The Gothic

“Gothic signifies a writing of excess. It appears in the awful obscurity that haunted eighteenth-century rationality and morality. It shadows the despairing ecstasies of Romantic idealism and individualism and the uncanny dualities of Victorian realism and decadence. Gothic atmospheres—gloomy and mysterious—have repeatedly signaled the disturbing return of pasts upon presents and evoked emotions of terror and laughter.” (Fred Botting 1) from Gothic (1996)

A Gothic “Tool Kit”

  • Transgression: Breaking the rules; alternative forms of knowledge such as a fondness for supernatural prophecy; fragmented narratives
  • Moral ambiguity: While Gothic novels often have religious backdrops, the distinction between good and evil is often left ambiguous. Gothic novels as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk employ the symbolism of dark veils to assert the powers of good and evil.
  • Prophecies and curses: evoking the past to understand the present (can you think of moments in Dracula when this happens?
  • Character Doubling: Gothic heroine vs. her evil foil, you get the picture;
  • Ominous settings: ruins, graveyards, haunted castles, and other great places for repressed passions and guilt to resurface
  • Contradictory Forces: The blending of seeming opposites: desire and disgust aesthetic and political, beautiful and terrible, sublime and grotesque.

Terror vs. Horror

The Gothic revival of the early-nineteenth century created some important distinctions among writers and readers of Gothic fiction, which was initially divided into two basic categories: The School or Terror and the School of Horror. Terror was associated with Ann Radcliffe’s fiction while Horror was aligned with the extravagant images of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Unlike Radliffe, Lewis did not give rational explanations for the supernatural events described in his novels. Stephen King, in his recent introduction to Lewis’ novel, remarks that Radcliffe “raised before our wincing eyes and then dispelled” events that held a suggestion of supernatural intrigue (King vii). Lewis, though he was certainly moved by Radcliffe’s novels of Gothic “terror,” ultimately rejected their artificial endings, their tendency to rationalize away the compelling suggestion of the supernatural in order to engage the imagination and preserve the intellect. Lewis’s alternative tale of “horror” threatened to obliterate the intellect altogether, even as he introduced a new type of Gothic form “that was still in an exhilarating state of flux” (viii). By taking Radcliffe’s supernatural suggestion to obscene extreme, The Monk offered up a tale of Gothic excess in which “the worst thing we can imagine not only happens [but is] only the beginning.” (King vii). (Despite his rejection of Radcliffe’s conservative novels, Lewis remained deeply influenced by such Radcliffean characters as Montoni, the lurid monk from The Mysteries of Udolfo.)

Gothic Ballads

Gothic ballads, typically set in foreign, picturesque, and geographically ambiguous locales, were often filled with “dark subterranean vaults, decaying abbeys, gloomy forests, jagged mountains, and wild scenery inhabited by bandits, persecuted heroines, orphans, and malevolent aristocrats” (Botting 44), not to mention crafty women masquerading as tempting virgins. Such familiar Gothic machinery satisfied a growing nostalgia for an idealized past, one that was imagined in the Gothic ballad’s portrayal of the ceaseless romance.

The Gothic Genre

The Gothic mode in literature appears throughout numerous genres and historical periods. This mode frequently combines conflicting concerns with rationalism and supernaturalism and its fondness for irregularity and ambiguity. Michael Gamer’s, in his book Romanticism and the Gothic, considers the cultural taste for Gothic, exotic, and sensational forms and subjects. By calling attention to nineteenth-century experimentation with rigid conceptions of form and genre, Gamer reveals how the Gothic genre became for nineteenth-century writers “a way not only of targeting a particular audience but also of…negotiating between audiences, as writers demarcate their texts with multiple genres in order to propose pacts with multiple audiences” (Gamer 47). Gamer’s argument takes us back to Jacques Derrida’s famous essay, “The Law of Genre,” where he explains how all texts become immersed in several genres at once, resulting neither in a sense of belonging nor a lack of genre: “Putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, it engenders, [genre] cuts a strange figure; a formless form, it remains nearly invisible, it neither sees the day nor brings itself to light” (Derrida 78-79).

The Gothic Revival

Three years before the appearance of Thomas Percy’s Reliques, which led to on the longest Gothic ballad revivals in British history, Richard Hurd’s Letters of Chivalry and Romance (1762) explored “the decline and rejection of the Gothic taste” (Hurd 5) in our own “politer age” (4). By considering the non-barbarous origins of the “remarkable institution of Chivalry,” Hurd argues that the “fire” of Romance burned long after the “genius” of Gothic Chivalry had “spent itself” (3). Praising sixteenth-century writers for their proficient use of a Gothic poetics, Hurd reveals how writers such as Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, and Milton were greatly “seduced by these barbarities” (4) and, in turn, helped to sustain the “charmed spirit” contained within “a world of fine fabling” (120). Hurd ushered in a distinctly racialized poetics that celebrated the rude and “native” language of the Gothic as well as the classical Greek. Laura Doyle’s “The Racial Sublime” connects revivalist texts including Percy’s Reliques and Hurd’s Letters to a “new Western imagery of racial origins” (22). She argues that Romantic writers recall “brooding, wild, once-conquered, ‘Gothic’ races of their own lands and then… refashioned this savage figure into the imperial, metaphysical, civilized European, fit to conquer and uplift the savages of other lands” (Doyle 16). Romantic revivals of the ballad, including Hurd’s Letters and Percy’s Reliques, further intensified the “charmed spirit” of Gothic novels and ballads in spite of “philosophy and fashion” (Hurd 120).

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Botting, Fred. Gothic. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Trans. Avital Ronell. Glyph 7 (1980): 55-81.
  • Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • King, Stephen. “Introduction.” The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. v-xv.
  • O’Malley, Patrick R. Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
  • Punter, David, ed. A Companion to the Gothic. London: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, eds. Victorian Gothic. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
  • Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic Flame. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1997.
  • Williams, Anne. The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
  • Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

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