Women’s Literature Class Showcases Symbolic Gothic Artwork

Allison Liu and Sophia Zhang

A dimly lit display case in the main lobby holds Gothic artwork recently crafted by the students in Taylor Liljegren’s Women’s Literature class. Lifeless flowers drained of their color mirror women who have been suffocated by unachievable beauty standards. A ghost draped in a luminous white veil dangles from the ceiling, and black-and-white portraits hang on the walls.

These Gothic elements are inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, and represent how women are perceived in society. Through the book’s dark writing, students can explore the perspectives of women in the 19th century and their struggles in being confined to the domestic sphere. Gothic literature was first developed in Britain and is characterized by its dark and frightful concepts.

“At the heart of the Gothic movement is the relationship between fear and attraction— the vibe that is created when both of these things meet, [and] the juxtaposition of the two things that enhance the stakes of each other,” Liljegren said.
Although not explicit at first, Gothic literature and the progression of women’s societal standings are interconnected.

“The Gothic genre gave space for female writers to talk about their own societal and sexual desires/anxieties in a safe way– a fear of the trappings of domesticity is easily translated into a story about living in a haunted house with a strange man,” Liljegren said.
Apart from Jane Eyre, many other literary works are studied in the Gothic Literature unit, including “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti and The Mad-Woman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. One of the unit’s essential questions is, “what is the relationship between the Gothic genre and the domestic sphere?”

The project allows students to explore these concepts further while using creativity to bring a story to life.
Students had a single goal: pick a quote that captures an aspect of the Gothic genre and translate that into an art piece. The possibilities that students could pursue were endless, leading them to explore a plethora of resourceful, innovative, and artistic choices—both in and out of the classroom. For three class periods, students gathered materials and crafted their installations— they gathered many resources to incorporate into their Gothic art.

“My group wanted to showcase the ugliness that [beauty standards] bring out in women. Making women want to transform into this social ideal of what a woman should look like [means that] women end up deforming [themselves] in search of [these standards],” Britney Nakyeyune, a senior taking Women’s Literature, said.

The creation of the display case was preceded by lessons where the class read Jane Eyre through the lens of various literary theories.

“This [allowed] us to consider marginalized identities and perspectives while we read a book that was written by a white woman 175 years ago,” Liljegren said. “[I hoped that students would] walk away from this unit armed with new ways of looking at the media they consume.”

Her message is echoed and expanded upon by students who adopted new perspectives and ideas while reading Gothic literature and creating their projects.

“We can debunk the myth that Jane Eyre is a heteronormative novel,” Defne Olgun, a senior in the Women’s Literature class, said.
After approaching Jane Eyre with a comprehensive outlook, students were able to identify ideas that people may not associate with a classic 19th-century novel, such as homosexuality and unorthodox female beauty. Through the display of Gothic artwork, students share these messages with others in Lexington High School.