Date of Submission



Barbara Freeman’s feminine sublime theory was radical upon its publication in The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (1995). Challenging centuries of male-dominated and male-focussed sublime theory, her crafting of the feminine sublime established a unique sublime experience that was based upon female perspective and participation. Contrasting from the dominating, male-authored masculine sublime, which prescribes that the male subject of the sublime neutralises the excessive other that they encounter as part of the experience, Freeman’s feminine sublime eradicates the presence of domination altogether, arguing instead that in the feminine sublime, the subject moves toward the obscure other and wants to participate in it, even at risk of annihilation. This significant shift in sublime theory was published in 1995, but curiously has received little application to, or exploration in, non-female authored works in the time since then, despite Freeman making clear that the subject of the feminine sublime does not need to be a particular gender. In selected works of violent American fiction from the 1990s, a narrative resemblance to the feminine sublime reveals itself. The characters of The Virgin Suicides (1993), Mysterious Skin (1995), American Psycho (1991), Fight Club (1996), and White Oleander (1999) all contain instances where there is a willing and consensual movement toward instances of obscurity or terror. This movement, consistent across all novels but differing in its manifestations, is the focus of this dissertation. The argument being made here is evident from the title of this thesis. I argue that these five novels, which span a decade at the close of the twentieth century, and which may not otherwise be considered particularly feminine in nature, all embody Freeman’s feminine sublime experience. This research looks closely at the different manifestations of feminine sublime experiences in the novels listed above. If the feminine sublime is categorised as a movement toward an obscure or terrifying ‘other’ rather than domination over it, there is a variety of ways in which this movement can occur. This thesis will analyse these movements thematically, focusing specifically on the movement toward obscurity, and the movement toward terror, with obscurity and terror both being ruling principles of the traditional and feminine sublime experiences. In addition to this initial investigation, this dissertation will also explore new theoretical territory in the feminine sublime experience as it examines how the feminine sublime can exist without the subject’s need to relinquish the self at the hand of the more powerful ‘other’ that they encounter. By undertaking this research and using contemporary American novels that are (with the exception of White Oleander) significantly male in nature, this thesis also achieves what has not been undertaken before: the exploration of feminine sublime experiences in novels written by, and heavily featuring, men.


School of Arts

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


163 pages

Degree Name

Master of Philosophy (MPhil)


Faculty of Education and Arts