The Significance of Female Identity Within Gothic Literature

Updated on February 27, 2018
John Keats
John Keats

The presentation of female identity is essential to Gothic literature. Presenting women in a particular light can often have a profound effect upon a text, completely altering a reader’s interpretation. In the narrative poetry of John Keats, Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, women are presented as objects of desire, maternal figures, supernatural beings and are often defined by their biological roles. But it is the transition between these typecasts that is particularly interesting. By allowing female characters to break free of stereotypical constraints the writer is able to create obscurity and suspense within a plot.

There are two main female roles within Gothic literature; the ‘predator’ and the ‘victim’. The first is dangerous yet powerfully attractive; she helps portray the pain/pleasure paradox that has come to be synonymous with Gothic literature. The latter is fragile and vulnerable, she gives the heroes something to rescue, and is often the prize for their brave endeavours.

Occasionally, however, Gothic writers seem to blur the lines between these stereotypical characters in order to add depth, uncertainty and suspense. This is particularly clear in Angela Carter’s ‘The Snow Child’ in which we would expect the jealous Countess to be the predator and the child to be the victim. The view presented to us of the Snow Child and the Countess, however, lies within the reader’s interpretation of the story. It depends on where our sympathies lie as to whether we see the Countess as the victim as her husband replaces her with a ‘newer model’, or we see the girl as the victim, created as both an object of the Count’s lust and the Countess’s hatred.

The Countess’s jealousy is made clear from the moment the girl arrives in the blunt declarative ‘the Countess hated her.’ This could stem from the fact that the count had ‘fathered’ a child, yet she was not the mother. Where the child is often described in terms of her sexual maturity, the Countess is described using the bilabial alliterative ‘bare bough’ and the simile ‘bare as a bone’. This could be seen to reflect the Countess’s infertility that has come with age, and may explain her hatred towards the young and fertile girl. This presents women in an extremely negative light, adhering to the stereotype that all women are threatened by those younger and more beautiful than themselves.

This idea, of characters breaking out of their stereotypes, can also be seen through the role of ‘Isabella’ in Keats’ ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’. Throughout the poem we associate Isabella with vulnerability. Keats describes her in terms of her beauty and naivety using the adjectives, ‘poor’, ‘fair’ and ‘simple’. He also characteristically uses a lexical field of birds, portraying Isabella as a helpless chick in her ‘downy nest’. However, despite losing her lover, Isabella is left to mourn for just one stanza. She then stops

letting ‘love’s cousin’ take hold of her, and decides to take action. Soon her heart is thronged with a ‘richer zest’, reflecting how she was strengthened by her love for Lorenzo.

In contrast, the ‘Snow Child’ seems to adhere to her victim-like stereotype. She is represented as an object of lust, and this is shown through her description. We see references to her sexual maturity throughout and it becomes the focus of her entire identity, in particular her beginnings as a ‘hole in the snow’ that is ‘filled with blood’. Clearly, this could be a reference to female menstruation, symbolic of sexual maturity. This is furthered by the fact that she is presented to the Count completely naked; which could be interpreted as a symbol of her birth, or simply the result of an instantaneous manifestation of the Count’s lust. After her creation she is lifted up and ‘sat in front’ of the Count; she has no means of escape. She is also never given a name or permitted to speak which leaves her open to psychoanalytical readings. We find ourselves asking whether or not her thoughts were motivated towards pleasing the count, or whether she would have escaped given the chance. In other Carter stories, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for example, the victim is rescued from the male protagonist. The fact that the Snow Child is killed by the Countess could reflect the fleeting nature of youth and fertility.

Strictly adhering to their stereotypes even more so than the ‘Snow Child’ are the female roles portrayed in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. The Count’s brides help to reinforce the idea of the typically Gothic pain/pleasure paradox by appearing to Jonathan Harker both physically attractive and repulsive. They are described initially as ‘ladies by their dress and manner’, but their descriptions turn to vivid juxtapositions, for example their ‘honey-sweet’ breath with a ‘bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood’, and their ‘deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive’. The repetitive use of the colours white and red also help to reinforce this gothic paradox, white typically being associated with innocence and purity; red with wrath and passion. For example, the brides’ white teeth like ‘pearls’ are contrasted against the ‘ruby of their voluptuous lips’. The brides are overly sexualised yet appear frightfully dangerous. Literary critic Ben H Wright puts forward the view that ‘the actions of the vampire women in their seduction of Jonathan Harker represent newfound anxieties about the emergence of the New Woman.’ He describes the ‘new woman’ as women who challenged the ‘prevailing notions of Victorian womanhood’1. Perhaps Stoker was attempting to reflect the chaos that would emerge should this notion be forgotten or left behind.

