The New Psychological Spaces for the American Gothic

The New Psychological Spaces for the American Gothic
© Photograph by Glenn DiPaola

Upon approaching the subject of the American Gothic short story, one encounters diverse places in which the narratives take place: different geographies, cartographies and spaces that define the atmosphere of the stories themselves.

To map these stories would mean to wander through hectic full-grown cities and intimate households. These new cartographies stray away from the traditional Gothic settings of the eighteenth-century, such as the castle, the dungeon or the dark forest, intertwining psychology and geography. It is the mind of the characters within the texts that defines and even modifies the space.

Furthermore, it is only through the character’s mind that the reader visualises the setting. Therefore, space becomes subjective and psychological, and the boundaries between reality and unreality are constantly trespassed.

The houses and cities represented in the stories appear to reflect the character’s state of mind through the colours of the buildings or the walls, the citizens or the overall appearance of the setting. Thus, the places they inhabit become projections of their own being.

In ‘The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity Steve Pile states’, ‘a simultaneously geographical and psychoanalytic imagination will say something significant about the body and the city,’ thus corroborating the possibility of such connection. He later affirms that “psychoanalysis is, after all, a spatial discipline.”

In modern times, amongst great masses of people, fast-paced life and huge buildings, the vision of space becomes dynamic, dangerous and heterogeneous in its colour, its streets, its transport and even its people. The Gothic response to this is to internalise these chaotic visions and create subjective geographies, coping thus with the vastness and plurality of the new metropolis and the new rhythms of life.

This way, Gothic reinvents and adapts itself to the new times. As Catherine Spooner indicates, “in the brash new world of motor travel, aviation, female emancipation, accelerated consumption and global warfare the standard Gothic props of medieval castles and fainting maidens seemed creaky and hollow.”

So narrative representations of space are modernised and choose cities and domestic houses over abandoned castles or isolated cemeteries. The short story genre begins to flourish; as Elaine Showalter explains, “short stories seemed attuned to the pace and intensity of modern life.” In this way, both form and content become updated, tackling modernity’s speed.

In addition, the rise of modern sciences such as psychology and psychiatry, as well as psychoanalysis, translates to Gothic literature, whose mentally abnormal characters view the space around them through processes of distortion and hallucination, of repression and recurrence.

This study will explore Sigmund Freud’s writings on the notion of das Unheimliche, the uncanny, in relation to modern Gothic narratives.

Freud describes “the uncanny” as “something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression,” through the repression of an “emotional impulse” that transforms into a source of “anxiety” and this uncanniness permeates modern approaches to the Gothic genre.

Whether a country house in the middle of nowhere, or a crowded street surrounded by tall buildings, the characters manage to make their own interpretations of their surroundings, dragging the readers with them towards their vision of the world, trapping them in those surreal and unnerving locations that present nightmarish qualities.

Based on these themes, this study delves into the minds and spaces of the following short stories: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Fritz Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’ (1941) and Peter Straub’s ‘A Short Guide to the City’ (1990). These stories represent different stages of modernisation: from the immersion into Freudian psychoanalysis to the reflection of the impact of a post-industrial city on society.

Needless to say, this progression rejects the idea of modernisation as a positive change towards the better, the safer or the stronger. On the contrary, it leads to darker, more horrifying and dehumanised worlds, from which one cannot do anything but recoil.

By analysing the psychological as well as the social elements of modernity, this study will establish deep connections between these internal and external factors. Changes occur within the minds of the characters of the stories, but also among society as a whole.

Both changes reflect on each other and have consequences on an individual and a collective scale.

This analysis will begin inside a domestic space, a nursery room, inside the mind of a female character and will end with the representation of a decaying post-industrial city, entering criminal districts and the minds of marginal social groups.

The examination of both elements of modernity becomes relevant in order to understand from where these unnerving stories and characters emerge. Beginning with a domestic and interior setting, this study will analyse the famous short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ Herein we find an unnamed woman who is suffering from postpartum depression isolated in a country house. In the nursery room in which she is forced to stay, she becomes obsessed with certain patterns in the wallpaper and its yellowish colour, which become central elements in the story. The wife protagonist then begins to see figures behind these patterns, hallucinations produced by her imprisonment.

Both the colour of the wallpaper and the female figures she sees behind it seem to represent projections of the wife herself. On the one hand, the colour yellow has always been related to ideas of sickness and decay, which are both characteristics of the woman’s upset state of mind.

In ‘The Culture Yellow or the Visual Politics of Late Modernity’, Sabine Dora states, “historically, in Western culture, yellow […] is also the colour of death, decay, and excrement (a figure of negativity).”

Accordingly, in Gilman’s story, it is a colour which is described as “a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others” or “a smouldering unclean yellow,” descriptions which evoke sickness and decay.

At one point in the story, it seems the wife is even able to smell the colour, as if it were rotten: “there is something else about that paper – the smell! […] The only thing I can think of that it is like is the colour of the paper! A yellow smell.” This conjures up the smell of sickness, of decomposition, of dirtiness. As the narrator describes it, “the colour is repellent, almost revolting.”

This inanimate wallpaper slowly acquires anthropomorphic forms. The wife firstly distinguishes “two bulbous eyes (that) stare at you upside down,” or “unblinking eyes (that) are everywhere,”. These unsettling, repetitive and disturbing visions culminate in a female figure.

This figure behind the wallpaper is caged inside it and is desperately trying to force its way out, which is exactly what the wife is experiencing in the nursery room, feeling trapped and unable to escape the prison-like space.

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