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Coffins – Glass and Otherwise

12 Nov

Nineteenth century literature presents the glass coffin as a prison within which sleeping women are frequently mistaken for dead or vice versa. Since the sleeping woman’s corpse-like quality is often eroticised within narratives, the glass coffin becomes a prominent symbol of necrophilic desire.

This desire is notoriously portrayed in the Grimm Bothers’ tale of ‘Little Snow White.’ Following the death of Snow White the dwarves ‘“could not bury her in the dark ground,” and they had a transparent coffin of glass made, so that she could be seen from all sides’.[1] The prince falls in love with Snow White while voyeuristically observing her beautiful corpse. In this case, the body is preserved, displaying no signs of emaciation or decay. The Grimm’s tale ‘The Glass Coffin’ provides a further illustration in which a tailor comes across a glass chest containing a ‘maiden of the greatest beauty’.[2] The coffin reveals a female body that is ideologically as fragile as the glass within which it is encapsulated.

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In the Grimm fairy tales, male characters derive pleasure from looking upon passive figures of sleeping women, including Briar Rose who ‘lay in a deep sleep’[3] and Snow White who ‘lay a long, long time in the coffin, and…did not change, but looked as if she were asleep’.[4] Conflating sleep and death, critics have remarked that

[a] maiden’s bed…was supposed to be her “bridal bed”—and a virgin was therefore thought to be immersed in a perpetual sleep of innocence until her chosen knight came along and awakened her with a kiss into the useful state of matrimonial service.[5]

Briar Rose and Snow White both enter the state of sleep/death as virginal maidens, yet are awakened by princes to whom they will surrender their virginity. Those who do not rise from the grave remain virginal, violated only by death itself.

Since death appropriates a maiden’s purity, this is subsequently reclaimed by masculine characters through acts of necrophilia. In tales of the Brothers Grimm, the princes who gaze upon ostensibly dead female bodies experience such desire. The prince who wakens Briar Rose sees her lying asleep and she was ‘so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away; and he stooped down and gave her a kiss.’[6]

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Likewise, Snow White’s prince comes across her coffin and states ‘“[l]et me have it as a gift, for I cannot live without seeing Snow White. I will honour and prize her as my dearest possession.”’[7] Briar Rose and Snow White are attractive to their masculine rescuers because their deathly appearance renders them passive, beautiful mannequins susceptible to appropriation. Weak and vulnerable, the lifeless female form automatically posits the male body as its sexually dominant opposite.

Necrophilic desire is also portrayed in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff longs to share Catherine Linton’s burial place, to transform their grave into a marriage bed. Speaking of Catherine as sleeping rather than dead, Heathcliff expresses his desire, stating that if Catherine’s body appears ‘“motionless, it is sleep”’[8] and dreams that he is ‘“sleeping the last sleep, by that sleeper, with [his] heart stopped, and [his] cheek frozen against hers”’.[9] In an attempt to attain physical contact with Catherine’s corpse, Heathcliff breaks open her coffin:

“I got a spade from the toolhouse, and began to delve with all my might – it scraped the coffin; I fell to work with my hands; the wood commenced cracking about the screws…“If I can only get this off;” I muttered, “I wish they may shovel in the earth over us both!”[10]

The unearthing of dead women occurred not only within works of fiction, but was a nineteenth century reality. Like Heathcliff, Dante Gabriel Rossetti exhumed his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in order to retrieve a journal of his poems that had been placed into her coffin six years earlier. Although Rossetti was not present, one who did attend ‘explained how when the coffin was opened, Lizzie’s face was still as beautiful as ever’.[11]Elizabeth’s corpse was preserved, and still desirable, when the poems were retrieved from her hair. The fetishisation of non-decomposing body parts such as hair is evident in the myths that surrounded the exhumation:

[l]egend has it that Siddal’s famous luxuriant red hair, repeatedly painted by Rossetti, had continued to grow after death and spilled out of her coffin when opened.[12]

The hair of the cadaver is referred to in ‘The Premature Burial’, within which Victorine’s dead body was paid a visit by a suitor ‘with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing himself of its luxuriant tresses.’[13] Like Heathcliff and Rossetti, the lover ‘unearths the coffin, [and] opens it’,[14] yet he and Rossetti both desire to retrieve an item from the coffin by which to remember their deceased lover. In contrast, Heathcliff’s pain is so great that he longs for Catherine’s corpse itself and dreams of lying alongside her dead body and ‘“dissolving with her”’.[15]


[1] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.220

[2] Grimm, ‘The Glass Coffin’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.595

[3] Grimm, ‘Little Briar Rose’, p.204

[4] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.220

[5] Dijsktra, Idols of Perversity, p.61

[6] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Briar Rose’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.206

[7] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), pp.220-1

[8] ibid,pp.286-7

[9] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin, 2000),p.286

[10] ibid,pp.286-7

[11] J. Marsh, The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal (London: Quartet Books, 1989), pp.3-4

[13] Poe, ‘The Premature Burial’, p.292

[14] ibid, p.292

[15] Brontë, ibid,p.286