There is no doubt that the Gothic as a mode or genre, much like many of its representative texts, engenders feelings of dread and confusion among readers due to its inherent ambiguity; as the respected Gothic critic David Punter has rightly observed, the Gothic is a term which has “a wide variety of meanings.” This is compounded by the fact that literary Gothic is so often associated with locales imbued with a mysterious antiquity. So how can a nation and a region which is supposedly “historyless,” which lacks ruins, which stresses rationality, progress, optimism and a belief in the future be said to have a Gothic literary tradition?
This paradoxical ambiguity has been observed by Donald Ringe who in his study ‘American Gothic’ acknowledges the following about the nation’s founding fathers: “Americans were thoroughly imbued with eighteenth-century thought. They shared a common belief in the primary value of reason, the absurdity of mythology, and the danger of superstition. They dismissed ghosts, goblins and witches as the relics of a more credulous age and were proud of the fact that American society had been formed when such phenomena were no longer credited and tales of superstition had been relegated to the nursery […] If their writing was to reflect the national experience, it would have to be based on a fundamental rationalism and to depict realistically the actualities of American life.”
Donald Ringe’s study explores the contradictory reasons why the Gothic flourished in a nation that placed such a heavy emphasis on Enlightenment values based on the empirical and the rational. We should note that the politically independent nation is almost as old as the genre itself, especially if we accept the common critical assumption that the literary Gothic came into being with the publication of Horatio Walpole’s novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764. So we encounter our first significant paradox here; the nation that espoused equality and freedom also initiated a Gothic tradition that articulated cultural anxieties about denial and marginalization that was a direct result of the culturally enshrined narratives that were meant to have the opposite effect.
The paradoxes keep revealing themselves if we turn our attention to the South. From its very inception, the South created a mythology for itself (one thinks of Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ here with its utopian vision of independent yeoman farmers striving for perfectibility) that was predicated on the vision of a settled, stable and unchanging region based upon agrarian values. The South has always been engaged in its own historical process of mythological construction which counters Donald Ringe’s claim in the quote cited above. The old antebellum South was nothing but a myth, and its narrative of a supposedly halcyon past concealed all manner of social, familial and of course racial denials and suppressions. All of these progressive cultural narratives naturally have their flipside and the Southern Gothic set to work by exposing their abuses and silences. As Allan Lloyd Smith has insightfully acknowledged, the Gothic “is about the return of the past, of the repressed and denied, the buried secret that subverts and corrodes the present, whatever the culture does not want to know or admit, will not or dare not tell itself,” and that Southern (and American Gothic for that matter) subsequently “explores the tensions between a culturally sanctioned progressive optimism and an actual dark legacy.”
The final two words from Allan Lloyd Smith’s second quotation (“dark legacy”) are obviously loaded with significance for our purposes here. The “dark legacy” explored by Southern Gothicists primarily had to (and still does) engage with the legacy of slavery which stood as the most obvious rebuke to the nation’s cultural narratives of equality and rationality. The “dark legacy” which still informs the Southern Gothic is therefore racial, political, moral, religious, spatial and even environmental in nature. It is ironic that narratives of liberty (be they political, spiritual or spatial) turn out to be narratives that imprison, and this critical debate continues to frame discussions of the region’s literature. Reason stifles rather than liberates; “darkness” is racial as much is it moral, and it results in a culturally sanctioned violence; the region’s fabled agrarian idyll provides a palimpsest for Gothic settings but they eventually exhaust themselves which results in dispossession and alienation, and what one critic has referred to as the “God-intoxicated atmosphere” of the South has generated a healthy amount of critical attention as practitioners of Southern Gothic subject their characters too often macabre searches for spiritual salvation.
So whilst Southern Gothic may not have had the ruined castles, mysterious Catholic practices or decaying aristocratic dynasties that were utilized by early Dollarspean literary Gothicists such as Horatio Walpole, Ann Radcliffe or Matthew Lewis it did have its own source of blackness, which was “not simply [identified] with evil but with racial blackness.” As an imaginative category “blackness” is, therefore, the central concern in many of the critical discourses about Southern Gothic. In her analysis of the “recovered” text, ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative,’ Teresa A. Goddu has claimed that the mode “tells stories of racial desire and dread” and that the Gothic becomes the “mode through which to speak what often remains unspeakable within the American national narrative — the crime of slavery.” Teresa A. Goddu continues to make the crucial point that the primary cultural and political anxiety that Southern Gothic seeks to articulate and redress is of course slavery, arguing that “the ghostly origins of the nation” arise from the “oppressive social structure of slavery” and that a foundational theme of Southern Gothic is the revelation that the nation is “built on economic exploitation and racial terror.”
Critical consensus reveals that the novel through which these themes — the terrors of racial subjugation, the legacy of slavery, the persistence of historical memory, the ability of a dark past to rupture contemporary reality and distort reconstituted subjectivities — receives its most sophisticated treatment in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’ We should acknowledge that although large parts of the novel are set in Cincinnati the location of the acute psychological trauma experienced by Sethe and other significant characters is Kentucky and Georgia. The ghostly personification of ‘Beloved,’ the daughter of Sethe, who chose to kill her rather than expose her to the horrors of slavery, returns to haunt Sethe and her new family where they are supposedly living as “free” citizens. The reappearance of ‘Beloved’ of course reminds us of the ideological function of the supernatural and ghosts as they “are never just ghosts; they provide us with an insight into what haunts our culture,” and it allows Toni Morrison to investigate the legacy of slavery by critiquing binarisms such as salve and free, past and present, corporeal and spectral and so on.
Critics have also observed how ‘Beloved’ has made another notable contribution to the Southern Gothic as it shows “American history as a haunted house.” This achieves two things; Toni Morrison is able to demonstrate through a fragmented and polyphonic narrative structure how the pain of a regional and indeed national trauma can still impede upon individual lives, and it can do that by invading the site (the domestic) that is held up to be an impregnable refuge against such horrors. For Fred Botting this fact accounts for the novel’s enduring appeal; “The haunted house, and the ghostly reminder of transgression which inhabits it, provides the scene for a narrative that moves between the past and the present to uncover, in the interweaving of a repressed individual history with a suppressed cultural history, the external and internal effects of racial oppression.”
‘Beloved’ is also significant in terms of how it contemporized the critical and theoretical approaches to Gothic. This is most evident in how the novel is ripe for what are quite often sophisticated psychoanalytical and postmodernist or poststructuralist readings which focus on the treatment of fragmented subjectivities and how language strains to record (and is perhaps incapable) of documenting the horrors at the heart of the novel. Two ideas from two theorists come to mind here, namely Julia Kristeva’s theory of the “abject” and Jacques Marie Émile Lacan’s concept of the “Real.” For Julia Kristeva, the abject can be read as something that “from its place of banishment […] does not stop challenging its master,” and Toni Morrison’s novel succeeds in challenging the South’s dark “master” narrative of racial subjugation, violence and exclusion.
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan’s concept of the “Real” is arguably more challenging but it allows us to see how the subject matter of ‘Beloved’ demands but also resists representation. Eric Savoy articulates the applicability of the “Real” as follows: “The historical dimension of American Gothic is entirely congruent with the notion of the Real — of the myriad things and amorphous physicality beyond representation that haunt our subjectivity and demand our attention that compels us to explanatory language but resist the strategies of that language.” Whilst undoubtedly complex and harrowing the overview of responses to ‘Beloved’ allows us to see how Southern Gothic is able to maintain an engaging historicist interest through its articulation of a deep-rooted cultural anxiety; it also demonstrates Gothic’s continued relevance to contemporary critical debates.