The Role of Women Within Gothic Literature

From the haunting stories by Edgar Allan Poe, to the modern love triangle in the hit series Twilight, Gothic literature is a genre that has secured its place in literary history. These tales of darkness filled with intrigue and passion, often drawing in readers with the dramatic tales of a woman and her mysterious dark lover. Using the feminist literary theory to examine the history of Gothic romance, it is troubling to see the trends of the female characters. But over time the role of women within Gothic romances may have evolved in thanks to societal influences and the emergence of stronger and more authoritative female characters.

Gothic literature began in the eighteenth century, but didn’t gain its vast popularity until the nineteenth century. The stories created tragedy in once lively places, “[developing] a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbor, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors.” (Cameron 31). These unique and sometimes terrifying settings helped transport the readers into a different realm—a common element within literary romances. During the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century the world was rigid and controlling, tempting people to turn towards this escapist type literature.

There is an interesting and forbidden element to Gothic literature. There is a romance to the incorporation of the unknown and “‘the supernatural becomes a symbol of our past rising against us’” (Cameron 43). Many romantic conventional themes exist within Gothic literature such as a journey, transformation and of course, love. Everything becomes heightened in the seemly forbidden situations. Much like people today who are drawn to horror films, the appeal of Gothic literature is “… the pain of suspense, inaugurated by an object of ‘natural’ terror, produce[ing] ‘the irresistible desire of satisfying curiosity’” (Cameron 76). It is almost as if we cannot resist the darkness of the stories, that we develop a curiosity that we are magnetized to. This is often mirrored with the characters in the romances, with minor changes based on the gender of the character being analyzed.

Throughout history and literature, women appear to have taken a backseat to their male counterparts. Collectively they’re a member of the trope of the virginal maiden: sweet and naïve, innocent and pure. Due to unfortunate and desperate circumstances, she’ll often find herself alone in a castle, court or home, , accompanied only by her complementary trope—the Byronic Hero. The Byronic Hero, named for Lord George Byron, embraces what we now call the antihero. He is a man who has been cast out of popular society, is brash, and sexually dominant. He is often rude and arrogant, possibly becoming a changed man in the end thanks to the innocent affect of the young woman.

The concept of the virginal maiden ties in closely with the perception of what the “ideal” woman should be during that time period. Author Victoria Nelson explains the importance of the innocent, young woman lies in her ill-fated destiny, to be tied to a man of darkness, as “the young person whose untouched sexual energy will nourish the god beyond the grave” (Nelson 103). This importance, based on sexuality, is nothing new when it comes to both literature and society. Female virginity was considered sacred, and that value (or lack thereof) resulted in many sacrificed females in our early history, to public image crucifixion of sexually active young women today. It is crucial to these stories that the woman be untouched, creating an element of desire that men seem to be drawn to. By doing so, it helps perpetuate a common theme that there is an uncontrollable, hungry, lustful-craze that can consume a man if he knows a woman is untouched. This is based on the idea that women are somehow better if they have not already participated in sex. Modern feminism is working towards erasing the misogynistic notion that somehow because a woman has had sex, that she is tainted. To view traditional Gothic romances diachronically, it is understandable that such an importance would be placed on virginity. However, the trope of the virginal maiden continues to exist today, as well as be an expectation for women to be chaste in the real world.

In its earliest beginnings, men primarily wrote Gothic literature. This creates a contradictory situation because even if the story is being told from a female perspective, a male writer is writing it. So the female characters(s) and plot are written from a male’s perspectives and their ideals projected onto the female characters.

“Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors—most famously Radcliffe herself—like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them (Nelson 98).”

As Gothic romance narrative began to develop and grow in popularity and acceptance, more women began to write this genre. This is similarly tied to the evolution of romance in general as a genre. These romances became escapes for women and began to positively advance from where they once began. It became revolutionary for women to read these novels where their gender was no longer a hindrance or a weakling. Instead they went on literary adventures to seek love on their own terms.

With the women’s rights movement came the idea of sexual freedom. Combined with that came a big changes within Gothic romances,  “the introduction of explicit sex into what had formerly been a virginally discreet genre” (Nelson 107). As discussed earlier, the concept of virginity was initially an important aspect of the female romance characters. But as it became more socially acceptable for women to embrace their sexuality, the hinted-at sexually dominant male character is able to fully indulge in his fantasies with the woman. This is a stereotypic image that is now associated with Gothic romances, a raunchy, dangerously erotic love story in an abandoned castle setting.  Oddly enough, this was a vast improvement for women as they were now free to express their sexual desires versus it being expressed and defined for them. Common in modern romances as well, this is still considered revolutionary. While young men are expected and encouraged to participate freely in sex, women are still looked down upon for being sexual creatures and having sexual desires.

Gothic literature has matured alongside other modern ideas, many of which are combined with the feminist movement and the ultimate goal of liberating the oppressed.  This includes giving good and fair representation of the sexes. Representation is important for any group, regardless of being the majority or a minority. Men and women can often find themselves unconsciously affected by how their own gender or sexuality is presented within movies or literature, and other mediums.

With the continued evolution of Gothic literature, the supernatural has also transformed to not just being something or someone to be scared of. The Gothic genre also gives a chance (or representation) to the “other”—the people or beings that don’t fit in with the generic norm, who may be outcasts of their world. It’s not just the idea of them being supernatural; their otherness becomes a symbol.“ Vampires are stand-ins for AIDS, racial bigotry, sexual orientation, … the transition from adolescence to adulthood; for menstruation; for power relationships between masters and servants; for addiction and abstinence” (Nelson 134). This is a favorable trait for the growing genre when looking at it through feminist and queer literary theories, the two criticisms that focus the most on fair and equal representation.

