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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.

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