A'alaa AlMajnouni

Dickens’ Estella and Brontë‘s Catharine and the Evil Representation of Victorian Femme Fatale as an Aspect of Gothicism

In My Research Papers & Essays on February 13, 2011 at 8:33 am



This paper seeks to apply the characteristic of ‘Femme Fatale’ as an aspect of Gothic Fiction on Victorian female characters, whom rarely had been labeled as gothic women. The Femme Fatale is known for her mysterious and seductive personality that ensures her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, however this often led them to tragic death or forsakenness as soon as they satisfy her egoism! So far her ability to mesmerize her men is indicated throughout history as supernatural power, some books referred to her as witch and vampire and others as monstrous creature or even a demon. Hitherto it was away before the mid-eighteenth century, the Femme Fatale personality had developed into a new conception to persevere the demands used by novelist and intellectuals in exposing the Victorian socioeconomics environment. Besides, the paper studies the twisted qualities of Femme fatale from a blood-spattered seductive woman towards a charming educated lady who disobeys authority of patriarchal man’s stream in Great England. In quotations the paper tries to Gothicize certain characters ‘Estella Havisham’ in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860) and the character of ‘Catherine Earnshaw’ in the novel of Wuthering Heights (1847).


Although several studies have appeared over the last decade or so, on female characters of Victorian fiction, however, minority has fully referred to the relationship to some of them as gothic women. Thus, this research paper concerns about the aspect of analyzing the ‘evil’ representations by two different heroines ‘Estella Havisham’ and ‘Catherine Earnshaw’ as females whom been investigated within as gothic women of nineteenth-century fiction. Both characters demonetarized of what distinctively called a ‘Femme Fatal’ in types of behavior during the modern revival of its conception. Besides, this research paper examines the dissimilar production throughout the novels fabrication by each novelist individually, where they produced their socio-cultural environment through the quality of women’s Fatalism. Together Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë had exemplified a new adjustment over their protagonists to represent new classifications in the novels of Great Expectations (1860) and Wuthering Heights (1847) Dickens, as a male presenter of ‘Estella’s’ fatalism opposed to Bronte as the womanish presentation of ‘Catharine’. Hence, the assumption of their novels, had realistically represented social norms and great deal of Victorianism, moreover women had been accurately portrayed in the subordinate social position that norms and mores had relegated them forwards by the femme fatale qualities.

Review of the Literature

Both of Harmon and Holman defined the word ‘Gothic’ in their book The Handbook to Literature, to its various referents by each contextual usage. The term Gothic refers (1) In history as a language, to Goth specification of Germanic tribes all through ancient times, then the meaning was broadened to mean Teutonic[1] and later medieval[2] (2) In architecture its modern referent to the art of medievalism movement which portrays the revival of its constructions (3) In Literature, fundamentally refers to a genre[3] in which horror and romance are main elements (241-42).

In another hand, Gothic fiction is Largely approved as the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s publication of The Castle of Otranto (1764) which remains the perfect source of Gothic conventions, and the piece that influencing writers up to the present day. Mostly Walpole’s novel contains supernatural incidences, huge bleak castles, and complicated characters with emotional sublimity bring in all the familiar “Gothic trappings” of tradition (Snodgrass 11). As Elizabeth MacAndrew noted;

…The first work in a conventional genre not itself conventional, but an innovative break from the past, subtitling his work ‘A Gothic Tale,’ Walpole consciously labeled his writing to use a term still associated at the time with barbarism[4] and the ‘Dark Ages’.  (275)

Progressively Gothic fiction expanded to cover diverse portions, where its effect depends thoroughly on “pleasing sort of terror, an extension of essentially Romantic literary pleasures with prominent features including psychological and physical fear, mystery, supernatural elements” (Snodgrass 19). Yet, the aspect of deadly-woman or a ‘Femme Fatale’ is earliest term recorded in the English language -borrowed from French- in 1912.

A modern study done to clarify that the expression ‘fatale’ is etymologically linked to ‘fate’, and the Fates are three ancient goddesses who regulate birth, life, change and regeneration- the cycle of the existence. Thus universally, the term femme fatale refers to a popular creation of the Fates. Except that patriarchal judgments grouped woman into two; “good girls” are associated with niceness and toothlessnessty whereas a “bad girl” or femme fatal is always a dangerous abyss, the black hole and the one that has some bite. In short, the femme fatal represents as outlawed form of female divinity, influence, brilliance, sexual agency, independence, vengeance and death-power (Caput 328-29).

