This article explores literary representations of women over the centuries, from the witch of children’s fairy tales to the madwoman of the nineteenth century and the sexually voracious vamp of the twentieth century. Within this context, it examines the gothic novels Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938) and Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966) in relation to theories of Julia Kristeva and Margrit Shildrick. Both Kristeva and Shildrick explore the perception of the female form as ‘abject’ and relate this concept to the notion of the ‘monstrous feminine’ in cinema and literature. This article will also examine how these novels have taken the traditional tropes of the gothic genre and subverted them to expose the frustrations of mid-twentieth-century women.
The gothic literary genre, initially dominated by male authors, has always been a natural home for both monsters and binary depictions of womanhood. According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, this binary view presented women as either angelic wives and mothers, or threats to family life and society. The gothic genre also explores the blurring of lines between these two elements of the binary female, and the terrifying idea of the monster in the home. Both Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea belong to a female gothic genre, and specifically to what Michelle A. Massé defines as the ‘marital gothic’, deploying many of the traditional motifs of the Gothic while striving to subvert depictions of womanhood shaped by patriarchal culture. The marital gothic subgenre exposes the rage of women entrapped in traditional, reductive and confining notions of femaleness, and the uncanny environment of the institution of marriage itself.