‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’: Revisiting Female Gothic

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’: Revisiting Female Gothic
© Photograph by Mark Skeet

The Gothic genre is traditionally associated with moody landscapes, spectral beings, labyrinthine castles, villainous men, and trembling, virtuous women. The latter, the Gothic heroine, shares a long and fraught relationship with the genre. One of the key tenets of the mode, her role is often cited as the defining element (Ellis, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ 457; Hume 287; Punter, ‘Literature of Terror vol. 1’ 9; Wallace and Smith 3; Williams 14).

But such significance comes at a cost. Since Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ was published in (1764) the resounding image of the Gothic heroine in Western literature is that of victim to a male anti-hero or villain. Whether the text is male or female-centred, the expectation is that the narrative will, in some sense, revolve around her suffering (Ellis, ‘Can You Forgive’ 458; Massé 3; Punter, Gothic Pathologies 14; Williams 100).

Numerous Gothic novels depict women — whether they are the protagonist or simply plot fodder — exposed to a variety of physical and psychological abuses before the narrative is resolved. Such cruelties include, but are not limited to: rape (Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ [1796]), live burial (Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The House of Usher’ [1839]), confinement (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ [1892]), humiliation (Jean Rhys’ ‘Voyage in the Dark’ [1934]), stalking and kidnap (John Fowles’ ‘The Collector’ [1965]), intimidation (Angela Carter’s ‘The Magic Toyshop’ [1967]), demonic insemination (Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ [1967]), mutilation (Thomas Harris’ ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ [1988]), torture (Brett Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’ [1991]), beatings (Julia Leigh’s ‘Disquiet’ [2008]), psychological manipulation (Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Engagement’ [2012]) and ruin (Jill Alexander Essbaum’s ‘Hausfrau’ [2015]).

And yet, not only is the Gothic heroine subjected to such treatment from others, she is also accused of masochistic tendencies, intentionally seeking out those who will cause her pain and even inflicting it on herself (Fleenor 11-12, 15; Massé 2; Meyers 60; Moers 107).

Gothic literature reveals a pattern of heroines who suffer from feelings of self-hatred often manifested in self-punishing disorders such as anorexia, self-mutilation, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and actualisation (Fleenor 11-12, 15; Gilbert and Gubar xi; Moers 107). Cathy’s self-imposed starvation in ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847), Jean Rhys’ heroines’ alcohol abuse, Alison Langdon’s removal of her own nipples with a pair of gardening shears in Carson McCullers’ ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ (1941), Esther Greenwood’s suicide attempt in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ (1963), and Bella Swan’s propensity for placing herself in life-endangering situations to gain the attention of her brooding vampire beau, Edward, in the ‘Twilight series’ (2005- 2008) are but a few examples of this prevailing theme.

The reward for such trials is often death, madness or marriage, the latter not necessarily the preferred outcome. As Michelle A. Massé suggests: “what characters in these novels represent […] is the cultural, psychoanalytic, and fictional expectation that they should be masochistic if they are ‘normal’ women”.

The Female Gothic is a subgenre and critical area of study that focusses on the trials, torments and anxieties of the Gothic heroine (Baldick and Mighall 285; Brabon and Genz 5; Fleenor 15; Hoeveler 7; Kędra-Kardela and Kowalczyk 24; Wallace and Smith 2; Williams 136).

The term was originally coined by Ellen Moers in 1974 in her essays for The New York Review of Books, entitled ‘Female Gothic: The Mother’s Monster’ and ‘Female Gothic: Monsters, Goblins, Freaks’.

The essays were later consolidated into a chapter for her book ‘Literary Women’ (1976), in which she defined the Female Gothic simply as “the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth-century, we have called the Gothic” (Literary Women, 90).

Moers speculated on the nature of the Gothic as produced by women and the recurring themes and concerns found in texts spanning centuries and continents by writers and artists as varied as Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Emily Bronte, Carson McCullers, Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus.

She suggested that the fears and anxieties, along with the images reflected in these works were considered “perversities” as they countered the more familiar “clichés about women being by nature […] gentle, pious, conservative, domestic, loving, and serene” (100). The “freakish” female subjects and thematic concerns of these works generated unease and discomfort among readers and critics as they challenged traditional perceptions of women. The depictions of uniquely “female experiences” such as motherhood and pregnancy, as well as the exploration of repressed/oppressed sexuality, and the “compulsion to visualise the self” (107), provided a counter view of a world constructed by male authors.

Following on from Moers’ lead, critics cemented the Female Gothic as a genre which dealt with women’s fears, desires and anxieties, particularly in relation to their imprisonment or restriction within a patriarchal society.

In their influential study, ‘Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination’ (1979), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar supported Moers’ notion that works by women from Austen to Plath were connected by a “coherence of theme and imagery” (xi).

Though they did not specifically mention the “Female Gothic” per se, the themes and images they identified were of a decidedly Gothic nature: enclosure, madness, physical and psychological discomfort and the portrayal of “diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia” (xi).

They suggested that the defining theme was “confinement” since a variety of texts dealt with “enclosure and entrapment”, often depicting protagonists with “mad” doubles who functioned as “asocial surrogates for docile selves” held in check by a patriarchal society (xi).

