing as the female Gothic, she was not the first to note a relation between women and the Gothic. As Northanger Abbey playfully demonstrates, women were the primary audience of and for the Gothic, and many commentators feared the effect these dark tales would have on “delicate” female minds. Given our current association of horror (an outgrowth of the Gothic) with masculine sensibilities, it may seem somewhat strange to argue that the Gothic was and is women’s fiction, but there is much evidence to support such a gendered categorization. According to Susanne Becker (the author of Gothic Forms of Feminine Fiction), “gothic horror is domestic horror, family horror, and addresses precisely these obviously ‘gendered’ problems of everyday life.”
  4. Contesting theCastle These “‘gendered’ problems” were (and still are) mediated

    by history. Although set in the distant past, early Gothic novels actually fictionalized the present. Not only did these purportedly Catholic tales of medieval Europe reflect 18th- and early 19th- century Anglo-Protestant sensibilities, they also bore witness to the terrors of the French Revolution and the horrors of the “separate spheres.” As Kate Ferguson Ellis argues in The Contested Castle, the Gothic “subverted” the newly emerging “domestic ideology” by demonstrating that “the safety of the home is not a given, nor can it ever be considered permanently achieved. At best it must be restored by women’s activity, not within its walls but outside in the world as well, and even this may not always be possible.” Ferguson may avoid the use of the term female Gothic, but her important study of the feminine within the Gothic does much to explain the appeal of the Gothic to middle class women.
  5. The Mother of all Gothics Speaking of middle class women.

    . . There were women who wrote Gothics before Ann Radcliffe, but she’s considered the mother of the Gothic for a reason. Radcliffe’s meticulously recreated milieus and carefully constructed moralities brought a level of respectability to the emerging form. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, The Romance of the Forest, A Sicilian Romance, and Gaston de Blondeville, Radcliffe enthralled readers with tales of innocent young women who were trapped in crumbling castles and subjected to the unwanted advances of threatening older men. After many terrifying travails, Radcliffe’s heroines (and readers) were offered a reasonable explanation for seemingly supernatural events and a satisfyingly happy conclusion. One of the most successful writers of her day, Radcliffe earned both popular and critical acclaim.
  6. Other Significant Authors Depending on whom you ask, Charlotte Smith

    is or is not a Gothic writer, but all agree that her melancholic verse, politicized sentimental fictions, and selective incursions into the explained supernatural had a profound impact on subsequent articulations of the Gothic. Any thorough study of the form will necessarily mention her influence (as should any good analysis of Wordsworth’s poetry, but that’s another story). Other notable women writers of the early Gothic period are Eliza Parson (Castle of Wolfenbach), Charlotte Dacre (Zofloya), Mary-Anne Radcliffe (Manofrone, or the One-Handed Monk), Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary, A Fiction), and the doyenne of domestic realism herself, Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey), who drew inspiration from both Smith and Radcliffe.
  7. The Aesthetics of Terror In addition to creating some of

    the most notable works of the Gothic’s Golden Age, early women writers produced the some of the most enduring articulations of the Gothic’s aesthetic. Anna Letitia Aikin’s “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” linked Gothic delights with a Burkean conception of the sublime, and Radcliffe defended her own narrative mode when she privileged “terror” over “horror” in “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Relying on these early discussions (and other evidence), critics of the Gothic have allied its female form with articulations of unrepresentable terror (vs. graphic depictions of horror) and demonstrated how that unrealizable terror is narratively diffused through explanatory denouements.
  8. The Female Art of Darkness In Art of Darkness: A

    Poetics of Gothic, Anne Williams offers a novel spin on the gender of the Gothic by differentiating between psychoanalytically defined styles. According to Williams, the male “formula” is driven by Oedipal desire, graphic horror, and supernatural excess. The female model eschews Oedipus’ tragedy in favor of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and thus allows the writer the ability to focus on a female point of view, offer an explanation for the supernatural elements in the tale, and effect a felicitous conclusion to the narrative’s sexualized terror. Williams routinely iterates that writers are not locked into a particular Gothic plot based on their gender, but she still demonstrates how many early Gothics by women follow the female “formula.”
  9. The Prison-House of Domesticity If we were to add to

