Sylvia Plath’s Uncanny Poetry: Suburban Gothic in 1950s America
Mónica Fernández Jiménez (Universidad de Valladolid)
Commenting upon the simultaneous domesticity and spirituality of Dutch genre painting, which he considers has an influence on the pioneer of the American Gothic Nathaniel Hawthorne, Evert Jan van Leeuwen explains that the portrayal of women in these paintings was only “realistic in appearance” (38), since it was mediated by the patriarchal belief system operating at the time (Franits 1). This observation raises issues relating the philosophy of realism in art—realist according to who?
The gothic genre has long served to shatter the foundations of hegemonic meanings by representing an alternative reality which, through sinister imagery, seemed unrealistic—only in appearance (Jackson 78; Punter 17). In this context, Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Uncanny is crucial to understand this aspect of the gothic genre—“that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (220)—especially in those texts which deal with the female experience. Women writers have made use of the blurry boundaries of domesticity in their own ways, addressing the subjugated position of women in society and thus finding out that they are a wonderful gothic subject.
This presentation will explore the uses of gothic imagery in the poetry of Sylvia Plath and its consequent uncanny effects. Through the introduction of grotesque figures in suburban 1950s American settings, Plath explores the creative possibilities of the gothic genre for the self-expression of women in a deeply conservative era, during which, according to Betty Friedan’s prologue to the tenth anniversary edition of her The Feminine Mystique, “women could identify with nothing beyond the home” (4). This presentation also repositions Plath, who has mostly been assessed as a confessional author. Not completely dismissing the confessional categorisation, this presentation leads to the conclusion that the gothic mode inserts itself within other genres or styles, demonstrating thus its great array of epistemological possibilities.
“Our McMansion on the River”: The Suburban Gothic House in Gone Girl and The Wife Between Us
Katharina Hendrickx (University of Sussex)
Despite domestic noir’s popularity on bestseller lists in the second decade of the 21st century, the crime subgenre has only just begun to attract academic attention in recent years. Situated after the financial crash of 2008, domestic noir often features multiple, unreliable female narrators and foregrounds women’s experiences of the domestic space, sexual and domestic abuse and a limited understanding of femininity. Specifically, the literary ancestry of the 19th century female Gothic and its influence on domestic noir remains largely unexplored. Originated in the Bluebeard tale, the female gothic narrative resurfaces at times of significant political, social and economic changes in US as well as UK society. Surfacing once more in the 21st century in domestic noir narratives, the novels present an updated version of the female Gothic heroine battling with the same anxieties but in today’s postfeminist and neoliberal climate.
The Gothic heroine’s fears are often reflected and represented by the house dealing with the domestic space, traditional roles and expectation of women and femininity. This shows an intimate connection of domestic noir to its literary predecessor, the female Gothic and its emphasis on the domestic space. This paper will focus on two of the most well-known domestic noir novels from US popular culture, Gone Girl (2012) and The Wife Between Us (2018) and their relationship with the suburban house. In both novels the house plays an important role, as the newly-wed couples move into their suburban homes promising a fresh start and domestic bliss for the women. This, however, quickly turns into a place of fear, isolation and imprisonment and the superficiality of the failing relationships is mirrored in the décor and location of their new houses. These ‘suburban gothic’ narratives then represent specifically white and middle-class women’s fears (Murphy, 2009), and can be recognised as a prevalent theme across US domestic noir novels.
Lacunas, Orisons, and Attics: David Mitchell’s Slade House (2015) as Gothic Locus
Taryn Tavener-Smith (Buckinghamshire New University)
Historically, borderlines in vampire fiction have played a significant role and are often figured as “obstacles [that] protect humans from vampires” (Bubke 2018, 5). Such thresholds are evident, for example, when vampires are unable to pass through the doorway of humans’ homes without invitation. This “threshold-myth” serves to “prevent unwanted guests from entering [and] signifies an insurmountable protection” (6). Such boundaries are “used to protect us, separating humans from monsters by keeping the vampires out” (5). However, in Slade House, the opposite applies as vampires (the Grayer twins) entice victims across the threshold of the “small black iron door” (Mitchell 2015, 10) to cross the borderline by entering the decaying yet expansive Slade House on Slade Alley in downtown London. Such coercion emphasises the imaginary threshold between the human and the monster observed in the house.
While my main focus is on exploring the house’s status as a Gothic locus, I will also evaluate the novel’s representation of the house’s attic as an “orison” or “kind of reality bubble” (Mitchell 2015, 172), a small space, which allows the novel’s vampiric twins to remain “freeze-dried against world-time, anchoring [their] souls in life” (78). Slade House’s attic emphasises the significance of thresholds and boundaries in Gothic fiction while serving as a prison and final location that victims occupy before their souls are devoured. These slippery boundaries emphasise the Gothic’s concern with liminal spaces (such as orisons, attics, and lacunas) and are all indeed evident in Mitchell’s fictional house of horrors. As Gilbert and Gubar (1980) have famously argued, the attic is associated with mad women, and in Slade House, it becomes the threshold or liminal, interstitial space between life and death (Turner 1992). Slade House serves as a Gothic lacuna and site of the imbibing ceremonies imposed on victims – a place where two worlds meet with “death as a door to the afterlife” (Mitchell 2015, 114).