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The Gothic in Literature

January 03, 2022

The Gothic in Literature


January 03, 2022

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  1. The Gothic in Literature

  2. In the beginning, there was the 18th century Gothic literature

    actually begins in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The sensational tale of murderous helmets, contested inheritances, and imperiled virgins included all the elements that critics would soon consider standard Gothic fare: gloomy castles (complete with dank dungeons), fainting heroines, mysterious hero-villains, and convoluted plots filled with sexualized violence, ancestral curses, and supernatural malfeasance.
  3. Gothic Fiction and the Medieval Revival Walpole may have been

    working in a new fictive genre, but his novel was not without aesthetic precedent. Like other 18th century artists, Walpole was fascinated by the “Dark Ages,” and he celebrated feudalism, medieval folk legends, and Gothic architecture in his writing. His self- described “Gothick” pays homage to Europe’s “dark” past while it establishes the contemporary relevance of that “forgotten” history. As the Romantic painter J.H. Fuseli argued, “We are more impressed by the Gothic than by Greek myth, because the bands are not yet rent which tie us to its magic.” The supernatural fictions of Walpole (and Radcliffe and Lewis) establish and affirm this magical connection.
  4. Literary Barbarians at the Neoclassical Gates Of course, there were

    many more 18th-century intellectuals who neither established nor affirmed a connection to the medieval era. The Gothic novel emerged at a time when many writers were still looking to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. These Neoclassicists strove to uphold Enlightenment ideals by returning to the “pure” forms of classical art and philosophy. Rejecting the dominant temper of their age, Gothic writers and artists reveled in the irrational “monsters” produced by the dreams of (Neoclassical) reason.
  5. Reclaiming the Negative: Gothic Thought When Neoclassical thinkers referred to

    the Gothic, they denounced it as everything the classical period was not— barbaric, superstitious, unthinking, and devoid of civilization. Gothic thinkers rarely denied that the term denoted negative characteristics; they merely asserted that the medieval era’s acceptance of the irrational and inexplicable offered a way of understanding the world that was largely lost with the ascendancy of reason. This revaluation would have a profound effect on Romantic literature and culture, which focused on the productive power of the imagination (and the limitations of “cold philosophy”).
  6. The Golden Age of Gothic Literature The Golden Age of

    Gothic literature extended from the late 18th century to the Romantic period in English literature, or from publication of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the release of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). During that time, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis penned their fictive masterpieces (The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk respectively), and countless others produced a variety of Gothic fictions, plays, and poems. The Gothic was so ubiquitous that it even became ripe for parody, as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey attests.
  7. Translated Terror: The European Gothic While the English were creating

    what we now consider the classics of Gothic literature, French, German, Spanish and Russian writers were composing Gothic tales of their own, tales which drew on common European sources like Dante’s Inferno. English authors read and admired these texts and used them as creative fodder for their own work. While we don’t have to read foreign language texts to understand the English Gothic, we should recognize the ways that this “translated terror” manifests itself in English works. Not only do many English writers present their fictions as translations of original tales, but certain English texts, like Beckford’s Vathek, were originally composed in a European tongue (in Vathek’s case, French).
  8. Melmoth Wanders throughout the 19th Century The end of the

    Golden Era was not the end of the Gothic. The form lived on, albeit in different guises. The widely popular penny dreadfuls capitalized on the public’s hunger for Gothic stories, and many realistic novels wove Gothic motifs into mundane delineations of domestic interiors. One need only look at Pip walking Miss Havisham around the wedding cake, Jane running into the “madwoman” in Thornfield Hall, Heathcliff calling to the departed Cathy, or Dorothea’s enthrallment to Casaubon to see that the 19th-century English novel was haunted by the Gothic imagination. (We’ll discuss the haunting of American literature when we get to the American Gothic.)
  9. Setting the Standard Before we define the American and contemporary

    incarnations of the Gothic, we need to assess the lasting legacy of the Gothic’s Golden Age. Although the term has taken on a host of new meanings since 1820, it continues to register certain elements popularized by Walpole, Lewis and Radcliffe. “Dark and stormy” settings, embattled heroines, divided hero-villains, and tales of intrigue still dominate Gothic works, seemingly despite the fact that they were already clichéd when William Beckford gave them an oriental spin in 1782. No one would claim that the following list defines the Gothic in all its literary varieties, but it does articulate key features that many writers still employ today. Snoopy—literary hack or Gothic genius?
  10. Gothic Standards: Gloomy Settings Decaying castles and crumbling abbeys eventually

    give way to mossy old manses, Victorian tenements, and lonely hotels, but Gothic works continue to include ruinous buildings replete with shadowy passageways and hidden traps. The descriptions of the dark interiors are invariably linked to the central character’s perception of those interiors, and, in select cases, the gloomy setting is actually a function of the character’s mind (see “The Yellow Wallpaper”). A menacing terrain can either complement a mysterious edifice or serve as a Gothic setting in its own right, as the dark woods do in Hawthorne’s fictive world.
  11. Gothic Standards: Traumatized Heroines If a female character isn’t a

    dangerous seductress (as Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and du Maurier’s Rebecca are), she’s bound to be a hapless victim of psychosexual terrors. Heroines of the Gothic tend to be subject to rape, abduction, and murder, and the punishments visited on the virtuous are often as gruesome and arbitrary as those brought to bear on the wicked. Ironically enough, these same tales also demonstrate the redemptive power of female virtue. Like the lone virgin girl who survives the slash-fest, certain Gothic heroines can save themselves (and possibly their loved ones) through their inherent purity.
  12. Gothic Standards: Hero-Villains Gothic literature delights in blurring the boundary

