RACE AND THE GOTHIC
WOMEN AND THE GOTHIC
FURTHER READINGThe Gothic tradition originated in response to a period of rapid and far-reaching societal, cultural, and theological change in eighteenth-century Europe. Works written in this tradition are inherently linked to the social context in which they were created, and a great deal of critical commentary focuses on the representation of societal and cultural fear in the face of the dissolution of tradition, gender roles, oppression, and race in Gothic literature. As scholars have illustrated, people in nineteenth-century Europe and America believed strongly in physiognomy, the theory that physical appearance and “blood” determined and reflected a person’s character. The representation of villains and monsters in Gothic literature demonstrates this adherence to physiognomy, as these characters possess physical traits associated with evil—dark eyes, heavy eyebrows, and dark complexions. The racist implications of this belief in the biological determination of character are apparent, and have been examined by several scholars.
In his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke challenges the ways in which other philosophers and aestheticians use the terms “sublime” and “beautiful,” contending that the words are often employed inaccurately and exclusively. He sets out to distinguish the two terms and define them in light of the basis of their psychological origins. The discussion covers three aspects: individual passions, the essences that inspire emotion in an individual, and the rules of nature that govern the first two aspects. This approach is unique in relation to other aesthetic theories because it allows for psychological and physiological justifications for the aesthetic experience. In the first part of the essay, Burke explores and defines the sublime. He considers the origins of the sublime in the feeling of delight, which he maintains is based on the removal of pain or danger. It is a visceral response to the basic need for self-preservation and is characterized by such feelings as awe, surprise, and relief tinged with horror. In fact, the essence of the sublime is the feeling of horror; in this, his theory is unique in aesthetic study. Burke asserts that in order to inspire the sublime, one must be confronted with terrifying ideas. The human response is generated by the following fear-inspiring principles: vastness, difficulty, power, darkness, vacuity, obscurity, silence, solitude, infinity, massive solidity, and magnificence. This unique conception of the sublime is influenced by and has influenced Gothic literature, especially the novels and stories that contain such settings as the dark, mysterious graveyard, the haunted castle, and the lone house on the hill. Images like these have held a strong fascination for readers throughout the ages. Burke contends that nature images—such as the incomparable vastness of the ocean or the infinite darkness of a dense forest—inspire the highest and most intense feelings of the sublime. Many critics praised Burke’s ideas regarding the sublime and lauded his imaginative and innovative approach. In the 1890s, as noted by critic David Punter, the Decadent and the Gothic merged in four works—Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)—which, Punter asserts, “are all concerned in one way or another with the problem of degeneration, and thus of the essence of the human.” Gothic literature has also been used to portray experiences of class and national identity, such as the difficulties faced by the Irish in English society. Commentator Raphael Ingelbien has offered a psychological approach to the study of the use of the Gothic in representing Anglo-Irish identity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in works by Elizabeth Bowen.
Recent scholarship has focused on the relationship between race and the Gothic, tracing the depiction of the African American experience as well as of white anxiety and fears surrounding the black presence in society and desire to maintain the status quo of whites in control and blacks in servitude. Toni Morrison, who employs the Gothic to depict the horrors of slavery in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), discusses in Playing in the Dark (1992) how the image of “impenetrable whiteness” is used in works of Gothic fiction—notably in works by Edgar Allan Poe—to assuage white Americans’ anxieties about black Americans, and to reinforce the institution of slavery by portraying “black or Africanist people who are dead, impotent, or under complete control.” Morrison also links the portrayal of blackness in literature to writers’ investigations “of the self-contradictory features of the self.” In her analysis of the connection between the Gothic and the African American experience—particularly in such works as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)—, Teresa A. Goddu asserts that “a focus on slavery, America’s most glaring cultural contradiction, shows how it produced gothic narratives during the antebellum period and how these narratives reproduced the scene of slavery.” Teresa Derrickson illustrates that even authors whose works and personal actions espouse racial equality participate in the discourse of racism by examining Louisa May Alcott’s sensationalist Gothic story “Taming a Tartar” (1867). Derrickson maintains that “tracing the careful way in which the ‘monstrous’ nemesis of the narrative’s triumphant protagonist embodies nineteenth-century fears of racial degradation … underscores the infiltrating power of the Gothic impetus.” Anne K. Mellor has examined Charlotte Dacre’s novel Zofloya; or, The Moor (1806), in which Dacre depicts a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman, to illustrate how “the Gothic has long enabled both its practitioners and its readers to explore subjective desires and identities that are otherwise repressed, denied, or forbidden by the culture at large.”
Commentary on the relationship between women and the Gothic focuses on works of Gothic literature by women authors as well as on the depiction of women in Gothic literature written by men. In the mid-1800s, women had few rights and were expected to be subservient to men. Not only were women denied the vote, they were denied the right to own property. Cultural expectations required that women refrain from expressing themselves openly in the presence of men. Rather they were expected to be pure, pleasant, and supportive of men at all times. But, as reflected by the controversial Gothic novels, these rigid roles were changing. Feminist critics point out the unusual prevalence of strong female characters in Gothic novels, and the way their independent and often sexual behavior was harshly criticized by contemporaries of the novels. Modern critics also point out the way in which female sexuality was often used to denote strength, rebelliousness, and evil. Appearing as nefarious seductresses, female characters were often demons or villains who were punished or made to see the error of their ways at the story’s end. Feminist critics also claim that while women in earlier novels had been portrayed as victims waiting to be rescued, in Gothic novels the roles were often reversed and the male characters were victimized. Other scholars see the validation of marriage as a common theme of Gothic novels and still others argue that the genre allowed women readers of the mid-1800s to enjoy independence vicariously through the actions of the female characters. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) has received particular attention from feminist critics, as the novel offers common themes in the female Gothic tradition: fear and anxiety surrounding the birth process, female sexuality, and women’s bodies. In the twentieth century, the works of many women writers—including Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), and Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows(1974)—were examined from a feminist, Gothic theoretical perspective for their modernized adaptation of the traditional Gothic that conveys the unique and often publicly unspoken, or even socially taboo, psychological and social realities of twentieth-century women. Modern women authors employ horror and the Gothic to convey the horror of being perceived as freakish by society for engaging in and espousing artistic and vocational pursuits considered outside of the traditional—and, thus, approved—women’s realm, or for choosing to delay or avoid pregnancy, marriage, or motherhood. These narratives relate the unique and deeply rooted fear and anxiety experienced by women who are afraid simultaneously of being trapped in stifling, repressive roles and of being rejected or isolated for challenging these prescribed roles. The work most frequently held as an example of female Gothic is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). The novella, a fictionalized account of Gilman’s real-life experience with the “rest cure,” a commonly prescribed treatment for depression, horrified readers and critics when it was published, largely because the female protagonist’s terror and eventual madness were chillingly true to life and offered a harsh indictment of a widely-held belief that women who found motherhood and domestic duties unfulfilling or even confining were mentally ill. Subsequent critical analyses of the work have focused upon Gilman’s use of horror and Gothic elements to convey the desperation experienced by women who were both physically imprisoned and deprived of intellectual freedom and expression.
Louisa May Alcott
“Taming a Tartar” (short story) 1867; published serially in the journal Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 4 vols. (novels) William Beckford
★Vathek (novel) Ambrose Bierce
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (short stories) Elizabeth Bowen
Bowen’s Court (nonfiction) 1942
The Demon Lover, and Other Stories (short stories) Edmund Burke
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (essay) 1757
Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (essay) Charlotte Dacre
Zofloya; or, The Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century. 3 vols. (novel) Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (autobiography) William Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936
“A Rose for Emily” (short story) 1930; published in the journal Forum
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” (novella) 1892; published in the journal New England Magazine; published in book form as The Yellow Wallpaper, James Hogg
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (novel) 1824; republished as The Suicide’s Grave, Shirley Jackson
The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris (short stories) 1949
The Haunting of Hill House (novel) Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself [as Linda Brent] (autobiography) Diane Johnson
The Shadow Knows (novel) 1974
The Shining [with Stanley Kubrick; based on the novel by Stephen King] (screenplay) Sophia Lee
The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times. 3 vols. (novel) Arthur Machen
The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (short stories) 1894
The Three Impostors (short stories) 1895
†The Hill of Dreams (novel) Charles Robert Maturin
Melmoth the Wanderer: A Tale. 4 vols. (novel) Carson McCullers
The Member of the Wedding (novel) Herman Melville
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (novel) Toni Morrison
Beloved (novel) 1987
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (criticism) Joyce Carol Oates
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) Flannery O’Connor
‡”A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (short story) Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (novel) Edgar Allan Poe
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude [published anonymously] (novel) 1838
#”William Wilson” (short story) Ann Radcliffe
The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Romance; Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. 4 vols. (novel) Clara Reeve
The Champion of Virtue. A Gothic Story (novel) 1777; republished as The Old English Baron, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. (novel) 1818; revised edition, Robert Louis Stevenson
New Arabian Nights. 2 vols. (short stories) 1882
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (novella) Bram Stoker
Dracula (novel) Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 2 vols. (novel) H. G. Wells
The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Possibility (novel) Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1890; first published in the journal Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine; revised edition, 1891
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems [as C.3.3.] (poetry) Mary Wollstonecraft
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (essay) 1792
Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman: A Posthumous Fragment (unfinished novel) ★ The unauthorized translation of Vathek was published as An Arabian Tale, 1786.
† This work was first published serially in Horlick’s Magazine as “The Garden of Avallaunius” in 1904.
‡ This story was published in the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, 1955.
# This story was published in the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1840.
EDMUND BURKE (ESSAY DATE 1757)
> SOURCE: Burke, Edmund. “Part II: Sections I and II, and Part IV: Sections V, VI, VIII, and IX.” In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 1757. Fourth edition, pp. , . Dublin: Sarah Cotter, 1766.
In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1757, Burke explains his theory of the connection between the sublime, pain, and terror.
Of the passion caused by the Sublime.
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor, by consequence, reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect.
No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For, fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror, be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that this ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration and those of terror. ᶿαμΠσζ is in Greek, either fear or wonder; δεινσζ is terrible or respectable; αιδεω, to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what αιδεω is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect either of simple fear, or of astonishment; the word attonitus, (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French etonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.
How the Sublime is produced.
Having considered terror as producing an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves; it easily follows, from what we have just said, that whatever is fitted to produce such a tension, must be productive of a passion similar to terror, and consequently must be a source of the sublime, though it should have no idea of danger connected with it. So that little remains towards shewing the cause of the sublime, but to shew that the instances we have given of it in the second part, relate to such things as are fitted by nature to produce this sort of tension, either by the primary operation of the mind or the body. With regard to such things as affect by the associated idea of danger, there can be no doubt but that they produce terror, and act by some modification of that passion; and that terror, when sufficiently violent, raises the emotions of the body just mentioned, can as little be doubted. But if the sublime is built on terror, or some passion like it, which has pain for its object; it is previously proper to enquire how any species of delight can be derived from a cause so apparently contrary to it. I say, delight, because, as I have often remarked, it is very evidently different in its cause, and in its own nature, from actual and positive pleasure.
How pain can be a cause of delight.
Providence has so ordered it that a state of rest and inaction, however it may flatter our indolence, should be productive of many inconveniencies; that it should generate such disorders, as may force us to have recourse to some labour, as a thing absolutely requisite to make us pass our lives with tolerable satisfaction; for the nature of rest is to suffer all the parts of our bodies to fall into a relaxation, that not only disables the members from performing their sunctions, but takes away the vigorous tone of fibre which is requisite for carrying on the natural and necessary secretions. At the same time, that in this languid inactive state, the nerves are more liable to the most horrid convulsions, than when they are sufficiently braced and strengthened. Melancholy, dejection, despair, and often, self-murder, is the consequence of the gloomy view we take of things in this relaxed state of body. The best remedy for all these evils is exercise or labour; and labour is a surmounting of difficulties, an exertion of the contracting power of the muscles; and as such resembles pain, which consists in tension or contraction, in every thing but degree. Labour is not only requisite to preserve the coarser organs in a state fit for their functions, but it is equally necessary to these finer and more delicate organs, on which, and by which, the imagination, and perhaps the other mental powers act. Since it is probable, that not only the inferior parts of the soul, as the passions are called, but the understanding itself makes use of some fine corporeal instruments in its operation; though what they are, and where they are, may be somewhat hard to settle: but that it does make use of such, appears from hence; that a long exercise of the mental powers induces a remarkable lastitude of the whole body; and on the other hand, that great bodily labour, or pain, weakens, and sometimes actually destroys the mental faculties. Now, as a due exercise is essential to the coarse muscular parts of the constitution, and that without this rouzing they would become languid, and diseased, the very same rule holds with regard to those finer parts we have mentioned; to have them in proper order, they must be shaken and worked to a proper degree.
Why things, not dangerous, produce a passion like Terror.
A Mode of terror, or of pain, is always the cause of the sublime. For terror, or associated danger, the foregoing explication is, I believe, sufficient. It will require somewhat more trouble to shew that such examples, as I have given of the sublime in the second part, are capable of producing a mode of pain, and of being thus allied to terror, and to be accounted for on the same principles. And first of such objects as are great in their dimensions. I speak of visual objects.
ON THE SUBJECT OF …
CLARA REEVE (1729–1807)
Although primarily a novelist who wrote in the eighteenth-century tradition of sentimental fiction, Reeve is remembered almost exclusively for her Gothic romance The Old English Baron (1778). Writing in response to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Reeve sought to compose a similar story avoiding what she considered Walpole’s flawed narrative conception. Whereas Walpole conceived his novel as an entertainment with an abundant display of supernaturalism, Reeve’s narrative is distinguished by her didactic theme and moderate use of supernatural elements. Immensely popular during the eighteenth century, The Old English Baron remains important for its role in the development of the Gothic genre. Reeve’s cautious approach to writing Gothic fiction anticipated the later, more critically acclaimed novels of Ann Radcliffe, whose characters inhabit a world in which realistic detail joins successfully with improbable occurrences. Reeve combined literary gothicism with the didactic concerns characteristic of sentimental fiction.
The oldest daughter in a family of eight children, Reeve was born in Ipswich, Suffolk. Her father was a clergyman in the Anglican church, and biographers speculate that his influence on Reeve’s early development substantially contributed to the socially conservative, moralistic nature of her works. Educated at home under her father’s tutelage, she displayed a special interest in history and biography. After her father died in 1755, Reeve moved to Colchester with her mother and two of her sisters. It was here that she wrote her first book, Original Poems on Several Occasions, which was published in 1769. This collection of poetry received little notice, and it was not until the private publication of The Champion of Virtue: A Gothic Story in 1777 that her work gained recognition. On the advice of her friend Martha Bridgen, the daughter of novelist Samuel Richardson, Reeve revised this novel and published it in 1778 as The Old English Baron. While Walpole himself disparaged the work, it was an immediate popular and critical success.
Why visual objects of great dimensions are Sublime.
Vision is performed by having a picture formed by the rays of light which are reflected from the object, painted in one piece, instanta-neously, on the retina, or last nervous part of the eye. Or, according to others, there is but one point of any object painted on the eye in such a manner as to be perceived at once; but by moving the eye, we gather up with great celerity, the several parts of the object, so as to form one uniform piece. If the former opinion be allowed, it will be considered, that though all the light reflected from a large body should strike the eye in one instant; yet we must suppose that the body itself is formed of a vast number of distinct points, every one of which, or the ray from every one, makes an impression on the retina. So that, though the image of one point should cause but a small tension of this membrane, another, and another, and another stroke, must in their progress cause a very great one, until it arrives at last to the highest degree; and the whole capacity of the eye, vibrating in all its parts must approach near to the nature of what causes pain, and consequently must produce an idea of the sublime. Again, if we take it, that one point only of an object is distinguishable at once; the matter will amount nearly to the same thing, or rather it will make the origin of the sublime from greatness of dimension yet clearer. For if but one point is observed at once, the eye must traverse the vast space of such bodies with great quickness, and consequently the fine nerves and muscles destined to the motion of that part must be very much strained; and their great sensibility must make them highly affected by this straining. Besides, it signifies just nothing to the effect produced, whether a body has its parts connected and makes its impression at once; or making but one impression of a point at a time, it causes a succession of the same; or others, so quickly, as to make them seem united; as is evident from the common effect of whirling about a lighted torch or piece of wood; which if done with celerity, seems a circle of fire.
CLARA REEVE (ESSAY DATE 1777)
> SOURCE: Reeve, Clara. “Address to the Reader.” In The Champion of Virtue. A Gothic Story. By the Editor of The Phoenix. A Translation of Barclay’s Argenis, pp. i-vii. Colchester, 1777.
In the following excerpt from an introduction to her novel, which was published in 1778 as The Old English Baron, Reeve urges her readers to appreciate her novel as part of a Gothic literary tradition, and declares that every reader will find something in her work to enjoy.
Address to the Reader.
Reader, before you enter upon the history before you, permit the Author to hold a short conference with you, upon certain points that will elucidate the design, and perhaps induce you to form a favourable, as well as a right judgment of the work.
Pray did you ever read a book called, The Castle of Otranto? if you have, you will willingly enter with me into a review of it.—but perhaps you have not read it? however you have heard that it is an attempt to blend together, the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient romance and modern Novel; but possibly you may not know so much, still you have read some ancient Romance, or some modern Novel, it will be strange if you have not in this age!
But suppose you should dislike or despise them both? ‘tis no matter! I shall catch you some way or other.
You delight in the fables of the ancients, the old poets, or story-tellers.
Or, you are pleased with the wonderful adventures of modern travellers, such as Gaudentio di Lucca, or Robinson Crusoe.
Or, if you are unacquainted with any of the books already mentioned, I would venture a good wager that you have read the Pilgrim’s Progress.
You smile! but I mean nothing ludicrous, the Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of genius, and as such I respect it.—is it possible that a book merely fanatical, should have run through fifty-four editions? you may safely conclude it has merit of a higher kind, that enables it to blunt the shafts of ridicule, and to stand its ground, notwithstanding the variations of times and tastes, and the refinements of literature and language.
But what (say you) is all this to the purpose? patience a moment, and I will come directly to the point.—if you have read any fictitious or fabulous story, it will answer my intention, which is to assert, that all readers, of all times and countries have delighted in stories of these kinds; and that those who affect to despise them under one form, will receive and embrace them in another.
History represents human nature as it is.—alas! too often a melancholy retrospect.—romance displays only the amiable side of the picture; it shows the pleasing features, and throws a veil over the blemishes: mankind are naturally pleased with what gratifies their vanity, and vanity like all other passions of the human heart, may be rendered subservient to good and useful purposes.
I confess that it may be abused, and become an instrument to corrupt the manners and morals of mankind; so may poetry, so may plays, so may every kind of composition; but that will prove nothing more than the old saying lately revived’—”that every earthly thing has two handles.”
The business of romance is first to excite the attention, and secondly to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent end. Happy the writer who attains both these points, like Richardson! and not unfortunate, or undeserving of praise, he who gains only the latter, and furnishes out of it an entertainment for the reader!
Having, in some degree, opened my design, I beg leave to conduct my reader back again, till he comes within view of the castle of Otranto; a work which has already been observed, is an attempt to unite the various merits and graces of the ancient romance and modern Novel.—to attain this end, there is required a sufficient degree of the marvellous to excite the attention.—enough of the manners of real life, to give an air of probability to the work;—and enough of the pathetic to engage the heart in its behalf.
The book before us is excellent in the two last points, but has a redundancy in the first; the opening excites the attention very strongly; the conduct of the story is artful and judicious; the characters are admirably drawn and supported; the diction polished and elegant; yet with all these brilliant advantages, it palls upon the mind, though it does not upon the ear, and the reason is obvious; the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost verge of probability, the effect had been preserved, without losing the least circumstance that excites or detains the attention.
For instance, we can conceive and allow of the appearance of a ghost, we can even dispense with an enchanted sword and helmet, but then they must keep within certain limits of credibility, a sword so large as to require an hundred men to lift it, a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame; a skeleton ghost in a hermit’s cowl: when your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and instead of attention, excite laughter. I was both surprised and vexed to find the enchantment dissolved, that I wished might continue to the end of the book, and several others of its readers have confessed the same disappointment to me; the beauties are so numerous, that we cannot bear the defects, but want it to be perfect in all respects.
In the course of my observations upon this singular book, it seemed to me that it was possible to compose a work upon the same plan, wherein these defects might be avoided, and the keeping as in painting might be preserved.
But then, said I, it might happen to the writer as it has to the imitators of Shakespeare, the unities may be preserved, but the spirit may evaporate; in short it will be safest to let it alone.
During these reflections, it occured to my remembrance, that a certain friend of mine was in possession of a manuscript in the old English language, containing a story that answered in almost every point to the plan above-mentioned; and if it were modernised, might afford entertainment to those who delight in stories of this kind.
Accordingly (with my friend’s permission) I transcribed, or rather translated a few sheets of it.—I read it to a circle of friends of approved judgment, they gave me the warmest encouragement to proceed, and even made me promise to finish it.
Here it is, therefore, at your service; if you are pleased, I am satisfied; I will venture to assure you that it shall not leave you worse than it finds you in any respect. If you despise the work it will go to sleep quietly with many of its contemporaries, and the ghost of it will not disturb your repose.
I am, with profound Respect, Reader, your most obedient Servant, The EDITOR.
SOPHIA LEE (NOVEL DATE 1786)
> SOURCE: Lee, Sophia. An excerpt from The Recess; Or, A Tale of Other Times. By the Author of the Chapter of Accidents. Vol. 1, pp. 1-10. Dublin, 1786.
The following excerpt is from the beginning of Lee’s highly popular novel.
After a long and painful journey through life, with a heart exhausted by afflictions, and eyes which can no longer supply tears to lament them, I turn my every thought toward that grave on the verge of which I hover. Oh! why then, too generous friend, require me to live over my misfortunes? Such has been the peculiarity of my fate, that though tortured with the possession and the loss of every tye and hope that exalts or endears humanity, let but this feeble frame be covered with the dust from which it sprung, and no trace of my ever having existed would remain, except in the wounded consciences of those who marked me out a solitary victim to the crimes of my progenitors: For surely I could never merit by my own misery of living as I have done—of dying as I must do.
Alas! your partial affection demands a memorial which calls back to being all the sad images buried in my bosom, and opens anew every vein of my heart. Yet consummate misery has a moral use, and if ever these sheets reach the publick, let the repiner at little evils learn to be juster to his God and himself, by unavoidable comparison. But am I not assuming an insolent consequence in thus admonishing? Alas, it is the dear-bought privilege of the unfortunate to be tedious!
My life commenced with an incident so extraordinary as the following facts alone could incline any one to credit. As soon as capable of reflection, I found myself and a sister of my own age, in an apartment with a lady, and a maid older than herself.—Every day furnished us with whatever was necessary for subsistence or improvement, supplied as it seemed by some invisible hand; for I rarely missed either of the few who commonly surrounded me. This Recess could not be called a cave, because it was composed of various rooms; and the stones were obviously united by labor; yet every room was distinct, and divided from the rest by a vaulted passage with many stairs, while our light proceeded from small casements of painted glass, so infinitely above our reach that we could never seek a world beyond; and so dim, that the beams of the sun were almost a new object to us when we quitted this retirement. These remarks occurred as our minds unfolded; for at first we were content, through habit and ignorance, nor once bestowed a thought on surrounding objects. The lady I have mentioned called us her children, and caressed us both with parental fondness.—Blest with every gentle charm, it is not wonderful she fully possessed the affections of those who had no one else to idolize. Every moment we met in a larger room than the rest, where a very venerable man performed mass, and concluded with a discourse calculated to endear retirement. From him we learnt there was a terrible large place called the world, where a few haughty individuals commanded miserable millions, whom a few artful ones made so; that Providence had graciously rescued us from both, nor could we ever be sufficiently grateful. Young hearts teem with unformed ideas, and are but too susceptible of elevated and enthusiastic impressions. Time gave this man insensibly an influence over us, as a superior being, to which his appearance greatly contributed. Imagine a tall and robust figure habited in black, and marked by a commanding austerity of manners.—His features bore the traces of many sorrows, and a kind of early old age, which interested every observer. The fire and nobility of his eye, the gracefulness of his decay, and the heart-affecting solemnity of his voice,
While on his reverend temples grew
The blossoms of the grave,
gave an authority almost irresistible to Father Anthony, as we called him from hearing our mamma, to whom we understood he was brother. He usually partook our dinner, and from that time ‘till the next morning vanished, for we knew not how or where he went. The interval we passed in little useful works, or in conversation with our mamma, whose only employment was that of forming our minds, for the world we were taught to dread.—She was our world, and all the tender affections, of which I have since proved my heart so full, centered in her, and my sister. Time and sorrow had given a wan delicacy to features exquisitely regular, while the soft symmetry of her person united every common idea of beauty and elegance to a feminine helplessness, which is, when unaffected, the most interesting of all charms. Her temper was equal, and her understanding enriched by a most extensive knowledge, to which she was every day adding by perpetual study. Inclined strongly by nature to serious reflection, and all her favourite employments, I used to pass those hours at her side Ellinor devoted to her play-things, or to Alice, whose memory was overcharged with those marvellous tales children always delight in. As our ideas every day expanded, we thought more and more concerning our origin, and our imprisonment. We knew Father Anthony constantly disappeared, but how or where was a secret beyond our comprehension; for in all our researches we never found a door except those common to the family, and which shut us from the world. Ellinor, whose lively imagination readily imbibed the romantic and extravagant, conjectured we were in the power of some giant; nay, such was her disgust to Father Anthony, that she sometimes apprehended he was a magician, and would one day or other devour us. I had a very different idea; and fancied our retreat a hollowed circle to seclude us from the wicked, while Father Anthony was our guardian genius. Frequently we by agreement interrogated Alice, who though fond to the common degree of an old nurse of both, but more especially Ellen, resisted those little arts nature herself inspires. Our mamma we now and then ventured to sound, but her gravity always disconcerted us, and we retreated from a vain attempt.
She once absented herself fourteen days, and left us to our own conjectures, in a spot truly chearless. Part of the time we spent in searching once more for a door, and the rest in childish lamentations for her loss; which Alice still assured us would be but a temporary one. Inflexible in the discharge of her duty, she still persisted in locking our apartment every day after dinner, at which time all who had occasion, doubtless, passed in and out of the Recess.
Being deprived of my customary resource, books, to amuse a part of our melancholy leisure, we mutually agreed to invent tales from the many whole-length pictures, which ornamented the best room, and to take them as they came alternately. Ellinor readily invented a ludicrous story upon the portrait of an old man, which made us both laugh heartily. I turned my eyes to consider what I should say about the next; they rested on the figure of a man of noble mien, his dress I then knew no name for, but have since found to be armour; a page held his helmet, and his hair, of a pale brown, fell over his shoulders. He was surrounded with many emblems of martial merit, and his eyes, which seemed bent on me, were full of a tender sweetness. A sentiment of veneration, mingled with a surprising softness, pierced my soul at once; my tongue faltered with a nameless idea, and I rested my head against the shoulder of my sister. That dear girl turned to me with quickness, and the beam of her eye was like that of the picture. I surveyed her over and over, and found in every feature the strongest resemblance; when she frowned, she had all his dignity; when she smiled, all his sweetness. An awe, I could not conquer, made me unable to form any tale on that subject, and I directed my attention toward the next. It represented a lady in the flower of youth, dressed in mourning, and seeming in every feature to be marked by sorrow; a black veil half shaded a coronet she wept over. If the last picture awakened veneration, this seemed to call forth a thousand melting sensations; the tears rushed involuntary into our eyes, and, clasping, we wept upon the bosoms of each other. “Ah! who can these be? cried we both together. Why do our hearts thus throb before inanimate canvas? surely every thing we behold is but part of one great mystery; when, will the day come, destined to clear it up?” We walked arm in arm round, and moralized on every portrait, but none interested us like these; we were never weary of surveying or talking about them; a young heart is frequently engrossed by a favorite idea, amid all the glare of the great world; nor is it then wonderful ours were thus possessed when entombed alive in such a narrow boundary. I knew not why, but we lived in the presence of these pictures as if they understood us, and blushed when we were guilty of the slightest folly.
The moment our mamma returned, we flew into her arms, and interrupted her tender carasses with importunate enquiries concerning these favorite pictures. She regarded us with astonishment—her eyes filled with tears, and she bade us leave her to recover herself alone. Shortly after she summoned Alice, and held with her a conversation which restored her tranquillity; but she carefully avoided our enquiries, endeavouring to diversify our hours by music, drawing, poetry, geography, and every ornamental branch of education. Whenever we verged toward an hint about the retreat—”wait, my dear girls, she would say, the appointed hour—alas, one may follow it, when you will wish yourselves still uninformed.”—Impressed with an undesinable melancholy, our years passed on ‘till womanhood approached.
Pardon me if I linger over these scenes; I have but few such to relate, and they are all of my life upon which my heart dares to pause. How are we born to invent our own miseries! We start forward from the goal of youth, fearless and impatient, nor know the heights and depths through which we must labour; oppressed in turn by every element, and often overwhelmed with that most insupportable of all burthens, our own dissatisfied souls. How have I wept the moment I quitted the Recess—a moment I then lived but in hope of! To be always erring, is the weakness of humanity, and to be always repenting, its punishment.—Alas! could we learn wisdom without experience, mankind would perhaps be too happy.
Father Anthony in time ingratiated himself with us, by his continual remonstrances against our being shut up in a place which bounded our ideas so much that he despaired of making us comprehend half of what he taught us. We seconded his advice with endless entreaties. Our mamma, who was persuasion itself in her own person, was not proof against it in that of another. “Alas, my children, would she often say, by what fatality do you so passionately desire to leave a home you will hereafter remember with a pleasure full of regret? In vain you would return to it—you will lose a taste for the tranquil enjoyments this solitude offers, without perhaps finding any to supply them. Yet far be the selfish weakness from my heart of punishing you, even for your welfare. You shall see this admired world. May it ever please you as it will at first sight!”
We embraced her with youthful transport, and then each other—”We shall go at last, exclaimed both together, we shall see many more like ourselves!”
“What say you, children? cried she; ah! you will see few indeed like yourselves.”
The next day was appointed for our enfranchisement. We packed and unpacked our little luggage fifty times over for mere employment ‘till the appointed hour came; when we were summoned to the chamber of our only friend, who was walking about apparently agitated with a secret.
“Are you grieved, mamma, cried I, that we are going to be happy?”
“Ah, no Matilda! I am grieved, because I think you are just ceasing to be so. In this peaceful solitude I could supply to you every lost relation—the adopted children of my heart, I stood between you and a fate at once distinguished, obscure and affecting.—Alas, why do you wrest yourselves and your secret from me? Why do you oblige me to tell you, you must never more call me any thing but Mrs. Marlow?”
“Never more call you mamma! sighed I, incoherently, who then are our parents?”
“You have no father, he who gave you a being sleeps in the bosom of God.
“Lives—but not for you—enquire no farther; let this specimen of knowledge teach you to fear it.—When the time requires it, I shall disclose your whole story;—weep no more, my lovely, my affecting girls; I have lost but a name: for my nature is unalterable. All who will see us know I never was married, which absolutely compelled me to this discovery. But I dare believe they will rely on my rectitude, and welcome you by whatever name I shall give you. Reasons you will hereafter know, induce me always to conceal a retreat, where alone I could have hid you, and both must, ere we leave it, solemnly promise never to disclose the secret.”
Chilled with this solemn preparation, our desire of liberty vanished; we felt like links struck from the chain of creation; and still with restless imaginations explored the remainder of a mystery which we wept by anticipation. “She lives, but not for you!” were words whose sound vibrated to my heart, while pleasure danced around me, and the doubt attending the future, often robbed the present of enjoyment.
After we had made at her knees the strict promise required, she muffled our faces, and taking my hand, as Alice did my sister’s, led us through many cold passages for some minutes; when unbinding our eyes, we found ourselves in a noble cloister. We flew into the garden it bordered, and how strong was the impression of the scene before us! from the mansion, which stood on a hill, spread a rich and fertile valley, mingled with thickets, half seen or clustered hamlets, while through the living landscape flowed a clear river,
―and to the main
The liquid serpent drew his silver train.
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ON THE SUBJECT OF …
SOPHIA LEE (1750–1824)
[Lee]’s most significant work, The Recess [(1783),] appeared in one volume three years after the publication of [her play] The Chapter of Accidents [(1780)]. Its reception was so encouraging that Sophia produced two additional volumes in 1785…. The tale traces the vicissitudes of Matilda and Ellinor, daughters of Mary Queen of Scots by the Duke of Norfolk, who, under threat of persecution by Elizabeth, are reared in the subterranean vaults of an abandoned abbey so that, in their father’s words, they may “never … know the Court of Elizabeth, but innocently and happily … die in the desart where they bloomed.” The central importance of the recess, or refuge, in the tale reflects the most complex exploration of a theme that was to interest Lee throughout her writing career: that of retreat…. Throughout the novel, Lee’s passionate attention to the “exquisite distress” of the tormented sisters announces her conviction of the relationship (explored in detail by later Gothicists like Radcliffe) of mental suffering and refinement, of anguish and the sublime.
The critical response to The Recess was immediate and vigorous. Readers were arrested by the new combination of history and romance…. The Recess, in effect, reintroduced the genre of the English historical romance, which had lain dormant since Thomas Leland’s Longsword of 1762, and in so doing not only stimulated the composition of a host of novels along similar lines but helped to form public taste for the more popular and radical genre that was to captivate English readers in the last decade of the eighteenth century: the Gothic.
SOURCE: Napier, Elizabeth R. “Sophia Lee.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 39: British Novelists, 1660–1800, edited by Martin C. Battestin, pp. . Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1985.
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KATHLEEN L. SPENCER (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1992)
> SOURCE: Spencer, Kathleen L. “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis.” ELH 59, no. 1 (spring 1992): .
In the following essay, Spencer investigates Dracula within the social contexts of late Victorianism, discussing the novel in terms of British imperialism, contemporaneous theories of cultural degeneracy, and the New Woman movement of the time.
I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.
—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger1
The construction of categories defining what is appropriate sexual behavior (“normal”/”abnormal”), or what constitutes the essential gender being (“male”/”female”); or where we are placed along a continuum of sexual possibilities (“heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “paedophile,” “transvestite” or whatever); this endeavor is no neutral, scientific discovery of what was already there. Social institutions which embody these definitions (religion, the law, medicine, the educational system, psychiatry, social welfare, even architecture) are constitutive of the sexual lives of individuals. Struggles around sexuality are, therefore, struggles over meanings—over what is appropriate or not appropriate—meanings which call on the resources of the body and the flux of desire, but are not dictated by them.
—Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and its Discontents (emphasis added)2
Interpreting Dracula’s sexual substrata has become something of a cottage industry of late, so much so that one more reading of the text’s unconscious may seem a bit pointless. Yet there is something curious going on here: despite certain disagreements as to what kind of sexuality is present in the novel, almost all readings presume a given sexuality that is repressed and displaced throughout the text, which it is the critical task to uncover and articulate. In other words, despite local disagreements, all of these readings approach the text from a fairly orthodox version of depth psychology.3 While this focus has certainly been productive, there are other questions about the text that cannot be answered by focusing on the unconscious sexuality of the author, or a character, or even, as in Freudian/Marxist readings, on the class system.
What I propose is a different kind of historical reading of Dracula to supplement the previous ap-proaches; my concern is less with Stoker’s position as a representative late-Victorian man than with the novel as a representative late-Victorian text. For Dracula is not an isolated phenomenon, but is part of a literary/cultural discourse comprised not only of other tales about vampires, but of other fantastic novels and stories that also focus on sexual dynamics, whether covertly or overtly.4 Whatever it is that Dracula is saying about sex, then, it is saying not in isolation but as part of a dialogue.
The first step in this broader historical explication of Stoker’s novel is to identify its literary context: the “romance revival” of the 1880s and 1890s—more explicitly, that species of romance called “the fantastic.” Having located the text generically, we can then clarify its cultural context—the late-Victorian world of imperialism and degeneracy theories, purity crusades and the New Woman, materialist medicine and its opponents (continental psychology on the one hand, Spiritualism and assorted occultisms on the other). To illuminate this social context I will read the novel against models of cultures in crisis drawn from René Girard and anthropologist Mary Douglas. Finally I will consider the relationship between Dracula’s genre, its historical context, and its popularity, to see what light this analysis can shed on a larger question—why the fantastic as a genre should have flourished so dramatically in this period of cultural transformation.
I: The Fantastic
Like “romance” itself, “the fantastic” is a much-disputed term. While some theorists use “fantasy” and “the fantastic” interchangeably, others see them as referring to two quite different kinds of stories, and still others see the fantastic not as a genre at all but as an element that can appear in many kinds of tales (as the term “gothic” can be applied either to a specific fictional configuration common at the end of the eighteenth century, or to a literary mode which can appear in works of any period).
The most famous definition of the term “fantastic” is Tzvetan Todorov’s, but what seems to me the most functional, precise explanation of the fantastic is that proposed by the Polish semiotician Andrzej Zgorzelski. For Zgorzelski, the fantastic as a genre is signaled by “the breaching of the internal laws which are initially assumed in the text to govern the fictional world.” The opening of the text indicates that the fictive world is based on a “mimetic world model,” a model that is violently breached by the entrance of the fantastic element and changed into a different world, one in which the fantastic element does not violate the laws of reality. A fantastic text, then, builds its fictional world as “a textual confrontation of two models of reality.”5
Two elements are essential for the characteristic frisson of the fantastic: first, the impossible event must genuinely be happening (not a dream, a hallucination, a mistake, or a deliberate trick); and second, the tone of the narrative emphasizes initial disbelief, and (usually) horror. The characters react with fear and revulsion at encountering what is not only unexpected, but unnatural according to the laws of the world they inhabit, and readers usually respond with the same feelings, not only because we identify with the characters, but because the world the characters initially inhabit is our own world. Further, the narrative voice insistently emphasizes violation and transgression, the logical contradiction between the impossibility of the occurrence and its actuality. For example, when Dracula appears in Picadilly at high noon, the characters react initially with disbelief and a kind of horrified vertigo at discovering that the monstrous is real and walking the streets of their ordinary modern city.
Defined in this way, the fantastic as a genre is relatively modern. The low mimetic (to use Northrop Frye’s familiar term) must be a well-established fictional convention before we can conventionalize its violation, a condition that does not obtain till the mid-eighteenth century. Before the convention of realism became the norm—in the medieval quest narrative or Renaissance romance, for example—the intrusion of the supernatural or monstrous did not create an experience of the fantastic for either the characters or the readers. A questing knight may be seriously dismayed to discover a dragon or a magician in his path, but the mere existence of the supernatural does not force him to rethink reality, because it does not violate the laws of nature. For Prince Hamlet, seeing his father’s ghost is certainly alarming; but it is the ghost’s message, not its presence, which so distresses him. The serious question for Hamlet is not whether the ghost is real but whether it is “honest”—genuinely his father’s spirit or a demon sent to tempt him to regicide.
Modern readers of these texts need not believe in the actual existence of dragons or ghosts to recognize that the text treats these occurrences as natural. The conventions of fictional realism do not apply, any more than they apply to modern fantasy or science fiction, whose readers learn to respond without astonishment to the presence of wizards or of faster-than-light space vessels. But a wizard or faster-than-light ship introduced into a text whose opening pages signal a contemporary realistic setting would produce reactions from the characters, the narrator, and the readers that would signal the presence of the fantastic.
In light of this requirement, I would argue that the Gothic tales of the late eighteenth century are the first fantastic fictions, Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe among the first writers to experiment with the emotional possibilities (for both characters and readers) of violating the laws of nature. Since such violations are radically new, the earliest writers tend to soften the effects a bit. In the first place, Gothic fictions are traditionally distanced somewhat from the world of their audience, set back in time and “away” in space—preferably in Spain or Italy during the Inquisition—making the stories more plausible (to an English audience) by the superstitiousness of their settings, and at the same time lessening the intensity of the fear, for the readers if not the characters. As another softening device, some of the early Gothic writers, notably Radcliffe, tidy away the fantastic by giving us rational explanations for the apparent supernatural events—though not till the end of the novel, so we have plenty of time to experience the fantastic frisson first. However, this tidying strategy was soon abandoned. While second-generation Gothic writers like Monk Lewis and Charles Maturin still set their novels in Inquisition Europe, they apparently felt less need to reassure their readers at the end that the ordinary rational laws of reality governed the world inside the text as well as outside.
But the fantastic that develops at the end of the nineteenth century (exclusive of the ghost story, a popular but traditional form) is identifiably different from the Gothic of one hundred years before. First and most important, the new authors insist on the modernity of the setting—not on the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader, but on their identity. A modern setting means, most profoundly, an urban setting, as by the end of the nineteenth century well over half the population of the British Isles lived in cities. To be modern also means that science is the metaphor that rules human interactions with the universe, so the new fantastic adopts the discourse of empiricism even to describe and manipulate supernatural phenomena.
These characteristics of the modern fantastic, as distinct from the earlier variety, suggest we need a new term to refer to it; and I would argue that “Urban Gothic” is particularly appropriate for the new type, acknowledging the eighteenth-century ancestry while identifying the major modifications that have been made to adapt the fantastic to the needs of a new era.
The change from Gothic to Urban Gothic allows writers to call on the powers of what Henry James, in a review of the sensation novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, called “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.” As James observed, the innovation of bringing the terror next door gave an entirely new direction to horror literature. The new strategy
> was fatal to the authority of Mrs. Radcliffe and her everlasting castle in the Apennines. What are the Apennines to us, or we to the Apennines? Instead of the terrors of “Udolpho”, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely more terrible.
In 1865, James was moderately scornful of the supernatural as a fictional device, remarking in this same review that “a good ghost-story, to be half as terrible as a good murder-story, must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life.”6 But twenty-five years later he himself found uses for the supernatural by following his own advice and connecting it “at a hundred points to the common objects of life”—and so did his “fellow” (if we can so call them) romancers. In short, James, along with many of his contemporaries, explored the Urban Gothic.
II: The Romance Revival
But the Urban Gothic was only part, if a crucial part, of a larger literary movement of the last two decades of the century: the romance revival. “Romance” is another of those protean literary terms whose meaning varies with the frame of reference, but in the context of the 1880s, the term has a fairly stable meaning. The “romance revival” began as a reaction against the “high realism” of the 1870s, which was, in its turn, a reaction against the “sensation novels” of the 1860s. The theorists of high realism rejected the sensation novel’s emphasis on plot, arguing that it demanded less of readers than novels that required them to interpret the subtleties of human motives. In addition, it was believed, too strong an emphasis on plot would interfere with the “naturalness” of characters.
By the 1880s, these novels of “character analysis” themselves came under attack. First, being limited to and by “gross” reality, the novels (their critics argued) were dull and trivial. Second, these novelists had chosen to adopt the “heartless” methods of science (“vivisection” is a common metaphor), treating their characters with no sympathy or decorum, dissecting them in public. Then, when “high realism” transposes into naturalism, new grounds for rejection appear. For one thing, naturalist novels persistently tried to introduce moral, middle-class readers to the kinds of persons—prostitutes, criminals, beggars, and other “undeserving” or unappealing poor people—whom they had no desire to meet. For another, realism, especially when pushed to the extremes of naturalist determinism, allowed no room for the higher workings of Providence, no room for the reward of the virtuous and the punishment of the guilty. Finally, since naturalism was identified in the minds of English readers with Zola, James, and Howells, it became for some readers and critics a patriotic duty to resist “foreign influences,” and to call for a healthy English fiction.7
The result was a resurgence of interest in bold, high-stakes adventure, larger-(and simpler-) thanlife characters, exotic locales and incidents, idealistic quests, world-class criminals, disguises and escapes, rescues and disasters. Anthony Hope Hawkins, author (as Anthony Hope) of one of the best-known romances of the period, The Prisoner of Zenda (1893), exclaimed that in romance,
> Emotion must be taken at high pitch. It must be strong, simple, confident; otherwise it lacks the quality needed for romance … romance becomes an expression of some of the deepest instincts of humanity.
It has no monopoly of this expression, but it is its privilege to render it in a singularly clear, distinct, and pure form; it can give to love an ideal object, to ambition a boundless field, to courage a high occasion; and these great emotions, revelling in their freedom, exhibit themselves in their glory. Thus in its most worthy forms, in the hands of its masters, it can not only delight men, but can touch them to the very heart. It shows them what they would be if they could, if time and fate and circumstances did not bind, what in a sense they all are, and what their acts would show them to be if an opportunity offered. So they dream and are happier, and at least none the worse for their dreams.8
Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and (in his early works) H. G. Wells are the best-known figures of this new movement, along with Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Andrew Lang, several of whom also wrote manifestos for the critical journals in favor of romance.9 In addition to these relatively familiar names, a whole army of romancers, once popular but now practically unread and in many cases entirely forgotten, produced large quantities of this fiction to supply the new markets.10
But if the revived romance of the 1880s takes its declared form from an ancient tradition, the new romancers (like the authors of the Urban Gothic) draw on contemporary interests for their characters, settings, and themes: the exotic reaches of the empire—Africa, Egypt, India, Australia—as well as such regions as China, the South Pacific, and South and Central America; dead civilizations of the ancient past (Egyptian, Peruvian, Celtic, Neanderthal), their tales enlivened by information culled from the newest archaeological reports; lost races inside volcanoes, at the bottom of the sea, in the polar regions, on other planets, in the future; the thrilling possibilities of modern technology (electrically-induced immortality or eternal youth; brain transplants; memory recordings; time travel); or the beliefs and rituals of that other revival of the 1880s, the occult revival (Spiritualism, Theosophy, the Society for Psychical Research, and the magicians of the Order of the Golden Dawn).11
III: Purity and Danger
Thus not only the Urban Gothic but the romance revival as a whole transforms a traditional literary genre by an infusion of modern perspectives. But the Urban Gothic and the romance share another crucial characteristic beyond their common reliance on contemporary adventure and exoticism: a concern for purity, for the reduction of ambiguity and the preservation of boundaries. Both attempt to reduce anxiety by stabilizing certain key distinctions, which seemed, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, to be eroding: between male and female, natural and unnatural, civilized and degenerate, human and nonhuman. At issue, finally, underneath all these distinctions, is the ground of individual identity, the ultimate distinction between self and other.
