Feminist Gothic

I researched feminist gothic literature for my PhD dissertation. One might say I became engulfed by the research, by the gothic itself. One of my favorite gothic lineages dates back to Mary Wollstonecraft, which involves her fight for civil rights for women. There is a clear link between feminist movements and gothic booms. Female literacy in the eighteenth century not only gave rise to the gothic genre, but it also led to a demand for women’s rights. In an age when women had very little public power, gothic fiction was a way they could covertly communicate their ideas. As Diane Hoeveler states, the genre “worked as a coded and veiled critique of all of those public institutions that have been erected to displace, contain, or commodify women” (XII-XIII). She argues that early gothic novelists employed a strategy of outward conformity while secretly subverting the patriarchy, and she likens this effect to the concept of ‘double consciousness’ developed by W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison (Hoeveler 6). This also explains the genre’s ambiguity, as gothic works tend to contain both conservative and progressive—even radical—elements.

During this era, Mary Wollstonecraft published a landmark essay appealing for women’s rights. In her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft radically states the moral equality of the sexes, draws attention to the sexual double standard, and argues that women should have the same basic rights as men, especially in education. Her work had a great effect on both the women’s movement and gothic writers. Ann Radcliffe is one such author, as Hoeveler states:

Radcliffe’s later novels actually fictionalize the major claims presented by Mary

Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), for if Wollstonecraft

condemns the inadequate educations women receive, Radcliffe demonstrates the

disastrous effects of such training on her gothic antiheroines (2).

Moreover, Jane Austen, best known for her domestic works of realism, is also a gothic novelist who was clearly affected by Wollstonecraft. Although Austen published many years later, Donna Heiland traces a dialog between the two authors, noting that Wollstonecraft’s Vindication disparages the gothic romances and calls for women to read history. Heiland finds a rebuttal in Jane Austen’s only gothic work, the parody Northanger Abbey. In the book, Austen’s Catherine, who prefers gothic novels to history books, argues it is because “[t]he 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 tiresome” (qtd. in Heiland 92). Heiland surmises that Austen was stating her own view on the matter: Novels offer more to women because, unlike historical works of the time period, they include women.

Wollstonecraft, however, must have had a change of heart because she became a gothic novelist. Maria: or, the Wrongs of Woman is Wollstonecraft’s radically feminist gothic work published posthumously by her husband, William Godwin. In the book, Wollstonecraft celebrates women’s sexuality and criticizes patriarchal institutions, such as marriage. Like Radcliffe’s work, Maria fictionalizes the ideas Wollstonecraft posited in Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

 Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft died long before her visions of civil rights for women would be realized. In 1797, at the age of thirty-eight, Wollstonecraft succumbed to childbed fever just a few days after giving birth to her daughter of the same name. The child would grow up to be deeply affected by Wollstonecraft’s feminist writings, even haunted by them, and at the young age of just eighteen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would pen one of the greatest gothic novels of all times, Frankenstein.

While Mary Wollstonecraft is a primary architect of contemporary feminism, her daughter, Mary Shelley, is foundational to feminist literary criticism, for it is in large part through Shelley’s Frankenstein that such a feminist perspective emerged.While the gothic has always been understood to some degree in gendered terms, it wasn’t until relatively recently that more complex criticism developed. For hundreds of years, gothic literature was marginalized from the literary canon, and scholarship on the form was limited. As Juliann Fleenor notes, “The Gothic has generally had a negative critical reception. From the first it has been seen as a ‘feminine’ form, outside the mainstream of literature. Its authors have been criticized as dealing in trivialities or as being too emotional, charges frequently characterized as feminine” (8). Undoubtedly, sexism played a pivotal role in this sidelining.

There exists, however, several works of early scholarship stretching from the 1920s through the 1950s that focus on the genre’s history and influences while also grappling with the gothic’s devalued status (Heiland 181-182). These analyses also consider gender, mainly in terms of authorship, but it was not until the 1970s that a deeper inquiry emerged. Due to the spread of second wave feminism, which included student activism and debates over what constituted great literature, many universities experienced a flourishing of feminist literary scholarship that lauded the gothic. Criticism and genre were closely tied, for as Wallace states, the gothic was “central to the development of feminist criticism” (15). In other words, the genre did as much to create feminist scholarship as the inquiry did to recognize the genre’s importance.

