In her book the ‘Art of Darkness’, Ann Williams proposes that Aristotle attributed a paradigm of reality to the Pythagoreans, consisting of the following pairs:
male/female; limited/unlimited; odd/even; one/many; right/left; square/oblong; at rest/moving; straight/curved; light/darkness; good/evil
Williams uses the list beginning with female and ending with evil to discuss the Gothic as an aesthetic representing “otherness” relative to its cultural and temporal context (Williams, 1995). In her analysis of Twentieth Century Welsh Gothic writing in English, Kristi Bohata reiterates this by saying that it explores “fractures, borders and hybridities” (Smith and Wallace, 2009).
In ‘The Female Gothic’, Smith and Wallace outline how in 1976 Moers’ ‘Literary Women’ viewed Gothic texts written by women, as an expression of their entrapment within the patriarchally constructed confines. They go on to say that, although these somewhat essentialist notions were later challenged by post-structuralism, the importance of Moers’ historical contribution of presenting the genre in a more (gender) balanced way must be fully recognised (Smith and Wallace, 2009).
The term ‘Female’ Gothic can no longer be simply assigned to Gothic literature written by women. There is also much debate regarding whether the reading of (Radcliffe’s) Feminist influence is too heavily either psychologically or historically biased. Some criticize the genre for reinforcing conservative ideologies, which interestingly Diane Long Hoeveler has refuted by describing ‘victim feminism’ as the heroines’ strategy of passive aggressive actions. Brabon and Genz’s ‘Postfeminist Gothic’ urges that “Gothic and feminist categories now demand a self-criticism with respect to their own totalizing gestures and assumptions” (Smith and Wallace, 2009).
Despite this, ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Gothic are still general terms used to discuss the genre. In an attempt to distinguish them from each other, Peter Otto makes a distinction between terror and horror by quoting Radcliffe’s essay:
“Terror… expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; [horror] contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” (Radcliffe, New Monthly Magazine, 1826)
Throughout most of her career, Radcliffe’s writing was compared to (and mocked by) the work of Matthew Lewis. Radcliffe’s use of ‘terror’ referenced Edmund Burke’s philosophical concept that it directly influenced one’s experience of the sublime (Burke, 1757). She insisted that “uncertainty and obscurity” are necessary components of terror, making the readers active participants in deciphering the obscure. In contrast, Lewis’ graphic use of (often misogynist) ‘horror’
“…display[ing] a voyeuristic fascination with the pure body of the virgin, alongside an equally intense preoccupation with the shape-changing, stomach-turning female grotesque” (Shapira, 2006)
overwhelms and stops readers in their tracks, according to Radcliffe (Otto, 2013).
overwhelms and stops readers in their tracks, according to Radcliffe (Otto, 2013).
Otto elaborates on the use of horror in the ‘Male’ Gothic plot, where the main character is overwhelmed by a violent and cruel supernatural world without hope of salvation, “structured as an oedipal struggle between sons and patriarchal fathers” (Otto, 2013). In the ‘Female’ Gothic storyline, the imprisoned protagonist is terrorized by and flees from a corrupt patriarchal protector, but its supernatural elements are rationally explained before the heroine is happily wedded at the end (Smith and Wallace, 2009).
Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)
“Mother Radcliffe” is the source of the Female Gothic concept, according to Robert Miles, which Wallace and Smith claim “remains a fertile ground of investigation” (Smith and Wallace, 2009). Her lead, Emily St. Aubert, transforms from orphaned and penniless to married with the man she loves and rich. In between, she endures a multitude of terrifying trials instigated by her aunt’s tyrannical husband, in strange, foreign lands, the centre of which is Monotoni’s Castle Udolpho. Carol Margaret Davison writes in ‘Haunted House/Haunted Heroine’ that Emily’s confrontation with the “maze-like” interior of the Castle signifies a process of self-discovery, resulting in a more mature heroine at the end of the tale. Her rightful inheritance, which Emily is under threat of losing but regains in the end, asserts her as a woman in control of her finances. The purpose of alienating the home environment and presenting it as a fearful domain (Castle of Udolpho) is a critique of the patriarchal institution, where after marriage, the woman became the husband’s property (Davison, 2004). This still applies in many societies today.
Davison highlights Radcliffe’s literature as intentionally educational, promoting “benevolence, Christian faith, and moderation in all things… especially sensibility…”. The supernatural in the story is always rationalised, sometimes a little dubiously, by the end (Davison, 2004). Shapira contextualizes this tendency by demonstrating how important it was for an Eighteenth Century woman author seeking respectability, to “[mirror] the move from superstition to enlightenment” (Shapira, 2006).
