Lilith Rising: American Gothic Fiction And The Evolution Of The Female Hero In Sarah Wood's Julia And The Illuminated Baron, E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand, And Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The construction and gendered identity of the female hero has long been a pressing concern of feminist criticism. A female hero capable of sustaining a role as a central protagonist in terms of complexity of character and credibility of action is a character who has evolved in literature over the last two centuries. While many discussions of the female hero have centered around the sentimental heroine within domestic space, more attention is due the unique, and one might argue radical, evolution of the female heroine, specifically in Gothic texts. My thesis considers the role of the central female character in such works as Sarah Wood's eighteenth-century novel Julia, E.D.E.N Southworth's nineteenth-century work The Hidden Hand and Joss Whedon's popular modern drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I examine a pattern of gradually increasing strength and assertive agency that emerges from the sentimental heroine of the 1800s to the action heroine of the modern era and that is linked at every stage with a conscious and deliberate femininity. By tracing the gradual development and increasing credibility of the agency of female characters, I identify the roots of such modern heroines as Buffy in preceding literary works which led not to a female version of the masculine hero but rather to a distinctly feminine heroic protagonist. My thesis argues that the development of the strong, self-reliant and yet decidedly feminine heroine observed in Whedon's Buffy has direct antecedents in previous works and that an understanding of those works can inform our reading and critical understanding of modern popular culture as well as providing insight into the way femininity is constructed and maintained within these heroic figures. Further, I demonstrate how the Gothic genre of all three texts facilitates the progression and unconventionality of the female heroine by placing her into an ill-defined and often transgressive space of possibility, the clearest instance of which is the haunting/graveyard scenes which occur in all three of the works that this thesis examines. In essence, the Gothic genre creates opportunities for the heroine to be heroic where such opportunities might not exist in other literary genres, both providing the impetus for heroism and a permissive sense of urgency which facilitates the maintenance of femininity in these characters by providing an outside justification for their physical agency. In a thorough exploration of the interrelation between the Gothic setting and feminine gender roles, my thesis argues that the Gothic offers a distinct and complex female archetype very different from female protagonists of action found elsewhere, an archetype that builds upon the gender performance ideas of Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam yet functions in a unique fashion to carefully maintain rather than defy normative femininity.