As we come into our modern era, the women’s rights stance has become even more popular and continues to have an effect on how women are portrayed in works of literature, as well as movies and television shows. This was in thanks to many women who began to write their own versions of Gothic literature, such as Emily Brontë, whose

“…tale of an unglamorous, independent-minded young woman who captures the heart of her arrogant, sexually dangerous older employer not only drew a huge and still-growing readership, it also established—in the year 1847—another major subgenre of the Gothick: the sentimental romance that is still coming-of-age reading for young women everywhere (Nelson 97).”

This increase of sexual attraction and more adventurous and sensual stories helped create a more liberated female character; these women could hold their own. Even though their stories still focused on a man in their life, they were now able to challenge him intellectually and sometimes physically. This creates a sense of sexual tension between two strong characters, whose verbal sparring and unspoken desires often now lead to sparks flying.

This ongoing literary transformation led to the creation of the cult-classic and hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even revolutionary for the late 1990s, the show ran from 1997-2003 and gained a widespread following. The storyline focused on the adventures of Buffy Summers, a teenager girl who discovers that she is a part of a line of female demon hunters (dubbed “Slayers”). The show’s cast included strong, powerful women who stood on both sides of good and evil, and a couple who walked the line down the middle. This was an important part of the show. Feminism is not fighting to abolish the idea of weaker, more romantic, or extremely feminine characters. The ultimate goal is to portray women in a realistic light, where the damsel in distress can get herself out of a situation or the crime-fighting heroine does have her own personal weaknesses.

The show delved into the realm of the Gothic genre with a full immersion into the world of demons, vampires, and other creatures of darkness. Fully embracing most tropes of Gothic literature, it then turned them around with the combination of powerful women and by placing the setting in Sunnydale, a typical, if somewhat generic, city in California. These contrasts helped push the genre of Gothic into a different and modern world, not necessarily just the drab castles of Eastern Europe. By doing this, it also emphasized the essence of Gothic romance rather than the conventional character roles found in the early literature.

In contrast to the Buffy series, another contemporary, popular piece of Gothic literary romance is the Twilight series. Written by Stephenie Meyer, the series debuted in 2005 and spawned an entire movie franchise. Featuring a young girl, Bella Swan, and a charismatic yet prudish vampire, Edward Cullen, the story focuses on their forbidden love. Their story evolves to include the possibility of a love triangle with a werewolf. Publisher Weekly Magazine commented that the excitement over the series is “Bella’s infatuation with outsider Edward, the sense of danger inherent in their love, and Edward’s inner struggle” (“Reviews”). This review defines the concept of Gothic romance. Edward is the perfect version of an anti-hero, our Byronic hero of the 21st century. Edward is often described as statue like, almost like a god. Comparably, Bella is barely even described, except when she is self-deprecating. The difference is that while she sees herself as plain and ordinary, the entire town sees her as this beautiful person and she finds herself having to deal with the multiple men falling at her feet.

Bella’s character takes a step backwards in regards to the handling of female characters that had begun to evolve in Gothic romantic literature. It is not because she is looking for love that makes her weak, but rather her portrayal. The Twilight series “hews to the classic Gothick romance ‘feminine fantasy,’ first laid down in Jane Eyre, ‘of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man,” something that continues to perpetuate the idea that in order for a girl to find true happiness, she must be rescued from her own life by a man (Nelson 136). This is followed up with the analogy of Edward being a vampire, and that by being this dominant force in Bella’s life, it “is itself a kind of vampire sapping women’s strength, exerting a seductive, irresistible pull as it sucks them back into outmoded attitudes about female behavior” (Nelson 136-137). Throughout the books Bella is consumed by Edward’s beauty, and her love-obsession with him develops into a need that she cannot live without him. In the second book of the series, New Moon, Bella lays comatose, physically consumed by her depression that has taken over since Edward left her. This is a dangerous precedent to set for young women. Extreme dependency is damaging to both parties in a relationship, but especially in this case to the female. Bella is like the original virginal maiden, a simplistic character that has no depth to her. She bases her livelihood on her growing need for a loved one, which is ultimately controlled by his own desire and need—he has the power over her.

The lure of gothic literature continues throughout time. Romantic tales that include the timid yet longing female character, the strong virile male character, secretive rendezvous settings, mysterious twists and turns—plotlines that continue to make for an ever-intriguing read. And for writers, there’s a following, a growing audience even as the genre evolves. The wave of feminism in today’s world hasn’t dampened the gothic romance story. Instead, it’s strengthened the genre by adding more complex characters, strong female roles, and challenging situations and issues that reflect today’s modern relationships. We continue to look for and find happy endings in gothic romance. Though there is not always a strong female character to lead these stories, and our modern works do not always embrace it, Gothic romance has helped pave the way in the woman’s role in literature.

Works Cited

Cameron, Ed. The Psychopathology of the Gothic Romance: Perversion, Neuroses and Psychosis in Early Works of the Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010. Print.

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

“Reviews for Twilight.” The Official Website of Stephenie Meyer. N.p., 2005. Web. 25. Jan. 2014.


3 thoughts on “The Role of Women Within Gothic Literature

  1. I hardly think stories like Twilight set a dangerous precedent. They are one form of fantasy and escapism, like any other, and girls and women have the capability to read these books as such. I’m not a fan of Twilight, but the traditional Gothic romance is something I find extremely appealing, Byronic hero and plain virginal heroine notwithstanding. I respond to them most deeply and find them to be the most pleasurable to read, even to this day.

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