The Law of the Father: The Appearance of Incest in Gothic Fiction
In her book Deadly Secrets Anne Williams says that "gothic escape fictions provide a virtual reality, and experimental world in which the repressed -- especially the female in all its guises -- might be realized" (96). Society in the eighteenth century operated under staunch patriarchal control which has been dubbed by critics like Lacan as "The Law of the Father". The Law of the father, according to Lacan, is founded on the distinction between male and female and involves the repression of all that is female. Many authors used the experimental world of gothic to explore life under and also life beyond the law of the father. What is woman's role in a world where the female is suppressed? Gothic novelists portrayed the terror women experienced at the hands of a male-dominated culture by creating fictions whereby the institutions of family and marriage are revealed in their most demented form. The family was the seat of sexuality in the eighteenth century. Girls were initiated into womanhood within its protection and received their legacy of powerlessness from their mothers. They learnt that their fathers, and all men, were the "Kings of the Castle" and that they had control of all aspects of their lives. A woman's sexuality was a man's to explore or exploit as he saw fit. The ultimate power that the father could exert over the women in his life resulted in a deep-seated fear of incest, a theme that we see often in gothic novels. In The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole the scene in which Manfred confesses his desire to marry Isabella and have sexual relations with her is very incest-like:
I desired you once before, said Manfred angrily, not to name that woman; from this hour she must be a stranger to you, as she must be to me: -- in short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son I offer you myself. -- Heavens! cried Isabella, waking from her delusion, what do I hear! you, my lord! You! My father in law! the father of Conrad! (23)
In this passage Manfred's transgression of social boundaries, moving so rapidly from Isabella's guardian and future father in law to a prospective lover, makes this scene appear very incestuous in intent. Another transgression of social boundaries that borders on incestuous occurs in The Monk when Ambrosio, after Elvira's murder, behaves as a religious guardian and then...