Contents Index

Female Gothic Writing: "Under Cover to Alice"

Frances L. Restuccia

Genre, 19:3 (Fall 1986), 245-64

"[T]he process of criticism is not so much an interpretation of content as it is a revealing of it, a laying bare, a restoration of the original message, the original experience, beneath the distortions of the censor: and this revelation takes the form of an explanation why the content was so distorted. . . ."
-- Fredric Jameson, "Metacommentary"
The gothic fable, according to Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel, is "committed to portraying the power of darkness." And the power of darkness, in Fiedler's conception at least, seems to be gender-bound: "the fully developed gothic centers not in the heroine (the persecuted principle of salvation) but in the villain (the persecuting principle of damnation)" (108-09). Fiedler's Oedipal theory of the gothic, not surprisingly, defines a specifically male genre: "the guilt which underlies the gothic and motivates its plots is the guilt of the revolutionary haunted by the (paternal) past which he has been striving to destroy; and the fear that possesses the gothic and motivates its tone is the fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened a way for the irruption of darkness: for insanity and the disintegration of the self" (Love and Death 109). Although Mrs. Radcliffe, Fiedler grants, first made a success of gothic fiction, "These deeper implications are barely perceptible in [her] gently spooky fiction . . . in which terror is allayed by the final pages, all inruptions of the irrational rationally explained away" (Love and Death 109). Mrs. Radcliffe isn't spooky enough, while Matthew Lewis' work, in contrast, unveils the full "absurdity" and "outrageous violence" of the genre instigated by Horace Walpole.

A female writer of Fiedlerian gothic fiction is unimaginable; the genre as Fiedler characterizes it serves as a reservoir of strictly male desire, anxiety, neurosis. Though the chief symbol of the gothic is the Maiden in {246} flight, all she turns out to emblematize is "the uprooted soul of the artist, the spirit of the man who has lost his moral home" (Love and Death 111). And Fiedler means man. The haunted castles and abbeys, where the chase often reaches a climax, symbolize authority in ruin: "such crumbling edifices project the world of collapsed ego-ideals through which eighteenth-century man was groping his proud and terrified way" (Love and Death 112). Eighteenth-century sons, not daughters, in Fiedler's tunnel vision, groped their proud and terrified way. Gothic fiction articulates the son's fear of Daddy: "Children of an age which had killed kings and bishops, cast down the holy places of their fathers [clearly not the revolutionary work of women of the time], found it hard to convince themselves that specters did not walk with rattling chains, or that ancestral pictures did not bleed." Simultaneously, gothic fiction (complicating the Oedipal pattern) articulates the son's fear of Mommy: "Beneath the haunted castle lies the dungeon keep: the womb from whose darkness the ego first emerged, the tomb to which it knows it must return at last. Beneath the crumbling shell of paternal authority, lies the maternal blackness, imagined by the gothic writer as a prison, a torture chamber" (Love and Death 112) -- not a maternal image likely to take shape from a female pen.1 No matter what the rebellion lashes out against, it appears to belong to the son. In his introduction to The Monk, John Berryman writes, "Matilda too is an engrossing character . . . . But Ambrosio is the point; the point is to conduct a remarkable man utterly to damnation" (13).

Perhaps Fiedler's tunnel vision is appropriate, ironically apt after all. Perhaps women writers had nothing, wanted nothing, to do with all this -- guilt and fear of darkness, insanity, the disintegrating self, blood and the womb-tomb. These preoccupations may actually be a male indulgence; certainly male writers depict male characters indulging in them, as part in fact of a male genealogy. Fiedler's gothic hero-villain is "a descendant of Lovelace . . . though of a Lovelace regarded with tenderness rather than contempt" (Love and Death 113). He is a Byronic figure, or, to put it another way that Fiedler puts it, the product of the "imposition of the myth of Faust upon the archetype of Don Juan. Both mythic figures, to be sure, possessed the imagination of Europe at the point when men became for the first time conscious of the unconscious; and both represent the revolutionary reversal of ethical standards which followed" (Love and Death 113-14). Female models are absent; heroic women are out of the gory gothic gallery. The gothic hero-villain is {247} Promethean; he is Satanic. The very act of writing a gothic, rather than a sentimental, novel (women's domain), is itself a Faustian enterprise. Gothic writers substitute terror for love.

The Fiedlerian gothic writer is dedicated to the abominable, moreover to the abominable in excess (and here women do creep in, receiving the only role the paradigm allows them): "It is not enough that his protagonist commit rape; he must commit it upon his mother or sister; and if he himself is a cleric, pledged to celibacy, his victim a nun, dedicated to God, all the better!" (Love and Death 115). Fiedler sees Sade's work as representing the "final abomination for which the gothic yearns" (Love and Death 115-16). No, Mrs. Radcliffe does not fit in, but proves to be the exception. Fiedler asserts that "Despite its early adoption by Mrs. Radcliffe, the gothic is an avant-garde genre" (Love and Death 116) that "play[s] with horror" (Love and Death 121), that shows fascination for supposedly condemned fantasies of seduction and rape. Even if they wished to, women writers could hardly play in this particular literary ballgame.

