Empathy for the Devil: revisioning the monster through Gothic romance

This project was created, composed, written, and presented by Evan Hayles Gledhill and Dr. Lori Morimoto. Evan Hayles Gledhill is a PhD student at the University of Reading working on a thesis exploring representations of monstrosity in the Gothic. Dr. Lori Morimoto is an independent researcher of film, television and fan cultures, currently at work on a monograph on transnational media fandom.

To watch the video project “Empathy for the Devil: revisioning the monster through Gothic romance” please click here

Exploring the relationship between the monster and their victims, this essay and it’s paired video discusses the parallels in three famous gothic texts: William Godwin’s Things as They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams, published in 1794; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë published in 1847; and the recent American television series Hannibal (2013-2015), based on the novels by Thomas Harris featuring the serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[i] In all these stories, the creators develop a great deal of sympathy for their monstrous characters; the audience is encouraged to explore and understand the motives of both the monster and the victim, not to simply condemn one set of actions as evil, and the other as good. To achieve this, these fictions focus on an intense relationship between the two individuals.

In Godwin’s novel the relationship between Caleb Williams and his employer becomes antagonistic after Caleb learns that Mr Falkland has committed murder. Falkland subsequently pursues Caleb through legal, and extra-legal means, in England and abroad. In Jane Eyre Jane falls in love with her employer Mr Rochester, but she finds out – in the church – that he is already married to a ‘madwoman’ he has secretly locked up in his house. In Hannibal Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter begin as colleagues and friends working in criminal profiling for the FBI, but when Will suspects that Hannibal might be a serial killer himself, their relationship becomes a complicated legal game of cat-and-mouse. Looking at the parallels between the relationships depicted, the older Gothic situates the modern television series in an historical frame. The modern update ‘queering’ an established pattern, which reveals existing gender dynamics at work in these texts more clearly. In these texts, the roles of monster and victim are gendered roles, played out in a patriarchal society through interpersonal relationships.

‘Vidding’ is a fan practice in which the original media is recut, sometimes re-scored, and even interlaced with other works to bring out themes or aspects of the original text, or to recontextualise the media to demonstrate that an entirely different interpretation is possible. Vidding can be like writing an essay, or preparing a talk – you gather your material from the original source, and context that you think is important, and you reorganise it to make a compelling impression or argument for your audience. Lori and I have paired her video essay, or ‘vid’, with work drawn from my thesis research, to present you with this perspective – that Bryan Fuller’s television show is a gothic romance, following in the footsteps of older texts, to redeem its monster through love.

Caleb Williams

‘Things as They Are’ was intended to be a social and political critique on the structures of society. Godwin was an eighteenth century radical writer who opposed the idea that men should hold power based on ‘birth right’, and that social and economic class should allow certain men absolute power over others. Godwin states his aims very clearly in introductions he wrote to the novel when it was published. What is not often explored is the gendered aspect of the power structures Godwin was critiquing, though he was an early feminist campaigner and married to the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Queer readings of Godwin’s novel, which is about the relationships between men, often read character’s as being ‘feminised’ in their roles and behaviours, without noting how this describes a power dynamic as much as a gender dynamic. Godwin’s characterisations, in terms of gender and sexuality, add to our understanding of the ‘monstrous’ power that men could wield in eighteenth century society.

Previous critics have noted the ways Falkland, Caleb’s aristocratic employer, is coded as gay, noting references to Falkland as a ‘foreign-made Englishman’ (20) whose tastes are overly refined, he possess an ‘extreme delicacy of form and appearance’ and his manners are ‘particularly in harmony with feminine delicacy’(19). Falkland’s youth in Italy is also described at some length in the book, and those who have seen Hannibal will note the parallels between the characters already.

Hannibal feminine delicacy

Critic Robert J. Corber notes that both refinement and continental society held associations of homosexuality in English society in the eighteenth century; he cites a 1749 pamphlet stating it was ‘imported from Italy amidst a train of other unnatural Vices’.[ii]

Falkland never actively seduces anyone, least of all Caleb, and I argue that murder replaces sex in the text as the ‘unspeakable’ crime. This substitution has a history in cinematic representations of homosexuality, and in fandom that Hannibal draws on directly;[iii] in which the intimate bodily act that forms a bond between two people is not sex but violence. B. Ruby Rich claims that often in cinema ‘the proof’ of a same sex couple ‘is precisely that they commit murder together […] killing replaced sex as consummation’.[iv] Likewise, Miller suggests that Hitchcock’s film Rope, ‘excites a desire to see, [whilst] it inspires a fear of seeing’[v] by substituting the sexual with the fatal. When Falkland unleashes his ‘ungovernable passion’ he commits murder rather than sodomy, because the latter is literally unspeakable.

