Gender in Gothic Literature
Gothic literature uses gender to discuss social norms and explore stereotypes while commenting on whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or disrupted in society. In this essay, I will compare two female characters and two male characters in Gothic texts to establish how gender stereotypes are upheld and disrupted in Gothic literature. I will analyze the characters of Count Dracula and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Laura from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and Aylmer from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” as examples of how gender impacts Gothic literature. I will also compare how these characters interact with people of the same gender and people of the opposite gender. There is a link between gender and submission versus subversion, which I will explore further using these characters (Gbogi). I will argue that while Gothic literature uses characters that disrupt gender stereotypes, the texts primarily promote gender stereotypes as morally better and aim to normalize and enforce them in readers.
At the time that all of these texts were written social norms determined that a woman’s place was in the home, meaning that women were expected to be housewives and mothers (Prescott and Giorgio). The literature of that time and leading up to it promoted the stereotypical female character to normalize and enforce these stereotypes in readers, men and women alike (Gbogi 506). Laura Mulvey (Wagner xxxii) argues that cinema focuses on men that actively look for a passive woman and in turn women become passive as it is deemed more attractive. Although Mulvey discusses gender portrayal in terms of cinema, her argument can be applied to gender portrayal in literature as well. Passive female characters in Gothic texts tend to be perceived better by the male characters in the text; they are pure and behave as good Victorian ladies ought to behave (Prescott and Giorgio 487). Female characters are rewarded for their femininity and punished for showing masculine traits such as intelligence or unrepressed sexual desires (Mendoza). Likewise, masculine characters are heralded as strong and powerful if they are highly masculine, whereas any deviation from this is viewed as weak and unnatural (Kuzmanovic).
The character of Laura in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” lets her curiosity get the better of her and becomes consumed with the desire to eat fruit from the Goblin men. Laura is unable to pay the Goblin men for their fruit, but instead gives them a “gold” (Rossetti 261) lock of her hair. However, her weakness is not attributed to her character but rather the “evil gifts” (Rossetti 261) of the Goblin men, in other words, their masculine seduction is too powerful for a female to resist and hence, is not the fault of the stereotypically simple-minded woman. Many critics believe that Laura’s desire for the Goblin men’s fruit is really a desire for sexual pleasure (Mendoza). Rossetti’s poem also warns women about newfound sexual awareness and the consequences of giving into sexual desires being difficult to come back from. Laura’s misfortunes because of her curiosity become a cautionary tale to women about letting desire control them and is an endorsement for women to remain in the home.
Dracula’s (Stoker) Mina Harker is another female character that does not fit into the typical female stereotype. Mina Harker is a New Woman, yet for all her ideals she settles herself into the role of the passive female whose primary duty lies with her husband (Prescott and Giorgio 488). She is a complex character who cannot be classified as an “ideal Victorian woman” (Prescott and Giorgio 487), nor can she be cast purely as a New Woman. As a New Woman, Mina rejects the traditional gender stereotypes and is progressive by working as an assistant schoolmistress. She is reluctantly accepted into a band of men who praise her for her masculine intelligence while admiring her femininity. Yet when Mina narrates her seduction by Count Dracula she seems to forget her role as a New Woman and becomes the submissive female stereotype when she says, “strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him” (Stoker 251). At the end of Dracula Mina becomes the devoted wife and mother she aspires to be and relinquishes her New Woman title in favor of the socially acceptable female.
Masculinity is just as much stereotyped as femininity and like female characters, a male character who goes against the norm is reproachable. However, unlike these female characters, who are often portrayed as victims of male temptation or femininity (Mendoza), male characters who transgress social standards are portrayed as villainous (Zurutuza). Count Dracula in Stoker’s Dracula represents classical notions of masculinity through his physical and political strength, wealth, power to control others particularly females, and his title of conqueror of blood (Zurutuza 542). Even Dracula’s physical appearance exudes masculinity with “strong” (Stoker 23) facial features and an “aquiline” (Stoker 23) nose. The comparison between Dracula and an eagle in his initial meeting with Jonathon Harker hints at his intelligence, which is associated with masculinity rather than femininity. However, Dracula’s indiscriminate seductive advances towards people of all genders call into question his masculinity (Kuzmanovic 412). Dracula’s consumption of blood by piercing flesh with his “peculiarly sharp white teeth” (Stoker 23) that “protruded over the lips” (Stoker 23) is the vampire’s version of sexual penetration. Dracula is a figure of unrepressed sexual desire. Kuzmanovic (413) discusses Dracula’s seduction as being to tempt those with repressed sexual desires and causes identity confusion for those characters, particularly Jonathon Harker who unintentionally partakes in a homoerotic encounter with Count Dracula (41-4). The sexual confusion and desire Dracula causes along with the questions of masculinity he brings ends with his death, which is the result of honest masculinity from the other male characters combined with Mina Harker’s masculine intelligence.
Aylmer from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is not interested in seduction as Dracula is, but rather control. He uses his masculine authority to persuade his wife to let him remove the birthmark that “destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous” (Hawthorne 233). Aylmer becomes obsessed with its destruction and measures his own successfulness as a man by his ability to rid his wife of the mark. He perceives the birthmark “as a threat to his masculine dominance” (Howard 133). The birthmark is not really Aylmer’s issue, it is merely a symptom. Aylmer’s true problem lies with his wife’s obedience to him. Initially, she was hesitant to remove the birthmark, but is persuaded by Aylmer’s insistence. When Aylmer does succeed at removing the birthmark he rejoices in his masculinity. However, the removal of the birthmark causes his wife to die. Aylmer’s attempt to prove his masculinity ends by “ultimately destroying the mark, his wife, and his own almighty self-perception in the process” (Howard 135).