Fiedler hears the loud, boastful cry of the gothicist sons to their fathers, "we will be terrified no more," rising from the crackling pages of the gothic text. His ears are closed to the daughterly voices ringing out in neighboring gothic literature. Of course, the possibility of a female gothic is ruled out by Fiedler's definition; but several turn-of-the-century novels by women are also terrorized, and also manage to assert "we will be terrified no more," even if the message is delivered under cover. Then what kept Fiedler from defining the gothic in such a way as to make it possible for a woman to write one authentically? Perhaps the shift in what the woman gothicist fears -- not just the father but the father and his son -- is necessarily accompanied by a shift in tone that keeps the gothic element obscured. The rebellious son sees, in the overthrow of his father, the imminence of irrationality, insanity, and death. But the woman gothicist sees in her own terror before the monstrous injustices of patriarchy only the commonplace; in the son's overthrow of the father, she observes only the normal course of events and the reestablishment of patriarchy in a new generation. As the gothic aspect of a woman's life (as Charlotte Perkins Gilman would later demonstrate in "The Yellow Wallpaper") is all in its normality, what is monstrous in male gothic writing naturally reappears in female gothic as frighteningly familiar.

The result is that Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, Anne Brontë in The {248} Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights, and Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (not to mention other female gothic writers I will not treat) are situated in a curious double bind. How does the rebellious female gothicist strike out against the patriarchy in the face of a male gothic tradition whose own rebellion against the patriarchy either excludes or demolishes her? In the first place, on the most rudimentary level, she restores and makes central the female whom the male gothicist had first marginalized and then killed off. The female gothic author at this point finds herself, like her heroine, in contradictory relationship to the gothic hero-villain as he enters her text. On the one hand, she identifies with his struggle against patriarchy; on the other she resents his abuse of women and thus condemns (however subtly) his cruelty. Rather than trading terror for terror (that is, adopting the son's terrorizing in place of the father's), she casts a judgmental light on the son, exposing him to be just about as ghastly as the father. The female gothicist, then, simultaneously writes the gothic and sabotages it, oscillating between a scenario that indicts the "father" and a scenario that indicts the "son." A male gothic in miniature often surfaces within and eventually is swallowed up by the female gothic frame, the ingestion of which signifies the female gothicist's ambivalence -- destroying it but taking it in -- toward male gothicism.


Northanger Abbey (1818) supplies one reason for Austen's fascination with coding, concealing, or just plain not saying what she means, because this apparently amusing and inoffensive novel finally expresses an indictment of patriarchy that could hardly be considered proper or even permissible in Austen's day."
-- Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic
The code-work of Jane Austen's female gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, commences in its paronomastic title: we are to look closely for "anger in abeyance," for latent anger.2 Austen's anger is the buried treasure of her gothic text: often it is through expressing what she is not upset about that she hints at what is bothering her. An early example of this sets the novel in motion: Mr. Morland is introduced in the first few lines of the book as being "not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters" (NA 37). Apparently, the implication seems to be, most fathers are. Turning to Mrs. Morland: as her daughter prepares to {249} journey to Bath (early in chapter two), she does not feel "A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine", she fails to caution her daughter "against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house" (NA 41). But Mrs. Morland lacks these anxious fantasies only because she is ignorant of "lords and baronets": "she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was [therefore] wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations" (NA 41). Already Austen has, albeit quietly, set the stage for abuse of women by fathers and aristocrats.

In fact, more than "general mischievousness" but rather "General tyranny" takes place in Northanger Abbey. The dominant and domineering patriarchal figure of the novel commits all sorts of offenses against not only his wife but Eleanor and Catherine as well. Even in General Tilney's most banal gesture, there is violence: "Miss Tilney gently hinted her fear of being late [for dinner]; and in half a minute [she and Catherine] ran down stairs together, in an alarm not wholly unfounded for General Tilney was pacing the drawing-room, his watch in his hand and having, on the very instant of their entering, pulled the bell with violence, ordered 'Dinner to be on table directly!'" (NA 171). His despotism subsequently gets more insidious: "the General recovering his politeness . . . spent the rest of his time in scolding his daughter, for so foolishly hurrying her fair friend" (NA 171). Though nothing as gross as beating or rape occurs, there is nevertheless a form of violence against women in this and later scenes. The General prohibits Eleanor from showing Catherine Mrs. Tilney's bed-chamber; and when they transgress his law, his booming voice is heard: "the dreaded figure of the General . . . stood before her! The name of 'Eleanor' at the same moment, in his loudest tone, resounded through the building, giving to his daughter the first intimation of his presence, and to Catherine terror upon terror" (NA 194). Admittedly, Catherine may be easily terrorized and General Tilney's outbursts may seem humorously short-lived and blustering; still, there is reason to question whether Catherine has gone overboard in perceiving the late Mrs. Tilney as an imprisoned and "injured wife."

There are injuries, and there are lesser injuries that are nonetheless injurious. In fact, Catherine receives some support from the son in her {250} criticism of the father. Henry Tilney's ambiguous but incriminating words corroborate her intuition that at least something was out of kilter between the Tilneys: "He loved her, I am persuaded, as well as it was possible for him to -- We have not all, you know, the same tenderness of disposition -- and I will not pretend to say that while she lived, she might not often have had much to bear, but though his temper injured her, his judgment never did" (NA 199). Henry's vocabulary suggests that Catherine has in a way located the "injured and ill-fated nun," memorials of which she had been hoping to discover. And yet, Henry's support of Catherine's criticism of the father is lukewarm at best, his loyalties being divided. Though his impulse is to criticize/overthrow the father/patriarch, when the consequence of that move is sympathy for women, he holds back. A woman ought to be satisfied, it appears, to be abused verbally, if she be fairly judged.

