Virgins In Distress and Demons in Disguise: Constructing the Heroine's Identity in the Female Gothic

The very words "Gothic heroine" immediately conjure up a wealth of images for the modern reader: a young, attractive woman (virginity required) running in terror through an old, dark, crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere, from either a psychotic man or a supernatural demon. She is always terminally helpless and more than a bit screechy, but is inevitably "saved" by the good guy/future husband in the nick of time. This construct certainly has its roots in the Female Gothic of the 18th century, but the reality is much more complex than the modern reader's image might suggest. Gothic heroines, particularly Radcliffean ones, are quite contradictory in their actions and implications. The textual and critical excerpts that follow point to the real complexities in the construction of the Female in the Gothic.


From The Italian, 5-6, 9.

In descending the last steps of the Terrazzo, however, the foot of the elder lady faltered, and, while Vivaldi hastened to assist her, the breeze from the water caught the veil, which Ellena had no longer a hand sufficiently disengaged to confine, and, wafting it partially aside, disclosed to him a countenance more touchingly beautiful than he had dared to imagine. Her feature were of the Grecian outline, and though they expressed the tranquility of an elegant mind, her dark blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. She was assisting her companion so anxiously, that she did not immediately observe the admiration she had inspired; but the moment she became conscious of their effect, she hastily drew her veil...

Ellena could have endured poverty, but not contempt; and it was to protect herself from this effect of the narrow prejudices of the world around her, that she had so cautiously concealed from it a knowledge of the industry, which did honor to her character. She was not ashamed of poverty, or of the industry which overcame it, but her spirit shrunk from the senseless smile and humiliating condescension, which prosperity sometimes gives to indigence. Her mind was not yet strong enough, or her views sufficiently enlarged, to teach her a contempt of the sneer of vicious folly, and to glory in the dignity of a virtuous independence.

From The Monk, 224.

As [Mathilda] spoke, her eyes wer filled with a delicious langour. Her bosom panted: She twined her arms voluptuously around [Ambrosio], and glewed her lips to him...No longer repressed by the sense of shame, He gave a loose to his intemperate appitites: While the fair Wanton put every invention of lust in practice, every refinement in the art of pleasure, which might highten the bliss of her possession, and render her Lover's transports still more exquisite. Ambrosio rioted in delights till then unknown to him: Swift fled the night, and the Morning blushed to behold him still clasped in the embraces of Mathilda.


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

An initial glance at these ladies is apt to be misleading. Radcliffe's heroines, for example, seem to divide neatly into spritely and helpless (those who pick up a candle and go exploring in the hidden recesses and those who cower fearfully behind doors). Yet, as Edith Birkhead remarks with some asperity, "Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines resemble nothing more than a composite photograph in which all distinctive traits are merged into an expressionless type." They are not without talent: "In reflective mood one may lightly throw off a sonnet to the sunset or the nocturnal gale, while another may seek refuge in her water-colours or her lute." Yet their accomplishments and their supposed ingenuity and intelligence are never of the slightest practical use. Their business is to experience difficulty, not to get out of it; and by consequence, any individuality that may be imputed to them at the beginning of the novel is soon dissolved.

Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Anchor Press, 1977).

Emily comes through all her horrors, and comes face to face at last with Valancourt, not on the final page of Udolpho but a good fifty pages from the end. That leaves time enough for Emily to resolve her prudent doubts about her lover's character, which significantly center of the rumor that he is a gambling man. The rumor is, happily, unjustified, and the marriage takes place in the final chapter...To those who have never quite made it to the end of The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is a pleasure to report that Emily ends her days in the pastoral serenity of The Valley, pensively musing on her father's memory, and confident that his injunction to demonstrate the strength of sensibility has been obeyed.

If this hasty sketch of the heroine of Udolpho...sounds like a travesty of the familitar Gothic heroine, that is because of what was done with the figure by the male writers who followed Mrs. Radcliffe. For most of them...the Gothic heroine was quintessentially a defenseless victim, a weakling, a whimpering, termbling, cowering little piece of propriety whose sufferings are the source of her erotic fascination...Stability and integrity are indeed the major resources of the Radcliffe heroine; her sensibility and her decorum never falter; and however rapid or perilous her journeys, the lares and penates of proper English girlhood travel with her. She always manages to pack up her books, her sketching materials, and her lute, no matter how swiftly she is abducted from, say, Venice to the Castle of Udolpho. Locked up in a gloomy, haunted chamber high in a castle tower, Emily "arranged her little library...took out her drawing utensils, and was tranquil enough to be pleased with the thought of sketching the sublime scenes beheld from her windows." No mean-minded, authoritarian older man (the source of most of Emily's troubles) can be a match for such a young lady. "She opposed his turbulence and indignation," writes Mrs. Radcliffe in a sentence that is my choice for Emily's epitaph, "only by the mild dignity of a superior mind, but the gentle firmness of her conduct served to exasperate still more his resentment, since it compelled him to feel his own inferiority."


