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British Gothic Literature 101: Female Agency of the Damsel in Distress


The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic Psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre, in order to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.

British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following chapters of contents:

  1. British Gothic Literature 101: Birth of the Gothic Genre Exploring the Doppelgänger

  2. British Gothic Literature 101: Aesthetics of Horror & Terror

  3. British Gothic Literature 101: Exploring Sublimity

  4. British Gothic Literature 101: Representations of the Supernatural

  5. British Gothic Literature 101: Female Agency of the Damsel in Distress

  6. British Gothic Literature 101: Emergence of the Elusive Antihero as Social Critique

British Gothic Literature 101: Female Agency of the Damsel in Distress

The focus on sensibility and vulnerability in literature introduces a new type of character: the “damsel in distress,” a core character in the Gothic genre. Typically, a female figure is incarcerated in a castle or monastery and tortured by a sadistic nobleman or members of a religious order. Various epithets are attributed to female characters in Gothic fiction: damsels in distress, victims, domestic governesses, evils, predators or prisoners. However, though these female characters are portrayed as feeble and helpless, the “damsel in distress” character, paradoxically, seems to constitute an ultimate threat to the system of the mighty patriarch. Two literary examples representing this notion are Matilda, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764/2004), and Antonia, in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796/1998). This essay will examine the essence and characteristics of the damsel in distress character by comparatively analysing victims and femmes fatales in horror narration. Within this scope, examples from Gothic literature have been chosen for the analysis to break down the similarities among female literary characters.

Definition of the Damsel in Distress

The damsel in distress is a classic Gothic trope that essentially incarnates the weak female that needs to be rescued from the impending doom of the outside world. The external regressive force could take the form of a mad tyrant, a cruel father, or an oppressive lover. Gothic damsels in distress have a dark underlying story of death, black magic, and monsters. The damsel in distress is usually a beautiful young woman placed in life-or-death situations by villains, monsters, or the story’s main villain. She is often depicted as an object of desire, with her beauty and vulnerability designed to appeal to male characters. and readers. The narrative often places her in peril, providing an opportunity for the male hero to rescue her and assert his masculinity. Only a “hero” intervention can set her free (Mermin, 1986). This recurrent need for a hero to save her has rendered her a stereotypical character in Gothic fiction. This reinforces the idea that women are passive and in need of male protection, further entrenching the male gaze. The male gaze objectifies women, reducing them to sexualised objects for male consumption, and promoting the notion that women exist solely for the pleasure and gratification of men (Ledoux, 2017). It is a manifestation of the gender power imbalance deeply ingrained in the gothic genre, reflecting the patriarchal structure of the era that has historically marginalised women and perpetuated their objectification.

Figure 1: Chivalry (Dicksee, 1885)

The Damsel is also characterised by her beauty, virtue and innocence. She is a sentimental heroine who typically is clueless about the situation around her, representing vulnerability and someone gullible (Mermin, 1986). However, the damsel in distress also contributes to the story’s climax and keeps it progressing. The presentation of the female figure appears to be heavily based on prevalent stereotypes concerning female nature (Ledoux, 2017). There are two leading female roles within Gothic literature; the predator and the victim. The first is dangerous, yet powerfully attractive. In this case, the female embodies the pain/pleasure paradox that has come to be synonymous with Gothic literature. The second female role, fragile and vulnerable, gives heroes someone to rescue and often becomes the prize for their brave endeavours (Nabi, 2017). These stereotypical perceptions always take the form of opposite pairs: the saint and the sinner, the virgin and the whore, or the angel and the witch (Ledoux, 2017). Female characters reach extremities: they are either extremely good or evil. They are either innocent, pure and dependent on men, or dangerous, seductive and independent, either portrayed as femmes fatales or damsels in distress.

Classic Gothic Examples of the Damsel in Distress

In The Castle of Otranto (1764/2004), the “damsel in distress” is enacted through the character of Matilda, the daughter of Manfred, the villainous patriarch.

Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter: the latter, a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda (Walpole, 1764, p. 2).

