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Choose a trope, object or image.

What is the significance of this trope or object in at least two texts


(literary or visual)?
Veils are a key signifier in gothic fiction. Since the first generation of gothic novels in the 1790s, the
veil has acted as a boundary between the virtuous, virginal person of the gothic heroine and the
predatory, pecunious world she inhabits. The hero glimpses her veil in disarray, as she stoops to
light a candle at Mass (i.e. surrounded by signifiers of piety and goodness), and is enraptured by the
beauty beyond it; so is set in motion the romance of the classical gothic novel. The veil therefore
stands for modesty, on the part of the heroine, and its disarray indicates that her true beauty (of
feature, and of soul as reflected in her features) cannot be concealed. Nowhere is this trope played
straighter than in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian1, a text specifically engineered to define the archetypes
of the gothic romance and serve as an example to readers and other authors alike2.
Modern gothic fiction expands the range of signified concepts to which the signifier of the veil
attaches. Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories3 features three veils the
classically gothic veiled heroine of 'Puss in Boots', the ragged veil found by the titular protagonist
of 'Wolf-Alice', and the veiled skeleton in 'The Bloody Chamber' itself. Carter's veils, like
Radcliffe's, derive their symbolic value from their surroundings, but Carter never plays the gothic
romance straight, and her signifiers have a perverse allegiance to signifieds outside the genre's
conventional tropes.
This essay will begin with a brief theoretical description of the terms 'signifier' and 'signified', and
site Radcliffe's work and Carter's within their generic context gothic, and more specifically
women's gothic. It will analyse the appearance of Ellena in The Italian and demonstrate in more
detail the role of the veil as catalyst and indicator of virginity in the classical gothic novel. This
concept of virginity will be carried forward into the discussion of Carter's veils, showing how Carter
repurposes the symbol to different ideological ends. Finally, the essay will conclude by embedding
virginity and the veil into contemporary discourses, justifying its claims with a brief analysis of the
gothic novel as cultural critique.
Signifiers and Signifieds
The concept of the signifier and the signified was posited by Ferdinand de Saussure in 19594. In its
simplest form, the signifier is a spoken or written word which refers to an object the signified. The
relationship is complicated by two factors. Firstly, the signified is not a straightforward concrete
object it is both a mental image hazily representing an object and an abstract concept of what the
object is, what it is for, what properties it must have and may have and does not have. The signified
may, indeed, be something entirely abstract, like truth, justice or the American Way.
Secondly, the bond between the signified and the signifier is to an extent arbitrary. There is no
inherent reason why the word 'cat' means the creature we call a cat and not the creature we call a
dog. An immanent logic i.e. a consistent similarity between signifiers that signify similar
signifieds is only necessary on a practical level, for the efficient use of language to build and
convey meanings.
1
2
3
4

Radcliffe, Ann Ward. The Italian. 1797. Digireads.com E-publishing. 2004. E-book. All subsequent references are
to this edition.
Messier, Vartan. P. 'The Conservative, the Transgressive, and the Reactionary: Ann Radcliffe's The Italian as a
Response to Matthew Lewis' The Monk', in Atanea, 25.2, December 2005.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. London: Random House, 1995. Print. All subsequent
references are to this edition.
Campbell, Gregor. 'Signified/signifier/signification', in Makaryk, Irene Rima (ed.) Encyclopedia of Contemporary
Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. University of Toronto Press, 1993. Print. pp. 627.

