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Ambiguous Agency: The Construction of Femininity in the Gothic Writing of Burney, Radcliffe, Brontë, and Austen


This dissertation examines the configuration of feminine subjectivity under the mask of proper femininity in the Female Gothic genre and focuses primarily on the works of Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Brontë, and Jane Austen. By investigating the figure of the proper lady in the novels by these women writers, I argue that, despite the women writer’s conformity to the patriarchal demands of proper femininity, they create an ambiguous discourse through their employment of gothic tropes, thereby producing a discourse of resistance that undermines their conservative stances. The ambiguity enabled by the Gothic mode allows them to create a discursive site for the construction of female agency under the mask of the proper lady. Arguing that these women writers negotiate their ideological positions through such performative strategies in response to the rigid control of patriarchy, I provide a feminist account that recognizes a form of agency that I call “ambiguous” as a by-product of the particular historical period. While performative and gender theories provide a theoretical framework for my study, my attention to textual nuances allows me to uncover the masked discourses underneath the surface texts of normative femininity. Chapter one investigates the construction of gender through the ambiguity of the mask in Burney’s The Wanderer. Chapter two examines the ambiguities of the veil in producing female agency in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Chapter three presents the figure of the ghost as a figure of ambiguity that enables the burgeoning of female subjectivity in Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Chapter four discusses Austen’s irony as a figure of mask and its performative function in Northanger Abby. By showing how my key writers all manage to embed an ambiguous discourse in their narratives through the Gothic mode, I demonstrate that the feminist aspect of the Female Gothic genre lies in the ambiguous discourse present in women’s writing, and that such ambiguity enables the burgeoning of female agency, albeit ambiguously, out of the masquerade of the proper lady.

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