Sarah Parker


This paper discusses the use of the Gothic genre in two ‘lesbian’ novels: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936) and Affinity by Sarah Waters (1999). The Gothic, I argue, is employed and manipulated in order to counter the repressive effects of ‘lesbian panic’, evident in much women’s fiction (an idea posited by Patricia Smith in Lesbian Panic, 1997).

I begin by constructing a framework for my argument from the disparate yet related scholarship of several theorists, including Terry Castle, Eve Sedgwick, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gayle Rubin. My argument hinges on the claim that lesbianism threatens cultural order – based upon male homosocial relationships and the reciprocal exchange of women – in a similar way to incest. Therefore, lesbianism is subject to extreme repression, rendered shady and invisible in history and literature. Following this theoretical introduction, I argue that the Gothic genre – that twilight realm of unconscious fantasies and forbidden desires – can be used as a tool for subverting the repressive system that keeps lesbianism in its place, bringing its silence into articulation. Through the self-conscious use of Gothic tropes in Nightwood and Affinity, Djuna Barnes and Sarah Waters write the lesbian back into tangible existence, ‘repossessing’ the spectre of the lesbian towards their own emancipating ends. In particular, the incest taboo and the love triangle are twisted into new shapes in these novels, so that all that Western culture designates as ‘abject’ becomes eerily illuminated by the Gothic’s unflinching perspective.

Finally, I discuss the options available when concluding a lesbian novel and the effects of genre on narrative outcome: Is a happy ending possible in a realist lesbian novel? Could the Gothic genre hold the key to unravelling the silence of lesbian panic? My conclusion leaves discussion open to other perspectives, arguments, and, of course, to further scholarship.

Author Biography

Sarah Parker is a former student of Exeter University, where she completed this essay under the supervision of Margaretta Jolly. She has since undertaken a Masters degree in Sexual Dissidence in Literature and Culture at the University of Sussex, and is due to commence a PhD at Birmingham University in 2008.