Once Upon a Time Gothic Women

When the imagination is repressed, the mind is not in complete balance, because part of a healthy mind includes use of the imagination for creative thinking. I am no psychologist, but this just makes sense. Madness can occur as a result with the mind not being in right balance. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”  says,”I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency” (James). This is not the narrator’s (a 19th century woman) idea, but her husband filtering his own ideas in her. Using the imagination was popular among male writers in the 19th century, but for some women it often brought on judgement and them being labeled as insane. This can be demonstrated through women in Gothic literature.

What entails Gothic literature?  Horror, terror, uncanny, the grotesque…are some elements that make up Gothic literature. These not need to be limited to monsters, ghosts, and supernatural occurrences, when there is much horror and terror among human beings. I have wondered what a Gothic female in literature was. I could not help but to imagine the modern “goth girl” on first thought, with tar-black hair, ghostly-pale skin, and dark eyeliner. However, this is far from who the Gothic female was, or/and is in Gothic literature, at least during the 19th century.  She is not limited to being a ghost, an evil Queen, or a vampire, yet a person trapped in an oppressive society controlled by males belonging to the high class. What makes a female Gothic? Lead female characters in Gothic literature may result from the terror brought on by a situation the character is confined to. For example, women during the 19th century. When I think about the Gothic female in fiction, I think of characters in novels such as the female protagonist in “Turn of the Screw” (the governess), and the female protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The governess is portrayed as a woman confined to a role as a nanny, who also desires to be a motherly figure to the children she cares for, only to be used as an example of psychosis (However, there are other perspectives of her character from other readers, so it is debatable.) These are two of many women who authors portray how women were victims of the society they lived in. Bailey, in her essay on Gothic women, mentions “Particularly important to the identification and interpretation of the Female Gothic text is the identification of the Female Gothic heroine—typically, a motherless, vulnerable young woman facing the threat, if not the reality, of confinement and/or violation—and the recognition of a central theme of Female Gothic literature: the imprisonment and vulnerability of women within structures purportedly designed for or devoted to their safety, especially the family home” (Bailey, 273). The first person point of view (POV)  aids me in seeing and experiencing as the lead character does. This makes for an unreliable character, when the reader must trust the experience and knowledge of the author. However, in first person view, the reader travels with the woman and sees the horror she witnesses and thinks.

If the story used another point of view, such as third person limited, I could be more objective of the character. For example, seeing the lead female character (name unknown) from another POV, would provide much more perspective of her psychological conditioning throughout the story. But with a first person view, I see what she sees, and experience her emotions along with her. Fiction such as “Turn of the Screw” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” portray how women were treated during the 19th-century. “That Female Gothic literature may represent Female Gothic reality is a possibility suggested in nineteenth-century fiction…” (Bailey, 274). There are many examples of females being portrayed as vulnerable in stories. “Bone” in “Bastard Out of Carolina”, plays a rape victim. “She has been raped by her stepfather, whom she is made to call Daddy Glen, and abandoned by her mother, Anney, who has left her and (re)joined her husband. Bone’s rapist” (Bailey, 274). Like many women protagonist in 19-century novels, the Gothic in them comes from how they are treated within the male dominated and oppressive society. The nickname “bones” can be seen as Gothic, in the fact the name represents the horror in the girl’s life. “Bone’s very name is a testimony to a dark Female Gothic legacy; from her birth, she seems destined to live, and die, as a Boatwright woman—a woman “born to mother, nurse, and clean up after the men.” The author portrays her to have a certain role in the family, as opposed to living freely as men did. Society created a confinement for women. The oppression of the woman’s individuality makes the horror, and the female’s reaction in the story creates the terror. If the narration is in first person, then readers go along on a ride and experience that terror with the lead female. Though a reader may not have the objective view on the lead character as she/he would in another POV, such as third person, they get a closer understanding of the female and how she perceives the terror around her, or at least how the author perceives.

The female Gothic may be something of the past, because she was created in reflection of an oppressive 19th-century society where women were confined to certain roles. This is not to say modern day literature cannot recreate this time through historical fiction as a lesson for modern day readers, or even dystopian fiction. Does the Gothic female still exist today? If so, why? The Gothic female is a product of the author’s interpretation of how women were treated during the time the book was written.



  • BAILEY, PEGGY DUNN. “Female Gothic Fiction, Grotesque Realities, And Bastard Out Of Carolina: Dorothy Allison Revises The Southern Gothic.” Mississippi Quarterly 63.1/2 (2010): 269-290. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 May 2016.

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