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The Victorian era can be characterized by its rigid social code of morals and values, as well as the division between social classes in which equality—both among the sexes as well as the upper and lower classes—did not exist. Women at that time were considered as wholly subservient to the patriarchy and were typically under the control of a male figure—be it familial or romantic. As a reaction to the male dominance of the “higher arts”, Gothic novels were used by female writers of the time partly as an escape, but also to contextualize the horrific social conditions in which most women were currently living.
This dissertation will be exploring The Woman in Black through the lens of Gothic Feminism as the major theory. This theory considers both feminist and gothic characteristics that can be observed on both individual and collective levels while focusing on the dehumanization and oppression of women. Specifically, it will be examining the rigid gender roles of the Victorian era while at the same time, comparing those same standards against the portrayal of the antagonist of the story, Jennet.
By examining literary and scholarly writings by authors such as, Lynne Pykett (The Improper Feminine), Louis James (The Victorian Novel), and David Punter (The Gothic Tradition), it will be made clear that while Jennet’s actions were indeed monstrous, a great portion of the fear that surrounded her was in regard to her defiance of the traditional gender roles of the era. To reemphasize this point, we will also be taking a closer look at the influence of the patriarchy over the voice of the male narrator and how that same influence skews the narrative to be more horrific than necessary.
Furthermore, through this deeper analysis, this essay will highlight how different the tone of this story might have been if told by another woman, or, Jennet herself.
In order to better identify these and other subversive themes found within Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, one must first have an understanding of Gothic Feminism and its use in Gothic Literature. The word Gothic can be defined in many ways. Renowned expert on gothic culture and literature, David Punter states in his work The Literature of Terror:
“the word gothic has, even now, a wide variety of meaning, and which has had in the past even more. It’s used in a number of different fields: as a literary term, as a historical term, as an artistic term, as an architectural term, and as a literary term in contemporary usage. It has a range of different applications. . .the term however,[Gothic] is most usually applied to a group of novels written between the 1760s and 1820s” (XXXX).
Gothic fiction, however, originated in the United Kingdom with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and introduced readers to a new scope of literary pleasures that focused on things like death, chaos, and privileged irrationality as a method for social commentary. Favored by female artists as a way to convey the horrors of their life under the rule of the patriarchy, gothic fiction provides a meaningful release for those who feel trapped and a way to resist for those with enough courage to do so.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is a perfect example of women’s Gothic fiction/horror. By successfully employing several well-known Gothic tropes, such as loneliness, death, and vengeance, Hill has not only created a compelling story, but has also painted a stark social critique of motherhood and the contemporary rhetoric surrounding the ‘family unit’. Throughout the story, Hill highlights the unequal status between the sexes. The Woman in Black is set mainly during the 1860s, when patriarchal society treated women as something more akin to a commodity. The story provides an examination of the quasi-Victorian moral structure propagated in the 1980s, during the first term of a Conservative right-wing government. A government in which the freedoms that a man enjoyed were not extended—at least in the same capacity—to a woman.
There is an idea/term in Victorian culture known as the fallen woman. This term was created by the British Doctor, William Acton to—in effect—describe all feminine identities disfavored by the ruling patriarchy; typically, those with strong sexual inclinations. Their ranks included prostitutes, unmarried women who were interested in sexual relationships, adulteresses, as well as women who were antisocial or lower-class. Acton’s definition of what a ‘proper’ woman should act like, specifically on a sexual level was used as a primary means to subjugate women and deny them their sexual freedom. In his book, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857), Acton states:
“[The] majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally. It is too true, I admit, as the divorce courts show, that there are some few women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men, and shock public feeling by their consequences. I admit. . . the existence of sexual excitement terminating in nymphomania. . .but with these sad exceptions there can be no doubt that sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance, and that it requires positive and considerable excitement to be roused at all. Many persons, and particularly young men, form their ideas of women’s sensuous feeling from what they notice early in life among loose, or at least low and vulgar women” (Acton 1857:133).
