Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Alternative” View

In his study on the Gothic wanderer, Tyler Tichelaar comments that one reason Frankenstein is an unusual masculine Gothic novel, is that it was written by a woman, the most unusual Mary Shelley. “Masculine Gothics,” he says, “are usually written by men and contain male main characters who fail as heroes” (35). Certainly Victor Frankenstein, that figure who searches for forbidden knowledge, rails against the limitations of natural philosophy, and defies his scientific colleagues by subscribing to the derided lessons of the past is a failed hero, but who is his Adam, he who is “irrevocably excluded” from “everywhere [he] sees bliss” (ch. 10 Shelly)?
When they meet at the Alpine glacier, Dr. Frankenstein labels his creature “Devil” and “Abhorred Monster” (ch. 10 Shelly), but it is Victor Frankenstein’s unfettered obsession and casual disregard for the sanctity and mystery of life that both created and doomed the monster “to a perpetual life of horror and glum.” In his victory over the genesis of life, Victor has failed to achieve “aspirations of humanity towards perfect” and the “consequence of such defiance” is his creature (Hasanat Lecture 2).
Set adrift by its maker, the monster in its infancy marvels at the natural world, its moonlight and berries. It longs for the beauty of the human face, but when it sees its own it is taken aback “unable to believe that it was indeed [it] who was reflected in the mirror” and “filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (ch. 13 Shelly). Still, it harbors hops that by benevolent actions it can foster human companionship, so the monster approaches blind De Lacey and is initially encouraged. “You raise me from the dust by [your] kindness; and I trust that, by your aid, I shall not be driven from the society and sympathy of your fellow creatures,” the creature tells the blind man (Shelly ch. 15). In the end, however, the monster harvests only the horror and fury of the De Laceys. It creeps back into its hovel and stews in melancholy and despair.
After the monster murders William Frankenstein and frames Justine Moritz, both beloved to Victor, it confronts his creator on the glacier. In a scene reminiscent of Genesis, but through a Gothic-distorted lens, the creature says, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” He entreats Victor to end his misery by making a companion. Victor agrees, only to break the promise by destroying his handiwork. In response, the fiend threatens to “glut the maw of death, until it [is] satiated with the blood of [Victor’s] remaining friends” (Shelly ch. 10).
The monster proves its faith by murdering Elizabeth LaVenza, and Henry Clerval. When Elizabeth is assassinated (“I will be with you on your wedding-night”), the monster attempts to frame Victor, in an effort to not only break his heart but to destroy him (Shelly ch. 20 & 22). Victor escapes blame for the murder of his bride, but in Clerval’s case, the creature’s incrimination is successful, and Victor is jailed for a murder he never committed. Once released, Victor pursues the monster across the wide world in an effort to destroy a life he created, daring, the creature would say, to “sport thus with life” (Shelly ch. 10).
Tichelaar associates the Gothic wanderer with the French Revolution. Burke believed in the order and stability of hierarchical monarchy governments. He was “outraged that the common people may be deemed more important than a monarch” (31). William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelly’s parents, took the opposing view of Burke with respect to the revolution. Because they rejected the principle that children must comply with their father’s dictates, they also believed “monarchs should have no right to tyrannize a people… educated and mature enough to govern themselves” (32). This underlying question is whether governments “sanctioned by God” were preferable to those created by man.
If you correlate the question of the genesis of life with governments, it seems at first that Mary Shelly is arguing the opposite of her parents. Victor Frankenstein’s government is the artificial spawn of the French Revolution, whereas a monarchy, God’s government, like God’s creation of life, must be more perfect. This seems an articulate defense of kings and queens and chivalry, but there is a deeper question. The advent of Humanity, represented by science, seems to fail miserably, the blemishes on its creation damning it, until you remember that Victor’s obsession was not based on actual natural philosophy. Victor’s experiments were based on Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus, in other words, anti-science, false unprovable ideas. Of course, its creation, that miserable wretch, could be flawed because the science at its roots is flawed. Or Victor the seeker may have been a good scientist but a bad engineer. Perhaps he rushed from project to implementation with a bad specification and errant calculations.
Humans can do better. Married to actual science are the concepts of merit and dedication to the truth. A government based on these same principles might have a real chance to satisfy its citizens. It is worth an experiment.

(Word count: 644 words out of 865)
Works Cited:
Shelly Mary, Frankenstein. University of Adelaide Press. (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  Accessed 1/23/18.
Tichelaar, Tyler,  The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. Gothic Literature from 1794—present. Modern History Press - 2012

Hasanat, Fayeza. “Lecture 2: The Gothic of the 1790s”  Accessed 1/23/2018.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Falling Faster Than a Helmet From the Sky.

