Tag Archives: gothic

Centrality and Vulnerability of the Female Form in Gothic Literature

Hello, readers! The Halloween season is upon us, and I uncovered an essay I wrote a few years ago on Gothic Art and Literature, which I originally published on Yahoo! Voices. In keeping with the theme and season, I thought it was appropriate to re-publish it here! Hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween!

In Gothic literature, women long for as well as resist male approval. This focus on the centrality and vulnerability introduces a new type of character made popular by the Gothic genre: the “damsel in distress.” The “damsel in distress” is a chief character in Gothic literature, where she is typically incarcerated in a castle or monastery and terrorized by a sadistic nobleman, or members of the religious order. However, though these female characters are portrayed as feeble and powerless, the “damsel in distress” character often seems to ultimately offer a threat to the power of the patriarch. Two examples of this are Matilda in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Antonia in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. In contrast to this, Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a “damsel in distress” in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on a Revolution, as a means of critiquing the horrors of the Revolution and the loss of the “age of chivalry,” yet also praising the patriarchal state existing in France at the time.

In The Castle of Otranto, the “damsel in distress” is best portrayed through the character of Matilda. Matilda is the daughter of Manfred, the villainous patriarch. After the unfortunate “crushing” accident of his son Conrad, his wife Hippolita sends Matilda to take care of her father, but he cannot be bothered. He does not want to see his daughter—it is a son that he desires and lacks. Matilda is affected by her brother’s death and she is hurt by her father’s cruel actions. Manfred’s control over his family and Matilda’s ultimate and unwavering loyalty to him seem to make her a vulnerable, weak character.

Though Matilda is portrayed as weak because of her loyalty to her father, there is a shift in her character by the end of the novel. When Matilda releases Theodore from the dungeon, she subverts Manfred’s wicked plan in the name of charity and love. In doing this, she threatens Manfred’s patriarchy, leading him to fatally stab her. Even in this time of ultimate physical and emotional weakness and vulnerability, she has the strength to forgive him for his digression:

“It will not be,” said Matilda— “commend me to Heaven: —where is my father? —forgive him, dearest mother —forgive him my death; it was an error —Oh! I had forgotten —dearest mother, I vowed never to see Theodore more— perhaps that has drawn down this calamity—but it was not intentional— can you pardon me?” 1

By doing this, Matilda thus takes on a Christ-like form.

This same type of vulnerable, fatalistic character is portrayed in Gregory Lewis’s The Monk. The Monk is what is known as a “male” Gothic novel. A “male” Gothic is a novel in which the central character is male and controls everything. Since the main character is male, the violence and horror are grounded in the “other” i.e. the female. This idea of the “male” Gothic consists of a perversion of chivalry, fundamental misogyny, and a focus on the “male” gaze. The only truly pure woman in a male Gothic is a dead woman. The vulnerable female character in The Monk is Antonia.

Antonia is a pure virgin who was brought up in an old castle. Upon the first description of her, she is veiled so that the young men cannot see her face which, in turn, increases their desire:

Her features were hidden by a thick veil; but struggling through the crowd had deranged it sufficiently to discover a neck which for symmetry and beauty might have vied with the Medicean Venus. It was of the most dazzling whiteness, and received additional charms from being shaded by the tresses of her long fair hair, which descended in ringlets to her waist. Her figure was rather below than above the middle size: it was light and airy as that of an Hamadryad. Her bosom was carefully veiled, her dress was white; it was fastened by a blue sash, and just permitted to peep out from under it a little foot of the most delicate proportions. A chaplet of large grains hung upon her arm, and her face was covered with a veil of thick black gauze.2

Her veil becomes askew, but the reader can only “see” her in bits and pieces. When her face is finally revealed, it too is described in ornate and over-embellished pieces. This is a centralization as well as dissection of the female body. This idea of portraying the woman in “pieces” was also popular in Gothic art history.

Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, ca. 1440–44 Fra Filippo Lippi (Italian, Florentine, ca. 1406–1469)

Filippo Lippi’s “Portrait of Man and Woman at Casement” c.1440  and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni” c. 1448, both portrayed women as fragmented, only drawn as profile portraits. This “piecing” of the feminine form creates a fetishized object of desire and degradation for the male viewer.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90

The ultimate “male” view of Antonia is possessed by the monk Ambrosio. Ambrosio’s power manifests itself in his language. His words penetrate into Antonia’s soul and, through language, emotion imprisons her, rendering her weak and vulnerable. Lorenzo, one of the young men who desire Antonia, dreams of an unknown force that grabs Antonia before he can touch her. This is a foreshadowing of the terror that is to come, producing a victimization of the woman. During this time, Antonia longs for Ambrosio to be her confessor. She eventually does get to confess to him, and he fantasizes about her.

Ambrosio is fully aware of the extent of his degradation. He feels a “gentle violence” toward Antonia3 and uses ambiguous language to seduce her. When Elvira sees Ambrosio hug Antonia and disarrange her clothing, she warns him to stop coming to their home, to which he vows revenge. He later uses a magic mirror to see his desires, and in it he sees Antonia getting ready for a bath. The reader is then given a description of her naked body:

The scene was a small closet belonging to her apartment. She was undressing to bathe herself. The long tresses of her hair were already bound up. The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptous contours and admirable symmetry of her person. She threw off her last garment, and, advancing to the bath prepared for her, put her foot into the water.4

Antonia is depicted almost like a piece of artwork. Ambrosio decides to weaken her to her most vulnerable state: he plans on putting her into a deep sleep so that he may have his way with her.

Ambrosio arrives in Antonia’s room and, in her moment of terror, Antonia is eroticized:

Her mouth, half opened, seemed to solicit a kiss: he bent over her: he joined his lips to hers, and drew in the fragrance of her breath with rapture. This momentary pleasure increased his longing for still greater. His desires were raised to that frantic height by which brutes are agitated. He resolved not to delay for one instant longer the accomplishment of his wishes, and hastily proceeded to tear off those garments which impeded the gratification of his lust.5

When Antonia awakes she is then given a juice by Matilda so that she will be unconscious for forty-eight hours. Ambrosio finds her and addresses her, believing that she is dead. He places responsibility on her for his committing murder. When she awakes, she believes that Ambrosio will be her savior. Ambrosio rapes Antonia and again he puts the blame of his transgression on her. Then, in a fate very similar to that of Matilda’s in The Castle of Otranto, he fatally stabs Antonia, saying that she has been “defiled” and she is killed before she has the chance to marry Lorenzo.

While Ambrosio has exerted his power of Antonia, she still poses a grave threat to his patriarchal standing. After her death, Ambrosio is unmasked and tortured. He is condemned for rape, murder and sorcery. When Lucifer arrives, he tempts Ambrosio and tells him the secret of the birth. It is then that the reader finds out that Antonia was actually Ambrosio’s sister. From this one can see the full extent and horror of Ambrosio’s sin. Lucifer then does God’s work by killing Ambrosio, thus killing the villain. Though Ambrosio may have reduced Antonia to her most vulnerable state, she ultimately robbed him of his patriarchal power, even after her death.

While in most novels the female is portrayed as vulnerable, yet still a threat to the patriarch, Edmund Burke’s work offers a variation of this view. He opposes the “male” gothic by critiquing the end of the “age of chivalry.” In Reflections on the Revolution, he poses Marie Antoinette as the “damsel in distress” —a role in which she was often not viewed. Edmund Burke firmly opposed the French Revolution. His championing against the Revolution made him a focal point of many artistic political commentaries of the time. Cartoonist James Gillray’s (1757-1815) Smelling out a Rat shows Edmund Burke “sniffing out the activites of the notorious radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price.”6 Burke is reduced to a fantasmagoria of superstition, emerging from a cloud, holding up tokens of the Church and State, masking himself with his own Reflections on the Revolution. Though Burke’s work is an intellectual and historical one, he fuses in many Gothic characteristics. He rewrites the horrific events of the Revolution as such to give a Gothic view of history. Burke does this as a means of undermining the radical impulse of the Gothic mode. He appropriates sentiment as a means of propping up the monarchy. One way in which he does this is by portraying Marie Antionette as the “damsel in distress:”

From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out to her to save herself by flight…A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.7

During the graphic and violent French Revolution, the reader gets an image of Marie Antoinette rushing away, almost naked. She becomes an object of pleasure for the viewer. Burke imagines Marie Antoinette as a beautiful prisoner who is suffering, yet still has great faith. This contrasts the popular view of Marie Antionette at the time. She was often portrayed as cruel and unjust. There were many portraits done of her execution, such as Jacques Louis David’s, as well as harsh portraits such as her head on the body of a hyena and the like. Burke chooses to portray her as a “damsel in distress” to show how the fall of the Queen represents “chivalry gone wrong.” The villains in this “Gothic” are the populous, who should have defended Marie Antoinette. While they are chided, the nobility and clergy are glorified, venerating the idea of the patriarchal state.