After the unfortunate death of his son Conrad by the mysterious helmet, his wife Hippolita sends Matilda to take care of her father. However, his stance is utterly distant and condescending. He refuses to see his daughter, as he "do[es] not want a daughter" (Walpole, 1764/2004, p. 21), but it is a son that he desires. Her brother's death negatively affects Matilda, a plight further enhanced by her father’s cruel attitude. The Castle's window is then a symbolic site of mediation between the inner and outer worlds, which represents this conflict between father and daughter, together with the castle gates, locked by Manfred as a sign of his abusive patriarchal power that serves to imprison female characters (Lim, 2009). Accordingly, after learning Manfred's scheme to ravish Isabella, Matilda flees, but as "the gates of the castle she hewed were locked, so she had no choice but to go into the subterranean passageway" (Walpole, 1764/2004, p. 24). At this point, the castle becomes a place of danger and imprisonment, where threats and danger replace domestic happiness (Ellis, 1989). So when Matilda opens the window and eagerly talks to the voice, she briefly traverses the boundary of her confinement. Though Matilda is portrayed as weak because of her unconditional loyalty to her father, there is an unexpected shift in her character by the novel's end. When Matilda releases Theodore from the dungeon, she undermines Manfred’s wicked plan in the name of charity and pure love. Her actions threaten Manfred’s patriarchy, leading him to stab her fatally.

Figure 2: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (Delaroche, 1833)

Lewis's The Monk depicts a similar type of fragile and fatalistic character (1796/1998), constituting an example of a "male" Gothic novel in which the central character is a man controlling everything around him. Since the main character is male, the violence and horror are grounded in the “otherness,” i.e. the female. This idea of the “male” Gothic consists of a constant focus on his gaze, while the story often "takes place in a merciless universe and involves an insubordinate protagonist" (Nabi, 2017, p. 75). The male Gothic genre tends to focus on projecting male desires and lust onto female characters, with any faults or flaws blamed on the woman's lack of "nature." In male Gothic, what one might call the "deconstructive tendency of the carnivalesque‟ is kept in bounds by a psycho-sexual force, a misogyny generally expressed as a woman's monstrous otherness, her "artificiality‟ (Miles 1993, pp. 81-82).

The vulnerable female character in The Monk is Antonia, a pure virgin raised in an eerie castle. Upon her first description, she is veiled so that young men cannot discern her face, which, in turn, accentuates their desire for her. Her veil becomes a barrier, but the reader can only see her in fractions. The monk Ambrosio possesses the narrative's ultimate “male” gaze. Ambrosio’s power manifests itself in the language he uses. His words manipulate Antonia, and through language, the emotion that is evoked imprisons her, reducing her to a weak and vulnerable figure. During this time, Antonia wishes Ambrosio to be her confessor; she eventually confesses to him, while he fantasises about her. Ambrosio is fully aware of the extent of his degradation, as he intentionally uses ambiguous language to seduce her. During the scene in which Antonia is undressing to bathe herself, she is depicted almost like a piece of artwork, which adds to her objectification. Ambrosio then decides to bring her to her most vulnerable state; not only does he rape Antonia, but he also blames her for his transgression.

Her mouth, half opened, seemed to solicit a kiss: he bent over her: he joined his lips to hers and drew in the fragrance of her breath with rapture. This momentary pleasure increased his longing for still greater. His desires were raised to that frantic height by which brutes are agitated. He resolved not to delay the accomplishment of his wishes for one instant longer, and hastily proceeded to tear off those garments which impeded the gratification of his lust. (Lewis, 1796/1998, p. 197).

Figure 3: Lady Lilith. (Rossetti, 1867)

Then, in a fate similar to Matilda’s in The Castle of Otranto (1764/2004), he fatally stabs Antonia, claiming she has been “defiled”. Ironically, while Ambrosio has exerted his power on Antonia, she still manages to overturn his patriarchal standing since, after her death, Ambrosio is exposed and tortured for rape and murder. Ambrosio escapes death by exchanging his soul with the devil, but Lucifer reveals that his victim, Antonia, was his sister. This fact encapsulates the full extent and horror of Ambrosio’s sin. Ultimately, he dies a painful death to atone for all his sins. Lucifer then fulfils God’s work by killing Ambrosio, thus eradicating the villain.

Underlying Meanings of the Damsel

Although Ambrosio may have reduced Antonia to her most defenceless state, she ultimately stripped him of his patriarchal power, even after her death, as women often expressed their discontent towards patriarchy and its suppression of “the maternal” (Smith & Wallace, 2009, p. 1). Similarly, Matilda, even in a time of ultimate physical and emotional distress and susceptibility, possesses the inner strength to forgive her father for his digression.