Part One: Femme Fatale and Reasons behind Revival

English literature reached its peek by the age of Victoria; fiction was an abundant felid for authors and thinkers to inscribed. Thus due the period many themes are exposed with many reasons to explain why one of Gothic aspects the ‘Femme Fatal’ had attracted and still so much interest among the readers. Assumingly, it’s the new femme fatale unique characteristic that differs from the fixed portrayals dangerous gothic woman of the old medieval themes, whom is easily figured out and categorized!

Due the modern revival, Victorian Fatal Females gained the obscurity of socioeconomic class by violating the boundaries of law boldly, mockingly, and rebelliously. Wherever these actions were an extreme prohibition towards the patriarchic England (Hedgecock xviii). Yet again the personality spins on the Victorian femme fatale is unlike the old concept of martyred fallen woman, however she scars or threats but she never wearies the reader by the curiosity to unravel her mystery nor to have power over her. Hence a predictable conclusion the femme fatale will always be rewarded with tragic endings or short living victory, as reasons for her deceitful conspiracy and rubbing benefits of a wealthy man who was in love with her and whom she arrogantly destroyed (Hedgecock 1-3).

Over again the mid-nineteenth-centaury fatalistic women are different from old historical figures; her feminine and incurable nature does not always bear a sexuality, which is obviously rapacious; she instead represents more importantly some social and cultural changes, by the myriad problems of Victorian society. Subsequently the femme fatale of the eighteenth-century is introduced as; middle class educated woman, who enters mainstreams of Victorian culture without being detected as dangerous or deadly.

At first she needs sort of sneakiness because the necessity of power and suppressive force of patriarchal judgments. Therefore she is young and attractive, so far dangerous with border used to persuasive a blend into society. Until the plot develops, usually other characters reared her as innocence lady for her reticent manners and modest physical appearance (Hedgecock Ch. 1).

Jan Marsh[1] in her book The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood[2] contends that the image of the femme fatale became a crucial figure in the Pre-Raphaelites vocabulary as well as that of the decadents. She says:

…Gazed, fascinated but repelled, at women of a curious frigidity, cold but sensual, erotic but invulnerable.'” and that “‘Their attitudes are piped with a fear of female malevolence, and characteristically they attempt to control this fear by boiling down the variety of the individual experience into the image of a single symbolic figure.  (144)

However, Marsh also recognizes that in this:

…Boiled down” femme fatale, “women are rendered decorative, depersonalized; they become passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama… women are reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies.  (145)

Marsh’s words direct smartly a spotlight to common features of Victorian femme fatale chrematistics; she summed up in lines the universal themes of the all-new woman by the beginning of the late eighteenth-century to the modern world. On the other hand, in the book of the Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: the Danger and the Sexual Threat. Jennifer Hedgecock established persuasively that:

…Being a “femme fatale” was neither caused by nor was a simple reflection of such a woman’s moral failings; it was instead a rejection of their condition of “fallenness” and of their limited economic options—a conscious strategy adopted to secure for themselves the social position and standard of living possessed by comfortable middle-class women.  (11)

Also, Hedgecock explains how the existing social regulations are so circumscribed a woman’s life possibilities that conflicts between those within the reigning social order and those on the margins of it were inevitable:

…Given women’s constrained possibilities and the society’s exclusionary presuppositions about them, donning a respectable disguise to hide one’s manipulative striving for success could conceivably be construed by a Victorian woman to be a rational strategy.”  (13)

Part Two: Estella as a Victorian Femme Fatale

In a period of time, when middle-class women begin organizing more radical feminist movements[3] in his Great Expectations, Charles Dickens reflected this outcome by his creation of Estella’s fatalistic character. Dickens designated her as dangerous as feminine as the new femme fatale materialized due the era of Victoria. The personality of Estella is the literary signpost of the changing roles of woman in the nineteenth-century fiction, and which later foreshadows protestation against society’s treatment of woman.

