Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gibberish [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Immortality and Transcendence in John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death’
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, l.51-52.

The wish for transcendence adopts an arousing vision for the second-generation Romantic poets, as they strongly believed in the healing power of the imagination and the ability to escape real life with their creative thoughts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers a theory for creative transcendence in one of his famous passages in Biographia Literaria (1817). He establishes a harmonious relationship between the ideal world and the real world: ‘[the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create: even where this process is rendered impossible’.[1] Shortly after Coleridge’s work was published, poets including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley shed a new light onto the transcendent powers of poetry. Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) explores the transcendent influence of the human mind through the presence of nature as an immortal symbol. The use of imaginative transcendence from a real world to the ideal in both poems exposes the transition of multiple other binaries. The wish to transcend between the real and ideal can question whether the human imagination is subject to the limitations of human experience.

In Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird is presented as an immortal icon. The speaker admires the happiness that the nightingale possesses: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness’.[2] The nightingale embodies an excess of joy which is incomparable to the speaker’s. The superlative ‘too’ portrays the extremity of the nightingale’s immortality, invoking an excess of emotion onto the speaker. The overbalance of pleasure from a natural object links to the themes encompassing the Sublime. In The Prelude, William Wordsworth recognises nature’s superiority in the lines:

‘The Power which these/
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus/
Thrusts forth upon the senses.’[3]

The all-consuming ‘Power’ of the bird’s songs in Keats poem invokes a raw emotion that shows how the transcendence is initiated by a Subliminal, aesthetic experience.

Whilst the nightingale is an immortal entity, it is also a bird of darkness. The dark imagery in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ resembles the death-wish of the speaker; there is ‘no light’ (l. 38) except from where the breeze causes the trees to part. The stanza is full of absences and presences caused from the transcendence from reality to the ideal, reflecting the glimpses of life and death:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
(ll. 41-52)

Keats’ bird is invisible in the shadowy forest of ‘embalmed darkness’, resembling the death-wishes connected to the transcendent thoughts of the speaker. The dark imagery plunges the speaker into confusion; he ‘cannot see’, blinded by the powers of his imagination. Furthermore, he addresses the nightingale as ‘Darkling’ to emphasise his loneliness in a dark world. Although the nightingale is immortal in the ideal world, Keats is suggesting that when combined with the real world, the bird brings deathly connotations because of its black colour. He views death as a welcomed prospect; ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’. Death to Keats seems partly desirable because of the mortality of the world he lives in. The presence of the nightingale in reality makes him see death as an escape to release him from his troubles. The dark symbolism of the nightingale draws a close association between life and death, which blurs the boundaries between the two.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contrasts the immortality of the bird with the reality of mankind to remind us of the permanent sorrow in the world, emphasising the human desire to escape it. The speaker wishes to ‘fade far away’ from the death and decay of the real world:

‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan’
(ll. 21- 24)

The verb ‘dissolve’ stresses Keats’ desire to disappear from the destructive world around him. The added emphasis of ‘dissolve’ in parenthesis separates the word away from the rest of the stanza; resembling Keats distancing himself from the decay of reality. Furthermore, the imagery of the miserable men visualises a world of grief and suffering that is not apparent in the nightingale’s world. The sensory ‘groan[s]’ interfere with the beauty of the nightingale’s song that ‘Singest of summer’ (l. 10). This contrast grounds Keats in the realms of reality and stops him from transcending. The regular rise and fall of the iambic pentameter syllables arguably represent the sound of a heartbeat; further keeping Keats connected to the physical body whilst transcending to an idealised state. This suggests that the mortality of the world cannot be escaped even if mankind wishes to be free. With regards to Keats’ poetry, Bernice Slote summarises that ‘because of the particular poetic quality of his life, Keats’ poems are nearly always viewed autobiographically’.[4] Contextually therefore, it is likely that Keats is referring to the death and sickness occurring in his life at the time he wrote the ode. His family’s misfortunes and impending struggle with tuberculosis enabled Keats to envision a world surrounded by life’s suffering and decay. This belief is exemplified in his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818:

I compare human life to a Mansion of Many apartments… [in which occurs the] sharpening of one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man- of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.’[5]

