The Portrayal of Women in Gothic Horror

The Gothic genre became popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the first noel of this genre believed to be Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Orrants first published in 1764. One of the most popular novelists of the 18th century was a woman named Ann Radcliffe, author of The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho among others. She portrayed increasingly complex and evil villains focusing on the heroine and her struggle with the tyrant.

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Ann Radcliffe Gothic fiction pioneer Ann Radcliffe may have been
Ann Radcliffe

The genre has been split by scholars into two schools- the Male and the Female Gothic. The Male Gothic often portrays women as objects of desire or as maternal figures, on the verge between victim and predator. Take Lucy in Dracula, she struggles in the fight between good and evil eventually succumbing to the pull of the darkness.

 Female Gothic was a term coined by Ellen Moers in 1976 as a category of Gothic novels written by women. Female Gothic novels are not only written by women, but they are also an expression of women’s fears of entrapment within both the domestic and the female body itself. The novels in this genre also express their discontent towards the patriarchy and its suppression of women. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while the women comply with the social norms of the day the overall tone shows discontent towards the patriarchy.

Within this post we will investigate the views on the women’s role and the fears of a changing woman through two main texts- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Image result for mary shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, oil on canvas by Richard Rothwell, first exhibited 1840; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

On the 1st January 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus anonymously only putting her name to it in the second edition in 1823 following the death of her husband in 1822. While on first reading of the novel one may not see how it could be viewed as a feminist text, on more in-depth reading of the text one is able to unravel Shelley’s real meanings.

The female characters of the novel appear to fit to the traditional female archetype of the day, they are meek, maternal and in the opinion of some critics like ghosts themselves. The male characters also fit their archetypes, they are detached from domestic matters and notably single-minded. Take Victor, when he creates the monster, he is so single-minded in his task that he can think of nothing else. It is therefore, easy enough to conclude that Shelly kept to the status quo of the times. However, rather than creating an outwardly independent heroine to the story she instead endeavours to show the reader the important role that women play in the lives of men and how things begin to crumble without their presence.


Justine is taken in by the Frankenstein family as a servant following the death of her mother and portrayed as a victim from the beginning of the novel. Although she does well with the family ultimately a man is her downfall when she is accused of the murder of Victor’s brother. Although she is innocent, she doesn’t fight the charge instead she takes her punishment passively.

‘I do not fear to die… I am resigned to the fate awaiting me.’ (page 24)

This death along with Victor’s brother’s is a great cause of guilt for Victor with him later stating that he is the one that has killed them.


Elizabeth is brought into the family as ‘a pretty present for my Victor’ (page 29) rather than deciding her own fate, it is expected that she will marry Victor and she appears happy enough with this, remaining faithful to him throughout his long absences and fearing that he is no longer interested in her. She is also portrayed as a maternal character, taking the mother role of the family upon the death of Victor’s mother.

 ‘she indeed veiled her grief and strove to act as the comforter to us all. She looked steadily on life and assumed its duties with courage and zeal.’ (page 35)

It is with the death of Elizabeth that the reader sees Victor’s spiral into despair and revenge. The Monster chooses to kill Elizabeth on their wedding night as a way of hurting Victor for his refusal to create a female companion for the monster. With Elizabeth’s death and subsequent spiral of Frankenstein one can argue that it is the female characters of the book that keep the males grounded and from their own single-mindedness.


Safie is an interesting character. Unlike Justine or Elizabeth, she takes her life into her own hands choosing to disobey her father for love. Her father used her as a tool in order to gain his freedom later retracting his deal and taking her away from the man that she loves. Instead of doing what she is told in a manner fitting a meek and obedient daughter of the times, instead she runs away from her family to find him. Safie is Turkish, which could be used to explain the difference between the female characters. But Shelley also uses Safie as a contrast to the Monster. While Safie is openly accepted by the De Lacey family and assimilates into society with them, the monster on the other hand is rejected, causing him to become single-minded in his need for someone like him as a companion.