            In 1976, Ellen Moers termed a subgenre the ‘Female Gothic’ in her seminal Literary Women. Her analysis engaged in a startling nontraditional criticism that involved biographical readings as well as a psychoanalytic approach, while also linking women’s writing through history and reflecting on such illicit themes as maternal ambivalence. Moreover, she focused on the entrapment theme of women’s gothic writing, suggesting that women felt imprisoned within their own bodies. Moers posited the subgenre as a specifically female line that stretched from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley to writers of Moers’s own time such as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. In a move further distinguishing gothic by gender, Moers positioned the female gothic plot as distinct from the male, arguing that the female focused on the “traveling heroinism,” for example in Radcliffe, and the “birth myth,” which is found in Shelley’s Frankenstein (as qtd. in Wallace and Andrews 2).

            Moers’s analysis of the birth myth in Frankenstein represents an especially new and innovative reading. Moers relies not only on the text itself, but also depends on Shelley’s biography in her analysis. Indeed, Shelley’s life reads like a gothic novel. The child of two famous radical philosopher parents, both of whom were also gothic authors, Shelley, due to her mother’s early death, was raised by her cold stepmother and increasingly distant father. She adored her dead mother, coming to know her through her many published writings. When Shelley ran away at sixteen with the married poet, Percy Shelley, her father disowned her. Pregnant, poor, unmarried, and, in a sense, an orphan, Mary Shelley experienced life on the margins. Although Percy Shelley did eventually marry her—soon after his first wife committed suicide—life took a series of tragic turns for Mary Shelley: Three of her four children died as infants or toddlers. Mary Shelley miscarried her fifth pregnancy, nearly bleeding to death in the process, and soon after Percy Shelley drowned at the age of just twenty-nine.

            Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein not long after the death of her first child, a premature infant. It was this aspect of her biography that Moers focused on most closely, analyzing the novel as signifying the rarely expressed negativity of pregnancy, childbirth, and maternal ambivalence. Moreover, Moers engages psychoanalysis in positioning the text as a birth myth of male parthenogenesis. She argues that Shelley advanced a staggering critique of men and fatherhood obliterating women and motherhood, which is an occurrence not only in Shelley’s biography, but is also an effect of the patriarchal power structuring. Like many second wave feminists, Moers has been criticized for aspects of essentialism, but her work remains deeply lauded and is often cited today. She is credited for not only uncovering contemporary women writers’ hidden literary inheritance and disappeared foremothers—indeed a gothic plot in its own right—but also of positioning feminist criticism, women’s writing, and gothic studies as academic subjects.

Another especially influential book of the 1970s is Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, which also applies Shelley’s Frankenstein as a key text. Like Moers, Gilbert and Gubar use both a psychoanalytic and historical approach to evidence classic gothic women writers’ anxiety stemming from the confines of patriarchal society. The theorists’ scholarship did much to advance the subgenre of the female gothic. For example, Gilbert and Gubar expanded the list of its common conventions, including:

Images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as

asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in

frozen landscapes and fiery interiors—such patterns reoccurred throughout this tradition,

along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and

claustrophobia” (XI).

While Gilbert and Gubar take Shelley’s Frankenstein as a central text, they offer a very different feminist analysis from Moers. They focus on the historical context of the author as a poor unwed teenage mother, which emphasizes a different aspect of her biography. The critics then posit a link between Shelley’s identity and that of the abject creature in Frankenstein, asserting that the “male monster may be a female in disguise” (p. 237). Gilbert and Gubar make a strong argument, pointing out that the motherless, outcast creature was as “nameless as a woman is in a patriarchal society” (241). Moreover, they draw attention to Shelley’s major accomplishment in advancing both feminism and gothic literature: In Frankenstein, the creature speaks. In fact, Shelley devotes a large portion of her novel to the monster’s perspective, which was a first for the genre. Gilbert and Gubar rightly celebrate the revolutionary spirit of such a narrative that gives a voice—an eloquent one—to the voiceless.

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