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The Portrayal of Women in Gothic Literature
Many commentators have noticed how females in Gothic fiction often fall into one of two categories:
the trembling and innocent victim or the shameless and dangerous predator, also respectively known
as the `damsel in distress' and the `femme fatale'.
The Damsel in Distress
Usually a beautiful young woman threatened by tyrannical men
or dire circumstances.
Typically incarcerated in a castle or monastery.
Portrayed as helpless, foolish and ineffectual to the point of
Often requires a masculine hero to achieve her rescue.
Vulnerable female characters may also be used to express feelings and heighten terror through their
persecution, adding to the frightening nature of Gothic literature.
In the mid-1800s, women had few rights and were expected to be subservient to men.
Cultural expectations were that women refrain from expressing themselves openly in the presence
The Femme Fatale
A mysterious and seductive woman whose charms or manipulation
ensnare her lovers and leads them into dangerous or deadly
Often described as having a power, or potentially supernatural
ability, over men.
May also imply she is a victim, caught in a situation from which she
Often displays a complete lack of emotional involvement with her
It has been suggested that the femme fatale characters in Gothic literature may represent
emancipated women who no longer submit to male control.
Modern critics often point out the way in which female sexuality is used to denote strength,
rebelliousness, and evil.
These characters may be horrific to convey the `horror' of being perceived as freakish by society for
engaging in pursuits considered to be outside the traditional and approved women's realm.