While the female characters of Shelley’s novel are portrayed in a manner fitting societies ideal, their importance is shown with their absence. Without a maternal influence the Monster cries that he had ‘no Eve to soothe my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts; I was alone.’‘ This is what ultimately sets him on his path of revenge leading to the deaths of Victor’s family and friends. Furthermore, on the deaths of the women in Victor’s life Victor’s grip on life is unravelled only leaving his single-minded task of killing his creation.

So why did Shelley choose to write in this way? Her mother Mary Wollstoncroft may have been an influence. In 1792 she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, believed to be one of, if not the first feminist texts. It was a response to the changes that were in process following the French Revolution and how in her opinion the important role of women was being ignored. In showing the importance of women in the lives of men her daughter was once again taking up the call for women to be more than mothers and companions to men.

Timeline following Shelly’s Frankenstein

1823- Shelley adds her name to the second addition of Frankenstein.

1832- The Great Reform Act

20th June 1837– Victoria ascends the throne

8th May 1838- The People’s Charter 

1865- John Stuart Mill elected to Parliament on a platform that included votes for women

1865- The Kensington Society formed to promote higher education for Women

15th August 1867- Second Reform Act which almost doubles the electorate, enabling one third adult males in Britain and one sixth in Ireland to vote in Parliamentary elections

1868- First public meeting on the subject of women’s suffrage in the UK held in Manchester Free Trade Hall

9th August 1870- Women gain limited rights to keep property after marriage, it granted some limited protection to a married women’s property and it also permitted women to retain up to £200 of their own wages or earnings (similar change did not take effect in Scotland until 1877)

2nd August 1880- Education becomes compulsory for children under 10 years old

1st January 1883- Married women obtain the right to acquire their own property. This act provided something approaching equality for women as it allowed women to acquire and retain any property deemed separate to that of their husbands. They would also receive the same legal protection as husbands if they needed to defend their right to property.

1884- The Third Reform Act meant that roughly two thirds of adult males in England and Wales, three fifths in Scotland and half in Ireland were entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections.

26th May 1897-Bram Stoker’s Dracula is published

October 1897- Women’s Suffrage campaign gains momentum

Changing role of women 

Between the publication of Frankenstein and the publication of Dracula there were many changes in the lives of the people of Britain. In 1832 the Great Reform Act was passed following years of criticism of the unfair electoral system. In 1837 Queen Victoria ascended the throne heralding a new era in Britain. Throughout the Victorian era there were changes to the Reform Act increasingly allowing more men to vote in elections. However, the role of women stayed the same. Their place was in the home. Domesticity and motherhood were sufficient emotional fulfilment of females. Furthermore, while men were increasingly allowed a say in the running of the country it was deemed that due to their reproductive organ’s women were emotionally unstable to the point of being incapable of making a rational decision, and this was used as a reason to keep them from the vote. In 1865 John Stuart Mill was elected to Parliament on a platform that included votes for women. The role of women was starting to change. The earliest examples of women being offered further education was in the 1840s and by the 1860s and 1870s collages for women were being established, first at the University of London and later at Oxford and Cambridge. It wasn’t until 1878 however that women were able to obtain degrees in subjects that they studied. While John Stuart Mill was elected, the Kensington Society was formed to promote higher education for women and in 1868 the first public meeting on the subject of women’s suffrage in the UK was held in Manchester Free Trade Hall.

The Woman’s Suffrage movement coincided with the rise of the “New Woman”, less constrained by the Victorian norms than previous generations the New Woman had a greater freedom to pursue public roles and even to flaunt her ‘sex appeal’ something viewed as downright sinful to most Victorians of the day. The New Women’s challenge to conventional gender roles was met with hostility from both men and women who objected to women’s public presence and supposed decline in morality. In their view for children to be raised properly, mothers had to be sinless in both thought and deed, men only perceived women as such if they were seen to be meek, submissive and conforming. This New Woman did not fit the mould.