Both Laura in “Goblin Market” (Rossetti) and Count Dracula in Dracula (Stoker) are imbued with sexual desire, but their gender determines how their sexual desires are interpreted. Laura’s femininity renders her sexual desire as a symptom of being a victim to her femininity and thus, weak to the seductions of men. Dracula’s sexual desires transgress from the norm of masculinity making them unseemly, abhorrent, and villainous. Mina Harker on the other hand appears to be the epitome of a Victorian lady and is praised by the male characters for it. It is also revealed that she possesses a masculine intelligence for which the men also praise her, though reluctantly. However, she is neither completely feminine nor completely masculine and thus, is put in an in between category where she is not wholly accepted by either side. It is only when she fully embraces the female gender stereotype that she is accepted. While Mina Harker is criticized for being a mixture of both feminine and masculine, Aylmer is reproached for being excessively masculine and dominating his wife to the point of her death. These texts demonstrate that there is a fine line between being a socially acceptable gender character and being admonished for gender portrayal.
In “Goblin Market” Laura attempts to subvert the female role by allowing her curiosity to control her and in doing so becomes ill. She becomes well again after she submits to the female role. However, Laura is not portrayed as a villain, but rather falls victim to the Goblin men’s temptations (Gbogi 8). The Goblin men are deviants who trick women into buying their fruit tempting the women’s sexual desires (Mendoza 914). Similarly, Mina Harker also attempts to become an atypical female within the guise of the ideal woman (Prescott and Giorgio 488). Where Laura is punished for going against the norm, Mina is welcomed, however reluctantly, into male dominated territory. Laura and Mina have one major thing in common, they both become compliant with social standards and take on the persona of the stereotypical female character, which as Gbogi (506) argues, encourages readers to maintain the stereotype. However, there is also compelling evidence for Kuzmanovic argument that while female stereotypes are reinforced in Dracula it also encourages an open-minded approach to working with people of different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, and gender.
While these Gothic texts feature female characters who attempt to subvert social standards, it is the male characters who eventually force them into submission using their masculinity as a weapon of strength over the weakness of femininity. Dracula uses his transgressive masculinity to seduce men and women alike and coerce them into submitting to his will. His seduction of Mina Harker oppresses her New Woman principles and draws out the compliant Victorian lady (Prescott and Giorgio 487). However, Dracula’s monstrous masculinity is represented as being villainous and is used to contrast the gentlemanly masculinity of other male characters to enforce socially acceptable norms for men. Aylmer’s dominance and forced submission of his wife that results in her death is a warning from Hawthorne about the destructive consequences of men forcing women into submission. While these texts encourage female liberation somewhat, they identify a condition on said liberation. Feminine progression is only allowable if females remain submissive to the will of their male counterparts, if so, then they are free to subvert from norms within the boundaries set my men. This does not allow female characters much room for freedom, but instead reinforces a male dominant hierarchy while heavily suggesting enforcement of stereotypes (Gbogi 506).
Male and female gender stereotypes are evident in Gothic literature. Where some texts attempt to disrupt these stereotypes, such as Mina Harker in Dracula (Stoker), others maintain the stereotype, such as Aylmer in “The Birthmark” (Hawthorne). There is a disparity in how gender affects the interpretation of characters that transgress stereotypes. Where women are regarded as victims of their femininity, men are reproached for not being masculine. The stereotypical male characters aim to force the female characters into submission while the female characters attempt to subvert social norms. Gothic literature promotes the socially acceptable gender stereotypes by portraying characters that disrupt the norm who are then revealed to be morally incompetent for male characters and forced into submission for female characters.
Gbogi, Michael Tosin. “Refiguring the subversive in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”” Neohelicon, vol. 41, 2014, pp. 503-16. EBSCO, doi:10.1007/s11059-014-0233-1.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. 232-42.
Howard, Jeffrey. “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birth-Mark.” The Explicator, vol. 70, no. 2, 2012, pp. 133-6. EBSCO, doi:10.1080/00144940.2012.678414.
Kuzmanovic, Dejan. “Vampiric Seduction and Vicissitudes of Masculine Identity in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 37, 2009, pp. 411-42. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/S1060150309090263.
Mendoza, Victor Roman. ““Come Buy”: The Crossing of Sexual and Consumer Desire in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”” The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 73, no. 4, 2006, pp. 913-47. JSTOR.
Prescott, Charles E., and Grace A. Giorgio. “Vampiric Affinities: Mina Harker and the Paradox of Femininity in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005, pp. 487-515. JSTOR, doi: 1060-1503/05.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. 260-8.
Stoker, Bram. “Dracula.” Dracula, edited by Nina Auerbach & David J. Skal. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 1-327.
Wagner, Corinna. “Introduction.” Gothic Evolutions: Poetry Tales, Context, Theory, edited by Corinna Wagner. Broadview Press, 2014, pp. xxiii-xlii.
Zurutuza, Krisian Perez. “The Vampire as the Gender and Racial Construction of Western Capitalism’s White Masculinity in English and American Gothic Literature.” International Journal of Arts & Sciences, vol. 8, no. 8, 2015, pp. 541-9. EBSCO.
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