Female Gothic, Post-Colonialism, and The Icarus Girl

Posted by Madelyn Schoonover on April 01, 2016 in Madelyn Schoonover tagged with , , , , ,


Since the Whig politician Horace Walpole first penned The Castle of Otranto in 1764, Gothic authors have been objecting to rigid social and political conventions and structures, questioning authority in its sundry forms from tyrannical patriarch to power-hungry Prioress. In stories of terror and intrigue such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), readers enter an uncanny literary universe of the hyperreal; places where ghosts of past traumas are literal and rationality will not always save the heroes. As Andrew Smith and William Hughes note, the Gothic is a “celebration of the irrational, the outlawed and the socially and culturally dispossessed”, a primary function of which is to undermine “post-enlightenment notions of rationality” (1). The Enlightenment model for rationality that the Gothic seems most preoccupied with subverting is the Cartesian subject.

The Cartesian subject, much like the Aristotelian “line of good” and “line of evil”, is defined by absolute binaries (Williams 18 – 19). On one side of the binary lies the morally/socially/politically acceptable term according to the Cartesian logic of “I think, therefore I am”. On the opposite side lies the Other which the subject “is dependent on excluding in order to determine its own position” (Smith and Hughes 2). Common examples of the Cartesian subject versus the Other can be seen in binaries such as male/female, rational/irrational, present/past, civilized/savage, industrialized/nature-based, etc. Furthermore, many of these dichotomies – particularly male/female, civilized/savage, present/past – also define themes present in postcolonial fiction. Sam Durrant posits that postcolonial literature’s “principal task is to engender a consciousness of the unjust foundations of the present to open up the possibility of a just future” (1). The unjust foundations Durrant refers to arise from the same types of absolute dichotomies inherent in the Cartesian subject. Because the colonial program relied so heavily on separating the rational industrial white male from the irrational unindustrialized colonized population in order to assume authority, readings attuned to the the Cartesian binary, and to its origins, and political and imperial manipulations, offer a means through which to interrogate colonization and its aftereffects in the present day.

In her book Imperial Leather (1995), Anne McClintock quotes nineteenth-century historian and essayist J.A. Froude, who urged younger sons disenfranchised by primogeniture laws to cash in on a thriving 1870’s Empire: “Spread out there and everywhere. Take possession of the boundless inheritance that is waiting for you” (238). This siren call of a European birthright, waiting paradoxically in a foreign land, emphasized the right of the European male to suppress anyone or thing deemed inferior within post-Enlightenment ideology. In order to rationalize this inherent power, McClintock argues that colonizers imposed Europe’s patriarchal family structure onto the colonized society. The traditional European model situated the father as head of the family, mother as a secondary authority whose power stemmed from patriarchal approval, children as powerless and naïve, and animals as completely powerless. Clearly, the patriarchal family in its European form has overtones of gender suppression to begin with. In the colonized model, however, the gender oppression inherent in the colonial program becomes even more evident.

According to McClintock, the colonized Family of Man is noticeably illuminated by the male characters in Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines: “Quartermain’s party consists of three white gentlemen; a Zulu ‘gentleman’ […] who nevertheless lags in development […] behind the whites; three Zulu ‘boys,’ still in a state of native ‘childhood’ in relation to the whites; and the racially degenerate ‘Hottentot,’ Ventvogel” (241 – 242). Here the reorganization of the European patriarchal family becomes clear in its gendered colonial program. At the head of the family in the father role is the white colonizing male who, regardless of socioeconomic status in Europe, assumes power over the colonized population. The Zulu gentleman is placed in the role of the female: inferior to the white colonizer, but superior to less Europeanized indigenous peoples, such as the adolescent Zulu boys, who fulfill the role of the child, and the “Hottentot” who, in his complete Otherness, assumes the role of the animal. Haggard’s novel thus reflects what McClintock sees as the material organization of society under colonial power: the white Family of Man was very much a real construction, giving the white male colonizing patriarch “the authority to inaugurate what they believe will be a subservient black monarch, on terms favorable to the colonial state” (McClintock 249). Yet there is an obvious omission from this societal structure. In the white Family of Man the colonized female is entirely written out of the colonial program and of its power structures.