The outcome of all this, for our purposes, is that the word 'veil' a signifier represents a concrete
object, but that that concrete object also has a whole range of abstract properties. We do not imagine
the same veil when we read the word 'veil', and we are aware of a range of functions that the veil
itself can perform. It can conceal, it can protect, it can deceive or hint or tease. Furthermore, it can
take on contextual meanings a bride wears a veil for different reasons than an unmarried woman
or a nun, for instance. Saussure, it should be noted, acknowledged that such symbolic meanings as
these are never arbitrary5. The concrete object is chosen and contextualised in such a way that it
takes on a symbolic meaning it becomes the signifier for an abstract signified.
If the same signifier (word for a thing) appears again and again in a work of fiction, the same
signified (the thing itself) is being represented. It can be assumed that its reappearance is not
arbitrary, i.e. that it is being repeated in order to draw attention to the thing itself as a signifier of
symbolic meaning. This invites the reader to apply their understanding of the thing's symbolic
meanings to the appearance of the thing in the work of fiction. In the simplest possible terms if a
writer refers to the same object again and again, they want us to notice it, think about it, and draw
some sort of conclusion from it.
Women's Gothic and Radcliffe's veil
Both Carter and Radcliffe can be sited within the womens' gothic tradition, although Radcliffe is the
pioneer of the mode, and it is Radcliffe's The Italian which demonstrates it most directly. Abrams6
defines women's gothic as a particular mode of writing in which female writers 'have explained
features of the mode as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the
gender hierarchies and values of a male-dominated culture'. The tradition is defined by concepts of
virtue, materialism and entrapment, which are expressed obliquely through the stock trappings of
the gothic genre.
Poovey7 identifies the virtues of the gothic heroine as rooted in sympathy for the plight of others.
No matter what befalls the gothic heroine she never loses her compassion or capacity for pity. This
idea of sympathetic virtue has a materialistic side too; among the upper middle classes, to which
many of the gothic novelists and their heroines belonged, such demonstrations of virtue were social
currency which would improve the lot of the demonstrator.
Materialism also surfaces in the critical perspective of Castle8, who notes that the gothic heroine is
positioned as a desirable bride, and often framed in economic terms archetypally, and particularly
in the works of Ann Radcliffe, she comes from a wealthy family fallen on hard times. In Castle's
view, women's gothic is a means of obliquely describing and rationalising the effect of economic
forces on women's lives. Money exerts an irresistible compulsion over the activities and choices of
the upper middle classes, and marrying for money is not uncommon, yet so removed are the
material choices from the discourses of love and marriage that they are as the supernatural to nature.
Governed by these economic forces and their paradoxical relationship with the publicly presented
discourses of romantic love, these women could easily find themselves feeling entrapped by their
domestic circumstances and by their very womanhood. This is the argument put forward by Smith
and Wallace9, who claim that women's gothic feels the need to trouble the concept of femininity in
5
6
7
8
9

Campbell, p.627
Abrams, M.H., and Harpham, Geoffrey. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition. Independence, KY:
Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014, p. 153. Print.
Poovey, Mary. Ideology and "The Mysteries of Udolpho" in Criticism, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall 1979), pp. 307-330.
Print journal.
Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. Oxford:
Oxford University Press., 1985. Print. p.121.
Smith, Andrew, and Diana Wallace. "The Female Gothic: Then and Now.', in Gothic Studies Vol. 6, No. 1 (2004):

an attempt to reconcile and overcome the factors behind the sense of female entrapment.
The introduction of Ellena in the first true chapter of The Italian10 shows all three of these critical
perspectives to be valid, all through the operation of the signifying veil.
It was in the church of San Lorenzo at Naples, in the year 1758, that Vincentio di Vivaldi
first saw Ellena Rosalba. The sweetness and fine expression of her voice attracted his
attention to her figure, which had a distinguished air of delicacy and grace; but her face was
concealed in her veil. So much indeed was he fascinated by the voice, that a most painful
curiosity was exciting as to her countenance, which he fancied much express all the
sensibility of character that the modulation of her tones indicated...
These are the very first sentences of the novel; the moment which sets the narrative in motion and
identifies it as a romance. Ellena's beauty is described in stages; it is her voice which attracts
Vincentio, her figure which arouses him, and her veiled face which places her beyond his reach,
makes a prize of her and frames her as the object of his narrative.
Vincentio pursues her, 'determined to obtain, if possible, a view of Ellena's face... but the fair
unknown still held her veil close'11, suggesting a desire to keep the outside world at bay. Ellena
displays, through the maintenance of the veil, both an awareness of herself as beautiful and a
rejection of it; when we discover in later chapters that her family have fallen upon hard times, it
becomes possible to read her veiling of herself as a refusal to capitulate to economic pressure, and
the veil is confirmed as a signifier of self-defence.
It is only the innate sympathetic virtue of Vincentio, answering that which is implied to be present
in Ellena (if her voice is beautiful, she must be virtuous so goes the logic at work in the first few
sentences), which allows him to breach the veil and see her face, like to like.
In descending the last steps of the Terrazo, however, the foot of the elder lady faltered, and,
while Vivaldi hastened to assist her, the breeze from the water caught the veil, which Ellena
had no longer a hand sufficiently disengaged to confine, and, wafting it partially aside,
disclosed to him a countenance more touchingly beautiful than he had dared to image. Her
features were of the Grecian outline, and, though they expressed the tranquillity of an
elegant mind, her dark blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. She was assisting her
companion so anxiously, that she did not immediately observe the admiration she had
inspired, but the moment her eyes met those of Vivaldi, she became conscious of their effect,
and she hastily drew her veil.12
In exercising her sympathetic virtue Ellena is forced to release her veil, discarding her defences,
lending credence to Poovey's idea that virtue must be shown publicly in order that it be witnessed
and converted into social currency. The act of helping her elderly companion admits Vincentio into
their lives, affording the possibility of marriage and social advancement, and Vincentio's assistance
confirms him as suitable for such. However, Ellena's replacement of the veil signifies that she is
wary of a possible romance, due to the economic fact and factor of her poverty as represented by
her outward display of modesty, and demonstrating the fear of entrapment through economic
dependence which is described by Castle.
Carter's Veils
pp. 1-7.
10 Radcliffe, pp 5-6.
11 Radcliffe, p5.
12 Radcliffe, p6.