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel," Publication of the Modern Language Association (1981, 96:2) 255-270.

Always for women [in the Gothic novel]...life begins with a blank. The mother, if known, has disappeared temporarily, and an aunt may substitute. The women's names suggest the blank, the white, the innocent, and the pristine: Blanche (who lives in Chateau-le-Blanc), Virginia, Agnes, Ellena Rosalba, Emilty St. Aubert, even Signora Bianchi. (In addition, the initial letter A can, I think be a cipher that signifies a blank origin where the name does not do so denotively.) It is only after experience has inscribed some of these blanks with character that the figures' true identity is "discovered," that then it is made known by a retracing of recognized traits from other faces, signally from portraits...In The Italian, the question of Ellena's identity hangs on the miniature that hangs from her neck. As Schedoni is about to stab her in her sleep, he draws aside the veil from her bosom and suddenly freezes: the miniature has tumbled out from its concealment, and he recognizes himself in it. When he wakes her, she says it is of her dead father, and Schedoni claims her as his daughter in a sudden, painful revulsion of feeling...Similarly, in The Mysteries of Udolpho Emily is placed in the context of her family by her resemblance to a miniature (actually to two identical miniatures).


Kari Winter, "Sexual/Textual Politics of Terror" in Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 89-101.

Women who are at all self-assertive in The Monk are tortured or killed. Ambrosio's mother interrupts his attempts to rape Antonia; therefore, he kills her. The prioress has abused her power in the convent; therefore, the mob murders her. Agnes has been sexually indiscreet; therefore, the nuns entomb her alive. Like millions of people before and after him, Lewis suggests that the victim is to blame for her own suffering.

In any society where there is an unequal disribution of wealth and power, blaming victims for their own suffering serves the interests of the dominant group. Alice Miller suggests that the tendency to blame victims is rooted in childhood, when parents, the dominant force in the family, teach small children taht "all the cruelty shown [them] in [their] upbringing is a punishment for [their] wrongdoing." As a result, "for many people it is very difficult to accept the sad truth that cruelty is often inflicted upon the innocent (For Your Own Good, 158). People who have been subjected to what Miller calls "poisonous pedagogy" are thus prepared to interpret suffering as a just punishment for the victims' immoral behavior. In a classist society, the poor are blamed for their poverty (they must be lazy, stupid, and incompetent or they wouldn't be poor). In a patriarchal society, women are blamed for everything from the fall of man onward. M.G. Lewis reproduces this "poisonous pedagogy" by blaming women for the violence inflicted upon them by men.


Nina daVinci Nichols, "Place and Eros in Radcliffe, Lewis, and Bronte" in The Female Gothic, ed.Juliann E. Fleenor (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983) 187-206.

...The female characters in [The Monk] serve only as vehicles for the sexual and emotional over-statements of the male writer. The possible exception is Mathilda, a romantic sketch of a sensual woman who wields natural and supernatural powers. At first she is Ambrosio's lover; then as his partner-protector in crime, she performs her dark arts in full view, displays diabolical skills in calculation, and finally offers herself as a model for all the novel's mature women: not shut up to rot in hidden rooms but crowned with lasciviousness and stupidity, or authority and cruelty. From foolish maiden to mother superior, women discover strength in their youth, arrogance and vengefulness as they come of age. Young knights in the sentimental suplot, however, like Ambrosio before his metamorphosis, are too fragile to cope with the fierce womenwho victimize them at least as thoroughly as do their own tremulous sensibilities. This bias adds to the novel's mocking tone. It also parodies the underlying idea of false or surrogate mothers so intrinsic to [The Mysteries of Udolpho], and understood in the plight of heroic orphans at the mercy of their female protectors. Mathilda plays this role with Ambrosio as do most of the other female characters in their relation to the novel's sentimental lovers. At their most feminine, the women are interfering rivals; at their most masculine, punitive authoritarians.