Parker, Sarah. 2008. “’The Darkness is the Closet in Which Your Lover Roosts Her Heart’: Lesbians, Desire and the Gothic Genre” in Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2: 3-16.
This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.
* * *
It’s always a good reminder to “check the publication date” when reading academic studies of popular culture. This article, having been written in 2008, can’t reflect a more up-to-date range of lesbian gothics. But perhaps more to the point, it focuses almost entirely on two specific works: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (published 1936) and Sarah Waters’ Affinity (published 1999), so it reflects an even older approach to lesbian themes in gothic fiction (while still addressing modern fiction rather than fiction from the origins of the gothic genre).
This context comes out in the analysis of how gothic fiction uses the exploration of “unconscious fantasies and forbidden desires” to make lesbian desire legible and to “counter the repressive effects of ‘lesbian panic’” – a theory circulating at the time that much women’s fiction (of the time) was fixated on a negation of lesbian possibilities because they disrupted the gender economy in which women’s value derived from their value to men.
In discussing the characteristics of the gothic genre (and how it lends itself to articulating lesbian desire), Parker focuses on the themes of boundaries (“from the physical limitations of the domestic space – castle walls, prisons, locked chests – to the ancestral ‘line’ of the aristocratic family”) and how gothic texts allow the reader a “safe” encounter with transgressing those boundaries, but representing repressed desires via fantastic and supernatural elements. Thus, the gothic is structured by patriarchal order even as it uses transgressions against that order for its emotional impact. (For example, the regular threat of incest and its literary punishment.) Passion and desire may be experienced because the text inevitably contradicts, erases, or diffuses their experiential reality.
In Nightwood and Affinity, Parker argues, the lesbian desire that is at the heart of the story is this threat to patriarchal order that provides the reader with a pervasive sense of threat that—in these cases—is allowed to persist and be realized. In Affinity (as in many historic female-authored gothic novels) the apparently supernatural elements that contribute to the atmosphere are revealed as rational in the end. The character who fills the role of “lesbian predator” is allowed her own happy ending, even as the nominal protagonist is victimized by her.
[Note: I’m less able to follow the discussion of Nightwood, and overall this article has only tangential relevance to the gothic theme I’m currently exploring.]