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Diverging Roles of Men & Women in Gothic Literature


The Gothic fiction genre, popular in England between 1790 and 1830, is named after the location where the tales often take place: old manor houses, castles and abbeys considered "barbarian" architectural forms when compared to the classical forms. However, Gothic subject matter often concerns the struggles of women in an overbearing patriarchal society. Many of the genre's authors were women, some of whom, such as George Eliot, wrote under male pseudonyms, providing a unique view into the divergent roles of men and women in the English society of the time.

Societal Setting

Gothic novels are set in the patriarchal society of late-18th and early-19th century England. Horace Walpole, in his 1764 "The Castle of Otranto," set the stage for the genre's remote, medieval settings replete with male villains and innocent heroines. Because of the control men had over society, they tend to be represented as domineering, violent and brooding figures, given the free-reign of their social standing. Women were considered subservient creatures, and a triumph of the Gothic genre is its feminism, where women, through their "idealized moral virtues," break free of their inferior standing.

Male Roles

Much of the Gothic male's characterization centers around the archetype of the landed-gentry: lords and kings of their estates, and representative of the male society's rule over women. Gothic male characters had power and often demand female characters into unthinkable acts and assaults on their virtue, including forced marriage and criminal acts. These demands often force the female into hysterical emotions: fainting, screaming or utter terror. In certain Gotic novels, this tyrannical male is often bested by the female, and sometimes brought into agreement with the feminine side. Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is a perfect example of this format.

Female Roles

The female role in Gothic literature is more complex than the male's. Although still represented by archeypes, such as the persecuted maiden, femme fatale and the virtuous mother figure, the character's resolve and identity is often determined by the type of male tyranny inflicted upon them. This exploration of female identity within a society that oppresses them defines their role in the Gothic genre. How their dignity and values remain, and often win, while male characters often break in their desire for, and need of, the female characters, is where roles diverge, taking a feminist turn in a male-dominated literary society.

The Female Gothic

According to Bette B. Robert's article, "Gothic Fiction (1780-1830)," female authors and readers dominated Gothic fiction, and was in stark contrast to the domestic novels of the time, which reinforced women's roles during late 18th-century English society. Roberts also writes how the Gothic ultimately became the expression of women's repressed fears, anxieties and actual oppression within this male-dominated society. However, many of the authors wrote conservatively to avoid damaging their social reputation and respectability, and accepted women's societal positions of idealized moral virtue, as well as legal and economic inferiority.

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