The term ‘gypsy’ is a misnomer dating back to the sixteenth century, when the English somehow conceived the idea that these strangers had come from Egypt (hence the ‘gyp’ in ‘gypsy’). The word was used as a pejorative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a contemptuous term for a woman of questionable integrity. Since the group refers to themselves as the Roma, Romany, or Romani, this entry will adopt those terms to avoid any possible negative connotations.
The Romani have a very complicated set of identities which have been a prickly topic of debate among academics in the literary community and in other fields. Academics have yet to conclusively determine whether the Romani should be termed an ‘ethnic group’ or a ‘race’, and many governments haven’t decided whether they should be treated as a cultural group or a sociological problem. There are seven distinct linguistic groups in the Romani language, which reveals the insularity of smaller units, and also the problem of attempting to address them as a single cultural group. They are also somewhat difficult to address along with other immigrant groups, because unlike many émigrés, the Romani are strongly characterized by their ability to resist assimilation by dominant cultures. Whether they chose to resist because they preferred to maintain their lifestyle, or whether they were rejected by their host nations is debatable, however.
When literary scholars want to study the way the Romani have been portrayed in literature, the situation becomes a little simpler, as there are basically two stereotypical ‘gypsies’, which are used in some form again and again. The first is the romantic stereotype, which presents the ‘gypsy’ as an attractive, exotically colorful group exemplifying the simple joy of a wandering life in the beauty of nature. Authors like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Reade used these romantic figures as mysterious characters or in minor romantic plots. In these cases, the ‘gypsy’ tends to be a benign character due to his or her avoidance of the complexities of English society. The romantic stereotype is repeated in chapbooks and penny dreadfuls, operas, children’s literature, visual art, and music. These descriptions often operated to promote the notion of the ‘gypsies’ as a distinct race with a singular set of characteristics; the romantic Romani is always dark, agile, and handsome, with a wild temperament ill-suited to the rules of English society. This romanticized picture of Romani life isn’t terribly truthful; in fact the group was persecuted, outcast or outlawed altogether in many European countries. Their life on the fringes of the bustling economies around them was probably much more difficult than romantic portrayal suggests.
The second stereotype of the ‘gypsy’, which was propagated in folklore, and which appears most often in the Gothic, was the wicked character with the ability to bestow curses, steal things (and children), and see the future. This stereotype was likely reinforced by the Romani practice of fortune-telling to earn money. In the Gothic, novelists sometimes use ‘gypsy’ characters as vehicles for foreshadowing by giving them the true gift of foresight. For example, in the first chapter of MG Lewis’ The Monk, innocent Antonia sees a ‘gypsy’ dancing on the street, and asks her aunt if she is mad. Leonella responds: “Mad? Not She, Child; She is only wicked. She is a Gypsy, a sort of Vagabond, whose sole occupation is to run about the country telling lyes, and pilfering from those who come by their money honestly. Out upon such Vermin! If I were King of Spain, every one of them should be burnt alive who was found in my dominions after the next three weeks.” Regardless of this injunction, Antonia allows her palm to be read, and the resulting prediction accurately forecasts her doom. The child-stealing version of the ‘gypsy’ stereotype is featured in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Sister Gudule accuses Esmerelda of being child thief. Gudule also thinks her daughter Agnes was abducted and eaten by ‘gypsies’.
According to Katie Trumpener, both stereotypes have fed into a ‘process of literarization’ which has placed the Romani in a difficult position at the center of an increasingly powerful pattern of Western symbolism. The Romani, who were forbidden to attend school, remained almost entirely illiterate, and therefore lacked a voice with which to proclaim their own identities and histories. Since in literature they have been cast as a race to be romanticized and demonized, their actual history has been obscured. Trumpener highlights the dangers of this ‘literarization’ of the Romani with an example from World War II, during which the Nazi secret police justified their persecution of the Romani by citing Schiller’s depiction of them. Scholars of the Gothic would be well advised to investigate whether the ‘gypsy’ character in a novel or chapbook is treated as a Saidian ‘other’, even though they might be long-term residents of the setting, and may be described in romantic terms.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Bardi, Abby. "The Gypsy As Trope In Victorian And Modern British Literature." Romani Studies 16.1 (2006): 31-42. Humanities International Complete. Web. 5 June 2015.
‘Gipsy.’ Oxford English Dictionary. Online.
Hancock, Ian. “The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature. 11(1):47-59. 1987.
Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500–2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-men to the ethnic Romany. London: Routledge, 2004.
Trumpener, Katie. The time of the Gypsies. Critical Inquiry 18: 843–84. 1992. Web.