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Fear of the ‘Other’

Ethnic and Sexual Stereotyping in the Nineteenth Century Gothic

Writing: Eava Savolainen

By the 1790s Gothic writers were quick to realize that Britain’s growing empire could prove a vast source of frightening “others” who would … bring freshness and variety to the genre. With the inclusion of the colonial, a new sort of darkness – of race, landscape, erotic desire and despair – enters the Gothic genre’ - Paravisini-Gebert

In this article, I will interrogate the progression of the fear of the ‘Other’ within the British Empire, as manifested in nineteenth century gothic fiction. I will focus on xenophobic and racist sexual stereotyping. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all sketch a timeline of historical progression of imperial anxieties related to the fear of the ‘Other’ from the middle of the century towards the end of it. Borrowing from scholars such as Punter and Byron, I will demonstrate how the national and racial other became ‘”Gothicized”’.

Otherness in Appearance: Xenophobia, Racism and the Gothic

It is worth noting that, where xenophobia and racism often overlap, they are distinct phenomena as defined by UNESCO. In the 19th century gothic, the internal nature of the characters – especially the villains – is nearly always tied to their appearance. More often than not, the reader could expect a character described as unusual or having something unpleasant in their appearance to be an evil-doer. Such notions are tied to xenophobia, and closely connected to physiognomy and phrenology. James Parson, the inventor of physiognomy, believed that the muscles in the face were a reliable indication of an individual’s moral standing, as well as other characteristics such as ethnicity, social identity, and so on. Thus, these ‘sciences’ were used to justify racist ideologies, as well as anti semitic and homophobic codification. Phrenology, based on the notions of physiognomy, surpasses the visible characteristics of race and links an individual’s organs to their character. In this way, then, phrenology provided further pseudoscientific support for xenophobic ideas.

The Progression of the Visible Other - From Physiognomic to Phrenological influences in the Gothic

Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff is a clear representation of the ‘Other’. He is a stray child, picked up from Liverpool (one of the biggest slave ports of the time), suggesting his non-English, possibly slave-related origins. As Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw, he describes the young boy as follows: you must e’en take it as a gift of God; though it’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil”. Thus, the first description of Heathcliff is a negative association of his skin colour. He is the further described as: “a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk”, who is described as older-looking than the already quite well-expressed Catherine but when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand. Here, Heathcliff’s outer appearance (and seemingly different ethnicity) is already linked to characteristics considered subsequent: stupidity and incapability. He is then referred to as, for example, “gipsy”, “beggarly” and “Imp of Satan”. Thus, both Heathcliff’s foreignness and an idea of him being evil and somehow ‘less than’ is invoked from the beginning; the racist attitude becomes at once clear to the modern reader.


In Carmilla, written in 1872, the fear of the other is manifested both in straightforwardly racist, physiognomic attitudes towards the black characters, and a more subtle but nevertheless xenophobic phrenological one towards the white Europeans in the novel. The first description is different in appearance from that of Heathcliff: “I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. Indeed, she is neither explicitly maleficent of ‘other-looking’. The second time Carmilla is introduced to the reader, however, one of her companions, is described as “a hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury. Thus, there is this explicit racism in the novel with the person of colour being associated with an almost monstrous ugliness, fury, and derision. This treatment is further exemplified in the description of the servants as “ugly, hang-dog looking fellows” with “faces so strangely lean, and dark, and sullen”.

Carmilla, however, is portrayed as less suspicious. It is stated that her home lay in the direction of the west; thus, people of colour and western Europeans are described differently in the novel. The former is seen to be beautiful, but - as becomes clear further in the narrative - dangerous, with sexual traits; on the other hand, people of colour are described in an explicitly racist manner as unattractive and subordinate to white people. Still, the descriptions of both groups are strongly associated with otherness. However, the white villains in Carmilla are spared the suspicion, as the characters are concerned with the people of colour and how they might endanger the white foreigners; indeed, one of the characters says: I hope the mayn’t rob the poor lady in the forest. Carmilla and her white assumed mother are considered ‘less other’ than people of colour. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Carmilla is later revealed to be the villain, (a vampire), and thus the evil has a non-English background. Ultimately, scholars such as Curtin have noted that in the British Empire’s hierarchy of race, skin colour was the determining indication of difference, with light coloured Europeans ranking much higher than the darker races. The descriptions of ethnicity and character in Carmilla are also useful in that they are similar both to the earlier and the later gothic descriptions.

