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«Gothic Heroines and Cultural Trauma in 20th Century Literature and Film A Dissertation SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA BY ...»

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Gothic Heroines and Cultural Trauma in 20th Century Literature

and Film

A Dissertation




Eric Brownell




Dr. Lois Cucullu January 2015 © Eric Brownell, 2015 Acknowledgements I am very grateful to my adviser, Dr. Lois Cucullu, for her insight and her patience. From my preliminary examination preparation through the dissertation process, Lois always seemed one step ahead of me, aware of the shape my project was taking before I was aware of it myself. Her comments on my dissertation chapter drafts were generous, incisive, and practical, pushing me to fulfill my arguments’ potential while never losing sight of the demands and the constraints of the project as a whole.

I am also indebted to Dr. Siobhan Craig, who was profoundly generous with her time during my exam preparation and in the critical early stages of my dissertation drafting. I have sincere appreciation for the extent to which Shevvy’s scholarship, and especially her seminar on Fascism and Film, influenced the ultimate direction my dissertation took.

The support and encouragement Dr. John Watkins provided during my dissertation writing process was incredibly valuable to me. His feedback was prompt and detailed and it helped me acknowledge the strengths of my work as well as its potential for improvement.

I am also very grateful to Dr. Jack Zipes, whose course on Transformations of the Fairy Tale strongly influenced my critical approach to texts. His comments during my preliminary exam and at my dissertation defense helped me become aware of the potential directions my scholarship could take.

Michael Swiecki offered me tremendous support throughout the project, from its i genesis to its completion. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my family, particularly my parents, whose support was invaluable, especially during the completion process. My mother helped me feel a sense of pride in meeting the daily demands of such an extended process, and my father served as a wonderful listener and an intelligent question asker. I could not have completed this project without them.

ii Table of Contents Introduction………………………………………………1 Chapter 1…………………………………………………8 Chapter 2…………………………………………………44 Chapter 3…………………………………………………90 Chapter 4…………………………………………………136 Bibliography……………………………………………...161

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Introduction In this dissertation, I analyze how 20th Century British writers and Hollywood filmmakers have adapted common features of the Gothic literary tradition – the attractive but coercive villain, the imperiled but investigative heroine, and the portrait of her female predecessor – to address massive cultural traumas. “Cultural trauma” is, of course, a metaphor, implying that a nation or a people suffer the same kinds of symptoms that psychologists or psychoanalysts have identified in individuals who have unconsciously repressed experiences of overwhelming stress. One immediate danger of this metaphor is that ascribing an unconscious to a culture might lead one, for example, to view its silence regarding an overwhelming event, in its aftermath, as a purely involuntary action. That is, one might view this silence as a benign symptom of a culture’s need to protect itself from a painful past, rather than note the ways that agents within a culture suppress widescale disasters for political reasons. As E. Ann Kaplan argues in Trauma Culture (2005), the paucity of films that addressed American veterans’ physical and psychological injuries after World War II can be taken as evidence that Hollywood largely suppressed mention of such damages, complicit in a narrative of nationalist triumph. By contrast, each of the fictional works I analyze mimics and critiques popular discourses that strive to redeem or suppress wide-scale cultural trauma. However, they not only mobilize the Gothic to insist on the past’s haunting of the present but also to underscore the limits of their own narratives’ responses to cultural trauma.

Rather than a project on exclusively canonical Gothic works, I offer a study that focuses on the mobility of the Gothic heroine across genres, from a modernist novel, to two midcentury film melodramas, to a horror film. This trajectory is in keeping with the spirit of the Gothic, which transgresses the boundary between high and low culture. The appearance of a Gothic heroine in a range of works that respond to cultural trauma suggests that her combination of curiosity and victimhood, privilege and confinement, provides a useful balance for narratives attempting to address events that defy representation. As their characters’ investigative efforts inevitably fall short, so too do these works’ claims to allegorize history. Ultimately, allegory becomes an inappropriate term to describe these works’ relationship to history because, as Steven Bruhm insists, the Gothic and trauma are both premised on the impossibility of narrating overwhelming experiences. Instead, as I demonstrate, these works present us with scenes that provocatively collapse or confuse the present and the past through the relationship between the heroine and her predecessor and between the heroine and the villain.

In essence, these works figure crises in modernity in the shattering of their heroines’ identities; the way these identities are ultimately remade (or left undone) gives us an outlook on a new era. In each work, the Gothic heroine over-identifies (or is overidentified) with her female predecessor, a confusion that mimics the culture’s “acting out” of the repressed trauma underlying the work’s narrative. This confusion is critiqued because of its tendency to render the heroine complicit in a forgetfulness of past violence.

Indeed, these heroines are often scapegoated for national sins, allowing the sympathetic reader or viewer to feel guilty by association, while not directly responsible. However, displacing mass experiences of victimization into narratives in which the heroine is subject to serial or cyclical violence, these works simultaneously critique (and connect) public and domestic forms of oppression.

These narratives dramatize the consequences of a culture’s repression of trauma through the repetition of past violence in the present, which inevitably manifests in scenes that mirror, and even confuse, the heroine and villain. The heroine’s feelings toward this Svengali-like figure, a mixture of admiration, attraction, and disgust, draw her close to both danger and knowledge. However, the Gothic villain then attempts to transform the heroine from an investigator into a mirror for his lack, his needs, or as Michelle A. Massé suggests, his compensatory “self-representations” (682). The mirroring of the heroine and the villain represents a return to a traumatic scene that Bruhm notes in many Gothic narratives; that is, the villain’s earlier, horrifying experience of lack is often the putative origin of the Gothic horrors seen throughout these works.