Where once a complex web of traditional roles and relationships grounded individual identity, in the new capitalist world of the cash-nexus, Anthony Giddens observes, the bulwarks of identity were reduced essentially to two: the arena of intimate relationships (that is, the family, personal and highly sexualized), and the arena of “mass ritual,” of sporting events and political ceremonies, especially the fervent impersonal group identity we call nationalism. “In such conditions of social life,” writes Giddens, “the ontological security of the individual in day-to-day life is more fragile than in societies dominated by tradition and the meshings of kinship across space and time.”12
Instead of being broadly supported by a web of interlocking kinship links, work groups, ceremonial societies, traditions, routines, and even the continuities of place and seasonal cycle, identity for the ordinary middle-class Briton now hung delicately on two slender threads at the extreme margins of scale, the intimate and the national. So it is hardly surprising that many people grew anxious to preserve the clarity and purity of the distinctions that supported this system.
However, even at this time of their heightened significance, these very distinctions came under attack. Darwinian evolutionary theory blurred the boundaries between human and animal in not one but two ways: by the famous argument that humans and apes had a common ancester, but also by the implied hierarchy at the end of The Descent of Man which leads from the ape-like ancestor through primitive peoples to civilized Europeans. The imputed inferiority of the lower races, as George Stocking points out, “although still in the first instance cultural, was now in most cases at least implicitly organic as well.”13 Thus the boundary between human and ape became a matter of scientific doctrine, but (as Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau pointed out) an ambiguous one: what was actually a philosophic and political debate was concealed under the language of science. Yet since “scientific” language could not hope to stabilize a fundamentally unscientific boundary, the issue continued unresolved.
Nor was this boundary a matter of abstract speculation for civilized Europeans; for if humans could evolve, it was thought they could also devolve or degenerate, both as nations and as individuals. At what point in a downward slide did a human being cross over the line into animality? Lombroso addressed this question with his new “science” of criminal anthropology, which purported to demonstrate through elaborate measurements and charts of facial angles that habitual criminals were throwbacks to primitive ancestors, with more of the ape than the human about them. Fear of such national “degeneracy” was further highlighted for Britons by the Boer War of 1899–1902, first by the series of unprecedented defeats handed the greatest army in the world by a handful of Dutch farmers, and second by the recruiting campaign that discovered the physical inadequacies of the men from London’s East-End slums, who were alarmingly undersized, frail, and sickly.14 Such concerns underlay the tremendous public anxiety at the end of the century about the condition of the British Empire and the warnings that, like its Roman predecessor, it could fall, and for what were popularly perceived as the same reasons—moral decadence leading to racial degeneration.
Another crucial distinction under attack was that between male and female. By all the superficial criteria of appearance, behavior, and legal status, Victorian men and women must have seemed almost like two different, though symbiotically related, species. It has been argued that never in western society have gender roles been more rigid or more distinct (at least in the middle classes) than in the late nineteenth century. Victorian science, especially Victorian medicine, lent the weight of its prestige to the position that the physical distinctions between women and men were absolute, and absolutely determinate. In their very nature and essence, said the doctors, women were unlike men; and this difference explained their limitations—physical, moral, and intellectual—and justified their legal and social disabilities.15
It was woman’s special nature that fitted her for the task she had been assigned by Victorian society. In her guises of maiden, wife, and above all mother, Woman (with a capital) had been appointed the guardian of moral virtue; the home, Woman’s realm, became both a refuge from the hard necessities of the utilitarian business world and the temple of a new religion that served to supplement or substitute for the weakening Christian orthodoxy—the religion of romantic love as the source of salvation, and of the family as a haven for all the human warmth, grace and affection that had been banished from the father’s daily life in the world. Woman, as the Angel in the House, was to save Man from his own baser instincts and lead him toward heaven.
Jenni Calder’s study of the Victorian home further clarifies the significance of this domestic religion. While Victorians genuinely desired to make the world a better place, Calder argues, the social problems facing them were so massive and so intractable that they usually had to settle for making the home, as the only part of the world responsive to their actions, a better place instead. Thus “the angel in the house was at the root of multitudes of Victorian assumptions and ideas, and Victorian rationalizations and ideals.”16
But this position did not go unchallenged. Throughout the century, women argued for re-forms of marriage and divorce laws, and in particular for the right of married women to own property in their own names. The kind of resistance they faced is revealed most potently in the comments of Lord St. Leonards, who argued against the passage of the Married Women’s Property Bill of 1857 on the grounds that it would “place the whole marriage law … on a different footing and give a wife all the distinct rights of citizenship,” an argument that indicates that for this distinguished jurist and former Lord Chancellor the categories of “wife” and “citizen” were mutually exclusive.17 A few men joined the fray on the distaff side, most notably John Stuart Mill, who argued against such logic in The Subjection of Women in 1869 and even tried to get women the vote, on the grounds that only if they could vote for their representatives would Parliament take their needs seriously; but considerable discussion produced little substantive action.
The debate grew even more heated in the last few decades of the century when the New Woman arrived on the scene, wanting higher education, striving to enter the learned professions, and ever more frequently working outside the home for money (that is, middle-class women began to do so, for of course lower-class women had long been so employed). And some of the most radical New Women even argued that they were entitled to the same freedom of sexual expression as men. In short, more and more women insisted on leaving the house of which they had been appointed angel, the house that, if a refuge for men, became for many middle-class wives and daughters a more or less pleasant prison. But in the eyes of most Victorian men, for women to deny their traditional role was to deny their womanhood, to challenge the distinctions between women and men upon which the family—and therefore society—depended.
Nor was the New Woman the only source of threat to gender categories. Homosexuality was brought into the consciousness of a horrified public, first by the Cleveland Street scandal in 1889, which revealed a homosexual brothel catering to the upper classes (including the Prince of Wales’s closest friend and, by rumor, the Prince’s eldest son as well).18 More dramatic still was the infamous Wilde trial in 1895, which made “homosexuality” both as an ontological state and as a chosen lifestyle available to ordinary middle-class imaginations for the first time.19 To late Victorians, if the New Woman’s desire to achieve higher status by “becoming” a man was at least understandable, though outrageous, what could be said about men who deliberately refused to be men? Such depravity challenged not just the distinction between male and female but that between natural and unnatural as well.20
The debates about sex and sex roles in the nineteenth century, argues Ludmilla Jordanova, “hinged precisely on the ways in which sexual boundaries might become blurred. It is as if the social order depended on clarity with respect to certain distinctions whose symbolic meanings spread far beyond their explicit context.”21 In this perception she is quite right: anthropologists tell us that social order depends precisely on the clarity of such distinctions. But anthropologists can tell us more: they can help us see the dynamics at work in late Victorian England in a larger social context—the context of a culture in crisis.
Mary Douglas’s work on pollution fears and witchcraft societies is surprisingly appropriate here.22 All cultures that explain evil as a product of witchcraft—from certain African tribes to Salem Village in the seventeenth century—share certain characteristics, she notes. Most importantly, there is strong pressure on group members to conform, but the classification system of the society is somehow ineffective in structuring reality: it is too narrow and rigid to deal with the variety of actual experience, or it is inconsistent, or has gaps, or is in competition with another system of classification that weakens the effectiveness of both.
In such a society, the universe is dualistic: what is inside is good, what is outside is bad. The group boundary is therefore both a source of magical danger and the main definer of rights: you are either a member or a stranger. Evil is a foreign danger introduced by foreign agents in disguise, but abetted by deviant members of the group who must be identified and expelled for allowing the outside evil to infiltrate. Since not only the society itself but the entire cosmos is endangered by the vile, irrational behavior of these human agents of evil, a witchcraft society is preoccupied with rituals of cleansing, the expulsion of spies or witches, and the redrawing of boundaries to mark the pure (inside) and the evil (outside).
Though the late Victorians did not explicitly attribute evil to witches, they manifested the same fears of pollution from outsiders, the same suspicion of deviants as traitors, and the same exaggerated estimation of what was at stake—in short, the same social dynamics as more traditional witchcraft societies. The pressures on middle-class Victorians to conform were intense (and too well known to need documentation), while the model to which they were required to conform was losing its clarity. The old consensus on the central distinctions of their society—on which distinctions were indeed central, and on how those distinctions were to be defined and maintained—was breaking down. In the last twenty years of the century, an intense debate developed between those who sought to shore up the old crumbling distinctions and those demanding change—nontraditional women, homosexuals, socialists, some artists and intellectuals, a few scientists, working-class men who had acquired some education. One side strove to widen or redefine cultural boundaries, to let some of the “outside” in, while the other fought desperately to maintain the “purity” of the inside by expelling as traitors those who breached the boundaries.
Douglas mentions one other key factor in a witchcraft society that the Victorians also shared: the leadership of the group is precarious or under dispute, and the roles within the group ambiguous or undefined. Because no one person or faction has sufficient authority to stabilize the situation, the struggle for leadership prompts what we might call “purity competitions”: who is most vigilant at ferreting out enemies, especially those disguised enemies lurking within the society itself? In other words, the struggle for power and stability under these social conditions leads inevitably to scapegoat rituals.23
The struggle for leadership of a divided and confused people also characterized late Victorian society. For the Victorians, neither traditionalist nor “rebel” forces could take complete command: the traditionalists had the numbers and most of the worldly power, but the rebels tended to be educated and articulate, many were influential, and all had ready access to a public forum in the wide-open periodical market of the 1880s and ’90s. As a result, they could make their voices heard in disproportion to their numbers and official positions. The battle produced numerous cries of “seize the witch!”—directed both at groups (Jews, Germans, Slavs, Orientals, birth control advocates, promiscuous women, decadent French authors [especially Zola], homosexuals) and at individuals—most spectacularly, though by no means solely, Oscar Wilde.
And here is where we reconnect the social and the literary. The romance, I would argue, and in particular the Urban Gothic, not only in its characteristic subject matter but more importantly in its very form, is the perfect literary reflection of the cultural crisis Britain experienced between 1880 and 1914. In such an atmosphere, the modern fantastic became a potent vehicle for social drama—potent because the images of the fantastic are always drawn from our dreams and nightmares. The fantastic as a genre is based on violations of reality, which means it is fundamentally concerned with defining reality; and the nature of reality is exactly the question at issue in late-nineteenth-century England. Finally, since at the end of a fantastic tale the violating element is characteristically expelled and the mimetic world, the status quo, is reestablished, the fantastic proved ideal for symbolically reaffirming the traditional model of reality.
As Northrop Frye told us long ago, the romance is traditionally a psychomachia, a struggle between the forces of good and evil in which evil is defeated, and the modern romance (as Hope’s quotation suggests, with its emphasis on clarity and purity and “great emotions in their glory”) retains this pattern. The Urban Gothic extends the tradition in a peculiarly modern way by defining the enemy as not only evil but unnatural: she/he/it has no right to exist at all. In the very form of both the romance and the Urban Gothic, then, we find repeated the contemporary drive to purify the inside and expel the foreign pollution: at the heart of both lies the scapegoat ritual.
And this finally brings us to Dracula, a classic example of the conservative fantastic: in the end Dracula is killed, the alien element expelled and the ordinary world restored. But what exactly is being expelled? In particular, how would Stoker’s original audience have read this novel? In the cultural context of 1897, what threat did Dracula represent that needed so desperately and at such cost to be driven out? How was the culture being instructed to protect itself, and from what?
Another way to put the question is this: who is the scapegoat in Dracula, and to what end is that scapegoat sacrificed?
IV: Ritual Victims in Dracula
As René Girard tells us in Violence and the Sacred, what all sacrificial victims have in common is that they must recognizably belong to the community, but must at the same time be somehow marginal, incapable of fully participating in the social bond—slaves, criminals, the mad, the deformed. They are enough of the community to substitute for it, but between them and the community “a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance.” As a result, sacrificing them will end communal violence rather than prolonging it.24
In Dracula, I argue, Lucy Westenra fills the category and the social function of the surrogate victim who is sacrificed to restore a lost order. On the surface, it would seem that Lucy belongs to the class Victorians would find least sacrificeable rather than most—a young, beautiful, virtuous girl—and that, in any case, she is a victim not of her own community but of a monstrous outsider. However, we are given numerous indications that Lucy, for all her sweetness, purity, and beauty, is a marginal figure. In the first place, her social connections are alarmingly tenuous: her father is dead, and she has no brothers or other family to protect her except her mother, who is herself very weak both psychologically and physically (and in fact predeceases her daughter). There is no one to protect Lucy from attack, or to revenge her death at the hands of her own community.
More crucially, Lucy’s character is “flawed” in a way that makes her fatally vulnerable to the vampire. She is a woman whose sexuality is under very imperfect control. She is loved devotedly by three different young men, which in itself is not a fault, but her reaction to this situation reveals a problem. When she writes to Mina about her suitors, she can’t help gloating about “THREE proposals in one day.”25 Worse, although she says she is greatly in love with Arthur, she also feels very badly about turning down those two splendid fellows, John Seward and Quincey Morris, and bursts out, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” Immediately afterward she admits that “this is heresy, and I must not say it” (59); but even so, we sense that she means what she says: she really would like to marry all of them.
And, according to the novel’s own semiotics, she gets her wish. At her funeral Arthur declares that, because he has given Lucy his blood, he feels that she is his true wife in the sight of God. Under the circumstances, his friends naturally refrain from telling him about the transfusions Lucy had received from her other two lovers and Dr. Van Helsing; but later, alone with Seward, Van Helsing bursts out in uncontrollable laughter thinking of it. True, as Seward observes, the thought is very comforting for Arthur. But if Arthur is right in his belief, Van Helsing points out, what about the other three donors? “Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist” (176).
Nor is this desire to marry all three of her suitors the only sign of Lucy’s suspect character. She is a sleepwalker, a habit traditionally associated with sexual looseness. She is therefore doubly vulnerable to Dracula’s approach; in the symbol-system of the novel, she has signaled her sexual receptivity. It cannot be an accident that on the night of the storm, when Dracula’s ship lands, Lucy indulges again in sleepwalking, leaving the house dressed only in her nightgown. Considering the armor-like characteristics of the ordinary Victorian woman’s daytime clothing—the heavily-boned corsets, the immense weight of petticoats, the endless layers of cloth—Lucy in her nightdress might as well be naked. Worse yet, she goes to the old cemetery, alone, and to the grave of a suicide (the only spot of unsanctified ground in the churchyard). The traditional equation of sexuality and death could hardly be clearer, nor her invitation of Dracula more explicit.
What makes Lucy’s sexuality threatening to the community—sufficiently threatening that she becomes an appropriate surrogate victim—is that she will not limit herself to one man. While she does officially choose one of her three suitors, her choice is insufficiently absolute to control the competition among the three for her possession. Stoker downplays the competition by making the men such good friends and such decent, self-controlled characters that the threat of disorder is concealed, but nonetheless that competition remains as a source of potential violence.
But in order to function as a surrogate victim who can purge the community of its universal violence, something further is required: Lucy has to take on the aspect of the monstrous. In one light, Lucy functions as the monstrous double of Mina, the virtuous wife; seen another way, she functions as her own monstrous double, for there are two aspects to her personality whose separation becomes increasingly marked throughout her transformation into a vampire. She is both the image of purity, sweetness, and beauty—the traditional blond angel in the house—and the creature of sexual appetites, the sleep-walker who accedes to violent penetration by the vampire. Her saving grace, according to Van Helsing, is that she yielded to Dracula only during a trance—that is, when her conscious personality was not in command—so her unconscious personality alone has become vampiric.26 During her last hours, she manifests both sides of her personality in alternation, sometimes the sweet pure Lucy they all love, and sometimes the wanton, voluptuous creature with cruel mouth and hard eyes. When she is awake and thus “herself,” she clutches the garlic flowers to her; but in her sleep, she thrusts away that protection, embracing her monstrous fate. Since she dies in her sleep, her future as one of the Un-Dead is inescapable.
As a vampire she is even more beautiful than in life, but no longer the Lucy they had known. “The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness…. Lucy’s eyes [have become] unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew”; they blaze with “unholy light” and she is as “callous as a devil” (211). Again and again, Seward uses the words “wanton” and “voluptuous” to describe Un-Dead Lucy’s smile, her tones “diabolically sweet”—until she is thwarted, at which point she becomes overtly monstrous, her eyes throwing out “sparks of hell-fire,” the brows “wrinkled as though the folds of the flesh were the coils of Medusa’s snakes” (212). These same images are repeated when the four men, Dr. Van Helsing and Lucy’s three suitors, return the next day to free Lucy’s soul, to save her by killing her. “She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there; the pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth—which it made one shudder to see—the whole carnal and unspirited appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity” (214).
But the rite of sacrifice, an act of terrible violence, restores both Lucy and the community she had threatened. As Stoker describes it, the final killing of Lucy is quite clearly both a religious act and a communal one. The setting is a solitary tomb lit only by candles. Arthur drives the stake through Lucy’s heart, as the one with the best right to so violate her offending body and release the innocent soul, and he is supported in his work by the priestly figure of Dr. Van Helsing and by his two closest friends, Lucy’s other lovers, who read the prayer for the dead as he strikes home.
> The thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, bloodcurdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault….
There, in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate that the work of her destruction was yielded as a privilege to the one best entitled to it, but Lucy as we had seen her in life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity.
In death Lucy becomes again the angel she had been in life; she also becomes a bond between her three rivals, where in life she could only have been a source of division. Despite their personal grief, it is for them an ideal solution to the problem she represented. In sacrificing Lucy, the four men purge not only their fear of female sexuality generally, of which she is the monstrous expression, but also—and more importantly—their fear of their own sexuality and their capacity for sexually-prompted violence against each other.
The scene in the tomb exemplifies a key element of the sacrificial rite, “the atmosphere of terror and hallucination that accompanies the primordial religious experience.”28 The violent hysteria, the decisive act of violence perceived as religious experience, the succeeding calm and the atmosphere of holy mystery covering the participants, all function to fuse the men into a closed and harmonious community. Although Lucy is no longer available to any of the men as a bulwark of his personal identity, her death serves to reinforce their common bond, their dedication to each other and to a sense of shared interest, thus bolstering that other pole of Victorian identity that Giddens defines as nationalism.
But Lucy is not the only scapegoat in the novel. Count Dracula himself is also sacrificed for the common good. Like all sacrificial victims, he must be both connected and marginal. His links to the community are literally blood ties—the blood of Jonathan, Lucy, and Mina. Further, he resembles his enemies in several important ways: he is (or was once) human, he is European, he is extremely intelligent and has a most powerful will. But his roots are in Eastern Europe—Slavic, Catholic, peasant, and superstitious where England is Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, industrial, and rationalist. Further, unlike Arthur, the bourgeois aristocrat, Dracula belongs to a much older, more feudal sort of aristocracy, one that was was going out of favor in England.29 In fact, the most unmistakable sign of his allegiance to that older pattern may be his sexuality, which partakes of the ancient droit du seigneur. “Your girls that you all love are mine already,” he gloats (306), taunting his opponents; and throughout the novel he lets his appetites run rampant, voracious and (as Freud says of the child’s sexuality) polymorphously perverse—a most appropriate phrase, since the narrative repeatedly emphasizes Dracula’s “child brain” (335), as opposed to the adult brains of his enemies. Even Mina has, we are told, a man’s brain to go with her woman’s heart (234).
But we know that civilized adult men control their appetites; his failure to do so marks the crucial distinction between Dracula and his opponents: he is degenerate, “a criminal and of criminal type” according to the theories of Lombroso and Nordau, which means he has an “imperfectly formed mind” (342).30 Consequently he can only work on one project at a time, and in emergencies must fall back on habit—which is why, closely pursued, he can do nothing but flee to his castle, while his opponents are able to innovate strategies for his defeat. As criminal and degenerate, Dracula is by definition selfish, evil, solitary; despite his pride in his descent from Attila and in his people’s valiant struggles against the Turk, as a vampire he has no true “national” identity, no “community” to belong to. Even the three vampire women at the castle who could conceivably function as a family for him, if not a nation, do not appear to do so. By contrast the “band of brothers” is selfless, good, and unified into a community both by their shared sacrifice of Lucy and their shared devotion to Mina. It is, as Van Helsing tells them, one of their great advantages over Dracula—the “power of combination,” along with the “sources of science” and “devotion in a cause” (238).
However, despite all these differences, the truth gradually emerges: the Count represents precisely those dark secret drives that the men most fear in themselves, which are most destructive to both poles of identity—the intimate self of the family man, threatened by unrestrained sexual appetites, and the communal self of the nation, undermined by violent internal competition more than by external invasion. Representing a real aspect of his enemies, but one that they consciously wish to reject, Dracula has both the necessary connections to the community and the necessary separation from it to fulfill the scapegoat’s purgative function.
And like Lucy’s sacrifice, the scene of Dracula’s death contains all the elements of the primordial religious experience. The atmosphere is terrifying and hallucinatory: the two parties desperately racing the sun, each fighting for life—Dracula to reach his castle, the band of heroes to catch the vampire before sunset restores his deadly power; the Count’s glaring eyes and “horrible vindictive look” as he lies helpless in his coffin, and his triumphant expression as he sees the sun setting and anticipates his revenge. Like the earlier sacrifice, this act is communal: two of the young men together pry off the lid of the coffin with their knives and strike simultaneously, one slashing the Count’s throat, the other plunging a knife into his heart—all described in words that intensify the terror of the moment (“sweep,” “flash,” “shriek,” “shear,” “plunge” ).
“It was like a miracle,” cries Mina in relief; but, as the Count’s body crumbles into dust before their eyes, she adds, “Even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there” (377). As at the moment of Lucy’s death, the sacrificial victim is pictured as at peace, almost grateful to die for the greater good of the community. And indeed, there may be a reason for both Lucy’s and Dracula’s curious passivity at the moment of death. Mary Douglas remarks in Purity and Danger that “if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others. He cannot help his abnormal situation.” But to say that he cannot help his situation is to suggest that he would like to help it, that he does not want to be a danger to others.
However we read this reaction, the atmosphere of the scene changes dramatically at the moment of the vampire’s death: Castle Dracula is suddenly seen standing out against the sunset sky as we have never seen it before, every stone blazing in the light. The violence and horror is succeeded by holy awe and peace, which is capped when Quincey Morris sees Mina’s forehead now clear of its shameful scar, and vows with his last breath that this outcome is worth dying for. It is the ultimate confirmation that the community has been saved.
V: What is Lost: What is Saved
But it has been a near thing, and the cost high: Lucy is lost to them (though her soul was saved), Quincey is dead, and both Jonathan and Mina suffer severely before Dracula is defeated. Stoker’s novel, then, reveals two complementary perspectives on its subject. If Lucy and Dracula demonstrate the terrifying powers of degeneracy, so threatening that they must at all costs be expelled from the community and from life itself, Jonathan’s and Mina’s experiences exemplify the difficulties and the rewards of resistance.
According to Victorian sexology, in Dracula’s castle Jonathan is a man at risk: he is engaged to Mina, but they are not yet married, so that his sexual fantasies are inflamed but not yet lawfully satisfied. Further, he is far from home and isolated from other living human beings. For the Victorians, solitude greatly increased sexual danger: the solitude of privacy allowed one to indulge in masturbation, while the different solitude of anonymity left one free to indulge in the kinds of sexual experiences one would, as member of a family, have been ashamed to admit desiring.31 Jonathan is both alone and anonymous. Confronted with the three mysterious and beautiful women in the moonlit room, he admits, “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (37). The scene that follows, when he very nearly (and disastrously) gets his wish, is recorded with incandescent detail:
> The girl went on her knees and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and seemed to fasten on my throat…. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart.
The erotic charge of the scene is quite remarkable, as is Jonathan’s fascinated passivity in surrendering to his sexual fantasies, even while admitting the wickedness of what he desires. What we see and he does not, at this moment, is that he is risking not the “little death” of orgasm, but the real thing. Ironically, Jonathan is saved from the women not by his own virtue, but by Count Dracula’s opportune arrival. However, he is rescued from the evils of feminine sexuality only to be plunged into the horrors of homosexual passions. “How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it?” Dracula furiously asks his hand-maids. “This man belongs to me!” The women answer, with a laugh of “ribald coquetry,” “You yourself never loved; you never love!” The Count looks at Jonathan’s face “attentively,” and says in a soft whisper, “Yes, I too can love” (39). As Dracula approaches him, Jonathan conveniently sinks into unconsciousness—into the same state in which Lucy had yielded to the vampire’s blandishments. If we had had any doubts about the equation of violence and sex in the novel, this scene would dispel them: Dracula’s own language conflates erotic desire and feeding; the mouth both kisses and consumes, the same organ gratifying two distinct hungers.
The encounter seems to “cure” Jonathan of his sexual desires (desires he will later pay for in the brain fever which sends him to his wedding an invalid). The text attributes his reaction to the fact that he now understands who, or rather, what the fatally beautiful creatures are, and thus sees them with horror rather than his earlier guilty fascination. “I am alone in the castle with those awful women. Faugh! Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common. They are devils of the Pit!” (53). His beloved, he insists, though a woman, has nothing in common with these creatures. He means, of course, that she does not have their evil capabilities—but neither, we notice, does she have their voluptuousness. He never records any erotic reaction to Mina at all, let alone one of this feverish intensity. In fact, since their marriage begins with her nursing him through his illness, Mina’s relationship to her husband always seems more maternal than wifely. But in late-Victorian theory, that is as it should be. Marriage is designed to tame the sexual impulses of husbands; and as for wives, as Krafft-Ebing remarks, “Woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire. If it were otherwise, marriage and family life would be empty words.”32
Victorian sexual theory also helps us to understand the difference between Lucy and Mina, to explain why Mina takes longer to succumb to the vampire count, and why she is able to resist more effectively than her friend. In the first place, while Lucy satisfies her own unconscious desires in yielding to Dracula, Mina’s vulnerability results as much from the failures of others as her own weakness. It is no action of Mina’s that allows the count access to her bedroom, but Renfield’s betrayal in giving his master the necessary permission to enter the house. Further, her husband and her friends, who should be protecting her, instead become so obsessed with the fight against Dracula—a fight from which they deliberately, and with the best motives, exclude her—that they leave her too much alone. Solitude is a danger to her as it was to Jonathan; and while Mina has presumably had little personal experience of sexual desire, she has, we must remember, read Jonathan’s journal in the process of transcribing it. That means she has read his description of his adventure with the three female vampires. Her own husband, then, in another sort of betrayal, has exposed Mina to his sexual fantasies.
Thus isolated and exposed, Mina’s experience of marital sex, such as it has been, gives her no protection against the count’s powers of sexual fascination. When she recognizes him in her bedroom, she is appalled but paralyzed, unable to respond or cry out as he bares her throat to refresh himself. Such paralysis is bad enough, but worse, to her bewilderment she discovers that, “strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him. I suppose it is a part of the horrible curse that such is [sic], when his touch is on his victim” (287). Dracula has drained not only her blood, but also her will to resist. He is, in sexual terms, more seducer than rapist. For a modern reader, this might lessen the crime, but for Victorians seduction would have been infinitely worse. In Victorian theory, it is sexual desire rather than sexual activity that is the true source of danger; and as Mina herself makes clear, she experiences desire under Dracula’s attentions.
This explains why Mina’s forehead is scarred by the Host, why she herself suffers such (to us disproportionate) agonies of guilt and self-revulsion. But once she is no longer isolated, once she is included in the community of her husband and their friends, she is able to resist desire, to exert her will against Dracula to help defeat him. Thus when he dies, the shameful scar disappears from her forehead. With help, Mina has conquered temptation and the dangers of degeneracy. It is this effort of will, the effort to conquer her own sexual imagination, that makes her worthy of the sacrifices of the others—that makes her worthy, in the end, of salvation.
What, then, has been achieved? By the end of the novel Lucy is dead, Quincey Morris is dead, Mina and Jonathan have both come close to death—or worse, to the death-in-life of the degeneracy which vampirism represents; but they have, after all, repented and are now stronger than ever. Dracula has been killed, and England and the world preserved. The fantastic element has been expelled, and we return to the safe, ordinary reality of the opening.
In fact, the novel ends quite abruptly, barely a full page after Dracula’s death. In a brief note we are told that Mina and Jonathan have a son, that Seward and Gadalming are happily married (Lucy’s role filled by other women), and that Van Helsing is now incorporated into the extended family. We also learn that the story we have just been told is, despite its elaborate detail and fundamentally documentary nature, unsupported by any original documents—nothing exists but Mina’s typescript, which is hardly proof of the remarkable narrative we have just read. Thus we, the fictive audience, are left to accept or reject based purely on the internal evidence, and—since the danger is safely past—need not react at all if we choose.33
VI: Dracula and the Urban Gothic
But if comparatively little has happened in the world of the fictive audience, in the world of the actual audience Stoker’s novel has accomplished a good deal. With Dracula’s death, the “natural” superiority of Englishmen over the “lesser” races has been once again convincingly portrayed. More importantly, a number of profoundly disruptive elements have been symbolically expelled from society and the crumbling boundaries between certain key categories reaffirmed: between life and death, civilization and degeneracy, human and non-human, desire and loathing—all of which boundaries Dracula had blurred or violated. The even more fundamental boundary between self and other, which Dracula’s ability to override his victims’ willpower so terrifyingly challenges, is seen once again triumphant in Mina’s recovered purity and self-control.
In Sexuality and Its Discontents, Jeffrey Weeks connects the development of sociology with the simultaneous development of sexology. As these two new disciplines struggled to define the “laws” of behavior in their respective realms, he argues, a powerful interdependency sprang up between them. At the same time as sexuality was being constituted as a key area of social relations, where it helped to define personal identity, sex as what Freud would soon call a “drive” came to be perceived as “a force outside, and set against society,” as “part of the eternal battle of individual and society.”34 Thus sex is paradoxically seen as both social and anti-social; it helps to define individual identity while at the same time threatening the collective. No wonder, then, that sex is such an explosive issue for the late Victorians, for whom these two poles of identity had become so crucial and so fragile. (It may also help to explain why sex is still an explosive issue for us, their grandchildren, a hundred years later—apparently so different from them, but living in a society which, like theirs, balances precariously on the same two poles.)
The sex/society formulation, Weeks continues, “evokes and replays all the other great distinctions which attempt to explain the boundaries of animality and humanity”—like nature/culture, freedom/regulation—the “two rival absolutes.”35 As we have already seen, these are some of the central categories at play in Dracula. The outcome of the novel suggests Stoker was arguing that the solution to the late Victorian crisis lay in privileging society over sex, that in order to preserve the nation it was necessary to sacrifice some degree of personal freedom. That would explain the novel’s insistent pattern of the many against the one, the community against the scapegoat; it might also help explain the novel’s popularity at a time of imperialist fervor concealing deep anxieties about the future of the empire.
And it is the generic conventions of the fantastic that have made this resolution possible, by creating an imaginative way simultaneously to affirm and deny the reality of chosen cultural elements. The fantastic allows writers and readers to take those aspects of their own culture that are most emotionally charged, most disruptive, and identify them as monstrous—that is, as violations not just of human law but of the very nature of reality—so that society can be symbolically purged of its pollution.
However, Dracula is not merely fantastic; it is an example of the Urban Gothic, that modern version of the fantastic marked by its dependence on empiricism and the discourse of science. The difference can be seen most clearly by comparing Dracula to its immediate predecessor and reputed inspiration, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871). Le Fanu’s story of a female (and lesbian) vampire is, in fact, quite powerful and subtle, but the tale is set in a remote country house in eighteenth-century Transylvania, whereas Stoker goes out of his way repeatedly to emphasize the modernity of his setting. For example (more or less at random): Van Helsing observes, “A year ago which of us would have received [i.e., believed] such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, sceptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century?” (266); or again, in “this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be [Dracula’s] greatest strength” (321). In addition to such references, which could easily be multiplied, the band of heroes relies readily and matter-of-factly on modern technology like blood transfusions, typewriters, telegraphs, and Dr. Seward’s “phonograph diary” (219).
But these are mere decorations on the surface of the text. More important, the approach of the characters to their tasks in each tale shows the same contrast. Carmilla is tracked to her lair and killed by reference to the past—her own history, and the traditional religious knowledge of the community, while Dracula is identified and defeated by painstaking investigation of his present actions. Dr. Van Helsing’s knowledge of vampire lore eventually becomes essential, but it is of no use until Dracula can be conclusively identified as a vampire. Thus the most crucial event in Dracula occurs when Mina types up all the documents of the case (Jonathan’s diary, Seward’s records, her own correspondence with Lucy, newspaper clippings, even telegrams) and assembles them in chronological order—the order in which we read them. Only with chronology does narrative emerge; only then does a collection of data turn into a hypothesis. And, as in science, hypothesis is a necessary prelude to action. In other words, while Carmilla resembles a traditional ghost story, Dracula is constructed like that other form which comes into its own in the 1890s, the detective story.36
The implications of this difference are crucial. The ghost story, like the eighteenth-century Gothic to which it is closely related, usually finds its methods in the shared knowledge of the community, whether this means traditional religious approaches to the supernatural or the ancient remedies of the folk. In either case, the necessary knowledge is both implicit and communal. In the modern world, and therefore in the Urban Gothic, there is no implicit knowledge: everything must be tested and proved. A method for dealing with the supernatural must be created, drawing on the most powerful and prestigious tools at their disposal: the methods of science, shaped by a secular world view—paradoxically, the very world view that was initially overthrown by the fantastic intrusion.37
How are we to read this paradox, so central to the Urban Gothic? Is the primary effect to invalidate the supernatural, seeing it as an alien intruder in the modern world? Is it, on the contrary, to affirm the reality of the supernatural in the very act of expelling it? Or is it to demonstrate the efficacy of the scientific method in addressing any kind of crisis? I would argue instead that the central appeal of fantastic literature is that, like the violent scapegoat rituals it mimics, it allows its writers and readers simultaneously to acknowledge and deny those aspects of themselves and their world that they find most troubling—to see them both as part of the community and as available for sacrifice.
Douglas observes that one of the sources of ritual pollution is “the interplay of form and formlessness. Pollution dangers strike when form has been attacked.”38 Dracula is a perfect example of the “formless” attacking form (he is, after all, a shape-changer); but at the same time, our cultural experience of the novel suggests that, in creating his vampire count, Stoker has given to formlessness itself a form of continuing potency.
Some of the research for this essay was done during an NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers on “British Literature and Culture 1840–1900” given at Brown University in 1989. I am grateful to the NEH, to the seminar’s directors, Profs. Roger Henkle (English) and L. Perry Curtis (History), and to my colleagues in the seminar for their advice and support.
1. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966), 4.
2. Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 178.
3. The most common positions are that Dracula is either about male sexuality threatening passive female innocence, or about the need to control rampant female sexuality. But it has also been argued that the novel is about covert homoerotic desire displaced onto women, and even that all the sex in the book is sadomasochistic. For a convenient collection of the best recent criticism of Dracula, see Margaret L. Carter, The Vampire and the Critics (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988). For some non-psychological readings of the novel, see Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), and Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990).
4. For example: Rosa Campbell Praed, Affinities: A Romance of Today (1885); Rider Haggard, She (1887); Arthur Conan Doyle, The Parasite (1894); Richard Marsh, The Beetle (1897); Somerset Maugham, The Magician (1907); Algernon Blackwood, “The Camp of the Dog” in John Silence, Physician Extraordinaire (1908); Sax Rohmer, The Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918); Jessie Kerruish, The Undying Monster (1922).
5. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975); Andrzej Zgorzelski, “Is Science Fiction a Genre of Fantastic Literature?” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 289 (emphasis in original). Todorov defines the fantastic in relation to two other genres, the “uncanny” and the “marvellous.” In a realistic world—that is, a textual world modeled on the world we inhabit—an event occurs that appears to violate the laws of this world. The character who experiences this seemingly abnormal event (and, more importantly, the reader of the text) must choose between two explanations: either the event is a product of illusion, or imagination, or deliberate deception—in which case the familiar laws remain intact (and the text is an example of the uncanny); or else the event has genuinely occurred, is a part of reality, in which case the laws must be modified to allow for the existence of, say, ghosts or the Devil. In that case, the text belongs to the category of the marvellous. If, on the other hand, it is impossible for character or reader to decide whether or not the event is genuine, the text is, by Todorov’s definition, fantastic. “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25; emphasis added). The problem with Todorov’s definition is that most texts do actually commit themselves about the event; thus very few texts that we normally think of as fantastic end up qualifying as such by Todorov’s definition. For a more extended discussion of Zgorzelski’s definition and its implications, see Kathleen L. Spencer, “Naturalizing the Fantastic: Narrative Technique in the Novels of Charles Williams,” Extrapolation 28 (1987): 62-74.
6. Henry James, “Miss Braddon,” The Nation, 9 Nov. 1865, ; reprinted in Notes and Reviews (Cambridge: Dunster House, 1921), 110. Jane Austen makes a similar point in Northanger Abbey, contrasting the imaginary horrors in the Gothic novels her heroine is so fond of reading with the more mundane but very real cruelties she finds practiced in her own modern, ordinary England.
7. For a fuller discussion of this material, see George Kenneth Graham, English Criticism of the Novel 1865–1900 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), . For a more traditional (that is, judgmental) treatment of the romancerealism debate see Lionel Stevenson, The English Novel: A Panorama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960) and John Halperin, “The Theory of the Novel: A Critical Introduction” in The Theory of the Novel: New Essays, ed. John Halperin (London, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), 3-22. For the patriotic argument for rejecting naturalism, see William C. Frierson, “The English Controversy Over Realism in Fiction 1885–1895,” PMLA 43 (1928): .
8. Cited in Sir Charles Mallett, Anthony Hope and His Books (London: Hutchinson, 1935), 114.
9. See, for example: R. L. Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance,” Longman’s Magazine 1 (November 1882): 69-79; Stevenson, “A Humble Remonstrance,” Longman’s Magazine 5 (December 1884): ; H. Rider Haggard, “About Fiction,” Contemporary Review 51 (February 1887): ; Andrew Lang, “Realism and Romance,” Contemporary Review 52 (1887): ; George Saintsbury, “The Present State of the Novel.I,” Fornightly Review, n.s., 48 (September 1887): ; “The Present State of the Novel.II,” Fortnightly Review, n.s., 49 (January 1888): ; and Hall Caine, “The New Watchwords of Fiction,” Contemporary Review 57 (April 1890): .
10. For example, Marie Corelli, George Griffith, Guy Boothby, William Le Queux, Sax Rohmer.
11. For a fuller discussion of the late Victorian fascination with the far reaches of empire, see Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1839–1914 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988). Though the futuristic plot settings of some of these novels may make them sound very much like science fiction, they do not as a rule qualify as such by any reasonably rigorous criteria, not even the novels set on other planets. Their generic affiliations are rather with the imaginary voyage and the utopia, which are quite different traditions. For a survey of these texts and an alternate view of their genre, see Darko Suvin, Victorian Science Fiction in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and Power (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983). For a brief description of the occult revival, see Kathleen L. Spencer, “The Urban Gothic In British Fantastic Fiction 1880–1930” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1987), 34-98. For more detail, see John J. Cerullo, The Secularization of the Soul: Psychical Research in Modern Britain (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982); Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974); Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (New York: Schocken Books, 1968); and Ellic Howe, Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887–1923 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).
12. Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, Vol. I: Power, Property, and the State (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 194.
13. George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1968), 121.
14. For a discussion of the East End and degeneracy, see Gareth Steadman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationships Between Classes in Victorian Society (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 149.
15. For discussions of this point, see (for example) Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), and Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830–1980, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1987). While the female role as constituted in theory was quite rigid, in practice both working-class and aristocratic women experienced some relaxation of its rigors, especially in economic and (therefore?) in sexual activities: aristocrats, because of the traditional privileges of their class and the sense that their lives are not bound by the same rules as everyone else; and working-class women, because they were needed in the paid work force by both their families and their employers.
16. Jenni Calder, The Victorian and Edwardian Home (London: Batsford, 1977), 132.
17. 3 Hansard, CXLV, 800. Quoted by Lee Holcombe, “Victorian Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Women’s Property Law, 1857–1882” in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1977), 12. Holcombe’s article as a whole (3-28) is an illuminating and scholarly discussion of the struggle of Victorian wives to reform property laws.
18. For detailed discussions of the Cleveland Street brothel, see H. Montgomery Hyde, The Cleveland Street Scandal (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghagan, 1976), and Colin Simpson et al., The Cleveland Street Affair (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976).
19. For a discussion of the way the Wilde trial helped turn “homosexual” from an adjective describing certain kinds of behaviors into a noun indicating a kind of person and the significance of this change for the subsequent history of homosexuality, see Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981). To give one small example of the trial’s effect on the general cultural atmosphere (beyond the terror it struck in the hearts of homosexuals): in the late 1880s and early ’90s, there had been an explosion of novels treating sympathetically such previously untouchable subjects as female sexuality, free love, and fallen women. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), for example, was received not without controversy, certainly, but with a good bit of support for Hardy’s sympathetic treatment of Tess. But Jude the Obscure, published in 1896 after Wilde’s public disgrace, was greeted with such a firestorm of disapproval that Hardy swore off writing fiction forever (for this argument, see Eric Trudgill, Madonnas and Magdalenes: The Origins and Development of Victorian Sexual Attitudes, [London: Heinemann, 1976]). Dracula, published in 1897, reached the public at the height of this antisexual hysteria; it should not surprise us to find reflections of this mood in such a popular text—meaning both one that was addressed to a less sophisticated audience and one that was very widely read at the time.
20. In this same decade, the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality was also being challenged by Havelock Ellis, along with several prominent apologists like Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds who in the 1890s published books arguing that homosexuals were not “failed” or “unnatural” men or women but were instead members of a third or “intermediate” sex (Ellis, who was married to a lesbian, was the first to write sympathetically about lesbianism). In the early editions of Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing argued that all homosexual behavior was degenerate, but after the turn of the century he softens this judgment, concluding that some homosexuals indeed seemed to be “born” not “made,”—in his words, “congenital.” See, for example, the lengthy discussion of “Homosexual Feeling as an Abnormal Congenital Manifestation” (356-90). He explores the available explanations of “sexual inversion” from the traditional “vice” to the more “scientific” cause, excessive and/or early masturbation, and finally concludes that in some cases an explanation based on physiological factors—something in the structure of the brain, something therefore not subject to the will of the “invert”—rather than the old medico-moral explanation of “willful indulgence in depravity,” is the only logical conclusion. He does not altogether abandon degeneracy as an explanation even in these cases, arguing that “In fact, in all cases of sexual inversion, a taint of a hereditary character may be established”; but he admits that “What causes produce this factor of taint and its activity is a question which cannot be well answered by science in its present stage” (370; emphasis added). By allowing for the possibility of inherited tendencies to degeneracy, Krafft-Ebing simultaneously takes back and lets stand his uneasy conclusion that some homosexuals do not seem to be morally responsible for their sexual orientation. (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study, Latin trans. Harry E. Wedeck [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965]. This edition, with an introduction by Ernest Van Den Haag, is described as “The first unexpurgated edition, with the Latin texts translated into English for the first time” by Dr. Wedeck, but does not specify who translated the German parts of the text. I suspect this edition is based on the translation of the 12th German edition by F. J. Rebman published in 1934 by the Physicians and Surgeons Book Company, but cannot verify my suspicion at this time.)
21. Ludmilla Jordanova, “Natural Facts: An Historical Perspective on Science and Reality” in Nature, Culture, and Gender, ed. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), 44.
22. The following discussion is drawn primarily from Mary Douglas’s Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Random House, 1972).
23. For other examples of modern “witchcraft” societies, consider Nazi Germany and McCarthy-era America. Indeed, the current struggle between social liberals and religious fundamentalists over issues like abortion and pornography manifests many of the same dynamics.
24. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), 13. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that in many cultures women are not afforded full status, they are seldom chosen as surrogate victims. Girard speculates that because a married woman retains ties with her parents’ social group as well as her husband’s, to sacrifice her would be to run the risk of one group or the other interpreting the sacrifice as “an act of murder committing it to a reciprocal act of revenge,” and so not ending the communal violence, but increasing it (13).
25. Bram Stoker, Dracula (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), 59. All further citations will be to this text. Showalter in Sexual Anarchy (note 3), which I did not see until after this essay was submitted, makes the same essential point about Lucy.
26. Simon Williams, analyzing Charles Nodier’s play, Vampire (1820), part of the response to Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), finds a very similar pattern. “Sexual desire is exhibited as supernatural possession that causes the heroine to wander deliriously in caverns and shady places in search of her demon lover. But once she returns to consciousness, she is totally unaware of the dark forces that have briefly taken over her body” (“Theatre and Degeneration: Subversion and Sexuality,” in Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress, ed. J. Edward Chamberlin and Sander L. Gilman [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985], 246). The terms “conscious” and “unconscious” may seem anachronistic, but the English had casually accepted the idea of an unconscious mind by the latter part of the nineteenth century; the idea is expounded in a number of different places in the last two decades. It was not the concept of the unconscious that made Freud so shocking, but his notion of what kinds of material the unconscious contained. As Nina Auerbach (note 3) points out, Stoker might well have known of Freud by the time he wrote Dracula, since F. W. Myers had presented a lecture to the Society for Psychical Research on Freud and Breuer’s work with hysterics in 1893; and in the novel itself Dr. Seward mentions Charcot, Freud’s teacher (22-23).
27. Most critics discuss this scene as symbolic of sexual intercourse and orgasm, even going so far in one case as to liken it to the “painful deflowering of a virgin, which Lucy still is” (C. F. Bentley, “The Monster in the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Literature and Psychology 22 : 31). While I recognize the elements of the scene that make it possible to draw the parallel, what most strikes me in the description (and, I suspect, most women readers) is the violence—which is, because of the religious overtones of the scene, weirdly impersonal. Indeed, it is rather alarming to me to think that this scene can be read so easily, and apparently without qualms or qualifiers, as an image of sexual intercourse. What does such a reading suggest about our culture’s confusion of sex and violence?