Carmilla can be certainly read from an Irish perspective as well; indeed, Styria has been read by some, such as Willis, as a ‘transposed Ireland’ when taking into account the religious (Protestant/ Catholic) conflicts and colonial history. In such a reading, then, Carmilla represents a predatorial vision of the native Irish people, seen as diseased and infectious. Indeed, disease, in this reading, becomes an attribute related to ethnicity. While ‘ethnically invisible’, Carmilla’s otherness nevertheless becomes clear. Again, the evil is linked to non-Englishness. Here, then, the fear of the invisible Other – people who are ‘English-passing’ is invoked.

As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that Carmilla is attracted to Laura, the narrator, as evident in such passages as the following, where she states her attraction to Laura after kissing her: “‘I have been in love with no one, and never shall,’ she whispered, ‘unless it should be with you’”. Only in scenes in which Carmilla’s attraction towards Laura becomes evident, does her appearance change into something more malevolent, as in: she was gazing on me with eyes from which all fire, all meaning had flown, and a face colorless and apathetic. Here, then, homosexual desire is Gothicised. Thus, in Carmilla, otherness is tied to botch ethnicity and sexuality; something that will become yet more prominent in later Gothic works.


In Dracula, the appearance of the count is less suspicious. He is first described as a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. Where the extreme paleness of the count might strike the reader as unusual, it does not appear explicitly sinister. Furthermore, Dracula’s English is described as excellent but “with a strange intonation. This alerts the reader of the count’s non-Englishness but not in a hostile way, such as in Wuthering Heights. The use of the word “strange” perhaps serves to raise suspicion but is not in itself malevolent. Furthermore, his gesture is described as “courtly”, which gives an indication of politeness. This is a rather stark contrast to the description of Heathcliff who is described as lacking manners and having an inability to express himself.

As Jonathan Harker gets a better opportunity to study the count closer, however, more characteristics emerge; Harker describes his face “very strong”, noting also a “heavy moustache”, “massive” eyebrows, “bushy hair”, a “cruel-looking” mouth, and “peculiarly sharp white teeth that protruded over the lips”, unusually red lips, hairy palms and “extremely pointed” ears. Harker describes the appearance as having an “effect … of extraordinary pallor”. Thus, he considers Dracula’s appearance as somewhat unusual, pale and sickly. Though the sharp teeth and hairy palms refer to a somewhat beastly appearance, and the facial expression is described as cruel, Dracula is by no means instantly terrifying in the same manner as Heathcliff is. Indeed, the ‘foreignness’ of the count is only explicitly apparent in his accent.

In the characterisation of the count’s vampire brides, the contrast between the foreign-looking and the English-looking becomes clear:

Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red … The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face … but I could not recollect … how or where.

Here, the ‘ethnic Other’ takes on Gothicised characteristics (the red eyes), whereas the ‘English-looking’ vampire (‘fair’, blonde) seems more familiar. Indeed, Norton Critical Edition footnotes raise the question of the first two women’s similarity, and whether it alludes to familial connection or racial characteristics  – however, these both might be intended as a reference to unsuitable sexuality, ( in this case, incest), often related to ‘the ethnic Other’. The female vampires are described as both fear-invoking and desirable, and there are implications of group sex (another condemned sexual act), as one of the vampires notes that Harker “is young and strong; there are kisses for us all”. Thus, in Dracula, the unsuitable sexual implications related to ‘the Other’ become drastically more prominent. Furthermore, the implications of the possible Englishness of one of the vampires can be linked to ideas of ethnic contamination and the fear of decolonisation; indeed, the text suggest Dracula has an “ability to turn the English into members of his ‘race’”.