As a quality of femme fatale, Estella’s portrayal is quite disturbing as her detachment and unemotional self-analysis has resulted in her being described as “unnatural” and “monstrous” (qtd. In Holbrook, 482). In the book of Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels: The Subversion of Domestic Ideology, the ‘She-Dragon’[4] is Ayres’s personal definition over the character of Estella, whish implies Femme fatale characteristics, he declares;

Estella is the exact opposite of an angel-in-the-house. Instead of submissive, she is willful and domineering. Instead of gentle, kind, and tender, she is calculating, malicious, and hard. Instead of reserved, she is acrimonious. Instead of internalizing her suffering, as was expected of a good Victorian woman, she inflicts suffering on men. Instead of using her beauty and her inner qualities of strength to attract men for their own good, she attracts men for her own purpose. This is not to imply that Estella is a healthy, assertive prototype of the nineteenth-century woman. She is, nonetheless, a woman who has been trained to garner agencies of female power and to use them to balance the scales.  (9)

Besides, Dickens’ astounding implication in his novel suggested, to a degree in which an independent like Estella is viewed as a threat to the fabric of Victorian culture. In Great Expectations with, “‘You must know,’ said Estella, condescending to me as a beautiful woman might, ‘that I have no heart- if that has anything to do with my memory.'” (235; ch. 29).  Estella in the quote discloses her incapability of love to Pip or anybody else because she was not taught to love herself at very beginning of her childhood, she justifies her picture of Love, as a prohibited feeling to admit, a public humiliation and an indication of self-weakness. Hence, by emphasizing on the harmful effects of restrain and passivity on woman through Estella’s characterization, lead us to take a look at the complicated roles that woman play due the Victorian society.

Estella in the same way as a lethal woman, and a new revival over the form of femme fatale, is a part of this evolving assertiveness on the part of woman roles. She is as an accurate disturbance out of the damaged reality of her patriarchal society. Seeing that quote of her says; “‘so,’ said Estella, ‘I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.” (356; Ch. 38).

Yet her certifying lines “I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the arguments of my best friends.” (29; Ch. 4). Entails a declaration on her developed state of rebellion dissatisfaction, within her respond to Pip, she presented these unconstrained woman of nineteenth-century whom are breaking both legal and moral laws as they struggle for self-reliance.

In the same way as a nineteenth upper-class lady she is a single and highly educated, and as a femme fatale she has escaped the polar definition of domestic or fallen woman- is a threat to bourgeois ideology in where she threatens to destroy the structure of the family and obscure the definitions assigned to domestic woman (qtd. In Hedgecock, 9). However, Jarmuth argued that Estella marries Drummble in order to gain his wealth and title (173).  Her decision to marry him can only be explained as an overt act of self-destruction. She is cognizant of the fact that he is inferior to her in every way, and she realizes that he will physically abuse her, where her assumption in its place.  As the quote uncovers;

‘For I have seen you give him looks and smiles this very night, such as you never give to- me.’ ‘Do you want me then,’ said Estella, turning suddenly with a fixed and serious, if not angry, look, ‘to deceive and entrap you?’ ‘Do you deceive and entrap him Estella?’ ‘Yes, and many others-all of them but you.’  (307; ch. 38)

During this chit frank dialogue, Pip was questioning Estella, ‘why?’ being a wolf in meek. So far, it reveals Estella’s inner intonation as a femme fatale, who is a bitter manipulative cold woman, in addition to a mocking vindictive towards affectionate feelings such being in love.

Part Three: Catherine Eranshaw as Victorian Femme Fatale

The same approach can be found in Emily Brontë’s depiction of the central heroine of Wuthering Heights.  Catherine Earnshaw, who from her early days is far from being a lady of a natural eminent virtue, is placed evidently through the genealogy of Gothic heroines.

As a feminine presentation, and as a knower of women’s impediments, Emily Brontë constructed her femme fatale, Catherine as a character that cannot be placed in categories of good and evil, but is instead a complex character. This involved complexity demonstrates to audiences that women have the right to be complex and yet very complicated to be defined or categorized. Hence, here comes into sight the first fresh feature of new Victorian femme fatale by a female novelist.

Catharine or Cathy does not follow the stereotypical moral injunction; instead, she is divided into (as well as between) her lovers, and struggles to have them both; she cannot choose one of them, but wants them to co-exist in her life; in Wuthering Heights, “Well, if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend–if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own. That will be a prompt way of finishing all, when I am pushed to extremity!” (107; Ch. 11). This quotation reveals an anti-thesis of a conventional Victorian heroine. Catharine is violent, passionate and not afraid to voice loud her opinions, and this is what the new femme fatal all about. Because, Femme fatal has this obscurity of socioeconomic class which violets the law boundaries, daringly, and rebelliously.

