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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Breaking from Convention: Gender Fluidity in Victorian Ghost Fiction by Stephanie Emmanouil

           Every individual is born a blank slate, a tabula rasa; yet, rather than curating one’s own identity, many assume socially sanctioned characteristics in accordance with their gender. Trapped within the confines of these gender-based parameters, are the foundational parts of ourselves that many societies and, consequently, individuals attempt to keep at bay. Westernism, throughout history, has engrained within its people social constructions of gender that unconsciously manage and police human behaviour. British historian, John Tosh, maintains that Victorian men were to “live by a code which [affirmed] their masculinity,” a methodology which did not see “masculinity as a set of cultural attributes,” but instead deemed it as a form of “social status”. In observing gender binarily, 19th century Westernism had established an environment of gender imitation rather than expression, limiting one’s self-actualization as individuals fell prey to conventionally appropriate representations of manhood. However, in literature, increasing psychological unease has a particularly curious way of revealing these repressed parts of characters. In regard to literature of the Victorian canon, such is evidently exemplified in the ghost fiction of the period, as illustrated through of the male protagonists in JY Akerman’s, “The Miniature, Thomas Hood’s, “The Shadow of a Shade, as well as HG Wells’, “The Red Room.” By means of engaging with the supernatural, each narrative examines the influence of death, as well as the effects of trauma and anxiety, on traditional representations of machismo and on the boundaries of male gender expression. For Dick in “The Miniature,” readers witness the debasement of his hypermasculinity, as Akerman’s protagonist faces psychosomatic consequences for his homicidal behaviour. Likewise, in regard to Robert in “The Shadow of a Shade,”  his masculinity is destabilized as the  soundness of his logic wavers. Similarly, in “The Red Room,” readers are led to question the psychological stability of a seemingly courageous and highly rational  man, as he becomes unhinged upon witnessing the ghost of Lorraine Castle. As such, this essay will argue that it is through the matters of life after death that Akerman, Hood, and Wells dissect Victorian gender politics, by examining the fluidity of gender expression in once emotionally and psychologically virile men.

           Though varying in some degrees, the foundations of manliness in the Victorian period were generally homogenous, rooted in male physical and psychological dominance, vast intelligence and logic, as well as valour. These  social structures of masculinity restricted the fluidity of gender expression, as men aimed to attain the supposed entitlements of manhood, just as in the case of Dick in Akerman’s, “The Miniature.” Prior to having killed George S, Dick exudes toxic masculinity, most notably in his response to his adversary’s affections toward Maria. In a fit of rage with George, Dick responds in accordance with the expectations of his gender stating, “‘Nay,’...‘out with your weapon; nothing less will do’”. In contest for the lady’s hand, Dick demands the pair have a duel with swords, a phallic symbol of male dominance, thus, illustrating his machismo. As Professor Orson Fowler asserts, for Victorians, “Firmness, force, and destruction, [were], par excellence, masculine traits,” all of which Dick exhibits as he seeks to protect the honour of his cousin, whilst upholding his social stratum by affirming his masculinity. However, while superficially hypermasculine, the narrative’s binary depiction of Dick’s manliness is disrupted, as the protagonist exhibits androgynous behaviour when a spectral manifestation of his murder victim visits him in his dreams. Though aiming to defend his masculinity by articulating his vigour in a violent brawl with George’s ghost, the liberation of his once suppressed feminine-self is nevertheless sustained, as he psychologically weakens due to his contrition. Battling his subconscious remorse, Dick expresses that “An indescribable tremor shook [his] frame; [he] attempted to cry out, but [his] throat was rigid, and incapable of articulation”. As Dick’s mind begins to dwindle, he involuntarily exceeds the strictures of gender, becoming progressively effeminate as his fear of George’s ghost give rise to a loss of self-security, unconsciously prompting him to assume the role of the helpless victim, instead of the champion of his masculinity. Rather than expressing moral disengagement, Dick’s response to his homicidal behaviour is penitent, disrupting the dimensions of traditional male machismo. The effeminizing effects of his anxieties are illuminated when he collapses after witnessing the apparition of his deceased friend. Losing his inner and physical strength to the fearsomeness of the phantom, he notes that his “brain whirled” and he “fell to the ground, blasted at the sight”. Despite his objective to remain robust in the dream, the terror George’s apparition incites supplants his manliness, resulting in Dick’s exhibition of stereotypical feminine frailty and weakness. Through the employment of George’s ghost, Akerman establishes an environment where gender expression may be androgynous for Dick. Affording Victorian readers monocular vision, the narrative illustrates the fluidity of gender, by showcasing its transmutability in individuals despite their sex and preconceived socio-cultural ideologies.

