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  • “Nothing but human”:Righting the Rightless in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria
  • Devon Sherman (bio)

By way of an alliterated subtitle, Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1798 Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman immediately raises a seemingly simple question: why the “Wrongs” for the novel, but the “Rights” for the Vindication? If A Vindication of the Rights of Woman describes the “revolution in female manners” necessary in the advancement of women’s rights, the “wrongs,” then, seem to present something uncontained and uncontainable in the Vindication: rights in negative, the rightless, and the wronged (92). It is a negative and uncertain space, and one that is pure horror to Wollstonecraft, hence her invocation of the Gothic genre. Maria’s hybrid form, with evershifting layers of focalization, reflects the difficulty in giving expression to this problematic excess; it is a novel in search of a genre, and one that finds even the genre that epitomizs excess insufficient. The Gothic lurks in Maria’s settings and diction, but only to demonstrate even its inability to encompass Wollstonecraft’s dilemma: how to define Woman, collectively, as human and deserving of the rights of man, because her rights and her dignity must be defined against something else, against an exclusion. A sacrifice must be made in delimiting the boundaries of woman as citizen. There must be someone, or something, that does not deserve rights and against which woman will emerge, defined as fully righted citizen, and that something is Jemima, Maria’s maidservant in the asylum. It will be the work of this article, then, to demonstrate Jemima’s centrality as a sacrifice to Maria’s emergent subjecthood and consequent citizenship, to use a more politically charged word. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s work on human rights, particularly with the role of exclusion in emergent citizenship, as well as on Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life, I hope to show that there is a kind of horror beyond the Gothic, a threat for which even it cannot provide containment. Furthermore, this terror is uniquely bound to gender, an aspect of human rights that Arendt does not address. The purpose of this article is then twofold but mutually constitutive: to demonstrate on one hand Jemima’s haunting necessity in the sphere of political rights, but also the difficulty inherent in her incorporation into the mass—or put another way, her inclusion in the subtitle as Woman. In [End Page 99] Maria, this problem erupts as both a generic and formal instability, and this very imperfection is central to its attempted production of rights in literary form, rights whose production likewise produces terror and displeasure that exceed even the capacity of the Gothic to express transgression.

Wollstonecraft opens Maria with an apparently Gothic setting: an insane asylum, described in seemingly Gothic prose:

Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wandering mind. But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavouring to recall her scattered thoughts!


In these first two sentences, Wollstonecraft displays the cues for a Gothic novel: “horror” and a heroine imprisoned in “a mansion of despair.” However, in convoluted and troubled sentences,1 she invokes them only to demonstrate their insufficiency to describe her object. The Gothic is “formed of such stuff as dreams are made of”—it is the genre of the unreal and fantastic, but here, Wollstonecraft endeavors to portray the very real Wrongs of Woman. Those wrongs are in excess of the Gothic—“what [are] they to the mansion of despair?”—and yet still akin to them; this “mansion of despair,” although in excess of the “abodes of horror,” is still one among them, and it depends on the Gothic for its means of description while simultaneously finding that language insufficient. Maria will be horrifying, like Gothic novels, but all the more so because it exceeds them. There is something “real” at stake here—the “real” wrongs of woman. Somewhat laboriously, Wollstonecraft portrays these real wrongs in the most unreal novelistic genre, all...


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