“Zofloya or the Moor” is a novel completed by Charlotte Dacre in 1806, which represents an example of Romantic Gothic literature, popular at the beginning of the XIX century. Although being inside general literature trends of the time, Dacre’s idea of that, how her heroine must have behaved in the society are very much different from conservative values of that time, moreover, Dacre openly declared the right to breach social taboos. In this paper I will try to investigate how Dacre presented gender and sexual features of her characters and how those characters denied generally accepted dogmas, as well as consequences of such denial.
“Zofloya” has been composed under influence of previously published book “The Monk” (1796) by Matthew Lewis. It can be stated, that Lewis demonstrated a sexually licentious male, while Dacre placed a women in the center of her story. “The Monk” is a completely gothic novel, in which a protagonist faces horrifying sufferings for his depravity, while in the “Zofloya” those sufferings are attributed more to social influence. The main sin, described in the novel and condemned by her surrounding is sexual relationship with more than one man.
Victoria – a protagonist of the story – has been described as “beautiful and accomplished as an angel, proud, haughty, and self-sufficient–of a wild, ardent, and irrepressible spirit, indifferent to reproof, careless of censure–of an implacable, revengeful and cruel nature, and bent upon gaining the ascendancy in whatever she engaged. Since her early childhood Victoria is allowed all her faults and this makes her believe, that she is free to do whatever she wants. So, the basic problem of the text is not sexuality itself, but a feeling of permissiveness.
Sexual desires are only symbols of human nayward. Such dark passions have been censured and oppressed by the society of the time, however, as they have not been negative for Victoria herself, the social condemnation meant little for her. Victoria is an antihero, contrasted by a hero – Lilla. The latter is Victoria’s antipode and an embodiment of women’s positive virtues as they have been seen at the time. Murder of Lilla by Victoria, therefore, is a symbol of destruction of such positive virtues by Victoria and opened declaration of her evil nature.
However, it is interesting, that Lilla is virtuous as social norms prescribed, but she is not virtuous for Dacre herself. Victoria is a woman, although an evil one, and Lilla, who lacks sensual desires and experience, is almost agamous. Victoria commits a murder, but the reader tends to sympathize a passionate female, but not an asexual being. “Zofloya” can hardly be considered a feminist book, because Victoria gets her punishment and this punishment is shown as deserved.
However, this is one of the first literary examples, where woman’s aspiration to desire in spite of being simply an object of desire is not negative as itself. Victoria is punished not for her deprivation but for her inability to control herself. It is uncontrollability and permissiveness which are demonized, but not active sexual position of a woman. The message of the book is to explain, that too much control over intimate life is more likely to result in evil doings, than personal freedom, including freedom of sexual relationships.