Sunday, 4 August 2013

'The Monstrous Feminine: A Portrait of Female Sexuality in Irish Gothic Literature' by Donna Mitchell

The Monstrous Feminine: A Portrait of Female Sexuality in Irish Gothic Literature

Donna Mitchell is an English Literature PhD student of Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Her thesis is entitled From Dolls to Demons: Tracing the Evolution of the Gothic Female through a Selection of Traditional and Non-Traditional Gothic Texts, and focuses on the female figure of Gothic literature. Her Master’s research and dissertation focused on the contemporary Gothic hero of Anne Rice’s work, and conference papers have centred specifically on the Gothic female. Her work will be included in the forthcoming Universal Vampire Volume II, due for publication in September 2013.
This paper was given at the symposium on the theme of ‘The Gender Question’ hosted by Mary Immaculate College on May 15th and organised by Sibéal branch representatives Ann Marie Joyce (University of Limerick) and Deirdre Flynn (Mary Immaculate College).  

When Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella, Carmilla, was first published in 1872, its subject matter captured the growing social concerns with regard to women’s sexuality in the late Victorian era. His portrayal of the Irish Gothic female through the character of the young vampire, Carmilla, raises the notion of female homosexuality and woman’s role as the sexual predator. Carmilla represents the potentially dangerous threat of female sexuality and can be psychoanalytically defined as the ‘monstrous feminine’, which is the ‘feminine excess [that] exorcises fears regarding female sexuality and women’s ability to procreate’ (Gamble 2006, p.253). Barbara Creed argues that this term is a simple reversal of the traditional male monster, but ‘as with all other stereotypes of the feminine [the female monster] is defined in terms of her sexuality’ (Creed 1993, p.3). This highlights the ‘importance of her gender in the construction of her monstrosity’ (Creed 1993, p.3), and is portrayed by Carmilla’s embodiment of the dangers associated with the social emergence of the nineteenth-century ‘New Woman’.

Nina Auerbach describes the ideal Victorian woman as being a ‘silent and self-disinherited mutilate’ (Auerbach 1982, p.8). This supports the myth of womanhood that existed at the time, which consisted of manufactured fantasies regarding woman’s nature including those of ‘inferior brain weight, tendency to brain fever if educated, ubiquitous maternal instinct, [and] raging hormonal imbalance’ (Auerbach 1982, p. 12), which perpetuated her inferior position within patriarchal society.  In contrast, the nineteenth-century ‘New Woman’ describes the onset of educated women who were socially and financially independent of men. In an effort to suppress her growing popularity and power, the ‘New Woman’ was often portrayed as ‘a sort of unnatural production’ or ‘a feminine Frankenstein’, who was mocked for her ‘crude ideas on life, and...absolutely impossible remedies for the reconstruction [of society]’ (Lady’s Realm, quoted in Calder 1976, p.164). Her most threatening aspect however, was a newly candid attitude towards sexuality as there was a general consensus in this era that, apart from prostitutes, women could not or should not ‘experience sexual pleasure’ (Calder 1976, p.88). Sex was considered to be a ‘marital duty [that was] only to be performed for the purpose of procreation’ (Calder 1976, p.88). However, women’s changing perspectives meant that they now ‘felt free to initiate sexual relationships, to explore alternatives to marriage and motherhood, and to discuss sexual matters such as contraception and sexual disease’ (Senf 1982, p.35).

  Carmilla portrays this sexualised female as she is a beautiful vampire who preys specifically on young girls. She challenges the ideology of lesbianism within the cultural context of the Victoria era, which considered it to be an unnatural sexuality, as illustrated by the deteriorating health of her victims when they submit to her and return her affections (Gelder 1994, p.61). This viewpoint of lesbianism as an abnormality also arises in Butler’s discussion of Monique Wittag’s argument on how the position of the lesbian does not lie within the social constructions of gender and therefore ‘is neither a woman nor a man’ (Wittag, cited in Butler 1990, p.113). Instead, she exists ‘beyond the categories of sex’ (Wittag, cited in Butler 1990, p.113) and appears as a third gender that is separate from the rigid binary oppositions of male and female. Carmilla disputes this rigid stance on gender definitions with the argument that her sexuality is not unnatural, but something that has been derived from nature itself:
This disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature – don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains.                                                                                                                                                                      
(Le Fanu 2004, p.40)