In addition to the increasing amount of sexual implications related to the ‘ethnic Other’, antisemitism becomes prevalent in the late nineteenth century gothic. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a theatre manager is described a “hideous Jew”, after which, he is referred to as “a monster” “the horrid old Jew”, and “a most offensive brute”. Similarly, Dracula contains highly disturbing anti-semitic imagery, i.e. allusions to blood libel, as the female vampires feast of children, and the description of the vampire struggling to escape with money falling out from his ripped clothes. Furthermore, Dracula’s characterisation can be read as anti-semitic, as suggested by critics such as Halberstam. As noted before, pseudo-sciences were used defend anti-Semitic views, with writers in the nineteenth century using physiognomy and phrenology to characterise Jewish characters as criminals and degenerates. Indeed, Dracula’s mind is described by Stoker as a “child-brain … predestined to crime, alluding to the phrenological ideas of the time.

To Conclude: A Timeline of ‘The Other’

Nineteenth-century Gothic fiction is filled with racist and xenophobic imagery, linked to negative sexual categorisation. I have demonstrated that in the middle of the century explicitly racist ideas related to physiognomy are more prominent, whereas implicit, phrenology-related allusions become more prominent towards the end of the century, (though they do overlap throughout the time period). Furthermore, there are strong xenophobic and, particularly in the later texts, a multitude of anti-Semitic references. Towards the end of the century, the ‘Other’ becomes more sexualised, even as the sexual implications are Gothicised. This analysis, however, has only given a rough outline of the progression of the fear of the ethnic and sexual ‘Other’ in nineteenth century Gothic fiction, and more research on the subject would establish a more conclusive timeline. Furthermore, character descriptions are only one side to the multi-faceted phenomenon of imperial ideology, and this article mostly excludes issues such as fear of decolonialisation, anxieties related to gender, the nuclear family, and technological advances. However, the characterisations of the non-English in these works give an idea of the many and varied anxieties of the ‘Other’ expressed in the Gothic.

Recommended Further Reading

Biernoff, Suzannah. ‘Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement.’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2018, Vol, 92, No. 2, pp. 400-401.

Boeckmann, Cathy. A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction 1892-1912. Alabama University Press, 2000.

Boyarin, Daniel, et al. Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. Columbia University Press, 2003.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847.  Edited by Alexandra Lewis. Fifth Norton Critical Edition. Norton, 2019.

Curtin, P. D. ‘”Scientific” Racism and the British Theory of Empire.’ Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1960, pp. 40-51, Historical Society of Nigeria, Accessed 10 Nov. 2019.

Halberstam, Judith. ‘Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's "Dracula"’. Victorian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, 1993, pp. 333-352, Indiana University Press, Accessed: 11 Nov. 2019.

Hartley, Lucy. ‘1: A Science of the Mind? Theories of Nature, Theories of Man.’ Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 15-43.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. Carmilla. 1872. Oxford Critical Edition: In A Glass Darkly. Edited by Robert Tracy. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Machen, Arthur. The Great God Pan. 1894. Library of Wales, 2010.

Malchow, Howard L. Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford University Press, 1996.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. ‘Colonial and postcolonial Gothic: the Caribbean.’ The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Edited by Herold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 229-258.

’Phrenology’. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.

‘Physiognomy’. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary., Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.

Punter, David and Byron, Glennis. ‘Imperial Gothic.’ The Gothic. Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. Norton Critical Edition. Norton, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891. Edited by Michael Patrick Gillespie. Second Norton Critical Edition. Norton, 2007.

Willis, Martin. ‘Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”, Ireland, and Diseased Vision.’ Essays and Studies, Vol. 61, pp. 111-130.

Image: Via Wikipedia

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