While part of them endeavoured in concert with the afflicted Theodore to stop the blood of the dying Princess, the rest prevented Manfred from laying violent hands on himself. Matilda resigning herself patiently to her fate, acknowledged with looks of grateful love the zeal of Theodore. Yet oft as her faintness would permit her speech its way, she begged the assistants to comfort her father. (Walpole, 1764/2004, p. 100).

Though ultimately victimised, Matilda's death does not mean a re-establishment of the patriarchal order. Instead, it “problematises the obsession with proper male succession and the domestication of women” (Lim, 2009, p. 66). As many scholars have noted, fiction often creates Gothic worlds that symbolise patriarchal power, in which a virginal heroine attempts to overcome an exaggerated version of the subjugation women face in everyday life. Consequently, the actual source of the danger threatening the heroine in female Gothic texts is the eighteenth-century patriarchal society, in which political, social and economic power lies with men (Nabi, 2017).

Figure 4: La mort de Didon. (Füssli, 1781)

Narratives that focus on the struggles of a virtuous heroine often portray her as not only suffering, but also exerting agency, displaying physical courage, and gaining empowerment within Gothic spaces (Ledoux, 2011). However, despite the underlying message, texts still convey anxiety and anger about many women. Many of the works reflect women’s lack of agency, the continued polarisation of women through patterns of antithesis such as good/bad, saint/sinner and virgin/whore, the continued use of stereotypes, and the mental disorder of women who fail to conform to traditional expectations; “[t]hey are depressingly constant and suggest that women have been and still feel disadvantaged and disempowered” (Horner and Zlosnik, 2016, p. 1).


In Gothic literature and art history, women were often portrayed as meek and impotent beings. The ubiquitous portrayal of women as helpless damsels in distress in Gothic literature is a testament to the deeply entrenched patriarchal values of the era that sought to oppress and circumscribe the power and control of women. The emergence of the “damsel in distress” character showcases the conceived feminised idea, which asserts the dominance of men during the time (Ledoux, 2017). The trope of the damsel in distress is frequently accompanied by the heroism of a male character who undertakes to rescue her, and ensure her safety and protection. This narrative reinforces the notion that women are intrinsically weak and require male intervention to be safeguarded from harm. However, though the women in Gothic novels are demeaned and objectified, this only triggers the male gaze upon them, which causes the male characters to act evil. The evil deeds of the male characters typically lead them to their eventual downfall. Even if the central character is male, violence and revenge are always grounded in the female. It becomes evident then that the vulnerable “damsel in distress” poses the most significant challenge and inherent threat to the patriarchy in Gothic novels. The Gothic literary genre, then, while providing a stark commentary on the disempowerment of women, also exemplifies the fortitude and resilience of women who defied convention and fought for their values and freedom. Taking all the above into consideration, one can claim that the archetype of the damsel in distress, while symbolic of female disempowerment, is a clarion call to empower women and strive for gender parity, endowing them with the liberty to extricate themselves from oppressive and injurious situations.

Bibliographical References

Ellis, K. F. (1989). The contested castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of domestic ideology. University of Illinois Press.

Horner, A. and Zlosnik, S. (2016). Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh University Press.

Ledoux E. (2011). Defiant damsels: Gothic space and female agency in Emmeline, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Secrecy. Women's Writing,18(3), pp. 331–347.

Ledoux, E. (2017). Was there ever a “Female Gothic”? Palgrave Commun 3, (17042).

Lewis, M. (1999). The monk. Penguin Classics. (Original work published in 1796).

Lim, J. (2009). Signs of (Mis)Interpretation: Eavesdropping and curiosity in the castle of Otranto. Anthology of English Studies 29, pp. 59-69.

Mermin, D. (1986). The damsel, the knight, and the Victorian woman poet. Critical Inquiry, 13(1), pp. 64-80.

Miles, R. (1993). Gothic Writing: 1750-1820. London: Routledge.

Nabi, A. (2017). Gender represented in the Gothic novel. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22(11), pp. 73-77. DOI: 10.9790/0837-2211037377

Smith, A & Wallace, D. (2009). The female Gothic: New directions. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Walpole, H. (2004). The castle of Otranto. Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels. (Original work published in 1764).

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