Writing about the sexual life of the protagonists has already become a mainstream in the modern literature. However, sexual perversions, such as pedophilia or necrophilia, remain taboo for most authors. Barbara Gowdy, however, is not among those writers that are afraid of exploring the themes considered forbidden in the society. She has deserved the attention of a wide public by writing about characters with abnormalities and making the reader see their personalities from the atypical angle. We so Seldom Look on Love (1992) is one of the short stories included in the collection with the same name. The story presents an example of Gowdy’s innovative approach to modifying neo-gothic genre and addressing the forbidden issues, as she modifies the gothic elements and discredits the traditional stereotypes related to the dominating topic of the story.
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Gowdy’s Vision of Neo-Gothic Novel Genre
In We so Seldom Look on Love, the reader has an opportunity to recognize the elements that are typical of neo-gothic novels and the elements that present the example of innovations and modifications brought by the author to this genre. Barbara Gowdy is recognized as a writer of the neo-gothic novel genre and Southern Ontario Gothic subgenre by most literary critics (Howells 107). The first traditional element of the neo-gothic novel genre that is used in the story We so Seldom Look on Love is the gloomy setting.
The reader is submerged in the atmosphere of dark, mysterious nights starting from the descriptions of the narrators’ childhood up to the details of her adult life. At the beginning of the story, the author describes the details of her ritual burying of animals when she was a teenager and names it “a dark and forbidden thing” (Gowdy 142). The ritual always started at the midnight and was accompanied by the protagonist’s words “I enter the night, enter the night” (Gowdy 141). Her admiration of night can be proved by the following statement: “Entering the prop room, especially at night when there was nobody else around, was like diving into a lake” (Gowdy 148). As the result of this admiration, most of the events described in the story are happening at night, except for the first meeting of the protagonist with Matt. Besides the prevalence of a dark part of the day contributing to the gloomy atmosphere, the places, such as animal cemetery, mortuary, and funeral home, also make the setting obscure and grave.
In addition to the gloomy atmosphere, the story is full of descriptions of intense emotions, which are also typical of the neo-gothic novel genre. The protagonist describes her feelings and emotions during the burial of animals and the sexual relations with corpses. The narrator shares the wide scope of emotions experienced by her at the moment of “anointment” describing them by such words as “high, high rapture”, “electricity that shot through me”, “fantastic” (Gowdy 142). The descriptions of sexual relations with cadavers are also full of expressions of intense emotions: “tremors were running up and down my legs”, “my head roared” (Gowdy 149). Matt is also a hero experiencing strong emotions as his affection to the narrator caused much pain to him.
Romance is another feature of neo-gothic novel genre present in the story. Though most people do not expect a story about a necrophile to have any romance, Gowdy surprises the reader with numerous manifestations of romance. Matt’s suicide aimed at pleasuring his necrophiliac lover seems strange and unusual but embodies the most romantic idea – the idea of sacrifice for love. Besides the romantic feelings of Matt, the narrator describes her romantic experience with corpses. She describes her feeling towards the cadavers as “love” (Gowdy 150). Though considering the feeling of the necrophiliac protagonist towards the cadavers romantic seems extremely unusual to most readers, Gowdy shows the romance of these relations as bright as she can.
Besides traditional features of the neo-gothic novel genre, the story presents an illustration of how Gowdy modifies the modern face of the genre and amplifies it with new elements. While the plots of most gothic novels include the appearance of supernatural beings or monsters, Gowdy uses this typical feature in her way. Though the author does not describe any ghosts, vampires, or zombies, the main protagonist, who is a human being without any supernatural features, serves as a prototype of the monster. The society considers necrophilia a perversion that can be accepted only by an abnormal person who deserves to be treated like a monster.The author uses such modification of the feature of a gothic novel to show that the definition of monstrosity is deeply related to stereotypes in the society.
In the same time, she opposes such way of thinking by expressing her disagreement in the words of the narrator: “I couldn’t see that I was doing anything wrong. I still can’t” (Gowdy 142). Another element of the neo-gothic novel that is used by Gowdy in a unique way is the atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Though the narrator openly shares her life story with the reader and does not leave any details uncovered, the reader still has a feeling of being a discoverer of something forbidden. This feeling of mystery is promoted by the narrator’s confession: “I never let on what I was feeling, and I don’t think anyone suspected” (Gowdy 145). Such confession makes the reader feels knowing the secret of the narrator. This factor contributes to the overall mysterious atmosphere of the story, which is also largely supported by the fact that the theme of necrophilia is a taboo and mystery for most people. Another manifestation of the author’s innovative approach to the neo-gothic novel genre is illustrated by giving the reader an opportunity to judge the protagonist without assistance.
