“The primary meaning of the gothic romance lies in its substitution of terror for love ... The titillation of sex denied” (Fiedler). Discuss.

By Nicole Louise Willson,
University of East Anglia

The gothic romance, according to Fiedler, evolved from the European sentimental tradition of the eighteenth century, from the likes of Richardson and Rousseau whose “subject par excellence [was] love or, more precisely ... seduction and marriage” (Fiedler 25). The European gothicists envisaged a genre that was fuelled by sexual predation. Along the vein of Fiedler’s analogy, it was a genre that played out the drama between Lovelace and Clarissa but at a higher, more sadistic level. The gothic novel established itself, therefore, as the “risk” narrative on the outside of romance, persistently cathecting the romantic desire that had been written latently into the sentimental tradition. The gothic tradition in America, however, seems to have preserved this characteristic “latency”, repressing all traces of sexual desire.

In a study of sexual repression, however, it is important to look not simply for the repressed object, but for the voices and fears which exert themselves in that repression. This essay will therefore propose a Foucauldian reading of the American gothic tradition that looks not just at the peculiarities of sexual repression itself, but also at the “mobilisation” borne out of repression, the “incitement to discourse” about and the desire to find sex that occurs principally in the hermeneutic function of the reader. This will necessarily look at the significance of sexual symbols: the letter “A” in The Scarlet Letter, the uncanny children that bear an unconscious sexual significance, and representations of otherness and monstrosity in the characterizations of women. It will seek to “cathect” in its analysis what the American Gothic represses in its symbolisation.

According to Michel Foucault, the notion that sexuality is “repressed” in post-eighteenth-century western culture is an historical simplification. In The History of Sexuality, he posits that there is a process, above all, of “expurgation” (Foucault 17), which takes place in order to consolidate illicit sexual meaning, and suggests that what is left behind holds all the more resonance by default of its expurgation. He notes that

All these negative elements—defenses, [sic] censorships, denials—which the repressive hypothesis groups together in one great central mechanism destined to say no, are doubtless only component parts that have a local and tactical role to play in a transformation into discourse, a technology of power, and a will to knowledge that are far from being reducible to the former. (12)

What is “repressed” is not essentially silenced, therefore, but codified, and it is in the act of codification that the reader is encouraged to impart meaning and to discover meaning, even when there is perhaps no hidden meaning to be imparted or found. In this sense, the possibilities for sexuality to exist within repressive discourses become limitless and the American Gothic may be seen to open up sexual discourses that even pornographic literature does not.

In spite of Fiedler’s assertion, for example, that John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is part of the “Break-through”(33), it would seem that Fanny offers the reader no more than what she gives out: aptly signified by Madeleine Kahn as a “pornotopic fantasy of woman [whose body] mirrors in its responses the male model of sexuality” (157). She plays out male erotic fantasies of voyeurism, lesbian masturbation and flagellation, and in the superabundance of sex which Cleland exhibits there is nothing in fact left to be found except Fanny herself, of whom there is no trace because her body and her narrative speak entirely of sex. A reading of Foucault can help the reader to understand that it is not in the act of “seeing” that sex is to be found, but in the act of exegesis.

In this way, American gothic writings may speak more overtly of sex in their “expurgation” of language, because they encourage a heightened level of interpretation. Veeder notes, for example, that “Gothic fiction aggressively encourages what all art allows—that we build our own artifact [sic] out of the materials provided by the object” (32). Objects of repressed sexuality in American gothic fiction thus become problematic and potentially destabilizing by default of their indeterminacy.

Allan Lloyd-Smith underscores the problem of indeterminate symbolic meaning in the language and writing of Hawthorne, discussing the effect of symbolisation in The Scarlet Letter. The letter “A”, which bears so much symbolic significance in the text, is here pushed to its “discursive” limits and he notes that although “the allegorical pretext [of the letter] is already established and ‘given’, its modification in achieving a particular form opens the possibility of alternative meanings according to the level of exegesis” (Lloyd-Smith, 9-10). Indeed, the novella shows us repeatedly that the scarlet letter and the bearer of that symbol hold deviant and multifarious meanings through the characters’ symbolic interaction with, and symbolic interpretation of it.

