The Gothic Family in David Lynch´s Movie "Blue Velvet"

Hausarbeit, 2011

7 Seiten




2. Definition of Gothic Families

3. The Family in Blue Velvet
3.1 Patriarchal Relations and Venerable Dynasties: the Beaumonts, the Williams´ and the Vallens´
3.2 “I´m in the middle of a mystery”: Family secrets and curses in Blue Velvet
3.3 Illnesses and Oedipal constellations: Family Degeneration in Blue Velvet..

4. Conclusion

5. References
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

In David Lynch´s movie Blue Velvet the idyllic world of the protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont is threatened by his father´s heart attack and a mysterious crime story in which he is becoming increasingly involved. Although this movie is often considered to belong to film noir, several elements of Gothic fiction like the uncanny or the sublime are used to terrify the recipient. But what reminds the spectator the most of classical Gothic stories is the family or the family-like relations within Blue Velvet. Similar to classical Gothic stories like The Castle of Otranto or The Fall of the House of Usher, the families of Jeffrey, his beloved Sandy or the bar singer Dorothy are characterized by degeneration, patriarchal relations, devastating secrets , or are comparable to declining dynasties.

In order to prove the thesis that this literary motif is used in Blue Velvet, there will firstly be made the attempt to define the “Gothic family” on the basis of the two classical Gothic narrations named above and some academic literature. Afterwards, the movie is going to be examined for the aspects of this motif , which are patriarchal relations amongst the family members, similarities to dynasties, family secrets or curses , and the physical or psychological degeneration of family members.

2. Definition of Gothic families

Even though many characteristics of families portrayed in Gothic fiction are repeated in narrations belonging to this genre, it is hard to find a clear definition of it; literature on families in Gothic fiction seems to be content with describing the patriarchal relations within families and its consequences for female protagonists.[1] But still, there are some aspects that constitute a recurring concept of the family in Gothic fiction. David Punter and Glennis Byron state that the family curse is “a characteristic Gothic motif since” The Castle of Otranto, as well as family secrets and “hereditary diseases” which cause “moral dysfunction”.[2] To Donna Heiland, the Gothic family is a patriarchal and oedipal one,[3] and considering Ann-Marie Macdonald´s Fall on Your Knees, she opines that it is further illustrated by a long lineage and a history of “rape, incest” and “terrifying violence”.[4] Besides, families in Gothic fiction are often presented as venerable dynasties with long traditions that are in danger of extinction because of infertility, mental or physical diseases, or sinister prophecies. Regarding The Castle of Otranto, the family relations are dominated by Manfred´s goal to continue the family lineage which is interrupted in the end, while the family of Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher lies “in the direct line of descent” from the beginning of the novel.[5] In conclusion, one can say that the family in Gothic literature can be considered as a literary motif with some fairly obvious features: A Gothic family belongs to a house or dynasty with a long tradition, has a family secret or is cursed, has a male head and signs of degeneration like oedipal relations, psychological, physical illnesses or infertility.

3. The Family in Blue Velvet

3.1 Patriarchal Relations and Venerable Dynasties: the Beaumonts, the Williams´ and the Vallens´

In Blue Velvet, Lynch presents two contradicting types of families: Whereas the parents of the protagonists Jeffrey and Sandy seem to be respectable members of the American middle-class in an idyllic suburb, Dorothy Vallens lives in an abandoned two-room apartment and works as a singer in a bar. Hence, the Beaumonts and the Williams´ depict a fairly conservative way of living; their members take over common roles and each of this families is leaded and represented by a male head. Mr. Beaumont owns a store and Mr. Williams works as a detective at the local police, while their wives keep their houses clean and are presented as objects in a “respectable, middle-class marriage”.[6] Even when Jeffrey´s father is unable to fulfil his function as the head of the family, it is neither his mother nor his aunt who run the family store but Jeffrey himself, who has to renounce the college until Mr Beaumont recovers.

Besides the patriarchal system within these houses, some further features of the Beaumonts and the Williams´ remind the viewer of long family lines or dynasties similar to those in Walpole´s or Poe´s narrations. Just like the families presented there, both houses seem to illustrate modern dynasties: They live in the privileged part of Lumberton and do not seem to suffer from any financial difficulties. The names of these families support this idea, too: “Beaumont” could be inspired by the house of Beaumont, which was a great baronial Anglo-Norman family that became rooted in England after the Norman Conquest. Several powerful members originated of this dynasty, e.g. earls of Leicester, Warwick and Worcester.[7] Since “Williams” is an incredibly common family name in the English speaking world, it might represent a kind of modern dynasty. Besides, family houses with a long line base their reputation on their ancestors´ glory, and therefore often honour them with huge portraits (of them). Consequently, Sandy possesses a colossal photo of her father in her bedroom (1:40:00).[8] The idea of improving one´s renown by referring to a member of the family is also expressed when Jeffrey introduces himself to detective Williams (7:12). It seems to be necessary to mention his father´s name, since Mr. Williams does not seem to recognize Jeffrey until he mentions his father´s name and his hardware store.