For Carter, the gothic is one of many modes apt to be repurposed and claimed. Sage13 notes that
Carter's process is defined by such reclamations: 'She has taken over the sub-genres... and turned
their grubby stereotypes into sophisticated mythology'. While the sophistication was arguably there
all along if you were willing to look for it it cannot be denied that Carter changes what she
touches, including the referential relationships between signified and signifier.
These changes are not wrought out of sheer devilment, either. Sheets14 sites Carter in an ongoing
debate around feminism and pornography which began in the mid-1970s, i.e. not long before the
publication of The Bloody Chamber, and highlights Carter's defence of the Marquis de Sade on the
grounds that 'he treats all sexuality as a political reality... declares himself unequivocally for the
right of women to fuck as aggressively, tyrannously [sic] and cruelly as men'. Carter is, by her own
admission, a sexual and a political writer, and it can be assumed that her writing is as transparent an
exploration of her own sexual politics as Radcliffe's is of her economic ones.
For example, Carter's 'Puss-in-Boots'15 is raunchy and sexually charged. The veil is imposed by
Signor Pantaleone upon his wife to keep her insulated from the desires of others and isolated from
opportunities to indulge her own. The result is a kind of pastiche of Radcliffe's ideology and
sentiments. Consider, to begin with, how the young wife she is not named within the narrative, for
one thing, even more the object of the chase than Ellena is introduced.
There is a lady sits in a window for one hour and one hour only, at the tenderest time
of dusk. You can scarcely see her features, the curtains almost hide her; shrouded like a holy
image, she looks out on the piazza as the shops shut up, the stalls go down, the night comes
on. And this is all the world she ever sees. Never a girl in all Bergamo so secluded except,
on Sundays, they let her go to Mass, bundled up in black, with a veil on. And then she is in
the company of an aged hag, her keeper, who grumps along grim as a prison dinner. 16
So far, the process of signification remains the same the veil represents concealment and
protection. The key distinctions are in 'the tenderest time of dusk', 'tenderest' here suggesting
vulnerability and sensitivity to sensation and compassion; in 'they let her go', suggesting that she is
otherwise confined; and in the notable absence of her voice. There is no indicator of virtue here
only of beauty and desirability.
While Puss' young officer will present himself as a kind of Vincentio, 'well on the way to rack and
ruin when first he saw, as if it were a glimpse of grace, her face... his angel, his good angel, who
will lead him from perdition'17, it is a presentation only unlike Vincentio he has no reason to
believe her as divine and sympathetic as Ellena. The tropes of gothic romance are appropriated for a
saucier purpose, as can be seen in the moment of unveiling:
Puss lets rip a roaring purr, rears briefly on his high-heeled boots; jig with joy and pirouette
with glee - she laughs to see and draws her veil aside. Puss glimpses high above, as it were,
an alabaster lamp lit behind by dawn's first flush: her face.
And she smiling.
For a moment, just that moment, you would have thought it was May morning.
Come along! Come along! Don't dawdle over the nasty beast! snaps the old hag, with the
one tooth in her mouth, and warts; she sneezes.
13 Sage, Lorna, in Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Print. p. 2.
14 Sheets, Robin Ann. 'Pornography, Fairy Tales and Feminism: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber', in Journal of
the History of Sexuality, 1.4 (April 1991), pp. 633-657.
15 Carter, p. 76-96.
16 Carter, p. 79.
17 Carter, p. 83.