28. Girard (note 24), 161.
29. This popular disapproval of the aristocracy became particularly apparent after the publication of Sir Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius in 1869, which attacked both inherited wealth and the titled nobility.
30. For a detailed discussion of Dracula as Lombroso’s “criminal man,” see Ernest Fontana, “Lombroso’s Criminal Man and Stoker’s Dracula,” in Carter (note 3), . For a more thorough examination of the place of degeneracy theory in late Victorian thinking, see Chamberlin and Gilman (note 26).
31. Douglas (note 1), 97. Richard Sennett and Michael Foucault, “Sexuality and Solitude,” in Humanities in Review 1, ed. Sennett et al. (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), 4.
32. Krafft-Ebing (note 20), 42. Not all Victorian doctors agreed with this, but it does seem to have been a majority opinion, expressed categorically, publically, and often. Poovey in Uneven Developments (note 15) offers the clearest explanation of the thinking behind what now seems a ludicrous position. Victorian doctors knew so little about female physiology, she observes, that the only model they had for sexual response was the familiar male tumescence/ejaculation sequence. Failing to find this sequence in women, they concluded that women normally did not experience orgasm. Of course, this does not explain Krafft-Ebing’s value judgment about the incompatibility of female sexual desire with marriage and family life; that, after all, is a matter of culture, not science. Nonetheless, Poovey’s observation does give us a welcome alternative to the reductive explanation of “sexism” as to how otherwise intelligent men could arrive at such absurd conclusions.
33. This detail is characteristic of fantastic texts, that finally we are left with just the testament itself, and no “external” proofs.
34. Weeks (note 2), 81.
35. Weeks, 97.
36. Rather than pointing to Carmilla, I think that Stoker’s most important literary source is Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), or more likely (since Stoker was a theatrical man) one of its many dramatic redactions. Polidori’s text creates a modern fantastic effect, deriving its potency from the device of bringing his nobleman/vampire into the city of London—seventy-five years before Stoker does the same thing.
37. One way to distinguish between the traditional ghost story and the Urban Gothic is that the ghost story, although genuinely fantastic, is much closer in tone to the original Gothic. In addition, ghosts generally have quite a limited repertory of objects, motives, and behaviors: to get revenge, to make restitution, to finish an important task left incomplete at death, to warn the living (generally family members or descendants), or to reenact endlessly the crucial event of their lives (as in Yeats’ “Purgatory”). In the Urban Gothic, the supernatural powers have a much broader scope for action.
38. Douglas (note 1), 104.
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ON THE SUBJECT OF …
CHRISTINA ROSSETTI (1830–1894)
Poet Rossetti was the niece of John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819), a tale that is believed to have influenced Rossetti’s well-known Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). Rossetti had plans to write a biography of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, whom she greatly admired, but was forced to abandon the project due to a lack of available information. “Goblin Market” relates the adventures of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. The two are taunted by goblin merchants to buy luscious and tantalizing fruits. Though Lizzie is able to resist their coaxing, Laura succumbs. The narrator details Laura’s increasing apathy and Lizzie’s efforts to save her sister. The poem has been variously interpreted as a moral fable for children, an erotic lesbian fantasy, an experiment in meter and rhyme, and a feminist reinterpretation of Christian mythology. Two other well-known poems in the same volume, “After Death” and “Remember,” meditations on death and the afterlife, have also been interpreted by some feminists as subversive texts despite their seemingly complaisant surfaces. Much contemporary criticism has focused on “Goblin Market,” especially its eroticism and the exploration of the relationship between the two sisters in the story. Critics have noted the supernatural and macabre elements and presence of such creatures as goblins, serpents, and lizards in Rossetti’s poetry, and have asserted that the imagery and language of economics and commerce in “Goblin Market” comments on the role of women and their literature within the Victorian economy.
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DAVID PUNTER (ESSAY DATE 1996)
> SOURCE: Punter, David. “Gothic and Decadence: Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen.” In The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day, Vol. 2, pp. 1-26. Essex, England: Longman, 1996.
In the following essay, Punter illustrates how works of Gothic literature by Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, and Arthur Machen exemplify Decadence, and asserts that each of these works question the extent to which a civilization can change, or “decline,” and still retain its national and cultural identity.
What is remarkable about the ‘decadent Gothic’ of the 1890s is that out of a cross-genre with only doubtfully auspicious antecedents should have proceeded, in the space of eleven years, four of the most potent of modern literary myths, those articulated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), H. G. Wells’s Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Here again we have a burst of symbolic energy as powerful as that of the original Gothic: alongside Frankenstein’s monster, the Wandering Jew and the Byronic vampire we can set the Doppelganger, the mask of innocence, the maker of human beings and the new, improved vampire of Dracula. As we look at these books, we shall see certain interconnections—at any rate in terms of theme, even where authorial stances may be quite different—but one thing can be said at the outset which underlines the meaning of decadence in connection with these texts, and that is that they are all concerned in one way or another with the problem of degeneration, and thus of the essence of the human. They each pose, from very different angles, the same question, which can readily be seen as a question appropriate to an age of imperial decline: how much, they ask, can one lose—individually, socially, nationally—and still remain a ‘man’? One could put the question much more brutally: to what extent can one be ‘infected’ and still remain British?
The text in which these questions are least on the surface is also the earliest of them, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which needs no introduction as the best-known Doppelganger story of them all. It follows on from an easily identifiable Gothic tradition, including James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ (1839), both of which influenced Stevenson, yet it has captured the popular imagination more strongly than any of the others, feasibly partly because of its ‘contemporary’, metropolitan setting and detective-story trappings, but feasibly also because of a stranger phenomenon, its obvious connection with actual late Victorian fears about similarly untraceable murders, centred on the archetype of Jack the Ripper. It is interesting in passing to note that, while Jekyll and Hyde itself is not in any overt way concerned with the Gothic problem of the aristocracy, popular imagination nevertheless has had its way by tying the text in with this body of semi-legendary history which unmistakably is aristocracy-oriented: the one thing nobody ever seems to have thought about Jack the Ripper was that, when unmasked, he might be someone working class or unknown.
Jekyll and Hyde is, from one aspect, the record of a split personality, and the nature of the split is in its general outline one now familiar to a post-Freudian age, although one which Stevenson outlines with particular sensitivity: ‘the worst of my faults’, says Jekyll, describing his youth,
> was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me, and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations, than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was, and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.1
This is a very rich passage. One must, of course, be careful not to interpret it as the narrative voice, since it is part of Jekyll’s own statement, and Jekyll is certainly remarkably pompous and possibly a self-deceiver. However, Jekyll’s view seems to be that the split in his being has derived much less from the presence within his psyche of an uncontrollable, passionate self than from the force with which that self has been repressed according to the dictates of social convention. The original tendency of Jekyll’s alter ego, so he claims, was by no means towards the vicious, but rather towards the ‘loose’, a neutral desire for certain kinds of personal freedom which has been repressed by the ‘imperious’ need not only to conform to, but also to stand as a public example of, strict virtue. Jekyll’s problem, surely, is largely put as a social one, and one can interpret it in two connected ways: literally, as the problem of a member of a ‘respectable’, professional upper middle class, who is supposed to ‘body forth’ social virtue in his person and to eschew any behaviour, however harmless, which might tend to degrade that stance, and also metaphorically as the problem of a member of a ‘master-race’. Jekyll’s difficulties are those of the benevolent imperialist: they are not at all to do with the political problem of sanctioning brute force, but with the maintenance of dignity under adverse circumstances. It is strongly suggested that Hyde’s behaviour is an urban version of ‘going native’. The particular difficulties encountered by English imperialism in its decline were conditioned by the nature of the supremacy which had been asserted: not a simple racial supremacy, but one constantly seen as founded on moral superiority. If an empire based on a morality declines, what are the implications for the particular morality concerned? It is precisely Jekyll’s ‘high views’ which produce morbidity in his relations with his own desires. Thus, of course, the name of his alter ego: it is the degree to which the doctor takes seriously his public responsibilities which determines the ‘hidden-ness’ of his desire for pleasure. Since the public man must be seen to be blameless, he must ‘hide’ his private nature, even to the extent of denying it be any part of himself. And although this is in one sense a problem locatable within a particular historical development, we can also sense in it echoes of older Gothic problems: it is, Jekyll claims, his ‘aspirations’ which render him particularly liable to psychic fragmentation, just as the younger Wringhim’s aspirations towards total purity caused his breakdown.
But Jekyll’s aspirations are of two kinds: they are moral and social aspirations, but they are also scientific aspirations, as in the case of Frankenstein. The great strength of Jekyll and Hyde lies in its attempt to connect the two more clearly even than Mary Shelley had done, and to show that Jekyll’s familiar desire to ‘make another man’ stems from problems in the organisation of his own personality. Like Frankenstein (1818) and The Island of Dr Moreau, Jekyll and Hyde relies upon and even exploits public anxieties about scientific progress and about the direction of this progress if undertaken in the absence of moral guidance, but this aspect seems to be largely metaphorical. The scientific emphasis is very perfunctory; Jekyll himself slides over it, suggesting that details would only bore. What he does not slide over is his series of attempts to comprehend the precise nature of the relation between himself and Hyde, which Stevenson carefully avoids describing merely as a relation of opposites. Hyde is not Jekyll’s opposite, but something within him: the fact that he is smaller than the doctor, a ‘dwarf’, demonstrates that he is only a part whereas Jekyll is a complex whole, and this is underlined in one of Stevenson’s more startling insights: ‘Jekyll had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference’ (Works, IV, 75). This, of course, was precisely the aspect of relationship which Mary Shelley suppressed in connection with Frankenstein and his monster, probably because such ‘unnatural’ creativity seemed too close to a parody of the divine. Stevenson admits to Hyde’s status as a parodic ‘son of God’, but only at the expense of certain other authorial repressions, principally sexual. Not only does the relation between Jekyll and Hyde exclude women, the whole tale moves—like Dorian Gray and Dr Moreau—in a world substantially composed of leisured bachelors, and even when Stevenson ostensibly tries to portray Hyde’s tendency towards sexual excess and deviance, which could hardly not be at the root of Jekyll’s fastidious disgust, he can get almost nothing on paper.
Most of Hyde’s nastiness is withheld: Stevenson deals with it merely in generalities, and whether this is because of Jekyll’s revulsion or of a poverty in Stevenson’s ability to imagine the sexually criminal remains obscure: ‘into the details of the infamy at which I thus connived (for even now I can scarce grant that I committed it)’, Jekyll says, ‘I have no design of entering; I mean but to point out the warnings and the successive steps with which my chastisement approached’ (Works, IV, 72). He does then proceed, however, to allude to one incident, which we have already been told about, when Hyde has been seen to meet a child at a street corner, and to have ‘trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground’. ‘It sounds nothing to hear’, says Enfield, who is telling Utterson the story, ‘but it was hellish to see’ (Works, IV, 6). He is right: it does sound nothing to hear, and it is not even very easy to imagine. It lingers in the memory, but only because of its strangeness, which may have been Stevenson’s purpose. It is, of course, symbolic: it is designed to show the inhumanity of Hyde where a more purposive crime would not. Hyde is described here as a kind of Juggernaut, and it is his ‘thing-ness’ which finally appals Jekyll: ‘this was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life’ (Works, IV, 83).
Again, there is a problem here, a further reticulation of the Doppelganger structure, about the relation between Stevenson and Jekyll. It is reasonable that Jekyll should not want, or be able, to acknowledge Hyde as in any way human, and indeed that onlookers like Enfield should hold whatever opinion they please, but Stevenson himself appears to stop short of certain realisations. If it is indeed repression which has produced the Hyde personality, further denial of Hyde’s claims can only result in an ascending scale of violence. And this, of course, is exactly what happens, but Stevenson shows no clear signs of knowing why. Jekyll’s later attempts at repression compound Hyde’s fury: ‘my devil had been long caged, he came out roaring’ (Works, IV, 76). There is an underlying pessimism in the book which results from Stevenson’s difficulty in seeing any alternative structure for the psyche: once the beast is loose, it can resolve itself only in death. Jekyll rather feebly suggests at one point that, if he had been in a different frame of mind when he first took the drug, the second self thus released might have been very different: the prospect of an alternative Hyde, constructed of sweetness and light, is attractive but perhaps somewhat unrealistic.
Julia Briggs’s work suggests that the issue of the relations between the human and the bestial which occurs in Stevenson, Wells, Stoker and later in such writers as Forster and Lawrence springs largely from the attempt to deal with Darwinian revelations about the nature of evolution.2 Thus Jekyll’s transformation is a change of state of the most extreme kind: when he takes the drug, ‘the most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death’ (Works, IV, 68). This is the reversion of the species, the ever-present threat that, if evolution is a ladder, it may be possible to start moving down it. Not surprisingly, this threat cannot be named in the text: Jekyll says that he has brought on himself ‘a punishment and a danger that I cannot name’ (Works, IV, 37), and Hyde is constantly spoken of as possessing unexpressed deformities. As in much Gothic, there is a dialectical interplay here between the unspeakable and the methods of verification evidenced in the complexity of narrative structure, but post-Darwinian fears have given a new twist to the concept of degeneration. Early in the story, Utterson suggests that something unspoken from the past may be coming to claim Jekyll:
> He was wild when he was young; a long while ago, to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace; punishment coming, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.
(Works, IV, 19)
But in the context of the tale, Utterson is, despite the encouraging pun in his name, an old-fashioned moralist, and his attempt to impose a conventional ‘sins of the fathers’ explanation fails. If Hyde represents a ‘ghost’ and a ‘cancer’, it is a general one: the absence of just limitations goes farther than Utterson cares to think. The human being may be the product of a primal miscegenation, a fundamentally unstable blending, which scientific or psychological accident may be able to part.
And this problem of the double self is, of course, also central to The Picture of Dorian Gray, the record, as Wilde puts it in Radcliffean terms, of the ‘terrible pleasure’ of ‘a double life’. The gilded Dorian
> used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.3
A casual wish on Dorian’s part severs the links, and he becomes free to live a life of vice and self-indulgence without losing his looks or his youth, while his portrait records his depravity in terms of physical decay.
The problem of distinguishing narrator from character is very great in Wilde, particularly because of his aphoristic habits: it is not easy to know what to make of the multiple resonances of Dorian’s opinion that
> It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannised most strongly over us. Our weakest motives were those of whose nature we were conscious. It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves.
(Dorian, p. 59)
Here, as elsewhere, Dorian Gray incorporates the problems of the 1890s in a jewelled nutshell. We have a burgeoning awareness of the existence of the unconscious, of that fountain from which spring desires and needs a thousand times stronger than those to which we can admit; a sense of the dire situations which result from the liberation of those passions; and the complicated metaphor of experimentation, which runs through all four of these texts. In Dorian Gray, it is perfectly clear that one cannot restrict the concept of experimentation to science: Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau experiment on malleable flesh, Sir Henry Wotton and Dorian—in different ways, but there are Doppelganger complexities here too—artificially mould the mind.
Artifice is perhaps the key term: how much, if at all, do scientific and psychological discoveries help us to mould ourselves, and are the possible shapes into which they can project human life necessarily at all desirable. It is characteristic of Wilde’s late romanticism that the means of moulding should be not science but the art of painting, but the tenor of the metaphor is the same: is there anything we can do with this knowledge, on the one hand of our myriad-mindedness and on the other of our proximity to the beasts, which will be other than harmful?
The answer of the 1890s was unanimous: No. This is more surprising in Wilde than in the other writers, because it places limits of a severe kind on his apparent decadence: Dorian Gray encourages no faith in artifice, either artifice on others or the self-artifice which is supposed to be the crux of decadence. Wilde’s fear of decay is even more vividly expressed than those of Stevenson or Wells: Dorian throws a pall over his picture,
> to hide something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of death itself—something that would breed horrors and yet would never die. What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the thing would still live on. It would be always alive.
(Dorian, p. 119)
Wilde has no doubt that Dorian’s repressed desires are as horrible as Jekyll’s, not only morally horrible but also inelegant; the much-vaunted divorce between moral and aesthetic categories is simply not there in Dorian Gray, which is structurally a simple morality tale, more so even than Jekyll and Hyde, and certainly more so than Dracula. Like Stevenson, Wilde is locked in the realisation that repression gets you both ways: Sir Henry advocates liberation, claiming that if we repress our desires ‘we degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to’ (Dorian, p. 23). Dorian does his slightly insipid best to avoid this fate, but ends up in exactly the same state. Sir Henry’s anthropological speculations have a lot to be said for them:
> The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us…. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
(Dorian, p. 18)
So far so good: ‘sooner’, perhaps, ‘murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’.4 But Dorian cannot escape doom that way, and possibly Wilde’s reasoning is similar to Stevenson’s: both Dorian and Hyde ‘go native’, they both renounce the repressive morality of the dominant culture, but all they achieve is an assimilation to the apparently even worse ‘morality’ of the lower classes. Wilde’s version of the London environment is again Stevenson’s, and again lifted out of Dickens but shorn of even the severely truncated sympathy we find in Oliver Twist (1838): Dorian remembers
> wandering through dimly-lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts.
(Dorian, p. 88)
There are two possible but contradictory conclusions one might draw from this nexus of urban visions: on the one hand, that Dickens, Stevenson, Wilde were themselves too deeply imbued with middle-class morality to grant any validity to alternative kinds of life, on the other that they had seen too clearly the depredations which that morality had wrought upon its underdogs to grant any credence to the survival of lower-class integrity. It has been said that decadence is fundamentally a middle-class attitude, and this is borne out by Dorian Gray. There is, says Basil Hallward, the artist, ‘a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings’ (Dorian, p. 3). But, elegant though this thought may be, it does not support the conclusions of the story: Schedoni, in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), could indeed claim kudos from such a fatality, as could any Byronic hero, but Dorian is not of the same stature at all. His crimes and his feelings are alike petty and dilettante, and his doom evokes neither compassion nor the more elevated sympathies of tragedy. Again, Wilde tries to fuse psychological speculation with characteristics taken from the older Gothic, but does not convince us of the grandeur of necessity:
> There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature, that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible end as automatons move.
(Dorian, p. 190)
This reminds us less of the fate of the tragic hero than of the indulgent self-assessment of Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), but Fosco has a saving irony absent from Dorian Gray: he is also considerably more effective, in almost any terms, than any of Wilde’s characters.
As the core Gothic theme of Jekyll and Hyde is the Doppelganger, the core theme of Dorian Gray is the quest for immortality, accompanied with appropriate speculations on the relations between art and life and between beauty and vice. A significant twist in Wilde’s dealings with these themes, however, is that his protagonist is hardly a hero but rather a hero-worshipper, whose own hero, Sir Henry, is really rather unconnected with the doom which afflicts Dorian. The vitality, the fire, the primitive barbaric energy of the Gothic hero are absent. Wilde himself talks about the continuing power of Gothic images to affect the psyche:
> There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie.
(Dorian, p. 131)
But his attempts to reinvoke this condition are tired, perhaps with the natural fatigue of accomplished paradox, perhaps because of the lack of bite in the social fears on which he plays. Dorian chooses to ape an aristocratic life-style, but he is not an aristocrat, at least not in any of the more worrying senses. It is, finally, unclear how much seriousness Wilde invests in this matter of style. When Lytton Strachey says of Horace Walpole that ‘he liked Gothic architecture, not because he thought it beautiful, but because he found it queer’,5 the sensibility sounds very much like Wilde’s, and the embarrassment one feels at Castle of Otranto (1764) is similar to that in Dorian Gray. Who is being made fun of in a passage like this:
> From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.
(Dorian, p. 1)
Most probably the target is the reader: in any case, the primary effect of Dorian Gray is surely, unlike that of Jekyll and Hyde, cathartic. Where Jekyll and Hyde raises issues and does not resolve them, thus remaining to haunt the mind, Dorian Gray wraps up issues in a way that purges them of real importance. Dorian is not at root a figure whose fate affects the rest of us.
In terms of this schema, Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau is definitely more closely related to Jekyll and Hyde, and of course even more so to Frankenstein, another text which owes a large part of its continuing popularity precisely to its failure to establish a coherent pattern out of its intellectual elements. Since it is perhaps rather less well known than Jekyll and Hyde or Dorian Gray, it may be as well to give a brief account of the plot. It is the first-person narrative of Edward Prendick, introduced by his nephew, who confirms the minimal points that his uncle has been ship-wrecked and rescued, with an interval of almost a year between, but states that his uncle’s version of the intervening time has never been accepted. Prendick’s own account, thus introduced, tells how he was rescued from a ship’s boat by a strange craft equipped with a drunken captain, a collection of animals, and a man named Montgomery, an outcast ex-medical student who appears to be in charge. Due to an altercation with the captain, Prendick is put off with the others at their island destination, and there encounters Moreau himself. He is surprised by many features of the island, which, he is assured, is a kind of biological research station, but particularly by its other inhabitants, some of whom appear to be men, although of no race he has ever encountered, others to be somehow between men and animals. He is also disturbed by screams of pain heard during the nights, and eventually forms the conclusion that Moreau, whose name he has now remembered as that of an exiled vivisectionist, is reducing men to an animal state by surgery, for dire purposes of his own. An explanation follows, in which Prendick is humiliated to find that Moreau is doing exactly the reverse and trying to form a man from the beasts, with varying success. The mixed crop of failures which inevitably accures lives in a village of hovels on the island, restrained from violence by laws which Moreau has implanted in them, but these start to become ineffective and the beast-men return to the beast, killing Moreau and Montgomery on the way. Prendick manages to survive amid the wreckage of the island society, and is eventually rescued.
On the surface, this is another fable about the dangers of scientific progress unrestrained by moral compunction: we are clearly meant to be appalled both by the pain caused to the animals and by the condition to which many of them are reduced.
> Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless.6
But Prendick’s attitude is by no means consistent, which renders many of the scientific points ambiguous. Writing, we must remember, after his return to civilisation, he comments on the moment when he remembers where he had previously heard Moreau’s name, and adds that when his experiments became known
> the doctor was simply howled out of the country. It may be he deserved to be, but I still [sic] think the tepid support of his fellow investigators, and his desertion by the great body of scientific workers, was a shameful thing.
(Moreau, p. 38)
The principal problem, however, concerns the status of pain in the story. At one level, Moreau appears to be practising an extreme form of surgery with variable results, but at another he seems to be performing a less clearly scientific kind of operation, in which the important feature of the ‘humanising’ process is the actual experience of pain for its own sake. ‘Each time I dip a living creature into a bath of burning pain’, says Moreau, ‘I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own’ (Moreau, p. 84). Human rationality, for Moreau, seems to be largely dependent on transcending pain: ‘the store men and women set on pleasure and pain … is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came. Pain! Pain and pleasure—they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust …’ (Moreau, p. 81). Yet it is by the threat of further pain that Moreau keeps control over the beast-men: presumably this is supposed to be a mark of their inadequacy, yet Moreau implants fear of pain in them as a substitute for a moral law.
The purely scientific point is thus confused with a set of moral arguments about the difference between man and beast, as it is in Frankenstein; and similarly Prendick’s objections to Moreau’s procedures are considerably vitiated by his admiration for Moreau himself, grudging as it is. In the discussion where Moreau reveals his true aims, Prendick says that he found himself ‘hot with shame at our mutual positions’ (Moreau, p. 76). Like previous hero/villains, Moreau exercises an enormous power over his fellow men. When Prendick first ventures on a journey to discover the island’s secrets, Moreau catches him: ‘he lifted me as though I was a little child’ (Moreau, p. 56), says Prendick, and when Moreau dies, Montgomery collapses completely and returns to drink: ‘he had been strangely under the influence of Moreau’s personality. I do not think it had ever occurred to him that Moreau could die’ (Moreau, p. 115). Moreau is described, oddly, as having an exceptional, perhaps god-like, serenity, evidenced precisely in the absence of motive by which Prendick is fascinated: ‘you cannot imagine’, says Moreau to Prendick, rightly, ‘the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires’ (Moreau, p. 81).
Thus far, the ambiguity of the text is a common Gothic ambiguity, in which the seeker after forbidden knowledge is condemned while being simultaneously surrounded by a halo of admiration. With very pleasing irony Wells portrays Montgomery after Moreau’s death venting his spite and fear on the puritanical Prendick: ‘You logic-chopping, chalky-faced saint of an atheist, drink’, he shouts, ‘you’re the beast. He takes his liquor like a Christian’ (Moreau, p. 116). Certainly we are left feeling that there is a genuine vision at the root of Moreau’s behaviour, even if through rejection it has turned obsessional, and it is also very difficult to answer the questions which the text raises about the happiness of the beast-men in the way Wells appears to want them answered: how does one determine whether a half-man is more or less happy or pained than the beast from which he came?
But Moreau is not only a Faustian seeker: he is also a more contemporary symbol. At one point Moreau, Montgomery and Prendick go forth to reassert their control over the beast-men, who come out of the jungle towards them:
> As soon as they had approached within a distance of perhaps thirty yards they halted, and bowing on knees and elbows, began flinging the white dust upon their heads. Imagine the scene if you can. We three blue-clad men, with our misshapen black-faced attendant, standing in a wide expanse of sunlit yellow dust under the blazing blue sky, and surrounded by this circle of crouching and gesticulating monstrosities, some almost human, save in their subtle expression and gestures, some like cripples, some so strangely distorted as to resemble nothing but the denizens of our wildest dreams.
(Moreau, p. 98)
This is the Gothic vision of empire on which the book is founded. The ‘black-faced’ attendant is, of course, literally black-faced because he is himself a beast-man, but the play on black and white is nonetheless sustained throughout. Moreau himself is both white-haired and white-faced; Prendick, as we have seen, is ‘chalky’; it is ‘white dust’ with which the dark-skinned beast-men cover themselves as a sign of submission. Moreau, whose island is, significantly, marked on maps as ‘Noble’s Isle’, is the white ‘aristocrat’ who presides over a colonial society in which the fears of reversion which we have already seen in Jekyll and Hyde and in Dorian Gray are ever-present, both in the beast-men and in the ‘white trash’ Montgomery. His attempts to prevent this reversion are unsuccessful but ultimately heroic, for he dies, surely, in the attempt to purify the race.
None of this, of course, is to think of Wells as a racist: far from it. The point is that The Island of Dr Moreau represents a confluence of, first, old Gothic themes of aspiration and dominance; second, the fears about human status and dignity generated by Darwin; and third, as a natural metaphorical accompaniment, images of white imperialism in its decline. But just as in Dorian Gray, the strands do not hold together: like Sir Henry Wotton, Moreau has considerable insight into the operations of repressive ideology, but his advocacy of alternatives is condemned by the text. ‘Very much’, says Moreau, ‘of what we call moral education is … an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion’ (Moreau, p. 79). But Wells fails to keep this suggestion, with its Freudian and Darwinian connotations, firmly in mind, and describes Moreau’s process of humanisation in two rather different ways. The first beast-man Moreau makes is said to have begun his new life ‘with a clean sheet, mentally; had no memories left in his mind of what he had been’ (Moreau, p. 82). Yet Moreau is also said not to be experimenting with freedom from conditioning, but rather to be forming beast-men who will be obedient to his own moral and social ideas:
> they had certain Fixed Ideas implanted by Moreau in their minds, which absolutely bounded their imaginations. They were really hypnotised, had been told certain things were impossible, and certain things were not to be done, and these prohibitions were woven into the texture of their minds beyond any possibility of disobedience or dispute.
(Moreau, pp. 87-8)
As Frankensteinian creator, Moreau wants to form a free being, free from the natural constraints of pain and pleasure; as imperialist, he wants to form a slave, and the best kind of slave, of course, does not know that he or she is one.
The arguments are partly difficult to sort out because Moreau is not himself particularly concerned with the little society of rejects which he is producing; as far as he is concerned they are merely signs of failure. It is Montgomery who takes an interest in them. The society which thus accidentally emerges is one which repeats many features of ordinary human societies: an interesting and resonant one is that ‘the females were less numerous than the males, and liable to much furtive persecution in spite of the monogamy which the Law enjoined’ (Moreau, p. 89). More important, their ‘human-ness’ does not stick: they retain ‘the unmistakable mark of the beast’; ‘the stubborn beast flesh grows, day by day, back again’ (Moreau, pp. 46, 83). At a very basic level, the message is a simple and conservative one: do not interfere in the natural order. What is left doubtful, however, is whether such interference is wrong on moral grounds, or merely impossible to achieve fully, and also to what extent the experience of pain is an essential part of Moreau’s process. Answers to the two hypothetical questions which one would like to ask—what Prendick or Wells would think if Moreau were successful, and what the situation would be given the benefits of anaesthesia—cannot be extrapolated from the text.
If this makes for a somewhat confused work, it also makes for a rich one. The story has strong elements in it of Defoe and more particularly Swift. The language used by and to the beast-men is oddly biblical, which reinforces the image of a perverted island paradise, and the ending, with Prendick returning to civilisation only to find that he keeps regarding his fellow men as themselves bearing the mark of the beast, is identical to the ending of Gulliver’s Travels. The Island of Dr Moreau brings the reader face to face with a problem which had accompanied Gothic visions since the time of William Godwin and Mary Shelley, but which had been given an extra twist by Darwin: where do we locate the blame for terrors which are the effect of social conditioning? It could simply be said that Moreau’s ends do not justify his means, but Prendick at least seems to feel rather doubtful about this, and there are strong hints that the kinds of pressure under which the beast-men live are not really all that different from ordinary social pressures. Moreau’s island is partly a microcosm, partly a polemical distortion: its terrifying effect derives partly from Wells’s handling of conventional adventure-story techniques, but more from the sense of vertigo with which we apprehend the relation between the beast-men and ourselves.
Fundamentally, all three of these works are concerned with the problem of the liberation of repressed desires. The discoveries of Darwin combined with psychological developments to produce, first, a revelation that the personality contains depths which do not appear on the surface of everyday intercourse, and second, a fear that the Other thus postulated may relate to the bestial level which evidences human continuity with the animal world. In the light of this double supposition, experiments of the kind made deliberately by Jekyll and Moreau and accidentally by Dorian Gray become fraught with more terror than a similar experiment implied in Frankenstein, because experimentation is coming to be seen as tinkering with the self. Thus the ‘double self’ which had been hypothesised by Hogg and others received a basis in scientific speculation, and the whole question of man’s relations to the beasts came to be examined—and mythologised—anew. But a myth supposes two moments in time: the moment of origin, creation, differentiation which needs explanation, and the contemporary moment in terms of which communicable myth must be cast. Thus Stevenson, Wilde and Wells found themselves necessarily assimilating the intellectual problems of their age to the actual social structures within and about which they wrote. In the case of Stevenson, the problem of the beast within becomes cast in terms of the difficulties of professional, public, respectable life: the doctor, of course, is the symbol of the union between scientific exploration and respectability. In the case of Wilde, the whole issue is cast archaically in the old Gothic categories of aristocratic life-style and its relation to primal cruelty. In The Island of Dr Moreau, as befits the work of a writer more politically concerned than Stevenson or Wilde, the question of reversion is linked to a series of agonising speculations on the inner significance of empire, with its attendant insistence on the preservation of both class and racial integrity.
The whole complex of problems received by far its most significant treatment, however, in Bram Stoker’s greatly underrated Dracula, which is not only a well-written and formally inventive sensation novel but also one of the most important expressions of the social and psychological dilemmas of the late nineteenth century. For obvious reasons, the intellectual content of Dracula has not been taken seriously; yet it deserves to be, less because of any distinction in Stoker’s own attitudes and perceptions than as a powerful record of social pressures and anxieties. It has always been a difficult book to place, largely because if one accepts the conventional view of the expiry of Gothic before the middle of the nineteenth century Dracula becomes a kind of sport; but in fact it belongs securely with Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray and The Island of Dr Moreau, while transcending all of them in its development of a symbolic structure in which to carry and deal with contradictions. The use of the term ‘myth’ to describe a work of written literature is open to abuse, but if there is any modern work which fits the term adequately, it is Dracula, if on the grounds of reception alone.
At the heart of Dracula (if the pun may be forgiven) is blood. The vampire thrives on the blood of others, and the whole effort of Van Helsing and his colleagues is to fight this one-way flow of blood, by transfusion and any other possible means. ‘The vampire live on’, says Van Helsing in his broken English, ‘and cannot die by mere passing of the time; he can flourish when that he can fatten on the blood of the living. Even more, we have seen amongst us that he can even grow younger; that his vital faculties grow strenuous, and seem as though they refresh themselves when his special pabulum is plenty. But he cannot flourish without this diet; he eat not as others.’7 Here, as elsewhere in Dracula, is a religious inversion, brought out the more strongly by the biblical tone of Van Helsing’s discourse: the blood is the life. Stoker is well aware of the rich possibilities for ambiguity and bitter humour in this central motif. When Van Helsing recounts the ship’s captain’s response to his vampire passenger, there is a vertiginous interplay of conventional swear-words and deeper ironic significance: Dracula
> give much talk to captain as to how and where his box is to be place; but the captain like it not and swear at him in many tongues, and tell him that if he like he can come and see where it shall be. But he say ‘no’; that he come not yet, for that he have much to do. Whereupon the captain tell him that he had better be quick [sic]—with blood—for that his ship will leave the place—of blood—before the turn of the tide—with blood.
(Dracula, pp. 322-3)
But the blood which gives Dracula his life is, as usual in vampire legendry, not merely literal. Dracula the individual needs blood, but Dracula is not merely an individual; he is, as he tells Harker, a dynasty, a ‘house’, the proud descendant and bearer of a long aristocratic tradition. He recites to Harker a catalogue of the gallant feats of his ancestors, ending thus:
> when, after the battle of Mohács, we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were amongst their leaders, for our spirit would not brook that we were not free. Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.
(Dracula, pp. 38-9)
The long historical progression of the bourgeoisie’s attempts to understand the significance of noble ‘blood’ reaches a point of apotheosis in Dracula, for Dracula is the final aristocrat; he has rarefied his needs, and the needs of his house and line, to the point where he has no longer any need of any exchange-system or life-support except blood. All other material connections with the ‘dishonourable’ bourgeois world have been severed: the aristocrat has paid the tragic price of social supersession, yet his doom perforce involves others. Cheated of his right of actual dominion, his power is exerted in mere survival: his relationship to the world is the culmination of tyranny, yet it is justified in that it is not his own survival that he seeks but the survival of the house, and thus, of course, the survival of the dead. Stoker brings out the ambiguity in the legends very well when Dracula tells Harker his history:
> In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a ‘boyar’ the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said, ‘we’, and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking.
(Dracula, p. 37)
It is impossible to tell whether what is at stake is Dracula’s personal longevity or his total identification with his line.
And if one looks again at the old legends themselves, what emerges as very obvious is that they were partly invented to explain the problem of the connection between aristocracy and immortality. To the peasantry of central Europe, it may well have seemed that the feudal lord was immortal: the actual inhabitant of the castle upon the mountain might change, but that might not even be known. What would have been known was that there was always a lord; that by some possibly miraculous means life and title persisted, at the expense, of course, of peasant blood, in the literal sense of blood shed in battle and in cruelty. Dracula can no longer survive on blood of this kind; he needs alternative sources of nourishment to suit his socially attenuated existence. The dominion of the sword is replaced by the more naked yet more subtle dominion of the tooth; as the nobleman’s real powers disappear, he becomes invested with semi-supernatural abilities, exercised by night rather than in the broad day of legendary feudal conflict.
But thus far Dracula is merely another variant on the vampire legendry which we have already seen in John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), another modification of pre-bourgeois fears of tyrannical violence imaged in terms of the primal fear of blood-sucking. What makes Dracula distinctive is Stoker’s location of this set of symbols within late Victorian society. Over against the ‘house’ which Dracula represents Stoker places the bourgeois family, seen around the moment of maximum bonding, on the eve of marriage. Dracula is a dramatised conflict of social forces and attitudes: opposite the strength of the vampire we are shown the strength of bourgeois marital relations and sentimental love, as in Mina’s letter to Lucy after her marriage to Harker.
> Well, my dear, what could I say? I could only tell him that I was the happiest woman in all the wide world, and that I had nothing to give him except myself, my life, and my trust, and that with these went my love and duty for all the days of my life. And, my dear, when he kissed me, and drew me to him with his poor weak hands, it was like a very solemn pledge between us …
Lucy dear, do you know why I tell you all this? It is not only because it is all sweet to me, but because you have been, and are, very dear to me. It was my privilege to be your friend and guide when you came from the schoolroom to prepare for the world of life. I want you to see now, and with the eyes of a very happy wife, whither duty has led me; so that in your own married life you too may be all happy as I am.
(Dracula, p. 115)
The list of structural oppositions is long. Dracula stands for lineage, the principal group of characters for family; Dracula for the wildness of night, they for the security of day; Dracula for unintelligible and bitter passion, they for the sweet and reasonable emotions; Dracula for the physical and erotic, they for repressed and etherealised love. And at the kernel of this structure is embedded the further opposition between Dracula and his arch-enemy Van Helsing, who is imported to put a stiffening of science and reason into the ‘team’:
> He is seemingly arbitrary man, but this because he knows what he is talking about better than any one else. He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day; and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind. This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, an indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats—these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind—work both in theory and practice, for his views are as wide as his all-embracing sympathy.
(Dracula, p. 121)
Van Helsing is a superman, and therefore combines in himself a number of contradictory qualities, but the emphasis in his character is on order, neatness, reserve, in Freudian terms on those aspects of the ego which serve the purpose of quashing the tendency towards chaos and libidinal fulfilment which would otherwise disrupt social and psychological organisation. Dracula’s is the passion which never dies, the endless desire of the unconscious for gratification, which has to be repressed—particularly on the eve of marriage, of course—in order to maintain stable ideology. He is ‘undead’ because desire never dies; gratification merely moves desire on to further objects. There is, for Dracula as for the unconscious, no final satisfaction, for his very nature is desire.
Towards these structures the text manifests a socially revealing ambivalence. One of the aspects of decadence was the supremacy of the moment of attraction in the continual dialectic of attraction and repulsion which characterised the relation between the dominant middle class and its ‘un-dead’ predecessor. From the bourgeois point of view, Dracula is, like Schedoni, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, a manic individualist; from his own point of view, which is not absent in the text, he is the bearer of the promise of true union, union which transcends death. From the bourgeois point of view, Dracula stands for sexual perversion and sadism; but we also know that what his victims experience at the moment of consummation is joy, unhealthy perhaps but of a power unknown in conventional relationships. Dracula exists and exerts power through right immemorial; Van Helsing and his associates defeat him in the appropriate fashion, through hard work and diligent application, the weapons of a class which derives its existence from labour. Lest some of this seem fanciful, we can cite some of Stoker’s dream symbolism:
> I didn’t quite dream; but it all seemed to be real. I only wanted to be here in this spot—I don’t know why, for I was afraid of something—I don’t know what. I remember, though I suppose I was asleep, passing through the streets and over the bridge. A fish leaped as I went by, and I leaned over to look at it, and I heard a lot of dogs howling—the whole town seemed as if it must be full of dogs all howling at once—as I went up the steps. Then I had a vague memory of something long and dark with red eyes, just as we saw in the sunset, and something very sweet and very bitter all around me at once; and then I seemed sinking into deep green water, and there was a singing in my ears, as I have heard there is to drowning men; and then everything seemed passing away from me; my soul seemed to go out from my body and float about the air. I seem to remember that once the West Lighthouse was right under me, and then there was a sort of agonising feeling, as if I were in an earthquake, and I came back and found you shaking my body. I saw you do it before I felt you.
(Dracula, p. 108)
This reads almost like a case study in emotional ambivalence. Beginning by establishing that there is a difficulty in assessing Dracula’s reality vis-à-vis the world’s, Lucy then goes on to demonstrate that Dracula represents the ‘unknown’, that which is not available to consciousness, and to illustrate this with a succession of images of the unconscious: the leaping fish, emerging from psychic depths like Coleridge’s fountain, the howling dogs, symbol of yearning and wordless need, and the ‘something long and dark with red eyes’, which is Dracula but also prefigures the phallic connotations of the lighthouse. She sinks into the primal fluid of the unconscious, assailed by sensations which she can only describe as contradictory, ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’, and her soul and body separate as she abandons responsibility for her situation. Dracula, the unconscious, takes the sins of the world on his shoulders because his existence, and the acquiescence of his victims, demonstrate the limitations of the moral will. Lucy, of course, can only experience the consummation of the lighthouse and the earthquake while in this trance-like state, and then translates her experience back into ‘safe’ terms, ‘you shaking my body’. She sees Mina before she feels her because she is sinking into the liberation which her conventional self denies: every time Dracula strikes it becomes harder for his victim to return to normality.
The myth in Dracula, more clearly even than in other versions of the vampire legends, is an inversion of Christianity, and particularly of Pauline Christianity, in that Dracula promises—and gives—the real resurrection of the body, but disunited from soul. Stoker’s attitude to this is of course shocked, but then Stoker appears from the text to be almost traumatised by a specific sexual fear, a fear of the so-called ‘New Woman’ and the reversal of sexual roles which her emergence implies. Mina is afraid that ‘some of the “New Women” writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it, too! There’s some consolation in that’ (Dracula, p. 100). Behind the smugness lies disturbance; it is ironic, but with an irony familiar in the Gothic from Radcliffe on, that precisely the authorial conservatism of Dracula makes its rendition of the threats to comfortable Victorian sexual and familial life pointed and perceptive. A crucial scene occurs when Arthur visits Lucy, who is failing fast. When he first sees her, she ‘looked her best, with all the soft lines matching the angelic beauty of her eyes’. But as she sinks into sleep, this model of femininity and passivity begins to change:
> Her breathing grew stertorous, the mouth opened, and the pale gums, drawn back, made the teeth look longer and sharper than ever. In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips:
‘Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!’
(Dracula pp. 167-8)
Upon which Van Helsing, whose role is to protect against this kind of overt passion and reversal of roles, comes between them. And this scene is prefigured by the ‘key-note’ scene where Harker is menaced in Dracula’s castle by the three female vampires:
> All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down; lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain; but it is the truth.
(Dracula, p. 46)
It is hard to summarise Dracula, for it is such a wide-ranging book, but in general it is fair to say that its power derives from its dealings with taboo. Where taboo sets up certain bounding lines and divisions which enable society to function without disruption, Dracula blurs those lines. He blurs the line between man and beast, thus echoing the fears of degeneracy in Stevenson, Wilde and Wells; he blurs the line between man and God by daring to partake of immortal life and by practising a corrupt but superhuman form of love; and he blurs the line between man and woman by demonstrating the existence of female passion. In his figure are delineated so many primitive fears: he is a shape-changer, a merger of species, the harbinger of ethnic collapse. His ‘disciple’ Renfield regards him as a god; and his satanic aspects are all the more interesting if we remember that his real-life ancestor gained his reputation for cruelty because of his assiduity in defending the Christian faith against the marauding Turk.
Where Moreau constitutes an ambiguous and accidental threat to empire from without, destroying genetic and racial barriers which are essential to smooth government, Dracula threatens it from within, attacking the whole concept of morality by preying upon and liberating aspects of the personality which are not under moral control, and colonising on his own behalf by infection in a savage and quite unintentional parody of imperialism. The ironic refrain of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), the perception that you always kill the thing you love, that only love allows the proximity which can lead to real damage, is given a savage new twist by Stoker, in whose text one can see the traces of the illimitable desire which turns love into possession and demands incorporation of the love-object. Dracula is the logical culmination of the Victorian and Gothic hero, the hero in whom power and attraction are bent to the service of Thanatos, and for whom the price of immortality is the death of the soul.
Before turning from the problematic of decadence to other forms of Gothic which continued to exist in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction, there is one other writer whose work, beginning in the 1890s and continuing through to the 1920s, merits some comment: Arthur Machen. Machen’s books have never received much attention, a fact about which he grew increasingly bitter, yet they are the best in the rather sickly field of genre work which took up Darwinian anxieties as a basis for terror. In 1894, Machen published a novella called The Great God Pan, in which yet another doctor performs on a young girl an operation which is designed to open her ‘inner eye’ to the continuing diabolical existence of the Great God; the operation drives her mad, after which her child, born of her union with Pan, proceeds to confront a series of other people with visions of the horror which underlies the quiet surface of life. It is, as Machen says, ‘an old story, an old mystery played in our day, and in dim London streets instead of amidst the vineyards and the olive gardens’.8 The old story is the story of Moreau and Dracula, the story of the breaking of taboo boundaries and the dreadful consequences which result: Pan is a ‘presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form’ (Pan, p. 20), and when the hell-child finally dies she goes through the stages of the reversion of the species to the ‘primal slime’:
> I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being.
(Pan, p. 109)
The paradox of The Great God Pan is that the visitation which liberates the human being from the repression of false assumptions also destroys the barriers which retain human individuation: the liberation of desire returns man to a primal association with the beast and destroys the soul:
> I knew I had looked into the eyes of a lost soul … the man’s outward form remained, but all hell was within it. Furious lust, and hate that was like fire, and the loss of all hope, and horror that seemed to shriek aloud in the night, though his teeth were shut; and the utter blackness of despair.
(Pan, p. 91)
This is a lurid version of the process which converted Jekyll into Hyde; and it happens, as one might expect, almost exclusively to aristocrats.