Mina appears to adhere to the victim-like stereotype as she is portrayed as sexless, nurturing and motherly. She is described as having a ‘man’s brain’ and is completely dismissive of the ‘modern woman’. She is also seen as something to be protected, the men around her constantly attempting to shield her from their plans to keep her safe. However, at the time she is attacked by Dracula, Jonathan was sleeping soundly by her side, reflecting a complete failure on his behalf. To take a psychoanalytical approach, Mina could be demonstrating a desire to betray her husband with impunity. Mina also tends to break free of her vulnerable stereotype by demonstrating bravery, understanding the world around her and offering solutions where the male characters fall short. For example, her emotional awareness can be viewed as fairly innovative for her time, as she demonstrates an understanding of the need to vent one’s problems, commenting how crying ‘clears the air like the rain does’. She organises the group’s transportation with her knowledge of train timetables, and not only suggests but insists upon the dangerous use of hypnotism, a new medical science to Victorian society, in order to track the Count’s movements. However, even she becomes sexualised as she begins to transform into a vampire, likening herself to the Count’s brides as she states that there are ‘none safer in all the world from them’ than she.

Lucy can be seen as a warning to female readers of the consequences of being flirtatious or promiscuous. She reflects the transition from the victim to the predator stereotype. By being bitten by Count Dracula, Lucy is educated as to her own sexuality; this is likely because transfusions at the time, or the swapping of bodily fluids in general, were often linked to sex, reflected as early as John Donne’s 17th Century poem ‘The Flea’. This is likely because blood transfusions were still a radical and foreign concept in the 19th Century, the first recorded successful case being performed by Dr James Blundell in 1818.2 The foreign and unknown elements will have made the procedure seem dangerous but attractive. The scenes in which Lucy is given blood transfusions will have appealed to a female audience in the same way females to this day find vampires attractive. The elements of danger allow Lucy to absolve herself from moral blame, perhaps allowing her to secretly take pleasure in the act. The Victorian belief states that women had no sexual appetite, it is for this reason that ‘Dracula’ can be seen as an extremely subversive text for its age, by bringing forth strong images of female sexual desires.

As Lucy’s transformation is almost complete and she is close to death, Van Helsing protects Arthur from the overly sexualised ‘voluptuous’ woman, reinforcing the idea that these predators are alluring yet dangerous. Similar to the attitude of the Marquis in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Lucy’s sins are forgiven after her husband drives a stake through her heart, at once restoring Lucy to a ‘holy…memory’ and ‘sending her to the stars’. The idea that women can only be redeemed in death, usually after intense suffering, is common within Gothic literature.

Another female stereotype often found in Gothic literature is that of the elderly nurse or chaperone who often accompanies the female protagonist. This stereotype can be seen in the ‘aged nurse’ in’ Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, Angela in ‘Eve of Saint Agnes’ and Mrs. Westenra in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Mrs Westenra is a typically gothic chaperone but contrasts with the elderly women in Keats’ narrative poetry as they are often considered to be world wise or knowledgeable, whereas she is portrayed as fairly naïve. Mrs Westenra is used as a dramatic device as the Count requires Lucy and Mina to be vulnerable and on their own, but ladies of that status, particularly in the Victorian era would require a chaperone. Her untimely demise also helps to reflect the scope of the Count’s power.

The Count’s unearthly powers are an example of supernatural elements, which play an integral role in Gothic literature, where belief in the Devil, witchcraft, fairies and enchanted forests featured heavily. These beings were thought to be a genuine threat, thus by using supernatural imagery the writer was able to add a sense of mystery to a female role, often utilizing this in order to make her seem untrustworthy or promiscuous. This technique has been revived in the 19th Century narrative poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ in that the reader is made to be suspicious of the ‘fairy’s child’. There is a suggestion of madness in her ‘wild’ eyes, and the fact that the ‘knight at arms’ is ‘lulled’ to sleep suggests an element of deception. The stanzas are in iambic tetrameter apart from the final line which is a spondee, allowing the reader to be ‘lulled’ into a false sense of security before being made to feel uncomfortable or uneasy. However, the fairy child is also described as ‘full beautiful’, ‘sweet’ and ‘fragrant’, reflecting how, although she is dangerous, she is sexually attractive, thus reinforcing the Gothic pain/pleasure paradox. This is similar to the Count’s brides in ‘Dracula’, who seem to have a mystical connection with the moonlight as their ‘piercing eyes’ seem to turn red in the presence of the ‘pale yellow moon’. The brides’ red eyes make them appear to the reader as not only untrustworthy, but perilously dangerous.