In the second chapter, for example, when Hester is brought before the magistrates and townspeople in the marketplace, the letter manifests itself as an incarnation of female sexuality. This is achieved through the contrast created between the archetypically feminine portrait of Hester, the genteel seamstress and “embroiderer” of this sign, and the masculinity of her “countrywomen”, described as “the beef and ale of their native land” with “broad shoulders and well-developed busts” (Hawthorne 1360). Hawthorne renders the distinctions between the women acute in these depictions; the “phallic” women of the town shun Hester and the symbol that she bears, receiving it with disapprobation and contempt. In this way, they render Hester and the letter that she wears “other”, not “phallic” but hyper-feminine. This is further heightened by the intense voyeurism that Hester is subjected to by the women in this scene, who, by placing her on a scaffold in the marketplace, render her an object of fetishistic desire. A symbolic distinction is thus made between Hester and her “countrywomen” which is predicated on sex, and the scarlet letter subsequently comes to represent the “otherness” and excess of female sexuality.

In essence, therefore, it does not matter that sex itself is “there rendered reticently [and] incomprehensively” (Fiedler 228), as it is this very “reticence” which opens up the hermeneutic possibilities for sex to exist at all. The scarlet letter is not meant to be read as a redundant object; its specific meaning is withheld in order that the reader adorns it with its own, just as Pearl “adorns” it with “the prickly burrs from a tall burdock” (Hawthorne 1405), allying herself closely with nature (in itself indicative of ambivalent sexualities) and with the symbolic “expurgation” of sex borne by Hester.

Of course Pearl, like the scarlet letter, is merely another “expurgation” of sexuality, a code for what is latently present. From the outset, when Pearl is only a baby, she is tarnished by the mark of sexuality and yet simultaneously unconscious of her sexual significance. The townspeople perceive her as a product of Hester’s “disgrace” (1363), and as nothing else. It is her unconscious “knowingness” which dissociates her from the phallic and impenetrable women that stand in judgement of her.

The baby Pearl is thus possessed by the “transgenerational phantom” of Hester’s sexuality. Abraham and Torok note, for example, that “The phantom is a formation of the unconscious that has never been conscious” (Abraham & Torok 172). It is essentially the phantom of Hester’s sexual realization, which of course is not even realized by the novella itself, that haunts us. As a child who is at this point nameless, Pearl offers herself up as a perfect “vessel” for the “sin” that produces her. Fiedler in fact notes that “Pearl seams less like a real child than an allegorical representation of the fruits of sin” (Fiedler 230). As readers who are pushed to our hermeneutic limits, furthermore, and as readers who perceive the symbolic distinction in the same way that the townspeople do, we are encouraged to locate Hester’s sexuality within Pearl.

In her unconsciousness of a sexuality which she nevertheless inhabits, Pearl is analogous to Ruby Lamar’s baby in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Aubrey Williams has noted how her baby “express[es] by its blighted and ubiquitous presence the agony to which it and all other ‘children’ of the book have been born” (61). Indeed, the child is the unconscious observer of all of the sexual deviants of the novel and thus, like Pearl, is possessed of a certain “knowledge”. Horace is particularly attuned to the “knowingness” of children, and attests that “sometimes I believe that we are all children, except children themselves” (Sanctuary 280). The baby is essentially the metaphorical “stain”, therefore, the indelible reminder of Ruby’s sexual transgression. This “stain” is symbolically represented in the melted candy which she wipes onto her “child’s discarded garment”. In this symbolic gesture she pointedly refuses to “soil” Horace’s handkerchief, and by default acknowledges that her baby’s garments are already “tainted”, retaining the “phantom” of her sexual digression (276).