The Three Impostors (1895) is a rather more complex book and an interesting example of a text composed of a series of interlocking stories, all of which are lies. It is indebted to Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), and moves through a range of settings which bear comparison with Conan Doyle’s. The stories vary in terms of the order of interpretation which they advance, but the most significant of them are committed, like The Great God Pan, to asseting a pseudo-‘natural’ explanation for apparently supernatural events. Professor Gregg, another unfortunate seeker after forbidden knowledge, is convinced that the horror stories of folk legendry mask facts which are amenable to scientific discovery: he rejects ‘the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages’, saying that ‘invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion’, and advances a different hypothesis: ‘what if the obscure and horrible race of the hills still survived, still remained haunting wild places and barren hills, and now and then repeating the evil of Gothic legend, unchanged and unchangeable as the Turanian Shelta, or the Basques of Spain?’9 Here Machen’s Celtic sensibility verges on a theory of history according to racial conspiracy; it is perhaps not surprising that he felt attracted towards Fascism.10
In one sense at least, The Three Impostors might be described as a truly decadent book, in that its content turns back upon itself and is used as the excuse for a series of ironic arguments about the nature of fiction. Its protagonists are involved in pondering the strangeness of the real, while continually being subjected to unsolicited stories which do nothing whatever to help the problem, since their tellers cannot be trusted. Machen’s continual theme is ‘the awful transmutation of the hills’ (Impostors, p. 119): the possibility that the merest sideslip of vision might offer us a world which is wholly other, and show us the real and awful faces of the demons who manipulate evolution to serve their own ends.
This transmutation is also the theme of Machen’s most impressive work, The Hill of Dreams (1907), which has been described as the most decadent book in the English language. Its decadence is not formal but thematic, the closest connection being to Swinburne. The hero, Lucian Taylor, finds the world resistant both to his desires and to his attempts to write a novel, and enters into a dark bath of pain and sacrifice in which he revolves an endless obsession with the single moment of dubious love which he has experienced; but what is distinctive is that Machen manages to describe algolagnic indulgence without losing his sense of the irony which results from Lucian’s conflict with the real world:
> Never did he fail to wake at the appointed hour, a strong effort of will broke through all the heaviness of sleep, and he would rise up, joyful though weeping, and reverently set his thorny bed upon the floor, offering his pain with his praise. When he had whispered the last word, and had risen from the ground, his body would be all freckled with drops of blood; he used to view the marks with pride. Here and there a spine would be left deep in the flesh, and he would pull these out roughly, tearing through the skin, On some nights when he had pressed with more fervour on the thorns his thighs would stream with blood, red beads standing out on the flesh, and trickling down to his feet. He had some difficulty in washing away the bloodstains so as not to leave any traces to attract the attention of the servant; and after a time he returned no more to his bed when his duty had been accomplished. For a coverlet he had a dark rug, a good deal worn, and in this he would wrap his naked bleeding body, and lie down on the hard floor, well content to add an aching rest to the account of his pleasures. He was covered with scars, and those that healed during the day were torn open afresh at night; the pale olive skin was red with the angry marks of blood, and the graceful form of the young man appeared like the body of a tortured martyr. He grew thinner and thinner every day, for he ate but little; the skin was stretched on the bones of his face, and the black eyes burnt in dark purple hollows. His relations noticed that he was not looking well.11
The Hill of Dreams is an over-lush book, and the baroque quality of Machen’s prose sometimes becomes absurd, yet it has a power which is partly derived from his refusal to sever Lucian completely from reality: where a Keatsian hero might be able to retreat to a world of beauty, or a Swinburnian one to a permanent semi-mystical indulgence in pain, Lucian remains in contact with his environment, albeit transmuted by his special vision. His apocalyptic view of London is comparable with Baudelaire’s urban nightmares in intensity if not in execution:
> Voices, raucous, clamant, abominable, were belched out of the blazing public-houses as the doors swung to and fro, and above these doors were hideous brassy lamps, very slowly swinging in a violent blast of air, so that they might have been infernal thuribles, censing the people. Some man was calling his wares in one long continuous shriek that never stopped or paused, and, as a respond, a deeper, louder voice roared to him from across the road. An Italian whirled the handle of his piano-organ in a fury, and a ring of imps danced mad figures around him, danced and flung up their legs till the rags dropped from some of them, and they still danced on. A flare of naphtha, burning with a rushing noise, threw a light on one point of the circle, and Lucian watched a lank girl of fifteen as she came round and round to the flash. She was quite drunk, and had kicked her petticoats away, and the crowd howled laughter and applause at her. Her black hair poured down and leapt on her scarlet bodice; she sprang and leapt round the ring, laughing in Bacchic frenzy, and led the orgy to triumph.
(Hill of Dreams, pp. 203-4)
Machen takes to an extreme point tendencies already existing within decadent Gothic: like Dracula’s, Lucian’s is the desire which tends towards death, but unlike Dracula Lucian does not have the supernatural privilege of attaining gratification, except in his final dream:
> And presently the woman fled away from him, and he pursued her. She fled away before him through midnight country, and he followed after her, chasing her from thicket to thicket, from valley to valley. And at last he captured her and won her with horrible caresses, and they went up to celebrate and make the marriage of the Sabbath. They were within the matted thicket, and they writhed in flames, insatiable, forever. They were tortured, and tortured one another, in the sight of thousands who gathered thick about them; and their desire rose up like a black smoke.
(Hill of Dreams, p. 266)
Machen provides an epilogue to English decadence, in which beauty and death are represented as inextricably fused at the root of the moment of passion.
1. Robert Louis Stevenson, Works, ed. L. Osbourne and Mrs R. L. Stevenson (30 vols, London, 1924–6), IV, 65.
2. See Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London, 1977), pp. 20-1, 79-81.
3. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Isobel Murray (London, 1974), p. 143.
4. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–3), in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York, 1965), p. 37.
5. Lytton Strachey, Characters and Commentaries (London, 1933), p. 40.
6. H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau (London, 1973), p. 104.
7. Bram Stoker, Dracula (New York, 1965), p. 245.
8. Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (London, 1913), p. 101.
9. Machen, The Three Impostors, introd. Julian Symons (London, 1964), pp. .
10. This is, of course, only one of many examples in the Gothic—as in literature in general—of an oblique relation between a writer’s political tendency and the political content of his writings; a simple point, but one so far largely ignored in criticism of the genre.
11. Machen, The Hill of Dreams (New York, 1923), pp. 101-2.
RAPHAEL INGELBIEN (ESSAY DATE WINTER 2003)
> SOURCE: Ingelbien, Raphael. “Gothic Genealogies: Dracula, Bowen’s Court, and Anglo-Irish Psychology.” ELH 70, no. 4 (winter 2003): .
In the following essay, Ingelbien offers a psychological approach to a comparison of gothicism and Anglo-Irish identity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the works of Elizabeth Bowen.
Like all enduring literary myths, Dracula has been amenable to many interpretations. Although the aesthetic merits of Bram Stoker’s novel are still contested, its popularity with critics of all persuasions has been rising steadily, as is confirmed by the publication of two case studies editions in recent years.1 But the reception of Dracula is certainly not an object lesson in critical pluralism. Not only can a variety of approaches lead to conflicting readings; controversy also rages within some of the critical paradigms that have been applied to Stoker’s text. Nowhere has this been as obvious as in the attempts at locating Dracula in its historical and national contexts. The novel has long been a favorite of other kinds of criticism (mostly psychoanalytic); interest in Stoker’s relation to Irish cultural politics is comparatively recent. But any hopes that firm insights may be gained from the long overdue historicist placing of Dracula in its Irish context were soon dispelled, as the ideological controversies inherent in Irish studies were quickly imported into the novel’s interpretation.
Who was Dracula? Besides being a Freudian projection of sexual anxieties, a perverted archetype, or a fin-de-siècle fantasy, where might the monster fit in what is also taken to be an allegory of Ireland’s social, political, and cultural upheavals at the end of the nineteenth century? The answers proposed so far look clearly incompatible. For some, Count Dracula represents the Protestant Ascendancy in terminal decline; he is a bloodthirsty caricature of the aristocratic landlord, clinging to feudal power in the face of reform and about to be engulfed by the forces of modernity and nationalist agitation. Stoker’s novel must then be read as the indictment of a class incapable of adapting to new realities. This interpretation has chiefly been favored by critics whose sympathies are recognizably (though not crudely) nationalist, like Terry Eagleton and Seamus Deane. Their reading tactics have been impugned by Bruce Stewart, who considers alternative and supposedly closer analyses of Dracula that put the monster in the nationalist and/or Catholic middle-class camp: Dracula and his faithful Szgany are cast as radical Land Leaguers intent on political violence, or exploitative Catholic entrepreneurs known as gombeen men. Those revisionist views of the novel are complemented by Michael Valdez Moses’s interpretation, which draws attention to similarities between Dracula and the ill-fated leader of the Home Rule movement Charles Stewart Parnell.2 Stewart himself backs away from those neat inversions of nationalist readings and ecumenically warns against “privileging one side against the other,” apparently setting the interests of cultural peace above those of critical accuracy.3
Stoker’s own political sympathies, divided as they were between his own Protestant background and his alienation from its more conservative elements, do not allow biography to settle the dispute. Even his background is somehow disputed: although Stoker’s Protestant education took him to the Anglo-Irish stronghold of Trinity College, Dublin, some have speculated that his mother’s Gaelic ancestry rather made him “Anglo-Celtic,” and thus fundamentally ambivalent.4 Politically, Stoker seems to have developed from early imperialist sympathies to the position of a “philosophical Home Ruler,” while his journalism reveals a political thinking dominated by a “complex and fraught dialectic … between a frantic endorsement of progress as a natural law of social development, and its dark alternative, atavism, barbarism, chaos.”5 The role of that dialectic in his most famous novel is still open to conjecture. Meanwhile, readings proliferate, the battle lines are sharply drawn, and Dracula’s political identity remains at stake.
ON THE SUBJECT OF …
RAY BRADBURY (1920–)
Known primarily for his science fiction novels and short stories, Bradbury often uses a sense of enchantment to weave traditional Gothic horrors into the fabric of ordinary life and to invest the most mundane situations with eerie potential. Supernatural occurrences in his stories are often matched by the experiences of characters whose emotional responses lead them into the realm of the uncanny. “The Lake” and “Reunion,” for example, are both centered on the endurance of love after death. In the former, a dead playmate reawakens the affections of the man who once loved her by leaving a sand castle for him on the beach where she drowned decades before. In the latter, an orphaned boy achieves a similar rapport with his dead family by recreating them in his imagination from the smell and feel of their clothing and other personal articles they used in life. In his stories “The Jar” and “The Next in Line” Bradbury depicts deteriorating marriages escalating toward disaster, conveying an eerie menace as events culminate around symbols—a jar containing a freak-show attraction in the former story and a catacomb filled with mummies in the latter—that crystallize the sense of dread. “Homecoming,” “Uncle Einar,” “The Traveller,” and “The April Witch” are all tales in which Bradbury features an extended family of vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings who live unobtrusively among humans and who express emotional needs not unlike those of their mortal neighbors. The children in Bradbury’s stories are often genuine naïfs who access the supernatural unself-consciously using their as-yet unspoiled imaginations. In “The Emissary” their wishes resurrect the dead and games of make-believe defeat death altogether in “Bang! You’re Dead” and “The Ducker.” The lost innocence of Bradbury’s adult characters, however, renders them vulnerable to evil, death, and destruction. In “The Screaming Woman” the loss of youthful romance leads to death, and in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) jaded, sinful men and women are lured into bargains with Satan by the promise of everlasting youth.
This situation owes much to conflicts within Irish studies, but it also results from an almost exclusive—and, I suggest, deficient—focus on the figure of Dracula as a monstrous, protean body. Critical awareness of Dracula’s Irish contexts developed simultancously with the growing influ-ence of New Historicism and its Foucauldian interest in the body as a site of meaning. This means that in many readings, Dracula is essentially a bundle of somatic properties.6 He is largely defined by his abnormal features, his bloodsucking, and the various guises he assumes through his supernatural transformations. To a certain extent, Stoker’s Gothic sensationalism invites precisely such a reading. Dracula can easily be made to stand for the return of a repressed, forbidden sensuality that threatens the bourgeois subjectivities of his victims. This is reinforced by the novel’s narrative organization. Dracula is famously made up of texts spoken or written by the vampire’s victims and/or pursuers; its eponymous central figure is denied an equal measure of narratorial authority, which apparently relegates him beyond the bounds of articulate subjectivity. An elusive, fascinating cipher, Dracula then becomes a mere body onto which various anxieties can be projected—whether it be by Freudian, New Historicist, or other readers. Recent contextualizations draw extensively on contemporary pictorial sources, reminding us that Dracula appeared in a fin-desiècle context where caricatures reflected dominant views on racial differences. Interesting though they undeniably are, those visual documents clearly offer no way out of critical controversy. John Paul Riquelme’s edition of Dracula includes caricatures from nineteenth-century periodicals, in which vampiric bats and other monsters were made to represent the Land League, British rule, or Parnell.7 Finally, the critical rhetoric that is applied to the novel often underscores the centrality of Dracula’s body and the wealth of interpretations it encourages: in the words of a recent commentator, Dracula is “an overdetermined figure onto whom are cathected many of the most formidable political and social issues of nineteenth-century Ireland.”8 Our Dracula is a walking infusion set; Stoker criticism is largely a form of surgery on Gothic bodies.
Yet Stoker’s vampire is not simply a monstrous body. Given the current emphasis on the body in literature, one may easily forget that Dracula is also a psychological subject, and that, although he does not belong to the cast of primary narrators, he also speaks at length. Jonathan Harker devotes several pages of his journal to careful and revealing descriptions of his host’s dwelling and habits; he also gives the reader long, verbatim accounts of Dracula’s garrulous conversation. Could the Count’s personal effects, gestures, and words, so often neglected in favour of his spectacular monstrosity, contain clues about his identity? More specifically, could the psychology they betray also help us locate Dracula in recognizable Irish cultural formations?
An answer to those questions first suggested itself to me by a reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s family memoir Bowen’s Court, entitled after the Bowens’ Big House in County Cork, and first published in 1942.9 A classic example of Ascendancy (auto)biography, written by a key figure of modern Anglo-Irish literature, Bowen’s Court will here be used as a text against which Harker’s portrayal of Dracula in his journal can be read in illuminating ways. My aim is not to suggest a firm intertextual link between Dracula and Bowen’s Court. Bowen was certainly attuned to the finer nuances of Anglo-Irish Gothic, as her perceptive introduction to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas demonstrates. She would most probably have been familiar with Stoker’s fiction, although it apparently failed to captivate her as did Le Fanu’s work. This can be explained by her preferences among the different strains that compete within the Anglo-Irish Gothic tradition: Bowen’s own sense of the Gothic was always closer to the psychological terror and the neuroses that Le Fanu exploited than to the more sensational paraphernalia on display in Dracula.10 This is partly because Bowen’s Gothic was only one of the strategies that she used when exploring Ascendancy anxieties from the inside of her own society: in her writing, Gothic undertones often coexist quite naturally with a quasi-Jamesian observation of Anglo-Irish manners. This muted, subtle form of the Gothic not only informs supernatural elements in some of Bowen’s Irish fictions but also pervades many a page of Bowen’s Court. A comparison between Dracula and Bowen’s Court will, therefore, bring out those elements of psychological Gothic in Stoker’s novel that most definitely call for an interpretation within an Anglo-Irish cultural context—so far, those elements have received scant attention. This comparison should also be seen as a step towards refining our understanding of what can be meant by Anglo-Irish Gothic.
Reading Dracula (1897) in the light of Bowen’s Court (1942) may seem anachronistic. But Bowen’s text is not only a mid-twentieth-century record of Anglo-Irish tradition; it stands as one of the most consummate expressions of that tradition. The themes and strategies she uses in her chronicle belong to that tradition as well. Bowen also makes extensive use of documents produced throughout her family’s history and manages to integrate them smoothly into her own narrative. Furthermore, Bowen’s Court can be used as a gateway into a certain kind of Ascendancy biographical writing: in what follows, references to Bowen’s memoir will be accompanied by considerations of other representative texts written by key Anglo-Irish figures, like Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, in the decades that separate Dracula from Bowen’s Court. The continuities between Harker’s journal and those different texts are often striking, and they suggest that Stoker was tapping into the same psychological vein that Bowen later exploited in her turn. The heuristic value of my comparison is also based on a recognition of this fact: Bowen speaks not only of her family and class; she speaks also as a family and class. Moreover, as we will see, she does so by using accents that uncannily echo the rhetoric of Stoker’s Count.
It is clear that this comparison will lend support to analyses that identify Dracula as an Ascendancy figure, and that it can, therefore, be seen as a way of taking sides in the critical debate sketched out above. Bringing Bowen into the equation, however, will show that such a reading need not be motivated by a contemporary nationalist agenda, or by a desire to play up Ascendancy guilt through simplistic allegories (the fallacious strategies of which Stewart accuses Eagleton and Deane). If the characterization of Dracula can be fruitfully compared to a family chronicle by one of the Ascendancy’s most distinguished writers, it would seem that both Stoker and Bowen were indeed describing the same subject. Their attitudes towards that subject obviously differed: as I will argue, Stoker’s and Bowen’s portrayals were, respectively, intended as a critique and an apology. But their political differences do not detract from the troubling resemblance between their texts.
Another possible objection should be considered before we proceed with the comparison proper. Can a reading that mainly focuses on Harker’s early account of Dracula offer representative evidence about the Irish dimension of Dracula? I would here counter that there is no reason to assume that the novel as a whole possesses a single, comprehensive allegorical intent. Allegories, whether political or psychological, certainly seem to abound in the novel, but it is far from certain that Dracula can function as one extended, coherent allegory (whatever the nature of that allegory is). In that sense, conflicting readings may also result from a failure to recognize that Stoker was ultimately after things other than allegorical consistency—a desire for commercial success played at least as large a part in the making of the novel. Some parts of Dracula can thus resist historicist readings in terms of Irish politics.11 But the early parts of Harker’s journal are definitely a goldmine for critics who adopt that approach. For one thing, Harker’s accounts of Transylvania draw on a source which provides an explicit link with Ireland: Stoker found inspiration in Major E. C. Johnson’s On the Track of the Crescent, where Transylvanian peasants were repeatedly likened to Irish ones. Harker’s insistence on the peasants’ superstition and devotional fervor clearly reminds one of a Protestant’s attitude towards Irish Catholics—this is a link on which most critics agree.12 Other elements of the setting can also point to Ireland, although one should be wary of reading Irish references into every detail that lends itself to this strategy. Admittedly, Dracula’s current status has much to do with “critical plurality, a discursive pattern of multiple signification and resignification that presents in itself a marked parallel to the psychoanalytical trope of overdetermination.”13 But overdetermination remains a cop-out if it allows different interpretations to be juxtaposed without any examination of the conflicts they generate. What can be an Irish reference in Dracula can also be part and parcel of the conventions of vampire literature: to what extent can such an element then be used in a historicist reading? To take but one example: how justified is a critic in speculating that Dracula’s powers of seduction may be a reference to Parnell, given that Dracula was hardly the first womanizing vampire in literature?14 Harker’s journal can confront the critic with similar problems. On the other hand, Stoker may have chosen to stress or adapt specific conventions of vampiric writing, because they could then function within an Irish allegory. Stoker’s own additions to those conventions (sometimes based on his research into Transylvanian folklore) are even more likely to constitute references to Irish politics, although generalizations are clearly unwise. It is mostly with such emphases, adaptations, or additions that my comparison with Bowen’s Court and other Ascendancy texts will be concerned.
On one level, Stoker’s view of Transylvania as a land of superstition reflects what he found in his reading of local sources, but those sources were important to him partly because they facilitated a parallel with Ireland. Among the superstitions to which Stoker alludes are legends concerning hidden treasures. After his ceric coach journey to the castle, Harker asks the Count “why the coachman went to the places where we had seen the blue flames. Was it indeed true that they showed where gold was hidden?” (46). Stoker was here drawing on an account of Transylvanian superstitions, according to which “in the night preceding Easter Sunday … hidden treasures are said to betray their site by a glowing flame.”15 Dracula’s confirmation is almost a quotation from Stoker’s source; the Count goes on to explain that the treasures were buried during the numerous invasions to which the region was subjected. Stoker was probably struck by the similarity between his source and Irish tales of riches hurriedly hidden underground in time of trouble. Bowen’s Court includes such an episode: one of Bowen’s ancestors was made privy to the whereabouts of gold and silver buried near Kilbolane during the 1689 rebellion, but failed to disclose the location before his death (96-97). Buried treasures were part of Irish as well as Transylvanian folklore; what makes Stoker’s version interesting here is that only the Count (disguised as a coachman) ventured near the blue flames, in order to mark the place with a few stones (38). Dracula here asserts his ownership, secure in the knowledge that the peasants will never dare to come near the place: “[Y]our average peasant is at heart a coward and a fool”; “[O]n that night no man of this land will, if he can help it, stir without his doors” (46, 47). On the whole, Stoker sticks closely to his source (according to which the night in question was eminently dangerous), but his one transformation explicitly sets Dracula apart from the local peasantry by giving him the knowledge possessed by dead Ascendancy patriarchs. In Lady Gregory’s memoir Coole (1931), a local legend also makes it clear that the ghosts of the Ascendancy protect their buried treasures:
> I often heard that long ago in the garden at Coole, at the cross, a man that was digging found a pot of gold. But just as he had the cover took off, he saw old Richard Gregory coming, and he covered it up, and was never able again to find the spot where it was.16
In Dracula, the Count grants that some peasant might be bold enough to go treasure hunting after the blue flames, but he then tells his guest: “[E]ven if he did he would not know what to do…. You would not, I dare be sworn, be able to find these places again?” (47). Stoker’s adaptation of Transylvanian folklore, here, seems meant to bring out Dracula’s resemblance to an Ascendancy landlord.
The association of Dracula with Ascendancy habits, obsessions, and values is also invited by descriptions of his castle. His deserted and draughty dwelling calls to mind the condition of an aristocracy which had already fallen on hard times by the 1890s, when Ascendancy land ownership and the income landlords could derive from rents were being reduced by legal reforms.17 A closer look at Dracula’s behavior in and towards his house will only reinforce this parallel. “Welcome to my house!”: Dracula’s twice repeated words of greeting to Harker are remarkable for their insistence on hospitality (41). Although impoverished, this aristocrat still cultivates a hospitality on which many Ascendancy families (including the Bowens) continued to pride themselves. Harker is immediately asked to make himself at home. This is a tall order in such gaunt surroundings, but his task is made somewhat casier by the Count’s library, filled as it is with English books. Dracula himself is observed reading “of all things, an English Bradshaw’s Guide” (47), while his atlas lies “opened naturally at England, as if that map had been used much” (48-49). According to Eagleton, this exposes Dracula as an Anglophile Ascendancy aristocrat, “given to poring over maps of the metropolis,” and about to become a long-term absentce through his move to London.18 But Dracula’s library is also worth exploring in more detail. Indeed, family libraries often occupy a prominent place in Ascendancy memoirs. Lady Gregory devotes the first twenty pages of her short book Coole to “The Library.” Books were almost human presences to her: “I shall feel sorry to leave all these volumes among which I have lived. They have felt the pressure of my fingers. They have been my friends.”19 Dracula uses similar terms when he refers to his library: “‘These friends’—and he laid his hands on some of the books—’have been good friends to me'” (45). Given the isolation of the Anglo-Irish Big Houses, such intimacy is hardly surprising.
The contents of Dracula’s shelves are also telling, as is the very fact that Harker devotes a whole paragraph to an enumeration of his host’s books. These include
> a vast number of English books, whole shelves full of them, and bound volumes of magazines and newspapers. A table in the centre was littered with English magazines and newspapers, though none of them of very recent date. The books were of the most varied kind—history, geography, politics, political economy, botany, geology, law—all relating to England and English life and customs and manners. There were even such books of reference as the London directory, the “Red” and “Blue” books, Whitaker’s Almanack, the Army and Navy Lists, and—it somehow gladdened my heart to see it—the Law List.
Dracula’s interest in England is understandable enough, given his plan for a prolonged stay in London. But the diversity of the books is quite remarkable in itself, and it clearly strikes Harker as much as the fact that all the items are about England. The celectic bric-à-brac on the Count’s shelves appears more familiar when compared with the somewhat frantic universalism of some Big House libraries. These reflected their owners’ aspiration to a Classical ideal of humanist knowledge as well as an attachment to English culture. The library at Bowen’s Court was less exclusively English and more literary than Dracula’s, but it was equally varied. Bowen’s list of its contents is a tribute to a certain cultural ideal, although one suspects some tongue in check irony at the range of interests represented:
> The (now) more or less complete works of Pope, Gay, Dryden, an eight-volume set of The Spectator, The Guardian, Addison’s Poems, Young’s Works (the Young of the Night Thoughts) dedicated to Mr. Voltaire, The Faerie Queene, written by Edmund Spenser, with a Glossary explaining Old and Obscure Words, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son, translations of Madame de Sévigné’s Letters and of Sully’s Memoirs, Johnson’s Dictionary, A Description of England (in eight volumes with plates of religious ruins and notable country seats), A Tour Through France (Anon.), Goldsmith’s Animated Nature, a Nouveau Traité de Vénerie, Smollett’s History of England, Robertson’s History of Scotland, six volumes of Dodsley’s Collections (Poems by Several Hands), Manners in Portugal, Vertot’s Revolution in Sweden, Crevier’s Roman Emperors, Memoirs of the Portuguese Inquisition, with Reflections on Ancient and Modern Popery, Essex’s Letters (from Ireland), Observations on the Turks, Tissot on Health, a Life of Gustavus Adolphus, Arthur Young’s Tour Through the North of England, Collins’s Peerage (eight volumes, 1779), and a Peerage of Ireland (1768).
What is also typical of the Ascendancy is the place of this humanist taste, within a cultural ideal that included soldierly virtues as well as intellectual ones. Over time, Bowen’s Court became a repository of both. The library was an addition to a family history that had started out with more Philistine figures: the first Irish Bowens were “temperamental fighters, malcontents, firebrands, actuated by love of movement,” but with little time for other pursuits (BC, 39); the synthesis was achieved by later Bowens and, ultimately, through Bowen’s all-embracing chronicle. That synthesis is probably best known through Yeats’s poetic eulogies of an Ascendancy of soldiers, scholars, and horsemen—a retrospectively idealized mixture of elements that may have coexisted in only a few individuals. This appetite for fighting was, of course, all the more remarkable in that it seemed to transcend specific political interests or allegiances. Yeats’s ancestors, though not aristocratic, were “soldiers that gave, whatever die was cast”: Yeats himself was not always too sure about whose side his forefathers fought on, but that uncertainty was no obstacle to a celebration of their military virtue. In Yeats’s version, the Ascendancy, “Bound neither to Cause nor to State,” was admirable in and for itself.20 Bowen’s ancestors also belonged to the kind of “men of whom it is hard to say whether their ideas breed their passions or their passions breed their ideas.” Henry Bowen I thus switched sides during the Civil War as a matter of course: “I doubt whether Henry Bowen ever cared much for either King or Parliament: he may have hardly distinguished between the two” (BC, 39).
Both Yeats’s and Bowen’s writings give concrete shape to this Anglo-Irish ideal of humanist culture, military prowess, and political versatility by collapsing several individuals into a collective, transgenerational subject. To Stoker’s readers, there is little new here. The strategy was already evident in the long, trance-like monologues where Dracula entertained Harker with a confused but passionate account of his family’s history: “for in our veins flows the blood of many races who fought as the lion fights: for lordship” (52). It is worth noting here that, by drawing on the bellicose figure of Vlad the Impaler, Stoker was adding a new feature to the make-up of the vampire of literary tradition.21 One reason for Stoker’s interest in Vlad is that his qualities as a military leader made him an appropriate source for the portrayal of a certain type of Anglo-Irish aristocrat. The crash course in Transylvanian history that Harker receives from Dracula gives pride of place to his ancestors’ heroism on the battlefield, but it also leaves one with an extremely confused picture of political changes. What is more, the Count’s lengthy tale, filled though it is with the distant sound of old battles, does not really make riveting reading; nor does it prepare for subsequent developments in the plot of Dracula. If it actually detracts from the narrative economy of this novel of sensation, one may surmise that Stoker included it because of the allegorical clues it gave about Dracula’s identity. Dracula presents his tribe (the Szekelys) as an independent minded race of natural warriors, whose allegiances were as shifting as those of Bowen’s or Yeats’s ancestors. The Szekelys were eminently adaptable to circumstance: “When the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars” (53); later though, “when after the battle of Mohacs, we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were among their leaders, for our spirit would not brook that we were not free” (54). Like the early Bowens, the Szekelys were essentially lone operators, who laid themselves open to charges of pure egoism and opportunism.22 Dracula’s rebuttal justifies their attitude by stressing its strategic value in Transylvanian society. Of an earlier Dracula, he observes: “They said that he thought only of himself. Bah! what good are peasants without a leader?” (54). While the idea that peasants need a leader may provide a connection with the Land League in the eyes of some, the fact that these words are spoken by a nostalgic aristocrat means rather that Dracula is trying to justify aristocratic leadership in a society that was both rural and unstable. This justification, however, is coupled with an admission that the old aristocratic power and the virtues that sustained it have passed: “[T]he warlike days are over … the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told” (54).
The Count’s tales about his family’s past are also remarkable for their narrative quirks. Harker’s comments on the strange quality of those tales deserve our attention here:
> In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name are his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” like a king speaking.
Dracula is not being overly rhetorical here, of course: as an almost timeless creature, he actually is a collective, transhistorical subject, the living (or undead) embodiment of several generations. His systematic use of “we” eerily prefigures Bowen’s own lapses into plural pronouns in Bowen’s Court. Bowen’s family chronicle shows such a degree of empathy that her identity as a narrator repeatedly blends with that of her subjects. Like Dracula, she can speak of “we” as if she and her family were one timeless subject. This can happen even when Bowen herself was clearly not involved in the episodes that she is recounting. Bowen’s use of the plural “we” becomes even more striking when one remembers that Bowen’s Court was written in the early 1940s, when Bowen was already the last, childless representative of her line. Here are some examples (all emphases are mine):
> We north-east County Cork gentry began rather roughly, as settlers.
The story [runs that] King William III … paid a visit to the Bowens at Kilbolane … and presented them with a communion set. The only communion plate now in our possession is, however, Victorian style. But King William’s portrait, framed to match Oliver Cromwell’s, hangs beside Cromwell’s at the top of Bowen’s Court stairs. If he never did stay with us, he no doubt wished that he could.
I think the loss of the law suit—for we did lose it in the end—determined and hardened [Henry III’s] nature in many ways.
He did, it is true, lose our part of a mountain (Quitrent) at cards … but it was his father, dear Henry III, who bequeathed us our lasting embarrassments.
At other times, Bowen’s “we” seems to encompass both her family and the class to which it belonged. Her identification with the Ascendancy is perhaps at its strongest and most eloquent in passages that record periods of trouble or decay. Her portrayal of George Bowen in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion is a case in point:
> [Big George] epitomizes that rule by force of sheer fantasy that had, in great or small ways, become for his class the only possible one. From the big lord to the small country gentleman we were, about this time, being edged back upon a tract of clouds and obsessions that could each, from its nature, be only solitary.
(BC, 258, my emphasis)
In the following example, Bowen’s parenthetical remark suggests that a sense of decline could sometimes be almost too close for comfort:
> Such a society had its roughnesses, but it had not that vulgarity of assertion only necessary when there is decline (that is why to detect a vulgarity, in ourselves, in a friend or associate, worries us: it is the morbid symptom we recognize).
(BC, 131, my emphasis)
In both Dracula and Bowen’s Court, the plural “we” is used by a consciously aristocratic voice that traces and identifies with a lineage which is now under threat. If that “we” sounds assertive or royal to Harker, as he listens to his host, it is perhaps also—and ironically enough, for Bowen—an elegiac symptom of decline.
By letting us hear Count Dracula’s tales of past glory, Stoker well may have caught the essential tone of the declining society of the Big House. The very word “house” is used repeatedly (and sometimes almost ambiguously) in the conversations between Dracula and Harker; its meaning oscillates between “dwelling” and “family.” Dracula insistently welcomes the young lawyer to his “house” (twice on 41) and tells him that “to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride” (52, my emphasis); the “we” that intrigues Harker is used when Dracula speaks “of his house” (52). After hearing Harker’s description of the house that the young clerk has bought for him in London, Dracula expresses his satisfaction thus:
> I am glad that it is old and big. I myself am of an old family, and to live in a new house would kill me. A house cannot be made habitable in one day; and after all, how few days go to make up a century … the walls of my castle are broken; the shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements. I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.
Although Bowen’s Court was not as dilapidated or melancholy, Bowen would certainly have recognized this state of mind where individual, family, and house merge into a composite, atemporal being. Bowen’s Court itself, in her memoir, becomes precisely such an entity; her writing is pervaded by an almost mystical sense of dwelling, increased by the awareness that she is the last Bowen to inherit the house. The personal and cultural mystique that surrounded Big Houses only intensified with the decline of the society that owned them. W. J. McCormack has argued that, although the Big House as a reality is as old as the Ascendancy itself, the concept and name of “Big House” emerged in Anglo-Irish literature only when its referent was already in decline.23 The date of that semantic shift remains to be investigated, but one suspects that Dracula’s delight at the prospect of staying in a “house” which is “old and big” is a revealing choice of words. In that respect, as in many others, Harker’s diary can be read as a portrait of Big House society.24
If Stoker managed to convey the tone and moods of an Anglo-Irish aristocracy in decline, his association of that class with vampirism is, of course, eminently critical; it is the gesture of a modern, forward-looking Dublin Protestant, who had little patience with the more conservative sections of Anglo-Ireland. By comparison, Bowen’s family chronicle definitely reads like an apology, although she does, at times, infuse her record with admissions of failure and of historical injustice.25 Bowen can also pass a benign form of criticism on the foibles and obsessions of her ancestors; when this occurs, her portrayals tend to assume more obviously Gothic features that would not have been out of place in Dracula. Towards the end of his life, John Bowen I thus withdrew into the kind of isolation and behavior that befits the undead:
> He took up his quarters in the small semi-ruinous castle just across the Fahary stream…. Into this dark doorway he turned at the close of the long dusks. In these chambers he muttered and walked at nights.
The daughter of a Catholic landlord who was expropriated in favor of the Bowens is also described in terms that could be applied to some of Dracula’s victims, although Bowen’s descriptions perhaps recall the ghost of Catherine Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights more than the undead Lucy Westenra roaming her Whitby churchyard:
> Was Elizabeth Cushin, child of the dispossessed Garrett, as lovely as she was unfortunate? Did she walk like a living ghost the lands her father had owned, and was John—in the wood, up the stream, on the side of the mountain—constantly meeting her?
These hints of a more sensational Gothic of walking ghosts and crumbling castles remain few and far between in Bowen’s Court. Stoker, on the other hand, liberally uses such ingredients alongside the more psychological Gothic that pervades the characterization of Dracula in Harker’s journal. The proliferation of Gothic horrors in Dracula partly answers Stoker’s wish to debunk a class that he could also portray with subtlety. Some of the Gothic atrocities that Dracula’s castle conceals are not just stage properties borrowed from European horror fiction. Closed doors and lascivious female vampires belong to that tradition, but one element also points back to a famous, earlier critique of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy written by a Dublin Protestant. After his narrow escape from the bites of Dracula’s women, Harker realizes with horror that Dracula has stolen a child and fed him to his aggressors. Later on, he observes a peasant woman walking round the castle in her distress, looking for her child. Childbiting vampires may not have been a novelty in literature, but Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” surely looms large behind this savage Gothic caricature of an aristocracy literally feeding on the infants of a helpless peasantry.
Stoker gave Count Dracula enough of a psychology to paint him as an Anglo-Irish aristocrat pining for the heyday of the Ascendancy and expressing its values, moods, and isolation with the subtle touches that one finds in Ascendancy memoirs like Bowen’s. But his use of vampirism constitutes a damning assessment that remains closer to Swift’s sarcasm than to Bowen’s painstaking and defensive introspection. In that sense, the Gothic excess of Dracula both continues and sup-plants the muted, psychological Gothic that Stoker’s characterization shares with Bowen’s chronicle of Ascendancy life. However, political differences between both authors should not obscure their common use of tropes and rhetorical strategies that belong to this second, recognizable Anglo-Irish form of Gothic. I hope to have shown that a proper understanding of that Gothic vein, and of its links to Ascendancy psychology, as well as an awareness of its presence in Stoker’s novel, are essential to the placing of Dracula in the mined context of Irish history.
1. See the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula, ed. Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: Norton, 1997), and Dracula, ed. John Paul Riquelme (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2002). Riquelme’s edition hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.
2. For analyses of Dracula as an Ascendancy landlord, see Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 89-90, and Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (London: Verso, 1995), . Bruce Stewart takes issue with them in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Possessed by the Spirit of the Nation?,” Irish University Review 29.2 (1999): . Stewart regrets that “in Irish critical commentary on Dracula there are current signs of more than an element of political animus against the erstwhile ascendancy class in Ireland” (255). The alternative, revisionist readings he considers present Dracula as a Fenian leader, while the Szganys are “patently his Land League henchmen” (242-43). Like Stewart, Cannon Schmitt also aligns Dracula with nationalist elements in “Mother Dracula: Orientalism, Degeneration, and Anglo-Irish National Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle,” in Irishness and (Post)modernism, ed. John S. Rickard (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1994), 25-43, esp. 34. Michael Valdez Moses’s essay “Dracula, Parnell and the Troubled Dreams of Nationhood,” appeared in Journal X: A Journal in Culture and Criticism 2 (1997): .
3. Stewart, 243.
4. See Joseph Valente, “‘Double Born’: Bram Stoker and the Metrocolonial Gothic,” Modern Fiction Studies 46 (2000): 632.
5. See Chris Morash, “‘Even Under Some Unnatural Condition’: Bram Stoker and the Colonial Fantastic,” in Literature and the Supernatural, ed. Brian Cosgrove (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1995), 112, 100.
6. This is perhaps more true of American readings than of Irish ones. The difference may reflect the closer links between Irish literary criticism and traditional history, or the fact that postcolonial theory has had a bigger impact in Ireland than has New Historicism. The latter has been more dominant among American critics. Nevertheless, the tendency to rash allegorizing that Stewart detects in Irish commentary on Stoker can also derive from a narrow focus on Dracula’s physical features.
7. See Dracula, ed. Riquelme, , .
8. Moses, “Dracula,” 69, my emphasis.
9. Elizabeth Bowen, Bowen’s Court, ed. Hermione Lee (London: Vintage, 1999). Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number and abbreviated BC.
10. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas is ostensibly set in Derbyshire, but Bowen observed that its focus on physical isolation, inheritance, and supernatural oppression was very much the product of Le Fanu’s Anglo-Irish concerns. See “Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu,” in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Lee (London: Vintage, 1999), . The concept of an Anglo-Irish Gothic tradition that includes both Le Fanu and Stoker is still disputed. Alison Millbank likens Stoker to Le Fanu and other Irish Protestant writers in “‘Powers Old and New’: Stoker’s Alliances with Anglo-Irish Gothic,” in Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic, ed. William Hughes and Andrew Smith (London: Macmillan, 1998), 12-28. W. J. McCormack has tried to wrest Le Fanu from what he regards as a “doubtful tradition” (Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats and Bowen [Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1993], 3). If Charles Maturin, Le Fanu, and Stoker are regularly “invoked in the name of a more substantial Irish gothic tradition,” McCormack argues that “the description ‘gothic’ can be applied to [Le Fanu’s] work only in a general and unsatisfactory way.” McCormack’s championing of Le Fanu goes together with an overt irritation at the Stoker’s “unrelenting narration of supernatural and horrific agencies” and Dracula’s tendency to “overkill.” See his introductory essay, “Irish Gothic and After,” in vol. 2 of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, ed. Deane (Derry, Ireland: Field Day Publications, 1992), 832 (“the description”), 842 (“unrelenting”; “overkill”).
11. Joseph Valente’s recent Dracula’s Crypt. Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2002), is an often brilliant and thought-provoking attempt at reading the whole novel in the light of Stoker’s complex position as an “Anglo-Celtic” writer. To engage with all of Valente’s points would be beyond the scope of the present essay. Valente sees Dracula as both landlord and nationalist agitator (55-59)—in fact, he argues that Dracula’s fundamental ambivalence stems from the fact that he is nothing but a hallucinatory projection of the other characters’ racial anxieties. Tantalizing though it is, Valente’s emphasis on Dracula’s ambivalence is not always justified (see note 22, below).
12. A relevant section from Major Johnson’s book is reprinted in Riquelme’s edition, . See also Christopher Frayling’s Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber, 1991). Frayling notes Johnson’s “many comparisons between Wallachian peasants and ‘our friend Paddy'” (335). For a summing up of the current critical view of Stoker’s use of Johnson, see Gregory Castle’s essay “Ambivalence and Ascendancy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” in Riquelme’s edition, 527.
13. See Hughes’s and Smith’s introduction to Bram Stoker, 4.
14. Morash, 110.
15. See Frayling, 321.
16. Lady Gregory, Coole (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1931), 41.
17. “His decrepit castle, the lack of servants, the mingling of fear and respect accorded to him by Catholic peasants who seem to stand to him in a relation of subservience—all of this suggests the social milieu of the Ascendancy Big House.” See Castle, 529. The decline of the Ascendancy’s political and economic power accelerated during the second half of the nineteenth century; its landmarks were the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869) and the Land Acts passed in the 1880s. See R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600–1972 (London: Penguin, 1989), 396, .
18. Eagleton, 215.
19. Lady Gregory, 21.
20. W. B. Yeats, The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1990), 148, 244. The lines from “Responsibilities,” about the ancestors who “withstood … James and Irish when the Dutchman crossed” (148), are the eventual result of a long revision: “[T]his passage had to be rewritten, for Yeats once thought mistakenly that his Butler ancestors had fought on the side of the Englishman James II, not the Dutchman William of Orange” (519).
21. “Dracula differs from the previous vampire Counts of literature [in that] he is a military figure as well, who periodically reminisces about his military successes in the distant past, in campaigns to drive the Turks out of his territory” (Frayling, 76).
22. Valente reads those shifting alliances as yet another sign of Dracula’s fundamental ambivalence: “Just as the Draculas seem to have allied themselves with all manner of opposing parties in the Balkan wars, so Dracula’s own subject position aligns him with various constituencies in the debate and struggle over Ireland” (59). However, the Szekelys’s political mutability can also bring to mind the confused allegiances of Ascendancy families, and the tone of Dracula’s tale is definitely closer to Ascendancy nostalgia than to nationalist rhetoric.
23. “The establishment of the Big House as a central trope in modern Irish writing is closely linked to its elegiac and compensatory qualities.” See McCormack, “Setting and Ideology: with Reference to the Fiction of Maria Edgeworth,” in Ancestral Voices: The Big House in Anglo-Irish Literature, ed. Otto Rauchbauer (Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1992), 51.
24. Big House society was not exclusively Protestant; some old Catholic families also owned Big Houses. Although they were long technically excluded from the Ascendancy on religious grounds, the distinction between those families and their Protestant counterparts became increasingly blurred after Catholic emancipation and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. By the time Dracula was written, Big House Catholics were in many ways closer to the Protestant aristocracy than to urban middle-class Protestants like Stoker. This means that Dracula’s long-debated religious identity does not affect his status as a Big House aristocrat. In the controversies surrounding the novel, Dracula has been variously painted as a Catholic (see, for instance, Schmitt, 34), and as an Irish Protestant dabbling in the occult and drawn to the sacramental side of Catholicism (see Castle, ). The classic account of the Protestant Ascendancy’s fascination with the occult is Foster’s “Protestant Magic: W. B. Yeats and the Spell of Irish History,” in Yeats’s Political Identities, ed. Jonathan Allison (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), . Foster makes suggestive remarks on Stoker but does not discuss Dracula at length.
25. Bowen wrote in her afterword: “[M]y family … drew their power from a situation that shows an inherent wrong (BC, 453).
TERESA A. GODDU (ESSAY DATE 1997)
> SOURCE: Goddu, Teresa A. “Haunting Back: Harriet Jacobs, African-American Narrative, and the Gothic.” In Gothic America: Narrative, History, and the Nation, pp. . New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
In the following essay, Goddu explores how the Gothic is used in literature by African Americans—and by white writers who write about the African American experience—to express the horrors of slavery and racism.
Early American writers, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene. But I think that if they were alive, they’d feel at home in modern America. True, we have no great church in America; our national traditions are still of such a sort that we are not wont to brag of them … we have no rich symbols, no colorful rituals. But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we do have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.
—Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ was Born,” Native Son
In this ending to the introduction to Native Son, Richard Wright makes a powerful connection between the African-American experience and the gothic.1 The horror that Poe or Hawthorne had to invent, Wright argues, is already embodied in African-American history—in the haunting legacy of slavery and in the heavy shadow of oppression. For Wright, African-American history is not only material for the gothic writer, but is also itself coded in gothic terms.2 As Wright’s novel, Native Son, shows, the African-American experience, written as a realist text, resembles a gothic narrative. Arguing that the gothic, as exemplified by an author like Poe, does not invent horror but is invented by it, Wright unveils the gothic as a complex historical mode: history invents the gothic, and in turn the gothic reinvents history.
By exploring Wright’s connection between historical horror and the gothic, this chapter uses the African-American gothic to revise readings of the American gothic that have positioned the genre—and, more broadly, the American literary canon—as exempt from the forces of history. A focus on slavery, America’s most glaring cultural contradiction, shows how it produced gothic narratives during the antebellum period and how these narratives reproduced the scene of slavery.3 The chapter examines two strategies by which the gothic represents the unspeakable event of slavery. First, by signifying the event of slavery through narrative effects, the gothic both registers actual events and turns them into fiction. Its conventions can both rematerialize and dematerialize history: some gothic narratives insist upon the actuality of slavery by refusing to collapse the referent of the narrative with its effects; others displace the event of slavery into fictional form in order to contain its horrors. However, as this book has shown, even in the act of displacement, traces of the material remain to be read by those invested in remembering the horrors of history. African-American writers—particularly Harriet Jacobs, who works within and against an antebellum discourse that gothicizes slavery—recognize the uses and dangers of the gothic as a mode that can remember and combat, but can also erase, the horrors of a racial history. In looking at how particular gothic fictions are produced in relation to the historical institution of slavery and how the gothic mode represents slavery’s unspeakable history, this chapter explores the extent to which the gothic is able to rematerialize the ghosts of America’s racial history and enable African-American writers to haunt back.