It is plain to all readers of Northanger Abbey that Catherine's gothic fantasy -- in the male mode -- gets punctured. Its deflation signals Austen's metamorphosis of "male horrors" to "female horrors," her gradual shifting of the spotlight from the fantastical things that men find horrible (or at least that they use to image their terrified psychological condition) to the less fantastical things that women find horrible, which are all the more awful because less fantastical. Realistically-minded at the close of the novel, Catherine herself judges the General's wickedness. Rudely thrown out of the Abbey, she experiences firsthand the novel's translation of conventional gothic terror into the terror of mundane acts of abuse on the part of powerful men against powerless women:3 "how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been . . . how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror" (NA 225). Having suffered the General's cruelty, Catherine now has more than a high wind to worry about: there are familiar monsters on the loose. Finally it is made fairly explicit that Catherine's inflated, dramatic suspicions of the General serve as a code to convey the real modern barbarities of male behavior (and are not meant to parody her imagination, since it is by virtue of her imagination that {251} Catherine gets to the root of the crime[s]). Catherine hears enough through Henry of his father's disillusionment with her to feel that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty" (NA 243). With such a proximate nemesis to grapple with, it is no wonder that Catherine accedes to Eleanor's request that she write to her "under cover to [Eleanor's maid] Alice" (NA 226).

And the Northanger Abbey "sons" turn out to be spitting images of the father. The Sadean elements of the male gothic novel are mocked in the distasteful behavior of John Thorpe. He takes pride in mastering his horse, as he wishes to master women: he and Catherine proceed in his carriage in the "quietest manner imaginable . . . owing to the peculiarly judicious manner in which he . . . held the reins, and the singular discernment and dexterity with which he had directed his whip" (NA 82). He is a womanizer who utters "a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met" (NA 69). And though, unlike Fiedler's gothic villains, he avoids literal rape of mother and sister, he attacks them verbally: "Ah mother! how do you do? . . . where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?"; "On his two younger sisters he then bestowed an equal portion of his fraternal tenderness, for he asked each of them how they did, and observed that they both looked very ugly" (NA 70). It is indeed appropriate that John Thorpe scorns Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and praises The Monk.

Judging Henry Tilney is a finer matter, though he nonetheless may be identified in spirit as a son of the General (too often readers allow John Thorpe to function as Henry's lightning rod). Henry's first, sarcastic remarks to Catherine ridicule the writing of women, exactly what Austen defends in her apology for the novel:4 he comments priggishly that "letter-writing among women" suffers from "A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar" (NA 49). It is possible of course that Henry only teases Catherine here, since he believes perversely that "nothing in the world advances intimacy so much" (NA 51). Being overly legalistic, he pompously views two partners who agree simply to dance as entering "a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening" (NA 94). And his analogy between a country-dance and marriage brings out his oppressive conservatism, his desire to hold a tight rein on his future wife: "Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those {252} men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours" (NA 95). Henry will tolerate no interference with his possession of a wife. Once married, it is the responsibility of both spouses "to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours. . ." (NA 95). And though this sounds egalitarian, it is prematurely rigid; Henry entertains such thoughts (which are catalyzed merely by John Thorpe's desire to dance with Catherine) upon meeting Catherine for the third time. While Catherine's imagination expands her consciousness of man's inhumanity to woman, Henry argues immediately for restrictions on the imagination. Henry will want his wife exclusively to himself. A bad sign, if not a bad sentiment.

Henry's inheritance of the sins of the fathers doesn't stop here. He condescends to Catherine in speaking of her favorite subject, novels: "Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. . . . I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!" (NA 122). He chides her for using the empty word "nice." He asserts, tellingly, his pedagogical principle that effective instruction necessitates torment: "That little girls and boys should be tormented . . . is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny" (NA 124). He lectures Catherine on the picturesque, teaching her to perceive beauty through his eyes. And he continually makes misogynistic jokes: "I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute -- neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit" (NA 126-27). This is all very cute and funny, but a moment's identification with a woman's hurt reaction to such joking will reveal how wearisome it can be. One doesn't have to consult Freud's Jokes and their Relation to the Unconcious to know that whether he is joking or not Henry's conception of manhood depends on the devaluation of womanhood.

But Henry is not all rotten: there is a typically male gothic Oedipal rebellion staged in Northanger Abbey that partially redeems him. Insofar as he challenges his father's law, Austen salutes him as brotherly and {253} heroic. Unintimidated by the General, Henry fulfills responsibly his plan to marry Catherine, as he "felt himself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland . . . believing that heart to be his own which he had been directed to gain" (NA 243). But at the same time, Austen raises our suspicion about the extent to which this Oedipal son will carry out his subversion of the father. Henry seems about as cool toward Catherine as the General was toward Mrs. Tilney. His affection originates "in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought" (NA 240). A watered down emotion indeed. But how surprised should we be? Catherine, we must remember, becomes "Mrs. Tilney" -- making the novel seem in retrospect Catherine's anticipatory nightmarish vision of life as Mrs. Tilney. (Henry's jokes may injure Catherine, but his judgment never will.) Ganging up with Catherine and Henry, Austen indicts the father, the primary patriarch of the novel; defending Catherine against Henry, she withdraws her allegiance to him, exposing him as a patriarch like his father only in partial disguise. A reincarnated Mrs. Tilney, Catherine gets wedged between Tilney pere and Tilney fils. Yet Northanger Abbey has its bright side for feminists. We may think of Austen's story as "writing under cover" insofar as it carries this implicit political message: beware of becoming Mrs. Tilney, even if you distance yourself critically from the father and side with the son.