Alternatively, the use of supernatural imagery can also be used in order to make the character seem virtuous or saintly. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for example, Carter uses assonance to enhance the narrator’s mother’s moral standing. She describes her as an ‘avenging angel’ as she descends through the forest in order to rescue her daughter.

In contrast, women in the Gothic genre are often presented as an object of lust or desire. This is likely because the unknown may have been interpreted as dangerous and therefore attractive. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for example, the Marquis describes his young bride’s ‘thin white face’ as having a ‘promise of debauchery’. This is in stark contrast to the pure, virginal imagery used to describe her before the loss of her innocence.

The young Marquise is not only described as an object of desire, but the object of her husband’s desire. He rejects material luxuries in order to create his own image of perfection in his wife, the fact that he is not yet satisfied foreshadows the way he believes that only in death can his wives possibly achieve this. He forces her to wear her ruby choker, and asks her to place her expensive opal rings over her gloves. Later, upon reflection, the Marquise states that she saw herself ‘as he saw me’, suggesting that the Marquis does not see her for who she is, rather who he wants her to be.

Where the Marquis turns his wife into the object of his own desire, Porphyro in Keats’ ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’ describes Madeline as something to be desired and worshipped by all. In the fifth stanza Keats diverts from the frame story in order to draw the reader’s attention to Madeline using the imperative ‘turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there’. Throughout religious imagery is used to link her to purity and religious imagery culminating at the moment Porphyro is watching Madeline kneeling ‘for heaven’s grace and boon’. At this point she is described as almost saint-like, as if she herself is a religious shrine. However, after describing her as a ‘splendid angel’ Porphyro ‘grew faint’ and continues to watch her undress, reflecting how, despite his promise to Angela, he is willing to corrupt and manipulate Madeleine in order to fulfil his own sexual desires.

What is interesting to note is that in both of these scenarios, the ‘objects’ are not consulted, this idea is developed further in ‘The Snow Child’. For example, the young girl is described as the ‘child of the Count’s desire’ and yet is not granted a name or a voice. Like the Countess, she is only described in terms of her appearance. This could reflect how the male characters view their female companions, and in this both Keats and Carter could be suggesting that women are too often judged solely on their appearance or material possessions.

Another way women are seen as an object of desire can be seen in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, where noble men are corrupted and encouraged to abandon their morals by predatory females. For example, despite being happily engaged, Jonathan Harker fails to resist the Count’s beautiful brides. Curiosity drove him to fall asleep in the library where he felt a ‘wicked, burning desire that they would kiss’ him. He describes them as having a ‘deliberate voluptuousness’ which was both ‘thrilling and repulsive’, furthering the idea of the pain/pleasure paradox.

This alluring imagery is similar to the way Lucy is described in the ‘Westminster Gazette’ as common stories appear of children being ‘lured away’ by the ‘Bloofer Lady’. This takes the idea further, where a seductive woman is not only leading individuals from their morals, but leading them to certain death. This can be seen as an example of the consequences that await those who fail to resist the temptation brought about by these female predators.

Lucy reflects the transition from virtue to vice. Transitions are a common feature of Gothic literature, transitional places, people and objects feature heavily. An example of this we see frequently is the female transition from a young lover to a maternal figure.In ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, for example, we see Isabella become a mother figure for the head of her deceased lover. Keats describes the way she combs the head’s ‘wild hair with a golden comb’ and ‘points each fringed lash’ before wrapping it in a ‘silken scarf’ swearing never to leave its side. However, the poem also states that Lorenzo’s glove has a profound effect on Isabella, destroying her natural motherly attributes and instincts, drying out and freezing her ‘dainties’. This could illustrate the unnatural transition that has occurred, reflecting that only through biological childbirth can you successfully transform from an individual to a mother. This idea of a bond that is both attractive yet dangerous can be traced to Keats’s personal life and his relationship with Fanny Braune, which remained a threat to the creative process.

This can also be seen to some extent in Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ in which the young girl rips of the wolf’s shirt and throws it into the fire seductively, then swiftly moves to ‘lay his fearful head on her lap’ as she picks out ‘the lice from his pelt’. This imagery, although described as a ‘savage marriage ceremony’, is also fairly maternal, reinforcing the typically Gothic idea of a relationship which is alluring yet repulsive.

