What is the importance of dying women in Gothic Literature? *
Dying women are a common motif in Gothic Fiction. And as reading is a subjective experience, each reader will respond differently to this motif. (I would have phrased the question “why might a writer of Gothic Fiction include, as a character, a dying woman?” )
My personal comments would be-
Death is an integral part of Gothic Literature, so an attractive young heroine, dying due to disease, murder or suicide epitomises many of the things readers might expect from a Gothic story. You don’t read a Gothic story unless you want to explore the dark.
The attractive young heroine’s death is particularly poignant because it is a reversal of the popular “happily every after” conclusion. And it reminds us that all is transient, even youth and beauty. The fragility and vulnerability of the female characters is characteristic of Gothic stories, one example The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin (Anon. 1801), is about a disgraced young nun, found dead in a chamber. Often sex and death are linked. This may seem like an odd coupling. But I suppose in real life, death in childbirth, and suicides of unwed mothers were common up until about 100 years ago.
The motif acts as a vanitas, an image of death there to remind us that all will die. The young, the beautiful, the healthy, the strong. Death is inevitable. How ever much we try to ignore this fact, we all know it deep inside. Gothic fiction is about sitting with this truth.
In terms of the roots of the genre, it is always difficult to prove who copied who. But historically, we can say that the killing off of the heroine is a device frequently found in tragedies from the Greek and Roman traditions. For example: the ironic tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice (Euripides’ Iphigenia in Taurus, and Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy), where the attractive young Iphigenia dresses in her wedding clothes, only to discover that she is to be a human sacrifice. These texts have been studied for several hundred years in British Public and Grammar Schools, and Universities, so most Anglophone writers would have at least a cursory understanding of these texts.
One common theory of Literature is that story telling is a way of exploring truth, via fictional situations (Joseph Campbell for example).
In Gothic Lit, the prose and imagery is often deliberately flamboyant, for example in Isak Dinesen’s The Monkey. But beneath these layers, the truth which is being explored is mortality itself. The heroine, like everything in nature, is beautiful, yet dying.
*I pulled this question off twitter. I have a lecture next month on Gothic Lit, and I wanted to see what people were feeling about the genre.