Decay in Gothic Settings, Characters and Narrative

Snorri Sigurðsson

Snorri Sigurðsson

The various settings in the Gothic do take many forms. The setting and its expression is nearly as varied as the characters which are found in the Gothic, while there is a commonality found in the various settings, that which Hogle described as an “antiquated or seemingly antiquated space.” Another description which is suggested here is that of decay being a significant element in the setting, characters or narrative.

Decay is here understood as meaning both decline and decomposition but with greater emphasis on the decline-understanding. The choice of this word can be explained by considering the narrative in The Castle of Otranto where Manfred’s rule is undermined and in a constant state of decay due to his knowledge of the prophecy that “ the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it” (Walpole 17).

Manfred’s knowledge of this prophecy and the early introduction of the giant helmet, this coupled with the death of his son and his subsequent actions suggest that the trauma of the events has initiated a state of mental decline for Manfred, leading ultimately to his destruction. Further support for this argument of decay’s importance to the Gothic can be found by considering the settings in The Castle of Otranto, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

The setting of The Castle of Otranto is, of course, a castle, thus in accordance with Hogle’s criteria above, as well as containing subterranean passages (the tunnel which Isabella escapes through) and these attributes in the physical setting of the narrative remain classic in the genre, and from these and more, later authors have evolved the broader and more diverse selection of narrative settings.

The setting in the Gothic is of great importance; the architectural connection discussed above supports this line of argument and can be seen in the care which is taken to describe it in Gothic narratives. One example is how Edgar Allan Poe immediately establishes a suitably Gothic setting: “the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few with trunks of decayed trees” (171)

In connection to this passage, the concept of abjection again becomes of interest. The setting described is far from hospitable or welcoming, as is remarked upon by the narrator, who describes a feeling of: “utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil” (Poe 171). The items described are comparable to those traits which are abjected into characters, that is, they are things which do not conform to a socially accepted norm.

In addition to differing from ‘normal’ settings the Gothic setting also contributes, to a varying degree, to the emotional stimuli required to achieve the sublime effect. Descriptions of gloom, desolation, terror, etc., create an emotional response similar to that which is created when confronting an audience with the abnormal, here used to describe that which is abjected. It would be possible to critique either of these elements if either were singled out to be solely defining of the Gothic, but combined they create a psychological environment which makes the audience more susceptible and more open to achieving the desired effect.

What is important is the manner in which abjection and setting, when combined, reinforce the psychological stimuli of the narrative, creating a greater tension; how it works in unison to increase said tension, how it as a part of a whole with other factors that make up the Gothic.

An example that supports this reasoning is the setting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in which the interaction of the protagonist with the setting leads to the protagonist becoming mentally unstable, if not clinically insane. Where the antiquity of the previous examples was established by the descriptions in the course of the narratives, Gilman establishes the setting’s antiquity by describing it as an “ancestral hall” and “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” (141), thus establishing the location of the narrative as a place of history, carefully not disclosing any detailed information, thereby making it anonymous as well as distinct. In addition to this, the narrator suggests that the building is a “haunted house” (141) whereby a foundation is laid for the possible inclusion of supernatural or fantastic content and the audience is thus duly prepared for such occurrences.

Perkins Gilman describes the main setting of the narrative as: “a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

The paint and paper look as if a boy’s school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin… [the pattern is] pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.” (142-143)

In this description, Perkins Gilman even further interweaves the psychological influences of the setting, characters and narrative in her description. The dislike that the protagonist expresses can be read as a sign that the disorder and madness she perceives within the pattern is in fact effected by her abjection of her own emotional and mental state.

In a similar manner, as mental instability is a trait which is often abjected, mental illness is a trait which is frowned upon according to general Western norms. As such, the protagonist represses her own perceived internal conflict and projects it onto an external inanimate object (compare to statuary in The Castle of Otranto, the monster in Frankenstein) and the manner in which Gilman achieves the sublime effect is by describing the protagonist’s observation of and interaction with the wallpaper.

A suggested interpretation is that the wallpaper, as the vessel of abjection, is seen as the unconscious, while the protagonist’s journal entries may be read as the conscious, and thus that the narrative be seen as a clash of the conscious and the unconscious. Steven Bruhm describes what he considers to be central to the Gothic, as “the very process of psychic life that for Freud defines the human conditions. While the id finds its narrative expression in the insatiable drives of the desiring organism… the superego takes monstrous form in the ultrarational, cultured figures….The battle for supremacy between the ravenous id and the controlling superego translates in myriad ways into the conflicts of the Gothic.” (261-262)

This, in the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a clear example of how the setting of the narrative is an integral part of the process which the Gothic utilizes to achieve its intended effect, to stimulate the primal birth memory by creating a fictional situation in which the end result is an emotional stimulus which creates a sublime effect within the audience.

As the wallpaper’s pattern represents the unconscious id battling the conscious ego and superego, which is represented by the journal entries; the pattern is also representing the decline of the protagonist’s mental health in its chaotic and random design – the same design further emphasising the battle that goes on in the narrative.

The fear of mental instability being that which is abjected in the narrative and the fear of becoming mad, joined with the thrill of witnessing the protagonist’s path to madness cooperates to create the sublime effect.

This, as madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, is shown as the destruction of the self and the free will, leaving only the compulsion to follow the pattern: to lack free will is to lack life. To be dead.

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