The Gothic ‘I’/Eye: The Ghostliness of Identity in ‘The Poor Clare’ and ‘The Grey Woman’

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 218. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 26,600 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Koustinoudi studies Gaskell’s use of the Gothic style in the short stories “The Poor Clare” and “The Grey Woman.” She argues that each story’s “narrative indeterminacy, instability, and unreliability” allows the first-person narrator to act out personal traumas, phobias, and desires in response to the repressive discourse of femininity in Victorian culture.]

The Victorian Female Gothic: A Transgressive Genre with a Pathological Twist

As a cultural phenomenon as well as an ideologically charged signifying system (Hoeveler-Long, Gothic Feminism 8), the Gothic gradually became a term broad enough to encompass a number of fields, denoting—especially during its Victorian revival—in a derogatory and sneering1 tone everything barbarous, medieval, and supernatural to end up “a cliché in criticism” (Longueil 460).2 Since the publication of the second edition of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765) which, by some general consensus, inaugurated the Gothic as a genre, this literary form has resisted rigid categorization, because as James Watt comments, “the elevation of Walpole’s work to the status of an origin has served to give an illusory stability to a body of fiction which is distinctly heterogeneous” (1), since the Gothic can be said to include a wide range of texts which are habitually placed under the rubric of the “fantastic.”3 The latter is also a category too broad in itself to account for the specificity of the Gothic paradigm, since it may include such diverse generic categories as folk and fairy tales, detective stories and ghost tales, as Tzvetan Todorov has argued in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.4 However, to the extent that there is a consensus as to the Gothic constituting a distinct literary category, there are a number of characteristics ascribed to its thematic repertoire. The most basic of these pertain to the genre’s general preoccupation with fear—also materializing as female terror when Ann Radcliff’s heroines began to conform to the recently decreed principles of the sublime and the beautiful—as well as with all things gloomy and dark. As paradigmatic of literary fantasy, the Gothic text, often “tortuous and fragmented” (Botting 2) both in content and form, seems to be “free from many of the conventions and restraints of more realistic texts … refus[ing] to observe unities of time, space and character, doing away with chronology, three-dimensionality, and with rigid distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, self and other, life and death” (Jackson 1-2).

The Gothic, thus, appeared as a challenge to the eighteenth-century assumption that the conscious mind is what defines human subjectivity. Through its analysis of subliminal ecstasy and terror, it was able to move inwards into the human mind, providing Gaskell and her contemporaries with fertile ground for channeling illicit desires as well as for interrogating oppressive mechanisms. In turning my attention to Gaskell’s use of the Gothic mode, I want to focus on the concept of the sublime as it foregrounded new forms of perception and consciousness, since a concern with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420120386