The degenerated earth that Keats lives in opposes the nightingale’s infinite life; as the bird ‘wast not born for death’ (l. 61). The age and decay of the real world in Keats’ ode contrasts with the state of the bird to suggest that mankind is inferior. Combining the world of imagination with the real world is important to Keats because without imagination, the real world is confined to ugliness. On the other hand, merging the two worlds with the speaker’s imagination shows how one cannot simply transcend into the other. Earl Wasserman argues that Keats’ juxtaposition of immortality and pain emphasises the instability of reality, ‘for the perfection of the nightingale’s happiness underscores an uneasiness of the poet’s’.[6] In a universe of suffering and pain, seeing the nightingale triggers the speaker’s imaginative thoughts. Keats binds a world of pain and fear by forging the ideal and real world as one: ‘Still wouldst though sing, and I have ears in vain-/ To thy high requiem become a sod’ (ll. 59- 60). In these lines, Keats is implying that even with the joyous sounds of the nightingale, death inevitably still surrounds him. It is not a jubilant celebration of life but a ‘requiem’ for the dead.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ highlights his awareness of the transcendent power of art when he rides on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ (l. 33). Furthermore, Keats transcends beyond admiring the nightingale when he notes that ‘Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes’ (l. 29). The nightingale is no longer an aesthetic beauty but a metaphor for poetic inspiration. For Keats, the power of poetry is not the only motivator for his transcendent experience. The poem’s rich imagery of intoxication emphasises a desire to escape into a world of hallucinogenic bliss. The imagery of the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ (l. 17) suggests that alcohol is an overwhelming factor to the quality of Keats’ thoughts. The plosive alliteration is onomatopoeic and captures the action of sparkling wine fizzing. The ‘winking’ is suggestive of bubbles forming and bursting, which personifies the alcohol as opening and shutting like an eye. This can allude to Keats’ imagination flitting from reality to the ideal through the influence of alcohol. The ode begins with ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’ (ll. 1- 2) to suggest that the speaker is drinking to escape his misery. The decadent start of the poem concentrates on the suffering of the speaker, through the repetition of the first-person determiner ‘my’ to emphasise the speaker’s unstable state of mind. The ‘drowsy numbness’ adds delusion and portrays the real world as blurred and uncertain. Furthermore, Keats uses Greek myth in his ode to express his desire to transcend from the uncomfortable reality of modernity. Greek myth is used to describe the transcendence of Keats flying to the nightingale ‘Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards’ (l. 32). In Greek myth, ‘Bacchus’ is the god of agriculture, wine and fertility; encompassing the earthly consciousness of the real world. To ‘not’ use reality as a way to transcend to the ideal suggests that alcohol is an insufficient source of inspiration for his imagination. John Strachan disapproves of Keats’ work, describing it as ‘neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium’.[7] In disagreement with Strachan’s criticism, the intoxication of the speaker in the ode can be seen as a symbol of the real world’s chaos as opposed to the poet himself. Keats criticises the self-indulgence of mankind and shows its interference with the poetic inspiration.

Featured Painting:
Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845, Oil on Canvas, 114 x 97cm, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. The Floating Press (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 365- 366.

[2] John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1464- 1466 (l. 6) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 554- 558.

[4] Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958) p. 4.

[5] Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May, 1818 in Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

[6] Earl Wasserman. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953) p. 188.

[7] John Strachan, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on The Poems of John Keats (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 39.

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Impaired Parent/Child Relationships in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea

‘Dear Father. The thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition…I have a modest competence now. I will no longer be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love…I have sold my soul or you have sold it.’
-Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, p.39.

In Jean Rhys’ novella Wide Sargasso Sea, relationships between parents and children are shown to be entirely unhealthy, leading to warped perceptions of the self and oppressive monopolisation of the impressionable children. Ultimately, relationships between parents and children in Wide Sargasso Sea are entirely governed by patriarchal social codes. Rochester is used as pawn by his father, who rejects him due to the feudal codes of primogeniture. As a result, he finds himself essentially traded into a marriage, as well as his personality and moral centre being warped and moulded by his experiences; it is his unhealthy relationship with his father that forms the basis of his treatment of Antoinette.

Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with his father stems from his father’s patriarchal adherence to primogeniture, the idea of ‘the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, especially the feudal rule by which the whole real estate of an interstate is passed to the eldest son.’2 Rochester’s position as the second born son leaves him penniless; as Spivak comments, ‘Rhys makes it clear that he is a victim of the patriarchal inheritance law of entailment…’3 However, unable to endure the idea that ‘a son of his should be a poor man’4, Rochester’s father ‘sought me [Rochester] a partner betimes’5. In Rhys’ use the verb ‘sought’, the idea of Rochester’s inferiority to patriarchy and his father is first introduced; in his father’s seeking of a bride, Rochester is forced to play the role ‘sought’ by his father. In essence, Rochester is treated as a pawn in order to gain further social position, his relationship with his father being little more than a relationship of transaction. This is most clearly shown in Rochester’s first letter to his father after the marriage:

‘Dear Father. The thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition…I have a modest competence now. I will no longer be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love…I have sold my soul or you have sold it.’ (p.39)