Indeed, the villain is often revealed to be a victim as well. Thus, the climactic mirroring of the heroine and villain comes to resemble the confusion “of self and other” that trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra notes as a symptom of “post-traumatic acting out,” a confusion these works mobilize not only to critique the oppression of women but also to challenge any nationalist, morally unambiguous narrative of heroism (21).

In his effort to control both the heroine and the narrative, the villain often attempts to harness the power of a visual representation. However, portraits in the Gothic commonly foreshadow the surprising return of the sitter’s spirit, which resists confinement within the false “frame” narrative circulated by those in power.

Furthermore, in the works I analyze, the “otherness” of portraiture, whether in opposition to text or to film, comes to stand for the “otherness” of trauma, its evasion of representation and its refusal to remain consigned to the past. That is, Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927) and, later, Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden” (1985), align the “black hole” metaphor that critic W.J.T. Mitchell uses to describe the effect of a work of visual art on an ekphrastic text with the “black hole” metaphor that psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk uses to describe traumatic experience in relation to conventional memory.

Likewise, in the films I analyze, traumas are alluded to through the appearance of portraits, which, as film theorist Thomas Elsaesser (2001) suggests, commonly present “a black hole,” “a notable gap” that films’ narratives must struggle to fill; this echoes Bruhm, who argues that the frantic proliferation of Gothic narratives in the 20th Century indicates a compulsive yet vain effort to fill gaps produced by traumatic losses. As I demonstrate, the Gothic, through both its excesses and its gaps, is the vehicle through which these works amplify the intensity of their responses to trauma, foreboding the return of past violence, while ultimately disavowing claims to adequately allegorize traumatic experience.

My project contributes to, and critiques, feminist scholarship on the literary and cinematic Gothic. By prioritizing the heroine’s self-forgetful identification with her foremother, much feminist psychoanalytic criticism has ironically recapitulated the repression of cultural trauma that these texts set out to expose. On the other hand, biographical and sociological approaches, by regarding these works as mirrors for the lives of their female authors or audiences, have underplayed their responses to recent or historical catastrophes. My attention to the heroine’s shifting relationship to her foremother and the villain allows me to analyze how these works both mimic and critique the repression of cultural trauma. The flexibility of my approach offers an important corrective to trauma theory as well. That is, I substantiate Bruhm’s claim that modern traumas explain “why we need” the Gothic in the 20th and 21st Century; however, by unshackling the concept of identification from psychoanalytic narratives of tyrannical fathers and monstrous mothers, I offer a more nuanced assessment of these works’ mirroring of cultural and personal traumas (259).

In my first chapter, on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I synthesize an analysis of the novel’s relationship to both the Gothic tradition and to fascism. I argue that Woolf, through the domineering character of Mr. Ramsay, uses the Gothic to link nascent fascism’s oppression of women to its inability to mourn losses of the Great War.

However, I analyze how the novel’s unmarried painter, Lily, produces an elegiac, abstract portrait of the matriarchal Mrs. Ramsay to divorce virtues of prewar civilization from its proto-fascist tendencies. I depart from biographical criticism that reads Woolf’s novel in relation to her mourning of her family members, particularly her mother. However, I also challenge Tammy Clewell’s recent response to such criticism, which argues that the novel practices a form of “anticonsolatory” mourning of Great War losses that seeks to keep traumatic wounds open, rather than “work through” grief (199). Instead, I argue that Lily’s haunted, liberating painting signifies Woolf’s interest in a process of “Gothic mourning” that both acts out, and works through, the trauma of British war losses.

However, through its Gothic depiction of Mr. Ramsay as a figure haunted by a past he is unable to mourn, the novel foreshadows the repetition of the war’s violence in the future.

In my second chapter, on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1946 “female Gothic” film Dragonwyck, I analyze how Mankiewicz displaces the cultural trauma of fascist massmurder into his Gothic narrative of a husband who serially murders wives who fail to provide him a male heir. At the beginning of the film, the heroine’s narcissistic identification with a portrait of her husband’s female ancestor renders her blind to signs of his villainy as well as to his family’s recurrent victimization of women. I argue that the film, by foregrounding the husband’s espousal of beliefs that echo Nazi ideology, transforms the heroine’s protracted period of blind fascination into a mirror, and an indictment, of the American public’s blindness to early warning signs that the Holocaust was taking place. My chapter on Dragonwyck challenges cultural studies scholarship that suggests that the female Gothic cycle has no significant relationship to the Second World War, and that these films can only be read, historically, as reflections of American women’s wartime and post-war anxieties about work and marriage. Furthermore, in contrast with ahistorical feminist psychoanalytic criticism that exclusively focuses on the heroine’s over-identification with a maternal figure, I demonstrate how the heroine’s late, momentary identification with the villain allows the film to underscore Americans’ complicity in contemporary evils, while ultimately consigning fascism, safely, to the past.

In my third chapter, I offer the first interpretation of All About Eve (1950) in relation to the female Gothic film cycle, arguing that Mankiewicz adapts the mode’s narrative and visual conventions to liken McCarthyism and the American culture industry to fascist forms of power. Through the deceitful ingénue Eve’s self-styled narrative of war grief and regenerative fascination with celebrity culture, the film mimics the nation’s hasty forgetfulness of its recent confrontation with fascism. However, this repressed trauma, which involves Americans’ horror at (and early complicity in) fascist violence, manifests through the film’s climactic mirroring of its all-American heroine with a spying, attention-seeking, dictatorial villain. This mirroring implies that postwar American culture, unable to meld wartime damages to its worldview and its self-identity, compulsively echoes fascism’s drives for conformity and mass fascination.

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