           Further destabilizing his masculine presence and, thus, illustrating the boundlessness of gender expression, are the periodic lingual variations in Dick’s speech, whilst he experiences a psychosomatic response to having committed murder. At times, Akerman’s protagonist preserves his masculinity, not only in his observable behaviour in the dream but likewise in his language, as he speaks short and emphatically when addressing the subject of George’s ghost.  Upon revealing the identity of his psychologically manifested attacker, Dick asserts, “It was he! – it was George S”. His speech, lacking subordination, is direct and purposive, accentuating his assertiveness and solidifying his masculinity. However, consequent to his wavering mental stability, on account of the ghost’s presence, wherein he begins to exhibit behaviours associated with madness and anxiety, like his “heart throbbing violently,” the ghostly occurrence also prompts differences in the presentation of his speech. His narrative voice becomes periodically feminized upon the induction of his fear and remorse, as the narrator’s repressed feminine portions of his psyche intermingle with his masculinity. As linguist Deborah Cameron provides, traditionally “men talk to gain ‘status,’ whereas women talk to forge ‘intimacy’ and ‘connection’; men do ‘report talk’ and women ‘rapport talk’”. Both masculine and feminine formal features of speech are present in Dick’s telling of the ghostly encounter. Having become poignant following the murder, the presentation of Dick’s language exudes linguistic behaviours not akin with traditional masculine communication, as he offers, “‘How shall I paint the horror of that evening, of that night that succeeded it, and the mental darkness which fell upon my wretched self ere the morning dawned!’”. When he begins to detail the horrors of that night, Dick speaks apprehensively and diffidently in hypotaxis, contradicting his persistent hypermasculine demeanour. In combination with his less assertive speech, Dick’s language exhibits an attempt to establish an emotional connection with the reader. By speaking hypotactically to audiences, he is not merely reporting the information but instead confiding in the reader, developing an intimacy between himself and the audience, as he details how his anxieties and the horrors of the evening altered his self-confidence and his understandings of reality. Although, traditionally male conversation is controlled by gender stereotypes, breaking from convention, Dick expresses himself non-binarily. Akerman’s narrative homogenizes traditional speech qualities of men and women into a cliché, hypermasculine character, thus, transgressing conventional ideologies regarding how gender should be performed by Victorian men.  

           Such constraints over gender expression in the Victorian era are similarly interrogated through Hood’s protagonist, Robert, in his ghostly tale, “The Shadow of a Shade.” Although, published at the brink of the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1860s, cultural contexts continued to shape the general population’s understanding of male and female behaviour, associating an individual’s emotionalism and seeming irrationality to notions of femininity. As Elaine Showalter contends, in English culture,  “Women, within our dualistic systems of language and representation, are typically situated on the side of irrationality, silence, nature, and body, while men are situated on the side of reason, discourse, culture, and mind”. Relying on intuition to unveil reasoning and transparency, rather than logic and scientific rationale, Robert becomes increasingly irrational, with respect to the oddities occurring in his family home. Upon his first entry into the story, for instance, Robert believes Vincent Greives is “unpleasant--something cruel or crafty, or both”. Visceral in his convictions regarding Vincent’s morality at the story’s inception, Hood promptly illustrates Robert’s feminine emotionality and supposed naïveté, that which progressively exacerbates with the introduction of various phantomic occurrences. When seated in the dining room of his home, for example, gazing at the hanging portrait of Lettie’s fiancé, Robert informs readers of a chill that swept the room and caught both Lettie and himself off-guard. However, rather than offer a logical explanation for the nippiness, as a stereotypical man would do, he alternatively declares, “It was not the night wind, but some supernatural breath”.  Having earlier in the story been witness to phantasms relative to George’s portrait, that which hangs in the room he presently occupies, his explanation for the peculiar breeze is illogically rooted in his internalized experiences, rather than scientific or rational reasoning. Throughout English history, “Madness, even when experienced by men, [was] metaphorically and symbolically represented as feminine: a female malady”. Juxtaposed against Harry, a portrayal of traditional masculine intelligence and logic, Robert is further emasculated, as readers are able to contrast the difference between traditional masculinity and gender non-conformists. Offering soundness in a seemingly irrational discussion about the peculiar wind, Harry firmly asserts twice that Robert “and Lettie must have had a touch of the cold shivers, and [their] stomach[s] or fancy misled [them]”. Degrading his male station, Harry couples Robert’s problematic conclusions with that of Lettie’s, a woman who continuously exhibits fits of anxiety and trepidation about George’s wellness without corroboration. In terms of gender expression, Hood positions his protagonist pluralistically, as he simultaneously presents him as the hypermasculine, protective hero of both his wife and his sister, but as well as an effeminate man, who openly chooses to operate behaviourally and socially in accordance with his emotional reasoning. By means of George’s reincarnation, Hood questions prevailing the gender politics of the Victorian era, illustrating the fluidity of gender as he writes of a man that is uniquely his own, concurrently steeped in the stereotypical strong, protective nature of masculinity, and the nonsensical, emotionality of femininity.