As I ponder Walpolian and Radcliffean female characterizations, in an Airbus bound for Los Angeles, a prospective couple in a seat behind me attempts pairing. After casual chit-chat, the y-chromosome bearer asserts to a candidate for a computer science master’s program at University of Southern California, how surprising her success is, given that women are generally unsuitable for careers in technology. From his tone, it is likely his intention is a desperate attempt to engage her through provocation. I am astounded by his hubris and cluelessness. At that moment, however, I wonder how the women populating The Italian and Castle of Otranto would react.
Matilda, after recovering from her swoon, would respond about duty and accepting her lot in society. After mentioning a constant wind blowing over the battlements, she would declare the predictable “Doubt not my obedience, my dreadful obedience...” followed by “I have suffered a passion to enter my heart without [society’s] avowal—but here I disclaim it” (Ch. IV) “After all,” she might later add, “Why should I aspire to any other purpose besides obeying my father, let the men till my fertile soil, sire healthy sons, and guarantee my family’s claim?” Why indeed, Matilda?
Radcliffean female characterization definitely shifted from the Walpolian style. While Matilda and Isabella are reduced to damsels in distress or—in the case of Hippolita—cast aside for incestuous adventures, the principal female characters in The Italian, burdened as they are by a similarly constipated patriarchal society, employ power and self- determination. This is not to say that Radcliffean women (the Marchesa, Ellena, Signora Bianchi, and Sister Olivia) control their destinies, but, like the first amphibians taking tentative steps on land, they were no longer starting at almost zero.
Zero is Hippolita being forced to accept Manfred’s unconditional divorce and enter the convent. Zero is a world where two noblemen can exchange their daughters to seal a political pact. If this is not enough abasement, Walpole’s dialogue ensures their impotence,(footnote 1) sinking them deeper in a sea of submission.
Manfred never petitions Hippolita for divorce. When she discovers her changed circumstance from Isabella, this is her reaction:
“Perhaps the sacrifice of myself may atone for all; I will go and offer myself to this divorce... I will withdraw into the neighboring monastery, and waste the remainder of life in prayers and tears for my child and the Prince!”
Is it noble to concede without quarrel? Let’s face it: Who wants to be married to Manfred? Isabella flees Manfred’s incestuous desire. In fact, Isabella’s response to any threat is to flee. So, what about Radcliffe’s Ellena in a similarly helpless condition?

In San Stefano, she receives a mandate, either accept the veil or marry the choice of 
the Marchesa, her kidnapper by proxy. Ellena’s response to the Abbess given with “an air of dignified tranquility” is so self-affirming to drop modern jaws (at least mine):
“My resolution is already taken, and I reject each of the offered alternatives. I will neither condemn myself to a cloister, or to the degradation, with which I am threatened on the other hand. Having said this, I am prepared to meet whatever suffering you shall inflict upon me; but be assured, that my own voice never shall sanction the evils to which I may be subjected, and that the immortal love of justice, which fills all my heart, will sustain my courage no less powerfully than the sense of what is due to my own character. You are now acquainted with my sentiments and my resolutions; I shall repeat them no more." (ch. 7)
Her best response to the Abbess though is:
"The sanctuary is profaned," said Ellena, mildly, but with dignity: "it is become a prison. It is only when the Superior ceases to respect the precepts of that holy religion, the precepts which teach her justice and benevolence, that she herself is no longer respected. The very sentiment which bids us revere its mild and beneficent laws, bids us also reject the violators of them: when you command me to reverence my religion, you urge me to condemn yourself." (ch. 7)
I find Ellena impressive. The Radcliffean female character who most practices power, however, is the Marchesa, Vincentio’s mother, who is determined to save her son from a presumed low-class marriage. Her relationship with the Marchese appears aloof, especially in contrast with her co-conspirator, Father Schedoni, the Count di Marinella. Radcliffe describes the Marchesa as someone of “inexorable pride, and courtly influence” who attempts to “secure the imaginary dignity of her house” (Ch. 2). She and Schedoni with many nods and winks orchestrate a plot to ruin Ellena’s life (stopping only with the murderous knife in hand). In this scheme, the Marchesa employs Schedoni as a pliant (if unreliable) tool. In a dramatic reversal from Walpolian characterization, the Marchesa exercises personal power, and better yet, the Marchesa does not represent the pinnacle of feminine power, not at all.
Getting shot down is bad. Getting shot down at 35000 feet is appropriately worse.
“[That’s like] ...the wind whistling through the battlements in the tower above,” says the woman behind me (Ch. 2). “Everyone has heard it a thousand times.”
“What?” says the man.
“This conversation isn’t going well. Besides...”
“I know. You already have a boyfriend. I’ll bet he’s not like me!”
“Fortunately not,” she replies, and then for six hours they are silent.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Some Gothic Impressions

