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She-(d)evils? The Construction of a Female Tyrant as a Cultural Critique

by Tomasz Fisiak (Author)
Monographs 192 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1 Despotic women in early Gothic fiction
  • 1.1 The female tyrants of Ann Radcliffe
  • 1.2 Post-Radcliffean female tyrants
  • 1.3 Le Fanu’s Carmilla – a victimized tyrant
  • Part 2 Domestic Gothic female tyrants
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil – the text
  • 2.3 The Life and Loves of a She-Devil – the film adaptations
  • 2.4 The Robber Bride – the novel and its film version
  • Part 3 Beyond the age constraints: Gothic female tyrants in the novels of Beryl Bainbridge and Zoë Heller
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Harriet Said… – between teenage angst and tyranny
  • 3.3 Notes on a Scandal – love and manipulation (the novel vs. the film)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

About the author

The Author
Tomasz Fisiak is an assistant professor in the Department of Canadian, Intermedial and Postcolonial Studies, Institute of English Studies, the University of Lodz. The main subject of his research is Gothicism as a widely understood cultural phenomenon. He is a language editor of Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture.

About the book

Tomasz Fisiak

She-(d)evils? The Construction
of a Female Tyrant as a Cultural Critique

Although Gothicism remains a popular subject of scholarly investigation, little attention has been paid to the figure of the Gothic female tyrant. This book attempts to prove that despotic women in Gothic fiction are more than mere female equivalents of male tyrants or negatives to angelic damsels in distress. Rather, they are multidimensional characters who are punished for their independence, power and the free expression of their erotic needs. The book explains how their portrayal has evolved, embracing a selection of texts written between 1764 and 2003, as well as a few cinematic adaptations of the analyzed works. The study views Gothic anti-heroines in their historical, social, class and cultural contexts, paying particular attention to the notion of desire and its fulfillment. The analysis, accompanied by the relevant theoretical framework, aims to help the eponymous “she-devils” reclaim their space and voice.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

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Introduction

The character of an evil woman has been a common theme in literature through the centuries. A female tyrant, a monster, a manipulator – there have been numerous examples of such figures in various literary texts. The term that shall be used here, a female tyrant,1 may sound, however, quite vague, for what makes a woman one? Is it a matter of her crimes or offences, both factual and alleged, ranging from infidelity to libel? Is it offensive enough for her to be sexually and socially liberated, resolute and unbending to male domination? Is female tyranny a result of her desire to possess power over both her actions and actions of others? Or is it sufficient for her just to be a woman in a patriarchal world? These questions will be addressed in the analysis of selected Gothic texts spanning four centuries – from the early works by Ann Radcliffe (1790s) to a fairly recent contribution to the genre, namely Notes on a Scandal by Zoё Heller (2003).

Gothic fiction, the by-product of the 18th-century sentimentalism, and one of the proofs of the backlash against rationalism, is most often associated with the stock female character of a damsel in distress. A persecuted Gothic maiden is almost always juxtaposed with “the selfish and ambitious villain” (Botting 51), an antagonist “who in many cases has pledged himself to diabolical powers” (Phelps 110–11). The Gothic tyrant is usually a king, a spoilt aristocrat, or any other man of superior rank. Apart from these two, the earliest Gothic texts typically include valiant knights and duplicitous representatives of the clergy. Female antagonists appear less frequently. If they do, they are referred to as “fatal, Medusa-like women” (Phelps 111), and they face ultimate condemnation and punishment for their moral demise. Anti-heroines usually exist at the margins of Gothic fiction, which may have led to their marginality as a subject of academic investigation. Even though Gothicism, despite its convoluted history, still manages to inspire scholars and authors alike, the attention is shifted more toward male villains and persecuted women, as well as the role of nature, economic and class issues, or even politics, but not the female tyrants. Hopefully, the following work will shed more light on this, so far, somewhat neglected group of characters, describing both the evolution of their depiction and changing attitudes towards them. ←9 | 10→Hence, I aim to verify the negative outlook on female despots and stereotypes to which they are exposed. Undoubtedly, female antagonists in Gothic fiction evoke fear with their powerfulness, independence and free expression of erotic desire. No longer humble or submissive, they are easily put into a convenient role of a scapegoat, misfit and threat to the male-oriented social order.

Nevertheless, one should remember that their seeming danger stems from their womanhood itself. As early as ancient times, women were considered a subpar reflection of men and an aberration of nature. Aristotle observed that female inferiority resulted from her being “the matter,” as opposed to the man being “the form,” the consequence of which was that “the female qua female is the patient, while the male qua male is the agent and is that from which comes the beginning of the movement” (qtd. in Mayhew 41). The “natural” role of women in relation to men, the active agents, would be that of passive recipients of their orders. Although the Bible offers a non-homogenous image of femininity, surely “the misogyny [is] inherent in the construction of Virgin Mary, who is first inspected for blemish or deviation from the patriarchal projection, and then rushed to embrace the role that will petrify her into a biological oddity for ever after” (Filipczak, “Is Literature Any Help” 122). Also the biblical portrayal of Eve displays imperfection of women, suggesting their inherent defectiveness and questioning their existence as rational and moral beings (Modrak 207). Eve’s “evil” is also rooted in her capacity for desire. Pamela Sue Anderson points out that by means of tasting the forbidden fruit,

Eve becomes aware of herself gradually as she also becomes aware of her desire for knowledge of right and wrong… Similarly she becomes aware of her capacities for affection; intuition, cognition; and spiritual yearning. Certain capacities become evident in a however implicit, yet self-aware assertion, “I can.” Admittedly capability implies power. (“The Lived Body, Gender and Confidence” 174)

And this newly gained power transforms her into a tangible danger to the masculine position of domination. Michèle Le Dœuff confirms that the “original sin was the sin of wanting to know” (qtd. in Filipczak, “Is Literature Any Help” 117). Eve’s case exemplifies how much female desire, or, rather, a conflation of various desires, threatens patriarchy. The awareness of one’s desire and the willingness to fulfill it are opposed to the roles prescribed for women – of obedient mothers, good wives, bearers of children, keepers of the domestic hearth, men’s trophies or devout servants to God. Each of them entails subjugation and renouncement of one’s voice.

Summary

Although Gothicism remains a popular subject of scholarly investigation, little attention has been paid to the figure of the Gothic female tyrant. This book attempts to prove that despotic women in Gothic fiction are more than mere female equivalents of male tyrants or negatives to angelic damsels in distress. Rather, they are multidimensional characters who are punished for their independence, power and the free expression of their erotic needs. The book explains how their portrayal has evolved, embracing a selection of texts written between 1764 and 2003, as well as a few cinematic adaptations of the analyzed works. The study views Gothic anti-heroines in their historical, social, class and cultural contexts, paying particular attention to the notion of desire and its fulfillment. The analysis, accompanied by the relevant theoretical framework, aims to help the eponymous “she-devils” reclaim their space and voice.

Biographical notes

Tomasz Fisiak (Author)

Tomasz Fisiak is Assistant Professor in the Department of Canadian, Intermedial and Postcolonial Studies, Institute of English Studies, University of Lodz. The main subject of his research is Gothicism as a widely understood cultural phenomenon. He is a Language Editor of Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture.

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Title: She-(d)evils? The Construction of a Female Tyrant as a Cultural Critique