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NeMLA Abstract 2012

Forward at Any Cost: Goethe and the Female Zombie Body in Women's Victorian Literature

The aesthetic of corporeal mobility in Victorian literature bestowed an impression of salubriousness upon the veneer of the Empire. The body’s extreme capacity for forward momentum in texts such as Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret fed popular discourse that the body in motion was a civilized – and civilizing – force.  Moving forward came to mean something different in an age of conquest aided by technological and scientific advancement than it had in the past. The effects of the Industrial Revolution, for example, filled London and Manchester with images of animate yet lifeless objects. Steam plants, blast furnaces, and even electric light and photography served to give a lifelike vibrancy to inanimate materials: artifacts that were vital for England’s definition of itself as a world power.  Like urban machinery, the body in motion became a marker of the national propensity for extreme change. Machine-like and horrifying in its power, the reanimated corpse took its place in literature as a central representation of progress, which does not seem so far-fetched considering that the body was the power behind the anthropomorphic appearance of industry anyway.  Yet, the (re)mobilized body that was so central to the rhetoric of national progress took many – sometimes contradictory –forms.  The body in motion, as it appears in sundry mid-to-late nineteenth-century texts, is not always salubrious although it may be strong.  In fact, oftentimes the body that performs the most important actions for progress in literature is not only sick, disabled, or sometimes deformed, but dead.  Reanimated dead female bodies, in particular, gained such a voice in Victorian texts as a signal of forward movement that its lack of critical attention is surprising. Dead yet poignantly active (like the machinery that filled urban spaces) the Victorian female zombie-body was macabre yet capable of fueling the forward motion that was so pivotal for the Empire’s discourse of progress, particularly in its influence on – and by – changing ideas about gender and racial difference.  For Victorians, the zombie was an articulation of the fear that the self could vanish entirely: a macabre dissolution of desire and awareness so deep that its body falls completely under the control of someone or something else. Numerous texts by women authors, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Christina Rosetti’s “After Death,” use the female zombie-body – and its desire – to stage the fears and hope surrounding national progress. My paper traces the gendering of female cadaverous mobility to Goethe’s “Bride of Corinth” and its influences – such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Phlegon of Tralles’s tale of Philinnion, and the resurrection of Lazarus in the New Testament – as a way to understand the meaning of such a strange yet powerful national aesthetic in the nineteenth
century.  I argue that by consigning the historical love affair in “Bride” to a marriage script, Goethe reflects a key transition in the literary imagining of gender power.  Unlike earlier stories, the dead woman’s love affair ends as a macabre scene of murder due to immoderate female desire – and the monstrous tool which made it possible in the first place: mobility through reanimation. Goethe’s demonization of female cadaverous mobility appears to inform – whether consciously or not – many Victorian representations of the female zombie in which such mobilization empowers female “zombies” to transgress certain gender and racial boundaries.