Patricia García (University of Nottingham, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Finland). The Decapitated Female Revenant in 19th Century Fiction

The fascination with severed and living heads has always been present in narratives of the fantastic. In particular, the beheaded woman returning to life became a popular image in nineteenth century literature. In fictions by Washington Irving, Pétrus Borel, Alexandre Dumas and Jean Lorrain, among others, a decapitated figure — in many cases, belonging to a female victim of the guillotine — sought revenge for an unfair assassination or embodied the act of enduring love beyond death.

Contextualising first this motif within the scientific debate at the time and discerning how it engages with the socio-cultural discourses of fear (in particular concerning reason, death and the guillotine), this paper addresses the beheaded revenant from the perspective of gender. It outlines three categories: the innocent woman — echoing the ideal ‘angel in the house’ -, the seductress, who perverts the protagonist’s moral principles by the enactment of forbidden desire, and the vindictive Medusa who returns to life seeking revenge for her mutilation. Finally, it discusses how the excision between head and body in literature of the fantastic reveals the anguish on the limitations of a rational discourse and values of the Enlightenment that were fading away as the 19th century progressed.