Evolution of Gothicism in the British Novel and Visual Art

Evolution of Gothicism in the British Novel and Visual Art
© Photograph by Lobotomist Fotografie

In Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, ‘Dracula’ (1897), the Count turns and threatens his pursuers, claiming “‘[m]y revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side’” (263). The myth of the vampire — and particularly Stoker’s contributions to the myth — serves as an effective metaphor for the very genre of Gothicism in which that myth frequently appears. Stoker’s Count Dracula can change into a bat, a wolf, a pack of rats, or even a cloud of mist.

Like the vampire, Gothicism is a shapeshifter, with seemingly eternal life. Gothicism can appear in multiple forms, and it can also span over multiple time periods and disciplines, existing in a constant state of reanimation, much like the undead vampire, zombie, mummy, golem, Frankenstein’s monster, or multitude of other characters that populate the pages of Gothic novels, the media of visual art, and the celluloid of Gothic films.

Indeed, Gothicism has appeared in many forms and disciplines, ranging from various iterations in visual art, film, historical representations, and also various literary representations across poem and prose. If anything, Gothicism can be viewed as an example of the evolution of the history of ideas, as expressed by Arthur O. Lovejoy in ‘The Great Chain of Being’ (1936): “Finally, it is a part of the eventual task of the history of ideas to apply its own distinctive analytic method in the attempt to understand how new beliefs and intellectual fashions are introduced and diffused, to help to elucidate the psychological character of the processes by which changes in the vogue and influence of ideas have come about; to make clear, if possible, how conceptions dominant, or extensively prevalent, in one generation lose their hold upon men’s minds and give place to others.” (Lovejoy 20)

Gothicism can indeed be understood as an intellectual fashion that has changed in vogue and influence from its conception to its intellectual position in current society, as well as in relation to its many changes and stages of evolution over the centuries.

Gothicism is more profound than its flashier, more well-known supernatural signifiers — ghosts, goblins, demons, etc. — as, despite its shape-shifting, interdisciplinary tendencies, it has at least maintained several core principles and ideas that not only connect the various manifestations of the Gothic throughout history and discipline, but that also reveal the Gothic to be far more philosophical than typically thought.

At its most basic, the primary and most consistent idea represented by and explored in the Gothic is the concept of fear. Sigmund Freud attempts to explore this idea of fear in his analysis of the uncanny: “[The uncanny] is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certain, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” (Freud 219)

Even more specifically, the Gothic is primarily concerned with the fear of the Other. The Other is most often that which is unknown, as humanity tends to fear the unknown. Freud further explains this fear of the unknown concerning the uncanny: “The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’], ‘heimisch’ [‘native’] — the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening, however; the relation is not capable of inversion. We can only say that what is novel can easily become frightening and uncanny; some new things are frightening but not by any means all. Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.” (Freud 220-221)

This concept of the fear of the Other is also consistently enhanced by the theme of darkness, as the Gothic is almost inconceivable without its connection to darkness and its many connotations such as death, evil, immorality, and the mysterious. The dark, feared Other can also be related to aesthetics, whether it be a recognisable negative aesthetic of ugliness and dirtiness/unclean, or a sometimes even more feared positive aesthetic of beauty that masks an evil, immoral, and therefore ugly and dirty/unclean negative aesthetic.

Furthermore, the role of the feared Other often creates a sense of duality or the double in the Gothic. This Other that is discovered and consequently feared is in many ways consistent with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic discussion of the mirror stage, as Lacan argues that “the I is precipitated in a primordial from, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores it, in the universal, its function as subject” (549). As Dale Townshend points out, “Lacanian conceptualizations of the subconscious seem particularly suited to a reading of the Gothic: if the Other is the lost and censored chapter of history, it is much like the truth of the Gothic manuscript, both truthful and frustratingly incomplete, and long hidden from the light of conscious exposure” (36).

Also from a psychoanalytic perspective, Freud’s discussion of the uncanny is again relevant to the Gothic, as he argues that the “‘double’ has become a thing of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons” (236). Such dualities as good/evil, moral/immoral, God/Satan, angel/demon, creator/monster, master/golem, man/wolf, man/vampire, man/zombie, and various other dualities incorporating dead/living/undead are all highly recognisable binary constructs of the Gothic.

Likewise, these Gothic binaries, dualities, and doublings are based on varying positions of power, as power and the way power is perceived is another major idea that is at stake in the Gothic. While, again, the role of the supernatural in the Gothic is typically its most recognizable trait — as Srdjan Smajić points out, “[i]t is difficult […] to think of the nineteenth-century novel apart from the gothic and the ghostly” — all of these above ideas and themes are by no means limited within the realm of the supernatural.