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
Hawthorne’s portrayal of his main character, the formidable Hester Payne, is a compassionate one. Set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s, Hester, although a woman, is the strongest and most principled participant in the doomed triangle she shares with her weak lover Dimmesdale and her vengeful husband Chillingworth. In her introduction to the book, Brenda Wineapple makes connections between Payne and Hawthorne, who as an artist identified with being marginalized (Wineapple, 1999).
“… murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers… ’A writer of storybooks!’ What kind of a business in life – what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation – may that be?’” (Hawthorne, p.12).
In the novel’s Afterword, Regina Barreca argues that Dimmesdale is feminized by Hawthorne, as the qualities he has been attributed like “nervous”, “tremulous” and “dewy”, usually describe women characters. Dimmesdale’s refusal to take responsibility as the father of his illegitimate child, and his reliance on Hester shouldering all the blame, punishment and shame, as well as making key decisions, positions him as the victimized heroine of the tale. Hester, on the other hand, clearly assumes the role of the traditional male “hero” in the story; Barreca likens her scarlet “A” to Superman’s “S”. This, to quote Hawthorne, comes with a price as “some attribute had departed from [Hester], the permanence of which had been essential to keep her a woman” (Barecca, 2009). This hearkens back to a mentality expressed in John Gregory’s advice to his daughters in 1740, and used in Shapira’s essay to explain Radcliffe’s reticence in making her heroines “stout”:
“We so naturally associate the idea of female softness and delicacy with a correspondent delicacy of constitution… that when a woman speaks of her great strength… we recoil at the description...” (Gregory, 1740)
Could it then be argued that, since the roles of Hester and Dimmesdale are reversed, and it is probable that Hawthorne identified with Hester’s defiant personification, the plot is fundamentally Oedipal, following the ‘Male’ Gothic paradigm?
“ “the scarlet letter was [Hester’s] passport into regions where other women dared not tread” (Hawthorne, 1794). Dimmesdale’s refusal to accept responsibility for his actions revokes his passport to a fully realized humanity, and keeps him where only women dare to tread” (Barecca, 2009).
In the society where I live, many women resort to marriage followed by a swift divorce in order to expedite their own “passport” to greater freedom.
Before her transformation into “stoutness”, Hester is ascribed “voluptuous, Oriental” traits, tempting Dimmesdale into sin with her irresistible sexuality and long hair, and earning the title “temptress devil” from DH Lawrence (Wineapple, 1999). Shapira discusses the relationship of Radcliffe’s protagonist (specifically in “The Italian”) with her body, by which she feels encumbered, as it is objectified, evaluated and coveted by men. The veil (a popular metonymy for the body in constructing Gothic femininity) is used as “an ambivalent symbol of both erotic appeal and chaste public denial”. Its function varies according to how it is contextualized in narrative. Radcliffe’s hesitance to refer to the corporeal directly (for fear of risking impropriety) uses the veil “as a line of defense against the humiliating reactions that the body is liable to trigger in public”. In ‘The Monk’, however, Lewis uses the symbol to heighten the sensation of seduction (Shapira, 2006).
I am interested in the act of veiling something in obscurity. The idea of entombment within the body, frequently described symbolically by the heroine in the ‘Female’ Gothic being entrapped in womb-like dungeons or other cavernous spaces, has direct correlations with my own work. My interest lies in exploring both tropes, the Female and Male intentions behind revealing and concealing the body, in an attempt to mimic my own complex experience of it.
The Gothic genre has also had me revisit the work of two female artists I explored in the first semester, namely Louise Bourgeois and Marlene Dumas. In Bourgeois’ “Femme Maison” (1945 – 47) series, there is the suggestion of women simultaneously protected and entrapped in their dwellings. For “Torso, Self portrait” (1963 – 64) Bourgeois uses lumps, bumps and shapes reminiscent of breasts, buttocks, clitoris and labia, confronting the viewer with the duality of the subject’s solid, formidable form, versus its exposure and therefore vulnerability (Storr 2004). Dumas, on the other hand, juxtaposes images where all is vulgarly shown, with veiling their perception by utilizing multi-layered references, nuances and red herrings (Van den Boogerd 2001). Presently, I am studying the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller to better understand their language of layering image, object, sound and fiction and will be discussing their work, through the lens of the Gothic, in my next essay.
Word count: 1538
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