It is very difficult to pinpoint strong cultural referents for androgyny as it is connected to the Gothic mode, because the family of Gothic tales spans many periods of time, classes, and locales, and in all three categories, views on androgyny, masculinity, and femininity have shifted. At some points in the history of Gothic literature, sexuality and gender were unspeakable subjects, particularly if there was a mere suggestion of deviation from the hetero-norm. During the Romantic period of poetry and prose, authors routinely added and subtracted masculine and feminine traits from characters to seek an elusive androgynous ideal; but in the end this search went out of vogue when the Victorian notions of strict and stifling gender roles forced those masculine and feminine traits back into their original containers. Definitions of which traits are masculine, feminine, and neither are also constantly in flux, so any modern reader of an earlier text should consider and attempt to discern attitudes contextualizing that particular text.
Androgyny took on a prominent place in describing the sexuality of characters in fin de siêcle Gothic literature. In a biological context, being androgynous suggests a combination of male and female sexual organs and characteristics. In Gothic literature, to be androgynous is to be neither specifically masculine nor feminine thus creating an amorphous character with an ambiguous sexual orientation. Some authors combine the biological and social definitions of androgyny in the characterization of their characters. Androgynous behavior is exhibited in marginalized characters such as the foreign other and females to mirror cultural and sexual anxieties in this period of enormous social turbulence. Androgyny is a fin de siêcle symptom exemplifying the Victorians’ frustration, confusion and resentment towards the strict demarcation of gender roles according to outward 'gendered' features. Gothic literature thus uses the site of androgyny to contest gender conventions and experiment with mutable forms of sexuality. In Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker describes Mina Harker as a motherly female with a “woman’s heart” who also has a “man’s brain.” Androgyny is also manifested in the hyper-masculine Dracula who is somehow hyper-feminine at the same time. He is at once the pursuer of virginal females and the pursued by a band of masculine men. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is feminized with his “dwarfish” stature. Androgyny can then be seen as a projection of various anxieties in the fin de siêcle Victorian period. This is due to the emergence of the New Woman, fall of the family and the questioning of assumptions of being either man or woman in the Victorian society.
In some cases, the earlier Gothic novels also involve instances of androgyny which are signaled by cross-dressing. By changing their outward appearance and behavior, characters are able to exhibit qualities of masculinity and femininity for purposes of crossing another type of boundary. In Matthew Lewis' The Monk, for example, Matilda adopts this temporary type of androgyny to cross the boundary into the male-only monastery environment. Her androgynous costume is soon discarded, but it is clear from her behavior that she maintains many conventionally masculine characteristics in addition to her feminine ones throughout the novel.
Courtesy of Metta Yang, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: sexuality
Hoeveler, Diane. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. e-Publications@Marquette, 1998. Print.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Romantic Androgyny : The Women within. University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990. Print.
Eliza, or the Unhappy Nun: Exemplifying the Unlimited Tyranny Exercised by the Abbots and Abbesses Over the Ill-Fated Victims of Their Malice in the Gloomy Recesses of a Convent. Including the Adventures of Clementina, or The Constant Lovers, a True and Affecting Tale., Unknown