Not only does Acton’s assessment deprive women the joy of their sexuality, it also serves to categorize them into both proper and improper aspects of femininity. As many contemporaries of his time, Acton defines normal or ‘proper’ femininity as passionless and passive. Women who are content to be led through life by their patriarchal counterparts. Thus, “a modest woman, as a rule, seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself [and] submits to her husband’s embraces principally to gratify him [and] for the desire of maternity’ (The ‘Improper Feminine’ by Lyn Pykett, 15-16 ). In counterpoint, active and vigorous sexual desires are seen as abnormal or improper femininity. In Acton’s model, the proper feminine is one of domesticated stability. She is a woman who is devoted to her duty and her husband. A woman who knows her place and quietly accepts her role. Whereas, the improper feminine, or, fallen woman revels in her sexual desires and cares little for society and its many protocols. Jennet, the main character in The Woman in Black—according to Acton’s model—falls into the category of a fallen woman, or, improper feminine.
Considered a moral threat, Jennet was isolated from society both physically and socially. The dishonor Jennet suffered was due to how far her sexual behavior had deviated from the traditional standards of female civility of the time. During this time, women were expected to be pillars of morality, innocence and altruism. Female wrongdoings were perceived through the distorted lens of social tolerability. Held to certain gender-based customs, Victorian women who diverged from the ideal path would be disgraced and detached from society. Things like openness of one’s sexual desires, pursuit of knowledge, and having children out of wedlock all were grounds for dishonor (XXXXX). In the minds of the powers that be, female misconduct corresponded to a contagion, one that needed to be cut out. The antisocial or aberrant woman was then removed from reputable society and summarily labeled as a menace to the unevenness of an otherwise balanced society. These women were viewed by society as ‘fallen’ and were avoided like the plague. It was commonly believed that such women lacked shame and humility for their actions (XXXXXX), a notion that helped to assuage any guilty feelings by the oppressors and bolster their cause. However, these women, much like Jennet, were unfairly judged and made to suffer under a male-created social apparatus that unfairly repressed them and then snubbed them for their perceived fall.
Jennet and her ghost could be viewed as different versions of the same woman—a Gothic trope known as the, doppelganger—or as a pairing which questions the binary image of the proper and improper feminine. When she was alive, Jennet refused to be constrained by the Victorian patriarchal values of the time by making many efforts to reunite with her illegitimate child as Arthur asserts, ”girls in the Victorian England had, I knew, often been driven to murder or abandon their misconceived children” (176). That was not the case for Jennet. She did not care that she would lose it all, to her, her child was more important. Jennet cares little of being ousted from respectable society, as is evidenced by her unrelenting attempts to retrieve her son from her sister. In her afterlife, Jennet has absolute autonomy of space and time to seize revenge and thus she repetitively inflicts suffering on families by causing the death of their children. In doing this, Jennet is performing the role that is more often accredited to the wandering male Gothic central character (XXXXXX). Much to Kipps regret, Jennet is neither locked in nor locked out of anywhere anymore, as evidenced by her repeatedly locking and unlocking the nursery as a means to torture Kipps. Because of this, Jennet could be viewed as a markedly transgressive Gothic heroine, as things like compassion and the respect of boundaries mean nothing and influence nothing in her ghostly form. Tortured throughout, Jennet’s ghost finds no peace, even in the end.
The story, The Woman in Black is influenced by the social ambience in which it was written and promotes this idea that, mothers under acute stress or nervous tension have the ability and potential—like any other members of the family—for brutality to children. Furthermore, the portrayal of Jennet as a fallen woman confirms her being condemned by society because of her sexual behavior, despite her character and core values. The disgrace that Jennet suffered was chiefly based upon how far her sexual behavior strayed from the ideal woman of the time; a woman who was epitome of purity, innocence, and submissiveness. Sadly, The Woman in Black did indeed possess the emotional qualities of the ideal woman, but it was her deviation from those set morals that ultimately led to her being labeled as a fallen woman and summarily excommunicated. Through its forceful rejection of idealized and/or derogatory stereotypes of women, The Woman in Black is a cornerstone in women’s Gothic fiction.
The novel portrays Jennet and the woman in black as different versions of the same whole, or, the binary image of both the pure and fallen woman. As depicted through Kipp’s narration, Jennet’s repeated and neurotic abduction of children is full of “malevolence and hatred and passionate bitterness’ and it replicates to a petrifying degree what was enforced on her in her earthly existence” (158). Jennet in her ghostly form is never at peace and is constantly consumed with the thought of revenge; even unto the last pages.
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