The underlying sexual significance of the child is also a “doubling” of the masochism of Ruby herself. In her reflection upon the solitary suffering that she is forced to undergo during Lee’s imprisonment she convinces herself that she “got just what was coming to [her]” (122). In this masochistic resignation she thus betrays a compulsion to “repeat [her] former humiliations as punishment” (Edmunson xiii): acknowledging her sexual symbolization and assisting in perpetuating it. It is the multiplication here, furthermore, the “doubling” of Ruby’s sexuality, which renders it a true affirmation of American Gothicism. According to Freud, the double belongs to a “phase that [has been] surmounted” which, in its return, “becomes an object of terror” (Freud 143). Ruby’s “repressed” sexuality is realized and rendered monstrous in the uncanny omnipresence of her child and in her tendency toward masochism. They all, in this way, become part of the process of sexual exegesis, and the “repression” with which Ruby engages thus envisages “an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy” (Foucault 23).

In the excess of female sexuality which seeps through the repressive discourses, the reader observes that, what emerges from American gothic fiction is essentially a fear of woman. Indeed, Fiedler underscores the “chary treatment of woman” that characterizes American gothic writings (Fiedler 31), and, of course, this observation is compounded by Foucault’s assertion that “what came under scrutiny was the sexuality of ... women” in post eighteenth-century western culture (Foucault 38). Female sexuality may thus be repressed and rendered “other”, or even “unheimlich”, but the dichotomization which occurs in this process of “othering” encourages us to inhabit, as Gwin suggests, a bisexual “space” (Gwin 68), in which we are clearly able to perceive that difference. The reader participates here in a hermeneutic game, which encourages them to multiply the discourses which have been confined to the peripheries.

Indeed, Temple Drake is often considered the principal site of sexuality in Sanctuary, even though she is perhaps the least sexual (or rather least sexualized) of all the characters in the novel. She is perceived by Frazier, for example, as “spiritually rotten” (Frazier 55), and by Fiedler as a “sexual aggressor-more drake than duck” (Fiedler 321). Certainly, Fiedler’s analogy is incisive in his depiction of Temple’s “masculine” qualities; after all, Temple recounts her momentary desire to possess a phallus when she is raped, yet there is a sense that this masculinity, this “phallic consciousness” that Temple inhabits, is a defensive, rather than an aggressive mechanism. She imagines that the proof of possession of a phallus will ensure that she is inviolate, allowing her merely the courage to say, “Look. See? Let me alone, now” (217). In her phallic sense, then, Temple is not “other”, but acts rather as a “repressor” of otherness, as a repressor of the biological fact that “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” (Aristotle qtd. in Beauvoir 33), i.e. the lack of a penis. She is unable to become the castrating woman, to appropriate the “otherness” of female sexuality, yet acknowledges its existence by sidelining the woman that can: Ruby. It is Temple who is in fact a “foil” to Ruby, therefore, not vice-versa as Frazier suggests (55).

Although Ruby inhabits the peripheries, and although her sexuality is in this sense “repressed”, she is consciously pursued by a hermeneutic desire to “unveil” and “expose” her sexuality [see Note 1]. Foucault notes that “it is through the isolation, intensification, and consolidation of peripheral sexualities that the relations of power to sex and pleasure branched out and multiplied” subsequent to the eighteenth century (48), and this is a facet which becomes increasingly noticeable, not just through the hermeneutic processes of the reader, but through the hermeneutic agency of the text itself.

The reader is encouraged to empathize with Ruby; they perceive with acuteness her poverty, hardship and self-abasement and realize that she is indeed only “a whore of necessity” (Frazier 55). However, as Temple enters the peripheral space that she has circumscribed for Ruby, she becomes agent to Ruby’s exposure, forcing an interpretation of the sexuality that she endeavours to repress. Indeed, Ruby adopts a “codified” language to articulate her dubious past: expressions such as “jazzing”, acting as “expurgations” of a deeper meaning, for example. It is nevertheless Temple’s inquisitive response to this innuendo, probing for the interpretation of this “code”, which elicits Ruby’s exposure in a passionate outburst in which she reveals the full scale of her debasement (59).