"[W]omen artists are repeatedly attracted to the Satanic/Byronic hero even while they try to resist the sexual submission exacted by this oppressive younger son who seems, at first, so like a brother or a double. . . . women writers develop a subversive tradition that has a unique relationship to the Romantic ethos of revolt."
-- Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic
The double bind that entraps the female gothicist is illustrated paradigmatically in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Infatuated with Arthur Huntingdon, the novel's Satanic/Byronic anti-hero, Helen Graham becomes his wretched victim. Initially, Helen is oblivious to Arthur's rudeness, and responds passionately to his "ineffable but indefinite charm, which cast a halo over all he did and said" (TWH 161). And yet, as she becomes aware that "there was more of {254} conscious power than tenderness in his demeanour" (TWH 163), Helen discloses her affinity for his romantic brutal energy. She rejects conventional suitors for lawless Arthur; his lawlessness gives her a thrill. An artist with a romantic imagination, Helen naturally feels drawn to Arthur's assaults on conformity.

But as usual the "daughter's" investment of passion in the "son's" rebellion against the "father" -- perhaps best characterized in this case by Fiedler's "old ego-ideals of Church and State" -- leads to trouble. The wedding bells no sooner stop ringing than Arthur begins his campaign of torture against Helen: thrill becomes insufferable pain. Arthur's abuses of Helen are rampant. He accelerates their bridal tour, since the continental scenes are old hat to him, and since he resents Helen's delighting in anything dissociated from him. Setting himself up as a god, Arthur competes with Helen's Christian God (as well as eventually with their son) for her attention, and soon resorts to physical violence to convey to Helen his disapproval of her reading. Discovering Helen immersed in a book one evening, Arthur takes out his frustration on his favorite cocker spaniel, Dash. He hurls a heavy book at its head, wounding both the dog and Helen. Animals and women alike are the degraded prey of this predator, a role signified glaringly by his surname. Having hunted Helen down, Arthur wishes to incarcerate her in their marriage. Helen spells out his backward "idea of a wife": "a thing to love one devotedly and to stay at home -- to wait upon her husband, and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way, while he chooses to stay with her; and, when he is absent, to attend to his interests, domestic or otherwise, and patiently wait his return; no matter how he may be occupied in the meantime" (TWH 257), that is, even if he indulges in an affair, as Arthur does with Annabella. (This novel, like Wuthering Heights, prefigures Marilyn French's call to women in The Women's Room to resist yielding masochistically to sadistic men, to recognize the sickness inherent in a female's attraction to male power over her.) Brontë thus contributes to the female gothicist's expose of the anti-patriarchal rebel's compulsion to torment a female victim to sustain his fight, to convince himself of his own force, against an oppressive status quo. Helen is sacrificed as Arthur proves his liberation from social convention, from everything that inhibits his instinctive drives. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall teaches the undercover lesson of the female gothic: women must beware of the patriarch in the anti-patriarch.

But it's not as if Arthur is the only demonic husband. His ugly {255} propensities are spread over almost all of the novel's male figures as part of Brontë's female gothic translation of fantastical ghosts and goblins to human monsters who abuse their wives. The most dramatic, terrifying moment of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall details a husband-dominated domestic quarrel between two less than central married characters, the Hattersleys. The scene best illuminates Brontë's novel as a nineteenth-century The Women's Room, with all of its terror embodied exquisitely in the most banal events, and all of its energy of violence and rape always about to explode.

"What are you crying for, Millicent? -- Tell me!"

"I'm not crying."

"You are," persisted he, rudely pulling her hands from her face. "How dare you tell such a lie?" . . .

"Do let me alone, Ralph! remember we are not at home."

"No matter: you shall answer my question!" exclaimed her tormentor; and he attempted to extort the confession by shaking her and remorsely crushing her slight arms in the gripe of his powerful fingers. . . .

"Tell me now!" said he, with another shake and a squeeze that made her draw in her breath and bite her lip to suppress a cry of pain.

"I'll tell you, Mr. Hattersley," said [Helen]. "She was crying from pure shame and humiliation for you; because she could not bear to see you conduct yourself so disgracefully." . . .

"Confound you, madam!" muttered he . . . . "It was not that -- was it, Millicent?" . . .

"Yes," she whispered, hanging her head and blushing at the awful acknowledgement.

"Curse you for an impertinent hussy then!" cried he, throwing her from him with such violence that she fell on her side. . . . (TWH 289-90)

Not only this scene but finally Brontë's entire book is about as bleak as French's, despite Helen's marriage (after Arthur's death) to Gilbert Markham -- ostensible gentleman.5 We can be sure that Brontë wishes us to link Arthur Huntingdon and Gilbert, since we initially meet Gilbert, just moments before he encounters Helen for the first time, out with his dog and gun, hunting for hawks and carrion crows, though seeking "better prey." To this end he heads for Wildfell (where Helen lives). Throughout the novel Gilbert can hardly keep himself from {256} pouncing on her: "Never had she tooked so lovely: never had my heart so warmly cleaved to her as now. Had we been left two minutes longer, standing there alone, I cannot answer for the consequences" (TWH 86). Even worse, he admits unabashedly his desire to punish Helen, to make her suffer: during a pivotal, emotion-packed meeting between them, "though [he] saw she was miserable, and pitied her, [he] felt glad to have it in [his] power to torment her" (TWH 141). "'I can crush that bold spirit,' [he thinks]. But while I secretly exulted in my power, I felt disposed to dally with my victim like a cat" (TWH 143).

