The Creeping Re-Making Meaning in the Gothic Novel

Jarlath Killeen

Jarlath Killeen

In a powerful study of horror narrative, Roger B. Salomon complains about a “rage for explanation” in accounts of the genre and insists that horror is precisely that which is beyond elucidation, proclaiming proudly that in his own study he will “eschew explanation, dealing with what I consider a phenomenon of experience that cannot be explained”.

Matt Hills has devoted an entire book to the “pleasures of” rather than the reasons for horror and spends a great deal of time undermining approaches to horror which emphasise the cognitive and psychoanalytic “meanings” supposedly motivating horror stories, warning that such analyses often manage to bypass affect, which he considers one of horror’s defining features.

Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall had earlier cautioned against the tendency of critics to diagnose the Gothic as a symptom of bourgeois anxiety and a means of mapping the fault lines of a dominant culture. For both, it is not “the ‘business’ of Gothic fiction to ‘articulate’ or ‘negotiate’ anxieties” but rather “to be scary or sensational”, which “does not amount to the same thing”. In the race to explain, critics ended up explaining away.

Interestingly, it has very often been an Irish Gothic masterpiece which has served as the battleground on which the opponents of interpretation have (to coin a phrase) staked their claims.

Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) has been one of the most (over?) analysed texts in the history of Gothic criticism, and there is no sign of this interpretive attention waning any time soon. The fanged Count has been made to serve as the locus for countless late Victorian concerns, and he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to mutate into almost anything: Irish landlord, peasant, Jew, proletarian, sexual deviant and liberator, New Woman, mother, menstruating woman, medieval aristocrat, terrorist, and anything else you can think of.

Many have become increasingly frustrated with this interpretive slipperiness, particularly when the possible sexual meaning of particular scenes and images are made explicit by overenthusiastic analysts. Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller berated the critics in a barnstormingly entertaining survey revealingly called ‘Sense and Nonsense’ (2006), and in a later article she fantasised about “a Dracula in which wooden stakes are wooden stakes, and blood is merely blood […] not an easy task when we consider the extent to which the text has been pushed to the brink of total libidinal abandon”. She warned that “sexual readings of Dracula owe as much to the tenor of the readers” times as they do to the original text.

In fact, some reflect the late twentieth-century’s voyeuristic obsession with sexuality in all its forms, coupled with a determination to project (sometimes in condescending fashion) its own self-proclaimedly sophisticated and liberated views onto a text (and an author) shaped by what is viewed as late Victorian repression.

In a similarly exasperated vein, countering the more sex-saturated readings of Stoker’s novel, Robert Mighall insisted that “Dracula is a horror story about vampires”, not sex, and that rather than depicting a graphic gang-rape reinforcing a repressive Victorian regime on a “suddenly sexual woman”, “the scene in the crypt depicts a vampire-slaying . . . [and] Lucy is a vampire who is being destroyed according to the method prescribed by folklore”.

For this school of criticism, sometimes a stake really is just a stake. Although psychoanalytic readings of Gothic have borne most of the brunt of this scepticism, it is the critical act of apparently dissolving the Gothic text into (interpretive) context that is the actual target. In a now-infamous attack on the work of Stephen King, the commentator Don Herron berated the novelist for precisely his tendency to write as if for an audience of scholar fans, complaining he had “never read fiction as ready-made for critical explication as King’s […] he loads his work with themes, recurring motifs, cross-references. In essays and books he endorses the idea of a ‘subtext’ — important adult concerns about politics, relationships, or economics which invest an otherwise popular novel or film with serious intent”.

For Herron, such interpretive “subtext” is a way of evading the main function of a horror writer, which is to scare the hell out of the reader, and instead appeals to the intellect rather than the gut. While this “appeases the academic mind […] which seeks propaganda in everything it reads”, it betrays the genre itself, which is about horrifying readers and not making them muse on social or psychosexual anxieties.

Herron’s attack on King, however, reminds us that despite the current scepticism about cognitive accounts of horror, some practitioners write precisely in order to comment on social, political and cultural issues and that to ignore this fact would be to misrepresent the genre.