    between good and evil. Nowhere is this more evident than in the form’s reliance on the hero-villain. Lewis’ Matilda, Coleridge’s Geraldine, and LeFanu’s Carmilla may represent themselves as models of virtue when they are quite literally the devil in disguise, but the reader is never fooled by their appearance of goodness. Women in early Gothic literature tend to be either good or evil (this will change in the 20th century); men, though, tend to be both. Like the heroines of Gothic tales, the reader rarely knows if the titular hero is to be trusted, and even final demarcations of goodness are tempered by an acknowledgement of previous sin. Few works may be as explicit as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but many Gothic texts employ doppelgangers to symbolize the divided nature of their heroes. Mad, bad and dangerous to know?
  13. Gothic Standards: Tales of Intrigue Although Gothic storylines tend to

    revolve around salacious crimes, from kidnapping and murder to incest and rape, the narrative’s primary focus is often a mystery. Characters are forever looking to see what lies behind locked doors or trying to determine who has the rightful claim to an ill-fated inheritance. While there are plenty of questions about ancestral guilt and murderous culpability, the final focus of the Gothic is always the mystery of identity. Readers race through the plots in order to discover who or what is a supernatural entity, who or what is the rightful heir, and whether the hero is a hero-villain or villain-hero.
  14. Genre Writing in/and the Gothic While the Gothic can be

    considered a genre in its own right (it is often cast as a variety of “formula” or “genre” fiction), it can also be deployed as a style in various genres (novels, poems, plays, nonfiction, film) and modes (realism, stream of consciousness, expressionism, etc.). This multiplicitous manifestation may tell us more about the slipperiness of generic categories than it does about the Gothic, but it is still important to note because a critic’s deployment of generic classifications often encodes his/her valuation of the work under consideration. For the most part, “pure” instances of genre writing are considered inferior to complex uses of the Gothic style in other genres and modes (witness the different critical receptions of The Monk and Jane Eyre).
  15. American Gothic Whether the Gothic is figured as a genre

    or a style, it is commonly understood to have distinct national permutations. Critics of the English language Gothic frequently note that American Gothics developed differently from their British counterparts. While British writers were still dealing with the legacy of a medieval past, American writers were tailoring the Gothic to suit a particularly American landscape, filled with racially defined “savages,” troubled Puritan settlers, and inhospitable forests. The “ancestral curses” that loom over American protagonists frequently register the sins of the American past (the slaughter of the Native Americans, the Salem Witch trials, slavery), and the “gloomy setting” of early American Gothics is often untamed nature.
  16. Southern Gothic These national permutations can also be divided into

    regional styles. Perhaps the most significant form of American Gothic writing is the Southern Gothic. Atmospheric and often moody, these texts domesticate Gothic archetypes in realistic settings and demonstrate that there is always a threat of violence in the most mundane of activities. Southern Gothics tend to be populated by literary grotesques and explicitly thematize the problems of the New South (Southern society and culture after the Civil War). Although many practitioners of the Southern Gothic reject the term, the designation usefully defines the recurrent, macabre allegories of modern Southern writing.
  17. Other Regional and Cultural Gothics The Southern Gothic is the

    most famous articulation of a regional Gothic, but it is not the only. Critics have argued that there are a variety of Canadian Gothics, and they have attempted to demonstrate how the Irish Gothic deviates from that of the English. This critical particularization has not been limited to English language literature either. Scholars are beginning to recognize not only that various cultures have tales that could be considered Gothic, but that the wide dissemination of Anglo- American forms of Gothicism (through film and other media) has also produced a “worlding” of the Gothic form.
  18. Goth: Subcultures of Style Of course, the Gothic hasn’t just

    responded to various cultures, it has spawned a (sub)culture of its own. Like 18th century artists and intellectuals, contemporary goths define the Gothic in and on their own terms, foregoing references to the fall of Rome and specific feudal legacies to focus on the aesthetics of death and decay. This aesthetic is best represented in the goths’ fetish- ization of ghostly pallor and funereal black garb. While people within the subculture frequently read and reference classic Gothic texts, the literature produced for and by them offers a new variation of Gothic style.
  19. Goth Lit: The Stuff of Dream The goth aesthetic may

    be most evident in popular music, but it is also manifest in contemporary literature. Works written or revered by goths focus on doomed mortality (in this regard, they are latter day proponents of the Graveyard School) and celebrate deviant behavior (what the dominant culture tends to rightly or wrongly pathologize—drug use, bloodletting, S&M, necrophilia, and homosexuality). The new goth literature includes everything from Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles to the graphic masterpieces of Neil Gaiman. As Gaiman’s work demonstrates, goth fictions often eschews tales of intrigue in favor of mythopoetic worlds that render an altered (and alternative) consciousness.
  20. Postmodern Gothic Goth lit is necessarily postmodern, yet the postmodern

    Gothic denotes more than just one subculture of style. The term refers to any Gothic work that exhibits one or more feature of postmodern writing: metafictive self- reflexivity, a crisis in referentiality, depthlessness, pastiche, the purposeful breakdown between “high” and “low” art, suspicion of coherent subjectivity and objective truth, and/or ontological instability. Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Schrödinger’s Cat” (a peculiarly postmodern blend of quantum sci fi and Gothic narrative) are all example of the postmodern Gothic.
  21. The Uncanny Afterlife of the Gothic Much like the zombie,

    the Gothic steadfastly refuses to die. In many ways, it continues to live because successive periods and people rewrite it in their own image. This mutability does not make the term meaningless (various revisions draw on what came before), but it does make it difficult to definitively define. Current Gothic works can resurrect the past, conform to the exigencies of the present, or create future or mythic dreamscapes, all in the name of the same style of writing. One can only guess what subsequent generations will do with this protean mode of expression.
  22. The end?