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"White Women are only one step away from White Men"

nkechi's picture

Carol Margaret Davison was rude to Greg Johnson.


Her 2004 essay, Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, opens describing Greg’s Gothic allegory reading of  “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, as “a fairly satisfactory general overview”. She goes on to declare that her essay “acts, to some degree, as a ‘corrective’ to Johnson’s essay and to the numerous studies that have read [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] exclusively as a light and nonpolitical horror tale or as a politically charged feminist piece that explores the ideology of femininity(48).” Her tone is dripping with patronizing superiority as she grants him the allowance of not having had access to several ground breaking studies made after his 1989 publication.


Carol, still, however, calls into question, and rightfully so, the restrictive bounds of perspective in the Gothic novel. She agrees with Greg that the short story contains several of the most familiar Gothic themes, such as “confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and irrational fear, the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive male antagonist”, but completely disagrees with his claim that the story functions “as a Gothic parody”. To Carol, the suggestion that the story is a parody, a “literary composition… being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect”, is seemingly offensive, as it asserts that women are an unlikely subject for the short story as a Gothic novel, despite having been present in the nineteenth century, where the story takes place.


Davison outlines the parameters and nature of the Female Gothic, as incredibly complicated and continually debated and expanded, creating a pastiche of critics to construct the general narrative arc of a female Gothic narrative:
“Female Gothic Narratives may be described as cautionary, ritualistic, travel-adventure novels that involve the testing and emotional growth of a heroine on the verge of womanhood and marriage. These texts… do not limit themselves to promoting marriage as a woman’s primary goal… but frequently advocate a woman’s financial awareness of monetary and estate matters. The protagonist’s trials commence on the heels of receiving an education promoting benevolence, Christian faith, and moderation in all things, “the capacity for fine emotion”, and a quickness to display compassion for suffering Assuming the genre’s starring female role as a persecuted maiden, she is transported to, and virtually imprisoned in, an ancestral castle or manor home by the text’s other star- the enterprising, unyielding, ruthless, and attractive Gothic hero-villain who threatens the young woman’s maidenhead and inheritance. The Protagonist’s exploration, involves confrontation with mysteries whose ultimate unravelling signifies a process of self-discovery… [T]hese texts conclude with a more mature, sensible heroine, whose marital expectations have been rendered more realistic. The heroine’s virtue, in the form of her unshaken faith and fortitude, is usually rewarded by way of an inheritance and companionate marriage, a union that is figured as both practical and emotionally fulfilling.”


Published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, is a fictional secret journal of a woman who failed to relish in the joys of marriage and motherhood, and is sentenced by her doctor to a country rest with her husband. Forbidden to write, she explores the intoxicating pattern of the yellow wallpaper that covers the walls of her cell, and the ghosts that lay beneath-or inside of- it. A complicated  feminist reading of the story shames Greg’s simplistic suggestion that the female Gothic subject is “unlikely”.  It is a sexist and rude assumption, inviting Carol’s rude response, I understand her desire, her frustration at the lack of acknowledgement of the difficulty of gender oppression, the assumption of white male omniscience. I understand. I’m a woman, too. Ain’t I a woman?


While reading Beloved again this week to write this paper, I’ve been thinking a lot about Carol; that I wonder if she’s read Beloved, that I bet she’s white, and that we share an abhorrence for assumptions.


More specifically, though, I’ve been thinking that Carol made an assumption of her own.


The short story very much falls in line with Carol’s own definition of  “The Female Gothic” mode, as, a form“distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood.” Her entire argument is built on the assumption that this narrative is “The Female” Gothic experience.


It is not.


While the “married woman of the period was frequently commodified and became a femme couverte under established law- a woman whose autonomy and identity were denied”, the nineteenth century wasn’t all that great for Black women either/in particular- married or not.


Before I get into how Carol, ironically, engages in the same erasure for which she condemns Greg, I want to mention that I didn’t want to continue to assume Carol is white, so I looked her up.


She is.


And so, this essay, acts, to some degree, as an addendum to Carol’s essay, and to the numerous other writers who use the term “The Female Gothic” to describe the lived experience of the white woman.


According to Carol’s outline of the classic Gothic novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is without a doubt a Gothic novel. Sethe, the distraught heroine, is confined both in the forbidding “mansion” of 124 and Sweet Home, rebelling against both, while “irrationally” fearful of the many powerfully repressive, often male, antagonist(s) of her story.