By the time of the publication of Dracula in May 1897 there had been some changes in the law some of which allowed women to keep property and own their own property making them somewhat independent from their husbands, this along with the rise of the New Woman created the perfect foundation with which to build a horror story.

The women of Stoker’s Dracula fit into three categories:

  1. Evil seductress
  2. Women on the verge
  3. The virtuous woman

Stoker capitalised on the fears surrounding the New Women creating the brides of Dracula in their image, overly sexual and providing temptation to all men such as Jonathan Harker who described them as follows

‘all three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips’ (page 8)

These women condemned by the men of the novel also seek to entice and destroy them and it is into such a creature that Lucy is transformed.


Lucy is a complex character. While she appears to have the same Victorian ideals as Mina at the start of the novel, there are some early clues that Lucy is looking to rebel against the expectations of society. While some argue that Lucy receives three proposals in one day because she is a chaste and virtuous character others have argued that these three proposals are the result of her being in control of her own sexuality saying to Mina ‘Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her and save all this trouble?’ but this thought is immediately suppressed with Lucy calling it ‘heresy and I must not say it’ (page 62). These two comments provide the foundation of the internal struggle between what is accepted and what Lucy wants. As the story continues, the reader sees this struggle made real when she transitions from the virtuous woman into the vampire – or a New Woman.


Stoker uses Mina as the portrayal of the virtuous ideal of a Victorian woman. From the outset Mina rejects the ideas of the New Women – 

‘Some of the “New Women” writers will someday start the idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting’ (page 91)

While some have claimed that Mina’s character is in fact that of one of these New Women as she is both educated with a career this is not the case. While the New Women advocated for the rights of women to be educated and to work, they would not have necessarily taken a job such as a schoolmistress like Mina, this occupation instead shows the maternal nature of Mina herself, something that is played upon later in the novel when she states that

‘we women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother spirit is involved’ (page 295)

It could also be argued that Mina’s education is only for the advancement of her husband-to-be Jonathan as she states, ‘when we are married, I shall be useful to Jonathan’ (page 70.)

Unlike Lucy, Mina does not stray from Victorian norms. Once married she wishes to be a mother and a wife while Lucy and the brides of Dracula do not seek to nurture children but to destroy them, symbolism used by Stoker to represent the New Women wanting to destroy the traditional role of women.

If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail of a half-smothered child. The women closed around, whilst I was aghast with horror,’ (page 53).

Van Helsing believes that Mina is ‘one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth’ (page 170). Stating that she has ‘a man’s brain- a brain that a man should have were he much gifted- and a woman’s heart- The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when he made that so good a combination’ (page 251). In his own way Stoker has created a hybrid creature within Mina, a human with the heart of a woman and the brain of a man. Instead of becoming an evil creature seeking the destruction of the Victorian ideals Mina instead is the perfect combination of the two sexes. She is both educated and loyal to the ideals of motherhood never straying from Jonathan.

It is clear that by the late 1800s there was a growing fear of these New Women, whether Stoker sought to capitalise on the growing fear or if he too believed that women should not stray from Victorian ideals remains to be seen but within Mina he created a woman that could be both male and female- a woman that had the intelligence of a man and the compassion and maternal instincts of a woman, not something to fear but something to celebrate.

Within these two novels we can see the different representations of women through both Male and Female Gothic. While Shelley is almost subtle in her portrayal of the important role of women in the lives of men, Stoker is to the point in his portrayal of the predator and victim within his novel. While it could be argued that Stoker is against the idea of women pushing the boundaries in his creation of Mina, he has created a woman that could work as the new social ideal, one that is educated but that still looks to act as the maternal figure within society.

Author- Emily Casson



The British Library

The Powder Room


Asmat Nabi ‘Gender represented in the Gothic Novel’ Journal of Humanities and Social sciences Vol 22 (11), pp. 73-77

Carol A. Serf ‘Dracula: Stoker’s response to the New Woman’ Victorian Studies Vol 26 (1), pp. 33-49

Mary Shelley Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Penguin Classics)

Bram Stoker Dracula (Penguin Classics)

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