The African or a person with African blood in a Gothic tale is used as a locus for the creation of terror. The authors of the Gothic Archive’s collection represent a particularly Eurocentric perspective, by which Africans are presumed to have certain stereotypical racial commonalities. These presumptions are then employed in the Gothic mode to reinforce the colonial view of the African as a non-European “other”. While Restoration and Romantic novels presented ‘tamed’ African characters (as in Robinson Crusoe’s Friday or Belinda’s Juba), the Gothic imagined the African who remains ‘untamed’ or who cannot be tamed in spirit. By creating monster-like or phantom-like African characters across multiple texts and periods, H.L. Malchow has written that Gothic literature participated in a broader “racial gothic discourse that employed certain striking metaphoric images to filter and give meaning to a flood of experience and information from abroad” (2–3).
Bertha in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is an example of an African-descended figure who cannot be tamed, and is portrayed as a monster in the Gothic mode. After she appears like a ghost in the middle of the night, Bertha is described by Jane as follows:
“Fearful and ghastly to me—oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!” … “This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?” … “Of the foul German spectre — the Vampyre.” (Brontë Chapter 25)
The use of words like ‘savage’ and ‘black’ and animalistic imagery to describe Bertha signals for readers that this story explores a deeper set of anxieties beyond Bertha’s madness. The coded evidence of her African origins make her much more frightening for Jane. Considering the Gothic investment in xenophobia, it is unsurprising that the fearfulness of Bertha as an “other” is used to reinforce Rochester’s position as the master of his estate, and ultimately it is Bertha’s death that allows Rochester a proper romantic ending. As the Gothic made its way into the Penny Dreadfuls and Southern Gothic, the untamable African (or person of African descent) continued to be used to scare predominantly Caucasian readers and reinforce existing hegemonic systems.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Barish, Ali. “Liquored up “wid de sperrits”: Gothic Figures of Black Men in White Boys’ Adventure Stories” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 6, 2011. Web.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. (1847). Project Gutenberg. Web.
Malchow, H. L. Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996. Print.
Fatal Jealousy; or, Blood Will Have Blood! Containing the History of Count Almagro and Duke Alphonso; Their Combat in the Dreadful Tournament and the Death of the Beautiful Bellarmine, Through the Artifice of Sophronia, Her Rival, Unknown