With this final chapter, then, Gothic America comes full circle, returning to its founding image: the caged slave in Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. Instead of focusing on Farmer James, who is struck mute by this encounter, or on the stylistic evasions Crèvecoeur’s text performs to contain and silence this horror, this chapter focuses on the voices that emanate from within stereotypes of the gothic and on how to begin articulating the horror. No longer simply the metaphor for dread, the “conveniently bound and violently silenced” black bodies of the gothic return in this chapter to reclaim and revise the gothic mode (Morrison 1992:38). By locating the strategies involved in unveiling slavery’s horrors, this chapter listens to how the unspeakable is spoken.
Spectacles of Horror: The Scene of Slavery
> Negro writing has instinctively adopted the Gothic tradition of American literature and given its more supernatural and surrealistic characteristics a realistic basis, founded on actual lives often lived in the Gothic manner, that is indeed terrifying: the nightmare world of Poe or Hawthorne has become the Monday morning of the Negro author….
—Theodore Gross, The Heroic Ideal in American Literature
The scene of slavery was often represented as gothic during the antebellum period in America. From newspaper accounts of Nat Turner’s insurrection and antislavery writings to slave narratives and literary works such as Lydia Maria Child’s “Stand from Under!” (1829) and Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), the horrible reality of slavery was depicted through gothic images and a romantic rhetoric. Theodore Weld exemplifies how slavery was easily read as a sensationalized spectacle during the antebellum period when he states, “facts and testimony as to the actual condition of the Slaves” would “thrill the land with Horror” (Barnes and Dumond 2:717). The gothic’s focus on the terror of possession, the iconography of imprisonment, the fear of retribution, and the weight of sin provided a useful vocabulary and register of images by which to represent the scene of America’s greatest guilt: slavery. According to Kari Winter, the gothic’s structural alliance with slavery is not coincidental.4 Many of the eighteenth-century British male gothicists—such as Monk Lewis and William Beckford—were either slaveowners or proslavery; moreover, the rise of the gothic novel in England at the end of the eighteenth century occurred during the heightened debate about abolition, a debate in which William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both authors of gothic novels, actively participated (Winter 3). Like revolution—as Ronald Paulson has shown in his study of the gothic and the French Revolution—and the new capitalistic structures that emerged in the eighteenth century—as Andrea Henderson argues—slavery was a significant part of the historical context that produced the gothic and against which it responded.5
For instance, slave uprisings in St. Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century and in America during the antebellum period, as epitomized by the figure of Nat Turner, were turned into tales of gothic terror.6 Nat Turner and his band were demonized by The Richmond Enquirer (August 30, 1831) as “banditti” and “horrible … monsters” (Tragle 43).7 Turning the event into an ominous warning, The Liberator (September 3, 1831) states, “for ourselves, we are horror-struck at the late tidings” and argues that “what was poetry—imagination—in January, is now a bloody reality” (Tragle 64, 63). Turner’s insurrection actualized the imagined terror of slave rebellion: its bloody reality both fulfilled and generated a gothic narrative of dread and retribution.
Recounting Turner’s reign of terror, The Constitutional Whig (September 26, 1831) demonstrates how the historical event of Turner’s uprising was represented through gothic conventions:
> In retracing on Tuesday morning the route pursued by the banditti, consisting of a distance of 20 miles, my imagination was struck with more horror, than the most dreadful carnage in a field of battle could have produced. The massacre before me, being principally of helpless women and children…. In future years, the bloody road, will give rise to many a sorrowful legend; and the trampling of hoofs, in fancy, visit many an excited imagination.
The bloody scene produces a gothic effect when it strikes the viewer’s imagination; the event “gives rise to” a narrative of terror and horror. However, the event is also reinterpreted by that gothic narrative. As symbolized by the bloody road, it will be turned into a legend: Nat Turner will haunt the imagination of future travelers much like the Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Translating the event into a gothic symbol, turning it into a legend, the passage reveals how the gothic can dematerialize and displace the source of its effect even while representing it. The present event is constructed as both more “real” and “unreal” as it is imaginatively experienced: the narrator’s imagination is struck by the full horror of the scene even as the scene is displaced into the future and translated into a legend to excite the future viewer’s fancy. The gothic’s conventions, then, gave whites responding to Turner’s rebellion a discourse to symbolize and contain their terror. Once subsumed into symbols, imagined instead of experienced, the event could be read as an effect rather than as a reality.
This displacement of event by effect also tends to relocate the horror of slavery from the slave’s experience to the white viewer’s response. Antislavery and proslavery sympathizers alike deployed the gothicized scene of slavery, the event, as the conduit for a particular effect. In American Slavery as It Is (1839), Theodore Weld uses the gothic conventions of clanking chains and swooning maidens to emphasize the horror of slavery. “We repeat it, every man knows that slavery is a curse,” he writes. “Whoever denies this, his lips libel his heart. Try him; clank the chains in his ears, and tell him they are for him … then look at his pale lips and trembling knees, and you have nature’s testimony against slavery” (7). Asking the viewer to imagine himself enslaved, responding to this imagined scene, Weld turns slavery into an effect. The clanking chains sound the warning of retribution more than they symbolize actual imprisonment. Nature’s testimony against slavery is not the scene itself but the white viewer’s response to it: pale lips and trembling knees. Paradoxically, the gothic effect subsumes the gothic event even as it testifies to its horrors.
Sarah Grimké’s account of her departure from the South and slavery underscores the way white abolitionists used the gothic’s narrative power to subordinate the slave’s horror to the white viewer’s response:
> As I left my native state on account of slavery, and deserted the home of my fathers to escape the sound of the lash and the shrieks of tortured victims, I would gladly bury in oblivion the recollection of those scenes with which I have been familiar; but this may not, cannot be; they come over my memory like gory spectres, and implore me with resistless power, in the name of a God of mercy, in the name of a crucified Savior, in the name of humanity; for the sake of the slaveholder, as well as the slave, to bear witness to the horrors of the southern prison house.
Grimké depicts herself as the innocent maiden fleeing the scene of horror. She, not the slave, is the tortured victim of the slavery system, a displaced wanderer, haunted by bloody specters. In identifying herself as the victim, Grimké abstracts and co-opts the slave’s horror.8 By equating witnessing these scenes with experiencing them, Grimké makes the effect coextensive with the event, thereby establishing her authority. The gory scenes implore her to speak; the shrieks of the tortured victims are articulated through her. Bearing witness to the horrors of the southern prison house in the name of all its victims, slaveholders as well as slaves, Grimké generalizes the horror to everyone involved.
In the hands of antebellum white writers, then, the gothic often enabled the representation of slavery only to departicularize it. As Eric Sundquist argues, “the antislavery imagination, no less than the proslavery, tended to collapse history into timeless images of terror and damnation” (1993:147). The gothic might offer useful metaphors for depicting the historical event of slavery, but its narrative construction could also empty slavery of history by turning it into a gothic trope. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s preface to Dred (1856) articulates how easily literary discourse could fictionalize the historical reality of slavery. Explaining why she has chosen as a subject “the scenes and incidents of the slaveholding states,” Stowe writes:
> in a merely artistic point of view, there is no ground, ancient or modern, whose vivid lights, gloomy shadows and grotesque groupings, afford to the novelist so wide a scope for the exercise of his powers. In the near vicinity of modern civilization of the most matter-of-fact kind, exist institutions which carry us back to the twilight of the feudal ages, with all their exciting possibilities of incident.
Stowe locates slavery as a feudal institution, displaced in time and space and hence offering the romance writer wider scope for her fictional powers. For Stowe, who can see it from a merely artistic point of view, slavery is already a fictionalized scene, full of “exciting possibilities of incident.” Its actuality is once again imaginatively subsumed by gothic conventions.
The problem of how literary narrative could displace historical reality was especially troubling for the author of the slave narrative. While slave narratives use many fictional forms to structure their events, the difficulty of negotiating the line between fact and fiction is especially apparent in their use of the gothic.9 The slave narrative’s generic conventions seem to be in direct opposition to the gothic’s: its documentary form and adherence to veracity announce a refusal of any imaginative rendering. Although the slave narrative might not incorporate the gothic’s typical supernatural elements, it does, however, contain—even in its factual form—many gothic characteristics. With descriptions of slavery as a feudal institution, horrifying scenes of torture and entrapment, lascivious masters and innocent slave girls, and curses on many generations, the slave narrative reads like a gothic romance with a single, crucial difference: the scenery is not staged but real. The slave narrative’s representations have historical referents that embody horror; however, though recording a horror beyond the pale of most gothic romances, the slave narrative could be read within the gothic’s fictional conventions. As Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner stated of slave narratives, “Romance has no stories of more thrilling interest than theirs” (qtd. in The Liberator [October 22, 1852], 169). Or, as Angelina Grimké wrote in a letter to Theodore Weld in 1838, “Many and many a tale of romantic horror can the slaves tell” (Barnes and Dumond 2:523). The realization that their factual narratives could read like fiction caused many authors to insist on the veracity of their tales. In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass writes, “The reader is, therefore, assured, with all due promptitude, that his attention is not invited to a work of ART, but to a work of FACTS—Facts, terrible and almost incredible, it may be—yet FACTS, nevertheless” (3).10 In her “authentic narrative describing the Horrors of slavery,” Harriet Jacobs, for example, feels compelled to assure her readers that her narrative is not fiction: “I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible,” she writes, “but they are, nevertheless, strictly true” (1).11 Jacobs’s opening disclaimer marks the complex relationship between the romance and the real in her text. Paradoxically, the horrifying facts seem, as Lydia Maria Child states, “more romantic than fiction” (3); overflowing the boundaries of the real, Jacobs’s factual narrative can read like a gothic fiction. It is important to note the slave narrative’s double bind: the difficulty of representing a gothic history through gothic conventions without collapsing the distinctions between fact and fiction, event and effect. The slave narrative must rewrite the conventions of gothic fiction for its own factual ends.
Frederick Douglass’s gothic scene of slavery in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Aunt Hester’s whipping, is one example of this rewriting. Placed at the end of the Narrative’s first chapter, the gothic scene serves as both the reader’s and Douglass’s entrance through the “blood-stained gate” of slavery (51). Douglass gives northern antebellum readers a familiar scene: the southern gothic spectacle of slavery.12 With its gothic villain, the slavemaster, and its innocent maiden, his Aunt Hester, who “stood fair for his infernal purpose,” the scene plays up but also resists its gothic effects (52). It offers the reader the villain and the maiden but transposes their conventional associations: the black villain is white and the virginal, innocent maiden is a black slave. As the viewer of, rather than a participant in, this infernal scene, Douglass signifies against white narratives of gothic spectatorship. Framing the scene with his response to it, Douglass both plays to northern readers’ sympathy and critiques their voyeurism. Situated in Douglass’s position as witness to this scene of brutality, the reader is asked to identify with Douglass’s horror and against the iron-hearted slavemaster. Douglass hopes that the scene will strike the reader with the same “awful force” as it struck him (51). By drawing a parallel between the way the scene “strikes” the viewer and the blows Aunt Hester experiences from the slavemaster, the narrative suggests the power of the gothic scene to relay the experience of horror. However, in identifying the viewer with the victim and in depicting the viewer as a passive and safely distant observer (the young Douglass hiding in the closet), the scene also reveals how the gothic spectacle can enable identification without initiating a corresponding action. The scene exposes not only the victimization inherent in the white reader’s relationship to slavery but also the voyeurism. Like the young boy peeping out of the closet to witness the sexualized spectacle of slavery, the white reader is both repulsed and fascinated with its horrors. In this way, Douglass also identifies the viewer with the slavemaster and his “great pleasure” (51). The scene, then, offers a typical gothic scenario only to critique the white reader’s role in viewing it.
The scene further exposes the slave narrative’s use and revision of the gothic by employing the gothic to rematerialize history while resisting its possible dematerializing effects. Following a general description of his Aunt Hester’s whippings, Douglass pauses to reflect upon the scene before he describes the first time he witnessed this event: “I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing…. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it” (51). Here, Douglass captures the difficulty of speaking the unspeakable: slavery is at once unforgettable and indescribable. The performative quality of Douglass’s simultaneous insistence that he cannot capture his response to the scene and attempts to do so shows that the gothic provides tropes by which the unspoken can be represented, if not fully spoken. In its pseudo-documentary and excessively mediated form (a manuscript that has been translated and passed to the narrator through a number of sources), the gothic claims historical veracity even as it points to the limits of historical representation. Similarly, Douglass recounts the scene of Aunt Hester’s whipping while insisting that the scene of slavery is ultimately unrepresentable. Douglass repeats it two times, first as a general occurrence and then as a particular event, the first time he witnessed it. His twice-told tale, however, like his performative gesture, signals the unrepresentability of the scene: its excessiveness implies that it cannot be fully captured. By insisting on the gothic’s resistance to representation, Douglass negotiates the uneasy relationship between his gothic tale and his gothic history: he both represents his history and insists that it defies narrative reconstruction.
Douglass’s resistance to turning the event of slavery into a narrative effect is also evident in the way he represents Aunt Hester’s whipping. The focus in the scene is as much on the “it,” the spectacle of the whipping, as on the “I,” the narrator who responds to it. Douglass’s insistence that he cannot commit his feelings to paper is as much an articulation of slavery’s unrepresentability as a refusal to focus more on the response to the event than on the event itself. Douglass uses the gothic to translate Aunt Hester’s whippings into a symbol of slavery—”a terrible spectacle”—but he also refuses to abstract the horror by turning it into a timeless trope of terror. Not only does he generalize his account of the whipping between two versions, but he also goes to great lengths in the second recounting to particularize the scene, giving the context of the whipping and describing it in a matter-of-fact tone. The frame, more than the narrative, sensationalizes the scene. This tension between the depiction of the actual event and the gothicized effect of its narrative frame is also evident in Douglass’s first description: “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he [the slavemaster] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood” (51). In this statement, Douglass deploys the gothic with a twist: instead of waking from the nightmare, he wakes to it. Unveiling reality as the nightmare and emphasizing that Aunt Hester is “literally” covered with blood, Douglass rewrites the gothic as actual horror instead of stage effect. Moreover, by describing the event as occurring in the continuous present—”I have often been awakened”—he re-experiences the scene in the act of reimagining it, making the event hauntingly present. When he ends, “I had therefore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation,” he suggests that the reader, like himself, is awake to the nightmare of slavery: the gothic effect does not dematerialize the event but makes it ever-present (52, emphasis added). By redeploying the gothic, Douglass is able to materialize the scene and resist its representation as mere effect.
Douglass’s use of the gothic, then, acknowledges that the scene of slavery is conventionally constructed but rewrites those conventions to his own ends. By making the reader enter his narrative of slavery through the conventions of the gothic, Douglass discloses how the spectacle of slavery is mediated and structured generically. The event is accessible only as a narrated scene, 1constructed for the viewer.13 However, in using gothic conventions, Douglass marks the differences as well as the similarities between gothic narrative and gothic history. Gothic conventions might usefully reproduce the scene of slavery, but they also might dematerialize it. By allying the gothic with reality and yet insisting that its effects cannot fully capture the event, Douglass utilizes the gothic’s narrative power to represent slavery and to create a strong effect while insisting on the difference between event and effect. Like other African-American authors who employ the gothic mode, Douglass must negotiate between its power and its danger.
Douglass’s redeployment of the gothic exposes it as a mode intimately connected to history.14 The gothic’s typical association with the “unreal” and the sensational, however, has created a resistance to examining African-American narratives in relation to the gothic. Alice Walker, for instance, dislikes the categorization of her work as gothic since it “conjures up the supernatural” and since she “feels what she writes has ‘something to do with real life'” (263). Similarly, Toni Morrison is reluctant to have her writing described as gothic. She dislikes the term black magic used in conjunction with her work since the “implication [is] that there [is] no intelligence there” (C. Davis 145).15 The gothic’s apparent lack of connection to reality and intellectual purpose has made it troubling to use in conjunction with African-American writers.16 However, instead of accepting traditional readings of the gothic as unrealistic and frivolous, thereby excluding African-American narratives from this genre, we should use the African-American gothic to revise our understanding of the gothic as an historical mode. Re-viewing the gothic through the lens of African-American transpositions and recognizing that the gothic itself is a dynamic and contradictory mode whose tropes and conventions can be used for a variety of ends makes visible the American gothic’s relationship to history.
In order to examine how the African-American gothic revises standard notions of the American gothic tradition, I now examine the dialogue that occurs between two texts: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). The relationship of influence and resistance between these texts reveals how the African-American gothic is working within and against a broader American gothic tradition. My aim is not to subsume African-American narratives under some reified concept of the American tradition, but rather to show how the African-American gothic highlights the historicity of the American gothic.17
Loopholes of Influence: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs
> Signifyin(g) functions as a metaphor for formal revision, or intertextuality, within the Afro-American literary tradition.
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl exemplifies the slave narrative’s connection to the gothic romance through its use of fictional conventions. As late as the 1970s, Incidents’s authenticity remained in doubt because of its perceived similarity to the novel of seduction. In The Slave Community, for instance, John Blassingame discusses Incidents as a fictional story, arguing that Jacobs’s tale was too melodramatic to be considered an authentic slave narrative. The debate over whether Incidents was fact or fiction was not fully resolved until Jean Fagan Yellin verified the narrative’s authenticity in 1981.18 However, it is precisely Jacobs’s use of fictional tropes to represent authentic fact that fueled this confusion. On the one hand she claims, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction”; on the other hand, in the act of claiming her narrative’s authenticity she uses a trope from the novel (1). While Incidents’s relationship to the conventions of the sentimental novel has been extensively explored, it has rarely been discussed in terms of the gothic.19 Whether this is because the gothic continues to be viewed as opposed to the realist conventions of the slave narrative or because the sentimental has become canonized as the nineteenth-century woman’s genre is hard to say; however, Jacobs’s refashioning of the gothic mode calls for further examination.
The history of Jacobs’s relationship to Harriet Beecher Stowe foregrounds Incidents’s connection to the conventions of the gothic. Instead of writing her own story, Jacobs initially planned to dictate her narrative to Stowe, who wanted to use it for her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). Outraged by Stowe’s subsequent treatment of her and her daughter, Jacobs decided to write her story herself, claiming that “it needed no romance” (Yellin 1985:266).20 Despite Jacobs’s claim, her story was the perfect factual source for Stowe’s gothic romance. Jacobs’s factual account of her seven-year imprisonment in her grandmother’s garret, written almost a decade after Key, echoes Stowe’s fictional tale about Cassy haunting Legree’s attic. This uncanny connection—fact mirroring fiction—exemplifies the complex intersection between the romance and the real in both texts. If Stowe desired Jacobs’s factual history to authenticate her fictional tale, Jacobs also revised Stowe’s fictional story in her own factual account. Since Jacobs refers in her penultimate chapter to Stowe’s treatment of the Fugitive Slave Law in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is evident that Jacobs was familiar with Stowe’s novel (194). Moreover, Jacobs’s borrowing of Cassy’s “loophole in the garret” to name her own “loophole of retreat” suggests connections between the two stories that have yet to be fully explored (Stowe 597; Jacobs 114).21 In both instances, the gothic is the fictional mode by which the factual horrors of slavery can be represented. However, understanding how Jacobs revises Stowe’s loophole along with other gothic conventions makes apparent the power and the limitations of the gothic mode for African-American authors.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fiction that claims the status of fact. Her subtitle to The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin argues that her fictional effects are grounded in actual events: “Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded. Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work.” Moreover, Stowe claims that the novel “more, perhaps, than any other work of fiction that ever was written, has been a collection and arrangement of real incidents, of actions really performed, of words and expressions really uttered, grouped together with reference to a general result” (1). However, in defending Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a true story, Stowe reveals a complicated relationship between fictional effect and factual event. Events may authenticate her effects, but they remain subordinate. Uncle Tom’s Cabin achieves its realist status primarily through its impression on the reader and only secondarily through its factual authentication. Stowe writes, “the book had a purpose entirely transcending the artistic one, and accordingly encounters at the hands of the public demands not usually made on fictitious works. It is treated as a reality—sifted, tried and tested, as a reality; and therefore as a reality it may be proper that it should be defended” (1). Once treated as reality, the novel can then be defended as such. The narrative effect not only claims the status of event but supersedes it. However, even as Stowe subsumes fact into fiction, she recognizes the difference between the two:
> The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason—that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read; and all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.
The scene of slavery exceeds the representation of art. By passing over what is too dreadful, fiction makes the unreadable readable, paradoxically unveiling slavery yet concealing its worst aspects. It is precisely this paradox—the need for narrative to represent historical reality yet the danger that fiction will be equated with fact—that troubles Jacobs’s narrative. Stowe, who has different goals, negotiates this paradox more easily. For her, narrative effects can both be grounded in reality and evade it.
Stowe’s use of the gothic in Uncle Tom’s Cabin exemplifies this complicated relationship between the event of slavery and its narrative effects. Stowe employs the gothic to represent the southern spectacle of slavery.22 In the last third of the novel, as Tom travels down the blood-red river to Legree’s decaying mansion in a chapter titled “The Middle Passage,” the gothic intrudes into the sentimental in order to register the full horror of slavery: Legree’s ruined plantation unveils what lies just behind the seemingly enlightened edifice of St. Clare’s home. On another level, Stowe’s description shows just how easily slavery is transcribed into gothic terms. Hell and the Inquisition serve as apt metaphors for the horror chamber of slavery where one can be “burned alive … scalded, cut into inch-pieces, set up for the dogs to tear, or hung up and whipped to death” (512). Indeed, as Cassy tells Tom, slavery’s everyday occurrences make a fine gothic tale: “I could make any one’s hair rise, and their teeth chatter, if I should only tell what I’ve seen and been knowing to, here” (512). This section of the novel shows how the event of slavery is structured in gothic terms, and also demonstrates how gothic stories are produced by history. The scene of actual terror—a female slave imprisoned in the garret and beaten to death—is turned into a ghost story that then terrifies Legree: “it was said that oaths and cursings, and the sound of violent blows, used to ring through that old garret, and mingle with wailings and groans of despair” (565). As the transformation of event into legend makes clear, gothic devices terrify because of their relation to actuality. Legree’s superstition is not illusory; his fright is grounded in reality.
The inclusion of Cassy’s gothic tale within the novel’s already gothicized plot shows the gothic operating on yet another level: it allows the objects of torture and terror to haunt back. In order to escape the horrors of Legree’s house, Cassy directs her own ghost story, reviving the legend of the garret to enable her escape. Adding some special effects—she inserts the neck of an old bottle into the garret window to ensure the proper shrieks, leaves ghost stories around for Legree to read, and finally turns herself into a ghost with the requisite white sheet—Cassy uses the gothic’s terror effects to free herself from the imprisoning plot of slavery. The author of her own “Authentic Ghost Story,” as Stowe’s chapter heading informs us, Cassy appropriates the place of terror and imprisonment, the “weird and ghostly” garret—and turns it into a safe haven and the site of her liberation (564). As the haunter, Cassy may first roam the house freely and then escape it altogether. The gothic serves as a means of resistance in Cassy’s hands: by turning the horror of her own history into the source of her power, Cassy finds liberation in the very terror that has imprisoned her.
However, although Cassy’s ghost story shows that gothic effects are grounded in historical events, Stowe’s narrative tends to dematerialize those effects. Not only does her gothic tale demonize Cassy, turning her into a stock character, partly insane, with a supernatural laugh, but it also reminds the reader that the horror is not true, only a play. “At the time when all was matured for action,” the narrator interrupts, “our readers may, perhaps, like to look behind the scenes, and see the final coup d’etat” (571). By introducing Cassy’s machinations with this address to the reader, the narrative unveils itself as a fiction. We are not asked to identify with Legree and read Cassy’s effects as true; rather, we are shown behind the scenes to see the effect as merely that—an effect. Instead of being frightened by the ghost, we are made privy to Cassy’s plan to “play ghost for them” (574). Whereas Legree is terrified by Cassy’s effects, the reader is amused. By parodying the gothic, Stowe’s narrative undercuts its relation to actual incidents: “Authorities were somewhat divided,” Stowe writes at the beginning of chapter XLII, “as to the outward form of the spirit, owing to a custom quite prevalent among negroes,—and, for aught we know, among whites, too,—of invariably shutting the eyes, and covering up heads under blankets, petticoats, or whatever else might come in use for a shelter, on these occasions” (594). Here, Stowe spoofs the gothic to play the scene for laughs rather than fear. Blacks, and perhaps whites, are made to appear stupidly superstitious, a position the reader is implicitly instructed to avoid. Asked not to take the white sheet too seriously, the reader is exempted from the horrors of history. Cassy’s effects have power over Legree, who sees them as true, but not over the reader, who is reminded that they are a fiction.
Stowe’s deployment of the gothic in Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrates how the gothic can resurrect or dematerialize history by turning it into a fiction; the gothic might allow the objects of terror to haunt back, but it also offers its viewer an avenue of escape. This double-edged nature of the gothic is precisely what Jacobs negotiates in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. At the outset of her narrative, Jacobs articulates the problem of writing her life story: it is at once incredible and indescribable.
> I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course.
This opening address to the reader signals the intricate connections between fact and fiction in Jacobs’s narrative. The facts of Jacobs’s history are unspeakable, but once represented, even partially, they resemble fiction. Paradoxically, her narrative of slavery appears to be an effect even as it falls short of capturing slavery’s grim reality. Caught between exaggerated effect and unspeakable fact, Jacobs’s narrative must negotiate the two poles without collapsing them; her history must not be subsumed by the fictional conventions she uses to represent it. The canny revelation that she concealed the true names of places and people in her narrative suggests the narrative’s dual function: like the author’s pseudonym, Linda Brent, her narrative veils her history while appearing to unveil it. By highlighting her narrative’s fictionality and inadequacy as well as its truth, Jacobs signals the way it both reveals and conceals her unspeakable history.23
Lydia Maria Child seemingly disregards the difficulty of Jacobs’s narrative position when she writes: “This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them” (4). Child assumes not only that withdrawing the veil is her responsibility but also that it is simple, however indelicate. Yet her metaphor of slavery as a monster reveals the veil to be multilayered. Beneath it is another veil: a metaphor of slavery rather than slavery itself. Even uncovered, the event is transcribed as another effect. In arguing that slavery’s wrongs are too foul for listeners’ delicate ears, Child echoes Stowe’s sentiments that slavery in all its dreadfulness is unreadable, or in this case unhearable. Child’s paradoxical point—that slavery’s horrors must be unveiled, yet once unveiled they might be too foul to be heard—suggests the difficult space within which Jacobs had to negotiate her narrative.
Incidents, then, has to perform a play of veils. Jacobs’s manipulation of the gothic’s conventions is central to this performance. Like Stowe and Douglass, Jacobs understands and exploits the gothic’s conventionalized relationship to the scene of slavery in the antebellum period; she gothicizes slavery from the outset of her narrative by describing it as a “deep, and dark, and foul … pit of abominations” peopled by “fiends who bear the shape of men” (2, 27). However, like Douglass, she also resists the gothic’s romantic effects. In chapter 9, “Sketches of Neighboring Slaveholders,” Jacobs recounts a series of horrifying punishments to reveal the “abominations of slavery”: slaves are bludgeoned, flogged, and burned to death (52). Like Stowe, she suggests how these actual events produce gothic narratives. The slavemaster’s fear of retribution prompts his belief in ghosts: “Murder was so common on his plantation that he feared to be alone after nightfall,” she says of Mr. Litch. “He might have believed in ghosts” (47). However, Jacobs insists, unlike Stowe, that the gothic’s effects are real: the bloodhounds “literally tore the flesh from his bones,” she states of one slave (47). The compilation of narratives in this chapter, which resembles the narrative techniques of antislavery tracts like Theodore Weld’s American Slavery as It Is, produces a factual basis for these incredible horrors. Piling narrative upon narrative, Jacobs marshals a multitude of cases as evidence of slavery’s real terrors, proving the punishments to be a “general rule” rather than an exaggerated exception (50). Repetition rather than progression marks her narrative mode in this chapter, and indeed, her entire narrative. For instance, in comparing her easy fate in slavery to that of others, she writes:
> I was never cruelly over-worked; I was never lacerated with the whip from head to foot; I was never so beaten and bruised that I could not turn from one side to the other; I never had my heel-strings cut to prevent my running away; I was never chained to a log and forced to drag it about, while I toiled in the fields from morning till night; I was never branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds.
The parallel construction of her sentences as well as the proliferation of examples marks the way repetition functions to substantiate a single fact: slavery’s torture.
However, Jacobs’s use of repetition also points to the inadequacy of narrative in reconstructing reality. No matter how many examples she recounts, she says, “I could tell of more slaveholders as cruel as those I have described” (49). Moreover, at the end of her list of examples Jacobs writes, “No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery” (51). Claiming the factual nature of slavery’s gothic horror even as she argues that an excess of examples still falls short of the fact, Jacobs at once narratively constructs the gothic event as actual and insists that it exceeds such representation. The narrative excess that the gothic event produces (in this case, the repetition) allows it to remain uncontained. While Child edits the chapter in order to contain its horrors and shield its reader—”I put the savage cruelties into one chapter, entitled ‘Neighboring Planters,’ in order that those who shrink from ‘supping upon horrors’ might omit them, without interrupting the thread of the story” (qtd. in Yellin 1987:xxii)—Jacobs refuses to quarantine the gothic to this chapter or to the South. Her use of repetition not only weaves this thread of her story throughout her narrative but also refuses her reader any escape from history’s horrors. Stowe allows readers to separate themselves from the frightening effects of the gothic by showing them behind the scenes, but Jacobs blocks the avenues of escape for her northern reader. From the title-page epigraph indicting the North for lack of effort in overthrowing slavery and her imaginative projection of the northern reader as a negro trader at the end of chapter 9, to her conditional freedom at the end of the narrative, Jacobs implicates the North in the horrors that she presents and curtails her readers’ ability to read her history as a romantic tale.
Although Jacobs licenses her reader to view her narrative within certain gothic conventions—she recounts a typical female gothic plot when she portrays herself as an innocent maiden pursued by a lascivious villain, the “vile monster” Doctor Flint (27)—she also rewrites them, especially the gothic’s demonization and victimiza-tion of blacks.24 She might use Dr. Flint’s persecutions to emphasize her extreme vulnerability, but she also refuses to be imprisoned in the role of victim: “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there” (28). By locating the gothic’s evil blackness in Dr. Flint’s dark shadow, Jacobs both emphasizes her persecution and reverses the gothic’s usual demonization: the master, not the black slave, is the source of horror and dread. Unlike Stowe’s Cassy, who embodies the demons of slavery—she tells Legree, “I’ve got the devil in me” (525)—Jacobs refuses to become a projection of the slavemaster’s villainy. By presenting herself as the innocent maiden attempting to flee the corruptions of slavery, Jacobs both gains the sympathy of her reader and resists being demonized.
While Jacobs exploits her position as the victim of a gothic plot, she also insists on her ability to haunt back. She portrays herself as both the victim of Dr. Flint’s deceptions and his competitor in cunning: “Being surrounded by mysteries, deceptions, and dangers,” Jacobs writes, slaves “early learn to be suspicious and watchful, and prematurely cautious and cunning” (155). Jacobs might represent herself as the unsuspecting maiden who, when Dr. Flint begins to people her “young mind with unclean images,” lets his signs “pass, as if [she] did not understand what he meant,” but she is actually out-manipulating him (27, 31). Refusing to react to his words, she evades the actual terror in which those verbal deceptions are meant to result—rape. By cloaking her strong reading of events as a seeming nonreading, Jacobs plays both helpless heroine and active combatant.25
By emphasizing her role as the victim of slavery’s imprisoning gothic plot even as she manipulates that plot, Jacobs appeals to and resists her readers’ conventional view of the slave as victim of monstrous evils. For instance, when she describes Dr. Flint’s plan to give her a home of her own and “make a lady” of her, she rewrites his sentimental story as a gothic plot: she “shudders” as she listens to his plan, realizing that the “secluded place” would imprison her in a “dreaded fate,” a “living death” (53). By revealing the gothic terror behind Dr. Flint’s sentimental smoke screen, Jacobs justifies her sexual fall. Her gothic scene not only underscores her role as helpless victim but also sets the stage for her resistance: “I was determined that the master … should not … succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the sake of defeating him,” she writes (53). As the innocent maiden unwillingly initiated into evil, the victim “struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery,” Jacobs mounts her defense (54). If the gothic monster has her in his grasp, then her manipulations of slavery’s evil plots are justified. Asking the reader to pity her and pardon her for taking Mr. Sands as a lover, she argues that she saw no other “way of escaping the doom [she] so much dreaded” (55).
Jacobs’s ultimate escape plan highlights her revision of and resistance to the gothic’s conventions. Over the “living death” that awaits her in Dr. Flint’s secluded cottage, she chooses her own place of live burial when she imprisons herself in her grandmother’s garret (53). She describes her garret in gothic terms: it is a “dungeon,” a torture chamber, a prison, a grave (127). Indeed, her “dismal hole” resembles the “deep, and dark, and foul” pit of slavery (113, 2). Jacobs’s description symbolizes slavery’s extreme entrapment: “The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air” (114). Jacobs’s refusal to sensationalize her garret—she describes it in a factual tone—reflects her general resistance to the gothic’s dematerializing effects. She might exploit gothic metaphors (for instance, she describes herself as a “poor captive in her dungeon” ), but she insists that they be taken as truth.
Her address to the reader about her seven years of imprisonment in the garret emphasizes the truthfulness of her tale:
> I hardly expect that the reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul. Members of my family, now living in New York and Boston, can testify to the truth of what I say.
The incredibleness of her revelation makes her assume her reader’s disbelief, so Jacobs authenticates her description of the extreme physical and psychological conditions of her imprisonment with the continued effects on her body and soul, to which her family can bear witness. By presenting herself and her family as factual evidence, Jacobs asserts her own materiality: she asks the reader to credit her story by crediting her as a person rather than as a character. Moreover, in insisting that her staged death is not a performance from which she can walk away unscathed, Jacobs points to the costs of her conjuring. Cassy says to Tom, “I know no way but through the grave,” but Jacobs signifies against Stowe by actualizing that escape (562).
Thus, Jacobs refuses to dematerialize the gothic event of slavery. Unlike Cassy, who can walk away from slavery dressed in a white sheet, Jacobs reminds the reader of the physical costs of her disappearing act. After her first live burial under the floorboards, she remarks, “the fright I had undergone, the constrained posture, and the dampness of the ground, made me ill for several days” (110); later, in her garret, she describes being tortured by dripping turpentine, excessive temperatures, and insects until her body becomes so crippled that it makes escape impossible. Jacobs also argues that the gothic’s ghostly effects are the result of actual events. When she reappears in the realm of the living, her friend Fanny declares, “Linda, can this be you? or is it your ghost?” (156). Figured as a specter returned from the dead, she resembles a gothic effect. However, as Jacobs’s earlier discussion of her brother’s figure suggests, a ghostly appearance is one of the physical effects of slavery: “long confinement had made his face too pale, his form too thin”; he looks “like a ghost” (23, 24). In Fanny and Brent’s exchange of their tales of terror and suffering, Jacobs underscores the events behind all gothic effects. When her son imagines her as the victim in a gothic story, “O mother! you ain’t dead, are you? They didn’t cut off your head at the plantation, did they,” Jacobs demonstrates how the supernatural is based in institutionalized threats of power (88). Benny has not made up this terrifying story but has learned it from his master’s threats: Dr. Flint says to him, “Get out of the way, you little damned rascal! If you don’t, I’ll cut off your head” (116).
Jacobs refuses to spoof the gothic or undermine the reality behind its effects, and thus she mounts an implicit critique of Stowe’s gothic episode. Her garret stands in marked contrast to Cassy’s “great, desolate space” (564). Cassy’s attic serves as a new home, not a prison (she can roam the house at night and walk around the attic during the day, and she also reclaims the role of “true womanhood” there, becoming mother to Emmeline and making a home for them), but Jacobs’s garret is both a safe haven and a grave. Cassy is in “no danger” and can make any noise that she pleases since “it will only add to the effect,” but Jacobs states that she had to remain still and quiet for fear of being caught (576). Jacobs might depict herself as using her gothic location to combat slavery’s terrors—with “spying eyes and ventriloquist voice” she is able to out-manipulate Dr. Flint by disappearing and by projecting herself, through her letter-writing, up North—but she constantly reminds the reader what this costs her (Andrews 1986:259). She remains the object of terror and torture even as she haunts back.
Jacobs’s refusal to exploit Stowe’s story overtly in this scene emphasizes her resistance to the gothic’s fictionalizing conventions. Jacobs authenticates her own incredible imprisonment with a narrative of horrifying fact rather than a fictional tale. Her description of her garret directly echoes her previous tale of a runaway slave who is punished by being whipped and then screwed into a cotton gin: “He was then put into the cotton gin, which was screwed down, only allowing him room to turn on his side when he could not lie on his back…. When the press was unscrewed, the dead body was found partly eaten by rats and vermin” (49). The cotton gin is like Jacobs’s dark hole, where she can only sleep on one side and has to endure rats and mice running over her bed; both the gin and Jacobs’s grave represent the torture chamber of slavery.26 Indeed, Jacobs’s use of repetition places her garret in a long line of imprisoning places—the cotton gin, the attic storeroom in her friend’s house, the shallow grave under the floorboards in her friend’s kitchen, the Snaky Swamp—enabling her to verify and generalize her scene of suffering. The garret is not an exceptional example of slavery’s horror but its typical representative. As Deborah Garfield argues, instead of letting Stowe narrow Jacobs’s experience to a single romantic event in Key, Jacobs insists on a broader context for the gothic horrors of slavery (284).
Just as Jacobs refuses to restrict the gothic horrors of slavery to a single event or a single chapter (as Child would do), so too does she argue that they exceed the borders of the South. Through repetition, Jacobs demonstrates that her life in the North replicates her imprisonment and persecution in the gothic South.27 Instead of being a place of freedom, the North “aped the customs of slavery” (163).28 She describes it as a place of re-imprisonment and persecution: not only is she pursued by her “Old Enemy Again” but she portrays herself as entrapped in another “reign of terror,” this time in the form of the Fugitive Slave Law (191). Upon arriving in the North, she claims that she barely has time to find a home before Dr. Flint comes looking for her: “Again I was to be torn from a comfortable home, and all my plans for the welfare of my children were to be frustrated by that demon Slavery!” she exclaims (180). Describing herself as constantly moving (she flees her home four times to evade her persecutors) and ever fearful (she never goes out “without trepidation” since Mr. Dodge, Dr. Flint’s surrogate, “might at that moment be waiting to pounce upon [her] if [she] ventured out of doors” [195, 196]), Jacobs depicts herself in a reactive position. No matter how many “double veils” and assumed names she takes on, she can never disappear or find a safe space (181). Dr. Flint’s renewed power over her is marked as so omnipotent that it not only extends upward from the South but also from beyond the grave. Even after he dies, Jacobs is not free from his curse, for his family, now destitute, is even more eager to regain its “property.” Jacobs, then, argues that the daylight world of the North resembles the nightmare world of the South.
Portraying herself as a victim of the terrors of the North, Jacobs exposes the North’s complicity in the South’s gothic plots. The North obeys southern laws when it buys people their freedom and returns runaways: “when victims make their escape from this wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den” (35-36). Moreover, she specifically indicts northern readers for their voyeuristic pleasure in and appropriation of the slave’s suffering. Jacobs might end the book by presenting a portrait of the sympathetic northern reader in the form of Mrs. Bruce, but she begins the book by critiquing the voyeuristic reader in the person of Mrs. Flint, whose “nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash” (12). Her opening also insists that reading about gothic horror is different from experiencing it: “Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations,” she states (2). When at the end of her narrative Jacobs argues that she is only as free from “the power of slaveholders as are the white people of the north,” which is “not saying a great deal,” she places the northern reader in the position of southern terrorist or imprisoned victim and allows no loophole out of the horrors of the nation’s history (201). Returning to New York from England, she writes that “from the distance spectres seemed to rise up on the shores of the United States. It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one’s native country” (186). For Jacobs, the gothic shadows of slavery encompass the entire nation.
Although Jacobs continues to be haunted by her “mournful past” in the North, she is able to haunt back by writing her narrative and by speaking the unspeakable about slavery (161). Jacobs describes it as the gothic horror that must be unveiled: “the secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition” (35). Throughout her narrative, Jacobs makes evident how a veil of silence supports slavery: it serves as the slavemaster’s single most important weapon in the battle of appearances. Jacobs emphasizes this point in chapter 9, “Sketches of Neighboring Slaveholders.” The litany of terror and torture she recites here depends on the fact that “Nothing was said” (47); the cruelties pass “without comment” (46). Silence fuels and secures slavery’s reign of terror.
Against the master’s powerful prohibition, Jacobs insists on speaking the unspeakable. From early on, she realizes the power of exposure.29 Even as a young girl, she understands that Dr. Flint’s hesitancy in whipping her stems from a fear that “the application of the lash might have led to remarks that would have exposed him” (35). Instead of exposing the marks on her flesh, as many ex-slaves did, Jacobs reveals the horrors of slavery through her pen: “Rise up, ye women that are at ease!” the title page announces, “Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech.” In doing this, she reverses the position of terror. She is recording a litany of real-life horrors—from scalding drops of fat falling on bare skin and bloodhounds tearing the flesh from runaways, to whipping posts surrounded by pools of blood and slaves going insane—but in writing these horrors, she reclaims them for her own purpose: to haunt back by exposing the difference between slavery’s appearance and its reality.
This rending of the veil, however, is not easy. Like most gothic texts, Jacobs’s narrative encodes the difficulty inherent in speaking the unspeakable. Her invocation to speech on her title page is balanced in both the preface and the appendix of her text with a desire for silence. Her text begins with her stating that “it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history” and ends with Post’s description of Jacobs’ reluctance to tell her story (1). The narrative frame both exhibits her resistance to exposing her painful history as a sentimental stance and registers the very real difficulty of representing such excessive horror and the pain involved in remembering it.
While the conclusion of Jacobs’s narrative appears to veil the horrors she has spent her narrative revealing in the cloak of sentiment, it remains haunted by her history: “it has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea” (201).30 The passage registers Jacobs’s desire to alleviate the pain of her horrific history with the healing salve of forgetfulness, but it also insists on the futility of this desire. Haunted by the shadows of her past and the continued oppression of her present, Jacobs cannot completely exorcise the demons of slavery; yet in bearing witness to them she haunts back.
1. Despite his historicizing of the African-American gothic, Wright continues to reinforce an ahistorical reading of Poe. My discussion of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which places race at the center of Poe’s gothicism, shows how Poe dealt with the racial hauntings of his own culture. Contrary to Wright’s statement, Poe need not be resurrected to be imagined in terms of race, for its horrors had already invented him.
2. Historical studies such as Trudier Harris’s Exorcising Blackness, with its accounts of ritualized violence against African Americans, or Neil McMillen’s Dark Journey, with its description of “Negro Barbeques,” reveal the horrors of African-American history. McMillen recounts a public burning where a crowd of a thousand watched while whites tortured their black victims, “chopp[ing] off their fingers and ears, one by one, goug[ing] their eyes until they ‘hung by a shred from the socket,’ and pulled ‘big pieces of raw, quivering flesh’ from their bodies with corkscrews” (234); Trudier Harris gives similar accounts of lynching and mob violence. In his introduction to American Slavery as It Is, Theodore Weld also records a litany of real-life horrors: “We will prove that the slaves in the United States are treated with barbarous inhumanity … that they are frequently flogged with terrible severity, have red pepper rubbed into their lacerated flesh, and hot brine, spirits of turpentine, & c, poured over the gashes to increase the torture; that they are often stripped naked, their backs and limbs cut with knives, bruised and mangled by scores and hundreds of blows with the paddle, and terribly torn by the claws of cats, drawn over them by their tormentors…. All these things and more, and worse, we shall prove” (9). See Stephen Browne’s “‘Like Gory Spectres’: Representing Evil in Theodore Weld’s American Slavery as It Is” for an analysis of the modes of representation Weld uses to prove these horrors.
3. Indeed, as Edmund Morgan has shown in American Slavery, American Freedom, the marriage of slavery and freedom is America’s central paradox: the rise of the American republic and its requisite myths depended on the terrifying realities of slavery (4).
4. Other critics have also noted connections between slavery and the gothic. Robert Hemenway argues that slavery is “an extreme form of Gothic entrapment” (“Gothic Sociology,” 113) and Joseph Bodziock claims that the slave narrative incorporates “the fundamental forms and values of the European gothic” (“Richard Wright and Afro-American Gothic,” 29). In Haiti, History, and the Gods, Joan Dayan insists on the integral connection between the gothic and slavery. Reading the Black Codes as a gothic text, Dayan argues that the supernatural fictions of the Americas are rooted in the natural histories of slavery (193).
5. See Paulson’s “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution” and Henderson’s “An Embarrassing Subject: Problems of Value and Identity in the Early Gothic Novel.”
6. See Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations (145-47) for a discussion of the gothic discourse used in response to the revolution in St. Domingue.
7. The rhetoric of monstrosity that permeates descriptions of Turner’s insurrection exemplifies Joan Dayan’s theory that whites externalized images of their own power—the “bodily tortures and incarnate terrors necessary to sustain the institution of slavery”—by projecting them onto their victims (Haiti, History, and the Gods, 247).
8. The abolitionist’s identification with/as the victim of slavery’s horrors is a common trope. See Nudelman for a discussion of the abolitionist’s sympathetic identification with the slave and their “tales of suffering witnessed rather than suffering endured” (“Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering,” 948). In American Slavery as It Is, C. C. Robin gives the following testimony after recounting a whipping scene:
> The reader is moved; so am I: my agitated hand refuses to trace the bloody picture, to recount how many times the piercing cry of pain has interrupted my silent occupations; how many times I have shuddered at the faces of those barbarous masters, where I saw inscribed the number of victims sacrificed to their ferocity.
