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.
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1586050250

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Public domain.  https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wollstonecraft/mary/w864vw/


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