Falkland murders fellow land-owner Mr Tyrell after the latter insults him publically by humiliating him with violence, pushing him to the floor in front of their friends and neighbours. Both men were handed power by birth, but Tyrell is not suited to governing, being uneducated, megalomaniac, and a bully. Yet, though the local society is shown to prefer Falkland’s company to Tyrell’s, it is Falkland who would be hounded out of position if his ‘secret’ was known. The desperation to cover his passionate crime is what corrupts Falkland’s personality. Tyrell is written as the ultimate male patriarch and is monstrous in his masculinity, whereas Falkland is pushed into monstrous behaviour because his masculinity is questioned. Caleb might be a worthy partner for Falkland, in personal or political terms, but this cannot be, based on his lower-class birth and the stigma against same-sex pairings. Caleb and Falkland are equals in this one respect; they both know the truth about the other’s ‘nature’, they know that they are both fitted for more than society would allow them.

Caleb’s sympathy with Falkland continues even as he is persecuted by his former employer. When he exposes Falkland as Tyrrel’s murderer, he protests that Falkland ‘is a man worthy of affection and kindness, and . . . I am myself the basest and most odious of mankind’ (323). Caleb knows that he and Falkland are alike, that Caleb is, in fact, aligning himself with the same societal power structures that acted against him in Falkland’s hands. The possibility of ruining Falkland, through knowing his true nature, is not presented as a simple blackmail plot about a power struggle, in which Falkland’s nature is a liability to be exploited for power. Instead, the knowledge is a device through which Caleb can develop a greater intimacy with his employer, to overcome his own inborn ‘deficiency’ in the societal structure; ‘I could never enough wonder at finding myself humble as I was by my birth, obscure as I had hitherto been, thus suddenly become of so much importance to the happiness of one of the most enlightened and accomplished men in England’(121).

Caleb is more than sympathetic to Falkland, his language in fact suggests an infatuation; ‘from the very first moment I saw him, I conceived the most ardent admiration. He condescended to encourage me; I attached myself to him with the fullness of my affection’ (321). Previous critics have also noted that Caleb uses the language of courtship to describe his relations with his patron.[vi]  Caleb also states that in order to protect himself from Falkland he must act in ways that a ‘man, who never deserves the name of manhood’ might (238). Caleb is ‘feminized’ by Falkland’s persecution and by his regard. Caleb’s feminisation echoes the loss of power that women suffer in a society dominated by men. These sufferings are demonstrated in the text by Tyrell’s treatment of his niece Emily. Hounded into a marriage she didn’t want with a man who was not her social or educational equal, threatened with rape because her ‘reputation’ is her only bargaining chip in the arrangement, and finally driven into a pauper’s cell, Emily dies of a fever as a direct result of this harsh treatment. This is the fate of the feminised man also; he is dependent on the good will of more powerful men, once he loses his reputation, he is confined to prison. As is Will Graham in Hannibal, until he agrees to accept Hannibal’s courtship.


Jane Eyre

In Caleb and Will’s feminisation, I want to draw the parallels to Jane Eyre. Jane is an educated orphan like Caleb, but like Emily the only measure of her worth as a woman in this society is her ‘reputation’ that makes her employable or marriageable in a domestic setting. In Brontë’s story, the gender dynamics are central because the relationship is overtly and openly a romance, a romance between a man and a woman.

Mr Rochester, like Falkland, is a man who fears that he will be denied what he thinks is his fitting place in society. Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, is shut away in his attic because she has been declared mad, due to her behaviour being deemed inappropriate for a respectable woman, bringing shame upon her husband. When Rochester states that Thornfield is an ‘accursed place’ a ‘narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we imagine’(228) the text is ambiguous , and we can read this as applying to himself or his wife. The link between sanity and proper sexual behaviour in Jane Eyre echoes the link between social acceptance and heterosexuality in Caleb Williams. There is very little description of Bertha’s symptoms, barring Rochester’s own summary of her nature: ‘I had marked neither modesty, nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners […] her tastes odious to me, her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger […] a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw.’ (232-234) Rochester’s verdict is moral, not medical, yet the language of both is intertwined. As Rochester states so simply; ‘since the medical men has proclaimed her mad, she had, of course, been shut up.’(234) Yet, when contemplating Jane’s judgement of this behaviour he states that he would always care for her himself if she was afflicted: ‘Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still’(229). Rochester determines these women’s fates; the power to decide who goes free, whose reputation is considered good, who marries whom, who is ‘sane’ and normal.

