Christabel’s inverted gender roles

Although Coleridge explicitly depicts traditional gender roles and dynamics in the first half of “Christabel”, he inverts these gender norms in the second half of the poem through the characterization of Christabel and her relationship with Geraldine. The speaker introduces Christabel as a well-off young woman with dreams of meeting a knight and falling in love; the speaker repeatedly uses the phrase “lovely lady” when first describing or referring to Christabel (l. 23, 38, 47). The alliterative nature of this phrase emphasizes the soft, light “L” sound, which exudes the same daintiness that thus far characterizes Christabel. Additionally, the word “lovely” has feminine connotations within the gender binary due to the beauty and mannerism standards for women; Christabel, then, is considered lovely due to her adherence to traditional gender standards. The phrase “lovely lady” ultimately situates her well within the traditional gender expectations for women. 

In the poem, Christabel leaves the castle to pray under a tree when she meets Geraldine. Meeting Geraldine and learning about her situation initiates Christabel’s shift from fulfilling a traditionally feminine gender role to a more masculine one. Because Geraldine, who the speaker repeatedly characterizes as “faint and sweet”, describes being captured by a group of men, she portrays the “damsel in distress” trope (l. 68, 73). Christabel, by saving Geraldine and taking her to safety, then acts as the savior of the damsel in distress. Traditionally, a knight or other prominent male figure fulfills this savior role, but having Christabel save the damsel inverts gender roles and shows a sense of female agency. By physically lifting Geraldine over the gate, tending to Geraldine’s needs, and eventually sleeping with her, Christabel’s displays of agency subtly align with the traditionally masculine traits of physical strength and sexual prowess. This implies that although Christabel has agency, the only legitimate form of agency is that which stems from traditionally masculine values. The consequences of Christabel’s agency also promote this patriarchal ideology, as it becomes clear that the “damsel in distress” being saved is actually some sort of witch, demon, or other dangerous and mystical being. Considering her true identity, Geraldine gaining access to Christabel’s home has dangerous implications, and it is due to Christbel’s displays of agency that Geraldine has this access in the first place. Therefore, Christabel’s inverted gender roles does more harm than good and reinforces the idea that women should not stray from their expected gender roles. 

3 thoughts on “Christabel’s inverted gender roles”

  1. A great observation that makes me further dislike Coleridge. As I think about your response, I’m wondering why Coleridge makes Leoline, the master of the house, sick and asleep for all the action. One could definitely argue his infirmity and sleep are symbolic of that undermining of patriarchal authority you identify here: he’s unwatchful, and things go upside-down as a result. As Christabel and Geraldine slip through the castle, we even get these lines: “‘Oh softly tread,’ said Christabel,/‘My father seldom sleepeth well’” (line 138). With your interpretation in mind, this could indicate Christabel knows she’s doing something wrong.

  2. I think the way you unpack this depiction of gendered language and gendered actions, and how it is only progressive to an extent, is very interesting. It reminds me of feminist theory about public versus private spheres (the public sphere belonging to men, and the private sphere belonging to women and children). The private sphere has a lot to do with the home—in this case, the castle. Within the castle, Christabel acts more societally feminine and attends to her feminine duties. You mentioned that she meets Geraldine and begins to adopt some more typically masculine actions—after she leaves the castle. Finally, because inviting Geraldine into her home is linked with inviting a force of evil into her home, it seems as if leaving her own private sphere of the home (literally and metaphorically) has its repercussions, and that the two should not be blended for women.

  3. I think it’s extremely interesting how Geraldine’s introduction sparks so much change in Christabel’s characterization. I love that you pointed out that Christabel’s strength is mainly rooted in masculine traits. It’s interesting to me that despite focusing on two women in the poem, their traits still revert back to masculine and feminine binaries. I wonder how different the poem would be if Christabel had portrayed agency alongside her soft, lovely traits, rather than swapping out femininity for strength.

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