Last Updated 20 Aug 2020

Women in Gothic Literature

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“In Gothic Literature women are often portrayed as characters that actively resist their gender stereotypes” In the light of this comment, discuss the different ways in which Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber and Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre present women in Gothic Literature.

In both Angela Carter’s Gothic collection of short stories, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and Charlotte Bronte’s Gothic bildungsroman novel, ‘Jane Eyre’, women protagonists are portrayed to defy both physical and psychological stereotypes in society and literature. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ was written during the late 20th century and at the height of the feminist movement; in essence, Carter’s rewriting of classic fairy tales reflected the evolving women’s movement at the time, which called for social and political equality.

‘Jane Eyre’ was written in the Victorian Era, during a time in which women were oppressed and adhered to strict gender stereotypes. Throughout history, women in literature have been portrayed as weak and inferior to men. However, both authors challenge this portraying their female protagonists to gain power in relationships and remain independent, challenging both physical and psychological stereotypes.

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Both authors present their female protagonists to be independent, challenging the stereotype view that women are dependent on men to survive. Literature pre-18th Century and the first wave of gothic literature presented women more like damsels in distress rather than heroines. This mirrored society whom often perceived women in need of men for support. Modern gothic literature, however, began to challenge this. Carter’s eponymous story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a rewriting of the French folktale ‘Bluebeard’; This story is of a nobleman who murders his wives in a small room of his archetypal gothic castle.

The narrator and the protagonist is a young girl “tricked into betrayal”, however, ironically the young girl is saved by her mother, in contrast to the original in which the protagonist is heroically saved by her brother. Like a typical gothic story, the heroine is introduced as the trapped princess, imprisoned between the cold walls of the old castle, forbidden to access one room, the bloody chamber. Ultimately this proves to be a test of her obedience and the young girl’s curiosity is punished and the result is near death. Hover, she is saved by her mother. The mother, “without hesitation, raised [the] father's gun, took aim and put a bullet through [the] husband's head”.

Rachel Fletcher questions that the weapon “belonging to her father, suggests that she is still in need of her father’s protection, [reaffirming] the tradition of the father as head of the family” . However, when the girl's father “never returned from the wars”, her mother had no choice to but to fulfil the role of her father. The melodramatic description of the mother on horseback is unquestionably masculine.

She is portrayed as a “wild thing”, “legs exposed”, holding the gun in hand. The mother states that she knew her daughter was at risk as a result of “maternal telepathy”. This gives women an almost supernatural strength in something that would usually be used to suppress them. Subsequently, Carter presents mothers to have an advantage over fathers and therefore in some way superior. Carter’s subversive reworking of the typical ‘man saves woman’ story, portrays that women are just as capable of “[raising the gun]”, and not the vulnerable character their stereotype suggests.

This is also seen in Carter’s ‘The Courtship of Mr. Lyon’, a reworking of the traditional tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. However, in contrast to the original, it is the female which rescues the male; thus, the reversal of roles shows females to not only be independent but for men even to be reliant on women. After having found wealth in London, the female protagonist, Beauty, returns to the Beast - Mr. Lyon; who without beauty, “could not eat” or “go hunting” and feebly waited for death.

The metamorphic portrayal of the man, as an animal and something to be feared, satirises male chauvinism, which is undermined as he becomes less beast-like in his ability to hunt and kill. Carter’s pathetic portrayal of the beast seems to mock the depiction of the man reliant on a woman. As Beauty saves the Beast she tamed his bestial nature and he is transformed into a human male. Therefore, proving that the female protagonist’s in Carters tales are not reliant on men to protect them and are even capable of saving the men.

Like Carter, Bronte also presents Jane Eyre to be independent, in a sense that she is not reliant on a male to survive. However, Eyre is presented as financially independent. During the 19th Century, Victorian women had to endure inequality within marriage and society, whilst men had more stability and financial status. Subsequently, the Victorian woman was often heavily financially reliant on the husband.

In the novel, after the revelation of Rochester's legal wife, Jane decides to leave, choosing independence over richness. Weeks passed, and yet despite Jane being “much exhausted, and suffering greatly” she refuses to return to the “bed [she] had left”. Instead, Jane sleeps “on the cold, drenched ground” as the “rain descends”. Bronte uses pathetic fallacy to portray the penetrating wind and rain reflect her discomfort and emphasise Jane’s sombre state of mind. This further highlights Jane’s independence, despite great discomfort Eyre refuses to rely on a man to make it better. As a bildungsroman novel, the changes of emotions and maturity of identities as Jane Eyre struggles through her hardship is evident. As the novel progresses Jane works her way up to a governess - one of the few jobs women could have in the Victorian Era - and earns her own money. Eventually, Jane returns to Mr. Rochester. Patrick Kelleher argues that “[Jane’s] acceptance of Rochester sends out a very clear, and very sad message to all readers of this novel; Jane could not overcome her circumstances. She could not thrive independently, because a nineteenth-century woman of her social stature could not be in a position to do so”. However, it is obvious she is not returning out of desperation as Kelleher suggests. After circumstances change, and Janes fortunes change, Jane is able to return to Rochester as an equal. The return is not because she could not thrive on her own or lack of control, but the complete opposite. Jane returns, as his “second self, and best earthly companion”, because she loves Rochester rather than because she depends on him. In both, the female is independent and not reliant on a male to solve the problem, like their gender stereotypes, suggest they should.

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Women in Gothic Literature. (2020, Aug 20). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/women-in-gothic-literature/

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