Gender Roles in Gothic Fiction

The Gothic villain is the dynamic central force that drives the narratives, compared to whom the archetypal male hero, such as the sensitive and cultured Valencourt in Udolpho, seems anaemic and almost irrelevant.

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto establishes a paradigm for the Gothic villain in the character of Manfred, the tyrannical, immoral and violent prince of Otranto. Later, Radcliffe creates Montoni as her version of this figure. This mould of character, echoed in many works including Radcliffe's Montoni, Maturin's Melmouth (see Melmouth the Wanderer) and later Emily Brontë's Heathcliffe (see Wuthering Heights), is necessarily condemned by the reader's moral judgement. But he also tends to be the central source of energy in the story-lines and so can be read in the same way that Blake perceived Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost: morally evil yet undeniably attractive in charisma and ambition. The darker side of Romanticism is expressed in the depiction of these Gothic rebels and wanderers; like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner they are transgressors and bearers of a dark secret. There is a sense in male Gothic of an identification of author with his own creation of the egocentric patriarchal villain. For example Matthew Lewis admitted after reading Udolpho to his perceiving a resemblance between Montoni and himself:

"I confess that it struck me, and as he is the Villain of the tale, I did not feel much flattered by the likeness."

The hero-villain of the Gothic later provided Lord Byron with both a source of poetic inspiration and a model for his own self-image and defiant energy.

The subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel that is a composite of Gothic and Romantic ideas, is "The Modern Prometheus". Prometheus is an important model for both genres, representing both man's ambition and his inevitable human fate to suffer. Shelley also utilises the figure of Milton's Satan. Paradise Lost is a key influence on the text, and is one of the books with which the creature educates himself. He detects an affinity between himself and the fallen angel in their shared alienation from their master and their home and the inevitable need to turn to evil. Faust is also a relevant figure for the Gothic hero and Mary Shelley makes particularly good use of this theme. Just as Prometheus ignites life into clay with fire, Faust is divinely punished for his thirst for knowledge. Thus, the egocentric drive of the Gothic villain ensconced in his castle is transmuted in Frankenstein to the Promethean ambition of the mad scientist, a staple of later Gothic fiction.

The role of women in Gothic fiction has been a matter of considerable critical debate. In one sense, the female protagonists of Radcliffe and others are allowed a temporary freedom in their adventures, released from the domestic sphere and forming the central focus of the narrative. Some feminist critics have perceived in the portrayal of the home as terrible prison full of dark secrets a subconscious horror of female entrapment and subjection. But on the other hand, the re-establishment's of domestic normality in the work of Radcliffe can be read as a conservative endorsement of the safety of the home and 'proper' female virtue, while the repeated fainting of the heroines (another gothic staple) suggests an extreme passivity and a refusal to confront the evil they experience. It can be seen as emblematic of a basic weakness in the Gothic heroine: she is unable to cope psychologically with that which she confronts. However, to a greater degree - in Radcliffe especially - it is merely a convenient way of producing terror. If she cannot see, we as an audience can also be blinded to the event and so fear it all the more. Female characters in the Gothic tend to be written according to conventional criteria, so much so that a contemporary critic, J. C. Dunlop, said of Radcliffe:

"Her heroines too nearly resemble each other, or rather they
possess hardly any shade of difference. They have all blue
eyes and auburn hair... "

They also tend to be susceptible to an over-indulgence of emotion, an extreme sensibility that tends to encourage tears or swooning at the slightest melancholy thought or shock. In the exaggerated world of Gothic, this is made acceptable as a formulaic device, but its absurdity in the real world is hightlighted by Austen in Northanger Abbey.

In The Monk, Antonia is very much the Gothic passive female, but Matilda negates this model, becoming almost masculine as she asserts her authority over Ambrosio. This type of female dominance is cast in

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