Closet space aplenty—where are the skeletons?

Review by Jens E. Sennewald

Silke Arnold-de Simine:

Leichen im Keller.

Zu Fragen des Gender in Angstinszenierungen der Schauer- und Kriminalliteratur (1790–1830).

St. Ingberg: Röhrig 2000.

535 Seiten, ISBN 3–86110–263–3, € 37,84

Gaps in the Discourse: Gothic Novels Written by Women

Arnold-de Simine claims that her work addresses an existing gap in research on gothic novels written by women in Germany (cf. p. 23 and 218). She argues that this is partly the case as the majority of gothic novels published in German-speaking countries are authored by male writers (p. 227). Additionally, Arnold-de Simine argues that there does not yet exist a discussion which does justice to gender-specific aspects of this kind of literature. She aims to change this by providing a textual analysis of examples of “recently re-discovered” (p. 25) gothic novels, focusing on the “specific function of gothic novels as regards the aesthetical analysis and creation of fear” (p. 14). In so doing, Arnold-de Simine wants to show “what kind of real fears enter gothic novels and what kinds of strategy they offer to cope with these fears” (p.12).

Into the Dark Space of the Closet: Recreations of Discourse

Definitions which served to discriminate between “high literature” and “pulp fiction” in the 18th century employed some of the same terms that were being used to describe gender differences (p.93, 103). This leads Arnold-de Simine to conclude that processes of social and literary-aesthetic formation went hand in hand. Literature is thus seen as one way of documenting the “control centre between societal forces and different desires experienced by the individual.” (p. 119) Arnold-de Simine’s study is based on the assumption that “fear as a socio-cultural and discursive phenomenon is coded in a gender-specific way.” (p. 17, 122). This hypothesis enables the author to deduce from literature to “real” socio-historical conditions.

Fear in the Closet

Drawing on Norbert Elias, the author discusses fear as the result of a societal-historical process (p.49). In so doing, she unearths the assumption that fear is an anthropological universalism, an assumption which is rooted in a burgeois ideology. Examples of novels that draw on this kind of ideology include the ones written by Benedikte Naubert or Caroline de la Motte-Fouqué. Arnold-de Simine painstakingly portrays “discourses of fear of the 18th century” (p. 125) which center around discussions about “sublimity.” But, how can one conclude anything about the social reality of 18th century women by drawing on a discussion guided by principles of aesthetics and philosophy that was conducted by “great men” like Kant, Schiller, and Hoffmann (cf. p. 448 and 451 ff)? In order to accomplish this feat, Arnold-de Simine determines that these “male” positions made up the dominant discourse which women writers encountered in their writing. This determination of “women’s” writing after the fact forces one to adopt all those attributes which male authors had previously assigned the discursive construction of “woman” (cf. p. 157 ff). Thus, the seeming reconstruction of social reality becomes the construction of a discursive duplicate: one is forced to develop analyses of the social reality of women based on characterisations of women generated by their male contemporaries. Unfortunately, Arnold-de Simine does not succeed at going beyond these secondary references. She presents her readers with very few if any in-depth citations (let alone an analysis thereof) from those “nearly unknown texts” to which she refers in her work (p. 25). Instead of developing a discourse out of texts and thus rendering visible the processes of their construction, Arnold-de Simmes turns gothic novels written by 18th century German women writers into “skeletons in the closet” of a male-dominated social history.

The first corpse: S. Freud.

Arnold-de Simine’s discussion of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical model is perhaps the most striking example of how she unwittingly undermines the very foundations of her own work. Arnold-de Simine argues that unlike a significant portion of feminist scholarship on the gothic novel her research does not draw on psychoanalysis to interpret literary texts, but places psychoanalysis at the very heart of the investigation.” (p. 170) In his 1989 work[1], Weber documents the central position of “fear” and the productivity resulting from its contradictory and ambivalent function in Freud’s psychoanalysis. However, Arnold-de Simine chooses not to describe the methodological and theoretical positions in their historic context and to show their traces and re-interpretations, which have proven to have been especially useful to the realm of gender studies. Instead, she unearths them as “ideologically” and thus hindering from the start. In so doing, Arnold-de Simine actually clings more to an imaginary “S. Freud,” rather than to his actual texts. Her evaluation of psychoanalysis as a “´theory of socialisation of patriarchy’ in the age of bourgeois capitalism” (citing Rohde-Dachser, p. 46) is almost entirely based on secondary literature on Freud; her arguments seem too wrapped up in pre-fabricated critiques to appear convincing.

Witching Hour: An Uncanny Return

Unfortunately, the author´s insistence that “Freud was wrong” heavily influences most of her methodological and theoretical approach (cf. p. 181, 184 ff). As she changes the focus of her research from a literary study to an inclusive, ideology-focused examination of fear and its aesthetic-social conditions, Arnold-de Simine fails to do justice to either literary criticism or a critical approach to ideology. In its place, the ever so readily dismissed Freud experiences a ghostly return in the author’s analyses of “scenarios of fear” which mirror Freud’s approach without ever crediting him for it. On the one hand, Arnold-de Simine rejects Freud for having treated literature as though it were the material of dreams (p. 118), but she also happily applies his theories when presenting the inter-textual nature of literature as proof of the existence of a “social unconscious” (p. 119) In distancing herself from and rejecting Freud, Arnold-de Simine only succeeds at burying her skeletons in the closet. Meanwhile, as she herself admits, the sources of her work remain mostly inaccessible (p. 270, footnote 180).

What Remains to be Discovered: Gothic Novels by German Women Writers

Arnold-de Simine argues women authors inscribe their social realities in and through the production of pulp fiction, thus undermining any discourse which prevented them from writing anything but gothic novels. According to Arnold-de Simine’s mode of interpretation, some of the experiences of women writers can be read as examples of a male discourse of which she herself fails to bear evidence. Instead, Arnold-de Simine seeks refuge in discussions about “non-actual” writing. This stance leaves us with the question of how “real” gothic novels are – even if they are not solely defined by a previously determined measure of their “actuality.” It is the textual analysis that is based on the premise of distancing herself from Freud which leads Arnold-de Simine to restore the discourse she tries to critique (cf. footnote on p. 178).

The Worst of All Fears: Family

Despite all criticisms of Arnold-de Simine’s book, the result of this work inspires one to think more about the socio-historical context of the phenomenon of “fear.” At the end of her book, the author claims that fear is rooted in one’s family. Presenting fear as fear of the family as well as fear within the family, the gothic novel helped debunk the popular image of family as a “haven” from the outside world as it was constructed in the beginning of the 19th century (cf. p. 484 ff). The gothic novels Arnold-de Simine discusses show patriarchal family arrangements as a source of fear, thus showing that literature not only reflects, but also constructs social reality. Perhaps it was the fate of those who participated in the discourse around the bourgeois family that their work made elements of pulp fiction and fear part of that same discourse (p. 490). In the end, a complete restoration of the image of the oppressed woman, of woman as victim, and, finally, a fixation on powerful men who deny women access to the realms of patriarchal power is the skeleton harboured in the depths of Arnold-de Simine’s closet.


[1]: Samuel Weber, Freud-Legende, Wien: Passagen, 1989.

URN urn:nbn:de:0114-qn032064

Jens E. Sennewald M.A.



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