The Gendered Gothic: Dorothy Hewett’s Alice in Wormland

By | 1 April 2010

Life does not offer solutions to Alice's conflict between her desire for creative independence and freedom from societal expectations. The only solution to Alice's torn loyalties is that of transformation: the physical destruction and decay of her mortal, human body, and the adoption of a new form, outside of mortal restrictions. Alice transforms into the white owl at the end of Wormland; this action reconciles her with Nim, who adopts the form of the falcon, and the collection ends as the two fly off to ‘make friends with death' (‘The Shape-changers,' 71, line 123). This line in itself recognises the prevalence of death on the outskirts, or the immediate foreground, of Alice's life, and denotes her triumph over this formerly oppressive presence. Metamorphosis after death, and rejection of mortality's constraints, including societal expectations, is the only way for the heroine to embrace her creative potential and to move on. Initially, this transformation is viewed as an aspect of the Gothic; something uncontrollable and terrible; as Alice observes

I am the owl       she hoots
half-blind with light
& double visioned
is it over? (‘The Shape-changers,' 71, lines 110-113)

This distressing image is quickly countered by Nim's assurance that

it is the beast fable
it is the myth of ourselves
& only just beginning, (‘The Shape-changers,' 71, lines 115-117)

indicating the solution to Alice's troubles lies in the Gothic imagery that had followed her through her life, up to the point of her death, and now beyond it. While the resolution is not essentially positive, since Alice had to die before she could be reborn, the overall tone is optimistic. The ending portrays a persona who has been confronted with horrific images and situations throughout her life, and is now at peace, beyond the effects of these ideas, but who did not achieve this peace by passively accepting death.

Bodily contortions, transformations and adaptations are images typically aligned with the Gothic and mythology. Deleuze and Guattari's discussions about the nature of the human body, and physical dismemberment, are of use when considering Alice's physical reconstruction into the form of a white owl as a resolution for the collection. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the idea of the ‘Body without Organs' (c1987: p 150): whereby the body ‘sloughs off' (Ibid) organs in order to take away ‘the phantasy, and signifiances and subjectifications as a whole' (p 151). This may be what has happened here: Alice has shucked off her human form and reduced her self-image into something more manageable, namely the body of a bird. Beyond this, however, there is also the notion that Alice has rejected her humanity entirely in order to ‘triumph' over death and societal oppression alike. Peter Brooks, in his discussion on the image of the body in literature, comments that:

The body is both ourselves and the other, and as such the objection of emotions from love to disgust…Most of the time, the body maintains an unstable position between such extremes, at once the subject and object of pleasure, the uncontrollable agent of pain and the revolt against reason – and the vehicle of morality (c1993: p 1).

In the case of Alice, the human body is most certainly the ‘other': an undesirable creative vacuum upon which gender constraints and mortal restrictions are placed. Her transformation into an owl, far from being a grotesque, uncontrollable shapeshift, is a conscious escape from the demands of humanity and human society. Brooks also observed that bodily ‘punishment,' such as the images of Alice's loss of vision, assaults and injuries throughout the collection, construct notions of ‘the tortured body,' however this body ‘refuses to give satisfaction to the torturing regime; indeed it betokens the moral bankruptcy of the regime' (p 285). Alice is clearly a victim of an uncaring, if not morally bankrupt, societal regime, if the persona has to undergo such trauma and seek such an extreme form of escape. Hewett's use of transformation therefore works in a variety of ways: not only does this image maintain the Gothic motifs that recur throughout the collection, but it also emphasises the victimised nature of the persona. The new bird-form she adopts is a more basic, but socially unconfined identity that Alice can use as she wishes.

Hewett's use of the Gothic in Alice in Wormland initially gives the collection a darker more sombre tone than its conclusion would suggest. The fragmentary construction of the heroine, Alice, and the prevalence of death, decay and unsympathetic figures in her life present an unpleasant atmosphere. However, ultimately it is death and Gothic images of the supernatural and transformation that welcome in Hewett's optimistic resolution. These constructions reveal that it is not the Gothic – namely the grotesque, madness, death and decay – that Hewett wishes to depict as features of the ‘real' world. Instead, the Gothic permeates the collection and illustrates Alice's struggles, and then finally contributes to her rising above issues of thwarted creativity and unsympathetic responses by female figures and conservative expectations of women. The ‘dark' tone of the book is twisted into one more accepting, as Alice embraces the Gothic attributes of her imagination by transforming into a white owl, moving beyond death, and into a new understanding of herself, free from fear, and free from mortal restriction.


Brooks, Peter, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, c1993.
Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1987. [Translated by Brian Massumi]
Hewett, Dorothy, Alice in Wormland, New South Wales: Paper Bark Press, 1987.
Longueil, Alfred E., ‘The Word “Gothic” in Eighteenth Century Criticism,' Modern Language Notes 1.
Longely, Edna [ed.], Dorothy Hewett Selected Poems, Fremantle, W.A: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991.
Hewett, Dorothy, & Kinsella, John, Wheatlands, Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000.
Novak, Maximillian E., ‘Gothic Fiction and the Grotesque', NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 2.
Hume, Robert D., ‘Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel' PMLA 3.
Bennett, Bruce [ed.], Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays, Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995.
Interview between Nicole Moore and Dorothy Hewett: 1999, for Jacket magazine, [accessed 10 February 2010].

  1. 38 (1923), 453-460
  2. 1 (1979), 50-67
  3. 2 (1969), 282-290
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