Feminism In Coleridge
’s “Christabel” Essay, Research Paper
Christabel is a dark poem which tells the story of a baron, his daughter, and a seductress known as Geraldine. Christabel has usually been associated and interpreted according to its supernatural and mystical qualities. However, there are also aspects of the story that allow the possibility of analyzing Christabel according to its depiction of gender roles and culture. This theory is important to “Christabel” because it is a useful tool in analyzing the interaction between men and women, as well as women and their surrounding culture.
These stereotypical gender roles are illustrated in part I of “Christabel.” Sir Leoline is in a position of authority and plays the role of the patriarch. The problem with his role is that he is very passive as a leader. He is ill and asleep when Geraldine first enters the castle. This scene proves to be very important in the poem.
All our household are at rest, the hall is silent as the
cell; Sir Leoline is weak in health, And may not
awaketh be, But we will move as if in stealth.
At this point in the text, Sir Leoline is defined as the Self. He is a
male in power, and this is often how the Self is defined in terms of feminist thought. Similarly, Geraldine is playing the subordinate role of the Other. She is female and lacks the power that the Self possesses. This fits with the feminist definition of the Other. The problem regarding gender roles in the text is that from this point, these roles become convoluted.
As Geraldine is able to grasp more and more power away from the baron, the roles become harder to define. He starts to lose his control, and with it his confidence. Now, he appears to be the one taking the orders from someone in power. This is why it seems as though the lines defining the Self and the Other have crossed. It is hard to determine which character fits which role. Is Sir Leoline still the self simply because he is male, or is he defined as the Other because he has lost his power? Likewise, is Geraldine the Other because she is female or does her description change because she has obtained power? These questions do not seem to have a concrete answer from the text alone.
The battle between culture and women is very symbolic in the text. Once again, the castle stands as an indisputable symbol of culture and society. Its reach is far and wide, and the castle itself is strong. It is proof that man’s power is an insurmountable force in the world that can control nature and the woman in anyway it wants, or is it? Geraldine is a strong symbol of nature and womanly powers in the poem. She appears out of the woods looking weak and fragile, but she is able to use this to her advantage. She is able to infiltrate the castle and take control. The purpose of this is to show that although culture may be able to hold down the threat of women, it can never suppress it completely. Women may appear weak and powerless, but as soon as culture turns its back, they can strike and show who is really in control.
This lost of control by culture may not necessarily be seen as positive by Coleridge according to the conclusion we have of Christabel. In the end of Christabel, it seems that powerful Geraldine has polluted her. The innocence, the purity, all those qualities regarded as good are altered through Christabel’s interaction with Geraldine. Throughout the poem there is an ongoing theme of this interaction being both desirable and dangerous:
And Geraldine again turn’d around,
And like a thing, that sought relief,
Full of wonder and full of grief,
She roll’d her large bright eyes divine
Wildly on Sir Leoline
Through her interaction with this other woman, Christabel has become something evil and strange to her former self and her father. Geraldine, in some sense, seems to be almost vampiristic in her actions. She literally “sucks” power away from the baron. Perhaps this is why she has often been labeled as a vampire. Geraldine, the threat, must be expelled or everything will be disrupted in this world.
In examining traces of feminism in Coleridge’s period, it is difficult not to think of the most influential feminist thinker in this period, Mary Wollstonecraft. It is interesting to wonder how Wollstonecraft would have reacted to some of the arguments currently presented. In “The Vindication for the Rights of Woman” Wollstonecraft attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a state of “ignorance and slavish dependence.” She was especially critical of a society that encouraged women to be “docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else.” Wollstonecraft described marriage as “legal prostitution” and added that women “may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”
In “The Vindication for the rights of woman”, Wollstonecraft states:
It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish. The preposterous distinction of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people.
In “Christabel”, Coleridge depicts these dependent qualities of Christabel at the beginning of the poem as righteous and good. The minute she leaves the protection of the castle and of societies constraints, Christabel’s dependency shifts from the male to the female. The world in which the man seems to be naturally in control is almost corrupted by the appearance of the threatening woman, Geraldine. Christabel is a personification of an ideal woman in this society, encompassing traits such as innocence, purity, chastity and beauty. She seems to be obedient and dependent on her father for protection. Geraldine is an outsider to the natural order of things who, because of her outcast status, does not follow the laws and ways of that society; this gives her a certain power that Christabel does not understand.
The presence of a woman who does not follow the rules of society is a threat to the control of other women. Wollstonecraft herself was a threat to her male-dominated society, requesting that women be freed from their dependence on men. In “Christabel”, this powerful threat is made evil and untamable, spreading from one woman to the other, just as Wollstonecraft hoped her fervor and quest for equality would spread to other women. Christabel brings forth the notion that when men do not keep a close watch on their women, they create a risk of losing their power.