Review: Women and Domestic Space in Contemporary Gothic Narratives: The House as Subject

Posted by Donna Mitchell on November 19, 2015 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Women and Domestic Space in Contemporary Gothic Narratives: The House as Subject.

Andrew Hock Soon Ng

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

ISBN: 978-1-137-53681-5

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

Hock Soon Ng approaches the subject of the house in Gothic narratives with two intentions; he wishes firstly, to identify and expose the intimate link between the text’s female subject and the house, and secondly, to explore how this link’s complex dimension indirectly reveals the ambiguity that characterises the latter. Concentrating on the interiority of the house that not only makes it a home but also sets it apart from other architectural space, he considers how domestic space can be viewed as an experience borne of its occupant’s conscious and unconscious desires. Following this logic, he divides his chapters into the five unconscious constituents that specifically formulate his study: housing treachery, housing the unspeakable, housing secret selves, housing melancholia, and housing redemption. His choice of theory and texts make up an eclectic mix that includes Angela Carter’s novels, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Valerie Martin and Toni Morrison’s slave narratives as well as supernatural and psychological horror movies The Exorcist, Repulsion, The Others, and The Orphanage, while his theoretical framework borrows from literature, architecture, cultural studies, gender studies and philosophy.

Women and Domestic Space

Relating theories postulated by Foucault, Wigley and Colomina to Angela Carter’s novels, Hock Soon Ng investigates how the domestic interior can be read as either a theater box that turns its occupants into actors and abject bodies who must execute the correct performativity for their gender at all times or as a canvas that reflects his/her unconscious desires. Spatial theories are applied to the text‘s unification of Uncle Philip’s ego and house, and are also used to examine the heterotopic spaces of the toy shop’s puppet stage and the two gardens in addition to the ‘other space’ of the mirror in The Magic Toyshop. They are also used to examine the hypermasculine space of Buzz’s room in Love as well as the contrast between the initial whiteness of the walls and the minimalistic interior of Lee’s house and the later appearance of grotesque drawings and clutter that express Annabel’s desire to incorporate space into her identity.

The second chapter begins with a dissection of Kuntze’s spatial theory which identifies three distinct and related qualities of virtuality, secrecy, and monstrosity, which are inherent in certain architecture whose power lies in its seeming reification of an “alien and prohibitive order alongside the normative” (Kuntze: 28). Two contemporary slave narratives form the textual basis of this chapter as both novels feature a house as the central motif and illustrate its significance as a space that at once extends from, and exceeds, its occupant’s unconscious. Hock Soon Ng also breaks down the various aspects of the middle-class, paranoiac plantation home in Valerie Martin’s Property to explore its house’s classification as both a locus of power and an interiority that is intrinsically coded by gender due to the introduction of masculine and feminine rooms in homes of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. From there his discussion moves onto the property of 124 Bluestone in Toni Morrison’s Beloved which encompasses a pastness and entrapment that refuse to set Sethe and Beloved free. He identifies how the novel establishes the house as a spatial location for trauma and the character of Beloved as a personification of the (haunted) house itself. A particularly interesting perspective of this chapter is his consideration of the effects of slavery on the slave owners in addition to the trauma suffered by their victims.

At this point, the study moves onto the horror genre of filmic texts consisting of either supernatural or psychological subject matter. Hock Soon Ng begins this section by noting the extreme gender bias of horror movies during the seventies and early eighties which narrowly categorized women in oppositional terms as either victims or threats, and sometimes both. He defines the houses in which these female characters dwell as being the catalyst for its subject’s psychodrama. Bedroom space is the focus of much of his discussion of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist as he builds upon Gothic critic Barbara Creed’s reading of Regan’s possession as a metaphorization of her homoerotic desire for her mother. He does so by examining the camera techniques used in presentation of bedroom scenes that depict her loss of control and that identify the bedroom as a dual site for horror and of horror. Architectural theory and psychoanalysis are also used to analyse the spatial disturbance in these movies, specifically Lacan’s extimate model and Deleuze’s notion of the pli (folding sites), which are applied to Regan and Carol’s psychological downfall and how their private living space is affected by it. This theoretical concept is literally depicted in the deterioration of the apartment setting in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which imitates Carol’s diminishing mental state. Particular attention is given to the film’s famous ‘Ames Room’ scene, which relies on a series of camera angles to project a visual distortion that reflects Carol’s state of mind. The final part of this chapter considers the paradox that characterises the relationship between private property and ownership in the (post)modern century, and how this development has subsequently reduced the value of things to their pure functionality.

The focus of the fourth chapter is on the connection between haunting, mourning, and architecture, and uses a theoretical framework of Abraham and Torok’s notion of cryptophore (or encryption) and Marin’s concept of utopia to examine the house’s role as an alter-ego or ally in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and Joan A. Bayona’s The Orphanage. The house’s function as both a melancholic object and a Gothic double, specifically Grace’s existential double, is read in relation to the Freudian theory of melancholia and how it is used to construct and insert trauma into the film’s narrative. The existence of an ‘elsewhere’ within the house that allows the main characters to remain there after death is explored towards the end of this section. Additionally, Hock Soon Ng discusses the domestic space’s existence as a purgatory or an artificial Unconscious extending from, but not part of, Grace’s ego in The Others, or as a place of light or a version of utopia in The Orphanage, and how its nature is ultimately determined by the bad/dangerous and good mothers who enter it.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home form the textual basis of the conclusion, which explores the house’s ability to act as a support for the depressed protagonist on one hand and as an aid for his/her resolution with the past on the other hand. Hock Soon Ng considers Joy’s perception of her home as a reflection of her body image, her later transformation into ‘a type of thing’ made up separate pieces, and the house’s promotion of a subject/space dialectical relationship that witnesses her eventual restoration. The final section explores the failure of the house to function as a home in tragicomic Fun Home. Bechdel’s autobiographical account of the isolation she encountered in her family home is analysed in relation to Bahloul’s mediation on the link between lived space and memory. In his closing paragraph, Hock Soon Ng claims that the underlying property of lived space in each of these texts is ambiguity, as neither the house nor our dialectical relationship with it can be presumed. Ultimately, his study offers a careful and thorough exploration of his definition of the house’s function as both protection for its occupants as they grow, and a reflection of certain facets of their subjectivity, and finally, how the duality of this function explains the ability of the house to be depicted as either negative/antagonistic in some Gothic texts or positive/supportive in other Gothic texts.

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