It is this, perhaps covert, sadist whom Helen marries as a happy alternative to Arthur. Writing under cover -- just as Helen, while occupying Wildfell Hall, has communications addressed to her "under cover" to her brother -- Anne Brontë plants clues that had Helen comfortably (without incurring all the gossip and aspersions of her neighbors, without being considered an enigmatic lady/witch) been able to remain single at Wildfell (the female "wild zone" of the book), she would have been better off. Helen's aunt advises her well: "matrimony is a serious thing" (TWH 150, Brontë's emphasis); "thoughtlessness [in a husband] may lead to every crime" (TWH 191). In turn, late in the novel, Helen enjoins her friend Esther to "stand firm. You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike. . . . remember, you are bound to your husband for life." Perpetual maidenhood has its appeal: "though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result" (TWH 380). The novel ends conventionally both in social and artistic terms, as it seems it must, on the note of a blissful marriage between Helen and Gilbert (according to Gilbert anyway, who takes over the narrative at the end, burying Helen's voice), but its radical gothic critique of marriage and men subverts the flimsy, pretty conclusion.

Anne Brontë makes her main point twice, perhaps to show that the paradox is inescapable: liberating anti-patriarchs metamorphose into repressive patriarchs once the "weaker vessel" finds them appealing. Initially seductive, Arthur turns out to be a brute. Ostensibly a gentleman, Gilbert turns out to be a version of Arthur, a merely less blatant brute. Brontë shows that the brutality which is taken to be the opposite of gentlemanliness inheres in gentlemanliness. Hence the rebel against patriarchy (the brute) is revealed to be the constituent of patriarchy (the {257} gentleman). And the corollary of this absorption of the gothic into normality is that the terrorized gothic victim is secretly identified as the normally happy wife.


"'Terror made me cruel,' says Lockwood; 'and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes. . . .'"

"'Terror made me cruel. . . .' Is Emily Brontë a 'Terrorist,' as the first Gothic novelists were called?"

-- Ellen Moers, Literary Women
Ellen Moers is right to place Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights "uneasily" in the gothic tradition. But the novel fits even less felicitously (into the male gothic canon) than she supposes. Moers writes that Brontë accepts "the cruel as a normal, almost an invigorating component of human life." She argues that "The Gothic vice of sadism is an extreme and pervasive feature of Wuthering Heights," without identifying particular sadists. They aren't female. Yet Moers seems to accept and appreciate the thought that the eccentricities of the gothic tradition are "indigenous to 'woman's fantasy.'" She goes even further: "In Wuthering Heights those female 'eccentricities' must be called by a stronger name: perversities" (99-100). But from whom does the cruelty, sadism, and perversity actually issue in Brontë's novel? Who enjoys it? Lockwood's indulgence in cruelty because he is terrified hardly makes Brontë a "Terrorist." Why is it so hard to disentangle the victim from the victimizer in this book?

One reason might be that Heathcliff, Brontë's chief sadist, seduces not only Catherine and Isabella but readers and critics as well. Even feminist critics. Gilbert and Gubar read Heathcliff as "what Elaine Showalter calls 'a woman's man,' a male figure into which a female artist projects in disguised form her own anxieties about her sex and its meaning in her society" (294). Such projection no doubt operates in Wuthering Heights. Certainly in the beginning, Catherine expresses the fullest imaginable solidarity with Heathcliff in her famous statements to Nelly: "he's more myself than I am" and "I am Heathcliff -- he's always, always in my mind . . . as my own being" (WH 72, 74). Heathcliff embodies Catherine's (and surely Brontë's) impulse for nature (over culture), for freedom, and for full release of her wildness, as Arthur in The {258} Tenant of Wildfell Hall does at the outset for Helen. Like most female gothicists, then, Emily Brontë partly identifies with the gothic hero-villain. But Heathcliff eventually proves to be traitorous; he damages women at least as much as he represents them.

So while I grant that Catherine identifies with the Byronic/Satanic anti-hero (rather than the restrictive patriarchal world of Thrushcross Grange) in the first place, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the bind is double. Catherine's ability to play chameleon keeps her free and alive for a while, as she oscillates between Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights: "In the place where she heard Heathcliff termed a 'vulgar young ruffian,' and 'worse than a brute,' she took care not to act like him; but at home she had small inclination to practise politeness that would only be laughed at, and restrain an unruly nature when it would bring her neither credit nor praise" (WH 62). But eventually she is ground to death by the jaws of the female gothic double bind.

That the Victorian world of manners located at Thrushcross Grange crushes Catherine's spirit by binding her in ladyhood is rarely contested; the less popular position is that Heathcliff is complicit in the crime. And yet, through her death Catherine points a finger at, and attempts to spite, both Edgar and Heathcliff. Even when her thoughts fail to name Heathcliffs misdeed, Catherine predicts punishment for both men: "Well, if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend, if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I'll try to break their hearts by breaking my own. That will be a prompt way of finishing all" (WH 101). On her deathbed Catherine attempts to wound Heathcliff with the charge: "You and Edgar have broken my heart, Heathcliff! And you both come to bewail the deed to me, as if you were the people to be pitied! I shall not pity you, not I. You have killed me -- and thriven on it, I think" (WH 132). Inappropriate and indecent as it is, Heathcliff and Catherine have at this dire time a fierce quarrel. Her behavior toward him belies the sentimental notion that she cares for him in the end purely as her childhood brother/lover. During her last minutes to live, Catherine's "present countenance had a wild vindictiveness in its white cheek . . ." (WH 133).