The reader’s and writer’s pain and horror here subsume the slave’s terror, which is further displaced since it is visible only in the face of the master. By rendering the slave as victim, this passage raises a corresponding problem: abolitionist discourse not only appropriated the victim’s position but also tended to picture the slave as the victim of the gothic prison of slavery, thereby denying the slave agency or resistance.
9. The slave narrative’s fictional characteristics have been examined by a number of critics, most notably William Andrews. No longer seen merely as transparent transcriptions of history, slave narratives have come to be read as sophisticated autobiographical acts. Andrews argues that the genre is a “scene of a complex discursive encounter” (To Tell a Free Story, 2); his “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative” examines the genre’s relation to fiction. Carla Peterson also discusses the gradual shift from autobiography to novel in nineteenth-century African-American writing, arguing that the “autobiographical narrative already contained within it subversive fictional techniques” (“Capitalism, Black (Under)-Development, and the Production of the African-American Novel in the 1850s,” 563). Also see Barbara Foley (“History, Fiction, and the Ground Between” and Telling the Truth) for an examination of the representational strategies nineteenth-century African-American authors used to authenticate their writing.
10. In “Letters to His old Master” in the appendix to My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass further emphasizes that the gothic horrors of slavery are not imaginative renderings but actual events:
> The grim horrors of slavery rise in all their ghastly terror before me; the wails of millions pierce my heart and chill my blood. I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip; the death-like gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman; the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market. Say not that this is a picture of fancy. You well know that I wear stripes on my back, inflicted by your direction…. All this, and more, you remember, and know to be perfectly true, not only of yourself, but of nearly all the slaveholders around you.
I will discuss Douglass’s use of gothic conventions while resisting their dematerializing effects at greater length in the body of this chapter, but it is crucial to note here how he refuses to reduce the gothic horrors of slavery to fancy.
11. This need to argue that the incredible facts of slavery are true also occurs in Weld’s American Slavery as It Is. Weld presents his documentary evidence in order to disprove the objection that “such cruelties are INCREDIBLE” (121). Arguing that the evidence is not the “exaggerations of fiction,” the text constantly reiterates that its statements, “incredible as [they] may seem” fall “short, very short of the truth” (61).
12. As many critics have noted, Douglass presents the reader with another common trope of slavery in this opening episode: the sexualized scene of whipping. Ronald Walters’s “The Erotic South” and The Antislavery Appeal argue that the antebellum discourse that gothicized slavery also eroticized it. Abolitionist discourse, he claims, pictured the evils of slavery in terms of corrupted femininity and the corrosive effects of unrestrained sexuality (The Antislavery Appeal, 111). Karen Halttunen takes this argument a step further by showing how the whipping scene eroticizes pain by turning the dreadful into the obscene, the sympathetic spectator into a sadistic voyeur (“Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture”). The sexual sensationalism of this scene has been criticized by several feminist critics including Franchot, “The Punishment of Esther”; McDowell, “In the First Place”; and Foster, “‘In Respect to Females.'”
13. Hortense Spillers argues that slavery is marked by its narrativity: slavery “remains one of the most textualized and discursive fields of practice that we could posit as a structure for attention” (“Changing the Letter,” 29).
14. As Gladys-Marie Fry shows in her study Night Riders in Black Folk History, the gothic has long been allied with reality in African-American history. During slavery and Reconstruction, the supernatural was used by whites as a form of psychological control of African Americans. Whether it was a master designating haunted places or the Ku Klux Klan riding as ghosts through the night, the supernatural kept African Americans literally and figuratively in their place. African-American fear of the supernatural was based less on a belief in the master’s stage effects than on the institutionalized power that lay behind them (McWhiney and Simkins, “The Ghostly Legend of the Ku-Klux Klan”). As James Cameron points out in the compelling account of his own near-lynching in his memoir, A Time of Terror, African Americans grew up knowing that the hair-raising accounts of terror they heard were not figments of the imagination but daily realities.
15. Many of the reviewers of Beloved also seem uneasy affiliating Toni Morrison with the gothic: “To outline this story is to invite the very resistance I felt on first reading it,” writes one reviewer. “A specter returned to bedevil the living? A Gothic historical romance from Toni Morrison?” (Clemons, “The Ghosts of Sixty Million and More,” 74). Other reviewers use this seeming disjunction between serious writer and melodramatic form to attack Morrison. In his notorious review of the novel, Stanley Crouch uses a gothic metaphor to begin his assault: “the book’s beginning clanks out its themes” (“Aunt Medea,” 42). Carol Iannone claims Morrison’s use of the gothic marks her lack of seriousness: “The graphic descriptions of physical humiliation begin to grow sensationalistic, and the gradual unfolding of secret horror has an unmistakably Gothic dimension which soon comes to seem merely lurid, designed to arouse and entertain” (“Toni Morrison’s Career,” 63). All of these examples reveal how gothic has become a negative, demeaning term. Associated with the sensational, the formulaic, and the popular, the gothic is seen to lack seriousness of purpose and connection to actual experience.
16. This is perhaps the reason for the scant attention given to the African-American gothic within critical discourse. The work that has been done tends to focus on individual authors. For discussions of the African-American gothic, see Joseph Bodziock, “Richard Wright and Afro-American Gothic”; Erik Curren, “Turning the Tables on the White Savage” and “Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God?”; Louis Gross, Redefining the American Gothic; Theodore Gross, The Heroic Ideal in American Literature; Michel Fabré, “Black Cat and White Cat”; Robert Hemenway, “Gothic Sociology”; Keith Sandiford, “Gothic Intertextual Constructions in Linden Hills”; Mary Sisney, “The Power and Horror of Whiteness”; and Geraldine Smith-Wright, “In Spite of the Klan.”
17. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy warns of the dangers inherent in any project that attempts to reconstruct the interplay of black and white literary traditions. Counseling against any “easy resolution” or “short-term rapprochement” between the traditions that glosses over the “substantial drama of conflict in intercultural literary engagements,” Rushdy argues that “we need to seek out the deeper meanings of conflicts in literary history and not forget that it is the social order of our nation, with its fundamental material inequities, that defines and determines the sites of contestation where those conflicts occur in our national literature” (“Reading Black, White, and Gray in 1968,” 63).
18. See Jean Fagan Yellin, “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Narrative.” Yellin explains the confusion over Incidents’s literary status as follows: “It is no accident that many critics mistook Jacobs’s narrative for fiction. Its confessional account of sexual error and guilt, like the passages in which Linda Brent presents herself to be judged by her reader, link Incidents to a popular genre, the seduction novel” (Introduction to Incidents, xxix-xxx). The text’s relationship to fiction continues to be clarified. Jacqueline Goldsby and P. Gabrielle Foreman have both argued against reading Jacobs’s text in a purely factual way. Goldsby states that Incidents should be examined in terms of how “it engages and resists the closure implied by historical documentation” (“‘I Disguised My Hand’,” 15). Concerned with how the “implicit demands for referentiality” force critics to “interpret the principal script as if [Jacobs] had not loaded it with narrative explosions, with subversive scriptmines, so to speak,” Foreman critiques the “politics of transparency” that often informs readings of black women’s sentimental writing (“Manifest in Signs,” 77).
19. Because of its “novelization of her autobiographical voice,” as Claudia Tate describes it, Incidents is perhaps the slave narrative most often examined in terms of other literary traditions (Domestic Allegories of Political Desire, 26). P. Gabrielle Foreman, for instance, argues that Incidents “defies easy generic categorization” and that it “blurs the parameters of fiction and slave narrative” (“The Spoken and the Silenced,” 315). Incidents, however, is usually discussed only in terms of the sentimental tradition. Views on Incidents’s connection to sentimentalism range from early studies like Annette Niemtzow’s, which argues that the “domestic novel swallows Linda Brent’s voice” (“The Problematic of Self in Autobiography,” 105), and Raymond Hedin’s, which claims that Jacobs does not act “against the grain of sentimental fiction” (“Strategies of Form in the American Slave Narrative,” 28), to more recent perspectives—Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood; Doherty, “Harriet Jacobs’ Narrative Strategies”; Doriani, “Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America”; Nelson, The Word in Black and White; Nudelman, “Harriet Jacobs”; Sanchez-Eppler, Touching Liberty; Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority; Tate, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire; Walter, “Surviving in the Garret”; Yellin, Introduction to Incidents; and others—that argue that Jacobs appropriates, revises, and elaborates the sentimental tradition. For an extended discussion of the parallels between Incidents and the gothic, see Kari Winter’s Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change.
20. See Yellin (Introduction to Incidents, xviii-xix) and Hedrick (Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, ) for a fuller account of Jacobs’s relationship to Stowe.
21. Jacobs’s use of the term “loophole of retreat” has most often been traced to William Cowper’s poem “The Task” (see Yellin’s note to Jacobs’s chapter title in Incidents, 277). I suggest that Jacobs is also referencing Stowe in her title. In “Carnival Laughter,” Anne Bradford Warner also points to the connections between Stowe’s and Jacobs’s texts. She argues that Brent’s crippling discomfort in her garret “cannot help but comment on the gothic romance and trickery of Cassy’s escape episode in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (224). Warner develops this connection further in her conference paper “No Key to Cassy: Jacobs Revises Stowe.” While our arguments intersect in illuminating ways, Warner is concerned more with Jacobs’s discomfort with the gothic mode and her resistance to the gothic’s eroticization. Also see Phyllis Cole, “Stowe, Jacobs, Wilson,” for a more general discussion of how Jacobs rewrites Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
22. See Karen Halttunen’s “Gothic Imagination and Social Reform: The Haunted Houses of Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe” for a study of the Stowe family’s use of the gothic in their various social critiques; and Diane Roberts’s The Myth of Aunt Jemima for a reading of Stowe’s use of the gothic in the novel.
23. The dual movement of Jacobs’s narrative, what Carla Peterson calls her “double discourse,” has been discussed in a variety of ways (“Capitalism, Black (Under)Development,” 565). See Braxton, “Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents”; Burnham, “Loopholes of Resistance”; and Foreman, “The Spoken and the Silenced” for readings of how the text uses concealment and revelation.
24. The narrative follows a typical female gothic plot. Jacobs, like so many earlier gothic and sentimental heroines, traces her initiation into a world of evil to the death of her mother. Only after the loss of this “shield” does she become self-conscious of her position as a slave: “When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave” (6). Jacobs is left even more vulnerable when at age twelve her mistress, who was “almost like a mother to [her],” also dies, leaving her without any protection from the sexual evils that accompany slavery (7). Jacobs’s dual initiation into the trials of slavery and maidenhood is made explicit in her relationship to her new master, Doctor Flint. Imprisoned in a plantation (read castle) that is cut off from the laws of the outside world, she finds herself at the mercy of a lascivious villain, her “persecutor,” Doctor Flint (35). She is saved in part, as she later remarks, by the proximity of the plantation to town and a surrogate protector, her grandmother: “If I had been on a remote plantation … I should not be a living woman at this day” (35).
25. See Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority in African-American Narrative, for an extended discussion of the power of passivity in Incidents.
26. Mary Titus has a wonderful reading of the cotton gin: “The image encapsulates Jacobs’s argument, uniting in a single horrific image the slave, the verminous slaveholder who consumes him, and the central machine of the cotton economy” (“‘This Poisonous System’,” 203).
27. The clearest case of repetition is Jacobs’s description of her daughter Ellen. Not only does Ellen relive Brent’s plight when she has “vile language” poured into her ears by Mr. Thorne, but also, unlike her mother, she is defenseless against these words since she “scarcely knew her letters” (179, 166). Ellen’s position emphasizes Brent’s own powerlessness in the North. Unlike Stowe’s novel, which provides a happy ending for Cassy when she is magically reunited with both of her children, Jacobs’s text offers no such conclusion: Brent does not recognize her daughter when they are first reunited precisely because Ellen has deteriorated from neglect. It is through her daughter-double—who is more of a slave in the North, where her mother’s protection is ineffectual, than she ever was in the South, under her mother’s hidden protection—that Jacobs marks the North as the South’s double (165).
28. Jacobs was keenly aware of the North’s complicity with slavery since her employer, Mr. Willis, was proslavery. See Yellin (Introduction to Incidents, xviii) for a discussion of Jacobs’s relationship to the Willises.
29. This is not to say that silence is not an equally powerful weapon. Turning the tables and adapting the slave master’s tool, Jacobs, like many former slaves, used silence to protect those who helped her and to keep the master “in the dark.” See Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority, and Braxton, “Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents” for further discussions of the gaps and silences in Jacobs’s text.
30. It is important to note that Child sentimentalized Jacob’s ending. As Bruce Mills points out in “Lydia Maria Child and the Endings to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Jacobs originally planned to end her narrative with a discussion of John Brown, which would have emphasized a gothic narrative of violent retribution. However, Child counseled her to end by focusing on her grandmother instead.
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TERESA DERRICKSON (ESSAY DATE MARCH 2001)
> SOURCE: Derrickson, Teresa. “Race and the Gothic Monster: The Xenophobic Impulse of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Taming a Tartar.'” American Transcendental Quarterly 15, no. 1 (March 2001): 43-58.
In the following essay, Derrickson examines Alcott’s sensationalist short story “Taming a Tartar,” and asserts that “[b]y tracing the careful way in which the ‘monstrous’ nemesis of the narrative’s triumphant protagonist embodies nineteenth-century fears of racial degradation, this essay opens up new meaning in Alcott’s work and underscores the infiltrating power of the Gothic impetus.”
In her study entitled Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Judith Halberstam concludes her rereading of the Gothic monster by implicating more than just the horror genre in the veiled construction of social prejudice. Warning against the hegemonic impulse that runs deep in areas we fail to consider, she writes, “the violence of representation does not always lie in bloody scenes of carnage or in images of monstrosity. [It] more often works through well-meaning and sincere humanist texts that feel compelled to make the human into some earnest composite of white, bourgeois, Christian heterosexuality” (188). Halberstam’s subtle injunction against a complacent reading of seemingly “innocent” texts offers a useful point of entry into a range of literary works, including the quasi-Gothic tales of one nineteenth-century writer whose social rhetoric appears morally unassailable: Louisa May Alcott.
Hailed as the purveyor of “moral pap for the young” (qtd. in Falcon v), this unassuming author of Little Women seems a most unlikely dissemina-tor of harmful ideology. It is not just her renown as a children’s writer that positions her as such, but her personal politics as well. As Sarah Elbert indicates in her introduction to a compilation of Alcott’s stories, Alcott was not only a feminist at a time when female passivity was the hallmark of womanly virtue, but she was also a staunch abolitionist and a vocal proponent of racial integration. Her ethical resume and its prominent inscription in her narrative fiction have thus understandably discouraged critics from engaging in a more rigorous analysis of her creative work. The recent discovery of a collection of sensational stories published anonymously and pseudonymously in two nineteenth-century periodicals has done little to change that. Indeed, many of the preliminary readings of these “lost” Gothic thrillers have focused primarily on the stories’ subversive potential, praising their explicit privileging of female power and racial heterogeneity (Stern, Double Life; Stern, Feminist Alcott; Keyser; Klimasmith). The overall assessment of these stories as “politically groundbreaking” is hardly disputable. And yet as Halberstam suggests in the passage quoted above, even the most unlikely narratives participate in discursive strategies of social violence—including, above all, the Gothic genre. Such an assertion begs a rereading of Alcott’s sensational fiction, and thus it is with some justification that I undertake to illuminate the strains of “social violence” in one of Alcott’s newly recovered tales, “Taming a Tartar.” Far from attempting to rewrite the reputation of a well-respected writer, my objective in this paper is to offer a reading of this story that confirms the cultural function of the Gothic as stipulated in the work of Halberstam.1 By tracing the careful way in which the “monstrous” nemesis of the narrative’s triumphant protagonist embodies nineteenth-century fears of racial degradation, this essay opens up new meaning in Alcott’s work and underscores the infiltrating power of the Gothic impetus.
Judith Halberstam’s historical trajectory of the Gothic influence in nineteenth and twentieth-century narrative leads her to theorize counter claims about the political underpinnings of this trivial and “popular” genre. Not only does she locate the Gothic as the nexus of all nineteenth-century literature—thereby reversing historical hierarchies that privilege the primacy of realism (2)—but she does so by positing a fundamentally different interpretation of the Gothic monster. For Halberstam, monstrous beings serve to symbolize cultural configurations, not psychic configurations (116-17). Instead of mapping the latent psychology of its presumed human antagonist, the Gothic monster, according to Halberstam, embodies a discourse of power and domination that undergirds nineteenth-century attitudes towards variations of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This discourse manifests itself in the presentation of stigmatized flesh—the presentation of skin that bears the odious markings of “aberrant” social subjects. Vilified because of the skin they wear—and given the skin they wear because they are to be vilified—, these monsters thus constitute a complex system of cultural coding, one in which their bodies ultimately signify a fear of identities whose “difference” proves imminently threatening:
> Gothic fiction of the nineteenth century specifically used the body of the monster to produce race, class, gender, and sexuality within narratives about the relation between subjectivities and certain bodies…. The monster functions as monster … when it is able to condense as many [of these] fear-producing traits as possible into one body.
While Halberstam illustrates this reading by analyzing representations of “conventional” Gothic monsters, she also allows for a more dynamic concept of the monstrous by defining monstrosity as something that disrupts conventions of normalcy: “In its typical form, the Gothic topos is the monstrous body a la Frankenstein, Dracula, Dorian Gray, Jekyll/Hyde; in its generic form, Gothic is the disruption of realism and of all generic purity” (11, emphasis added). Halberstam’s emphasis on “generic purity” as the antithesis of the monstrous—that is, as the primary quality against which all monsters take meaning—leads her to rearticulate the nineteenth-century Gothic monster as the objectified “other,” as the opposite of that which is pure, privileged, and in subject position:
> Monsters and the Gothic fiction that creates them are … narrative technologies that produce the perfect figure for negative identity. Monsters have to be everything the human is not and, in producing the negative of human, these novels make way for the invention of human as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual.
Halberstam’s broadened definition of the Gothic monster as “impure” and “non-human” allows us to situate the domestic tyrant of Alcott’s “Taming a Tartar” within its meaningful parameters. Made terrible and menacing by the foreign blood (read “non-European” and non-“EuroAmerican”) that colors his veins, Alcott’s antagonist assumes the skin of the nineteenth-century Gothic monster, and in doing so both stabilizes and disrupts the ideologies of race and gender that undergird the text.
“Taming a Tartar” is the first person narrative of a young British woman who quits her duties as a teacher to serve as a companion to an ailing Russian princess. Despite the pleasantries of her new employment, the protagonist, Sybil Varna, finds herself confronting challenges of an unrelated nature as she tries to determine how best to manage the notoriously explosive and tyrannical disposition of the princess’s halfbrother, Alexis. Through a series of violent domestic episodes, the two characters become locked in a virtual battle of the sexes, the strong-willed and virtuous Sybil vying for mastery over the family’s ruthless patriarch, and vice versa. Determined to “tame” Alexis into a gentle and civilized man, Sybil treats him with brutal indifference, even when—and especially when—events precipitate romantic feelings between the two. The story ends with the couple’s happy nuptials, but not before Sybil claims victory in conquering her “brave barbarian.”
ON THE SUBJECT OF …
AMBROSE BIERCE (1842–1914)
Bierce’s literary reputation is based primarily on his short stories about the Civil War and the supernatural—a body of work that makes up a relatively small part of his total output. Often compared to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, these stories share an attraction to death in its more bizarre forms, featuring depictions of mental deterioration, uncanny, otherworldly manifestations, and expressions of the horror of existence in a meaningless universe. Like Poe, Bierce professed to be mainly concerned with the artistry of his work, yet critics find him more intent on conveying his misanthropy and pessimism. In his lifetime Bierce was famous as a California journalist dedicated to exposing the truth as he understood it, irrespective of whose reputations were harmed by his attacks.
Bierce’s major fiction was collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Many of these stories are realistic depictions of the author’s experiences in the Civil War, but critics and Bierce himself noted that despite their realism his stories often fail to supply sufficient verisimilitude. Bierce’s most striking fictional effects depend on an adept manipulation of the reader viewpoint: a bloody battlefield seen through the eyes of a deaf child in “Chickamauga,” the deceptive escape dreamed by a man about to be hanged in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and the shifting perspectives of “The Death of Halpin Frayser.” Bierce’s narratives are characterized by a marked use of black humor, particularly in the ironic and hideous deaths his protagonists often suffer. The brutal satire Bierce employed in his journalism appears as plain brutality in his fiction, and critics have both condemned and praised his imagination, along with Poe’s, as among the most vicious and morbid in American literature. Bierce’s bare, economical style of supernatural horror is usually distinguished from the verbally lavish tales of Poe, and few critics rank Bierce as the equal of his predecessor.
The most frequently cited reading of this thriller seizes upon the unconventionally explicit gender struggle between the two principal characters and concludes that the narrative’s political rhetoric speaks predominantly of female self-empowerment (Stern, Double Life; Stern, Feminist Alcott). While this interpretation is certainly valid, it in no way encompasses the full discursive import of the story. The title of the work makes this clear by subsuming issues of gender within issues of race—it is notably a “Tartar” to be tamed, not a man. We are thus made aware from the onset that there is much more to this tale than the exclusively feminist message critics have been quick to trumpet. Halberstam’s theory of the Gothic fills in much of what is unaccounted for in these interpretive gaps by allowing us to trace the racist discourse in this story and read such discourse as a “technology” that fixes Alexis as the monstrous Other.
Before examining how this occurs, it is worth noting that Alcott indeed was writing during a time when the word “race” had already come to be constructed in its modern-day sense. As Colette Guillaumin has explained, “race” was originally a word used by the European aristocracy to refer to members of a privileged family line, a meaning that served an explicitly legal function and therefore was altogether devoid of genetic implications (33-57). By the early nineteenth century, however, the semantic field surrounding the word had changed considerably, and race” came to take on the biological assumptions that inform its meaning today (Guillaumin 55). The United States was not exempt from this new denotation. As Thomas Gossett observes in his book entitled Race: The History of an Idea in America, racist ideologies took hold in nineteenthcentury America as anthropologists and other social scientists heightened their search for measurable ways to classify peoples of different colors and origins (54-83). Their “definitive” conclusions made it appropriate and “natural” to associate behavioral characteristics with subsets of the population who were either visibly different from the white mainstream (e.g., “Negros” and “Indians”) or who hailed from different socio-political regions of the world (e.g., the Italians were thought to constitute their own race, as were the Germans and the French, etc.) (201). In short, as Gossett observes, “nineteenth[-]century [America] was obsessed with the idea that it was race which explained the character of peoples” (244).
Despite her strong personal convictions against slavery and her “bold” fictional representations of interracial couples, Alcott herself certainly would have been influenced by nineteenth-century racial theories. Her own father, for example, was a strong believer in the idea that temperament and character were a function of biology (Elbert xv-xvi). Alcott internalized this notion at least in part, interpreting her own dark complexion and dark features to signify that she herself was naturally inferior to her fair-skinned, younger sister, May (Elbert xvi). As Elbert concludes from this behavior, Alcott was indeed a product of her times in terms of how she conceptualized race: “Alcott’s notions of race were shaped by daily family interactions as surely as they were by the larger cultural discourses” (xvi).
These discourses surface immediately in Alcott’s “Taming a Tartar.” Within the first few pages of the story, for example, we learn from Sybil’s confidant that Russians “are but savages,” an uncivilized people whose status as “barbarians” cannot be changed by “all their money, splendor, and the polish [of] Paris” (198). This characterization applies even more so to Alexis, whose full-blooded Russian make-up earns him a more infamous description:
> Paris is wild for him, as for some magnificent savage beast. Madame la Comtesse Millefleur declared that she never knew whether he would fall at her feet, or annihilate her, so impetuous were his moods. At one moment showing all the complaisance and elegance of a born Parisian, the next terrifying the beholders by some outburst of savage wrath, some betrayal of the Tartar blood that is in him. Ah! it is incredible how such things amaze one.
Several aspects of this passage are significant in revealing the precise characterization of Alexis’ “monstrosity.” His depiction as a “savage beast,” a “terrifying” creature given to “outbursts of savage wrath” situates him well within the realm of both the hostile and the “nonhuman,” which are equated here as one. The reactions of the Parisian onlookers confirm his status as such, betraying a patronizing fascination for the marked strangeness of one so ostensibly unlike themselves. The most significant aspect of this description, however, comes in the final claim of the narrative in which the speaker instinctively pronounces Alexis’ behavior to be “some betrayal of the Tartar blood that is in him.” In making such an assertion, Sybil’s confidant parrots the racial prejudice of her day, conflating the distinction between the prince’s debased behavior and his race, and thereby contributing to a more global discourse that connects blood, depravity, and ethnic essentialism with western racial domination.
Foucault’s theory of sexuality supports this reading by indicating that blood defined the battleground in which Victorian England carried out and rendered justifiable its eugenic and imperialist projects: “Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth-century, the thematics of blood was sometimes called on to lend its entire historical weight toward revitalizing the type of political power that was exercised through the devices of sexuality” (Foucault 149). Just as Foucault argues in this passage that a “thematics of blood” was invoked to justify technologies of sexuality and the regimes of power they served, so too does Halberstam argue that blood functioned as a rhetorical device for reaffirming British “superiority”:
> … [A]s the nation expanded to become an empire, as Englishmen left the country to go to the colonies, and as a flood of immigrants entered England from Eastern Europe and Russia, national identity came increasingly to depend upon race rather than place…. As racethinking gave way to full-fledged racism towards the turn of the century, the body became the setting for a drama of blood.
This “drama of blood” plays itself out, Halberstam continues to argue, not only in historical accounts, but in the narrative fiction of Victorian literature as well, where the symbolics of blood and the political rhetoric informing it become fully inscribed in the Gothic text: “The reemergence of Gothic monstrosity at the end of the century coincides suggestively with the Gothic interdisciplinary interest in the racial body; indeed, by the turn of the century, the Gothic horror novel … became a privileged site in the representations of potential dangers of racial decline” (79). By linking Gothic monstrosity with “racial bodies” and the “dangers of racial decline,” Halberstam throws new light on the political rhetoric of Alcott’s work and renders all the more meaningful those passages that serve to underscore Alexis’ monstrous difference.
That such difference is in fact inextricably connected to race is made explicit not only in the opening passages previously quoted, but in numerous other places in the story as well. Indeed, racial blood imbues this text, coloring its characters in ways that paint clear demarcations between those of moral rectitude and those of moral depravity, those intrinsically civil and those hopelessly rapacious. Such is the case with respect to the two main characters in particular, whose physical descriptions turn on a telling of blood that instructs us not only in the respective natures of their persons but also in how we are to respond to them. Sybil’s self-description reads, in part, “The long mirror showed me a slender, well-molded figure, and a pale face—not beautiful, but expressive, for the sharply cut, somewhat haughty features betrayed good blood, spirit and strength” (200). In contrast, the prince bears a different though somewhat parallel description:
> The costume suited the face; swarthy, black-eyed, scarlet-lipped, heavy-browed and beardless, except a thick mustache…. A strange face, for even in repose the indescribable difference of race was visible; the contour of the head, molding of features, hue of hair and skin, even the attitude, all betrayed a trace of the savage strength and spirit of one in whose veins flowed the blood of men reared in tents, and born to lead wild lives in a wild land.
Of particular note in these two portraits is the collapsed distinction between inside and outside: that which is beneath the surface of the skin appears visible on/in the skin itself so that blood and skin become both signifiers and signifieds of each other and racial identity is made manifest—literally embodied—in each person. Sybil’s “good blood,” for example, betrays her “pale face”—and vice versa—in the same way that Alexis’ “swarthy” face and “[dark] hue of hair and skin” betray his own foreign heritage. That his race, however, is inferior to hers is expressed in the phrase “good blood,” a rhetorical strategy that connects Sybil’s western-European descent with “goodness” and racial superiority, and therefore, by contrast, Alexis’ eastern-European descent with the undesirable inverse.
Although not explicitly expressed in this passage, Alexis’ blood does indeed account for an aspect that renders him monstrous. Alcott’s use of the word “indescribable” in detailing his portrait connects him to a legacy of Gothic antagonists (e.g., Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde) whose monstrosity lies in their inscrutable physicality and in their “terrible” race. Alexis is constructed as essentially threatening in other ways as well, perhaps most succinctly through the description of his sister, a woman whose gentle and refined behavior contrasts so drastically with the violent disposition of her brother that Madame Bayard is forced to explain, “[the princess] is not of the same blood. She is a half-sister; her mother was a Frenchwoman” (199). In this instance, not only is blood again connected to outward behavior (i.e., the princess’s controlled countenance is accounted for by her French heritage), but pure foreign blood is implicitly connected to human degeneracy.
No other motif in the story constructs Alexis as so monstrously “other” than this very suggestion that he is inhuman. A series of figures in the text defines him as such, including, perhaps most powerfully, Sybil’s careful painting of his likeness, a painting that features his dress in painstaking detail but exhibits a “blank spot where his … face should have been” (220). Though we are told that she will complete the picture in time, the temporary omission of his head is nevertheless visually symbolic of the human element that he is so explicitly denied. Other places in the text underscore this point. Madame Bayard’s initial description of the prince, for example, details him as a “magnificent savage beast” (199), a phrase that places an emphasis on his distinctly animal-like character. Her term is not only repeated verbatim elsewhere in the story (212), but it is also one that is widely expressed metaphorically as well, such as in Sybil’s observation that Alexis is a “handsome savage [that] chafe[s] and fret[s] behind the bars of civilized society” (222) not unlike a caged animal, and in the episode in which the prince manhandles a pair of wild horses with an ease that betrays his own bestial impulse (225).
Alexis’ explicit construction as animal-like thus dominates the racial discourse that subtends his monstrosity. Not unlike the fearful doubling of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Alcott’s Russian prince plays host to a negative, animalistic identity that erupts intermittently, exposing the feral blood of his ancestry and thus giving reason for his own truculence. The explosive scene in which Sybil tries to prevent the prince from whipping his dog illustrates this darker aspect:
> The prince followed, whip in hand, evidently in one of the fits of passion which terrified the household. I had seen many demonstrations of wrath, but never anything like that, for he seemed literally beside himself. Pale as death, with eyes full of savage fire, teeth set, and hair bristling like that of an enraged animal, he stood fiercely glaring at me…. I saw he was on the point of losing all control of himself….
In this passage, Alexis’ skin, eyes, teeth, and hair betray his transformation into the Gothic monster of so much Victorian fiction. Of particular note here is the physical aspect of his altered state, the fact that his madness marks itself upon the body in a way that once again reinforces the connection between “aberrant” race and spiritual malevolence. Alcott later writes, for example, that as Sybil tries to reason with him, “[the prince’s] black brow lowered, and the thunderbolt veins on his forehead darkened again with the angry blood, not yet restored to quietude” (211). In this instance, the reference to “angry blood” makes explicit the cause of Alexis’ transformation and therefore condemns him with the suggestion that this “evil side” constitutes his natural essence, an essence that can be temporarily controlled by civilizing forces on the outside, but never fully contained. The conclusion of the episode makes this clear by indicating that the becalmed Alexis has no memory of what has occurred. According to the text, he “shiver[s] as if recovering from a swoon” and then demands of Sybil, “Did I strike you?” (210). His monstrous state is thus characterized by a complete loss of control, a complete usurpation of his rational, human-like qualities. The princess informs us of this fact of his nature in a later passage in which she explains to Sybil, “When in these mad fits he knows not what he does; he killed a man once, a servant, who angered him, struck him dead with a blow. He suffered much remorse, and for a long time was an angel; but the wild blood cannot be controlled, and he is the victim of his passion” (213).
The assertion in this excerpt that “the wild blood cannot be controlled” and that “he knows not what he does” renders Alexis, much like his British Gothic corollaries, a sympathetic but ultimately unredeemable character. Such is the paradox that governs his own construction as a monster, for unlike his more infamous colleagues, his foreign blood neither destroys him nor casts him out of society. Instead, he is allowed to live, but only after a series of choreographed incidents in which he is wounded with a bullet and made to spill his Tartar blood. Race thus never ceases to be an issue in this monster’s fate, for at the same time that Alexis is praised for a new moral fortitude emboldened by love, his body is figuratively transformed through more brutal means, bleeding him of the mark of race, the mark of biological degeneracy that situated him as morally corrupt to begin with. It is this corporeal reconfiguration that qualifies as the most formidable prerequisite in ultimately fashioning him as a “new being” (245). Only in this “refined” condition is he able to engage in a union with his English nemesis, Sybil.
The text thus ends on a decidedly dubious note. Alexis is saved, but only under conditions that ultimately re-inscribe his Russian depravity. A reading of this tale through Halberstam’s reconceptualization of Gothic monstrosity thus complicates the political meaning of the work. Just as the text is ambiguous as to how race is finally treated (is Alexis’ recuperation ultimately xenophobic or not?), the text is equally indeterminate as to its statement on women. A strictly feminist interpretation of the story—particularly those of the brand suggested in preliminary discussions of Alcott’s sensational thrillers—becomes problem-atic not only because it fails to account for the racial discourse that pervades the narrative, but because it also fails to account for the possibility that the same racial discourse might minimize the subversive potential of the story’s otherwise blatant critique of women’s role in Victorian society.
In order to examine how this reading might occur, it is necessary to reconsider the ways in which this story operates as a tale of female empowerment. One argument can be stated quite succinctly by situating this text within Kate Ellis’s subgenre of the female Gothic. According to Ellis, women’s Gothic comprises a set of conventions in which “the heroine exposes the villain’s usurpation [of the home] and thus reclaims an enclosed space that should have been a refuge from evil but has become the very opposite, a prison” (xiii). That Alcott’s text dramatizes this very theme is patently evident. Alexis’ despotic rule over the home turns the domestic sphere into a place of terror, a place that threatens the safety of women not from without, but from within. Sybil’s ultimate triumph over his tyranny not only disrupts ideological conceptions of nineteenth-century womanhood—indeed the last line of the story has the protagonist asserting that she will “Not obey” her new husband (252)—but it also situates this text, as Ellis would argue, as a “site of female resistance,” a site that subverts male power by implicitly attacking the Victorian arrangement whereby men seek to confine women to the supposedly “safe haven” of the home (xvi).
Although this interpretation is certainly valid, Alcott’s text can also be read from a different perspective, one in which the narrative is viewed not as a groundbreaking work at all, but as a story that upholds the status quo, reinforcing nineteenth-century power paradigms and the ideologies on which they are based. Treating this work as a discursive strategy that concentrates western racism in the monstrous “other” allows us to see this alternative meaning. In short, Sybil’s attempts to subdue, control, and “tame” the wild aspect of Alexis’ racial blood betray her collusion in regimes of power that work to “subdue” her own area of influence as well.
Ellis’s Contested Castle offers a point of entry for this reading. In her study, Ellis argues that the increased productivity of the industrial revolution and the increased corruption of middle-class morality it invariably gave rise to called for a new definition of womanhood. This definition enacted a type of “unsupervised control” over women by restricting “the weaker sex” to spaces within the home and charging them with the responsibility of serving as the moral and spiritual guardians of a society on the edge of ruin (3-19). By fixing women’s role as the nation’s spiritual redeemer, nineteenth-century England solved one important problem. As Ellis writes, “If women focus[ed] all their attention on ameliorating the lot of those with whom they are in contact,… then the dangerous consequences of their freedom from physical or gainful labor w[ould] not appear” (12-13).
Sybil Varna performs this role precisely as it has been scripted for her, concentrating her efforts throughout the text on “ameliorating the lot” of Alexis’ debased nature. No passage makes this more explicit than Alexis’ own supplication for moral guidance. Reacting to Sybil’s critique of him as a “tyrant” and a “madman,” the prince meekly pleads, “One dares to tell me [of my faults], and I thank her. Will she then add to the obligation by teaching me to cure them?… Sybil, you can help me; you possess a courage and power to tame my wild temper, my headstrong will. In heaven’s name I ask you to do it, that I may be worthy of a good woman’s love” (242). This passage constructs Sybil as a paragon of Victorian femininity. Not only does it infuse her with the “power and courage” associated with women’s moralizing function, but its explicit invocation of “heaven” imbues such function with divine sanction and makes Alexis’ “conversion”—and thus Sybil’s own role as a moralizing influence—all the more imperative.
That Sybil does in fact assume such a role is reflected in two later incidents in which her intervention in one of Alexis’ outbursts earns her the following praise from the servant who was spared: “[I]t is you I thank, good angel of the house” (246). Alexis makes a similar comment only pages later, addressing Sybil with the parting words, “Always our good angel. Adieu, Sybil. I submit” (250). Both references to Sybil as the Victorian “angel of the house” make explicit her interpolation in ideologies that construct her according to the will of white patriarchy. Nina Auerbach’s discussion of the iconoclastic power of “woman as angel” in Victorian society suggests some of the strictures that her construction as such imposes:
> [T]he Victorian angel in the house seems a bizarre object of worship, both in her virtuous femininity and its inherent limitations—she can exist only within families, when masculine angels can exist elsewhere—and in the immobilization the phrase suggests. In contrast to her swooping ancestors, the angel in the house is a violent paradox with overtones of benediction and captivity. Angelic motion had once known no boundaries; the Victorian angel is defined by her boundaries.
Auerbach’s emphasis on the Victorian angel’s sphere as one characterized by “limitation,” “immobilization,” and “captivity” speaks powerfully against a reading of this text that would attempt to stabilize meaning in the seemingly subversive potential of the story’s emboldened heroine. Halberstam’s conception of Gothic monstrosity makes this more explicit by recasting Alcott’s Russian prince not as a mere man of tyrannical impulse, but as a racial body that concentrates fears of foreign infiltration in the “wild blood” of his “deviant” ancestry. By reading Alexis as the embodiment of nineteenth-century xenophobic discourse, we can in turn see Sybil’s role as the conquering “angel of the house” in a completely different light. Her efforts, for example, to see the prince “thoroughly subdued” (244) cause us to focus not on the power that this woman so ostensibly commands, but on the machinery of white male control that lurks visibly beneath her moralizing influence. For if the impulse to civilize is so inextricably connected to a symbolics of blood, then the execution of that civilizing gesture becomes an act of patriarchy, an act that reinstates both the cage in which Alexis “chafes and frets” as well as the “cage” in which the angel of the house does the same. It is thus not without considerable significance that the final scene of the narrative has Sybil boasting to Alexis, “Come with me to England, that I may show my country-men the brave barbarian I have tamed” (252). Sybil’s expressed desire to showcase her handiwork to an audience that all but requisitioned it to begin with could hardly be made more distinct, nor could the corresponding suggestion that her actions play right into the hands of the same men who keep her appropriately “subdued” as well.
Sybil’s civilizing influence over Alexis thus renders her an instrument of white male power—a co-conspirator, if you will, of institutional forces that subjugate women. Lora Romero confirms this reading in her study on the politics of antebellum domesticity, observing that “Although thinking of women as the living gospel for men gives women a certain authority, it also defines them in terms of men’s needs … threaten[ing] to reduce women to little more than vessels for male salvation” (22). Sybil dutifully functions as this “vessel for male salvation,” and yet her behavior as such only complicates critical readings of Alcott’s story as a feminist text; it does not dismiss them. Indeed as Romero points out, nineteenth-century domestic fiction rarely lends itself to a single statement about the proper role of women in the home. On the contrary, such works routinely express both a genuine resistance to domestic ideologies at the same time that they reinstate those ideologies through other dynamics in the text (19-24).
Such is the case in Alcott’s story, for it is more than evident that while Sybil may indeed reinforce structures of power that ultimately fashion her as a mere “vessel for male salvation,” she is also, undeniably, an extremely strong female character, one whose independence and whose considerable command in controlling her own affairs pose a challenge to patriarchal conceptions of womanhood. This fact is made evident through the striking juxtaposition that occurs between Sybil and the only other principal female character in the text: Alexis’ sister, the princess. The princess is defined not only by her fragile constitution, but also by her persistent dependence on others. Her confinement within the home speaks convincingly of the impotence that characterizes her pathetic existence. As Sybil herself comments about the girl upon first meeting her, “[she] was one of the clinging, confiding women who must lean on some one[;] I soon felt that protective fondness which one cannot help feeling for the weak, the sick, and the unhappy” (206).
Sybil is the virtual antithesis of this portrait of female passivity. Far from being “clingy” and “weak,” Alcott’s protagonist is described to us as “fond of experiences and adventures, self-reliant and self-possessed” ( ). Most notably, however, Sybil commands a strength of character that allows her to confront the abusive Alexis at times when all others cower and capitulate. Such a quality is by far the outstanding feature of her person and one readily highlighted in several places throughout the text. The much weaker princess, for example, often enlists Sybil to fight her battles with her brother for her, the younger woman understanding that “[Sybil] can plead for me as I cannot plead for myself” (208). Other characters also depend on Sybil’s advocacy to shield them from Alexis’ wrath. In a previously noted incident, even the family dog, suffering the blows of his master’s boot for disobeying a command, is rescued by Sybil’s assertive and timely interference. In this specific case, however, Sybil is not satisfied simply to interrupt the injustice she sees, but instead, in an unusual act of female self-assertion, she demands that Alexis not only cease his brutal behavior but also yield his will to hers by admitting his wrongdoing. As Sybil reveals to us, “I was bent on having my own way and making him submit as a penance for his … menace. Once conquer his will, in no matter how slight a degree, and I had gained a power possessed by no other person” (211).
As this passage suggests, Sybil is indeed unwilling to assume the role of the “weaker” sex. On the contrary, she admittedly seeks to usurp the power of the master of the house and to “conquer his will” for her own gain. This same motive is apparent in a much later exchange between two rivals, one in which Sybil demands to be allowed to leave Alexis’ country estate and return to St. Petersburg without him. As she so emphatically demands, “I wish to be free. You have promised to obey; yield your will to mine and let me go” (247). Like the previous passage, the assertion in this excerpt is a direct assault on the traditional patriarchal arrangement of domestic power. Sybil not only calls for a new kind of domesticity, one in which she will be allowed to come and go as she pleases (i.e., “to be free,” as she says), but she also insists on a radically new relationship between herself and her male “superior,” demanding that the latter obediently subordinate his own interests to hers—his own interests, that is, to those of a woman.
Both of these scenes thus express a new vision for female selfhood. It is this vision and its ultimate realization by the end of the story that scholars have seized upon to characterize Alcott’s work as progressively feminist. Halberstam’s theory of the Gothic does not unsettle this reading; however, it does complicate it in important ways. Specifically, her argument that the Gothic tradition is rooted in a discourse that asserts the seeming primacy of white, European peoples makes visible the politics of racism that underwrite the kind of feminist power explicit in Alcott’s text. The anti-patriarchal impulse of this story is inextricably connected to—and in fact supported by—its much more subtle yet equally significant racist impulse. Again Romero offers support for this reading, this time by observing that dynamics of gender and dynamics of race can cross in ways that produce unexpected results in terms of their collective effect on dominant ways of thinking (i.e., whether they subvert or reinforce that thinking). Gender and race are, she maintains, “competing and intersecting determinates of ideological subscription/transcendence” (19).
The implications of this fact for Alcott’s work is that the story’s feminist inclinations do not preclude the possibility that the story might also support less-than-progressive views on other issues—views, for example, that reinstate racial stereotypes and racial bigotry. My argument here is that this possibility approximates the microdynamics at play in Alcott’s work: that is, the feminist discourse of Alcott’s “Taming a Tartar” is deeply implicated in the racist discourse that constructs Alexis as the depraved Other.
This complex intersection of competing interests is easily traced in scenes where Sybil asserts her will over Alexis’. In all such incidents, the struggle for power that occurs is explicitly written as one that involves not only a woman pitted against a man, but also a person of “good blood” pitted against a person of “bad blood.” This latter fact is significant, for Sybil’s triumph in these scenes is one that necessarily reaffirms the notion that Alexis is by nature—by virtue of his biology—morally inferior. Such a result would not be the outcome if the story did not make an issue of Alexis’ race in the way that it so carefully does. That is, the form of racism associated with these scenes does not precipitate from the mere fact that Sybil is European while Alexis is not. Instead, it precipitates from the text’s own rhetoric, which repeatedly reminds the reader that Alexis’ tyrannical behavior is grounded in his racial makeup and that Alexis’ reluctant but eventual submission is an appropriate affirmation of Sybil’s inherently superior “bloodline.” The gains Sybil realizes as a woman are therefore achieved at the expense of Alexis’ dignity as a human being: each gesture of selfhood on her part serves to underscore or remind us of the “inhuman” nature of his fiendish character.
The eventual union of the two rivals does little to change this dynamic, for even their courtship is encoded with subtleties that reaffirm the racial politics so apparent in the first part of the text. Of particular note is the way in which Sybil repeatedly “apologizes” for her new affections for Alexis. Rather than openly confessing that her feelings for him are wellfounded and justifiable, Alcott’s protagonist makes veiled excuses to the reader for this unexpected preference, insinuating that her partiality is either the product of a fluke, irrational impulse that is undeniably negative in nature, or that such partiality is not genuine at all and is simply part of an act of charity that must be dutifully carried out. Sybil is “forced” to confess, for example, that she misses the prince when he is away (223, emphasis added). We are also informed that her heart is “rebellious” for harboring presumably unwelcome and impermissible feelings for him (233). And finally, we learn that her eventual marriage to him is not at all an act of deliberate choice, but a forced concession made to a dying man: “While life and death still fought for [Alexis], I yielded to his prayer to become his wife…. In my remorse I would have granted anything …” (251).