           Further divulging the notion of gender as a spectrum, Robert’s unreasonableness and inanity, characteristics traditionally allotted to women, are additionally amplified through the personification of George’s portrait. Upon initially noticing variations in the quality of the painting, Robert informs readers of the unusual moisture on the portrait, which seemed to alter the aesthetics of the art. Communicating a sense of logic and reasoning so as to justify the dampness lingering on its surface, he insists that he “[supposes] poor Lettie had been kissing the beloved’s portrait, and that the moisture was caused by her tears”. Unyielding in his sensible and justifiable beliefs, yet trivial-minded in subsequent situations relative to the oddities occurring with the painting, Hood demonstrates the fluidity of gender expression, as he places Robert’s masculinity in contrast with not only the other men in the story, but as well with himself. Throughout the text, Robert ascribes the portrait various human attributes, which further separates his behaviour from the traditionally celebrated intelligence and logic of Victorian men, notwithstanding the fact that his concerns are relative to his masculinist instinct to protect his sister. Having inquired about George’s passing in the newspaper, Robert’s anxieties worsen and, accordingly, he becomes more feminized as his mind, littered with phantasms, continues to personify the portrait. For instance, noticing an abnormality in the painting, Robert “looked at it hard to assure [himself] it was no fancy,” remarking that he had seen “standing out bright and distinct on the pale face, two large drops ... of blood”. As he continues to contend that there is a supernatural presence overtaking the portrait, Robert becomes increasingly illogical, as he presses readers to believe that the inanimate object somehow possesses the human capacity to bleed, as if alive and suffering from a laceration to the face. Showalter suggests that 19th century English culture illustrates insanity as either “one of the wrongs of women” or “the essential feminine nature unveiling itself before scientific male rationality”. Robert’s credibility as a logical and intelligent male is undermined as he obsessively argues against rational justifications for the supposed ghostly occurrences, falling prey to his emotions and unwarranted conclusions. In playing with the boundaries of life after death by way of George’s portrait, Hood elucidates the reality of gender as a non-binary entity, as he situates Robert so as to exhibit both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits simultaneously.

           Although written some thirty to forty years after that of “The Miniature” and “The Shadow of a Shade,” the Victorian world at the time of HG Wells’ publication of “The Red Room” remained fairly binary in terms of gender. While it became more commonplace to pronounce that both sexes were “equal in power and worth,” binary delegations of womanhood and manhood persisted, suggesting that those born biologically female “[displayed] feminine grace and tenderness,” while those biologically male exhibited “masculine strength and force,” laying the foundations for gender expression. Just as in the case of Akerman’s and Hood’s narratives, these distinctions of conventional masculinity are disputed, as Wells’ unnamed narrator navigates the terrains of the gender spectrum, both psychologically and physically, whilst visiting the haunted Lorraine Castle. Forthright about his intent to spend the night in the supposedly supernaturally disturbed Red Room, the man initially portrays himself as rather courageous and daring, remaining stringent in his declaration that “it [would] take a very tangible ghost to frighten [him]”. However, upon his entry into the mysterious chamber, his confidence and seeming insensitivity to fear begins to teeter, and as such, so does his hypermasculine demeanour. Stereotypically, men face difficulties in expressing trepidation and vulnerability, in that emotional self-awareness and expression are generally concomitant with femininity.  As such, when the room becomes riddled with inklings of a supernatural presence, the narrator faces moments of psychological instability, which enables the manifestation of his anima. Uncomfortable in the eeriness of the chamber, he informs audiences, “I must confess some impalpable quality of the ancient room disturbed me”; however, he quickly deflects these feelings, reinforcing his masculine station by suggesting, “I tried to fight the feelings down”.  Alternating between expression and repression of his vulnerability, Wells illustrates the performative nature of gender. As Showalter argues, stereotypically for men suffering from lack of mental wellness,  it “elicited angry responses because men were not supposed to show weakness”. However, in attempting to balance his contrasting desire to remain true to social gender constructions, whilst facing an innate desire to be emotionally defenceless, the narrator psychologically experiences a state of gender equilibrium, as he simultaneously expresses his masculinity and once repressed femininity. By virtue of the ghostly presence at Lorraine Castle, Wells allots the once intrepid, traditionally masculine narrator to transgress the culturally defined behaviours of his gender, debasing binary notions of manhood and womanhood for Victorian readers.

