Idealizing Mortality: Doomed Women in Gothic Fiction

Berenice by Harry Clarke

Women in Gothic fiction in the nineteenth century are known for being doomed.   Poe himself said that nothing was as poetic as a dying woman.   It is a very interesting concept of the romanticism of death.   Death and beauty are linked, and this is shown in the Death and the Maiden motif in art and literature!

The Death and the Maiden motif was utilized notably by Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving.   The Adventure of the German Student by Irving and Berenice, Morella, and Ligeia by Poe are examples of this literary trope.   I have already discussed German Student and Ligeia in previous posts.    Morella and Berenice were similar to Ligeia in some ways, Morella is resurrected in her daughter, and Berenice was buried alive and her teeth were taken when she was dug up!   The story in Berenice also is linked to The Black Cat in the burial aspect.   The Fall of the House of Usher likewise had a female character who died and left behind a mourning lover.    In the case of Usher it was an incestuous relationship, as the mourning lover was her brother!

All of these stories have dying women and mourning men, and there is often a desire of conquering death to live yet again!   Irving had a man fall in love with and bed a woman who had been beheaded earlier that day!    These stories have an immense commonality of supernatural occurrences due in large part to the mortality of the lead female characters of the work.

In other works of the Romantic and the Gothic we also see doomed females and an idealization of mortality.   Frankenstein featured the execution of Justine, and murder of Elizabeth on her wedding night.    The Picture of Dorian Gray featured the ill fated Sybil who was betrayed by Dorian.   Dracula featured the doomed Lucy, who would become a vampire and be staked!    The idealization of mortality is also linked with the desire to gain immortality.   Ligeia was trying to gain immortality before her death.    Victor Frankenstein was playing god by creating a man from dead bodies.   Dracula was a vampire with three brides who were of course immortal!    Dorian Gray even had the featured the element of his portrait aging instead of him, and this can be a reference to immortality.

The romanticization of death is an intriguing principle, that has been popular since Hades and Persephone in ancient Greece.    Hades and Persephone were actually the origins of the Death and the Maiden motif!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the idealizing of mortality.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a Harry Clarke drawing of Berenice by Poe.   I found the image on

Further Reading

  • The Adventure of the German Student by Washington Irving
  • The Complete Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker