Women in Early Gothic Fiction. The stereotypical depiction of women as femmes fatales or damsels in distress in "The Italian" and "The Monk"

Pre-University Paper, 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1 Introduction

2 Summaries of primary literature
2.1 The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
2.2 The Monk by Matthew Lewis

3 Ellena, the damsel in distress and Matilda, the femme fatale
3.1 Outer Appearance
3.2 Characterization
3.3 Relationships to other characters
3.3.1 To female characters
3.3.2 To male characters

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography of Books

6 Bibliography of Online Sources

1 Introduction

Catherine Morland is the young heroine of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey that is probably the most famous parody on the Gothic Fiction stories which were pretty popular in the late 18th century. Catherine is likely the classic Gothic Fiction reader: naive, easy to excite and blessed with a strong imagination. Between the pages of her favourite novels she meets terrible villains, dark settings, mysterious secrets, adventurous flights, cold vaults, bad monks, bleeding nuns, heroic men and threatened maidens. She gets lost in those stories and the lines between her reality and the written fiction fade. Of course Gothic novels are exciting and full of adventures, but a big part of their appeal comes from their characters. Especially the female ones are stereotypical and the different types are easy to find. So which females does Catherine meet while lying in the sun and enjoying a good novel? This seminar paper will show that there are really just two main stereotypes: the seductive “femme fatale” playing the role of the bad girl and the innocent “damsel in distress” as the good girl.

Two mentioned novels Catherine reads are The Monk by Matthew Lewis and The Italian by Ann Radcliffe which show these two opposite stereotypes of women pretty well. Both novels have examples for the damsel in distress but only The Monk gives one for the femme fatale. So this seminar paper will focus on Lewis' character Matilda as an example for the femme fatale and on Radcliffe's Ellena embodying the damsel in distress to explain the main theory:

It is typical that women in early Gothic Fiction are either portrayed as femmes fatales or damsels in distress. In the following, this statement will be proved and studied. First of all, the content of both The Italian and The Monk will be shortly reviewed, the chosen women will be compared to each other in terms of both visual and characteristic descriptions. Then their relationships to other figures appearing in the stories will be analysed and in the end a brief conclusion will be drawn.

2 Summaries of primary literature

2 .1 The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

The nobleman Vincentio di Vivaldi falls in love with Ellena di Rosalba who lives with her aunt Signora Bianchi and wants to marry her, but his mother is against their relationship and assigns a monk, Schedoni, to kidnap the poor Ellena. She escapes and Schedoni is instructed to assassinate her, but then he discovers that she is probably his daughter. The monk changes his plans immediately and safes her instead. After some troubles and hidden in a quite complex plot in which Ellena meets her real mother, it is revealed that she is only Schedoni’s niece and that his dead brother was her real father. He belonged to an old, noble and wealthy family. Therefore, Ellena fits to Vivaldi’s social standing and they marry. In the end everybody is happy.

2 .2 The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The main plot tells the story of the devout Spanish monk Ambrosio who falls in love with a woman who comes to his monastery disguised as a young novice. The woman, Matilda, tempts him to break his celibacy. After he broke his vows by starting a sexual relationship with her, he wants to seduce the young and guiltless Antonia. Despite the fact that Matilda really loves Ambrosio, she helps him to accomplish his vicious goal with performing magical spells. With her aid, he is able to rape and kill Antonia. But then Ambrosio and Matilda are captured by the Inquisition and are tortured in order to confess all their sins. She tells her evils and gets burnt. Ambrosio escapes his death by selling his soul to the devil, but Satan reveals to him that his victim Antonia was his sister and that he sent Matilda especially to seduce him because he was too sinless in Satan's eyes. In the end, he dies a painful death to atone all his sins.

3 Ellena, the damsel in distress and Matilda, the femme fatale

Both Ellena and Matilda are important characters in the books they appear in but they interact in completely different ways. Women were - and still are - often discriminated by men, both in real life and as characters in novels. The reason for this is explained by Elvira Weißmann-Orzlowski in her book Das Weibliche und die Unmöglichkeit seiner Integration. She says, in reality as well as in literature, especially in early Gothic Fiction, men are afraid of women because of their ability to give birth to children and out of this fear they part them into stereotypes. These types are always opposite pairs: the saint and the sinner, the virgin and the whore or the angel and the witch. Women are extremes in their eyes; they are either extremely good or extremely bad persons. They are either innocent, pure and dependent on men or dangerous, seductive and independent. But they cannot be both good and bad at the same time (vgl. Weißmann-Orzlowski 1997, S. 23 ff.). Both the femme fatale and the damsel in distress cannot only be found in early Gothic Fiction but also in many other kinds of novels and stories through the many decades of writing.

Radcliffe's Ellena is the perfect example for the damsel in distress, threatened maiden, sentimental heroine or classic young virtuous heroine while Lewis' Matilda embodies the femme fatale, the vamp or the demon lover.

The damsel in distress is fast described: a young, innocent, virtuous girl who needs to be saved out of a dangerous situation - by a potential husband, if possible. She is beautiful but she would never use her beauty or her sexuality to reach her goals which are becoming a good mother and an even better housewife.

A short description of the femme fatale and her intentions is given here: “The protagonist's fall is sometimes accomplished through a relationship with a “demon lover” who acts as the protagonist's double or alter-ego, leading the protagonist into experiences forbidden by societal norms. The demon lover is frequently female, a femme fatale (fatal or deadly woman) who seduces and entices the protagonist to destruction” (http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/creating/ pages/origins.htm).