The language of transaction is paramount within this letter; the use of the terms ‘paid’ and ‘sold’ suggesting Rochester’s inferiority and to his father, as furthered in the idea of his father’s selling of his sons soul for money and status. Moreover, the transactional language connotes greatly to a semantic field of slavery; just like a slave, Rochester is owned by his father, and therefore the patriarchal society that his father embodies. In this way, Rochester’s own journey can very much be seen as mimicking the Middle Passage, this being ‘the part of the [slave] trade where Africans, densely packed onto ships, were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies.’7 Despite travelling to the West Indies in luxury, Rochester is basically transported and sold to the West Indies by his father to an uncertain fate. In order to keep his father happy, Rochester carries out his wishes; ‘…it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry. When at least I met her I bowed, smiled. Kissed her hand, danced with her. I played the part I was expected to play’ (p.44). The latter phrase emphasises Rochester’s pawn-like status; he is nothing but a game piece monopolised by his overbearing and ‘avaricious, grasping’8 father. It is this unhealthy relationship with his father that sculpts Rochester into a patriarchal emblem; Rochester, like his father, comes to embody rigid nineteenth-century social codes, later on using them to lock up and dominate his wife, Antoinette. As Purdue and Floyd argue, ‘Rochester represents patriarchy that births patriarchy as an unbroken chain’9; ultimately, his fractured and volatile relationship with his father warps his morality- for him, oppression and transactional relationships are acceptable and normal. As Rochester himself remarks, ‘how old was I when I learned to hide what I felt? A very small boy. Six, five, even earlier. It was necessary, I was told, and that view I have always accepted’ (p.63). It is clear then that Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with his father thus leads to his internalising of ‘male-dominance ideology’ and ‘blind obedience to…cruel social rules’ that ‘result[s] in his tragic marriage life’10, as well as his oppressive attitude towards Antoinette. Rochester and his relationship with his father, therefore, acts as a clear example of the flawed and unhealthy relationships between parents and children within Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.


Featured Image
: Illustration by Edmund Henry Garrett, as created for the publisher Bernhard Tauchnitz’s 1850 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

1. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/primogeniture [Accessed 24th March 2018).

2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Enquiry, Vol.12 (1985), pp. 243-261, p.251. Available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/pg/masters/modules/femlit/gayatri_spivak_three_womens_texts_and_a_critique_of_imperialism.pdf [Accessed 20th March 2018].

3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin, 2006), p.351.

4. Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.351.

5. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Penguin, 2000), p.39. All further references to Rhys’ text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

6. ‘The Middle Passage’, The Abolition Project (2009). Available at: http://abolition.e2bn.org/slavery_44.html [Accessed 22nd March 2018].

7. Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.351.

8. Melissa Purdue and Stacey Floyd, New Woman Writers, Authority and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), p.104.

9. Yang Shuang-Ju, ‘A Feminist Study of Rochester in Jane Eyre’, Sino-US English Teaching, Vol.9 (2012), pp. 1258-1263, p. 1260.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Romeo and Juliet: A New and Authentic Love

‘My heart’s dear love is set/
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet./
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine.’
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Alexander Niccholes writes that ‘though love and lust, […] dwell under one roof, yet so opposite they are, that the one, most commonly burns down the house, that the other would build up.’ (1) Where Niccholes separates love and lust, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its recycling of the traditional Petrarchan love language and bawdy male bonds initially suggests that love is, in fact, lust in disguise. However, as the play progresses Romeo fashions his own definition of his love with Juliet that incorporates both love and lust.

According to Dympna Callaghan, ‘the model for the play’s [Romeo and Juliet] poetry, […] was Petrarch’. (2) Throughout the play Mercutio ridicules the Petrarchan conventions, which, in turn, breaks down love and turns it into lust. In Act Two, Scene One, Mercutio looks for Romeo and commands:

‘Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh./
Speak but one rhyme and I am satisfied./
Cry but ‘Ay me!’ Pronounce but ‘love’ and ‘dove’.’ (3)

Romeo is turned into cliché when Mercutio links his appearance to a ‘sigh’ and tells him that he will be satisfied if he speaks the simplistic rhyme that pairs ‘love’ with ‘dove’, so lampooning its connotations with purity. Mercutio continues with what Callaghan calls his ‘mock blazon’: (4)

I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And demesnes that there adjacent lie.’
(2, 1, ll. 17-20)

He begins conventionally but his language creeps into the lewd with his reference to the ‘quivering thigh’ and ‘demesnes that there adjacent lie’, clearly referring to Rosaline’s reproductive region. (5) This perverse parody of the blazon illustrates how, in the setting of male friendships, the Petrarchan conventions are stripped back to reveal that lust is what lies beneath the artificial language of love. As the speech continues, the sexual imagery gets increasingly vulgar, and is less hidden beneath convention, as seen in Mercutio’s reference to Rosaline as an ‘open arse’ (2.1.l.38). The language rapidly unravels the Petrarchan love parody from the beginning and shows how, at the start of the play, love is merely lust.