    Williams’ “formula,” we might argue that many female Gothics also define the prison-house of domesticity. As Juliann Fleenor argues in her introduction to The Female Gothic, the female Gothic uses spatial imagery differently than the male variety, using “the traditional . . . symbolism of the ruined castle or an enclosed room to symbolize both the culture and the heroine.” This joint symbolization draws attention to the ways in which the heroine is delimited by the spaces that confine her. Whether or not this symbolization of space fully subverts domestic ideology is up for debate, but the “gendered” articulation of space does suggest another distinctly “female” characteristic. (The clearest examples of this redefinition are in literary works produced after the Golden Age, notably Jane Eyre and “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”)
  10. Lurking in their Mother’s Gardens Another distinctly “female” characteristic of

    the Gothic appears to be the symbolic conflict between mothers and daughters. According to Fleenor, “the conflict at the heart of the Female Gothic [is] the conflict with the all-powerful, devouring mother. This maternal figure is also a double, a twin perhaps, to the woman herself. For the mother represents what the woman will become if she heeds her sexual self, if she heeds the self who seeks the power that comes with acting as the mother, and if she becomes pregnant. The ambivalences surrounding the conflict with this awesome figure are in part shaped by the twofold knowledge that to become the mother is to become the passive and perhaps unwilling victim of one’s own body.”
  11. Birth Myths Nowhere is this gendered conflict more evident than

    in descriptions of pregnancy and childbirth. Defining what she sees as the “birth myth” in Frankenstein, Ellen Moers argues that Shelley’s work is at its most “interesting,” “powerful,” and “feminine” when it represents “revulsion against newborn life , and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences.” Arguing that an articulation of the “trauma of afterbirth” is itself a species of “woman’s mythmaking,” Moers contends that Shelley’s female Gothic “transforms the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery.” Analogous “traumas” suffuse Wuthering Heights, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Wide Sargasso Sea, Geek Love and The God of Small Things
  12. Monstrous Motherhood As the foregoing slides suggest, representations of the

    “monstrous” behavior of mothers in the female Gothic are tempered by a recognition (on the part of the author or the protagonist) that such behavior could be the heroine’s own if she were “trapped” in the same situation. Because female Gothics often imply that childcare itself is a monstrous imposition overdetermined by societal expectations, they tend to be more forgiving of poor mothering skills, even if their narratives punish “bad” mothers. For example, the narrator of Lady Oracle tells the readers that her mother is a “monster” yet spends the majority of the novel attempting to understand that “monster”’s experience. Beloved offers a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who murders her own children. In these fictions, and many others, “monstrous” mothers become more than just symbols of terror; they become complex characters in their own right.
  13. Gothic Feminism? It’s easy to trace the influence of feminism

    on the contemporary Gothic (and on Gothic studies, which gained literary respectability through the pioneering work of Moers, Showalter, and Gilbert and Gubar), but Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison are not the first women writers to use the Gothic to explore feminist themes. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Gothic fictions express many of the ideas she puts forward in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Charlotte Smith’s novels cannot be read outside of her staunch feminist beliefs. According to Diane Long Hoeveler, “female gothic novelists helped to popularize and promulgate a newly defined and increasingly powerful species of bourgeois female sensibility and subjectivity.” Although Hoeveler is critical of this “Gothic feminism” and its “victim” mentality, she demonstrates why critics should be attuned to the uncanny connections between feminism and the Gothic.
  14. The Essential Enigma While the classification of the female Gothic

    has clear critical meaning, it is neither fully coherent nor uncontested. Critics continue to question whether texts themselves can be male and female (vs. masculine and feminine), and they problematize the inherent slippage in these gendered classifications. Like “terror” and “horror,” the “female” and “male” Gothic are difficult to distinctly, and definitively, define. Aware of these difficulties, and leery of critical slippages, many commentators choose to distance themselves from any articulation of the Gothic that smacks of literary essentialism. Unfortunately, this means that many critics of the “female Gothic” diminish or dismiss the work of the scholar who coined the term in the first place--Moers.
  15. Beware of Dreams of Manderley They’re one of the first

    signs you’re trapped in a female Gothic