The Function of Gender in Female and Male Gothic

Essay, 2016

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The Female and Male Gothic genre
2.1 The Female Gothic
2.2 The Male Gothic
2.3 Terror vs. Horror: The distinction between the two gothic genres

3 The Function of Gender in selected Gothic Novels
3.1 The role of gender in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian
3.1.1 The characterization of the heroine
3.1.2 The characterization of the (hero-)villain
3.2 The role of gender in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk
3.2.1 The image of women
3.2.2 The characterization of the female character Matilda

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

The genre of Gothic became one of the most popular of the late 18th and early 19th century, and the novel usually regarded as the first Gothic novel is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, first published in 1764.1 The first great practitioner of the Gothic novel, as well as the most popular novelist of the eighteenth century in England, was Ann Radcliffe.2 She added suspense, painted evocative landscapes and moods or atmosphere, portrayed increasingly complex, fascinatingly-horrifying, evil villains, and focused on the heroine and her struggle with the male tyrant. Her work The Italian (1797) have the ability to thrill and enthrall readers. Inspired by Radcliffe, a more sensational type of Gothic romance, exploiting horror and violence, flourished in Germany and was introduced to England by Matthew Gregory Lewis with The Monk (1796). The novel follows the lust- driven monk Ambrosio from one abominable act to another - rape, incest, matricide, burial alive - to his death and well-deserved damnation.

The different schools, which are Female Gothic represented by Radcliffe and Male Gothic represented by Lewis, are distinguished by some critics as novel of terror and novel of horror. Sometimes this same distinction is tied to gender, with female equated with terror Gothic, and with male being equated with horror Gothic because both female and male writers can produce female and male Gothic.

In this paper, I will explain the characteristics of the Female Gothic and the Male Gothic and the difference between these genres, more specifically by focusing on the function of gender and the characterization of the main characters in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and Matthew Lewis The Monk. This is followed by the conclusion, in which the findings of this research will be laid out.

2 The Female and Male Gothic genre

2.1 The Female Gothic

The term Female Gothic was first coined by Ellen Moers in her book Literary Women in 1976 she notes that with this term she refers to Gothic fiction written by women.3 According to this use, the Female Gothic would merely denote the (female) gender of the writer. However, this is not the only meaning of the Female Gothic. Ellen Moers also considers it ”as a coded expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body”, which became a very significant perspective (Smith/Wallace 2004, 1). Women thus felt imprisoned in the household and in their own body, a feeling that they covertly tried to convey through female Gothic literature. Smith and Wallace state that in female Gothic novel, women also expressed their discontent towards patriarchy and its suppression of “the maternal” (Smith/Wallace 2004, 1). Different opinions have been formed about whether or not the Female Gothic can be called a genre on its own, distinct from the Gothic genre. Many different terms have been used: “women’s Gothic”, “feminine Gothic”, “lesbian Gothic”, even “Gothic feminism”, which causes Smith and Wallace to claim that this indicates that the term of the Female Gothic, as it was used by Moers, is used too widely (Smith/Wallace 2004, 1).

The Female Gothic not only means that the text is written by a female author, but the literary genre also has its own conventions. Moers states that Radcliffe created a narrative with a female protagonist who is a heroine and a victim at the same time, which would become one of the typical characteristics of the Female Gothic.4 According to feminist critics it is also about a narrative about mothers and daughters, in which the orphaned heroine is in search of an absent mother who then discovers that she is not dead.5 In the beginning of the novel the heroine has a peaceful life and is “depicted [as] enjoying an idyllic and secluded life” 6 but suddenly she is threatened with imprisonment in a castle or a great house under the control of a powerful male figure who gave her no chance to escape (Punter/Byron 2004, 279).

Consequently, the actual source of danger threatening the heroine in female Gothic texts is eighteenth-century patriarchal society, in which political, social and economic power lies with men. At the end all mysterious events and the supernatural will be explained by rational means.7 There is also the preference of a happy ending, in which the protagonist is reintegrated into community and acquires a new identity and a new life through marrying the man she loves (Punter/Byron 2004, 279).