Rochester acknowledges openly his power over the women in his household socially and physically, repeatedly stating how easy it would be for him to act violently, or unfairly, as though they should be grateful for his forbearance. He continually expresses confidence that it is his decision as to whether he can marry, and his reasoning that Jane should follow, not her own: ‘Jane! Will you hear reason? […] because if you won’t I’ll try violence’ (230). As Rochester tells his history to Jane, we see the clearest exploration of patriarchal society in the novel, as he thinks his every action against these women is utterly justified to save men’s reputations. However, Jane’s commentary on Rochester’s actions provide a clear check on the sympathy that his own words might elicit in the reader. She notes that he objectifies women and disregards her feelings; ‘without seeming to recognise in me a human being, he only twined my waist with his arm and riveted me to his side.’ (220) She notes the power imbalance that exists between herself and him; referring to Rochster as ‘my master’ even as they were marrying (225).

Once again the author creates a strong empathy in the reader for the ‘monsters’, through the sympathy that exists between them and the hero – both Rochester and Bertha are, in some ways, echoed in Jane. Rochester’s acknowledgement of their bond is vital to the interpretation of a heterosexual romance; he states, ‘I have for the first time found what I can truly love – I have found you. You are my sympathy- my better self’ (240). We can hear the echoes of the language in Caleb Williams, and Hannibal. Rochester’s respect for Jane, his ability to acknowledge admirable aspects in her that he wishes to acknowledge in himself – such as courage, moral fortitude, intelligent reflection, passion – mean that he allows her to leave his employment, and does not pursue her as Falkland does Caleb. The ability to openly acknowledge their similarities occurs because Jane doesn’t represent a threat to Rochester’s power in the same way Caleb is a threat to Falkland; even if Rochester elevates Jane socially through marriage, as demonstrated by the position of Bertha, marriage consolidates the man’s power rather than reducing it.

Jane only returns to Rochester, only marries him, once he is physically diminished. Blinded and physically weakened by injuries from the same fire that kills Bertha, and is likely the result of her actions, Rochester is unable to perpetrate the violence he once threatened and is reliant upon Jane for his access to the written word. Unable to communicate on paper, Jane controls his social world, his finances, his household, and his access to culture, as he would once have been able to control hers.

Hannibal Lecter is another monstrous man who enjoys his elevated position in polite society. Hannibal’s alignment with social power is demonstrated by his method for selecting his victims, as a serial killer – he cannot abide rudeness. The narrative of Hannibal develops over three seasons from a detective series, in which Will must discover that his friend is a cannibal, to a sensational gothic romance. In the final series, Hannibal comes closer to eating Will than at any previous point, yet his motivation is love not hate, and Will forgives him, repeatedly. Hannibal moves from the model of legal pursuit established in Caleb Williams, to a romantic love story as Will attempts to redeem Hannibal, as Jane and Bertha redeem Rochester, and, arguably, Jane redeems Bertha too.

In giving Lecter a rich emotional life on screen that can only be guessed at in the books, Fuller transforms a thriller with gothic elements of monstrous violence into a gothic romance with elements of a violent thriller. In Fuller’s adaptation, Lecter is a lonely monster, who in Will Graham ‘for the first time in a long while, [sees] a possibility of friendship’ (‘Fromage’). As his therapist Bedelia Du Maurier observes, Hannibal maintains the wearing of his ‘person suit’ throughout his interactions with other people (‘Sorbet’). Will is the only one offered the opportunity to know Lecter’s true self intimately and survive,[1]. Lecter always maintains that he is doing this for Will’s own good, that he knows Will’s true nature and how to make him happy: ‘I only want what is best for you’ (‘Tome-wan’). Will responds that Hannibal has, in fact, ruined every other relationship he has; ‘you don’t want me to have anything in my life that isn’t you’.