Catherine’s very persona exudes dark desire, as a feature of femme fatality, which was a daring literary step for Bronte to take; it predestined violation where it meant to be a “good” woman. Thus she constantly criticized for not being an ideal to look up to she is manipulative and capricious; “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath..” (74; Ch. 9)

Subsequently, Catharine, shifted in her adulthood, to gain the ability to be cruel and manipulative and yet still be pursued and loved, “Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes…” (22; Ch. 3) and she confuses again in:

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it…Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.  (74;Ch. 9)

Where she flouts society’s definitions of what is morally appropriate by daring to love daring to love two men, her proclamations of love for Heathcliff are almost transcendental in their timbre, especially when she claims that they are one and the same person. Unlike the femme fatale Estella Havisham, Conger found that Catharine Earnshaw got ability to have internal conflicts, “increases the psychological complexity of the Gothic heroine, and broadens immeasurably the bounds within which femininity may move”(qtd. In Fleenor, 100).

However, though facing internal conflicts, these conflicts arise from the heroines’ struggle against the external world (Gilbert and Gubar 274).  This education is one, which is upon all ladies of society, designed to repress the desires of the original self. When Catherine is forced to learn this lesson, it causes a fragmentation of her personality, doubling her identity and led to Fatalism.

Catherine’s eventual decision to marry Edgar Linton, both Gilbert and Gubar argue, was not actually a choice, but instead a product of her forced education. She is not given any meaningful choices, as she herself perceives that marrying Heathcliff would turn them both into beggars, and there are no other men of status in the area:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire. (73;Ch. 9)

Catharine Earnshaw her by this actions can no longer be rewarded for good. As a Victorian femme fatale is must rewarded for her dishonesty and manipulation, and for the wealth benefits from men who destroyed, lead her to tragic ending, short lived life- death.

The Victorian re-invention of a ‘fatal woman’ is noticeably resulted from the anxiety growth within women of Victoria during her conformation against the patriarchal domination over England along advent of the feminism movement. Thus, the damage of sexes power-balance has threaten the fixed submissive nature of women at that period, and thus it had been replaced by a spiritual formulation on femme fatale whom became a powerful prototype for the New Woman in England at nineteenth century (Fleenor iv).

Therefore, the similarity that both ‘Estella Havisham’ and ‘Catherine Earnshaw’ shared, and which had been presented by Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte as Femme Fatale is by terror they had subjected, in order to form a character be worthy of discovery.  On the other hand, Gilbert and Gubar[5] explained somehow that upon entering into sexual identity in a patriarchal world, a woman must learn to repress her own impulses, and must girdle her own energies with the iron stays of ‘reason’ (101).

Works Cited

Ayres, Brenda. Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels: The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1982.

Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power, and Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin/Popular, 2004.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. N.p.: n.p., 1964. Print.

Fleenor, Juliann E. The Female Gothic. Montréal: Eden, 1983.

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. “The Female Imagination and the Modernist Aesthetic.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1986, 13:1-2.

Harmon, William, C. Hugh Holman, and William Flint Thrall. A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Hedgecock, Jennifer. The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: the Danger and the Sexual Threat. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2008.

Holbrook, David. Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman. New York: New York UP, 1993.

Jarmuth, Sylvia L. Dickens’ Use of Women in His Novels. New York: Excelsior Publishing Company, 1986.

MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Marsh, Jan. The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

Syndy McMillen Conger, “The Reconstruction of the Gothic Feminine Ideal in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights”, in Juliann E. Fleenor (ed.), The Female Gothic, Montreal: Eden Press, 1983, reprinted in E. McNees, (ed.), op. cit., vol. 2, 415. See also Lyn Pykett, op. cit., 66-67.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts on File, 2005.

[1] Is a biographer specializing in artists and writers. She has written extensively on the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including a major biography of Christina Rosetti, and also been guest curator for exhibitions of Victorian art.

[2] For further reading, Marsh, Jan. The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

[3] Also known as the Women’s Movement, Women’s Liberation, or Women’s Lib, refers to a series of campaigns which reforms on issues on Women rights.

[4] For further reading, Brenda Ayres, Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels: The Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998)

[5] Award-winners and now classic studiers on patterns of influence and indebtedness among women novelists and poets including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson.  Gilbert is primarily responsible for chapters on poetry; Gubar on prose

[1] Relating to the ancient Teutons, or the Germanic languages or their speakers

[2] Also known as Middle Ages, a period of European history from the 5th -15th century

[3] A term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture

[4] A primitive culture that lacks major signs of economic development or modernity


  1. I had the honer to attend the mini -seminar of this paper .
    really unique researcher, and compelling topic.

  2. See “Evil Business” in paintings by J.W.L (inmate of SuperMax Prison in Florence, Colorado)
    at site

    under the voice: “Evil Business”

    Bruno Loeb

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