Situated, by virtue of both her gender and her race, on the “Other” side of the Cartesian subject binary, the colonized female lacks a voice. In a society that labels femaleness synonymous with an irrationality and primordialism that must be abjected to assure patriarchal order, the question then remains, how does the modern postcolonial female find power? The answer, I argue, is in postcolonial Gothic narratives such as Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl (2005). By creating a link between authorship and power, Gilbert and Gubar emphasize female authorship as an essential path to reclaiming feminine power. Through authorship, Gilbert and Gubar argue that women can assert an “invincible sense of her own autonomy […] the authority of her own experience” (16). European female Gothic fiction such as Frankenstein (1818/1831) and Jane Eyre (1847) continually work to disrupt a tyrannical patriarchal society that enforces gender dichotomies and declares females as less-than-human. In so doing, the female Gothic tradition becomes synonymous with radical female empowerment. Similarly, Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl appropriates and localizes Gothic tropes to a Nigerian landscape to disrupt a harmful patriarchal system not only inherent in European society, colonization, and colonial memory, but also in the precolonized Nigerian patriarchal history.

In his essay “Arundhati Roy and the House of History”, David Punter states that a primary concern of Gothic fiction is “the impossibility of escape from history, with the recurrent sense […] that the past can never be left behind, that it will reappear and exact a necessary price” (193). This idea of inevitable, traumatic haunting is evident in TillyTilly’s haunting of Oyeyemi’s protagonist, the half-Nigerian half-English Jessamy Harrison. Throughout the novel, Jessamy struggles to find a cohesive self while torn between her two parent cultures, neither of which seem particularly nurturing. Utilizing such classic Gothic tropes as doubling, monstrosity, and dream-state, Oyeyemi provides a Gothic space in which her characters can interrogate colonial memory and a traumatic history of gender oppression which is both pre and postcolonial. However, these tropes are articulated in a purposely “un-English” way, subverting the traditional English female Gothic into a new female English-Nigerian Gothic tradition that concurrently embraces the postcolonial gender discourse left unexplored by traditional Early British Gothic.

Yet the biggest threat by the end of the novel is not the colonizing English nation, but Jessamy’s monstrous, Nigerian double TillyTilly, who Jessamy must battle for her very body. Although some critics have read Jessamy’s eventual repossession of her own body as a reinforcement of the Cartesian subject over the colonized Other I would argue this is not the case. In my reading, by the end of the novel, Jessamy is able to find a hybrid identity – female, Nigerian, and English. This hybrid existence is threatened by TillyTilly, who comes to represent a traumatic postcolonial history existing in an endless unhealthy cycle of “us against them”, where “us” means Jessamy and TillyTilly and “them” means everyone else. In a postcolonial society, finding a “whole” Nigerian identity is impossible, and with TillyTilly’s separatist agenda, Jessamy could not exist in the hybrid world she needs to as a child of both English and Nigerian heritage. As a result, Jessamy must overcome the harmful rhetoric of both TillyTilly and a colonizing society that has Othered her in order to reclaim her hybrid selfhood. These themes of identity, doubling, monstrosity, and hybridity will be explored in the following sections as I unpack how The Icarus Girl exists as a fusion of female Gothic and postcolonial traditions, breaking down the boundaries imposed by colonization and instating its own new identity.


Works Cited

Durrant, Sam. Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J.M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. PDF e-book.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd Ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

Layla, Joanna. Untitled. N.d. Illustration Mock-ups for The Icarus Girl by Helena Oyeyemi, Com. Joanna Layla Illustrator. WordPress. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://joannalayla.com/portfolio/bookcover/>.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995. PDF e-book.

Punter, David. “Arunhati Roy and the House of History.” Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. Eds. Andrew Smith and William Hughes. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. 192 – 207. PDF e-book.

Smith, Andrew and William Hughes. Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. PDF e-book.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. PDF e-book.

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