Gothic Tropes: Absent Mothers—A Mother’s Day Post

As many of you know, Mother’s Day in the United States is this upcoming Sunday. (If you didn’t know, there’s still plenty of time to buy a card!) I wanted to do a post about mothers in Gothic lit, but I realized…there aren’t many. One of the most prolific tropes of the Gothic genre is the absence of mothers.

Shout out to my awesome mom, who let me goth her up for Halloween!
Shout out to my awesome mom, who let me goth her up for Halloween this year!

The archetypal Gothic heroine is an orphan—if not missing both parents, at least missing a mother. This trope is already clearly established in the first major Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. In Otranto, the heroine Isabella is assumed to be an orphan, although her father Frederic is revealed to be alive toward the end of the novel. Her lack of parents makes Isabella vulnerable to the whims of Manfred who decides that he wants to put his wife aside marry Isabella himself after his son dies without accomplishing the task. Isabella spends the rest of the novel trying to escape him.

Female writers were no less given to this anti-mother trope. The inimitable Ann Radcliffe makes use of it in her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here, the protagonist Emily is without a mother from the beginning, although she is close to her father until he dies early in the novel. Once orphaned, she becomes the ward of her cruel aunt who allows the evil Montoni to take charge of Udolpho and imprison Emily. In another of Radcliffe’s novels, The Romance of the Forrest, Adeline also lacks a mother and has a father who dies part-way through. This pattern is reversed in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, whose protagonist Antonia has no father at the start of the novel, but is close to her mother, Elvira, until she is murdered by the evil monk while protecting Antonia. Another type of reversal happens in Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance. In this story, Julia has long believed her mother to be dead, but when fleeing from a forced marriage discovers that Louisa has actually been imprisoned in the castle’s ruins by her cruel husband. Louisa is one of the few mothers to survive a Gothic novel and get a happy ending.

Why are mothers so often absent from Gothic literature? If you google this issue, you will find dozens of scholarly articles examining the Freudian motivations for this trope. But I don’t think you need to read Oedipal analogies into every Gothic novel in order to understand why most of these heroines wind up without the comfort and protection of a mother. Most of the tropes in these works of Gothic literature emerged from the fears and anxieties of the societies in which they were created, and the disruption of the traditional family unit has often been viewed as threatening. Moreover, the absence of a mother also removes the safety of the female domestic sphere and leaves the heroine vulnerable in a realm dominated by men. Plus, it’s a very convenient plot device for isolating your protagonist and indulging in a morose atmosphere of loneliness.

Are there any Gothic mothers I’ve overlooked? Are you sharing a nice gothic read with your mom on Sunday? Let me know in the comments!

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