The Feminist Undertones of Gothic Literature: Through Radcliffe, Shelly, And Brontë

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In 1764 Horace Walpole released The Castle of Otranto. The story was the world’s first gothic novel; it combined elements of the supernatural, horror, and romance to terrify readers. Audiences found Walpole’s book to be thrilling and were captivated by the originality of its overblown and dramatic storyline. The book was so widely popular that other novelist soon began creating their own horrific novels, thus leading to the birth of Gothic literature. While the Gothic genre was stepping onto the literary scene, the Romantic movement was in full swing.

Romanticism put an emphasis on powerful emotion and the individual rather than science and reason. Emotions such as terror, horror, and wonder were strongly accentuated, such as any feelings experienced in nature or the sublime. This turn to the inexplicable left doors open for the overlapping Gothic movement to take hold. The mixing of movements allowed novelists to reflect their concerns and uncertainties with society by utilizing mysterious settings, supernatural elements, and heightened emotions, particularly female writers.

At the start of the 18th century men and women were considered unequal, with men being the superior sex. This patriarchal model stemmed from religious ideology and physical science of the time. Men were considered strong, intelligent, courageous, and determined. Women were considered weak and emotional creatures, lacking intellectual prowess. From a young age girls were groomed to focus on domestic pursuits and satisfy the whims of men. Education of young women at the time was unlike that of men’s education; it typically consisted of learning other languages, playing instruments, and proper etiquette training for when the woman’s parents found her a suitor. All of these traits could deem her more appealing to a future husband. Education that was equivalent to a male was considered destructive to a woman’s innocence and morality.

After the French and American Revolutions, the position and role of a woman changed. The ideals of Victorian society turned women into “Angels in the House” rather than a domestic drudge. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that a woman’s purpose in life was to be a mother and educate youth through natural experiences. Professions outside of the domestic sphere were considered unnatural for women. Females who dared to speak out against gender roles was considered an extraordinary atrocity and ran the risk of being exiled or the target of witch hunts. In turn women often expressed themselves through discreet writings in the form of letters and autobiographies. To defy the patriarchal social structure, female authors such as of Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Mary Shelly (1797-1851), and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) spoke out against inequality and woman’s rights through their use of Gothic literature.

Ann Radcliffe, born Ann Ward, was born in Holborn, London, on July 9th, 1764. In 1787 Ann married the Oxford graduate and journalist William Radcliffe (1763–1830), part-owner and editor of the English Chronicle. William encouraged Ann too pursue writing, and in the end, it paid off heavily. Radcliffe became one of the most popular writers of the Gothic movement. Many people praised her works, often times referring to her as “the Mighty Enchantress”, and “the Queen of Terror” (“Ann Radcliffe”).

Many of Radcliffe’s novels focused almost exclusively on absent mothers, overbearing fathers, and suffering daughters. One of Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho, helped to establish the popular female gothic. After The Mysteries of Udolpho was released another name became commonly used when referencing Radcliffe; “the High Priestess of Sensibility,” affirming that she highly valued sensibility. Radcliffe, in truth, uses her novel to point out the danger of excessive sensibility. Many of the heroine’s problems arise from her acute sensibility and vivid imagination. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily’s dying father warns her of the dangers of excessively exercising her sensibility:

“Above all, my dear Emily… do not indulge in the pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds. Those who really possess sensibility ought early to be taught that it is a dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery or delight from every surrounding circumstance. And since, in our passage through this world, painful circumstances occur more frequently than pleasing ones, and since our sense of evil is, I fear, more acute than our sense of good, we become the victims of our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them.”

St. Aubert teaches Emily to have common sense and “self-command” over her feelings and not to indulge in her feelings too much. Her character is still highly influenced by sensibility, but throughout the story we can see her struggling against her feelings and trying to control them. From this example it can be asserted the Radcliffe was not truly as conservative as she was believed to be during her time, but also not wildly revolutionary. In many of her Gothic romances Radcliff used the characterization of both the heroine and the villain to reflect gender roles of the eighteenth century. The heroine is typically a young girl who is highly influenced by sensibility and female virtue; they often faint and weep dramatically in reaction to horrible events. In contrast the villain is a usually a patriarchal figure who uses their authority to impose rules on other characters, including, but not limited to, the helpless heroine. Commonly, all the villains die by poison symbolizing the end of a patriarchal reign.