However, as Romeo’s relationship with Juliet develops, the play shows their attempt to create a language of love that incorporates their lust for one another. The famous balcony scene shows how Romeo’s love begins to be free of Petrarchan conventions. Romeo asks Juliet for ‘The exchange of [her] love’s faithful vow for [his]’ (2. 2. l. 127), to which she states ‘I gave thee mine before thou didst request it’ (2. 1. l. 128). As Callaghan points out, their love is ‘a profoundly reciprocal passion [in which] […] Juliet exercises considerable agency – not simply the Petrarchan fantasy of female power’. (6) This mutuality is what allows Romeo to stop using the conventional Petrarchan language. Romeo later tells Friar Laurence, ‘my heart’s dear love is set/On the fair daughter of rich Capulet./As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine’ (2.3.ll. 53-55). The repetition of

What Keirnan Ryan calls ‘symmetrical syntax and matching diction’ is what ‘define the equal exchange of desire and power that makes this relationship so different’, and it shows Romeo’s attempt at trying to articulate a new language for his love with Juliet. (7) The emptiness of Romeo’s speech from elevated Petrarchan metaphor ironically reveals the authenticity of Romeo’s love for Juliet. Romeo later engages with the bawdy language of his friends when he states he is ‘pink for flower [vulva]’ (2.4.l.57), and that his ‘pump [penis] is well flowered’ (2.4.l.59). This response contrasts his with ignorance to their comments in the play’s opening. (8) A comparison of both scenes reveals that Romeo’s love for Juliet becomes both free of Petrarchan convention and a place where he no longer needs to repress sexual desire. He is coining a love that involves his lust for Juliet. In Juliet’s chamber, after consummating their marriage, Romeo states that he ‘must be gone and live, or stay and die’ (3.5.l.11). Due to the sixteenth century pun which connects the verb ‘to die’ to orgasm, this reference suggests not only Romeo’s recognition of the consequences of their match but also that his staying would result in orgasm. As his relationship with Juliet develops, Romeo creates a new love in which lust is a large part. Whilst Mercutio makes love a façade to hide lust, Romeo puts love and lust together. In both cases however, they are not separate as Niccholes suggests, instead, they are closely connected.

Featured Photo: J.E. Jackson Adent, Romeo and Juliet, Poster, Metropolitan UTHO, Available at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Romeo_Juliet.jpg   [accessed 24/09/2018]. 

1. Alexander Niccholes, ‘A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving and of the greatest mystery therein contained: How to chuse a good wife from a bad.’, in The Harleian Miscellany: Or, A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, as well in Manuscripts as in Print, Found in the late Earl of Oxford’s Library, Interspersed with Historical, Political and Critical Notes Volume 3, ed. by William Oldys and John Malham, (London, Robert Dutton, 1804), pp. 251-288, (p.273)

2. Dympna Callaghan, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Texts and Contexts (Boston: Bedford/St Martins, 2003), pp.1-35, (p. 11)

3. William Shakespeare, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, ed, by T.J.B Spencer, (London: Penguin Books, 2005), (2,1.ll.8-10) All further references to this play are to this edition and the Act, Scene and line numbers are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

4. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18

5. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18. Callaghan also notes that the term ‘‘demenses’ refers to property directly possessed and occupied by the owner and not leased out’. This link between women and property works alongside Mercutio’s bawdy language to reduce of love to lust.

6. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18

7. Kiernan Ryan, ‘Deconstruction’, in Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, ed. by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowin Orlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 518-524. (p.522)

8. Romeo’s earlier response to Benvolio when Benvolio refers to the vulva, ‘A right fair mark, fair coz is soonest hit’, is full elevated references: ‘Well, in that hit you miss. She’ll not be hit/With cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit’ (1.1. ll.209-208). He continues with the Petrarchan convention and therefore cannot engage with the bawdy language.

Written by Estelle Luck.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Theme of Time in Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear

“He was filled with horror at the thought of what a child becomes, and what the dead must feel watching eh change from innocence to guilt and powerless to stop it.”
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, p.65.