2.2 The Male Gothic

In contrast to the Female Gothic, the term Male Gothic came into being. Many critics state that there are both Female and Male Gothic subgenres, “which differ in terms of narrative technique, plot, their assumptions about the supernatural, and their use of horror/terror”.8 The Male Gothic is often regarded as “the true Gothic”.9 It is considered more Gothic on many grounds: firstly, the supernatural is not clarified by an ordinary or natural cause, which causes the novels to end mysteriously (Miles 2009, 78). Secondly, in the Male Gothic, rape is shown more directly than in the Female Gothic. And thirdly, the story often takes place in a merciless universe and involves an insubordinate protagonist. The belief that the Male Gothic subgenre is “the true Gothic” has caused critics to view Female Gothic novelists as shy.

Ann Radcliffe was thought to be just embellishing the “old-fashioned eighteenth century sentimental novel with genteel terror tactics” such as “her unscathed heroines, explained mysteries and behind-the-times Burkean terror”, while Horace Walpole’s work was seen as more innovative (Miles 2009, 78). Another characteristic of the Male Gothic denoted by Robert Miles is that he describes the Male Gothic’s negative representation of women:

In the male Gothic, woman is always on the verge [...] of appearing unnatural, a monster of artifice. Or rather, for the male observer prone to [...] lust, the fault is habitually projected onto woman, an accusation usually couched in terms of her lack of ‘nature’ […] In male Gothic what one might call the ‘deconstructive tendency of the carnivalesque’ is kept in bounds by a psycho-sexual force, by a misogyny generally expressed as woman’s monstrous otherness, her ‘artificiality’. But in female Gothic the educative issues identified by Wollstonecraft, where woman’s true self is thrown into question, exist usually as an implicit, but sometimes explicit, tension (Miles 2002, 81-82)

From this statement can be deduced that in Male Gothic fiction, women are seen as unnatural and artificial. Consequently, women are always presented in a negative way. This is of course in contrast with Female Gothic fiction, that mostly presents women as victims and questions their identity.

2.3 Terror vs. Horror: The distinction between the two gothic genres

Terror and horror are considered by some scholars as two different traditions into which gothic fiction is divided. This division finds its source in the stylistic differences between two late-eighteenth century writers, Matthew Gregory Lewis and Anne Radcliffe. The distinction between Terror and Horror was first characterized by Ann Radcliffe in her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” by drawing upon Edmund Burke in order to distinguish between terror and horror in literature:

[…] terror is characterized by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity. […] Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil? […] (Radcliffe 1826, 150).

Radcliffe’s definition, in this sense, is based on the effects that terror and horror have on the senses, privileging the former in detriment of the latter. Based on this difference, some critics, as Melani states, classify Radcliffe’s and Lewis’s works in different traditions: terror gothic represented by Radcliffe, and horror gothic represented by Lewis.10

The distinction between Male and Female Gothic fiction has its source in personal struggles and stylistic contrasts between the two eighteenth century writers. Kari Winter argues that the distinctions between the gothic traditions originated from these authors accounts for the different experiences men and women have of fear. According to the author, the difference is that, while men fear “the Other” (women included), women fear “the terror of the familiar: the routine brutality and injustice of the patriarchal family, conventional religion, and classist social structures”.11

Ellen Moers coined the term Female Gothic to refer to this tradition followed by women writers since Radcliffe in the eighteenth century (Winter 1992, 90). This term can still be distinguished from what Susanne Becker calls the “feminine gothic.”


1 Sage, Victor. "Gothic Novel."The Handbook to Gothic.Ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009, 146.

2 Miles, Robert. "Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis." A companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 43.

3 Smith, Andrew and Diana Wallace. "The Female Gothic: Then and Now." Gothic Studies 2004, 1.

4 Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: W.H Allen, 1977, 91

5 Heller, Wendy Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, 2.

6 Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Malden: Blackwell, 2004, 279.

7 Hughes, William, David Punter and Andrew Smith (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Gothic. Chicester:Blackwell, 2016, 232.

8 Smith and Wallace (p. 2) refer to Anne Williams’s work, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic

9 Miles, Robert. “Radcliffe, Ann (1764-1823).” The Handbook of the Gothic. Ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009, 78.

10 Melani, Lilia. „The First Wave of Gothic Novels: 1765-1820.“ 2008. The Gothic Experience Page. <>.

11 Winter, Karin. “Sexual/Textual Politics of Terror.” Misogyny in Literature: An Essay Collection. Ed. Katherine Ackley. New York: Garland, 1992, 91.

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The Function of Gender in Female and Male Gothic
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (English & American Studies)
Gothic Fiction
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ISBN (Book)
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function, gender, female, male, gothic
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Angela Leonardi (Author), 2016, The Function of Gender in Female and Male Gothic, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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