Besides the patriarchal relations within the families of Jeffrey and Sandy, the aspect of a male role model who leads a family or educates potential descendants can also be observed in the behaviour of Frank when he talks to Jeffrey. After he and his cronies have forced him to follow them on a trip, he functions as a substitute for Mr.Beaumont : His attempt to educate Jeffrey when telling him to “be polite” (1:13:39) or the singing of Ray Orbinson´s In Dreams that embeds the lines“I send you a love letter straight from my heart” and “Go to sleep. Everything is all right.” represent paternal care , although the situation is fairly threatening for Jeffrey.[9]

Lastly, the idea of declining dynasties within the movie might be illustrated by the radio announcements of the radio station “WOOD”. Two times, the speaker motivates the listeners to fell trees (4:08/ 59:41). One might interpret this scene as a symbol of an idyllic suburb where the inhabitants are content with doing monotone works like lumbering trees. However, trees are common symbols of families and used to depict the relations amongst various members of dynasties. Hence, the fall of houses like the Beaumonts or the Williams is mirrored by these radio announcements.

3.2 “I´m in the middle of a mystery”: Family secrets and curses in Blue Velvet

A family secret that determines the destiny of a whole family concerning Blue Velvet can only be found in the kidnapping of Dorothy´s husband and son, which she endeavours to keep under wraps (49:30). Just like the prophecy in The Castle of Otranto, this catastrophe terrorizes the bar singer because of the fear for her son and husband , and it forces her to obey Frank and to submit to his acts of violence. Similar to Walpole´s novel, the family secret, which is introduced with the ear found by Jeffrey, governs the action within the movie and the protagonist. Subsequently, Jeffrey finds himself just “in the middle of a mystery” (1:02:58).

Further, the minor stroke of Mr Beaumont could be considered as an effect caused by a family curse. Again, just like in The Castle of Otranto, the story of Blue Velvet starts with a disaster that happens to a member of the family. And just like a malediction, the apoplectic stroke of Jeffrey´s father (0:02:55) destroys the idyllic mood in the front yard of the Beaumonts suddenly , and is only introduced by the gun shown on television (0:02:35) and the water-hose that wraps around the branch of a copse (0:02:46).

3.3 Illnesses and Oedipal constellations: Family Degeneration in Blue Velvet

The most obvious feature of the families in Gothic literature is a certain sign of degeneration that represents the decline of a whole lineage. In Lynch´s movie, there are plenty of those physical or psychological diseases which can be analysed as signs of a family´s fall. A physical illness that expresses such a decline is the apoplectic stroke of Tom Beaumont, which leaves the house without a leader and a boss for the family business. Consequently, Jeffrey has to substitute his father, and it becomes strikingly obvious that there is no heir or successor who could continue the line of the Beaumonts. Besides, the substitution of Tom Beaumont by his son also expresses a fear of infertility , which is another aspect of decline within a dynasty. Similar to The Castle of Otranto or The fall of the House of Usher, Jeffrey´s family lacks an inheritor to continue its line, which is pictured not only by the childless aunt Barbara but by the illness of its head as well.

Psychological diseases are displayed by the figures Jeffrey and Dorothy. Jeffrey reveals his moral abnormalities when he provocatively plays with the possibility to be both “a detective and a pervert ,” respectively being a stable personality or mentally ill (29:53). Equally dubious is the behaviour of Dorothy Vallens , who is used to being slapped during sex , and who only seems to be able to love someone if he hurts her. Subsequently, she wants Jeffrey to leave her flat after he refuses to hit her (1:06:05) and her smiling mouth is shown with red lipstick in total as a symbol of pleasure after he finally hurts her (1:06:11).


[1] See Abby Coykendall, Gothic Genealogies, the Family Romance, and Clara Reeve´s The Old English Baron.“Eighteenth-Century Fiction 17, no. 3 (2005): 443-480.

[2] Punter, David/ Byron, Glennis. The Gothic, 29. Malden: 2004.

[3] Heiland, Donna. Gothic& Gender. An Introduction, 8. Malden: 2004.

[4] Heiland 2004: 179.

[5] Poe, Edgar Allen. The Fall of he House of Usher. In Edgar Allen Poe: Selected tales. Oxford, 1998.

[6] Denzin, Norman K. “Blue Velvet: Postmodern Contradictions”, 462. In:, download: 27.01.2011.

[7] See Beaumont, Edward T. The Beaumonts in History (850-1850). In:, download: 27.01.2011.

[8] Lynch, David. Blue Velvet. USA, 1986.

[9] Orbinson, Ray. In Dreams. Monument Records: 1963.

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The Gothic Family in David Lynch´s Movie "Blue Velvet"
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Franz Kröber (Autor), 2011, The Gothic Family in David Lynch´s Movie "Blue Velvet", München, GRIN Verlag,


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