However, this transition can work both ways, Gothic literature provides us with examples of motherly figures absolving themselves of all maternal instincts. For example as Lucy in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is bitten she becomes aware of her own sexuality; however the transition which occurs transforms her into the opposite of a maternal figure. She feeds from the blood of infants and young children in order to sustain her own ‘half-life’, taking life rather than giving it.

As well as describing the transition from lover to maternal figure, women are often completely defined by their biological roles, the loss of their virginity or, as made clear in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, their ‘destiny’ as women to produce heirs. For example, in ‘The Snow Child’, the girl pricks her finger, ‘bleeds; screams’ and ‘falls’. This could illustrate the fact that she has now fulfilled her purpose in the eyes of the Count by reaching sexual maturity, and thus is no longer attractive. Similarly, this could be applied to Isabella’s death in the final stanza of ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, as she has been stripped of the chance of fulfilling her maternal destiny; the loss of Lorenzo’s head could symbolise the loss of her purpose in life.

In some cases, however, the female defines herself in terms of her biological role. For example in ‘Dracula’, Mina draws attention to the fact that all ‘women have something of the mother’ in them when describing the way Lord Godalming’s sorrowful head resting on her felt like ‘the baby that will some day lie on her bosom’. The use of the definitive modal auxiliary verb suggests that Mina has already made the decision to become a mother, and is determined to make it a reality either out of social conformity or her own maternal desire.

Gender identity is extremely subjective; it refers to an individual’s experience of their own gender. The concept relies heavily upon conformance to the ideals of femininity and masculinity. However, authors of Gothic literature appear to manipulate these ideals for dramatic effect, often blurring the lines of various roles synonymous with the female gender. Women were often associated with obedience and grace, the emergence of the Gothic female ‘predator’ would have been a terrifying concept for a 19th Century audience, some aspects remaining unusual or unorthodox today. It seems as though the various ways women are presented within Gothic literature were not only used as dramatic devices to help create terror and dismay, but they were also used to reflect the then revolutionary view that women were individuals. They could exude bravery, strength and intelligence and more importantly, should never be underestimated.

Word Count 2,985

(Without quotation)


1 date accessed 31/01/13 15:41

2 date accessed 31/01/13 16:03

Dracula’ – Bram Stoker

Isabella and the Pot of Basil’ – John Keats

La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ – John Keats

The Eve of Saint Agnes’ – John Keats

The Snow Child’ – Angela Carter

The Company of Wolves’ – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber’ – Angela Carter

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Rachel Clamp


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      • limpet profile image

        Ian Stuart Robertson 

        15 months ago from London England

        Greetings Darklings.

        To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's seminal gothique 'the Frankenstein', the Guildhall in Olde London towne will be hosting a Regency themed ball in her honour.

        Be there.

        the Limpet.

      • limpet profile image

        Ian Stuart Robertson 

        2 years ago from London England

        Greetings Darklings!

        Yes indeed the importance of animals in Goth literature. Many women who prefer to solitude have a pet of some variety for companionship. The wise woman has a 'familiar' usually a cat or even a bird of prey. In one of my short stories i gave the 'wyche' a familiar who was a living entity during daylight but transformed into a stone gargoyle at night. It could come to life at any time to alert her to danger.

        sweet dreams!

        the limpet.

      • limpet profile image

        Ian Stuart Robertson 

        4 years ago from London England

        (continued from previous post) Along my journey i encountered a girl barely out of adolescence, she was walking her dog a white terrier on a lead. We acknowledged each other and the dog took an active interest not in me but something in my aura. The lass had to calm her pet down and it became placid. Within a few minutes another woman with a dog came along and we exchanged pleasantries. This dog also sensed something about me but didn't get so exited. Unbelievedly, a third lady older than the previous appeared. Her dog was an old brown Labrador not on the leesh and i entered in conversation with the dog's mistress but he displayed a total aloofness. My uncanny experience could become the basis for a Gothic novelette.

      • limpet profile image

        Ian Stuart Robertson 

        4 years ago from London England

        Whilst trapsing along parts of our national heritage track i encounter many locales that seem to harbour dark secrets or places that you wouldn't want to be in at night. Also there are many points of interest where it is like stepping back centuries in time if you enter there in. Passing strangers actually speak to each other on these footpaths and you seldom see litter thrown away. Recently i had occasion to walk my favourite route.

      • LisaKoski profile image


        6 years ago from WA

        The role of gender within a genre or a novel is always a fascinating topic. I especially find women gender roles interesting when, like Bram Stoker's Lucy, they serve as warnings to female readers. I enjoyed reading this, although I must admit I've only read Dracula and not any of the other works mentioned.


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