As the Gothic evolves, the idea of the dark, feared Other is extended beyond the supernatural and can be applied to the concepts of race, class, gender and sexuality. And as the Gothic extends beyond the supernatural to more real-world applications, not only does the Gothic become more associated with realism, but it also becomes associated with a form of scare tactic, or “modes of ‘social control’” (Miller viii), as D.A. Miller describes in ‘The Novel and the Police’ (1988).

Realism uses the Gothic oftentimes as a scare tactic to promote social change, but such a social agenda tends to be positive. Eventually, as the Gothic evolves throughout the nineteenth century, its more divisive ideas and themes of fear, darkness, and fear of the Other — along with the Gothic’s connotations with morality, aesthetics, and power — are ironically used to promote more inclusive ideas and themes of humanity and human fellowship.

The central question of this dissertation asks why and how the Gothic novel changed and evolved during the nineteenth-century? Of particular interest will be the role of the natural in this evolution: in terms of nature, the nature of man and man’s social relations, as well as natural science, and particularly Naturalism.

These issues will be at stake throughout the discussion of this dissertation, as well as those ideas and themes related to the Gothic, such as fear, darkness, the supernatural, aesthetics, the position of power, the Other, the Gothic double, and other dualities. David Punter observes that “the number of Gothic novels written in the period from the 1790s to the 1820s was colossal” (‘The Literature of Terror’ 130). This dissertation will initially explore how the Gothic novel evolved from a mainly formulaic form of popular fiction rooted in sensationalism to a form that resists or rejects this formulaic nature.

This dissertation further considers other key moments of Gothic transformation, such as Walter Scott’s historicizing of Gothicism, and also the role of Gothic parody as primarily represented by Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ (1818). This transformation towards a historicization and parody of the Gothic signals not only a movement away from the formulaic, but also an emerging sense of disenchantment in the Gothic in terms of more supernatural limitations, preferring rather more realistic arenas of the Gothic.

With this transformation in mind, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) will be considered as a major influence in terms of how the Gothic novel evolved into the Realist novel that merely used the Gothic as a mode of expression, as Shelley’s novel reformulated the roles of nature in order to reframe them within a secular scientific imaginary that nonetheless still retained many features of the original Gothic.

This dissertation will explore the context of visual art in terms of early artistic expressions of Gothicism contemporary to the rise of the Gothic novel, as well as ways in which Gothicism forms a literary as well as artistic dialogue with Realism and Naturalism throughout nineteenth-century novels and works of art.

The development of the decline of the Gothic novel and the emergence of the Realist novel that uses Gothicism as a mode in the mid-nineteenth-century will act as the starting point to an exploration of Realism’s evolution into Naturalism in relation to Gothicism up to the fin de siècle, particularly on the basis of expressions of interiority and exteriority in Naturalist as well as Gothic expressions of visual art and the novel.

Ultimately, this dissertation will argue that Gothicism becomes essential to Naturalism, using visual art and the nineteenth-century novel as evidence of that natural evolution of Gothicism.

The original literary and artistic expressions of the Gothic in the Gothic novels and visual art of the late-eighteenth-century to the 1820s particularly relied on the concepts of fear and darkness, as well as the supernatural, aesthetics, the position of power, the Other, the Gothic double and Gothic dualities.

These themes and ideas still carried on into the Gothic mode expressed by the Realist novel and visual art of the mid-nineteenth-century, though the supernatural was more often explained away in the interest of realism and an emerging sense of modernity in Realism.

Therefore, while reality was often a point of refuge in the Gothic novels of the late-eighteenth-century to the 1820s, the Realist novels of the mid-nineteenth-century that expressed Gothicism as a mode consequently revealed that — perhaps most disconcertingly — the dark and fearful Gothic can exist almost anywhere, such as in nature, human nature, social relations, labour, economics, and even science.

While Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ laid the foundation for the Gothicisation of many of these realities — especially nature, human nature, and science — Naturalism in the late-nineteenth-century reconfigured the Gothic as a primary focus in the, once again, truly Gothic novels at the fin de siècle.

Even though Naturalism was a movement that, in many respects, sought to present scenes of life in an objective, documentary, and even scientific manner, this dissertation will show how Naturalism became intertwined with the Gothic themes of fear, darkness, an aesthetic of ugliness, the position of power, the Other, the Gothic double and Gothic dualities, and also a re-emergence of the supernatural in the fin de siècle Gothic novel.

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