  The ease with which she enters the feminine space of the domestic sphere supports this claim as it suggests that she is a part of the natural order despite her sexual nature. She begins her ruthless pursuit of Laura with a night-time encounter whereby the young girl feels ‘a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.10). This initial act suggests a return of the deceased maternal figure and subverts the union of a mother nursing her infant. The destruction of this maternal imagery is the first suggestion of Carmilla’s role as the sexual pursuer that was traditionally filled by the male suitor. Furthermore, it sets up the gender dynamic of the girls’ relationship and can be examined through Calder’s notion on how ‘the violence of the male predator [in fiction] is emphasized by the helplessness of his victim...for if the male were preying on an equal, the whole effect would be lost’ (Calder 1976, p.114). In other words, ‘the female must be weaker than the male’ (Calder 1976, p.114). Laura’s submission to Carmilla’s seduction portrays the notion of the ‘entranced woman’ as according to the Victorian myth, who is ‘seemingly helpless under the grip of her hyperconscious male oppressor, [and whose] trance is not passivity, but an ominous gathering of power as she transfigures herself from humanity to beatitude’ (Auerbach 1982, p.40). Laura’s role as the helpless female in this instance is further emphasised by the fact that Carmilla’s violent and masculine act of penetration takes place when she is unconscious and presumably safe in her bed.

Carmilla’s actions alienate Laura from her father and she quickly becomes the most dominating presence in her life. Her means of achieving this status exemplify the masculine lesbian who conforms to Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of the ‘masculine protest’, which calls for the female to ‘masculinise herself’ by imitating the characteristics of the male, as according to the social paradigm, or to ‘make use of her feminine weapons to wage war on the male’ (de Beauvoir 1997, p.74). Carmilla carries out both aspects of this theory. Firstly, she assumes the masquerade of a young and sickly girl in order to fool Laura’s father into extending an invitation to his home that grants her unlimited access to his only daughter. This facade of helplessness portrays how ‘women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared by men’ (Riviere, cited in Butler 1990, p.51). Secondly, she emulates the male behaviour of actively seeking out the object of her affection in an effort to fulfil the primal need for sexual relations (and in her case, blood).

Carmilla’s masculine role in the relationship is even manifested in her physicality, which mirrors that of the traditional male suitor’s tall, dark and handsome depiction. This is illustrated by Laura’s account of how she was ‘above the middle [female] height...her eyes large, dark, and lustrous...her magnificently thick...and in colour a rich very dark brown...’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.31). Additionally, she had a ‘sweet low voice’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.31) that she used to put Laura under a deep compulsion during their ‘foolish embraces [from] which I used to wish to extricate myself [but] only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.33). However, the most definitive threat of her masculinity is the presence of ‘the sharpest tooth - long, thin, a needle’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.39). Her possession of this phallic feature suggests the presence of a hidden masculinity and highlights the blurring of gender definitions in the text. The danger that this attribute could cause harm to its female host is addressed in the hunchback’s offer to ‘make it round and blunt’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.39) so that it will ‘not hurt the young lady’ (Le Fanu 2004, p.39). This tooth also symbolises her underlying feral nature as the overtly sexual ‘native woman’ who epitomises wild and animalistic behaviour, for ‘the native is the earthly’ (Veeder 1986, p.82), ‘the enemy of values…the absolute evil’ (JanMohamed 1983, p.5).

The concluding encounter between Carmilla and the band of men at the end of the novella (that sees her staked and decapitated) can be read as a restoration of the social order as according to the collective principles of the Victorian era. The staking reminds the lesbian lover that ‘the true function of woman is that of a receiving vessel’ (Creed, cited in Faxneld 2010, p.3). Her decapitation can be read in Freudian terms as a castration that de-masculinises the female demon ‘who has expressed an inappropriately masculine and active sexual desire’ (Creed 1993, p.3).

In conclusion, Carmilla illustrates how Irish Gothic literature of the Victorian era can be read as an exploration of the collective paradigms of female gender and sexuality. Its subversion of traditional gender definitions allows for the creation of alternative female characters and portrays the consequences of any challenge they make to the social order. Furthermore, it illustrates the male supremacy’s celebration of femininity as well as its attempt to control and subdue it.

Works Cited
Auerbach, N. (1982) Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth, USA: Harvard University Press.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble, London: Routledge.
Calder, J. (1976) Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Creed, B. (1993) The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge.
De Beauvoir, S. (1997) The Second Sex, London: Vintage.
Gamble, S. (ed) (2006) The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism, London: Routledge.
Gelder, K. (1994) Reading the Vampire, London: Routledge.
JanMohamed, A. (2008) ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory’, in Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. (eds.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 19-23.
Le Fanu J. S. (2004) Carmilla, USA: Wildside Press.
Senf, C. A. (1982) ‘Dracula: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman’, Victorian Studies, 26, 33-49, available: JSTOR database [accessed 23rd April 2013].
Veeder, W. (1986) Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.