Hero or Villain or Hero-Villain?: Defining Masculinity in the Female Gothic

Masculinity in the Female Gothic is double-sided. The hero is a sensitive, honorable, feeling gentleman who not only weeps at the landscape, but also manages to stop weeping at the exact moment that the heroine needs rescuing. The hero-villain is a dark, cruel, sadistic man from whom any 18th-century Gothic heroine worth her salt will "shrink" from the moment she sees him. The following excerpts work towards exposing the motiviations behind this duality in the Female Gothic.


Men of sensibility:

From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1.

M. St. Aubert loved to wander, with his wife and daughter, on the margin of the Garonne, and to listen to the music that floated on its waves. He had known life in other forms than those of pastoral simplicity, having mingled in the gay and in the busy scenes of the world; but the flattering portrait of mankind, which his heart had delineated in early youth, his experience had too sorrowfully corrected. Yet, amidst the changing visions of life, his principles remained unshaken, his benevolence unchilled; and he retired from the multitude "more in pity than in anger" to scenes of simple nature, to the pure delights of literature, and to the exercise of domestic virtues.

From The Italian, 8.

Vincentio [Vivaldi] inherited much of the character of his father, and very little of that of his mother. His pride was as noble and generous as that of the Marchese; but he had somewhat of the fiery passions of the Marchesa, without any of her craft, her duplicity, or vindictive thirst for revenge. Frank in his temper, ingenuous in his sentiments, quickly offended, but easily appeased; irritated by any appearance of disrespect, but melted by concession, a high sense of honor rendered him no more jealous of offence, than a delicate humanity made him ready for reconciliation, and anxious to spare the feelings of others.

Men of destructive passion and pride:

From The Monk, 39-40.

[Ambrosio] was no sooner alone, than He gave free loose to the indulgence of his vanity. When He remembered the Enthusiasm which his discourse had excited, his heart swelled with rapture, and his imagination presented him with splendid visions of aggrandizement. He looked round him with exultation, and Pride told him loudly, that he was superior to the rest of his fellow-Creatures.

"Who," thought He; "Who but myself has passed the orderal of Youth, yet sees no single stain upon his conscience? Who else has subdued the violence of strong passons and an impetuous temperament, and submitted even from the dawn of life to voluntary retirement? I seek for such a Man in vain. I see no one but myself possessed of such resolution. Religion cannot boast Ambrosio's equal! How powerful an effect did my discourse produce upon its Auditors! How they crowded round me! How they loaded me with benedictions, and pronounced me the sole uncorrupted Pillar of the Church!"

From Udolpho, 182.

[Montoni's] soul was little susceptible of light pleasures. He delighted in the energies of the passions; the difficulties and tempests of life, which wreck the lives of others, roused and strengthened all the powers of his mind, and afforded him the highest enjoyments, of which his nature was capable...He had, of course, many and bitter enemies; but the rancour of their hatred proved the degree of his power; and as power was his chief aim, he gloried more in such hatred, than it was possible he could in being esteemed. A feeling so tempered as that of esteem, he despised, and would have despised himself also had he thought himself capable of being flattered by it.


Cynthia Wolff, "The Radcliffean Gothic Model," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 207-223.

...Men may perceive the world as a place inhabited by two kinds of women: "good" women whom they idealize and who have no sensual desire (and for whom, of course, the men themselves feel no sexual longings); and "bad" women who are sexual by nature (and whith whom it is permissible perhaps even expected to have sexual relations). This imaginative construct has come to be calld the "Virgin/Whore" syndrome.

Until very recently neither psychological investigation nor literary criticism has described an analogous situation for women. Thus if women (either in real life or in fiction) seem to perceive the world as inhabited by two types of relatively active men one embodying "safe" asexual love and the other embodying "dangerous" sexuality with women playing the part of more or less passive spectators, investigators and commentators have assumed that such is the "real"state of women. At last, however, this strange myopia has begun to be corrected: psychiatrists are beginning to understand that a "Devil/Priest" syndrom exists which is an analogue in women to the "Virgin/Whore" syndrome in men, and that far from revealing women as without sexual passion, such fantasies suggest that women's fantasies are potent; indeed, so powerful that women, like men, often feel the need to handle these "dangerous" feelings by the device of projection...