What is significant about these instances is that they effectively reinforce the social stigma associated with Alexis’ foreign heritage by suggesting that no proper woman in her right mind would marry a man of such dubious racial ancestry without being coerced. And so while the final pages of the story appear to deliver a surprising reversal in terms of how we are to respond to Alexis as a character, the micropolitics of the text would suggest something quite different. Halberstam’s theory of the Gothic ultimately allows us to see this disparity. By reading the Gothic monster as a social construct that voices anxiety over racial infiltration and racial “decline,” we are able to unveil the racist ideologies that undergird the systems of power operating in the work—systems of power that vilify and dehumanize signs of genetic and national difference, and systems of power that work to assert a more meaningful role for women within the home. The irony implicit in this final reading is that Alcott does indeed go out of her way to make a very specific statement against racism in her work. The last page of her story focuses not on the marriage of the two major characters but on Sybil’s insistence that her new husband free the serfs who labor “through force [and] fear” on his property (252). This seemingly trivial exchange says far more than it appears to on the surface, for it functions as a clear indictment of slavery, an indictment of an institution that justifies itself on the false belief that peoples of different colors and different geographic regions are not only inferior to those of English descent, but essentially subhuman as well. It is a troubling testament to the power of nineteenth-century racist ideology that Alcott fails to see how carefully she reinstates racist thinking on the one hand while ostensibly repudiating it on the other. Part of the function of the Gothic monster is that it makes visible this incongruity and in doing so belies interpretations of Alcott’s story that would rest on the easy assumption that the work is a simple tale of romance with little or no political import.
1. Certainly one might question why I have chosen to read Alcott’s work through the lens of a theoretical perspective associated with a British Gothic model as opposed to an American Gothic model. First of all, my reason for doing so is not to elide important differences between British and American Gothic traditions, but rather to insist that there exists a racial dimension to the American Gothic that has been largely overlooked and merits closer attention. Halberstam’s theory—whether formulated for a British literary tradition or not—is particularly useful in awakening us to that notion. Second of all, it bears pointing out that other theorists do indeed define the American Gothic in terms of the same racial underpinnings Halberstam’s theory seizes upon. Teresa Goddu makes the assertion, for example, that the fundamental “darkness” of the American Gothic genre is located in its “racial roots”: “the American Gothic is haunted by race,” she maintains (7). Eric Savoy repeats this argument in his own claim that the American Gothic makes visible the vilified being that American dominant culture cannot accept: “the entire tradition of American Gothic can be conceptualized as the attempt to invoke … the specter of Otherness that haunts the house of national narrative” (14). Both Goddu and Savoy make clear the fact that my use of Halberstam in reading an American text does not foist upon that text an incommensurate theory, reading, or model. On the contrary, it would appear as if Halberstam simply allows us to further explore that which other scholars have already confirmed to be an integral part of this American subgenre.
Alcott, Louisa May. “Taming a Tartar.” A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, 1988. .
Auerbach, Nina. Women and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Elbert, Sarah. Introduction. Louisa May Alcott on Race, Sex, and Slavery. By Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Sarah Elbert. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1997. ix-lx.
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.
Falcon, Jo. Introduction. A Modern Mephistopheles. By Louisa May Alcott. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995. v-viii.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1978.
Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1963.
Guillaumin, Colette. Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Introduction. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1993. xi-xix.
Klimasmith, Betsy. “Slave, Master, Mistress, Slave: Genre and Interracial Desire in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction.” ATQ (American Transcendental Quarterly) 11 (1997): .
Romero, Lora. Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.
Savoy, Eric. Introduction. American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative. Ed. Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998. 3-19.
Stern, Madeleine B. Introduction. A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. By Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Little, 1988.1-28.
――――――. Introduction. The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power. By Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1996. vii-xxiii.
ANNE K. MELLOR (ESSAY DATE JUNE 2002)
> SOURCE: Mellor, Anne K. “Interracial Sexual Desire in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” European Romantic Review 13, no. 2 (June 2002): .
In the following essay, Mellor demonstrates how Charlotte Dacre’s use of Gothic conventions enabled her to illuminate the traditionally taboo sexual relationship between a white woman and a black man in her novel Zofloya.
The genre of the Gothic has long enabled both its practitioners and its readers to explore subjective desires and identities that are otherwise repressed, denied or forbidden by the culture at large. As David Punter trenchantly characterized the Gothic genre in The Literature of Terror, it is centrally concerned with paranoia, the taboo, and the barbaric, a barbaric that nonetheless returns as the unheimlich, the uncanny, what is most familiar yet most disturbing. The array of culturally repressed subjectivities at the end of the eighteenth century in England, at a time of lip-service to Enlightenment rationality, of a political paranoia fuelled by the Terror in France, and of the increasing dominance of a bourgeois domesticity, is of course enormous. Here I wish to think about the way in which one Gothic novel enables us to explore what was perhaps the most taboo of all human sexual desires in Romantic-era England, the passionate, even uncontrollable, sexual desire of a beautiful white woman for the black male body.
The widespread dissemination of abolitionist poems, stories, tracts and autobiographies which insisted not only upon universal human rights, but upon the sympathetic brotherhood and sisterhood of white and black peoples, raised the possibility of interracial sexual alliances and even marriages. Most of the texts which overtly represented such interracial alliances confined themselves to legitimating a white male desire for the black female body. They depended on the already widespread cultural practice in the British West Indies of sexual liaisons between white male slaveowners and their black female slaves. Several plays performed on the London stage in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century rewrote this cultural practice in the genre of romance, presenting positive portrayals of the love of a white man for a black woman. In George Colman the Younger’s version of Inkle and Yarico performed in 1787, for instance, the white English gentleman Inkle finally forswears his inheritance in order to marry the black African princess Yarico, while his white man-servant Trudge also marries Yarico’s black female attendant, Wowski.
A few plays and novels reversed this pattern to legitimate the sexual desire of a black man for a white woman. In James Powell’s comic pantomime, Furibond; or, Harlequin Negro, performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1807, the black Harlequin finally manages to marry his beloved Columbine, the white daughter of a Jamaican planter. More radical was J. Ferriar’s revision of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, titled The Prince of Angola, performed in Manchester in 1788. Here Oroonoko has already married the white daughter of the European “stranger” who visited his father’s court in Angola, taught him warfare, and died in battle in his arms. As Oroonoko recalls his courtship of the white Imoinda, echoing Shakespeare’s Othello,
… I presented her
With all the spoils of battle to atone
Her father’s ghost. But when I saw her face,
And heard her speak, I offer’d up myself
To be the sacrifice. She bow’d and blush’d;
I wonder’d and ador’d. The sacred power
That had subdued me, then inspir’d my tongue,
Inclin’d her heart, and all our talk was love.
I married her: And tho’ my country’s custom
Indulg’d the privilege of many wives,
I swore myself never to know but her.
She grew with child and I grew happier still.
In Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda, published in 1801, the black freed slave Juba, a servant of Belinda’s suitor, Mr. Vincent, marries the white farmer’s daughter Lucy—although the public dismay at this interracial marriage forced Edgeworth in the third, 1810, edition of Belinda to marry Lucy instead to her second love, the white James Jackson (1801:243; 1810:234). And Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography reminds us that a black man could legitimately marry a white woman in England—in April 1792, Gustavus Vassa married the Englishwoman Susanah Cullen (Equiano 235, 305n674).
But all these texts focus on the sexual desires of males, either of a white male for a black female or a black male for a white female. None tell the story from the position of a female subjectivity. More to the point, the very possibility that a white female might sexually prefer the black male body to the white male body was one that British culture in the late eighteenth century either denied or abhorred. Significantly, Edgeworth’s Lucy has to overcome an initial fear of Juba’s black face (1801: 244) before she can learn to love him. And Ferriar’s white Imoinda has been raised since infancy among the black peoples of Angola; she had never seen a white man other than her father when she married Oroonoko (Ferriar 13).
Far more characteristic of the public discourse on interracial mating in the Romantic era was a horrified disgust. Typical of this racial phobia is Matthew Lewis’ poem “Isle of the Devils”, published in his Journal of a West India Proprietor in 1834, in which he can imagine the desire of a black man for a white woman only as a brutal rape, a rape which twice impregnates the chaste Irza and finally leads her to abandon her children, however reluctantly in the case of her fair-skinned (as opposed to her dark-skinned) son. More vitriolic, and perhaps most indicative of the culture’s racial paranoia concerning miscegenation, or what they called assimilation, is Edward Long’s outburst in his Candid Reflections … on what is commonly called the Negroe-Cause, by a Planter, published in 1772. Long first laments that escaped male slaves in England frequently intermarry with white servant-women, “but when the prospect of an easy subsistence fails, they make no scruple to abandon their new wife and mulatto progeny to the care of the parish, and betake themselves to the colony, where they are sure, at least, of not starving” (Long 48). But far worse, in Long’s view, are the sexual desires of these working-class white women. As he writes,
> The lower class of women in England, are remarkably fond of the blacks, for reasons too brutal to mention; they would connect themselves with horses and asses, if the laws permitted them. By these ladies they generally have a numerous brood. Thus, in the course of a few generations more, the English blood will become so contaminated with this mixture, and from the chances, the ups and downs of life, this alloy may spread so extensively, as even to reach the middle, and then the higher orders of the people, till the whole nation resembles the Portuguese and Moriscos in complexion of skin and baseness of mind. This is a venomous and dangerous ulcer, that threatens to disperse its malignancy far and wide, until every family catches infection from it.
Long’s widely shared horror at the potentially interracial desires of the English working classes was powerfully evoked in Thomas Rowlandson’s print in 1810, titled “Kitchen Stuff”. Here the loving embrace of the white servant-girl with a black man is crudely paralleled by the white kitten that playfully embraces a spotted, black-and-white dog, thus suggesting that such an interracial embrace is both brutally animalistic and a form of cross-species mating. Moreover, this embrace is fuelled by alcohol, by the “Black Jack” rum on the mantelpiece and the “Cherry Bounce” liqueur in the cup of the drunken cook.
In the context of this cultural paranoia concerning interracial sexuality, it should not surprise us that when a female writer wished to explore the passionate desire of a white woman for a black man, she felt constrained to frame her novel—as many Gothic novels are framed—within a pat Christian moral. In reading Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or The Moor, published in 1806, however, we should not take this moral over-seriously. Yes, Victoria’s beloved Moor is—we finally learn—the devil in disguise; yes, Victoria has been corrupted from early adolescence by the bad example of her mother’s adulterous elopement with a treacherous suitor; yes, Dacre suggests, human nature is innately evil and strong social restraints must be placed on all human desires. At the level of this framing moral narrative, Diane Hoeveler has correctly concluded in her Gothic Feminism that Zofloya is “racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic” (Hoeveler 145), that Dacre condemns the excesses of female sexual desire and overtly affirms instead the ideals of bourgeois rationality and a maternal ideology.
I would like to look at Zofloya somewhat differently, focusing not on the framing moral of the novel but rather on the textual representation of Victoria’s desires as they develop during the novel. First, let me give just the briefest of plot synopses for those of you who have not yet read this fascinating novel. Victoria de Loredani’s mother elopes with her lover Count Ardolph when Victoria is 15; her father is subsequently killed in a duel with Ardolph. The beautiful, dark-haired Victoria’s dawning sexuality is then aroused by the older libertine, Count Berenza; her mother tries to prevent this liaison by imprisoning Victoria with her aunt; Victoria escapes to Berenza, initiates their sexual affair, seduces him into marrying her, only to discover that Berenza cannot sexually satisfy her. She then becomes enamored of Berenza’s younger, more virile brother Henriquez, who rejects her advances because he is engaged to the delicate, pale-skinned Lilla. At this point Henriquez’ servant, Zofloya, a Moor, appears, first in Victoria’s dream, then in fact, and offers her his services in gaining Henriquez’ love. Victoria, overcome with frustrated sexual passion, first poisons her husband and then, when Henriquez still rejects her, chains Lilla in a cave and drugs Henriquez with a love-potion. but her longed-for sexual consummation with Henriquez proves disappointing. Henriquez commits suicide, Victoria kills Lilla, and escapes with Zofloya to a cave of bandits. When these bandits are surrounded by the army, Victoria flees with the Moor’s help, only to learn at last that he is the Devil; he hurls her to her death from a cliff.
What I wish to focus on in this lurid tale is Victoria’s sexuality.1 Aroused by the white male, white female sexual desire in this novel is repeatedly frustrated by that white male, who proves increasingly impotent as the novel unfolds. Count de Loredani cannot satisfy his wife, who elopes. Count Berenza, the vitiated libertine, cannot arouse or gratify his wife, and visibly wastes away before our eyes, poisoned by the lemonade he so adoringly drinks from his wife’s cup. Henriquez is besotted by the pale Lilla, but is unable to consummate his sexual desire for her, impaling himself instead on his own dagger. In the figural discourse of this text, white male bodies literally become smaller, weaker, less potent.
In contrast, the bodies of both Victoria and Zofloya increase in size. Victoria, “above the middle height”, “tall and graceful” as the antelope (Dacre 96), looms over the wasted Berenza and drugged, pale Henriquez. Zofloya, a man of exceptional intelligence, musical skill and education, immediately attracts the erotic gaze of Victoria:
> It occurred to her that the figure of the Moor possessed a grace and majesty which she had never before remarked; his face too seemed animated with charms till now unnoticed, and his very dress to have acquired a more splendid, tasteful, and elegant appearance.—True it was, that great was the beauty of Zofloya, to a form the most attractive and symmetrical, though of superior height, deriving every advantage too from the graceful costume of his dress, was added a countenance, spite of its colour, endowed with the finest possible expression. His eyes, brilliant and large, sparkled with inexpressible fire; his nose and mouth were elegantly formed, and when he smiled, the assemblage of his features displayed a beauty that delighted and surprised.
Tall, “majestic” and “solemnly beautiful” (158) when he first appears, Zofloya becomes a “towering figure” (190), “so gigantic” that he seems “increased to a height scarcely human” (191). As Zofloya’s size increases, so does Victoria’s sexual desire for him. Initially Victoria sees Zofloya only as her servant, the one who will carry out her wish to eliminate her husband and to seduce the rejecting Henriquez. But as the novel progresses, Victoria becomes more and more dependent on Zofloya, who repeatedly professes his own desire for her, kneeling before her, kissing her hand, preserving her bloodied handkerchief next to his heart, gently pressing her to his bosom, and insisting that she belongs to him.
But it is Victoria’s growing sexual desire for Zofloya that I wish to emphasize. At first the “vain” Victoria is attracted only by Zofloya’s desire—”she took pleasure in knowing that he gazed upon her” (153). As the novel progresses, she increasingly desires what he can do for her. As he promises to help her consummate her desire for Henriquez, she, “seizing his hand … pressed it to her bosom” (159); in Zofloya’s presence, she recognizes that “I remain unsatisfied” (172); when she hears his flute-playing, she momentarily forgets Henriquez—”sooner, yes sooner, would I hear the footstep of Zofloya, or his sweet voice, sweeter than all this music” and confesses to him that “I desired your presence!” (181). After Henriquez’ suicide, Victoria’s erotic attraction to Zofloya becomes ever more intense—”On him the eyes of Victoria involuntarily fixed; dignity and ineffable grace, were diffused over his whole figure;—for the first time she felt towards him an emotion of tenderness” (226). When he embraces her, “Victoria felt reassured … such powerful fascination dwelt around him that she felt incapable of withdrawing from his arms;… no sooner … did she behold that beautiful and majestic visage, that towering and graceful form, than all thought of his inferiority vanished, and the ravished sense, spurning at the caluminous idea, confessed him a being of a higher order” (227). Having fled with Zofloya to the bandits’ cave, Victoria is overcome with passion for the Moor:
> Victoria’s proud, but now almost subjugated heart, touched with the respectful attentions of the only companion her vices and her crimes had left her, extended to him, with softened looks her hand.—He took it with tenderness, yet delicate reserve, and raised it to his lips—his manner but encreased to ardour the feelings of Victoria.
This love scene ends with Victoria’s passionate declaration—”Zofloya!—I am thine ever” (231). Even then her overwhelming sexual desire remains unconsummated, hence all-consuming. Her death at the Moor’s hands thus becomes, in the figuration of sexual desire that I have been tracking in this novel, a Liebestod.
Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya thus constructs a unique Gothic subjectivity as it powerfully represents a hitherto culturally outlawed sexual desire, that of an empowered white woman for a black man. It initiates a complicated dialogue with the racist discourse of Edward Long, with those who can conceptualize female interracial desire only as degenerate, immoral or threatening. And it enabled Dacre’s female readers to explore a far wider range of sexual options, a more aggressive libidinal subjectivity, than did the other writing of her day.
1. Victoria’s sexuality has previously been analyzed by Adriana Craciun as a representation of nymphomania (Dacre, Introduction 21-23) and by James Dunn as a feminine appropriation of masculine sexual desire and violence (Dunn, ). Kim Ian Michasiw, who perceptively locates the novel within the conventions of a “transracial chivalric aristocracy of an earlier Orientalism” (xxiii), also explores the role of sexuality within the class and racial configurations of Zofloya.
Colman, George, the Younger. Inkle and Yarico. London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787.
Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya or, The Moor: a Romance of the Fifteenth Century. Ed. with an Introduction by Adriana Craciun. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 1997. All citations in the text are from this edition.
Dunn, James. A. “Charlotte Dacre and the Feminization of Violence.” Nineteenth Century Literature. 35, 1998. .
Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda, 1st ed. 1801. Ed. with an introduction by Eilean Ni Chilleanain. London: Everyman, J. M. Dent, 1993.
――――――. Belinda, 3rd ed. 1810. Ed. Eva Figes. London: Pandora, 1986.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Ed. with an introduction by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Ferriar, J. The Prince of Angola, a Tragedy. Altered from the Play of Oroonoko, and adapted to the Circumstances of the Present Times. Manchester, 1788.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism—The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State UP, 1998.
Lewis, Matthew. “The Isle of Devils, A Metrical Tale,” in Journal of a West India Proprietor Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (1834). Ed. with an introduction by Judith Terry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999, .
Long, Edward. Candid Reflections upon the Judgment lately awarded by the Court of the King’s Bench in Westminster-Hall, On what is commonly called the Negroe-Cause, By a Planter. London: T. Lowndes, 1772.
Michasiw, Kim Ian, Ed. with an introduction. Charlotte Dacre, Zofloya, or The Moor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Powell, James (with G. Male). Furibond; or, Harlequin Negro—A Grand Comic Pantomime. London: C. Lowndes, 1807.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. London: Longman, 1980; 2nd ed., 1996.
ELAINE SHOWALTER (ESSAY DATE 1991)
> SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “American Female Gothic.” In Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing, pp. . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
In the following essay, Showalter examines Gothic literature by women within the context of American history and culture.
One of the earliest critical manifestations of the change in consciousness that came out of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s was the theorization of the Female Gothic as a genre that expressed women’s dark protests, fantasies, and fear. The first great feminist theorist of the genre was Ellen Moers, a brilliant and pioneering critic who died of breast cancer in 1971 at the age of fifty. Her book, Literary Women: The Great Writers (1975), was a highly personal, loosely organized study of women writers across national lines. The chapters on the Female Gothic were particularly striking. Moers distinguished between two types of female Gothic novel: Ann Radcliffe’s origination in The Mysteries of Udolpho of a mode in which ‘the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine,’ and Mary Shelley’s turn of the genre in Frankenstein, a story with a heroine but very powerfully a ‘birth myth,’ a tale of hideous progeny both literary and physiological. As Moers maintained, Frankenstein is ‘A woman’s mythmaking on the subject of … what follows birth: the trauma of the after-birth,’ fear and guilt, anxiety and depression.1 No woman who has ever read the book will forget Moers’s description of the newborn infant, taken directly from Dr Spock:
> A baby at birth is usually disappointing-looking to a parent who hasn’t seen one before. His skin is coated with wax … his face tends to be puffy and lumpy, and there may be black and blue marks … the head is misshapen … The baby’s body is covered all over with fuzzy hair … and some babies have black hair on the scalp which may come far down on the forehead.
Moers extended her theory of Female Gothic to self-hatred and self-disgust directed towards the female body, sexuality, and reproduction. The Gothic, in her view, had to do with women’s anxieties about birth and creativity, including the anxiety of giving birth to stories in a process that society could deem unnatural. Her ideas were crucial to the work of such feminist critics as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and to others who looked at Mary Shelley as the paradigm of the Gothic woman writer.
In the late 1970s Moers’s work was rethought and revised by a number of psychoanalytically oriented feminist critics influenced by object-relations theory and especially the work of Nancy Chodorow. They viewed the Female Gothic as a confrontation not just with maternity, but with the reproduction of mothering, and ‘the problematics of femininity which the heroine must confront.’2 In the Female Gothic, Claire Kahane asserts, ‘the heroine is imprisoned not in a house but in the female body, which is itself the maternal legacy. The problematics of femininity is thus reduced to the problematics of the female body, perceived as antagonistic to the sense of self, as therefore freakish.’3 The Gothic castle is, above all, the house of the dead mother. The heroine thinks that she is trapped in the haunted castle by a sinister and seductive older man; but she is really on a quest to find the mother, who holds the secrets of feminine existence:
> Within an imprisoning structure, a protagonist, typically a young woman whose mother has died, is compelled to seek out the center of a mystery, while vague and usually sexual threats to her person from some powerful male figure hover on the periphery of her consciousness. Following clues that pull her onward and inward—bloodstains, mysterious sounds—she penetrates the obscure recesses of a vast labyrinthean space and discovers a secret room sealed off by its association with death. In this dark, secret center of the Gothic structure, the boundaries of life and death seem confused. Who died? Has there been a murder? Or merely a disappearance?4
In the mid-1980s another group of feminist critics influenced by poststructuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis saw the Female Gothic as a mode of writing corresponding to the feminine, the romantic, the transgressive, and the revolutionary. For them, its key texts were novels like Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, in which the Gothic erupted despite Brontë’s stated desire to express herself in the bourgeois and patriarchal language of reason. Reading the Female Gothic through Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, ‘Dora,’ and ‘Das Unheimliche,’ as well as through Lacan and Kristeva, critics equated the Gothic with the feminine unconscious, and with the effort to bring the body, the semiotic, the imaginary, or the pre-Oedipal [M]Other Tongue into language.
Several of these critics systematized their readings of Female Gothic under the rubric of hysteria. In the preface to her book The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Sedgwick calls ‘the heroine of the Gothic a classic hysteric, its hero a classic paranoid.’ The hysterical heroine graphically expresses through her body what cannot be spoken about the self or come into existence as narrative. Similarly, when Mary Jacobus asks, ‘what is the literary status of that version of the uncanny known to feminist critics as “female Gothic,”‘ she replies that the heroine is a hysteric and the Female Gothic text is a hysterical narrative.5
But ‘hysterical readings’ that dehistoricize the Female Gothic make it a timeless universal mode, one that threatens to reinstate the familiar duality linking women with irrationality, the body, and marginality, while men retain reason, the mind, and authority. As Terry Eagleton remarks, ‘if women speak the discourse of the body, the unconscious, the dark underside of formal speech—in a word, the Gothic—they merely confirm their aberrant status.’6 And if ‘Gothic’ becomes the word that totalizes and encapsulates these positions, it loses its capacity to mediate between the uncanny and the unjust. Like other genres, the Female Gothic takes on different shapes and meanings within different historical and national contexts. Borrowing many of its conventions from the English and European traditions, it has become one of the most versatile and powerful genres of American women’s writing, with elements that have changed in relation to changes in women’s roles and American culture.
We could trace a long history of American Female Gothic. The popularity of the Gothic genre in American fiction began within a decade of Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, and flourished in the first years of the Republic, despite the difficulty of finding appropriate equivalents of the ‘haunted castle, the ruined abbey, the dungeons of the Inquisition’ in rural Connecticut and Long Island.7 In the introduction to her book Woman’s Record (1852), Sarah J. Hale explained the influences which had led her to become ‘the Chronicler of my own sex.’ ‘The first regular novel I read,’ she recalled,
> was ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ when I was quite a child. I name it on account of the influence it exercised over my mind. I had remarked that of all the books I saw, few were written by Americans and none by women. Here was a work, the most fascinating I had ever read, always excepting ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ written by a woman! How happy it made me! The wish to promote the reputation of my own sex, and do something for my own country, were among the earliest mental emotions I can recollect.
For many nineteenth-century American women readers and writers, the Gothic suggested independence, adventure, narrative boldness, and self-reliance. It allowed writers otherwise subject to the narrative restrictions of gentility and patriotism to find covert outlets for their sexuality and to imagine exotic or European settings for transgressive plots.
Yet for much of this century, when American critics theorized about the American Gothic, lurid women writers were not on their list. Most interpretations of the Gothic saw it as a myth of male power, arousing terror through incestuous or Oedipal plots, whether ‘a helpless daughter confronting the erotic power of a father or brother’; or ‘the son’s rebellious confrontation with paternal authority.’8 When Leslie Fiedler, for instance, argued in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) that the Gothic was the ‘form that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers,’ he was not thinking of Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Spofford, or Flannery O’Connor, but rather of Poe, Brockden Brown, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner. The essence of American literature, Fiedler asserted, was ‘non-realistic, even antirealistic; long before symbolisme had been invented in France and exported to America, there was a full-fledged native tradition of symbolism.’ But American women’s writing did not share this symbolist essence. In fact, American Gothic could not be written by women because it was a protest against women, a flight from the domestic and the feminine. Women stood for the dreary or repellent ‘physical data of the actual world’ or ‘the maternal blackness, imagined by the gothic writer as a prison’ below the ‘crumbling shell of paternal authority.’ In order to ‘avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and childbearing,’ then, American writers created a ‘nonrealistic and negative, sadistic and melodramatic’ Gothic fiction, a literature of ‘darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.’9 Women could only be totemic figures along the masculine Gothic trail, seductive Dark Ladies or lachrymose Little Evas.
A story that challenged this narrative of American Gothic was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. First published in the New England Magazine in 1892, the story had dropped out of the American literary canon. It was rediscovered and reprinted in 1972 by the Feminist Press, with an introduction by Elaine Hedges which used the language of Kate Millett’s recently published feminist best-seller to call it a narrative of ‘sexual politics’ in which a woman rebels against patriarchal power. Throughout the decade, as Jean Kennard has explained, feminist critics produced numerous readings of the story which depended on new conventions and interpretations of such terms as patriarchy, madness, and quest.10 Now considered ‘one of the most famous feminist literary works,’11 it is also an American classic. (The author is certainly not well known in England, where a recent review called her ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’).12 Yet paradoxically, when ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was adapted for Masterpiece Theater, a program that specializes in bringing television versions of the English classics to American audiences, it was set in Victorian England. The story may have been too Gothic to seem American.
Told in a series of brief paragraphs of one or two sentences, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a first-person narrative of a woman who has been taken by her physician husband to a secluded house in the country—’a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate’—in order to cure a nervous illness, ‘a slight hysterical tendency,’ she has developed after the birth of a son. The house is ‘quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village.’ On the extensive grounds, there are ‘hedges and walls and gates that lock,’ and at the top of the house, a large room with barred windows, rings on the walls, an iron bed nailed down to the floor with a canvas mattress, and a gate barring the stairs. The floor is ‘gouged and splintered,’ the bedstead ‘gnawed,’ and the yellow wallpaper ripped.
The narrator wants to write, and indeed confides her story in secrecy to the ‘dead paper’ of a journal which becomes the text. Her husband and his sister think it is the writing that has made her sick. But gradually the enforced passivity and confinement breaks down her mind; she begins to have crying spells, fatigue, and hallucinations in which the ‘florid arabesque’ of the wallpaper becomes a living paper, ‘budding and sprouting in endless convolutions.’ Ultimately she sees a woman creeping behind the pattern of the paper, who becomes many women trapped and trying to climb through. At the story’s end, the narrator is completely mad. When her husband breaks into the room where she has locked herself, she has ripped off all the paper and is creeping around the floor. ‘I’ve got out at last in spite of you,’ she tells him, and when he faints in shock, she creeps over his body.
ON THE SUBJECT OF …
CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN (1860–1935) AND “THE YELLOW WALLPAPER”
Gilman wrote only one work of horror fiction, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), but it is one of the lasting classics of the genre, and has become part of the canon of feminist literature. The novella is based upon Gilman’s own experience with the “rest cure” developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell to treat the mental illness known at the time as “neurasthenia”; Gilman was prescribed the treatment for the postpartum depression she suffered following the birth of her daughter. Mitchell’s rest cure, prescribed primarily to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed for a period of months, during which time the patient was fed only mild foods and deprived of all mental, physical, and social activity—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. Gilman once stated that the rest cure nearly drove her insane; she recovered after embarking upon a trip alone, and decided to leave both her husband and her daughter permanently.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is structured as a series of secret diary entries by an unnamed woman, a young wife and new mother whose debilitating mental condition has prevented her from caring for her infant. She and her husband John, who is a doctor, have rented a house in the country, in which she is to take a rest cure. The narrator is confined to an upstairs room with barred windows and no furnishings except for a bed that is nailed to the floor. The narrator describes the color and pattern of the room’s garish yellow wallpaper in an assortment of distasteful ways, eventually becoming obsessed with the wallpaper and imagining that a woman is trapped behind it. The story ends with the narrator creeping around the edges of the room and tearing the wallpaper in ragged sheets from the walls in an attempt to free the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. Her husband unlocks the door and witnesses this activity. “I’ve got out at last,” she explains to him, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back!” He faints, and she continues to creep around the room, crawling over her unconscious husband.
Gilman gives the account of the breakdown and treatment that motivated her to write the story in her autobiography and also in an essay called ‘Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”‘ In 1887, after the birth of her daughter, Gilman became severely depressed. Her husband at first tried to cheer her up by hiring a maid and by reading her Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century; when neither remedy worked, he sent her to Philadelphia for six weeks to take Dr Weir Mitchell’s rest cure. A prominent and successful nerve specialist, Mitchell had developed a therapy for intellectual women, Edith Wharton among them, that involved complete bed rest, no visitors, no intellectual activity of any sort, including reading, and a rich diet intended to produce a weight gain of fifty to seventy pounds, a kind of pseudo-pregnancy in which the symbolism of biological creativity displaced artistic and intellectual creativity. The body imagery of the rest cure also implied the inverse relation of female body and female mind; women who wished to produce a large body of work had to starve them-selves physically, and women who nurtured or indulged their appetites would pay with artistic sterility.13
Ordered never to ‘touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live,’ Gilman came close to insanity. She recovered only when she left her husband and child for a short trip, an experience that made her decide on a therapeutic divorce; ‘it seemed plain that if I went crazy it would do my husband no good and be a deadly injury to my child.’14 Casting Weir Mitchell’s advice to the winds, she began to write again. Later she remarried, and had a remarkable career as a feminist journalist and activist.
Like Fuller’s work, Gilman’s Gothic had its roots in the father’s library. Gilman’s father, a distinguished librarian, had abandoned the family when she was a year old. In her memory, the father’s library stood not only for patriarchal knowledge and language, but also the absence of love and support. As she wrote in her autobiography, ‘The word Father, in the sense of love, care, one to go to in trouble, means nothing to me, save indeed in advice about books and the care of them—which seems more the librarian than the father.’15 After her breakdown, tellingly, she found herself unable to tolerate the paraphernalia and spaces associated with her father; she could not ‘read a heavy book,’ or ‘look down an index,’ and ‘a library, which was once to me as a confectioner’s shop to a child, became an appalling weariness just to look at.’16 The father’s library could indeed become the locus for both hysteria and rage. Gilman’s contemporary Alice James described her fantasies of violence as she ‘used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent inclination suddenly invading my muscles, taking some one of their myriad forms such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table.’17
Gilman’s heroine too has violent fantasies against men, but expresses her rage against herself and against her child in the form of self-destructive illness, suicidal feelings, and infanticidal impulses. The realistic subtext of the story is that the heroine’s husband and sister-in-law are afraid that she may injure her baby or herself during a postpartum psychosis. For this reason, they are indeed keeping her under tacit surveillance. The heroine wonders why the house has gone so long unrented, and why they got it so cheaply; but it seems clear that it is an abandoned private mental hospital. The barred windows are not to protect children, but to prevent inmates from jumping out. The walls and the bed have been gouged and gnawed by other prisoners. The women she sees creeping in the hedges are perhaps the ghosts of former patients. Some of these ghosts are literary; ‘as readers versed in female gothic,’ Mary Jacobus points out, ‘we know that Bertha Mason haunts this text.’18
But more than women’s reading haunts The Yellow Wallpaper. Psychosis, involving hallucinations and delusions, can develop from postpartum depressions marked by crying spells, confusion, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Victorian doctors already knew what recent studies have documented: that ‘it’s during a psychotic depression that mothers are at a great risk of killing their babies.’19 We learn about the heroine’s violent feelings through the fantasies she projects on the patterned yellow wallpaper in the room. Although she claims to love her child and simply be tired of caring for him, (‘Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’) her perceptions of the wallpaper reveal images of strangling: ‘There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.’ Berman suggests that ‘the new mother’s description of the wallpaper evokes an image of an insatiable child who seems to be crawling everywhere, even into the nursery which remains her only sanctuary.’20 The guilt engendered by these involuntary images, while never conscious, forms her system of defenses. She congratulates herself on the baby’s ‘fortunate escape’ from having to ‘occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper’; and puts herself in the child’s place: ‘I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.’
Because the specter of infanticide is too appalling to be faced, the heroine transforms her violent wishes against the child to self-destructive ones. Soon there is a woman crawling behind the wallpaper,
> and she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.
Childbirth becomes at once the tortuous emergence of the self, and a fantasy of engulfment by many-headed offspring, hungry and crying.
By the end of the story—the heroine’s last, logically impossible journal entry, when she is completely mad—her self-punishing suicidal urges have come to the surface. She thinks about burn-ing down the house, ‘to reach the smell’ of the yellow wallpaper that torments her. She has found a rope, useful only for hanging herself, and she admits ‘I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.’ Instead she turns herself into the infant, creeping around the room, even over the body of her husband who has fainted at the sight of what she has become.
Such a ‘thematic’ feminist reading of The Yellow Wallpaper cannot, as Mary Jacobus would argue, ‘account for the … uncanny elements present in the text.’21 But the scenario of confinement and madness in Gilman’s Gothic corresponds to the scripts of repression and incarceration typical of late nineteenth-century psychiatric practice, and of late nineteenth-century American Female Gothic plots.
In Literary Women, Ellen Moers suggested that the keynote of the modern, post-war American Female Gothic was its obsession with freaks. She pointed to Southern Gothic writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Carson McCullers, whose adolescent heroines see the discomforting changes in their bodies mirrored in grotesques and freaks. In O’Connor’s story ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost,’ a hermaphrodite in a blue dress tells the twelve-year-old heroine, ‘God made me this way and if you laugh he may strike you the same way.’ In McCullers’s Member of the Wedding, the adolescent Frankie visits a circus where she stands horrified before the booth of the Half-Man, Half-Woman: ‘She was afraid of all the Freaks, for it seemed to her that they had looked at her in a secret way and tried to connect their eyes with hers, as though to say: we know you.’ Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda also goes to the circus where a dwarf with ‘not-human golden eyes’ grimaces at her ‘imitating her own face.’
Looking at freaks in the 1940s and 1950s signified a woman artist’s determination to confront the forbidden without flinching, to activate a powerful female gaze. Freaks and feminists were weirdly bonded. Moers was particularly struck by Diane Arbus’s photographs of urban outcasts—drag queens, circus people, lunatics, nudists, and giants. Starting out in 1950 as a fashion photographer for Glamour magazine, the well-bred Arbus initially seemed like the ideal American girl. ‘Diane fitted perfectly into the white-glove syndrome,’ a colleague remembered. ‘I was astonished when she surfaced with all those freak pictures.’22 From the photographers Lisette Model and Weegee, and the filmmaker Emile de Antonio, Arbus learned to photograph the forbidden: ‘the androgynous, the crippled, the deformed, the dead, the dying.’ As Model recalled, ‘she never looked away, which took courage and independence.’23 With her cameras as a shield, Arbus entered an underworld, an urban space usually off-limits to women.24 Her gothic quest included following her subjects home; as she told a reporter for Newsweek, ‘I love to go to people’s houses—exploring—doing daring things I’ve not done before—things I’d fantasized about as a child. I love going into people’s houses—that’s part of the thrill of seduction for woman—to see how he lives.’25 In her celebrated photograph of triplets, Arbus represented her own three faces in the American culture of the 1950s: ‘Triplets remind me of myself when I was an adolescent,’ she said. ‘Lined up in three images: daughter, sister, bad girl, with secret lusting fantasies, each one with a tiny difference.’26
These images were central to the plots of American Female Gothic of the 1950s, in which such writers as Jean Stafford and Shirley Jackson were obsessed by the good girl/bad girl split. Arbus, Plath, and Marilyn Monroe, who appeared to Plath in a dream to give her ‘an expert manicure’ (perhaps to cure her of a man), and to promise her ‘a new, flowering life,’ were all Gothic heroines of a decade in which female artistic ambition as well as sexuality were deviant.27 ‘Write laundry lists,’ not poems, Adlai Stevenson had exhorted Sylvia Plath’s graduation class of Smith in 1953, as if in reference to the Gothic debunking of Northanger Abbey.28
Women artists of the period attempted to resolve their sense of freakishness by rejecting and exorcising the Mother. In her journals in the late 1950s, Plath also jotted down numerous descriptions of plots for Female Gothic stories, ‘an analysis of the Dark Mother, the Mummy, Mother of Shadows. An analysis of the Electra complex.’ The Bell Jar (1962) is set in several of the Women’s Houses of the 1950s, suffocating equivalents of the Gothic castle. Far from being idyllic female communities of sisterly support, these are cloying sickly spaces where women betray each other, as the female body betrays: the Amazon Hotel, for ‘girls … with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them’; Ladies Day magazine where Esther Greenwood gets food poisoning; the suburban houses where she shares a bedroom with her mother and thinks about strangling her; the women’s dormitory at the mental hospital that reminds her of college.
Pregnant women especially seem like freaks to Esther, whether the Catholic Dodo Conway with her six babies, and ‘grotesque protruding stomach,’ or the anaesthetized woman whose delivery her boyfriend takes her to watch, with ‘an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs.’ Plath ‘equated maternal love with self-denial, self-sacrifice, and ultimately self-destruction; and it is no coincidence that [her] writings are filled with matricidal and infanticidal imagery.’29 Fear of childbirth and its restrictions is a powerful weapon against female sexuality. ‘A man doesn’t have a worry in the world,’ Esther tells her psychiatrist, ‘while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick to keep me in line.’ Part of the fear is the appropriation of childbirth by a dehumanizing male medicine. The woman in the delivery room is ‘on a drug that would make her forget she’s had any pain … she was in a kind of twilight sleep.’ Esther thinks ‘it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent.’ The drug is in fact nembutal, used by obstetricians in twilight sleep anaesthesia. While the movement made the concept of painless childbirth more acceptable, ‘by encouraging women to go to sleep during their deliveries, the twilight sleep movement helped to distance women from their bodies.’30 As Adrienne Rich notes, ‘no more devastating image could be invented for the bondage of woman: sheeted, supine, drugged, her wrists strapped down and her legs in stirrups, at the very moment when she is bringing new life into the world.’31 Plath equates twilight sleep with electroshock treatment, also a kind of birth process engineered by men.
The Bell Jar offers us several possible endings to Esther Greenwood’s gothic quest. One is sexual freedom through birth control. When Esther gets her first diaphragm, it is like a ticket on the Underground Railroad: ‘I climbed up on the examination table, thinking “I am climbing to freedom.”‘ Another is killing off the lesbian self Plath associated with the ‘career woman’ in the suicide of Esther’s double Joan Gilling. It’s at Joan’s funeral that Esther wonders ‘what I thought I was burying’ and hears the ‘old brag’ of her heart: ‘I am I am I am.’ A third is the rhetorical murder of the Mother. ‘I hate her,’ she tells the psychiatrist, who smiles ‘as if something had pleased her very, very much.’ And guided ‘as by a magical thread’ she steps into the hospital boardroom to pass her final examination in sanity.
Hating one’s mother was the enlightenment of the pre-feminist 1950s and 1960s. But matrophobia is really only a metaphor for self-hatred. Since the daughter shares the maternal body, the dead mother continues to haunt her. In Adrienne Rich’s important book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), matrophobia is interpreted as ‘a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become individuated and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.’ Rich insisted that the split be healed in a genuine reunion not only with the maternal principle, but with the real mother. No feminist, she argued, can be truly at peace with herself until she has made her peace with her own mother and sisters.
Rich’s volumes of poems and essays called upon the feminist ‘will to change,’ upon women’s decisions to use their anger, sexuality, and energy to confront confining institutions and to assert control of their lives. But these feminist fantasies of the liberated will characteristic of the late 1960s came up against an external limit, as did the utopian fantasies of other revolutionary movements in politics and civil rights. Despite the expansion of vocational and political opportunities during the 1970s, women also became more imprisoned and paralyzed by the fear of male violence. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) was a pivotal book of the decade, one which made a strong case for the politicization of rape as a feminist issue. As Brownmiller observed. ‘The ultimate effect of rape upon the woman’s mental and emotional health has been accomplished even without the act. For to accept a special burden of self-protection is to reinforce the concept that women must live and move about in fear and can never expect to achieve the personal freedom, independence, and self-assurance of men.’
While contemporary American Female Gothic has increasingly dealt with rape, assault, and murder, it has received far less attention from feminist critics than the narratives of maternity, madness, or the grotesque. An early and influential example of this genre was Joyce Carol Oates’s short story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’ (1966). Dedicated to Bob Dylan, the story begins realistically. Fifteen-year-old Connie has a mind ‘all filled with trashy daydreams.’ She lies to her parents and spends her evenings flirting with boys and being picked up at the mall or the drive-in restaurant. The title thus suggests the parent’s questions to the rebellious teenager. But Connie is threatened and finally abducted by a mysterious man posing as a teenager in a gold convertible who calls himself Arnold Friend. He looks like James Dean or Marlon Brando, with ‘shaggy black hair that looked crazy as a wig,’ sunglasses that are ‘metallic and mirrored everything in miniature,’ and ‘tight faded blue jeans stuffed into black scuffed boots.’ A. Friend speaks to Connie with shocking directness:
> I’m your lover, honey. You don’t know what that is yet but you will … But look: it’s real nice and you couldn’t ask for nobody better than me or more polite. I’m always nice at first, the first time. I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t.
When he takes her away from her house in his gold car, it is clear that she is going to her death. By the story’s chilling end, they have become mythic figures in a Female Gothic landscape of the True West:
> My sweet little blue-eyed girl, he said in a halfsung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes, but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know she was going to it.
Some have attributed such plots to the overheated and morbid imaginings of the author. In an essay called ‘Why Is Your Writing So Violent?’ Joyce Carol Oates muses on the reason she is so often asked why she doesn’t leave ‘war, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes’ to men, and focus her writing on ‘”domestic” and “subjective” material, in the manner … of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. The implication is that if Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf had lived in Detroit they might have been successful at “transcending” their environment and writing novels in which not a hint of “violence” could be detected.’32 Oates has explained however that the story came to her ‘more or less in a piece’ after hearing Bob Dylan’s song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ and then reading about a killer in the Southwest and thinking about ‘the old legends and folk songs of Death and the Maiden.’33 According to Oates, Arnold Friend is ‘a fantastic figure: he is Death, he is the elf-knight of the ballads, he is the Imagination, he is a Dream, he is a Lover, a Demon, and all that.’34
The plot is based on a real incident. In 1966 twenty-three-year-old Charles Howard Schmid of Tucson, Arizona was charged with the murder of three teenage girls and became the subject of a feature story in Life called ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson.’35 The article told how Schmid, or Smitty, as he was called, had sought to ‘create an exalted, heroic image of himself.’ To the bored teenagers in his crowd, he was a ‘folk hero … more dramatic, more theatrical, more interesting than anyone else in their lives.’ With a face that was his own aesthetic creation, the hair dyed black, heavy make-up, and a beauty mark on one cheek, Smitty cruised Tucson in a gold convertible, looking in all the teen hangouts for pretty girls. Bragging about his sexual exploits, claiming to have made vast amounts of money selling drugs, Charles Schmid had assembled himself so consciously from movies and popular culture that its hard to say that he, rather than Arnold Friend, is not the fictional character. Oates does not see the Gothic as a revelation of female hysteria, but rather as the indictment of an American social disorder, the romanticization of the violent psychopath and serial killer.
Yet there is also a muted maternal subtext in the story. Connie lives restlessly inside ‘her daddy’s house,’ the house of domesticity, of the housewife married to her four walls. Connie’s mother haunts the little house, always picking on her pretty daughter, who wishes they both were dead. What Connie’s mother calls her ‘trashy daydreams’ are inarticulate longings for something different, something more than having to be ‘sweet and pretty and give in.’ At the mall and the roadhouse, she becomes another person, someone who experiences sexual pleasures that are tender, ‘the way it was in movies and promised in songs.’ To experience sexual desire, for the American maiden of 1966, is to risk pregnancy, maternity, the destruction of one’s identity. It means becoming the mother and therefore dead. But twenty years later, in the film version of the story, Smooth Talk (1986), Connie goes off with her demon lover and comes home again, gentler, cured of her restlessness and rage. For the American maiden of the 1980s, sexual initiation is not fatal, but the beginning of understanding and maternal kinship.
The Shadow Knows (1974) by Diane Johnson is both an artful and terrifying study of female vulnerability, and a novel about race, sexuality, and fear in 1970s America. Johnson has been called a member of the ‘California Gothic’ School of fiction;36 her fiction is an extended exploration of American irrationality, danger, and the bizarre. The Shadow Knows is narrated by ‘N. Hexam,’ a thirty-four-year-old divorced mother of four, who lives in a housing project in Sacramento, California. With her lives Ev, a black woman who cares for the children while N. goes to graduate school in structural linguistics. Pregnant by her married lover, N. has had an IUD put in to produce an abortion. As she receives obscene phone calls, has her door vandalized, and her tires slashed, N. believes that someone is trying to kill her, and she may be right. Anyone could do it: her ex-husband, her best friend, her lover, his wife, the crazy former maid Osella. While meditating on her enemies, N. reflects on male hatred of women: ‘husbands killing wives—that’s an especially recurrent sort of murder … I don’t understand the sources of male vanity and rage that turn them into killers. Who suckles them on these bitter poisons of expectation? Women, I know.’