The Gothic is a wide umbrella, able to encompass stories as varied as Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian, a passionate romance of young lovers set in “exotic” Italy against the backdrop of a corrupt Catholic hierarchy, and Bram Stoker’s epistolary Dracula, a horror tale where undead bloodsuckers are repelled by Van Helsing’s little cross. Common to them is an obsession with the sublime, our humbling enthrallment experienced before the menacing ineffable. This sublime, “the moment of entry into [our] unconscious,” derives enormous power because it is fueled by our psyche (Hasanat, “Module 1, Lecture 2”). Gothic authors mine their readers' captivation with the sublime, entangling them vicariously in the shock, terror, and visceral horror that the characters experience.

Aside from the omnipresent prospect of death, another recurring theme is constraint and denial of freedom. Characters are imprisoned or placed under control of powerful malefactors. Harker in Dracula’s castle, Vivaldi and Paulo trapped in the Neapolitan dungeon during Ellena's kidnapping, Jane Eyre shut inside crumbling disease-ridden Lowood, and brooding Rochester locking mad Bertha in Thornfield's attic are examples of environments employed in oppressing characters where danger is palpable and suffocating.

Hume writes the “key characteristic of the Gothic novel is not its devices, but its atmosphere” (286). This extends to the modern era as well. My favorite Gothic novel, Titus Groan, the first of Mervyn Peake’s series Gormenghast, takes place in a shadowy, crumbling castle filled with secret passages, galleries, and bizarre denizens who use their guile to climb the rigid household hierarchy. Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, calls it “the ultimate Gothic fantasy.” This is a world Manfred of Otranto could inhabit without missing a beat.

However, today's Gothic novels like Interview with the Vampire and The Witching Hour by Anne Rice differ from the earliest Gothic novels in one important aspect. Because modern readers are exposed to Gothic elements early, rather than focusing on "exotic" settings, authors often strive for the uncanny, making the familiar strange, fostering reader insecurity by robbing their trust of what they believe is safe and known. It is singularly effective. Stephen King can transform a high school dance and hotel bathroom into places more terrifying than unlit subterranean passages. Still, it all accomplishes the same purpose: You tremble as you read and are enthralled.

Finally, Gothic literature was revolutionary. The original Age of Enlightenment audience was surrounded by a world becoming increasingly unreliable. It was a time of strife where—in the extremist moments—neck met sharp steel. For these people, Miles writes, “History’s pattern now appeared malign” (41). In this uncertain world, long-held values were questioned. One of the most important was the status of women, a common theme in early Gothic literature. Sex determined how a story was interpreted. Manfred, demanding without qualms an annulment from Hippolita in order to claim his deceased son’s young fiancée Isabella, surely terrified women more than disembodied helmets falling from the sky.

For many women, just reading Gothic fiction was outright rebellion. Hasanat writes in Module 1, Lecture 1, “The Gothic became popular… when women were becoming a significant part of the reading population.” Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, argued women (often denied education) were as intelligent as men. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she wrote, “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience” (15). Is it no surprise, then, the Female Gothic, spearheaded by Anne Radcliffe, happily skewered the patriarchy, especially how women were treated as property and denied self-determination?

Of our authors, Radcliffe intrigues me the most, because she chose not to use a pseudonym. Jane Austen was “A Lady.” Frankenstein was anonymous in its first edition, the Brontë sisters were Bells, but Anne Radcliffe, whose biographer apparently abandoned the project due to lack of material, published chilling anti-papist novels using her own name. Now that is impressive. 
(650 words, 47 quoted from various sources)

Works cited:

Hasanat, Dr. Fayeza. “Lecture 1." Gothic Literature. 
Hasanat, Fayeza. “Lecture 2: The Gothic of the 1790s”
Hume, Robert. “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel”, PMLA 84, no. 2 (March 1969), pp.282-90

Miles, Robert. “The Gothic Aesthetic: The Gothic As Discourse”. The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 39-57.

Paolini, Christopher. Review of Titus Groan.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Public domain.