Depictions of abusive relationships between men and women are a traditional aspect of the gothic romance, as we have seen, but in Hannibal the transformation of the central pairing to a same-sex couple opens up new reading positions and possibilities. Fuller’s adaptation focuses on the process of manipulation, of power dynamics being established, maintained, and disrupted, just like in the earlier gothic texts. Traditional motifs of women’s gothic – gaslighting, hysteria, ‘forced seduction’ – are experienced in Hannibal by a man who physically conforms to traditional masculine ‘norms’.

will graham plaid

Will Graham wears plaid shirts and is often unshaven, his hobbies and skills include fixing mechanical engines. When Will takes on the role, and personality traits, traditionally assigned to heroines within gothic romance these signify very differently. Attributes often encouraged in women, even venerated, are pathologised in a man, as with Falkland’s coded femininity. Will’s ability to connect with others is labelled an ‘empathy disorder’. It is essential that Will’s feminine traits are recognised as such: they make Will vulnerable to abuse at the hands of the society’s powerful representatives, both the FBI and the serial killer.

There are conflicting reading positions available for the audience of the gothic; horror at the transgressive actions depicted, and/or excitement in the rejection of normativity. The monster must be defeated or redeemed for the moral of the story. Hannibal queers this model, with its protagonists’ final tumble over a cliff edge, wrapped in each other’s arms. They are together, caring for each other, but are also monsters who kill together. Like the traditional horror movie villain, Hannibal may yet rise again; the camera pan over the edge of the cliff shows no bodies, no sign at all of their destruction. After the final credits a brief scene shows psychiatrist Bedelia apparently serving, or being served, her own leg as a roast dinner. The table is set for three. It is suggested that Hannibal is bringing Will, his ‘final girl’ and Bluebeard’s last wife, back with him as a new monster (‘The Wrath of the Lamb’). But is Will a monster in the service of patriarchal system that elevates men and masculinity over women and femininity, or a monster produced by a patriarchal system that has crushed a feminine man?


Hannibal depicts a monstrous recuperation of a romantic murderer in its eponymous antihero, and the murderous creation of a new romantic monster in his partner, Will Graham. Godwin’s narrative about men’s relationships based on trust and power is re-examined through the lens of an emotional love story, with clear echoes of Brontë’s Rochester/Jane dynamic. Bringing out the possibility of the queering of the central relationships in these stories de-naturalises our expectations of gender roles in our tradition of romance, and enables us to see other aspects of homosocial relations. Without expectations of ‘naturalised’ gender, the power dynamics at work in the relationships in Jane Eyre become the focus of the narrative rather than simply the setting. As the queer takes center stage in season three of Bryan Fuller’s adaptation, romance becomes a better mode than the legal adventure/pursuit model, because it focuses attention on the interpersonal gender dynamics, and this reveals the gendering of power dynamics at work in society, that Caleb Williams does not address in such depth.

Marketed as, and consumed as, a Gothic text, Hannibal enters into a dialogue with the traditions of the genre. It is not simply a restaging of older stories for a modern era, bringing out concerns that a new audience finds exciting and relevant, but is drawing our attention to elements that have always been present in these narratives. Like the high-powered microscopes the technicians in the FBI labs use to examine the evidence of the crimes they investigate, Fuller’s queer reading acts like a lens to focus our attention on previously under-explored dynamics within an established genre.

[1] Bedelia and Alanna’s survival is conditional, as Hannibal will not kill his psychiatrist until he also has the opportunity to eat her, and he promised Alana that he would eventually kill her too (‘Mizumono’).

[i] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre: an autobiography, edited by Currer Bell, (Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1850); William Godwin, Things as They Are, or the adventures of Caleb Williams, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998);all subsequent references to these editions.

[ii] Robert J. Corber, ‘Representing the “Unspeakable”: William Godwin and the Politics of Homophobia’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jul., 1990), pp. 85-101 (p.86)

[iii] Mark Lynn Anderson, ‘Psychoanalysis and Fandom in the Leopold and Loeb Trial’, in Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America, (University of California Press: 2011), pp. 49-69 (p.51)

[iv] B. Ruby Rich, ‘Lethal Lesbians: the cinematic inscription of murderous desire’, in New Queer Cinema: the director’s cut (London: Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 103-122 (p.114)

[v] Miller, D.A. ‘Anal Rope’, in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.119-141, (p.131)

[vi] See Alex Gold, Jr., ‘It’s Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin’s Caleb Williams’, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 19 (1977), pp 135-60; Ronald Palllson, Representations of Revolution (1789-1820) (New Haven, CT, 1983), pp. 231-36.