Sterner stuff: Sansa Stark and the system of gothic fantasy

— Joseph Rex Young

Paper given 1 August 2021 at Mythcon 51 Session 13

George R.R. Martin’s characterisation of Sansa Stark is among the contentious aspects of the reception of A Song of Ice and Fire. The violence, indignities and threats heaped upon Sansa have been described as gratuitous, cited as evidence of an unusually cold-hearted writer, and marshalled as evidence by those querying the story’s feminist credibility. Sansa’s passive acceptance of such mistreatment could mark her as a character denuded of agency, which would seem either tasteless or a serious misstep by an author of stated feminist sympathies.

In an alternate reading, however, Sansa’s travails and her capacity to absorb them mark her as a heroine recognisable in William Patrick Day’s system of Gothic fantasy. Despite (indeed, because of) her determination to become a chivalric damsel, Sansa is carefully established as possessing recognisably modern characteristics. She is then thrust unknowingly into a medievalist world that carries numerous resonances of the Gothic tradition, particularly in its capacity as a vehicle of systemic barbarism, violence and abuse. In accordance with Day’s system, Sansa’s capacity to absorb passively this abuse serves a dual purpose. It enters the barbarism of Westeros into the narrative record, damning her persecutors as atavistic monsters, while her ability to cope with such atavism demonstrates the capacity of modern sensibilities to overcome the perceived iniquities of the past. This point becomes particularly clear when Sansa is compared to her brother Robb, who in his relentless but fruitless attempt to overcome the world around him clearly instantiates Day’s construction of the archetypical Gothic male hero. The Gothic world is set up to defeat modern action, but cannot outlast determined passivity; in the context of Day’s model, Sansa is a far more effective opponent of Westeros’s carefully stage-managed iniquities than any of her relations.

Authoritative information may be found here.

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date recorded 📅2022-01-23
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