Isolation in the Gothic Novel: Gender and Genre
In an essay concerning the components of the Romantic novel, James P. Carson frames the difference between Gothic and Romantic attitudes as a “disagreement over values inherent in attempts to represent people” (Matthews). He succinctly describes the difference as one of intent: the Romantic novel evokes depth “in the midst of excess” while the Gothic novel seeks excess and uses divisive methods of description to thus create identity (Matthews). In Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s speculative fiction novella Carmilla, the concept of the female Gothic manifests through the concern of how sexual boundaries can endanger and the idea of feminine incarceration and isolated setting as a means for allowing dark action to occur. Alternatively, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre tells the more extensive story of a woman’s maturity through dreary circumstances and focuses on the emotions and experiences that incite her growth to adulthood, all filtered through the lens of Gothic romance. Through female Gothic conventions, LeFanu and Bronte use a stark sense of isolation as a means for their heroines’ often captive states and to create a sense of individual experience in their gender roles and social class.
In alternate ways, the physical settings create a sense of incarceration in both protagonists. During Jane Eyre’s childhood at Gateshead, the incident in the red room marks a shift in the novel and contributes to Jane Eyre’s standing as a Gothic text by creating a tangible sense of fear and captivity. The red room has an ominous, life-like presence of its own: “A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre;…the carpet was red; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; …Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was this chamber he breathed his last;…and since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion” (Brontë 11-12). Following the foreboding description of the room, Jane believes herself to see her uncle’s ghost and faints from fear, an event that remains with her to adulthood. All of the physical elements of the red room that serve to Jane’s entrapment predict future Gothic themes in the plot as well as show her incarcerated state and lack of control over her adolescent suffering. Despite the unfair and frightening nature of Jane’s experiences as a child, her strong-willed nature allows her to maintain an inherent sense of identity that Laura, the protagonist in Carmilla, is lacking. Laura’s setting in Styria proves to only add to the sense of hidden information and separation from the rest of the civilized world. In the beginning of Carmilla, she describes their castle, referred to as the schloss: “Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest…Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel…, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood. I have said that this is a very lonely place” (LeFanu). Laura’s economic dependence as well as her loneliness in her remote setting is perhaps what makes her so welcome to Carmilla’s arrival, and the implied monotony and remoteness in her daily life could be what makes her so easily susceptible to danger. Regardless of whether she feels consciously in captivity, her initial loneliness in the schloss lends to her being preyed on by Carmilla, thus entrapping her in a powerless position. Despite their different purposes, the physical settings of both novels add to the idea of captivity for both of the protagonists.
While isolation initially manifests in the physical setting of both novels, it serves as a mirror to the isolation that both Jane and Laura experience in their gender roles. In her childhood, Jane speculates how her life and treatment would have been different if she were male or anything but the frail, quiet, yet strong-willed girl that she is. Furthermore, as she moves on to Thornfield Hall, she experiences an isolated social class of her own as a governess, as she is a woman that is aristocratically below Mr. Rochester and the visitors of Thornfield, but also intellectually above the servants and help of the household. However, despite her position that could otherwise make her powerless, she empowers herself with her sense of identity, especially when Mr. Rochester reveals his past with Bertha Mason to her. Though Jane is poor and has no other options at the time in terms of securing a future, she asserts strongly to Mr. Rochester that she could not be involved with him romantically if he already has a living wife: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now” (Brontë 270). Despite the emotional tragedy for her, Jane adheres to her values and pride and somehow finds power in her isolation. In Carmilla, Laura unfortunately does not benefit from her isolation in the same way. Even as Carmilla feeds on her and her health begins to fail, she is made to be unaware of how dire her situation is. Furthermore, when she is finally examined by the doctor, he informs her father of what he thinks is wrong with her in private, and Laura is hidden from information about her own body. Even when she later asks her father for more information about her withering state, he replies curtly, “Nothing; you must not plague me with questions” (LeFanu). Her father abruptly ends any discourse, and she remains in the dark about her own health. Laura’s isolated gender role serves to show her lack of powerful identity and control over her circumstances. Ultimately, the women experience isolation differently in their gender roles, as Jane’s isolation empowers her while Laura’s seclusion continually incarcerates her.
The female Gothic in both Jane Eyre and Carmilla embodies the use of fear as mode, a physical response to terror, and the isolated experience of the female individual. Though achieved through different methods, both novels use a stark sense of isolation as a means for creating incarceration and developing a sense of individual experience in their female gender roles. However, Jane’s finds a way to empower herself, adhere to her values, and create her own independence against all environmental odds. Laura’s isolation, on the other hand, merely adds suspense to the fearful aspects of the story and serves darkly to hide information. However, despite their different tones and purposes, the isolated settings, regardless of their macabre physical nature, shed light aesthetically on the female experience and arguably create power for the female reader.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: Norton, 2001.
LeFanu, J. Sheridan. In A Glass Darkly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Matthews, Elizabeth. “Populism, Gender, and Sympathy in the Romantic Novel, by James P. Carson.” ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830 (2012).
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