The veil comes down; so cold it is, and dark, again. It was not I alone who saw her; with
that smile he swears she stole his heart.18
Rather than the stumbling of an elderly companion and the bond of sympathetic virtues over her
assistance, it is an act of curious desire that leads the veil to be withdrawn and unlike Ellena, this
young lady chooses to draw her veil aside when she is curious about the outside world. That it is a
pussy (a vaginal pun) that excites her interest and purrs when she gives in and tickles it is of
significance. The libidinous tone of the passages before and after, in which Puss boasts of his
master's sexual prowess, cannot fail to infiltrate the reading here and suggest that it is sexual
curiosity that motivates this young lady's revelation of herself. The effect on Puss' master is
profound:
But never the word, "love", has fallen from his lips, nor in nor out of any of these transports,
until my master saw the wife of Signor Panteleone as she went walking out to Mass, and she
lifted up her veil though not for him.19
If not for him, who? For herself for her desire for the outside world, symbolised by a purring
pussy. Her husband, after all, is both impotent and jealous 'he'd put a stop to all the rutting in the
world, if he had his way, just to certify his young wife don't get from another what she can't get
from him.'20 The theme of female sexual desire becomes explicit, at last, when the young officer and
his lady are face to face, and Carter asks 'But who is it steps towards the other first? Why, she;
women, I think, are, of the two sexes, the more keenly tuned to the sweet music of their bodies.'21
Throughout its exploration the veil has served as a signifier of the barriers between women and the
achievement of their desire; a barrier imposed on them by others, which they must make the effort
to remove.
Conclusion the veiled authoresses
Despite appearances, the gothic genre is not an isolated wallflower, a florid medievalism or a fairy
tale detached from reality. These texts are crafted by women who have something to say about
themselves which, for varying reasons, cannot be said explicitly or directly. The texts themselves
are a veil; they are a protective, dissembling kind of discourse which allows ideas to be
disseminated indirectly, through symbolic incidents and artifacts.
Whether the politics being explored are economic, as with Radcliffe (whose notions of sympathy
and virtue must not be mistaken for morality; they are about the show of sympathy and virtue, the
accumulation of social capital through reputation as a virtuous person), or sexual, as with Carter
(for whom economics are a factor, if only in the legitimising of sexual desire through social contract
when Pantaleone is murdered by his cat at the end of 'Puss-in-Boots'), is a matter of changing times
and shifting priorities.
Radcliffe has no particular reason to challenge the codes of her society. A successful bourgeois
woman in her own right (with an independent income as a writer, and a well-off husband22),
Radcliffe's fiction might be read as a series of moral and intellectual lessons. The difficulties facing
a woman of Radcliffe's class and in her time are encoded into fiction and their solutions can be
decoded by a reader who shares the moral perspective and economic concerns of Radcliffe and her
characters.
18
19
20
21
22

Carter, p. 80.
Carter, p. 81.
Carter, p. 82.
Carter, p. 88.
Facer, Ruth. 'Radcliffe, Ann (1764 1823)'. Chawton House Library. 2012. Web. Accessed 5th April 2015.
<http://www.chawtonhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Ann-Radcliffe.pdf>

Carter, meanwhile as demonstrated by the quotation in Sheets, previously is an outspoken and


confrontational figure. Her project, throughout The Bloody Chamber, is to present a series of
sexualities some unhealthy, some unorthodox, some outright dangerous or disgusting, and in the
case of 'Puss-in-Boots' one that is healthy, but socially improper. Two young people, in the full flush
of health and desire, are separated by the machinery of marriage, guardianship and differences in
economic status, and the schemes by which they overcome these barriers are presented as nothing
but heroic.

Bibliography
Abrams, M.H., and Harpham, Geoffrey. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition.
Independence, KY: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.
Campbell, Gregor. 'Signified/signifier/signification', in Makaryk, Irene Rima (ed.) Encyclopedia of
Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. University of Toronto Press,
1993. Print.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. London: Random House, 1995.
Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the
Uncanny. Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1985. Print.
Facer, Ruth. 'Radcliffe, Ann (1764 1823)'. Chawton House Library. 2012. Web. Accessed 5th
April 2015. <http://www.chawtonhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Ann-Radcliffe.pdf>
Messier, Vartan. P. 'The Conservative, the Transgressive, and the Reactionary: Ann Radcliffe's The
Italian as a Response to Matthew Lewis' The Monk', in Atanea, 25.2, December 2005.
Poovey, Mary. Ideology and "The Mysteries of Udolpho" in Criticism, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall 1979),
pp. 307-330. Print journal.
Radcliffe, Ann Ward. The Italian. 1797. Digireads.com E-publishing. 2004. E-book.
Sage, Lorna, in Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1998. Print.
Sheets, Robin Ann. 'Pornography, Fairy Tales and Feminism: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber',
in Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1.4 (April 1991), pp. 633-657.
Smith, Andrew, and Diana Wallace. "The Female Gothic: Then and Now.', in Gothic Studies Vol. 6,
No. 1 (2004): pp. 1-7.