The protagonist of The Ministry of Fear, Arthur Rowe, is haunted by the mercy killing of his wife. Set in World War II, Greene presents the city of London as a physical manifestation of Rowe’s past. On one hand, London reflects his childhood past through the fete, the vicar, and the books which remind him of his boyish innocence. On the other hand, Rowe’s recent sinful past is visible in the shops and restaurants near his home which remind him of his life with his wife. In an attempt to escape his fear of the future and present situation, Arthur Rowe attempts to both retreat to and erase the past. Firstly, Rowe searches for his childhood in a local fete which ‘called him like innocence; it was entangled in childhood, with vicarage gardens and girls in white summery frocks and the smell of herbaceous borders and security’.1 The imagery of vicarages, white dresses and security reflects Rowe’s longing to return to his childhood where he can avoid his future. However, this description of the fete is concluded by Greene noting that the fete would have to close early ‘because of the blackout’ (p.11). This brings the protagonist back to the present, failing to allow Rowe to blissfully ignore his problems. Simply, Greene implies that retreating to the past and ignoring the present is not a realistic option for dealing with fear. This can be applied to the context of the text as Greene suggests that the Blitz cannot be ignored and must be acknowledged.

Choosing to stay in London during the Blitz, Rowe watches the city being destroyed and ‘notes with a kind of hope that this restaurant or that shop existed no longer – it was like loosening the bars of a prison cell one by one’ (p.22). Rather than escaping the Blitz, Rowe relies on the bombing to help him escape his recent past. After losing his memory and finally becoming a ‘happy man’, Greene momentarily separates Rowe from his recent past (p.107-109). As well as losing the memories of his marriage, the bomb also results in Rowe losing any memories or knowledge of the war and Blitz. ‘Digby’, the name Rowe is given when he wakes, is taught about the historical past by Dr Forester who he notes was ‘more than ever the headmaster, and Digby a pupil’ (p.114). Therefore, Rowe has been detached from his personal past and the historical present. While this memory loss provides Rowe with a happier life, Greene forces the knowledge of his recent past onto the protagonist at the very end of the text. Once again Greene fails to provide Rowe with the comfort of ignorance. Greene continuously creates and destroys various escapes for Rowe in order to emphasise the importance of the past on the present and future. In this way, Greene indicates that the past must be acknowledged and accepted in order to move forward.

Featured Image:
 Cover Image created by Peter Edwards for Heinemann’s 1960 Library Edition of the novel.

1. Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (London: Vintage, 2001). All further references to Greene’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

Written by Dionne Rowe.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Language as a Method of Control in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange

‘These grahzny sodding veshches that come out of my gulliver and my plot,’ I said, ‘that’s what it is.’
‘Quaint,’ said Dr Brodsky, like smiling, ‘the dialect of the tribe.’
-Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, p. 91.

Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is narrated by protagonist Alex and is written in Nadsat, a new language created by Burgess. This language is used by Alex to demonstrate how he dominates the streets but then attempts to retain this control when he becomes subject to a government experiment that aims to modify his violent behaviour. Nadsat acts a buffer to the graphic violence Alex and his ‘droogs’ commit. When they break into a woman’s house, and attack her, Nadsat blurs the violence to the reader. He ‘upped with the little malenky like silver statue and cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the gulliver and that shut her up real horrorshow and lovely’ 1. The language limits associations the reader would normally have if Alex spoke in ‘proper’ English due to the confusing and new words. Burgess’s use of alliteration in ‘fine fair tolchock’ creates a playful and poetic image and, as he said himself, the use of Nadsat does ‘not sound as bad as booting a man in the guts.’2 The lack of complete understanding invites empathy and sympathy from the readers towards Alex in a situation where scenes of rape and violence would normally create horror and disgust. Blake Morrison discusses the effect of the language and suggests that ‘much of the excitement […] comes not from what Alex says, but how he says it: from his slovos.’3 Morrison recognises the reader’s reaction to Alex as he becomes the anti-hero in the novel that readers sympathise with and root for. Alex also plays on the reader’s empathy by referring to himself as ‘your little droog Alex’ (ACO, p. 61), and ‘Your Humble and Suffering Narrator’ (p. 97). The use of the word ‘your’ includes the reader in Alex’s journey, even when his ‘droogs’ leave him to be arrested and he is alone. It creates a relationship between the reader and Alex. As the novel progresses, he even shortens the reference to ‘Y.H.N’ (p. 126), implying that the relationship evolves as Alex becomes more isolated. Morrison suggests that ‘Alex insinuates and allies himself so intimately with his readers (‘O my brothers’) that we end up sharing every laugh (‘haw haw haw’) and cry (‘boohoohoo’).’4 Although readers know that Alex’s actions are wrong, the combination of the confusing Nadsat language and the pronoun ‘your’ creates a relationship that blurs the reader’s moral compass thus demonstrating how language can be used to manipulate and control the reader.