Another Gothic writer who used literature to bring light to the patriarchy was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Born in 1797, Mary was the only child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (One of the first true feminists). Mary began writing at an early age, and created her most famous work, Frankenstein, at nineteen years of age. Many critics of Frankenstein alleged that the novel was a fictional account of Shelley’s own life, considering the lack of maternal figures. Because of the absence of a prominent female character many disregard the novel as a feminist text. However, because of the lack of a Gothic heroine or strong female lead, Frankenstein is more of a feminist text than previously thought.

Frankenstein is filled with male leads and is even narrated by a male, through which the reader is shown how women are thought of and treated compared to their male counterparts. For example, Victor’s betrothed is described as “docile and good tempered, yet gay and playful as a summer’s insect” and “a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks” (Shelley 20). Shelley further displays how women were viewed with the dehumanization of Elizabeth, like when Victor states he “… looked upon Elizabeth as mine – mine to protect, love, and cherish…” as if Elizabeth is merely property (Shelley 21). One of the most important passages regarding feminism is Dr. Frankenstein’s response to creating a female companion for his monster. As Frankenstein begins creating the female monster, he imagines what will happen when this female comes into being:

“She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.”

What Victor fears is that the female monster would have autonomy, rationale, and human-like needs. Victor’s termination of the female creature is not just representative of the fear of female autonomy, but of the patriarchal desire to validate men’s superiority over women. From the few examples shown it becomes apparent how Shelley’s novel helped shed light on how women were viewed and treated during the 18th century.

A third noteworthy female writer of the gothic genre was Emily Brontë, who wrote Wuthering Heights. Emily was born on July 30th, 1818 and was the fifth of six children, three of them later became published authors, Emily being one of them. Emily’s sister, Charlotte Brontë, is the author responsible for the masterpiece Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights was Emily’s only novel and upon publication critics called the book savage, animalistic and poorly written. It was only later that the book was recognized as fine literature.

The dramatic and poetic structure of Wuthering Heights helps to intensify the feminist undertones within it. In the novel women are seemingly stripped of their “wild” personalities and forced into the submissive lady-like roles that were common in England during the Victorian Era. One such character is the first Catherine, who can be considered a feminist role model. In the start of the novel Catherine is independent and enjoys playing with Heathcliff in the Moors rather than dressing up and acting as a paragon of virtue. Eventually Catherine is “reformed” during her time at Thrushcross grange, which displays how women could not live a carefree life like men.

Furthermore, Catherine’s personality changes as she accepts the proposal of marrying Edgar. Her place as a woman in society has been converted by the conventions that have been set up for women. Social ambition is what motivates her now, not her wild passions and love. She explains ‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so, he shall never know I love him’ (Brontë 86). In saying this Catherine has moved from changing the conventions on her own terms, too succumbing to the conventions for women. Brontë’s novel is a great display of how women were degraded and subjected to being domestics rather than influential and powerful people like their male counterparts.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were some of the most oppressive times for women, yet the age of enlightenment and industrial revolutions sparked a movement to challenge the patriarchal structure of society. The onset of feminism can be attributed to bold women of the Romantic and Victorian eras who dared to question authority and suggest that women were more than the objects many deemed them to be. All the previously explored woman contributed to the awareness of inequalities in society. Their gothic works inspired countless other women to demand an elevated position in society and set forth the means of equality for all men and women.

Works Cited

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Ann Radcliffe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Ann-Radcliffe-English-author.
  2. Brontë Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Books, 2003.
  3. Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontë’s. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
  4. Kuiper, Kathleen. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft-Shelley.
  5. Radcliffe, Ann Ward. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Condensed. Juniper Press, 1960.
  6. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, et al. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. The Mit Press, 2017.
  7. Tompkins, Joyce M.S. “Emily Brontë.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 July 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Emily-Bronte.

Cite this paper

The Feminist Undertones of Gothic Literature: Through Radcliffe, Shelly, And Brontë. (2021, Jul 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-feminist-undertones-of-gothic-literature-through-radcliffe-shelly-and-bronte/

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