Carrying the burden of guilt for her sexuality, her infidelity, her intelligence, her love and resentment for her children, N. feels that perhaps she deserves to be punished. ‘If someone is trying to kill you, do you perhaps deserve it?’ Her efforts at abortion also torment her: ‘I have reason to believe myself a murderess.’ She sees the mess smeared on her front door by unknown vandals as ‘fetal membranes and blood from inside me,’ the ‘murdered new life.’
The urban context of crime and racial tension adds to the atmosphere of the novel. According to Johnson, The Shadow Knows was ‘about race relations, the evil in human nature, and social fear.’37 Furthermore, ‘it was meant to be about persons on the fringe; they happen to be women, and what happens to them is meant to be particular to America in the seventies.’38 The maid, Ev, who lacks N.’s white-skin privilege, is a daily wrenching reminder to her of the desperation of women’s lives at the edges of the American dream. Ev’s lovers ‘slash and beat … and steal from her.’ She values herself so little that she often burns and cuts herself, and is deeply scarred, like Queequeg or ‘the vandalized statue of a great Nubian queen.’ Ev’s death—of acute pancreatitis? of murder?—surprises no one, not even her grieving parents. She has long been a victim.
At the gothic center of the book is the relationship between N. and Osella, the enormously fat, crazy, black ex-nursemaid. Osella makes threatening phone calls to N., accusing her of witchcraft and promiscuity. Is she the mysterious vandal? Suspecting Osella of the crime, N. goes to see her perform at the Club Zanzibar, where she works as a stripper:
> She seemed to have been oiled, for she shone so; one saw nothing but the gleaming immense breasts lying across her huge belly, breasts astoundingly full and firm like zeppelins overhead. She wore little trunks of purple satin and nothing else but a gold armlet around the expanse of her upper arm—a brilliant stroke, a rather Egyptian, goddess-like adornment calling to mind one of those frightening and horrifying fertility goddesses with swollen bodies and timeless eyes and the same engulfing infinitely absorbing quality Osella radiated now.
Osella is N.’s double and shadow; Kali, the dark jungle queen, the mother-man-eater. While N. is a thin little woman, Osella is immense, ‘a sort of super-female.’ Her huge body exudes heat; like other fat ladies and freaks in American Female Gothic, she represents the terrifying essence of female appetite and desire.39
Is N. a reliable narrator? Is anyone trying to kill her or is she simply paranoid, racist, neurotic? The threats may only be the projections of her own violence and rage. N. describes the ‘ordinary misery of mothers of small children’; the loneliness and desperation; ‘you must carry them. Their little arms are tightly around your throat, their sticky little fingers are on your glasses.’ She has fantasized killing her husband on a fishing trip: ‘It simply occurred to her to push him in the river.’ Johnson’s title alludes to the popular American radio show of the 1940s called The Shadow Knows, about the detective Lamont Cranston, whose eerie laugh accompanied the famous opening question; ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’ Read with the conventions of the detective story it parodies, the novel suggests the Agatha Christie device of the first-person killer.
Yet Johnson has told an interviewer that she meant N. to be a ‘reliable narrator and the events more or less real, and the fear certainly real.’40 While N. is not murdered, Ev apparently is; and at the end of the novel N. is raped by a mysterious assailant, an event Johnson presents as a fate better than death, almost a relief. The rape is N.’s punishment for breaking the rules, for protesting and making trouble, for going to graduate school instead of working for the telephone company. Johnson has commented that ‘the rape scene was meant to be a final symbol of ambiguity and everybody’s complicity in evil. I wrote that last scene lightly, before my consciousness was raised about the political implications of rape.’41 Reviewing Brownmiller’s book for the New York Review of Books, Johnson realized that ‘from a woman’s earliest days she is attended by injunctions about strangers, and warnings about dark streets, locks, escorts and provocative behavior. She internalizes the lessons contained therein, that to break certain rules is to invite or deserve rape.’42 In an interview shortly afterwards, she admitted that a woman who was raped would feel ‘angry, resentful, venge-ful, guilty—a whole bunch of things which N. in The Shadow Knows doesn’t feel. And maybe now that I’ve read Susan Brownmiller, I would not have had the book end that way.’43
Some of this raised consciousness about women’s internalization of the responsibility for male violence came out in 1980 when Johnson wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining, an American Male Gothic novel by Stephen King, which portrays a woman who fears that her husband may be trying to kill her from the point of view of the husband. Jack Torrance, the blocked writer who is the protagonist of The Shining, has been beaten by his father as a child, and remembers seeing his mother beaten as well. In a pattern psychologists have established as valid, he projects his rage onto his wife and child: ‘You have to kill her, Jacky, and him too. Because a real artist must suffer. Because each man kills the thing he loves. Because they’ll always be conspiring against you, trying to hold you back and drag you down.’
The collaboration of Johnson and Kubrick on the script for The Shining is a fascinating instance of the re-gendering of Gothic plots. Johnson and Kubrick wrote together during an eleven-week period in London. What initially struck Johnson about King’s book was ‘the horror, of course—the whole atmosphere of growing fear within the domestic circle was the core.’ In the adaptation, Kubrick wrote Jack’s lines, while Johnson wrote those of the wife Wendy. But most of Wendy’s lines ended up on the cutting-room floor. Johnson comments, ‘I was interested to see that finally the Wendy that came out on the screen was much quieter than the Wendy I had written, who was more like a female character in my novels, I suppose, in that she had a lot to say.’44 Nevertheless, aficionados of the slasher film were disappointed in The Shining. They thought it had too much psychological nuance and feminist perspective, and too little blood. Stephen King himself did not like the film. ‘Neither Stanley Kubrick nor his screenwriter Diane Johnson had any knowledge of the genre,’ he complained. ‘It was like they had never seen a horror movie before.’45
Changing expectations of what horror means in the horror movie will not happen overnight, and the gender gap in American Gothic remains enormous. Yet ironically, if the contemporary Female Gothic has come increasingly to be perceived as an American mode it is because its concerns are now consistent with a larger change in American fiction towards ‘violence-centered plots’ and a Gothic revival representing ‘alternative strategies for depicting an ever more terrifying reality.’46 If American Psycho is the masculine Gothic of the 1990s, Female Gothic looks more and more like a realist mode.
1. Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 91-2, 93.
2. Claire Kahane, ‘The Gothic Mirror,’ in Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (eds.), The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 335.
3. Ibid. 343.
4. Ibid. 334.
5. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Methuen, 1986), vi; Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 201.
6. Eagleton, Nationalism: Irony and Commitment (Belfast: Field Day Theatre Company Limited, 1988), 13-14.
7. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. edn. (New York: Stein and Day, 1975), 144.
8. Kahane, ‘The Gothic Mirror,’ 335-6.
9. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, 132.
10. See Jean E. Kennard, ‘Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life,’ New Literary History, 13 (Autumn 1981), 69-88.
11. Diane Price Herndl, ‘The Writing Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anna O., and “Hysterical” Writing,’ NWSA Journal, 1 (1988), 68.
12. See Kate Ford, ‘Loss and Compensation,’ Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 1990, 46.
13. Thanks to Catherine Gallagher for this perception.
14. Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 152.
15. Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935), 5-6.
16. Ibid. 98, 100.
17. The Diary of Alice James, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1934), 149.
18. Reading Woman, 240.
19. Dr Paula Clayton, quoted in Daniel Goleman, ‘Wide Beliefs on Depression in Women Contradicted,’ New York Times, 9 Jan. 1990.
20. Jeffrey Berman, The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 54.
21. Jacobus, Reading Woman, 233.
22. Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 101.
23. Ibid. 132.
24. Arbus’s use of the camera had precedent in the early photography of Eudora Welty, and recent parallels in the work of women film directors like Susan Seidelman. In the documentary Calling the Shots, shown on British television in Spring 1990, Seidelman and other women film-makers discussed the way that the camera allowed them access to forbidden turf.
25. Bosworth, Diane Arbus, 158.
26. Ibid. 217.
27. The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough (New York: Dial Press, 1982), 319. An unpublished paper by Jodi Hauptman, ‘Mirrors and Pictures: A Comparison of The Bell Jar to the Photographs of Diane Arbus,’ written for my course on ‘American Women Writers’ in May 1985, explores similar images of mirrors, shadows, and doubling in Arbus and Plath.
28. Linda Huf, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983), 128.
29. Berman, Talking Cure, 127.
30. Judith Walzer Leavitt, ‘Birthing and Anesthesia: The Debate over Twilight Sleep,’ in Women and Health in America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 181.
31. Of Woman Born (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 170-1.
32. ‘Why Is Your Writing So Violent?’ New York Times Book Review, 25 Mar. 1981, 10.
33. ‘Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,’ in John R. Knott, Jr., and Christopher R. Keaske (eds.), Mirrors: An Introduction to Literature, 2nd edn. (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1975), 18-19.
34. Ibid. 19.
35. See Dan Moser, ‘The Pied Piper of Tucson,’ Life, 4 Mar. 1966, 18-24. This source was identified by Tom Quirk, ‘A Source for “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”‘ Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Fall 1981), .
36. Larry McCaffery, Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 205.
37. Interview with Diane Johnson, in McCaffery, Anything Can Happen, 202.
38. Janet Todd, ‘Diane Johnson,’ in Janet Todd (ed.), Women Writers Talking (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), 125.
39. See e.g. Jean Stafford’s story, ‘The Echo and the Nemesis,’ in Children are Bored on Sunday (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953).
40. Todd, ‘Diane Johnson,’ 125.
41. McCaffery, Anything Can Happen, 213.
42. Diane Johnson, ‘The War between Men and Women,’ New York Review of Books, 11 Dec. 1975.
43. Constance Carey, interview with Diane Johnson, San Francisco Review of Books, 1 (Jan. 1976), 17.
44. McCaffery, Anything Can Happen, 215.
45. Aljean Harmetz, ‘”Pet” Film Rights Sold,’ New York Times, 8 June 1984.
46. Michiko Kakatuni, ‘Kill! Burn! Eviscerate! Bludgeon! It’s Literary Again to Be Horrible,’ New York Times, 21 Nov. 1989.
E. J. CLERY (ESSAY DATE 1992)
> SOURCE: Clery, E. J. “The Politics of the Gothic Heroine in the 1790s.” In Reviewing Romanticism, edited by Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis, pp. 69-85. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
In the following essay, Clery outlines the utility of Gothic fiction for readers in the 1790s, particularly in terms of advancing a progressive, feminist perspective.
L’Histoire d’une femme est toujours un Roman.
‘You must confess that novels are more true than histories, because historians often contradict each other, but novelists never do.’ The would-be heroine of E. S. Barrett’s satire of romance fiction, The Heroine, here goes on the attack against the conventional depreciation of the ‘feminine’ novel in favour of ‘masculine’ history (1814, 78). Gender is at the heart of the matter when it is raised again in Northanger Abbey, for history, Catherine Morland observes, ‘tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all, it is very dull….’ (Austen, 1933, 108) Both of these satires set out to show, in comic terms, what happens when an avid consumer of ‘horrid novels’ fulfils James Beattie’s gloomy prognosis:
> Romances are a dangerous recreation … and tend to corrupt the heart, and stimulate the passions. A habit of reading them breeds a dislike to history, and all the substantial parts of knowledge; withdraws the attention from nature and truth; and fills the mind with extravagant thoughts, and too often with criminal propensities.
and comes to read her own ‘history’ as if it were a sensational narrative.
Yet on the way to the satire’s final rationalist confirmation of the divide between fact and fiction a curious alchemy takes place. Common sense, in temporarily assuming a fantastic disguise, finds it cannot so easily shake it off again. Thus Margaret Kirkham’s feminist reading of Northanger Abbey discovers in it ‘a major criticism of the assumptions associated with the schema of the burlesque novel in which a heroine learns that her romantic notions are all mistaken, and that the world of the everyday is better ordered than that of imagination.’ (Kirkham 89) Catherine’s Gothic imaginings about General Tilney and his late wife are partially borne out; for it emerges that Mrs Tilney had been imprisoned by her marriage, that unhappiness had contributed to her death, and that the General, in accordance with the laws of England and the customs of the time, does wield near absolute power ‘as an irrational tyrant’ in the family. We find the romance perspective, pace The Heroine’s Cherubina, may be ‘more true’ than Henry Tilney’s reassuring, Whig vision of historical progress (‘Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?’). In attempting to cure it, by a dangerous mingling, satire itself catches the infection of fiction which Beattie feared.
The following essay will trace the disruptive effect of satire’s ‘other’ to its source. In it I will try to assess, in the light of historical experience, the value of Gothic fiction for its readers in the 1790s—a period when novels with a Gothic theme accounted for up to two-thirds of those published in a year. To begin with, I want to propose the paradox that it is in the narratives of this for the most part ideologically conservative form of popular fiction, in conjunction with contemporary evidence for the response to them, that we must look for signs of the development of a feminist critical self-consciousness. In Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Mary Wollstonecraft expresses an ambivalent opinion of the novel form’s progressive potential. While restating the rationalist valorisation of history over fiction, she nevertheless insists that novel-reading is preferable to leaving ‘a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers.’ (1985, 386) Six years later the Prologue of her novel The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (1798) requests the reader to consider the narrative as a ‘history … of woman’. A conventional historical account of ‘the partial laws and customs of society’ has been rejected as inadequate.1 In spite of her disclaimer regarding the use of ‘stage-effect’, she has recourse in her fiction to the most melodramatic devices of the Gothic mode involving imprisonment, sexual tyranny and madness. In Gothic she finds the appropriate discursive form for her social critique of the rape of women’s humanity.
The change in sentiment that takes place between the writing of these two works coincides with the rise of the Gothic heroine. During the same space of time Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), apogee of Gothic fiction, had appeared, and its success had resulted in a flood of imitations. On the basis of her enormous success Radcliffe—identified by Michel Foucault as ‘initiator of a discursive practice’—put into circulation the elements of a narrative-type structured around the subjectivity of the heroine, and thus distinct from the early romances of Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve and the more sensational strain of ‘Schauerroman’ available in translations from the German and later popularised by ‘Monk’ Lewis. Instances of the heroine-centred narrative will be read here as contributions to a ‘history of woman’. Beginning with the making of the heroine/female subject through her equivocal relations with the realm of property ownership and economic agency, my narrative follows her to the Gothic castle, a structure briefly lit up as a metaphor for woman’s ‘dematerialisation’ before the law, and then on to her arrival at the ‘happy ending’ and ultimate absorption into marriage.
1. The Heroine
Emily calmly said:
> ‘I am not so ignorant, signor, of the laws on this subject, as to be misled by the assertion of any person. The law, in the present instance, gives me the estates in question, and my own hand shall never betray my right.’
‘I have been mistaken in my opinion of you, it appears,’ re-joined Montoni sternly. ‘You speak boldly, and presumptuously, upon a subject which you do not understand. For once, I am willing to pardon the conceit of ignorance; the weakness of your sex, too, from which, it seems, you are not exempt, claims some allowance; but if you persist in this strain—you have everything to fear from my justice.’
‘From your justice, signor,’ rejoined Emily, ‘I have nothing to fear—I have only to hope.’
Montoni looked at her with vexation, and seemed considering what to say … ‘Your credulity can punish only yourself; and I must pity the weakness of mind which leads you to so much suffering as you are compelling me to prepare for you.’
‘You may find, perhaps, signor,’ said Emily with mild dignity, ‘that the strength of my mind is equal to the justice of my cause; and that I can endure with fortitude, when it is in resistance to oppression.’
‘You speak like a heroine,’ said Montoni contemptuously; ‘we shall see whether you can suffer like one.’
Emily was silent, and he left the room.
Recollecting that it was for Valancourt’s sake she had thus resisted, she now smiled complacently upon the threatened sufferings, and retired to the spot which her aunt had pointed out as the repository of the papers relative to the estates …
(Radcliffe 1970, 380-1)
The story so far: After a blissful childhood Emily St Aubert loses her mother and father in quick succession. She is penniless and forced to go and live with her vain and foolish aunt, a rich widow. There she falls in love with and agrees to marry Valancourt, whom she had first met on a tour of the Pyrenees she made with her father. The aunt after some opposition permits the marriage and then vetoes it when she herself impulsively marries the mysterious and compelling Signor Montoni. The household moves to Venice. Emily is pressured to marry a man she dislikes but before the ceremony there is an abrupt removal to Montoni’s castle, Udolpho, in the Appenines. The castle is full of long dark passages, nameless fears and hints of ancestral wrongdoings. It emerges that Montoni is the chief of a band of condottieri. He has large gambling debts to pay off and threatens his wife in order to make her sign over some entailed estates to him. She refuses and he has her imprisoned. She dies of unhappiness and neglect and bequeaths the estates to her niece.
The confrontation between heroine and villain in The Mysteries takes place at the intersection of economic structure and cultural norms. Emily’s self-assertion in defence of her property rights is countered by Montoni’s rehearsal of strictures on feminine propriety. The excessive, romantic nature of her resistance to authority is registered in her naming as ‘heroine’;2 the predestined failure of such a gesture is signified by her silence.
Emily’s brushes with the supernatural at Udolpho are later explained away (the ‘explained supernatural’ is frequently used as a description of the Radcliffean narrative-type) as the products of an overstimulated imagination but they are nevertheless the proper metaphor for her own condition. Her determined relation to the economic order—in this instance the system of property relations organised by kinship—defines the nature of the heroine’s social existence.3 She is to serve as an instrument for the passage of property, whether by cession to the superior claim of a male relation or as the merchandise of a profiteering marriage agreed between men; therefore her tormented consciousness, her sensibility, her humanity, are alike excessive—ghostly emanations. She experiences, as the effect of this socioeconomic positioning, the curious ambiguity of existing simultaneously as both a thing and a person, in a twilight zone of individuation.
At the same time her alienation from her own will is imposed by the shadow of propriety, making her response to economic oppression double: libertarian in so far as she is a sensible individual; calculating—on behalf of reputation—insofar as she is a woman, constrained by gender. In the event she is forced to sign away her property to her wicked uncle not because of any inability to suffer with fortitude, but because in a castle overrun with drunken mercenaries and Venetian courtesans she can no longer safeguard her privacy or virtue without his protection. Sex intervenes, marking the duplicity of women’s experience.
‘A man … secure in his own good conduct, depends only on himself, and may brave the public opinion; but a woman, in behaving well, performs but half her duty; as what is thought of her, is as important to her as what she really is…. Opinion is the grave of virtue in a man; but its throne among women.’ Wollstonecraft quotes Rousseau (1985, 242). Romance fiction revolves around this double standard, alternately condoning and deprecating, pointing on the one hand to the throne on which the heroine will be installed at the end of her trials, and on the other hand to the grave where one false step might, however undeservedly, lead her. Romance recognises that the gentlewoman is bound by the metaphysics of appearance, that her mind is of necessity given over to superstition. In every work that reflects on the condition of women the rule of propriety exists as a ubiquitous invisible presence, an imperative and a threat. A notable example is Regina Maria Roche’s sentimental-Gothic The Children of the Abbey (1796) in which a libertine conspires to destroy the reputation of the heroine, the cancelling of her good name being, not as in Clarissa a mere by-product of seduction, but the preliminary to it. These machinations prepare for the nightmarish sequence in which Amanda suffers a lightning fall through the levels of the English class system until she lands half-dead in the gutter.4
Emily, unprotected merchandise on the marriage market, turns the tables by learning to treat herself as a commodity. Pursuing the principle of synecdoche, part for a whole, Emily’s humanity and the sum total of her actions are absorbed by her ‘virtue’, the need to preserve it and, what is more difficult still, the need to maintain its ‘appearance’ while preserving it, in the cause of her own economic viability: her ‘property’ in her self. (Here ‘virtue’ assumes its alternative meaning as the efficacy of things—as use-value, that gives a basis for exchange-value.) This is the pragmatic import of her father’s warning against over-indulgent sensibility. By self-appraisal, the recognition of her exchange-value on the marriage market, she must learn to subordinate her will to the maintenance of herself as object. Of what use is her inheritance if her body is devalued? Although she needs a dowry to afford the husband, the loss of respectability would debar her forever from the happiness of secure social status. If Emily emerges unscathed and triumphant, her exertions have by the end of the narrative left her paler and more pensive, as though, by her strict adherence to it, the ideology of femininity had drained her of lifeblood, vampire-like. She has finished her task as entrepreneur of herself. She is in direct line of succession to Pamela, another literary paragon who turns propriety to profit, in effect managing her virginity as if it were a business.
The Mysteries displays in the form of romance the real contradictions and dangers which every gentlewoman of the period potentially faced.5 Above all it actualises the fears of the woman of the middle class, whose social standing was most unstable, liable to upward and downward variation, and therefore particularly susceptible to the taboos surrounding femininity. Mary Wollstonecraft recognised the critical potential in the Radcliffean romance when she adopted its ‘system of terror’ for her political fiction The Wrongs of Woman, where she made explicit what was already immanent in the form. It was not coincidental that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been addressed to middle-class women, later to become the best readers of Gothic romance.6 What Wollstonecraft calls the natural state of middle-class women, their ability to experience in a conscious way the various demands made on the sex as contradictory, that which in addition allowed them to empathise with the sufferings of the Gothic heroine, might also make them the bearers of critique. To realise contradiction as critique would be for the reader to become the heroine of her own life and apply to her own circumstances the lesson of how to ‘suffer like a heroine’. Such, certainly, was the fear implicit in the satires and condemnations of novel-reading women who confused fact and fiction.
The space for critique opened within the new economic order was linked to increased restrictions on women’s social praxis.7 The heroine of romance follows the private lady into a negative, occulted relation to the sphere of economic agency. Forcibly absented from the scene of production, the private lady continues to haunt it, whether as casualty, or clandestine participant. One legitimate role was that of consumer, whose connection with the workshop, though causal, could be veiled. But here the embattled, unprotected Gothic heroine parts company with the lady; not for her the petty sovereignty of the purse-strings. True to her vocation for suffering she comes to illustrate the harshest effects of unequal access to remunerative work. By the 1790s, although still caught up in the traditional web of kinship, some heroines begin to react to pressures from another quarter; those conditions described by Mary Ann Radcliffe in The Female Advocate (1799) when she deplores the erosion of the ‘Rights of Women’ to an independent livelihood.8 Monimia in Charlotte Smith’s The Old Manor House does piecework for ‘a very considerable linen warehouse in the neighborhood.’ (1989, 494) Ellena in The Italian passes ‘whole days in embroidering silks, which were disposed of to the nuns of a neighboring convent, who sold them to the Neapolitan ladies … at a very high advantage’. (Radcliffe 1981, 9)
The gentlewoman/heroine as worker transgresses the code of propriety, yet so long as she labours in secrecy, remaining within the genteel space defined by the magical walls of the home, her character is preserved from the judgement of the world. The appearance of gentility is precariously upheld by the returns of honest labour, in the knowledge that the fact of labour may destroy what it was meant to save. The revelation of transgression into the economic sphere would dissolve the layer which separates the world from the home, making private woman irrevocably, disreputably, public. When Ellena’s social status is thrown in doubt, she, like the products of her labour, is disposed of to a convent. The convent of romance fiction, the insolvent heroine’s last resort, approximates the symbolic extreme of the brothel in a Protestant society, the ‘nunnery’ of Anglo-Saxon slang.
Novel-writing was another means of support for needy gentlewomen, though to my knowledge no heroine makes use of it. Again a kind of piecework permitting both physical seclusion within the household and an anonymous, mediated relationship to the marketplace, it offered correspondingly meagre rewards. The late eighteenth century was the great age of the nameless ‘Lady’, signatory of innumerable popular publications. It was not unusual for an author’s preface to indicate financial hardship as the motive of writing, making the purchase of novels a form of charity, while the public recognition of financial need sometimes excused the public advertisement of a woman’s name—to an extent. Charlotte Smith’s was one such case. She wrote for the support of herself and her children after leaving her profligate husband, and subsequently won the sympathy and even friendship of some well-connected readers. The novels, for which she received £50 per volume, appeared with the regularity of a production line. Her friend William Cowper wrote of her ‘Chained to her desk like a slave to his oar’; she herself valued them ‘no more than a Grocer does figs’. (cit., Smith 1989, xii, x) Moreover the price of her industry was the exposure of her private life as spectacle. The reviewers discussed her fiction as autobiography, identified unflattering portraits of her husband and reproved her for her disloyalty to the marriage vows. As we will see, Ann Radcliffe, perhaps the most highly-paid English novelist of the century (£500 for The Mysteries, £800 for The Italian), was also punished in the public imagination for her manifest success.
From the literary sweatshop to the magical legacies of the fictional happy ending: by the close of The Mysteries Emily St Aubert has received not one but two inheritances in sublime recognition of her virtue, yet she receives them in the name of another, ‘for Valancourt’s sake.’ In defending her ‘property in her own person’, there too her care has amounted to a caretaker government, for it was property safeguarded for another. On her wedding day all property rights, including those to her own person, will be given over to her husband; English common law presides over the transaction. The fate of the Gothic heroine, civil disembodiment, was prefigured by the unhappy end of Madame Montoni, conveyed in the premonitory message of the Gothic castle.
2. The Castle
‘We inherit an old Gothic castle,’ wrote Sir William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), ‘erected in the days of chivalry, but fitted up for a modern inhabitant. The moated ramparts, the embattled towers, and the trophied halls, are magnificent and venerable, but useless. The inferior apartments, now converted into rooms of convenience, are chearful and commodius, though their approaches are winding and difficult.’ (III, 268) The great legal authority of the eighteenth century drew on a trope current in both the aesthetic and political discourses of his time in order to picture the historical range of his field of enquiry. But there is nothing here of Burke’s passionate evocation of feudalism as a rebuke to the present in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1792). In these pre-revolutionary days, it appeared that modernisation by a ‘series of minute contrivances’, as opposed to full-scale ‘new-modelling’, could do no damage to the social fabric. The old system of property laws—for this was the immediate object of Blackstone’s remarks—could be comfortably fitted up to suit the requirements of the now predominant ‘commercial mode of property … to facilitate exchange and alienation’. (III, 268) The object of the Commentaries as a whole was a complete review, codification and vindication of the law as it upheld the right of the newly-dominant capitalist system of property relations in the interest of the revised status quo. It was also intended to establish the law’s disinterested and fully autonomous functioning, and this was implemented at a discursive level through the representation of the law, in four volumes of print, as a unified and functional whole, where, as in the renovated Gothic castle, reason is superimposed on natural evolution.
Blackstone’s Commentaries operate two distinct strategies of rationalisation, each on the basis of a different sense of the word ‘rationalise’. The first is an attempt to codify the law as a rational system governed by fixed and immutable principles, extracting logic from its haphazard underwriting of sectional interest, and enabling it to take its place as a branch of the human sciences. The second works to justify or legitimate the law by identifying it with natural order, beyond the reach of human criticism. The two ends appear at first sight to be contradictory; another case posing the eighteenth century riddle: can enlightenment and theodicy be reconciled? Yet at an institutional level their functions were complementary. Both constituted the law as a closed system, self-sufficient, impartial, abstracted from social relations. In such a way the law confirmed its participation in the general phenomenon of reification, social manifestation of the economic order to which it now devoted its services, the ‘essence of commodity-structure’, as Lukács describes it. He continues, ‘Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a “phantom-objectivity”, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.’ (Lukács 83). Meanwhile, the contrivances of the law involve a number of ‘fictions and circuities’, which, as Blackstone admits, might ‘shock the student’.
One fiction that shocked the 1794 editor of the Commentaries, as he confessed in a footnote, was Blackstone’s boast that the legal provisions for marriage showed how ‘great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England’. (I, 445) Elsewhere, in a digression concerning laws dependent on the ‘wisdom and will of the legislators’, Blackstone had been more explicit about their function: ‘Thus our own common law has declared, that the goods of the wife do instantly upon marriage become the property and right of the husband; and our statute law has declared all monopolies a public offence: yet that right, and this offence, have no foundation in nature; but are merely created by the law, for the purposes of civil society.’ (I, 55) Workers’ monopolies remaining from the medieval guild system were to be discarded. But the doctrine of coverture was one of those ancient feudal relics which were readily integrated within the new structure of capitalism.9 Blackstone defined it like this: ‘By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing …’. (I, 441)
Among the real consequences of this principle were the following: the husband took control of the whole of his wife’s property, past, present and future; he had sole rights over their children; a married woman could not enter into any legal agreement or lawsuit on her own behalf; she could not bring proceedings against her husband in common law; and, since her ‘very being’ was suspended, she no longer held property in her own person, Locke’s minimum condition for civil rights. ‘My wife and I are one and I am he.’ The husband was held to represent his wife’s interests at every level. Marriage meant what has been called ‘a kind of civil death’ for women (Davidoff and Hall 200). The debate about marriage as an institution in this period raised the same issues of representation as elision—the legalised absorption of one body by another—as contemporary debates over the extension of male suffrage, the colonial system and slavery. At precisely the time that coverture was found to be irreconcilable with the liberal humanist ideals of reason and autonomy of the individual it arrived at its moment of maximum utility. The intensified ‘privatising’ of middle- and upper-class women which took place throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century was underwritten by law. But the legal fictions required to support legal objectivity on this point were becoming increasingly transparent.
The doctrine of coverture formalised and brought to completion the ongoing education in supernatural non-being which we have already noted in the history of the Gothic heroine. In the legislation relating to married women it is no surprise to find the elements of a Gothic fiction. In the first place, its foundation in doubt expressed in the dictum ‘Maternity is a fact, paternity is a matter of speculation.’ This single absence of proof of paternity, jeopardising the legitimate transmission of property from generation to generation, was the ultimate justification for all restraints placed on women of the property-owning classes. As Burke recognised, sublimity and violence are native to obscurity. Thus, secondly, and in two stages, we have: the civil death of the woman by order of the law; and the haunting of the law by the spectre of the woman as potential occlusion of its working principle. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, a period in which patrilineal property laws were enforced with increasing strictness, literary fictions by and about women bore witness to the haunting of a coercive legal system. They took as their subject matter the persistent threats to the clarity of patrilineity—abduction, rape, elopement, adultery, illegitimacy, incest—aberrations generated by the very attempt to enforce security of property through the male line.
‘Marriage has bastilled me for life.’ With these words the heroine of The Wrongs of Woman radicalises a commonplace condition (154-5). The conjunction marriage/Bastille defamiliarises the private zone to which women are consigned by law in a way more obliquely realised in Gothic fiction. Like the castle of Udolpho, the private lunatic asylum to which Wollstonecraft’s Maria is consigned by her vicious husband is in ruins, intended as optimistic evidence, maybe, of the decadence of the institution they represent. Less optimistic in tendency is the device of serial autobiographies punctuating the main narrative, a kaleidoscope of women’s lives which seem to demonstrate only a universal misery—the technique again borrowed by Wollstonecraft from romance fiction. In the works of Radcliffe and her followers as in Wollstonecraft the heroine seems to move through a bleak landscape littered with the remains of destructive marriages; every casualty she encounters is a ruin and a prophecy. Yet the repetition implies a sort of collectivity, or the potential for one. Out of Gothic dystopia Wollstonecraft attempted to formulate the utopian telos of her politics.
Radcliffean romance, the so-called ‘supernatural explained’, briefly unmasks the interested nature of man-made laws. Their narratives perform a break-up of the reification of the law by permitting a reflection on the illusory nature of its ‘phantom-objectivity’—and this through a literal-minded representation of the law as haunted house. The metaphysical paraphernalia of an ‘objectivist’ system of justice is portrayed with objectivity in the terrifying phantasmagoria of Gothic fiction. For in this vision ‘justice’ is estranged from itself, retranslated into an asymmetric, repressive relation between people. In each novel there is a confrontation, however brief, with the unthinkable: a world of inescapable injustice; a brush with the Sadeian universe where the pleas of the victims are forever unheard and wrongdoing forever unpunished, before the narrative reverts to a properly providential dénouement. How appropriate that the author who most vividly communicated this transient terror should be sent to end her life in a madhouse by the daydreams of the British reading public.10
The castle of Udolpho would appear to serve the function of an illumination, its darkness representing for the heroine the truth of her condition, a truth she can withstand only momentarily, in the instant before she faints. But in the overall scheme the castle provides only a theatrical, metaphorical horror, structurally isolated from the main body of narrative. The castle offers itself as an approximate expression, a proxy, for those quotidian horrors situated elsewhere, outside, in the realm of the ‘real.’ Horror is detained in quarantine, to guard against infection of the daylight world to which the story, in accordance with the therapeutics of romance, must return for the happy ending.
3. The Happy Ending
What is the status of Gothic fiction’s revelations? I have made a claim for the grounding of horror in historical truth. That the condition of women at this time was oppressive, and was frequently experienced as such, is undeniable. Romances both helped to produce and offered a reflection upon this experience. They actively implement the division of public and private spheres by constituting their female readers as a fragmented body, accomplishing a pleasurable sequestration of the novel-reader in the realm of private aesthetic consumption. The public voice the novel form offered women writers was necessarily inflected by the fact of trespass. I have suggested that at the same time the romances allowed a reflection on this very exclusion from civil society and the violence it entailed.
Critique appears at a phantasmagoric level, at the level of consciousness or imagination. But within the illogic of the novel it must replace illusion with illusion. Divorced from practical transformation, cut off from the rationale of causality, in the final analysis Gothic enlightenment endorses the ideological patterns it has briefly exposed. The irrational, feminine popular novel can show the violence and irrationality of reason, prising apart its contradictions; but the truth of a novel is by definition fictional and its force contained by the correlative ‘laws’ of narration.
The achievement of these novels was not to represent the real condition of women in supernatural trappings, but to intimate, through the reader’s identification with the heroine, the supernatural condition of women in the real world. Implicitly, they tell of the fiction of reality rather than reflecting reality in fiction. The implications of this inversion become evident when we reconsider the main charge brought against romances, namely, that female readers, by identification with the romantic heroine, would be led to confuse fact with fiction, recreating themselves after her image, and learning to read their own lives like a sensational narrative. Romances were charged with cultivating in the reader a sense of the supernaturalism of everyday life by the dissemination of impermissible thoughts, untenable values, irrational models of behaviour.11
Read episodically, the fictions of Radcliffe and her followers yield the suggestion that patriarchal right is founded on force, not nature; that the ‘right’ of patriarchy is itself a fiction. But such a reading is against the linear flow of the narrative towards resolution and closure. For the significance of the whole is subsumed in the final tableau of idealised wedlock: a partnership freely entered into by both parties and made equal by the strength of mutual affection; a sacred union of reason and sensibility.12 The threatening indeterminacy of past terrors is resolved in the light of this final manifestation of providential order. The previous melt-down of reification by fear is superseded by moral hypostasis: a concluding freeze-frame.
1. Gary Kelly, editor of The Wrongs of Woman (1976), suggests that the novel was the second volume promised in the Vindication; the work which would look closely at “the laws relative to women.”; 156 n1.
2. The ‘naming of the heroine’ occurs as a reflexive trope in heroine-centred novels from Richardson onwards: with ritual malice, an enemy jeeringly associates the main female character with romance-reading, accusing her of entertaining paranoid fantasies, of self-dramatisation, in order to undermine her opposition to (corrupt) authority. When the heroine is vindicated, so too is the exemplary ‘truth’ of fiction.
3. Several recent interpretations of The Mysteries of Udolpho have alerted us to the importance of economic factors in the unravelling of its plot, pulling into focus for the first time passages like that quoted above. ‘Money’, Mary Poovey states in ‘Ideology and the Mysteries of Udolpho’, ‘lurks behind every turn of The Mysteries plot.’ (1979, 323) In Literary Women, Ellen Moers pioneered the view that property takes precedence over ‘true love’ among the themes of what she called the ‘Female Gothic’. (1978, 136) Janet Todd has found in all of Radcliffe’s works an unstated equation of sexual and financial threat ‘but it is not really an equal association; perhaps it might better be said that the economic is sexualised.’ (262) Each suggests that fiction provided an apt if heightened representation of the real condition of women: ‘Fear is an appropriate response in a world where women have property or at least the opportunity of transmitting it, but where they have little power to control it.’ (Todd 262)
4. The same radical dualism—throne or grave—appeared with exemplary force in Wollstonecraft’s own life-story after the publication of William Godwin’s incautious Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Woman’ (1798). A champion of feminine propriety like the Rev. R. Polewhele was able to write, ‘I cannot but think, that the Hand of Providence is visible, in her life, her death, and in the Memoirs themselves. As she was given up to her “heart’s lusts,” and let “to follow her own imagination,” that the fallacy of her doctrines and the effects of an irreligious conduct might be manifested to the world; and as she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable; so her husband was permitted, in writing her Memoirs, to labour under a temporary infatuation, that every incident might be seen without a gloss—every fact exposed without an apology.’ (29-30)
5. It is necessary to emphasise, in what might otherwise appear a rather static outline of the condition of women, that the boundaries between public and private, visible and invisible, the proper and the inadmissible, were undergoing major transition in this period. The critical reflections under discussion here were to some extent made possible by this process of change, and the explicit negotiations it involved. For more about the transformations in gender ideology, and the effect on women of the property-owning classes in particular, see Poovey (1984) Chapter 1 and Davidoff and Hall (1987).
6. In The Discourse of the Sublime: History, Aesthetics and the Subject Peter de Bolla provides a well-documented account of the ‘feminization’ of reading practices in the late of eighteenth century, with the rider that the majority of novel-readers may have been men (237). Statistics are difficult to come by in this area; they would not in any case alter an interpretation based on the novels’ own inscription of their readership, and the prevalent stereotype of the female reader circulated by journals and conduct books—added to the oblique image found in the satires.
7. See note 5.
8. Mary Ann Radcliffe’s polemic centres on the peculiar horrors of the plight of genteel women without financial means or male protectors, subjected to ‘the absolute necessity of bartering their virtue for bread.’ She criticises among other things the lack of useful education for women, their exclusion from professions and replacement in traditionally female trades by ‘effeminate tradesmen’, and the abuses of ‘mercenary marriages’.
9. See Pateman (1988) on the survival of patriarchy in what has traditionally been seen by historians as the post-patriarchal ‘civil world of contract’ of the eighteenth century and after.
10. The rumour that Ann Radcliffe had gone mad by ‘the excessive use of her imagination in representing extravagant and violent scenes’ was widely credited (McIntyre, 1920, 19-20). It seemed to offer an explanation for her prolonged silence after the publication of The Italian. The Monthly Review circulated the story in their issue of July 1826, but printed an apology and correction after the posthumous appearance of Gaston de Blondville (1826) complete with a doctor’s report confirming her sanity at the time of death.
11. ‘We would admonish our young female readers not to expect, as the reward of their virtues, those critical and extraordinary coincidences which, against all the laws of probability and calculations of chances, invariably remove every obstacle that opposes the wishes of their favourite heroines …’; a representative example from a review of The Castle of Ollada in Critical Review. S.2, 14 (July 1795), .
12. The truth-value of Emily’s disturbing adventures as both subject and object resides precisely in that split identity—an unhappy consciousness manacled to an object of avaricious desire and economic exchange. This truth-value is apparently cancelled by the novel’s closure, when narrative and heroine disappear together in marriage. Yet it is worth noting that the wedding as a form of closure would itself express a partial, figurative truth for a society in which marriage was the vanishing-point of women’s individual existence, ‘a kind of civil death’.
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (London: Oxford University Press, 1933). Vol. 5 of The Novels of Jane Austen.
Barrett, Eaton Stannard, The Heroine, or Adventures of Cherubina (Dublin: 1814).
Beattie, James, Dissertations Moral and Critical (London: W. Strahan, T. Cadell; Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1783).
Blackstone, Sir William, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Notes and additions by Edward Christian, 15th ed., 4 vols (London: Cadell & Davies, 1809).
Boorstin, Daniel J., The Mysterious Science of the Law. An Essay on Blackstone’s COMMENTARIES, etc. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).
Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle class, 1780–1850 (London: Hutchison, 1987).
de Bolla, Peter, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Subject (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
Kirkham, Margaret, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (New York, Methuen, 1986).
Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971).
McIntyre, Clara Francis, Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time, Yale Studies in English, Vol. 62 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920).
Moers, Ellen, Literary Women (London: Women’s Press, 1978).
Pateman, Carol, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).
Polewhele, Rev. R., The Unsex’d Females (London: Cadell and Davis, 1798).
Poovey, Mary, ‘Ideology and The Mysteries of Udolpho’, Criticism 21 (Fall, 1979): .
――――――, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology and Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
Radcliffe, Ann, The Italian, Or The Confessional of the Black Penitents, ed. Frederick Garber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
――――――, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
Radcliffe, Mary Ann, The Female Advocate, Or An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (London: Verner and Hood, 1799).
Roche, Regina Maria, The Children of the Abbey (London: Minerva Press, 1797).
Smith, Charlotte, The Old Manor House, ed. Anne Henry Ehrenpreis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angelica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800 (London: Virago Press, 1989).
Wollstonecraft, Mary, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, ed. Gary Kelly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).
――――――, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).
Andriano, Joseph. Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993, 182 p.
> Comprehensive analysis of the role of female demons in works of Gothic fiction by male authors.
Brantlinger, Patrick. “Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880–1914.” In Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914, pp. . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.
> Studies the significance of what Brantlinger classifies as the “imperial Gothic,” which, he asserts, “combines the seemingly scientific, progressive, often Darwinian ideology of imperialism with an antithetical interest in the occult.”
Clery, E. J. Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 2000, 168 p.
> Book-length study that examines works by Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Joanna Baillie, Charlotte Dacre, and Mary Shelley.
D’Haen, Theo. “Postmodern Gothic.” In Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the Gothic Tradition, pp. . Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
> Argues that “the Gothic, as part of the fantastic, in postmodernism fulfils a particular function, and the recognition of the role it plays has rather far reaching implications for the entire discussion on postmodernism.”
DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Perils of the Night: a Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990, 368 p.
> Applies feminist theory to the analysis of nineteenth-century Gothic literature.
Edmundson, Mark. “American Gothic.” In Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, pp. 1-68. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
> Surveys the connections between the Gothic and sadomasochism in modern American society, horror films, and literature.
Goldner, Ellen J. “Other(ed) Ghosts: Gothicism and the Bonds of Reason in Melville, Chesnutt, and Morrison.” MELUS 24, no. 1 (1999): 59-83.
> Evaluates works by Herman Melville, Charles Chesnutt, and Toni Morrison that treat the subject of race, racism, and slavery.
Haggerty, George E. “‘The End of History’: Identity and Dissolution in Apocalyptic Gothic.” Eighteenth Century 41, no. 3 (fall 2000): .
> Outlines millennialism in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Heller, Tamar. “Reigns of Terror: The Politics of the Female Gothic.” In Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic, pp. 13-37. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
> Notes the various connections between Gothic literature and opinions regarding the traditional roles of women in the domestic sphere and in society.
Hendershot, Cyndy. The Animal Within: Masculinity and the Gothic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, 281 p.
> Studies the treatment of masculinity in Gothic fiction and film.
Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 203 p.
> Full-length analysis of the influence of science on the treatment of the human body and subjectivity in late-nineteenth-century Gothic fiction.
Kollin, Susan. “Race, Labor, and the Gothic Western: Dispelling Frontier Myths in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Wind.” Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 3 (fall 2000): .
> Discusses the treatment of race and sex roles, as well as elements of both American Western fiction and Gothic conventions in Scarborough’s novel, The Wind.
Malchow, H. L. Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996, 335 p.
> Interprets depictions of such stock Gothic characters as monsters, half-breeds, cannibals, and vampires as revealing British attitudes toward people of other races and cultures.
Michasiw, Kim Ian. “Charlotte Dacre’s Postcolonial Moor.” In Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, pp. 35-55. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
> Postcolonialist reading of Zofloya, emphasizing Dacre’s subversion of the traditional racial power structure.
Navarette, Susan J. The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998, 314 p.
> Delineates the connection between horror literature of the late nineteenth century and the intellectual school of thought and works comprising the “Decadent style.”
Person, Leland S. “Poe’s Philosophy of Amalgamation: Reading Racism in the Tales.” In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, pp. . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
> Highlights racism present in works by Edgar Allan Poe.
Reddy, Maureen T. “Female Sexuality in ‘The Poor Clare’: The Demon in the House.” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 3 (summer 1984): .
> Discusses Elizabeth Gaskell’s treatment of sexuality, women, and the double in her Gothic short story, “The Poor Clare.”
Royster, Francesca T. “White-Limed Walls: Whiteness and Gothic Extremism in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 2000): .
> Surveys the Gothic elements and Shakespeare’s treatment of race in Titus Andronicus.
Schafer, Martin. “The Rise and Fall of Antiutopia: Utopia, Gothic Romance, Dystopia.” Science-Fiction Studies, no. 6 (1979): .
> Surveys the evolution of the Gothic romance from utopia to dystopia.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 96, no. 2 (March 1981): .
> Studies Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, asserting that “an analysis of the thematic attention to surfaces changes the traditional view of the Gothic contribution to characterization and figuration in fiction.”
――――――. “Toward the Gothic: Terrorism and Homosexual Panic.” In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, pp. 83-96. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
> Explores the significance of homosexuality to the Gothic tradition.
Smith, Allan Lloyd. “Postmodernism/Gothicism.” In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 6-19. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
> Suggests “some rather more significant parallels” between postmodernist and Gothic discourse, asserting that “[i]n this dual focus some new perspectives can be offered on both.”
Smith, Andrew, and William Hughes, eds. Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 248 p.
> A collection of essays that study Gothic literature through the lens of postcolonial literary theory.
Spencer, Kathleen. “Victorian Urban Gothic: The First Modern Fantastic Literature.” In Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, pp. 87-96. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
> Examines the treatment of the city in Victorian fantasy novels and its connection to gothicism.
Winter, Kari J. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790–1865. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992, 172 p.
> Full-length study of the treatment of the oppression of women in Gothic fiction and slave narratives.
Wolstenholme, Susan. Gothic (Re)Visions: Writing Women as Readers. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, 201 p.
> Illustrates how Gothic fiction, perceived as a women’s literary genre, provided women writers with an unprecedented opportunity to explore an expansive array of narrative conventions, subjects, and perspectives.