Though gothic genre suggests the presence of the hero, and, therefore, the clear articulation of what is good and what is bad, Gowdy avoids influencing the reader’s attitudes and creating any prejudices. Instead, she leaves the reader with a choice of the sides to take. The author gives no “moral judgment” to the protagonists (Beatties par. 9). Instead, she leaves us with the choice either to take the position of Matt, who totally accepts necrophilia and admires the narrator or Carol, who is disgusted by such obsession and condemns the narrator (Beatties par. 9). Both of the positions present the extremes of human behavior, and the reader is supposed to choose what is good independently because Gowdy refuses to “advocate” anything (Rigelholf 16).
Discrediting the Stereotypes
One of the most powerful features of We so Seldom Look on Love is the presentation of facts and events that severely contradict the stereotypes accepted by most members of the society. Most of the stereotypes addressed in the story are related to the theme of sexual perversions and abnormality. The main stereotype that is addressed by Gowdy is based on the belief that people with abnormal sexual preferences do not have serious feelings towards the objects of their passion and that such perversions have a physical nature.
The title itself attracts the readers’ attention to the fact that the narrator’s story is a story about love. Gowdy shows the necrophiliac protagonist who loves the cadavers not less than ordinary people love their beloved ones: “I used to fall madly in love with cadavers and then cry because they were dead” (Gowdy 150). The author addresses the belief that necrophiliacs are cold-minded perverts lacking spirituality. The protagonist’s confessions reveal her deep inner world and spirituality expressed in the reflections about life and death. Her passion to cadavers is explained by her vision of death: “When you die, and you earthly self begins to turning into your disintegrated self, you radiate an intense current of energy” (Gowdy 140).
Downing states that in such way the narrator portrays necrophilia as “a ride on a current of kinetic energy” (166). Gowdy presents the spiritual explanation to necrophilia by revealing her perception of death: “I’ve seen cadavers shining like stars” (Gowdy 140). Throughout the text, the narrator shares her thoughts and attitudes, and the reader begins to realize that she is an intelligent young woman capable of love and spiritual growth, even though she is different. By addressing the discussed stereotype, Gowdy manages to provoke the reader’s empathy and willingness to understand the people who are considered abnormal instead of condemning them and treating like monsters.
Another stereotype addressed by Gowdy is related to the belief that people with sexual perversion like necrophilia are the dregs of society unable to function in everyday life. The author shows the necrophiliac protagonist who does not confirm this belief. The protagonist was grown up in an ordinary family and did not experience any traumas in the childhood: “I grew up in a nice, normal, happy family” (Gowdy 140).
She functions in the society the same way other people do, including having education and a job. Besides, she is an attractive young woman, “blond and pretty”, which contradicts the stereotype portraying necrophiliacs as mostly men with gloomy and repellent appearance (Gowdy 145). By endowing the narrator with the features that contradict the beliefs of the typical background and social role of necrophiliacs, the author forces the reader to consider sexual perversions possible to be combined with an ordinary life.
One more stereotype addressed by Gowdy is the belief that necrophiliacs feel guilty for their abnormality and fear of being discovered. The main protagonist demonstrates no feeling of guilt. Instead, she fully understands that she is different and feels comfortable with it: “I had discovered myself to be irredeemably abnormal. I could either slit my throat or surrender – wholeheartedly now – to my obsession. I surrendered” (Gowdy 149). She demonstrates that necrophilia can be enjoyable and free of suicidal or neurotic manifestations.
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She describes her obsession with cadavers in a calm, confident manner, which makes the reader understand she feels no guilt: “If offering my body to dead men is a crime, I would like to know who the victim is” (Gowdy 142). By opposing the discussed stereotype, Gowdy attracts the reader’s attention to the fact that defining where the normal ends and the abnormal starts ca be largely objective and lead to wrong conclusions.
Gowdy has managed to find new approaches to neo-gothic novel genre and the process of revealing the traditional stereotypes. The innovative elements she uses and the surprising assumptions related to the nature of perversions she makes through the narration of the protagonists enabled her to create a unique literary text changing the face of modern literature.
Beatties, Steven. 31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 17: “We So Seldom Look on Love” by Barbara Gowdy. 2012. Web.
Downing, Lisa. “Death and the Maidens: A Century of Necrophilia in Female-Authored Textual Production.” French Cultural Studies 14.2 (2003): 157-168. Web.
Gowdy, Barbara. “We so Seldom Look on Love.” We so Seldom Look on Love. Ed. Barbara Gowdy. Ontario, Canada: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007. 140-155. Print.
Howells, Coral Ann. “Canadian Gothic.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Ed. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. Canada: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Rigelholf, Terry. “Gravel, Glass and Gut: The Fiction of Barbara Gowdy.” Books in Canada 35.3 (2006): 16-17. Web.