Heathcliff, of course, may have turned against Catherine initially because she turned against him and toward Edgar, but that point fails to explain her vindictiveness. By the end Catherine appears to apprehend the intrinsic ruthlessness, the sadism, of her Byronic/Satanic boyfriend: at her bedside when Heathcliff lets go of Catherine's arm, "four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin" (WH 133). The monstrosity {259} of his behavior in the course of the novel far outweighs that of her infidelity to him; and her growing hostility toward him remains inexplicable if she is the one at fault. Though it could be argued that Catherine's rejection of Heathcliff triggers his meanness toward her and in turn her condemnation of him, his meanness surpasses the vengefulness that such rejection might elicit. In her Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights (1850), Charlotte Brontë picks up on Heathcliffs devilishness -- a fiendishness that transcends mere ire over Catherine's marriage to Edgar: "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition, from the time when 'the little black-haired, swarthy thing, as dark as if it came from the Devil,' was first unrolled out of the bundle and set on its feet in the farm-house kitchen, to the hour when Nelly Dean found the grim, stalwart corpse laid on its back in the panel-enclosed bed, with wide-gazing eyes that seemed 'to sneer at her attempt to close them, and parted lips and sharp white teeth that sneered too!'" (WH 11). Though on the verge of metamorphosing into Dracula, Heathcliff remains human, but even human devils make relentless partners for women, whether or not they share a common foe.

Brontë imbues Heathcliff with evil incommensurate with Catherine's criticism and rejection of him -- a sadism that reveals that he would have been no more conducive to Catherine's happiness than Edgar. Isabella can testify to this, as Heathcliff shows his truest villainous colors in his treatment of her. And Catherine seems fully cognizant of the depths of his nastiness. She lashes out against Heathcliff to protect her new sister:

"I wouldn't be you for a kingdom, then!" Catherine declared, emphatically -- and she seemed to speak sincerely. "Nelly, help me to convince her of her madness. Tell her what Heathcliff is -- an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. I'd as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter's day as recommend you to bestow your heart on him! It is deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond -- a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. . . . he'd crush you, like a sparrow's egg, Isabella, if he found you a troublesome charge." (WH 89-90)
Through Isabella's torturous experience, Brontë lets us in on what Catherine's experience was apt to have been. Like Lockwood who prior to the events of the novel shrinks "icily into [himself], like a snail" once the {260} "goddess" he adores on the beach takes an interest in him (WH 15), Heathcliff only shows signs of passion for Catherine because she remains inaccessible.

Brontë even has Heathcliff himself elaborate his wickedness. "The first thing [Isabella] saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her. I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!" Heathcliff despises Isabella for being "an abject thing," for her ability to "endure," and to "creep shamefully cringing back!" (WH 127). By having Heathcliff admit to a consciousness of his mystique as gothic hero-villain (he tells Catherine that Isabella abandoned Thrushcross Grange "under a delusion . . . picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion" [WH 126]), Brontë clinches her de-mystification of his charm. There is something about his cognizance and articulation of the romantic myth that ensnares Isabella that turns the stomach one last time. Isabella learns the hardest way that Heathcliff is a "lying fiend, a monster, and not a human being!" (WH 128). But her mistake here highlights the worst thing of all: unfortunately, Heathcliff is a human being. Brontë makes the female gothicist's most hair-raising point that some fiends aren't supernatural.

I take this to be the undercover message of specifically Nelly Dean's story. Familiar with the library as well as with the ways of the world, Nelly is equipped to recount her female gothic story, as she does "in true gossip's fashion" (WH 59).6 She spins out a tale of woe for women, in which she tries to offset the pattern of female subjugation to male authority and power with her strength and common sense.

Clearly Nelly's maneuvers are limited; but seen in this light, they bespeak a crucial message for women. Her efforts (however unsuccessful) work toward pulling women up out of the gothic sadistic theatre of their everyday lives. For example, Nelly's silence about Heathcliff's overhearing Catherine's fatal criticism of him -- which leads to his disappearance and, one might fairly assume, to her marriage to Edgar -- suggests that for all her camaraderie with Heathcliff she, like Catherine toward the end of the novel, suspects his capacity for kindness to Catherine. Nelly consciously ruptures their relationship, wisely knowing its futility. And her failure later on in the book to relay to Edgar news of the seriousness of {261} Catherine's illness might be seen as part of her dogged hope, her insistence that Catherine will simply regain her health, will stand on her two feet, and stop carrying on, stop destroying herself to spite the men. (Nelly's plan, of course, backfires.)

In an essay placed prominently at the back of the Norton edition of Wuthering Heights, John Mathison accuses Nelly of being too "good-natured, warmhearted, wholesome, practical, and physically healthy" to be able adequately to narrate the story of Catherine and Heathcliff (334), but perhaps her heartiness is meant as an antidote to the particular illnesses that Brontë portrays -- Catherine's anorexia and ultimate self-destructiveness, and Isabella's self-destructive attraction to villain-heroes. From a feminist point of view, the perspective that because of Nelly "we are constantly directed toward feeling the inadequacy of the wholesome [that Nelly represents], and toward sympathy with genuine passions [which to Mathison Nelly cannot appreciate], no matter how destructive or violent" begins to look a little conspiratorial (Mathison 353). Insisting on reading Wuthering Heights as a sick male gothic novel in the Fiedlerian tradition (in which the passionate rebellion of male heroes reigns supreme despite, or even perhaps by virtue of, the damage they do, most often to female victims), Mathison misses the lesson of the female gothic -- Nelly's lesson -- that one doesn't have to look to the supernatural world to find male fiends, and that therefore until feminism is at the heart of the rebellion women should steer clear of the charisma of gothic rebels. The shepherd boy's vision at the end of Wuthenng Heights of "Heathcliff and a woman" (WH 265) indicates that the only world in which women can consort with male rebels and retain their status as women is a ghostly one. What the male gothic writer locates beyond death -- giants, ghosts, demons, etc. -- the female gothic writer locates in real life; and what the male gothic writer imagines in life -- admirable young heroes -- the female gothic writer can only imagine in yet unrealized kingdoms.


