“‘You Wouldn’t Have to Kill Me'”: Haunted Women, The (Fe)Male Gothic, and Wide Sargasso Sea

“He commenced his walk, but soon again stopped and this time just before me.
“‘Jane! Will you hear reason?’ (he stooped and approached his lips to my ear;) ‘Because, if you won’t, I’ll try violence.'”–Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847), Ch. 27

Recent literary criticism has attributed an air of notoriety to the Gothic’s reputation for contesting conceptual boundaries. Encoded within Gothic narratives is a play of terms, of oppositions, which attest to a fundamental ambivalence: good depends on evil, light on dark, reason on irrationality, in order to define limits. This play of antitheses means that Gothic is an inscription neither of darkness nor of light, a delineation neither of reason and morality nor of superstition and corruption, neither real nor fantastic, but both at the same time (Botting 9). Such amorphous inclusiveness reflects a major problem of defining the “Gothic” itself. According to Sarolta Marinovich, for example, it is “not so much…a specific genre in literary history…but…a mode of writing to be found in novels and poems alike” (189). Little wonder that Julian Fleenor proposes that the Gothic “is a protean entity not one thing. There is not just one Gothic but Gothics” (4).

One of the factors surrounding the Gothic that has remained constant over the past three centuries is its affiliation with women. Indeed, from its late-eighteenth century inception as a genre to its twentieth century “drugstore” incarnation as a formulaic “romantic novel stamped by a brooding sense of mystery and terror” (Whitney 11), the Gothic has been considerably shaped by women. According to the findings of feminist literary theory and criticism, the Gothic, either as a genre or “mode of writing,” suits women writers’ purpose: not only can it give voice to the (hitherto unmentionable) female condition of marginalization in androcentric society, but it can do so indirectly, given the Gothic world’s precarious balance of “the real” and “the fantastic” (van Leeuwen 37).

“As early as the 1790s,” states Ellen Moers, “Ann Radcliffe firmly set the Gothic in one of the ways it would go ever after: a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine” (91). For many feminist critics, who claim that the victim aspect is more pronounced in Gothic than its counterpart, the affinity between gender and genre is problematic: while the terror and rage that women experience within patriarchal social arrangements (especially marriage) may find expression, Gothic resolutions all too often entail an affirmation of the status quo, pointing to the notorious ambivalence of Gothic fiction. According to Tania Modleski, for instance, “Gothics, like Harlequins, perform the function of giving expression to women’s hostility towards men while simultaneously allowing them to repudiate it” (66). Kate Ellis maintains that the Gothic novel creates, “in a segment of culture directed toward women, a resistance to an ideology that imprisons them even as it posits a sphere of safety for them” (x). Michelle Massé argues that “the husband who was originally defined by his opposition to the unjust father figure slowly merges with that figure. The heroine again finds herself mute, paralyzed, enclosed” (20). In short, the maiden of the Radcliffean mould may act bravely, but she cannot surmount the sphere of woman’s socially enforced helplessness. Continue reading