Whilst Nadsat can be used for Alex to control his narrative, it is also a way to gain control in a world where he finds himself being manipulated and controlled. When Alex talks to adults in the text, he mostly uses standard English to charm them but sometimes uses Nadsat. When he is partaking in the Ludovico technique, he has a conversation about what will happen when he leaves:

‘Oh I shall go home. Back to my pee and em.’ ‘Your -?’ He didn’t get Nadsat-talk at all, so I said: ‘To my parents in the dear old flatblock.’ ‘I see,’ he said.’
(ACO, p. 87)

Here, Alex is attempting to gain some control in a situation where he is being monitored and forced to watch videos against his will. The reader’s lack of understanding leads them to believe Alex has a superior knowledge. However, in the text those in authority treat him in a patronising way. Alex uses Nadsat even more so when in distress:

‘These grahzny sodding veshches that come out of my gulliver and my plot,’ I said, ‘that’s what it is.’ ‘Quaint,’ said Dr Brodsky, like smiling, ‘the dialect of the tribe.’
(ACO, p. 91)

When he becomes aware of the aim and process of the experiment, he uses Nadsat aggressively by including more words of the language in his speech. He attempts to use an alternative language to gain back the control he has lost. Dr Brodsky’s reaction of ‘quaint’ is patronising and dismissive, highlighting how ultimately the government are in control, no matter how hard Alex tries. Keith Booker comments on Nadsat and suggests that it ‘shows the imaginative superiority of Alex and his fellows.’5 The attempt to gain control highlights that Alex believes he has superiority with a different language but whilst he may have an advantage over the readers, the adults and those in power take no notice of Nadsat. Alex uses Nadsat to try and gain back some control when victim to their manipulation.


Featured Image: Cover Image created by David Pelham for Penguin’s 1972 edition of the novel. See Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Group, 1972).

(1) Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Group, 1996)

(2) Christian Bugge, ‘The Clockwork Controversy’, The Kubrick Site [n.d.] <http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0012.html&gt; [accessed 20th April 2018]. The rest of the quote follows as ‘But in a film little can be implied; everything has to be shown. Language ceases to be an opaque protection against being appalled and takes a very secondary place.’ Burgess has often showed distaste towards Kubrick’s film version as the violence is seen visually which takes away the element of cloaking that Nadsat achieves in the novel.

(3) Blake Morrison, ‘Introduction’ in Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (London: Penguin Books, 1996), pp. vii-xxiv (p. ix).

(4) Ibid., p. xii.

(5) Keith Booker, Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 96.

Written by Sophie Shepherd
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Female Body as a Political Territory in William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

’‘Rape’ call you it, my lord, to seize my own-/
my true betrothed love, and now my wife?/
But let the laws of Rome determine all;/
Meanwhile I am possessed of that is mine.’

(Act 1, Scene 1, l.402-405)

The representation of the female body as a political territory can be seen throughout Shakespeare’s gruesome tragedy Titus Andronicus; specifically, the politicising of the feminine form is explicitly shown through the brutal rape and maiming of Lavinia, Titus’s only daughter. Lavinia’s reduction to her basest form, a body, comes to symbolise Ancient Rome’s social patriarchy, a symbol that prevails throughout the entirety of the playHer mutilation at the hands of her rapists, Chiron and Demetrius, leaves her with arms ‘lopped and hewed…thy body bare’ and ‘her tongue cut out’, ‘ravished’.1 Through this act of extreme male violence, patriarchal social codes are inscribed onto her body; she becomes a ‘map of woe’ (III.ii.l.12), whose bodily mutilation represents the decay of Rome’s political infrastructure. Throughout the playLavinia is determined completely by the men around her, who seek to seize her body as their territory, regardless of her compliance. Bassianus, upon accusation of sexual misconduct, declares ‘rape, call it you, to seizeth but my own?’(I.i.l.280-281). The verb ‘seizeth’ in the latter sentence accentuates the notion of Lavinia being little more than an object of ownership; she is seized as property, never escaping male domination. As Eisaman Maus argues, at no point ‘is Lavinia’s consent an issue: she becomes the property of whoever happens to carry her off by force.’2 It was not until after the Act of 1597 that ‘a woman’s body was legally understood as being her own possession and not that of her nearest male relative’3. Before this, a woman’s body was seen as merely an extension of their husband; A husband’s role was to ‘govern her [the wife] in all duties that properly concern the state of marriage, in knowledge, in wisdom, judgment, and justice.’4 Conduct books that circulated in the Elizabethan era, such as John Dod and Robert Cleaver’s A Godly Form of Household Government, proved incredibly popular in endorsing the notion of the woman as merely an object to be owned and guided by her husband. Titus Andronicus, written around 1593, can therefore be viewed in light of Elizabethan views of rape as an act committed against the male patriarch.

