The gothic feminine: Towards the Byronic heroine

Suzanne Valentina Buffamanti, Purdue University


The gothic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries inherits and exemplifies the cultural division of femininity into a binary opposition between the good woman, named the “domestic victim,” and the bad woman, called the “vamp.” Radcliffe crystallized the gothic domestic victim in The Mysteries of Udolpho, in which the “happy ending” of the heroine is predicated upon her fidelity to her father and her remaining a maiden until she becomes a madonna. The centuries-old lineage of the dynamic and dramatic vamp encompasses witches, femmes fatales, and demonesses. Epitomized by Le Fanu's Carmilla, the gothic vamp destroys male and female victims through her seductive allure as much as her vampirism. In Alcott's Behind a Mask and Stoker's Dracula, female characters emerge “dialogically” as complicated hybrid figures, neither all victim, nor all vamp. Such multi-layered characterization becomes possible because gender roles and expectations must be compromised in order to survive in the nineteenth-century gothic universe. Ultimately, nineteenth-century gothic literature gives rise to the female counterpart of the Byronic hero. The Byronic heroine is a modern, complex, “round” character, potentially capable of growth, change, and independence, whereas domestic victims and vamps (always adjunct to men) are not. First appearing in Poe's “Ligeia,” the Byronic heroine develops fully in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I argue that while Hawthorne reverses the gendered power dynamic of most gothics, Brontë goes beyond even that innovation to create a transcendent, triumphant Byronic heroine who gives birth to the “autobiography” of a female Cain/Childe Harold. Unlike domestic victims, vamps, and Byronic heroes who populate painting, television, and film, as well as poetry and prose, the Byronic heroine is rare. I suggest that the growing number of heroic females in popular culture and juvenile literature may be the spark that fires the imagination of the next wave of artists. I expect that there will be more Byronic heroines when more people can imagine and can expect to find heroic female characters who are individuals rather than victims, icons, or mouthpieces.




Thompson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Literature|British and Irish literature|American literature|Motion Pictures

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