Gilbert and Gubar famously used Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as an example of this divide. Bertha and Jane, they contended, were essentially two sides of the same person, reflecting the protagonist’s struggle with her repressed and oppressed sexuality and desires. They state: “Bertha […] is Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress” (360). The house, the “secret room”/ attic, and Jane’s subsequent journey beyond its walls represent both the protagonist’s and the author’s imprisonment and navigation of “the architecture — both the houses and institutions — of patriarchy” (63, 85).

This division between the “docile” and the “monstrous” female self, reflected the conflict surrounding female identity connected to the patriarchal construct of “Woman” (Gilbert and Gubar 362).

This image dictated that women lacked the complexity of men and essentially fell into one of two categories: good or wicked. Defining attributes centred on, though they were not restricted to, sexual promiscuity. The “good” woman was virtuous, faithful, altruistic, kind, sensitive and loving.

Her realm was the domestic space and her role was to preserve the home for her husband and family as a moral sanctuary against the corruptive outside world (Clemens 43; Ellis, Contested Castle ix). The “wicked” woman was wanton, selfish, cunning, immoral, and, above all, dangerous.

She was most emphatically realised in the figure of the femme fatale. A deadly and seductive force, she “is characterised above all by her effect upon men: a femme cannot be fatale without a male present, even where her fatalism is directed towards herself” (Stott viii). One is “domestic angel”, the other, potential home-wrecker (Federico 2).

This notion of the divided or fractured self was furthered by Juliann E. Fleenor in her collection, ‘The Female Gothic’ (1983). In the introduction, she argues that at “the centre of the Female Gothic is the conflict over female identity” (24).

In such narratives, heroines often navigate between examples society has constructed of acceptable womanhood and their own inner life, whereby they experience feelings, desires and thoughts that contradict the “ideal” or “good” woman. The theme of the split personality is the culmination of this struggle, as the heroine is divided by the uncanny notion she may be nothing more than “a reflection” (12). This reflected self “is a reflection of patriarchal values, not as [the heroine actually] is” (12). This crisis of identity is a key element in Female Gothic narratives, and, if not resolved, the heroine may face condemnation, alienation or destruction, even at her own hand (15).

Providing a far narrower thesis on the topic in ‘Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic’ (1995), Anne Williams suggests that the Female Gothic differs distinctly from texts written by men in the Gothic mode (the Male Gothic) because “in patriarchal culture the male subject and the female subject necessarily have a different experience; each lives in a somewhat different world” (100).

By tracing the literary conventions of each tradition back to distinct texts — Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Female) and Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ (Male) (100) — Williams argues that the Female Gothic plotline is “the more revolutionary of the two” (172).

The heroine, exposed to “the perils lurking in the father’s corridors of power”, experiences a “happy ending” in the form of marriage, thus providing her with a “new name and, most important, a new identity” (103).

In contrast, the Male Gothic denigrates the heroine, indulging in a “horrified fascination with female suffering” (105). And yet, when one considers Jane Eyre’s trials, female suffering would appear to be at the centre of both streams.

Although suffering may result in a journey of self-discovery, as it does in Jane Eyre, it often leads back to the very cause of the anguish: the man she loves/marries.

However, in contrast to Williams’ assertion that the Female Gothic is “revolutionary”, a number of critics have raised the concern that the subgenre promotes “victim feminism” and the vilification of men (Armitt 17; Baldick and Mighall 227; Brabon and Genz 7; Hoeveler 7).

This is the premise of Diane Long Hoeveler’s ‘Gothic Feminism: The Professionalisation of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës’ (1998). Hoeveler argues that the Female Gothic has a history of portraying women in roles of “wise passiveness” through which they overcome “a male-created system of oppression and corruption, the ‘patriarchy’” (3, 7, 9).

She suggests that “Gothic feminism” is based on a system of “female power through pretended and staged weakness” (7). Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall support this notion in their twice- published chapter ‘Gothic Criticism’ (2000; 2012).

Referring to Williams’ definitions of the Male and Female Gothic, they call for an “abandonment” of what they consider to be a “predominantly universalising category” (285-86). They argue that since its emergence in the 1970s, the Female Gothic has become the “embodiment of some invariable female ‘experience’” in which “(wicked) male Gothic” texts always express terror of the eternal “(M)other” while (good) female Gothic texts are revealed to be — as Anne Williams claims — not just “empowering” but “revolutionary”’ (285).

In their collection of essays, ‘Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture’ (2007), Benjamin A. Brabon and Stéphanie Genz follow on from this proposition of moving away from the Female Gothic as a category.

They assert that Moers identified the Female Gothic solely as “the mode par excellence that female writers have employed to give voice to women’s fears about their own powerlessness and imprisonment within patriarchy” revolving “around an innocent and blameless heroine threatened by a powerful male figure” (5).

This assertion, it seems to me, is an oversimplification of Moers’ intention in identifying the Female Gothic as a critical category. What was presented in her short chapter — designed to initiate discussion on the concept — was a brief but considered analysis.

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