"You wanted to kill your father in order to be your father yourself."
-- Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide"7
The male gothic urge to exclude, even to abolish, women is exposed also in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley dramatizes the horrifying results of the desire for a kind of Hisland -- almost every male character in {262} the novel finds men more appealing than women. In the opening epistles, Robert Walton writes to his sister, Margaret, that he is friendless and thus longs for "the company of a man who could sympathize with [him], whose eyes would reply to [his]" (F 273). (One might have expected those eyes to be womanly.) And no sooner is Victor rescued and brought on ship than Walton begins "to love him as a brother" (F 282).

Women do enter the picture as tools for male bonding. Victor Frankenstein's father loved a man named Beaufort to the point that two years after the friend's death, Mr. Frankenstein married Beaufort's daughter, in whose loving and caring arms Beaufort passed away. "Tried worth" and "gratitude," rather than passion, motivate him. It is as if through marrying Caroline Mr. Frankenstein unites spiritually with his beloved friend. Safie similarly gains value as she is exchanged between men. She is the "treasure" that her Turkish merchant father rewards Felix with for Felix's help in freeing him from prison in France.8

Even the novel's rebel against patriarchy is not, as a result, attracted to women: Victor seems drawn to Henry Clerval more than he is to Elizabeth. Early in the book, Mrs. Frankenstein offers Elizabeth to Victor as "a pretty present" (F 293). And Elizabeth never becomes anything more to Victor than a "gift," a taken-for-granted "possession," a "more than sister" (F 294). Both Mr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth are embarrassed by his lack of sexual drive toward her.

Victor, of course, has thrown all of his fervor into having a baby before their marriage and without Elizabeth, into taking on the roles of both parents. He refers to his creation of the "monster" as the product of "painful labour," but what he produces is not merely female reproduction. He describes the "birth" of his passion behind the act in terms of a combination of male arousal and pregnancy: it arose "like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all [his] hopes and joys" (F 297).

The trouble is that Victor fails miserably at motherhood. The novel depicts the abysmal inadequacy of an ambitious, Byronic/Satanic male scientist's nurturing abilities. Victor commits crimes against domesticity (he himself admits that no pursuit should be allowed "to interfere with the tranquillity of . . . domestic affections" [F 316], as his certainly does), and against the sanctity of the mother- or parent-child bond. Shelley measures the Byronic/Satanic anti-hero against the yardstick of conventional female domestic values, and he proves to be inept. She {263} extends to Victor the privilege of giving birth, identifying him as a potential "woman's man," but ends up punishing him for his desire to usurp the female by eschewing her nurturing values rather than adopting them.9 Which brings us once more to a central point of women's gothic writing: that although women share with Romantic sons a subordinate position vis-a-vis the establishment -- the "old ego-ideals of Church and State," which Victor challenges in attempting to create life and thereby rivaling the Creator -- Romantic sons and womanhood, in this case specifically motherhood, don't mix. In Frankenstein it's not just a matter of a mere lack of affinity: part of Victor's rebellion seems to necessitate rendering the woman irrelevant. He wants to play the role of the supreme patriarch (God) who doesn't need a matriarch.10 But there is one male in the story who craves a female. The creature pleads with Victor for a "companion," and she doesn't have to be gorgeous. He wants her as a partner in a balanced relationship and as a lifeline to humankind. He yearns to "live in communion with an equal . . . [to] feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence" (F 415). (Victor finally has no sympathy for such a craving; his misogyny explodes into violence when he tears to pieces the female creature he had begun to make. "The remains of the half-finished creature, whom [he] had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and [he] almost felt as if [he] had mangled the living flesh of a human being." He puts "the relics of [his] work . . . into a basket, with a great quantity of stones" and hurls them into the sea [F 440-41].) And not only does the creature crave a woman, but he possesses a womanliness that precludes his own misogyny. He lacks a history as women lack a history of their own; he represents a woman's helplessness in a male-dominated society and he is acutely aware of the defects of his body as a woman is trained to be. The creature (rather than Heathcliff or Victor) serves as Showalter's "woman's man," into whom Shelley has projected overtly her anxieties about being a woman.