Yet Lavinia’s physical rape also inscribes her into Roman history; she is one of a number of rape victims associated with Ancient Rome. Perhaps the most prolific of these is the tale of Philomena within Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Lavinia’s rape is based upon this classic tale, in which Philomena is raped by brother-in-Law, King Tereus, and maimed by having her tongue cut out. It is only upon weaving a tapestry that illustrates her barbarous rape that the truth is revealed.5 Lavinia’s tale can clearly be read in light of this; As Eisaman Maus continues to argue, ‘Lavinia’s story, then, is an amalgam of classical rape narratives. Her terribly mutilated body condenses a long history of sporadic violence against women into a single, intensely imagined brutalization.’6 Even in her horrific personal rape, then, Lavinia becomes homogenised into a history of violent female oppression; she becomes indistinguishable from other rape victims, claimed and historically conquered through her bodily torment. Lavinia’s rape, however, and subsequent dismemberment acts in turn as a metaphor for the penetration of Titus’s own familial territory, which is entirely obliterated by the end of the play. As Peter Stallybrass remarks, ‘unlike most property, this property [the woman] can bring dishonour to the landlord even as he possesses it.’7 In Lavinia’s grotesque deflowerment, Chiron and Demetrius defile Titus’s own property, invading his territory as father and protector. It is this territorial invasion that sets Titus’s revenge in motion, accentuating the importance of the female body as a symbol of the family.8 Once damaged, Lavinia has no functional role; her body, once seen as a way of attaining power and prestige through marriage, is useless to the Andronicii family. She is told to ‘die’ along with her father’s ‘shame’ (V.iii.l.45-46), emphasising her use only as a physical form and an objectified territory. In death, as in life, she becomes nothing more than expression of the territorial claims imposed on her by the surrounding male figures.


Featured Painting: Samuel Woodforde, Titus Andronicus: Act II, Scene III, Tamora, Lavinia, Demetrius and Chiron, 1793, Oil on Canvas, 72.5 x 58cm, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Warwackshire, UK.

William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, II.iii.16-18, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). All further references to Titus Andronicus are to this edition.

2 Katharine Eisaman Maus, ‘Titus Andronicus: Introduction’ in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), pp.399-407, p.404.

3 Lisa Walters, Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Science and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.231.

4 Robert Cleaver, ‘A Godly Form of Household Government: For the Ordering of Private Families’ in Sexuality and Gender in the English Renaissance: An Annotated Edition of Contemporary Documents, ed. by Lloyd Davis (Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 1998), pp.183-212, p.194.

5 See Ovid, Metamorphoses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

6 Katharine Eisaman Maus, ‘Titus Andronicus: Introduction’ in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt, pp.399-407, p.404.

7 Peter Stallybrass, ‘Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed’ in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W.Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1986), pp.123-145, p.128.

8 Revenge in Titus Andronicus becomes entirely based on the female body; this is shown literally through the rape of Lavinia and the subsequent invasion of Titus’s familial territory, yet more literally through Tamora. As the mother of Chiron and Demetrius, Tamora literally births the avenging actions of the play. Her role as a mother literally positions her as a sexually fertile and reproductive body, in the same way as Gertrude in Hamlet.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Representation of the ‘Monstrous Feminine’ in The Monk

‘Every moment convinced him
of the astonishing powers of 

her mind: but what she gained
in the opinion of the man, she 
lost with interest in the affection
of her lover.’ (p.232)