In Gothic literature and art history, women were often viewed as meek, helpless beings. The creation of the “damsel in distress” character stresses the feminized form, which asserts the dominance of men during the time. However, though the women in “male” Gothic novels are “helpless” and fetishized, this only forces the male gaze upon them, causing the male characters to do evil. The central character may be male, but the violence and horror is always grounded in the female. In the Gothic line of “otherness” even the most vulnerable female character works in the line of evil. The evil-doings of the male characters typically bring them to their eventual downfall. Therefore, the vulnerable “damsel in distress” poses the greatest threat to the patriarchs in Gothic novels.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Art History, French Literature, Gothic Literature, Literature, Opinions

Gothic Conventions Used in Frankenstein: Volume one

In my English course we specifically must focus on three schools of thought whilst constructing an essay: Marxist, psychoanalysis and feminist readings. I’ve nearly always grasped the concepts of psychoanalyst with novels such as ‘The Kite Runner’, with ‘Death of a Salesman’ I studied Marxist readings and with ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ I combined the two elements, only really dabbling my hand in the feminist school of thought. But none the less, this year, it being presumably my last as an English student, I’ve decided to get off my stubborn backside and write this set essay on ‘Frankensteins gothic conventions’ with the view of a feminine light. At first, admittedly I was weary, however, I’ve interlinked the views of feminist critics with other interpretations involving sexuality and fate. Frankenstein is a very interesting novel to search upon if reading into the role of woman in novels. I even found myself enjoying writing this little dissertation, this essay is only brief, there was no formal examination so I spent less time on it as I would normally, but nevertheless I am pleased with roping down from my high horse to ponder upon another view-point. You never know, i might just do some more feminist readings. Enjoy!

Frankenstein is often portrayed and glamourized by critics as the ‘ultimate gothic novel’ however; we must delve into Shelly’s exact use of gothic conventions in order to understand exactly how Shelly utilizes simple gothic motifs to create a world so tantalizing and elusive.

Such use of gothic conventions are used during the creation of the monster, it is through this, that Victor erodes the role of woman in society; he has broken down social barriers and fails to see the implications of the consequences, he flees from the monstrosity he has created and attempts to suppress the blame from himself by citing that the monsters birth was from ‘a workshop of filthy creation’ this quote is a direct allusion to the woman’s womb. Victor is subtly mocking woman’s place in society as beneath a man by branding their internal organs as ‘dirty.’ Victor tries to usurp the role of Woman in the novel;Feminist literary theory would claim that Frankenstein’s act of creation is not only a sin against God and the force of nature. It is also an act against the “female principle”, which includes natural procreation as one of its central aspects and as a result, The Monster then seeks to destroy womankind as a vengeance against woman principles as Victor has deprived woman of their natural function in society.Mary Shelly’s mother was a founder of the feminist movement, a liberal thinker with forceful philosophy who no doubt influenced this rational and predominant theme within the novel. Instantly, this recalls the much broader implications of the human condition and the relationship between man and God. The relationship between Victor and the monster raises many questions as to the meaning of humanity and existence. In his corrupting pursuit for the ‘thirst of knowledge’ Victor Frankenstein is frequently compared to Prometheus, as the novel’s subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” suggests. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods whereas in a bid to create the monster, Victor harnessed the power of electricity and became ‘beheld’ by a ‘most violent and terrible thunderstorm’ it is Frankenstein’s most terrific mistake in presuming that he could displace God, Victor tries not only to find the secret of life but also to remove life’s defects by rebelling against natures natural order and selection. But it is unlike God, that Victor fails to nurture the one thing that he produced. The ‘secret toils’ that he endured suggest that he has been the victim of a shameful ploy. It is by this, that the novel can be viewed as a mock of religion, it is fact his rash, impatient and stubborn desire to create life that the horrible physiognomy of the Monster is a direct result of Frankenstein’s hurry and anxiety caused by his awareness of committing a sin against God. Victor then tries to surpass the blame upon destiny as he describes it as ‘too potent’ Victor’s futile plead is attempting to convince us that destiny is predetermined, and fate is premeditated and that there might be a higher power after all, men are corrupted by the preconditioned aspects of the world, and free will is only a limited scope and far limits Victors scientific desires. It is Victor’s fixated desire only to rid of the ‘distant species’ that he regards as woman who implies he fears also his own sexuality.

