Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Steven Bruhm


The Gothic heroine is often doubled by an image – a painting, statue, costume, drawing, projection, or mental image – that is preternaturally powerful and endowed with an antagonistic sexual presence. This image of the fatal woman, unlike portraits of the heroine, is a representation without a referent: a fetish object, both for fictional characters and critics.

I argue that the simulacrum of dangerous femininity is a shifting signifier rather than a one-dimensional representation of – as previous critics have argued – ‘male fears and desires’ or female empowerment. Following the work of sociologist Bruno Latour and narratologist Mieke Bal, I read this figure as a polyvalent fetish. Rather than a representation of an intrinsic, decodable significance, this image reveals her fetishists – including critics – instead of herself or a cultural, social, or biological truth lurking behind her. I also argue that criticism of this image is as productive of cultural values as the fiction it critiques.

The introduction lays out my methodology and theoretical direction, which is primarily Actor-Network-Theory, as outlined by Bruno Latour, and Narratology, particularly as it is employed by Mieke Bal. Chapter two surveys Romantic era Gothic (or the ‘golden age’ of Gothic), and compares visual culture and portraiture of the period with literary and dramatic representations of the fatal women, particularly as it pertains to the Gothic theme of ‘the unspeakable.’ In this chapter, I also compare Romantic and Gothic aesthetics. Chapter three considers Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s cult classic, Carmilla, as a serial published in the textual context of The Dark Blue journal and the eponymous vampire as a simulacral entity. The fourth chapter examines the discourse of late nineteenth-century degeneration theory in terms of artistic reproduction, with special attention to Oscar Wilde’s description of Dorian Gray’s maternal inheritance in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Looking at the ways that Victorian visual and literary tropes continue into the Twentieth Century, chapter six offers a reading of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as an ironic camp novel in which identity is a charade and the central figure, Rebecca, is in fact a fetish image.