Throughout Gothic tradition and, most interestingly, the Gothic fiction of the Romantic Age, concepts of the monstrous-feminine are inextricably linked with masculine fears of unveiled female sexual identity. More specifically, the female gender’s characterisation as both dangerous and horrifying is inextricably linked to notions of the sexually independent female. These fears, rooted in rigid patriarchal constructs of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British society, come to embody the portrayal of women in romantic Gothic texts. Masculine fears of female sexuality are prolifically highlighted in the characterisation of Matilda in The Monk; in Lewis’s 1796 tale of ‘Gothic Horror’, Matilda subverts, and subsequently comes to threaten, stereotypical gender binaries by acting on the urges arising from her burgeoning sexuality. To gain proximity to Ambrosio, Matilda adopts the masculine disguise of Rosario, who is described as a ‘fond’, ‘gentle’ and ‘submissive’ male youth.1 However, in describing Rosario in this manner, Lewis clearly evokes character traits believed to be possessed by the ‘ideal’ woman, as conceived by patriarchal teachings on womanhood. These teachings were emphasised in works such as Coventry Patmore’s 1854 The Angel in the House. In the poem, Patmore ‘idealised women as devoted, docile wives and mothers; paragons of domesticity, virtue and humility.’2 Patmore declares ‘Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf / of his condoled necessities / She casts her best, she flings herself.’3 Although written some fifty years after the publication of The Monk, it is apparent that Rosario’s characterisation is based upon similar patriarchal teachings on the ‘ideal’ role of women. Ambrosio’s fondness for Rosario, coupled with his subsequent regret at Matilda’s metamorphosis, foreshadows Matilda’s contradictory and subversive nature. Her nature comes to be presented as both unattractive and monstrous. Upon revealing her natural form, Matilda immediately subverts patriarchal gender ideals by demonstrating to Ambrosio ‘the astonishing powers of her mind’ (p.232) and indulging in her own unconcealed sexual desires. As Lewis reveals, ‘[…] she assumed a sort of courage and manliness in her manners and discourse but ill-calculated to please him [Ambrosio]. She spoke no longer to insinuate, but command: he found himself unable to cope with her in argument, and was unwillingly obliged to confess the superiority of her judgment’ (p.231/232). In the use of the verb ‘command’, coupled with ‘superiority’, patriarchal social structures are shown to have been subverted. Ambrosio, once superior to the ‘submissive’ Rosario, is placed in a subordinate position to Matilda. This positioning, however, is refuted by Ambrosio. As Lewis writes, ‘what she gained in the opinion of the man, she lost with interest in the lover’ (p.232). In Ambrosio’s response to Matilda’s subversive nature, it is apparent that he is threatened by Matilda’s adoption of such androcentric traits. Her empowerment threatens his superiority, emasculating his sense of power and subsequently undermining patriarchal teachings of masculine authority.

It is the threat that Matilda poses to ordained patriarchal social structure that leads to Ambrosio’s fear of Matilda. Her evident sexual identity, as well as her growing independence, come to be described in terms that evoke horror and fear. As Paul Poplawski argues, Lewis’s novel ‘represents the male horror of an uncontrolled female sexuality.’4 This ‘male horror’ is demonstrated through Lewis’s physical descriptions of Matilda. In the novel, Ambrosio finds himself awestruck not only by her beauty, but also her striking similarity to his beloved painting of the Madonna. Matilda is described as possessing ‘the same exquisite proportion of features, the same profusion of golden hair, the same rosy lips, heavenly eyes, and majesty of countenance’ (p.81). At first glance, in possessing ‘golden hair’, ‘rosy lips’, and ‘heavenly eyes’, Matilda finds herself aligned with a Romantic ideal of beauty. However, this notion of Romanticist beauty is almost entirely superseded by the Subliminal undertones prevalent throughout the description. In an alignment with the Madonna, Matilda’s beauty is colluded with the ethereal; the semantic field of the celestial serves to elevate her above mankind. In this elevation, Heiland contends that ‘Matilda’s beauty has paled in light of the increasingly sublime power of her sexuality’.5 As a result of Ambrosio’s fear, Matilda’s beauty is replaced with a combination of awe and terror. As Edmund Burke’s work on the Sublime theorised, ‘Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished […] the great ought to be dark and gloomy.’ As he concludes, ‘they [Beauty and the Sublime] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded in pain, the other pleasure.’6 As Lewis’s description demonstrates, Matilda is far removed from Burkean notions of beauty. Her elevation and power lead to Ambrosio’s ‘amazement’ (p.81), this being, along with astonishment, ‘that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.’7 In a collusion with the Sublime, unbridled female sexuality thus becomes a force that is viewed with horror.


Featured Painting: Cornelis Van Haarlem, A Monk and a Nun, 1591, Oil on Canvas, 116 × 103 cm, Franz Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

1 For more information on the ‘monstrous-feminine’, see Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2012).

2 Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Classics, 2008), p.232. All further references to Lewis’s text are to this edition.

3 British Library, ‘Introduction’ to The Angel in the House. Available at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coventry-patmores-poem-the-angel-in-the-house [Accessed 26th March 2017].

4 Coventry Patmore, ‘Angel in the House’, quoted in Joseph Bristow, ‘Coventry Patmore and the Womanly Mission of the Mid-Victorian Poet’ in Sexualities in Victorian Britain ed. Andrew Miller and James Eli Adams (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), pp.118-140, p.122.

5 Paul Poplawski, English Literature in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2008), p.363.

6 Donna Heiland, Gothic & Gender: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2004), p.38.

7 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: J. Dodsley Publishers, 1767), p.237-238.

8 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, p.95.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.