The concern expressed by the likes of Miller, Mighall and Herron emerges from a long-standing one in literary studies regarding the limits of interpretation and the duties of a literary critic towards the text being interpreted. A consistent worry has been that many critics are exceeding the proper limits of interpretation, that they are guilty of in some way breeching interpretive decorum in pushing explanation as far as it can go. Specifically, in terms of the Irish Gothic, the charge has been that many of us are guilty of seeing Ireland and Irish issues everywhere we look — of imposing an Irish context on literature that is really uninterested in Ireland. It should be noted, however, that sometimes Ireland pops up in a novel when least expected.

Very late in the plot of Regina Maria Roche’s ‘Clermont’ (1798) (a text which resides in the cultural memory now only as one of the Northanger Novels) it is revealed that the mysterious past of Madeline, the heroine’s father, the Clermont of the title, involves a hidden Irish subversive past. His wife, Madeline’s mother, was one Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Dunlere, an exiled Irish supporter of James II, of whom he was a “zealous” follower.

Suddenly — as if out of nowhere — the heroine’s family becomes implicated in Jacobite sympathy, and for a novel published in the year of the 1798 rebellion, this connection has political implications far beyond the working out of the plot. By naming her heroine’s Irish mother Geraldine, Roche connects her to the Norman Fitzgerald family, the earls of Kildare and the dukes of Leinster, and indirectly too Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leading member of the Society of United Irishmen, deeply involved in the military organisation of the rebellion, and notorious in the 1790s as a political radical and separatist.

Indeed, in using such a name Roche’s novel may slip from Jacobitism into covert Jacobinism. Later, Maria Edgeworth would also code Fitzgerald into the politics of her novel ‘Ennui’, whose character Lady Geraldine is highly critical of distorted travel narratives of Irish society. Ireland can, then, catch the reader unawares, and knowing this may make many Irish studies critics sceptical when told they are overstepping the interpretive mark.

In an article on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ (1871), William Hughes advises against what he considers a rather too hasty tendency of critics who come from within the discipline of Irish studies to allow their interpretive lens to be conditioned by the demands of the discipline itself.

For Hughes, the misreading of Irish Gothic is due to (political) demands generated by the academy: “Within the institution of Irish Studies, it might be suggested, a subtle pressure is all too often brought to bear, its imperative being to reclaim such writers as Le Fanu, Stoker and Wilde as generically or distinctively Irish writers, even where their literary productions were shaped by a London-oriented publishing industry as much as by an Anglo-Irish selfhood predicated upon educational and behavioural co-ordinates which link the Irish ascendancy to its English counterpart.”

There are a number of problems with the extract just quoted, not least Hughes’s rather too casual use of terms like “Anglo-Irish” and “ascendancy”, terms which have been subject to a great deal of scrutiny from Irish historians and critics over at least four decades and which would only be used about figures like the thoroughly middle class Le Fanu, Wilde and Stoker with caution and qualification.

However, Hughes’s concern is certainly understandable, and perhaps Irish studies critics have been rather too eager to comprehend the work of canonical figures like the writers mentioned in an exclusively Irish context, though this too is not all that surprising given the institutional weight accorded to approaches which elide rather than explore precisely that context.

Since so many critics have been content to pretend that Ireland does not even exist in terms of these writers, or that it is at best a “background” to be left behind as quickly as possible, the contrary tendency to over-emphasise Ireland in New Historicist terms is only to be expected.

Moreover, and this is a point that really should not have to be made at this stage, but which, perhaps, it may be worth stating bluntly here: reading these texts and writers in relation to Ireland is not in any way an attempt to claim that other issues and other places should be ignored.

Irish studies has done us all the critical favour of returning an Irish dimension to authors and texts that had been read for decades as if Ireland were completely marginal to interpretation, and demonstrating the complexity of the ways in which instead it is an (often shadowy) presence. If, at times, it is necessary to argue that one interpretation necessarily rules out another, then this is a matter of sifting the evidence rather than declaring out of-hand that the political or institutional gravitation of a large body of critics (most of whom disagree with each other vehemently) is, in effect, queering the pitch and distorting the evidence.

Richard Haslam has been to the fore in cautioning against what he sees as very problematic “Irish” readings of Gothic texts by Irish writers, and in a number of interventions he has set out to rein in the interpretive over-enthusiasm of Irish studies critics (including myself).

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