Keeping It in the Family: Incest and the Female Gothic Plot in du Maurier and Murdoch

  • Avril Horner
  • Sue Zlosnik


From Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the present day, incest has repeatedly featured as a motif in Gothic fiction. This is hardly surprising because in Gothic novels the family is frequently represented as harbouring dangers, its structures at one and the same time regulating and focusing desire. Female sexuality is habitually the contested space in the family (both its control and exploitation) and in the Gothic plot young women frequently find themselves particularly at risk from the predatory attentions of tyrannical fathers, father surrogates or, indeed, rapacious siblings. James Twitchell suggests in his 1987 book Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture that the prohibition of incest is the most defining trait of the human family and that ‘if we want to understand the dynamics of the modern family we will have to study the unfolding of this trait in the nineteenth century as the modern nuclear family takes shape’. It does not escape Twitchell’s attention that Gothic fiction in this period has a recurrent tale to tell: ‘If the Gothic tells us anything it is what “too close for comfort” really means.’1 Feminist scholarship has played a significant role both in establishing Gothic studies2 and in providing detailed historical and discursive contextualisation for changing representations of incest in literature.


Person Plural Subsequent Reference Cultural Taboo Narrative Voice Discursive Contextualisation 
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  1. 1.
    James B. Twitchell, Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), xiiiGoogle Scholar
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    Caroline Gonda, Reading Daughters’ Fictions 1709–1834: Novels and Society from Manley to Edgeworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1.Google Scholar
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    Cited in Tammy Grimshaw, Sexuality, Gender and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction (Madison, Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), 144.Google Scholar
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    Iris Murdoch, The Time of the Angels (1966; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 165.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Avril Horner
    • 1
  • Sue Zlosnik
    • 2
  1. 1.Kingston UniversityLondonUK
  2. 2.Manchester Metropolitan UniversityUK

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