3.1 Outer Appearance

Considering the fact that women were - and still are - judged by their beauty, no reader would like to hear a story about an ugly heroine no matter how evil or pure she is. Both Ellena and Matilda are especially beautiful and have wonderful voices which match their attentiondrawing appearances. In each novel the reader gets to know their looks through the eyes of a male character: Vivaldi in Ellena's and Ambrosio in Matilda's case. But before they really see the women, they both hear their voices which seem to be an important factor of beauty. When Ambrosio hears Matilda sing, “he wondered how such heavenly sounds could be produced by any but angels” (Lewis 2009, S. 60). While Vivaldi is fascinated by “the sweetness and fine expression of her [Ellena's] voice” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 9). Even if Ellena and Matilda embody opposite stereotypes, their voices are similar to each other. But Matilda is aware of how her voice attracts other people and uses it to seduce Ambrosio. She sings a song for him and accompanies herself with a harp which “prove[s] her a perfect mistress of the instrument“ (Lewis 2009, S. 57). Ambrosio is captured by her whole performance and starts feeling sexually drawn to her. While singing, the reader catches the very first glimpse at her face: “Two coral lips were visible, ripe, fresh, and melting, and a chin in whose dimples seemed to lurk a thousand cupids” (Lewis 2009, S. 60). And it goes on with the description of her arms, the only parts of her body not covered by the dark monk habit she is wearing because “she had drawn it [the sleeve] above her elbow” (Lewis 2009, S. 60). So the reader follows Ambrosio’s eyes and sees “an arm […] formed in the most perfect symmetry, the delicacy of whose skin might have contended with snow in whiteness” (Lewis 2009, S. 60). Ambrosio slowly starts falling for her in this moment. Later, we discover her face, which is similar to the face of the picture of the Madonna that Ambrosio is always starring at and having sexual fantasies about. This Madonna “which for two years has been an object of his adoration” (Andriano 1993, S. 34) embodies his perfect idol of a woman and his hidden sexual desires. As Joseph Andriano writes in his book Our ladies of darkness: “In the beginning of the novel, he [Ambrosio] is so proud of his celibacy that he considers himself immune to sexual temptation; he feels superior to other men” (Andriano 1993, S. 34). But this feeling of immunity fades more and more; first when he is alone in his room with the painted Madonna and then in the physical presence of Matilda. Later, the reader finally is allowed to see her complete face through Ambrosio’s eyes: “The same exquisite proportion of features, the same profusion of golden hair, the same rosy lips, heavenly eyes” (Lewis 2009, S. 62) as his beloved Madonna. There is no doubt that Matilda is especially beautiful and Ambrosio is overwhelmed by her beauty. All his attempts to do the right thing and throw her out of the monastery fail and in the end it is no problem for her anymore to seduce him and make him break his vows.

Contrary to Matilda's, Ellena's outer beauty is described very early in The Italian. The reader gets his or her first impression of Ellena just based on her looks after the brief introduction through her voice without any description of her personal traits. Her physical appearance seems to be her most important good and Vivaldi falls in love with her because of her “figure, which had a distinguished air of delicacy and grace” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 10). He is not falling for Ellena because of her personality but because of her looks who are later pictured to be “more touchingly beautiful that he had dared to image” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 9). The message the reader gets is that a woman is something to look at but nothing that is responsible for bigger influences on life in general. Vivaldi sees her as a piece of decoration that he wants to look at. Ellena is judged by her beauty and her following role in the novel is sealed. Her angel-like beauty shows her innocence even more than just her character. She would never use her looks to influence someone, neither in a positive nor in a negative way.

When Ellena becomes aware of how her beauty is affecting Vivaldi “she hastily drew her veil” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 10) to conceal her face again and especially “her dark blue eyes [which] sparkled with intelligence” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 10) to stop confusing him with her looks. Even if Ellena's voice first draws Vivaldi’s attention towards herself, it is her beauty that makes him fall for her completely. But actually “she is a cipher: the passive beautiful orphan waiting to be rescued by the handsome hero” (White 2011, S. ix). Still, “her features were of the Grecian outline, and […] they expressed the tranquillity of an elegant mind” (Radcliffe 2011, S. 10), which describes her to be intelligent, but this doesn't save her from being in need later in the novel.

A damsel in distress is not necessarily a stupid or simple-minded girl, even the most clever ones can be pressed into the stereotypical forms in which authors tend to part their characters. As shown above, the biggest difference between Matilda's and Ellena's outer appearance is the way in which they use their beauty. Matilda uses hers as a weapon on her way to her goal and Ellena tries to cover hers up, but the reader still judges her by it because of the different ways the characters are described and introduced into their stories. Beauty is of course an important factor for both women in real life and for the fictional ones, and it can be used as something good and as something bad. After all every character consists of more parts than just his or her outer appearance and the description of their physical appearances is yet very important for the reader to imagine the character right. Which is the reason for looking closer at the personal traits and the way Ellena and Matilda react and act during the novels.

3.2 Characterization

To truly understand what the story does to a character and its personal development, two fixed terms should be defined: The term “flat character” and the term “round character”.

The first one is “a minor character in a work of fiction who does not undergo substantial change or growth in the course of a story” (http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/glossary/g/ flatcharacters.htm). The second one is “a major character in a work of fiction who encounters conflict and is changed by it” (http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/glossary/g/RoundCharacter.htm).


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Women in Early Gothic Fiction. The stereotypical depiction of women as femmes fatales or damsels in distress in "The Italian" and "The Monk"
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gothic fiction, women, damsel in distress, femme fatale
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Anonymous, 2011, Women in Early Gothic Fiction. The stereotypical depiction of women as femmes fatales or damsels in distress in "The Italian" and "The Monk", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/321931


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