Yet all of the creature's feminine qualities are not sources of anxiety. Some, on the contrary, are celebrated, offered as alternatives superior to qualities typical of the gothic anti-hero. The creature is the female gothicist's best answer to the destructiveness and misogyny of the gothic hero-villain. He is an improvement upon Henry, Arthur, Heathcliff, Victor, Byron, Satan, etc. insofar as: he has a fine, gentle, poetic sensibility (he likes music, including the song of birds; appreciates form; responds to beauty [loves flowers]); he values domestic, civilized order {264} (after watching Agatha do her housekeeping in the cottage, he arranges his hovel-dwelling and carpets it with straw); he feels deep emotion (he is moved by the goodness of the DeLacey family and in turn is benevolent toward them); he appreciates nature; he is self-conscious about his identity; he learns and loves language, and writes. In Frankenstein Shelley offers what we might think of (not as a son but) as a grandson of the patriarchy, a feminized son of the putative anti-patriarchal son, a grandson who doesn't at long last find patriarchal behavior and values alluring.11 Perhaps female gothicists were attracted to male rebels in the first place because of the overwhelming obstacles obstructing their own rebellion. Let's hook up with the already active revolutionaries, they may have naively said to themselves. But they appear eventually to locate, and thus wish to expose, in their male comrades fidelity to the power structures against which those male comrades supposedly rebel: Romantic sons insist on power over women just as their fathers insisted on power over them. The competition is for control of the patriarchy; neither side is finally anti-patriarchal. So female gothic writers found themselves absorbing and undermining the gothic to articulate the paradox of the patriarchal anti-patriarch. Mary Shelley, however, devised a way of creating an anti-patriarchal anti-hero uninterested in becoming another patriarch. But the only rebel she could invent outside of the mutually reinforcing father-son hegemonies is an independent-minded "monster" -- not a woman. (Her reasoning may have been that if real men are monstrous and treacherous, then maybe monsters are the only allies to be trusted!) Perhaps this is why the "feminism" of the female gothic took the form of subversion of the subversive. The law of the so-called lawless son proved to be about as formidable as the law of the father. But by bringing the gothic home, female gothicists were at least surreptitiously able to say so.


1. The gothic son's fear of the "mother" not only complicates the Oedipal pattern but suggests Freud's "negative Oedipus," in which the son wishes to murder the "mother" to get to the "father." Fiedler's speculation may actually imply a negative Oedipal theory since the gothic son's desire to subvert the "father" may be equally motivated (as I argue later on) by a desire to take his place. Veeder (366) applies Freud's negative Oedipus to Shelley's Frankenstein.

2. Although Austen's brother chose the title of the novel after her death, Austen (obviously) chose the name "Northanger Abbey" for the primary edifice of the book in which General Tilney dispenses his cruelty.

3. My reading of Northanger Abbey is meant to supplement that of Gilbert and Gubar. I excluded from my discussion their by now famous reading of the laundry list (128-45).

4. Austen's focus, in Chapter V, is on women novelists. She, in fact, aligns novelists with Mrs. Tilney -- "Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body" (my emphasis) -- and alludes to Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth as part of her defense: "'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady. . . . 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;' or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" (NA 58). Austen's apology for women's writing would, therefore, lead one to doubt that Northanger Abbey is a spoof on Mrs. Radcliffe's Udolpho.

5. It must be kept in mind that gentleman Gilbert attacks Mr. Lawrence with a whip "garnished with a massive horse's head of plated metal" (TWH 135). He feels "savage satisfaction" on observing "the instant, deadly pallor that overspread [Mr. Lawrence's] face, and the few red drops that trickled down his forehead, while he reeled a moment in his saddle, and then fell backward to the ground" (TWH 134). Gilbert then deserts him, and later takes comfort in hearing that Mr. Lawrence "had frightfully fractured his skull and broken a leg" (TWH 138).

6. Nelly, the often neglected, much maligned, maternalistic servant-narrator of most of Wuthering Heights, tells Lockwood a striking fact about her literacy: she has "read more than [he] would fancy . . . You could not open a book in this library that I have not looked into, and got something out of also, unless it be that range of Greek and Latin, and that of French -- and those I know one from another: it is as much as you can expect of a poor man's daughter" (WH 59). Brontë seems to be signalling here Nelly's intellectual capaclty to weave a narrarive with a subtle point.

7. Veeder invokes this line from Freud's essay on Dostoevsky (232) to sum up "Frankenstein's desire to become Fitz-victor," a status he achieves, argues Veeder "partially by giving birth to himself as monster" and partially by (indirectly) "killing" his father, Alphonse. Veeder, p. 380. Veeder makes an interesting case for this latter idea.

8. There is reason to believe that Mary Shelley disapproved of both Safie's and her mother's lot. (Safie's alternative to not marrying Felix is to be "immured within the walls of a harem" [F 390]; and her mother was "made a slave by the Turks" [F 390].) For tucked away in these tiny sub-plots, "feminism" is revealed to be on Shelley's mind: Safie's mother "taught her [daughter] to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden ro the female followers of Muhammed. This lady died, but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie" (F 390).

9. Without going into a lengthy history of critical debate on Frankenstein, I should mention that while Moers and Gilbert and Gubar tend to read the novel as a myth expressing the horrors of birth, Robert Kiely (The Romantic Novel in England) and Judith Wilt corroborate my own sense, that, to quote Wilt who quotes Kiely, "a hidden feminism leads Mary to punish Frankenstein for seeking "to combine the role of both parents in one, to eliminate the need for woman in the creative act'" (63).

10. Like Veeder, Wilt perceives in Frankenstein the desire to father himself. She puts the idea, as I do, in feminist terms: "the Gothic adds an extra dimension, a profound resentment of the sources of one's being, especially the female sources, stemming from the desire to be one's own source -- and goal" (65).

11. One cannot, of course, ignore that the creature murders several innocent victims. But, first, within the logic of the text, he seems justified -- his suffering spurs him on. Second, his killing isn't misogynistic -- men as well as women fall at his hands.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Berryman, John. Introd. to Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1952.

Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Brontë, Charlotte. "Editor's Preface to the New Edition" of Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Meridian Books/The World Publishing Co., 1962.

Freud, Sigmund. "Dostoevsky and Patricide," in Collected Papers. Ed. Ernest Jones, The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 5. New York, 1959.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Mathison, John K. "Nelly Dean and the Power of Wuthering Heights," in Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, in Three Gothic Novels. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

Veeder, William. "The Negative Oedipus: Father, Frankenstein, and the Shelleys," Critical Inquiiry, 12 (1986).

Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.