The pairing of "villain" and "hero" in the eighteenth-century Gothic is quite overt, achieving a kind of Augustan balance. The antagonists play strangely similar roles to the heroine, each embodying one sort of "authority": the demon lover is a figure of considerable power who would exert a malevolent influence; the hero (a considerably less potent figure throughout much of the novel) is a force for order and benevolent control.

Generally the heroine declares her preference for the hero very early in the novel; an obstacle in their union is discovered; and they remain throughout the story pining, faithful (exchanging at best, a chaste kiss) to be rewarded at the very conclusion with the gift of matrimony. These are stories of a courtship interrupted. The demon lover is an intruder, dominating the fiction as its undeniable emotional focus. The heroines are not indifferent to the compelling presence of such men; however, they always react with instinctive aversion.

[There is a] remarkably violent taboo that enshrouds the entire relationship between these eighteenth-century heroines and their demon lovers. Despite the fact that the man is darkly attractive, the woman generally shuns him, shrinking as if from some visible contamination. Too often to be insignificant, this aversion is justified when he eventually proves to be a long-lost relation: an uncle, a step-father, sometimes the biological father himself lusting after the innocent daughter's chastity. This spectre of incest...hangs over the entire tale.


Mary Poovey, "Ideology and the Mysteries of Udolpho," Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts (vol.21, 1979), 307-330.

Radcliffe depicts masculine avarice as more powerful than lust because she recognizes that the "unfeeling" energy Montoni embodies is actually a denial of feeling. It therefore threatens to undermine the entire system of social values that protects the vulnerable woman. Montoni's passion "entirely supplie[s] the place of principles (Udolpho, 435), and once such feminine,sentimental principles as sensitivity, responsiveness, decorum, and generosity are no longer alsoconsidered "manly" there will be no governing code to socialize aggressive energy. Radcliffe diagrams this lesson explicitly in Valancourt's experience in Paris. There, despondent over his separation from Emily, the susceptible young man falls prey to the charms of salons and the temptations of the gaming table. Artificial beauties and the lure of a quick fortune conspire to "dazzle his imagination, and reanimate his spirits," and the passion he develops for gambling displaces his feeling for Emily, leads him into debt, and culminates in his imprisonment. Only when he is incarcerated, protected, that is, from his own passion, can Valancourt benefit from Emily's socializing image:

In the solitude of his prison, Valancourt had leisure for reflection, and cause for repentance; here, too, the image of Emily, which, amidst the dissipation of the city had been obscured, but never obliterated from his heart, revived with all the charms of innocence and beauty, to reproach him for having sacrificed his happiness and debased his talents by pursuits, which his nobler faculties would formerly have taught him to consider were as tasteless as they were degrading. (Udolpho, 652)

If Valancourt's passion had been left to pursue its natural course, the chevalier's "nobler faculties" would presumably have become as unresponsive as Montoni's. And without "taste" to principle his behavior, Valancourt's desire for Emily would hardly have remained virtuous. In this lesson, Radcliffe implies that the feminine values of sensibility could socialize masculine energy if there were some sure way to enforce them, if, in other words, there were some authority strong enough to keep masculine energy from becoming Montoni's fatal power.


Nichols, Nina da Vinci Nichols, "Place and Eros in Radcliffe, Lewis, and Bronte," in The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 187-206.

The Monk's failure as a Gothic romance is, finally, the other face its success as pornography, defined as a consuming interest in sexuality at the service of power. Ambrosio's pursuit of power over others is the obverse side of the Gothic quest for power over the self...[Ambrosio's] pursuit of Antonia, for instance, obsesses him long after his sexual attraction to her has become familiar. Until he masters her, her unavailability is a reminder of his lost innocence and an imagined parental judgement on his spiritual degeneration. His liaison with Mathilda incorporates these meanings more directly since her desirability depends as much on her initial unavailability as on her disguise as a boy. Once she has been mastered she inspires only satiety and disgust; but her judgement, her advice, and her superior gifts of discernment demand respect. Therefore, as the strong woman who also becomes a non-judgmental helpmeet in sexual crimes, Mathilda becomes the ideal fantasy figure for the male: in modern psychological terms she represents the acceptance of a mother and the authority of a father, both enlisted in the service of the male libido. At the same time, to enslave her is to triumph over conscience which permits him to tyrannize others and prepares him for his bargain with the devil.