Later in the text, when she is again confined to the peripheries in a hotel in Jefferson, she is pursued by a committee of “church ladies” that force her into residence at the prison (180), a public and focal site of town administration. It is by default of their public “exposure” of Ruby, then, that these women negate Ruby’s desire to repress, and force her sexuality into the open. Like the Hester that is placed upon the scaffold in the marketplace, she is thus rendered monstrous by the novel’s persistent need to interpret and expose her.

However, whilst Ruby is, through the hermeneutic apparatus of the novel, rendered other, a Foucauldian analysis of the American Gothic helps us to realize that true monstrosity is perhaps located elsewhere: not within Ruby, or Pearl, or even their children, but within ourselves and within the potentialities of interpretation. David L. Frazier’s misogynous reading of Temple Drake in his essay, “Gothicism in Sanctuary: The Black Pall and the Crap Table” effectively elucidates this idea.

Indeed, Frazier presents Temple as the locus of sexual otherness in Sanctuary, depicting her as “animalistic” and “feintingly evasive”, and compounding her monstrosity with his assertion that she “prostitutes herself and is violated” (Frazier 52): an expression which seems to denote that Temple “asked” for her rape. Indeed, according to his interpretation, “She was not raped, but seduced—perhaps merely given opportunity” (Frazier 55). Whatever “sin” Temple may be guilty of, however, Faulkner is determined not to vilify her in the way that Frazier does, allowing her instead the opportunity to end the novel on her own terms, through her perjury. Temple is in fact served up with no form of “retribution” by Faulkner, escaping both the lynching that Lee Goodwin receives and the execution reserved for Popeye, nor is she forced to endure the life of single motherhood and poverty that Ruby faces in the advent of Lee’s death.

What is striking about this interpretation, therefore, is not (what I perceive to be) its misreading of Temple’s repression [see Note 2], or indeed its virulent sexism, but the vast digression it has made from the image of the doll-faced college girl who meets Gowan at the station at the beginning of the novel. It is in the active “multiplication” of Temple’s sexual monstrosity, that Frazier reveals his own monstrosity. In the act of exegesis, it has unearthed something located within the repressed discourse which was perhaps never supposed to be found.

This example does not stand as a diatribe against Frazier, however. It merely testifies that he is guilty of “observing, questioning, and formulating”, in the same way that all readers of American gothic fiction are. According to Foucault, “Modern society ... is in actual fact, and directly, perverse”, and this “perversion” is “the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures”: a natural response, in other words, to sexual repression (Foucault 33; 47-48).

The repressive discourses that are generated by the American Gothic prefer its readers to see with an Edenic blindness, to perceive the American novel, as “innocent [and] unfallen” (Fiedler 24), as Fiedler purports. Yet there always remains, within these repressive discourses, the bearers of the forbidden fruit, the Hester Prynnes and the Ruby Lamars that entice the reader and precipitate their “fall”. They are the “guilt”, the indelible “stain” of the American consciousness, and by seeking to repress them, American gothic writings admit a conscious fear and encourage its advancement. It is not just the repressed returning that produces terror, therefore, but the void created by repression itself, which not only invites but actively pursues it.


1. It is important here to note that, whilst there are perhaps more obvious cases of sexual repression in Sanctuary, viz. the character that Fiedler describes as the “eunuch”, Popeye, Ruby is an excellent example of the Foucauldian notion of peripheral sexuality, and her “peripheral” status has been compounded by the many critics that have overlooked her significance.

2.I have posited that Temple’s repression of her sexual self, enacted through her ‘phallic consciousness’, reflects her impenetrability. Frazier reads this repression as a form of ‘coyness’ which demands sexual violation.

Works cited:

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