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(In)alienable Rights: Property, Feminism, and the Female Body from Ann Radcliffe to the Alien Films [*][Notice]

  • Lauren Fitzgerald

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  • Lauren Fitzgerald
    Yeshiva University

No two bodies of work may seem more different than the late eighteenth-century Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and the science-fiction/horror films of the Alien series. Beyond the obvious differences in media, generic differences lead Radcliffe's novels to linger over the proprieties of a romantic feudal past and the Alien films to take a grim look at a post-industrial future. Yet even as Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997) belong squarely in the tradition of science fiction cinema, they owe much to the Gothic for their effects and narratives. The films draw not only on stock conventions of Gothic architecture, such as labyrinthine tunnels and cathedral-like vaults, but, to propel the plots, the Gothic dynamic of heroine versus villain, pitting the determined Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) against both the unnatural horrors of the aliens and the avarice of a military-industrial complex. Perhaps the strongest connection between these works, however, is their concern for economics and property. The castle, for example, that centerpiece of the Gothic, its defining structure and most recognizable convention, is first and foremost real estate. Colonized planets and corporate spaceships offer similarly proprietary structures in the Alien films. But most suggestive of the economic parallels between Radcliffe's novels and the Alien series is their examination of the body, especially the female body, as subject to proprietary claims. Both scrutinize the Enlightenment grounding of personhood, liberty, and self-determination in property rights, a triad later named "possessive individualism" by C. B. Macpherson. Moreover, in spite of very different historical contexts, they do so through the lens of Anglo-American feminism and its continued, ambivalent figuring of women as property. Both conclude that even as grounding personhood in the metaphor of property rights seems to grant women self-possession, such grounding also creates the potential for these rights to be taken away, making them simultaneously inalienable and alienable. Both Radcliffe's novels and the Alien films foreground their mutual concern for the values and limits of the female body as property through a broader interest in economics. The centrality of real estate in Radcliffe's Gothic is hardly accidental since property is a crucial theme in eighteenth-century literature and culture, what Douglas Hay calls "the measure of all things." As William Blackstone proclaimed in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), "There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property." Radcliffe's "imagination" too was struck by the "right of property." Central to the plot of three of her works, The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797), as well as to the subplot of her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), is a plot of ground over which the heroine and villain struggle for ownership. In Athlin and Dunbayne and Udolpho, the heroines' tales begin with real estate, opening with descriptions of the property Louisa and Emily are to inherit. Similarly proprietary origins emerge with Adeline's and Ellena's stories in The Romance of the Forest and The Italian. As several critics have pointed out, the major conflict of these works, the heroine's and villain's relationship, is essentially economic. Indeed, most of the villain's machinations are devoted to usurping the heroine's property and maintaining his false claim. Malcolm, the villain of Athlin and Dunbayne and Louisa's brother-in-law, not only falsifies her husband's will to steal her property but also imprisons Louisa and her daughter for nearly twenty years. Udolpho's Montoni goes to even greater lengths, imprisoning Emily and her aunt, attempting to marry Emily off, …

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