           Moreover, the narrator’s momentary psychological lapse, when confronting his fears in the darkness of the Red Room, dually impacts the expression of his traditional masculinity, most notably in his physical behaviour, as he attempts to grapple with the horrors fabricated by his own psyche. While, he maintains that his “mind ... was perfectly clear” and “that nothing supernatural could happen” he, nevertheless, is “in a state of considerable nervous tension” throughout the evening. Regardless of his attempt to maintain his masculine logic and courageousness, as the night proceeds, he exceedingly exhibits androgynous physical responses to his alarm. When first experiencing a moment of anxiety, as he walks up the staircase making his way to the Red Room, the protagonist notes that having been startled by a group of bronze statues on the landing, he “stood half rigid for a moment,” proceeding to advance “with [his] hand in the pocket that held the revolver”. While outside the alleged haunted room, he is able to respond masculinely, as he looks to articulate his dominance through the emanation of power by means of the virile symbol. As Veronika Briatková argues, “the protagonist is able to think clearly when he is removed from the influence of darkness in the red room”. In such respects, whilst outside the horrors of the chamber, he may be consciously aware of his gender expression. However, it is his experience within the room, as he sits in darkness amongst his fears and anxieties surrounding the supernatural, that he is able to openly express all parts of himself, even those he chooses to repress. As the candles in the room begin to extinguish, as does the strength of his footing in his masculinity. Frantic, as the lights disappear unexplainedly, he informs readers, “I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and with my head bowed and my arms over my face, made a stumbling run for the door”. In a moment of fight or flight, the protagonist exhibits conventional feminine timidity and weakness, as he seeks an escape from his fears, fleeing from the horror, rather than challenging his spectral demons and defending his masculinity. He runs hysterically, his eyes shielded by the protection of his arm, resembling the trope of a fearful, helpless girl. According to Fowler, for men of the Victorian period, “Courage [was] a man’s paramount prerequisite for success,” and yet Wells’ narrator, despite his display of cowardice, was nevertheless successful in his pursuit to spend the night in Lorraine Castle. His androgynous response to the haunted room, as he concomitantly illustrates bravery and vulnerability, affords him the opportunity to momentarily adjourn the suppression of his femininity and express his gender non-binarily. By means of the unnamed narrator, Wells questions the parameters of the social constructions of gender, as he illustrates the continuum that is masculinity and femininity.  

           Although, traditionally, cultural ideals perceive gender as two polar camps, nonetheless, identity is a fluid and dynamic entity, distinctly demonstrated in every individual. In an effort to break free from customary masculinity and femininity in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Akerman, Hood, and Wells situate their protagonists - Dick, Robert, and the unnamed narrator - in precarious situations with the raised souls of the dead. All three narratives assess the effects of dark demons and spectres of the past on the men’s psychological stability, as their fear and anxiety induce a noticeable alteration in their gender expression. In establishing a tense and petrifying environment for the characters, wherein their self-identities are challenged, the authors dispute orthodoxically maintained notions of binary gender distinctions. Contrasting gender expectations, as they counteract the aggression, logic, and courageousness generally associated with masculinity, the protagonists of “The Miniature,” “The Shadow of a Shade,” and “The Red Room,” each individually pose the question: what if who I am, is not all I could be?

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