Her narrative would also qualify as a Female Gothic narrative, as it contains many of the concrete elements of the genre. The book switches between many perspectives, seeing three generations of women in this ex-slave family become the “persecuted maiden” at some point throughout their lives. Most literally, Baby Suggs speaks of her “trials commencing” after witnessing the “benevolent act” of being freed from Sweet Home. In her description of Sweet Home, she details, “The Garners, it seemed to her, ran a special kind of slavery, treating them like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known. And he didn’t stud his boys. Never brought them to her cabin with directions to ‘lay down with her’, like they did in Carolina, or rented their sex out on other farms.” Another benevolent act, Halle’s decision to buy Baby Suggs out of slavery is seen as benevolent of the Garners, that Mr. Garner “let” Halle buy her was more than he had to do. All three of the main “persecuted maidens” of the novel, Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Denver, all embark on large travel missions in their youth that change them, from Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home, Baby Suggs’s movement from  Sweet Home to 124, to Denver’s trip to the outside world looking for work. Each, at some point, becomes tied, imprisoned, in 124, an ancestral home to the Bodwins, a house “too big for [Suggs] alone” and


Letter to the editor


Dear anne, 

okay it's really not done yet, but here's where I'm going 

...finish detailing the formal elements of the "female gothic narrative" as described by the pastiche


  1. Carol's own argument falls flat
    1. "rite of passage"
    2. differing definitions of womanhood
    3. reltionships to marriage and motherhood anything but ambivalent
    4. employs the supernatural for political ends
  2. Gothic Villain also shifts, literally all characters, including us, the voyeurs
  3. the big institutional villain of slavery
  4. national character
  5. white women not exempt from the oppressor
  6. fitting to use beloved, which discusses that as a main theme. 

getting there, hope you can see my vision thus far, and hoping you dont really see this before i fix it anyway, lol.


Anne Dalke's picture

So hey: how about that title?

And hey again, I did see this before you “fixed” it, so do with these comments what you will (I’d be very glad to see a completed version….).

You are really claiming your English majored-ness these days! Strikingly, you locate this essay not just in the genre of literary criticism, but in the genre of debate among literary critics, in this case, a debate about a text that is not on our syllabus, but that most assuredly haunts one of our central novels: Morrison’s Beloved. I’m intrigued by your invitation to re-think/re-see the ghost story that is Beloved as haunted by that spooky text, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” especially interested to reconceptualize the former as a Rep&Rev of the latter, doing something of what Parks, in Getting Mother’s Body, does to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: making the central characters black, and giving the women agency. And I’m liking very much your placing the “trials” of the “persecuted maidens” in Beloved in the form of “The Female Gothic”—with an intention of revising the genre. Go canon-reconstruction! Go, Rep&Rev!

And if you intend to go on with this line of thinking, you might look @ the opening essay in a 2004 collection called The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination (edited by Douglas Howard and Ruth Anolik, who is a Ph.D. graduate of the BMC English Department, from back in the day when we granted Ph.D’s…J). In this particular essay,  “White Terror, Black Dreams: Gothic Constructions of Race in the Nineteenth Century,” Eugenia DeLamotte examines the formation of the genre she terms “Anglo-Gothic” as uncannily (heh, heh) paralleling “the history of racial formation,” using

Toni Morrison’s concept of the ‘Africanist persona’ as a basis for understanding the relationship between these two formations. As their linked history reveals, behind the fears of dark, racialized others on which the Gothic construction of whiteness hinges is the unspeakable Other of that construction: the fear that there is no such thing as whiteness or even race.

DeLamotte explains that her argument "begins from Morrison’s basic premise” that

the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self’….the rise and flowering of the Gothic novel…coincides with the emergence and codification of modern conceptions of “race” as a biological division of humans….it is no coincidence that the rise and proliferation of this…genre, focused on anxieties about boundaries and obsessively concerned with marking off a dark mysterious Otherness from some normative coherent self, coincides historically with the rise of conceptions of “race” as a question of essential, biological dividing lines between a normative “white” self and dark, mysterious Others.

Okay, more than enough quoting. Go read the rest for yourself:            ess+in+gothic+studies&source=bl&ots=b8qvsDf5XB&sig=ATWusjQJ6BkW4GsX9wm            kUeKDvnQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjYgsCSrdXPAhVHJR4KHfvcBr4Q6AEIMz            AC#v=onepage&q=whiteness%20in%20gothic%20studies&f=false

Oh, and not only is Carol Margaret Davison white-- --curiously, she also lists “African-American literature” among her areas of teaching, though not among her courses or publications.

And what presumptions lie therein?

More soon, I hope,