As Victor describes the ‘dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’ it is the pivotal moment of horror as Victor arrives at a climax of his anguished trepidation. Pathetic fallacy is then used to set an appropriate bleak and depressing atmosphere as the ‘dismal rain’ bellows down from above. Victor envisions his mother’s dead corpse. He has an unwillingness to embrace his mother or the face of Elizabeth that he first thought he sought. This could be a deliberate link back to when Victor describes Elizabeth as his ‘more than sister’ and this reveals his fear of incestuous desire, however, by juxtaposing the creating of the monster with this most terrific vision, the void between illusion and reality is opened up as it is blurred in Victors mind, and we can start to trace his descent into madness and deliberate isolation. By creating the monster Victor has destroyed female persona, as previously discussed, however, it is as if he has effectively killed his mother, she is nothing more than a rotting corpse. It is also suggestive that he sees sex as destructive and ‘hideous’. This chapter in volume one involves the three elements of sex, death and the monster. They are thus linked in a single image; this dream episode establishes a clear link between Victor’s avoidance of sexuality. Further regards to sexuality can also be found in the isolation of The Monster–he destroys the female creature horrified upon thinking another could tread upon the earth. The frequent motif of fear of sexuality could also be similarly found in Walton who ‘desires the company of a man whose eyes would reply to mine’ Duality is often a gothic convention and a frequent motif in gothic fiction.

The framed narrative used in Frankenstein is a complex structure; it involves embedded narratives of stories upon stories within stories. The narrative first begins through Walton sending letters to his sister, this approach is commonly known as an epistolary style is a novel in which a character (or characters) tells the story through letters. In Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton writes letters to his sister. Walton sets the frame and the scene of the novel up, he begins to recount about Victor, the narrative is then given wholly to Victor, presumably to increase our understanding of the character and to increase our paths and awe, before Victors catharsis is then given back to Walton as the novel ends on a denouement. Shelley did not insert the letters by chance; they are purposefully added to provide a deeper dimension to the novel. Walton first allows us to channel a way to suspend our disbelief as with him the novel becomes more plausible as there are now two men seemingly hell-bent on a pursuit, Walton to ‘tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man’ and Victor to ‘make the secrets of heaven and earth known to me’ It is because of this framed narrative structure that the voices, the stories given to us become blurred as to whom is speaking them and we ask ourselves who exactly is recounting their narrative. A deliberate ploy, perhaps used by Shelly, as traditionally gothic ghost tales are orally given and it was the night previous to writing Frankenstein that her and Lord Byron, along with Percy Shelly told such stories in order to ‘make the blood curdle and quicken the beatings of the heart’ The narrative also involves the role of a listener and each narrative allows the reader to carefully consider the narrative of before and draw upon certain aspects of each one before they are drawn and tied together in a single continuum. We can also consider the reliability of the narrator as a whole, their interpretations, specifically Victors, serves for us to look for parallels and echoes within the plot. Therefore, it is important to behold an open mind whilst reading Frankenstein, otherwise self-absorbance is imminent. Its intention as a cautionary tale is applied as Walton, upon hearing Victor’s narrative on the destructiveness of knowledge and power, turns away from his perilous mission to the North Pole and we see Shelly’s gothic conventions all lay out. Victors attempt to eliminate God and the woman race, carried with it implications that he could not fathom, he rebelled against the laws of nature and is therefore condemned, he is, like Prometheus punished for dabbling in the arts of something far beyond what he academic achievements could possibly behold.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, British Literature, Culture, Literary Criticism, Thoughts, Uncategorized