‘The Rise of the Gothic Novel’ and the Nature of Gothic

Maggie Kilgour

Maggie Kilgour

One of the powerful images conjured up by the words “gothic novel” is that of a shadowy form rising from a mysterious place: Frankenstein’s monster rising from the laboratory table, Dracula creeping from his coffin, or, more generally, the slow opening of a crypt to reveal a dark and obscure figure.

This iconography has haunted various critical representations of the rise of the genre. The imagery supports psychoanalytical critics’ contention that the gothic reflects the return of the repressed, in which subconscious psychic energy bursts out from the restraints of the conscious ego.

The emergence of the gothic in the eighteenth-century has also been read as a sign of the resurrection of the need for the sacred and transcendent in a modern enlightened secular world which denies the existence of supernatural forces, or as the rebellion of the imagination against the tyranny of reason.

Recent historical studies have positioned the genre more specifically in relation to the rise of the middle class and the novel proper, with which that class has been identified, since Ian Watt especially.

In general, the gothic has been associated with a rebellion against a constraining neoclassical aesthetic ideal of order and unity, in order to recover a suppressed primitive and barbaric imaginative freedom. Until recently, therefore, the gothic novel has often been treated also as a kind of generic missing link between the romance and the novel, a very low road to Scott, whose rise is a deviation in the evolutionary chain that leads from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

Manifesting prematurely, and therefore understandably somewhat crudely, the emerging values of Romanticism — an interest in the bizarre, eccentric, wild, savage, lawless, and transgressive, in originality and the imagination — the gothic itself is a transitional and rather puerile form which is superseded by the more mature “high” art of the superior Romantics, such as Coleridge, Keats, and, especially, Byron who both realises and renders redundant the gothic hero-villain. Like so many of its hero-villains, its development is one of rapid rise and fall, which occurs roughly between 1760 and 1820.

This developmental model plays an important part both in critical discussions of the rise of the gothic and in the novels themselves. However, one of the factors that makes the gothic so shadowy and nebulous a genre, as challenging to define as any gothic ghost, is that it cannot be seen in abstraction from the other literary forms from whose graves it arises, or from its later descendants who survive after its demise, such as the detective novel and horror movie.

It feeds upon and mixes the wide range of literary sources out of which it emerges and from which it never fully disentangles itself: British folklore, ballads, romance, Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy (especially Shakespeare), Spenser, Milton, Renaissance ideas of melancholy, the graveyard poets, Ossian, the sublime, sentimental novelists (notably Prevost, Richardson, and Rousseau), and German traditions (especially Schiller’s Robbers and Ghost-Seer).

The form is thus itself a Frankenstein’s monster, assembled out of the bits and pieces of the past. While it, therefore, can at times seem hopelessly naive and simple, it is, at its best, a highly wrought, artificial form which is extremely self-conscious of its artificiality and creation out of old material and traditions.

The narratives of Walpole, Radcliffe, Maturin, Stoker, as well as Shelley, thematise their own piecemeal construction, drawing attention to the relation of the story and unfolding of the plot.

Gothic creation thus suggests a view of the imagination not as an originating faculty that creates ex nihilo, but as a power of combination. As one charitable reviewer noted in relation to Matthew Lewis’s “borrowings” from other texts (which later critics have occasionally, though not always accurately, identified as plagiarism): “the great art of writing consists in selecting what is most stimulant from the works of our predecessors, and in uniting the gathered beauties in a new whole, more interesting than the tributary models. This is the essential process of the imagination […]. All invention is but new combination.”!

Gothic creation is a Frankensteinian process, as described also by Mary Shelley in her 1831 preface to her own textual monster: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.”

Gothic criticism often inverts this creation of a whole from fragments: what the writer puts together, the critic pulls apart. It seems easier to identify a gothic novel by its properties than by an essence, so that analysis of the form often devolves into a cataloguing of stock characters and devices which are simply recycled from one text to the next: conventional settings (one castle — preferably in ruins; some gloomy mountains — preferably the Alps; a haunted room that locks only on the outside) and characters (a passive and persecuted heroine, a sensitive and rather ineffectual hero, a dynamic and tyrannical villain, an evil prioress, talkative servants).

However, this dismemberment of the text seems often justified by narrative incoherence, which has been the subject of much critical complaint, and generally leads to the denigration of the form for its lack of aesthetic unity.

Made up of these assorted bits and pieces, gothic novels often seem to disintegrate into fragments, irrelevant digressions, set-pieces of landscape description which never refer back to the central point. Such a tendency towards dismemberment may be encouraged by the fact that they also often look to lyric poetry and painting as models for their own mode of representation.

At times the gothic seems hardly a unified narrative at all, but a series of framed conventions, static moments of extreme emotions — displayed by characters or in the landscape, and reproduced in the reader — which are tenuously strung together in order to be temporised both through and into narrative, but which do not form a coherent and continuous whole.

Ian Watt, however, argues that superficiality is due to the displacement of complexity from characters onto the readers’ response to the situations presented, as the gothic’s main concern is not to depict character but to create a feeling or effect in its readers by placing them in a state of thrilling suspense and uncertainty.

From its origins, the gothic has been defined in terms of this peculiar and palpable effect upon its audience. As a result, it has also frequently been involved in discussions concerning the relation of art to life, aesthetics to ethics. With its cast of extreme characters, unnatural settings and perverse plots, the gothic played a significant part in late eighteenth-century debates over the moral dangers of reading.

Such debates were of a partially political origin, in England looking back to Milton’s argument in Areopagitica, a text much cited in the eighteenth-century. From the seventeenth-century on, with the rise of literacy and the increase of the press, reading became a focal point in debates over authority and self-determination; indeed, it became identified with self-determination.

Originating in the Protestant ideal that every man had the right to read the scripture for himself, a right viewed with some concern in the seventeenth-century with the rise of dissenting movements (which sometimes even extended that right to women), the idea that to read for oneself was the property of the self-governing individual permeated discussions of both literature and politics. At the same time, however, there was a mistrust of the reader’s ability to handle this heavy responsibility, and a wariness of the potentially pernicious influence of literature on a broad but naive market.

The spread of literacy, the growth of a largely female and middle-class readership and of the power of the press, increased fears that literature could be a socially subversive influence. Prose fiction was particularly suspect: romances, for giving readers unrealistic expectations of an idealised life, novels for exposing them to the sordidness of an unidealised reality.

As a hybrid between the novel and romance, the gothic was accused on both accounts. The gothic was seen as encouraging a particularly intimate and insidious relationship between text and reader, by making the reader identify with what he or she read. As one contemporary reviewer said of Radcliffe: “it may be true that her persons are cold and formal; but her readers are the virtual heroes and heroines of her story as they read.”

According to Scott as well, the purpose of the gothic author was “to wind up the feelings of his reader till they become for a moment identified with those of a ruder age”. Ideally, this identification served a moral purpose, as it allowed readers to exercise safely and so educate their emotions; the danger was when the means became an end in itself. To many early concerned critics, gothic novels were the unlicensed indulgence of an amoral imagination that was a socially subversive force.

The possibility that the gothic represented simply a fairy-tale world created by an imagination, an artistic aesthetic realm that was completely irrelevant and detached from the social order and norms, made it more, rather than less, threatening. The escapist imagination was denounced as corruptive of family values, as, when uncontrolled by reason, it rendered the vulnerable proverbial ‘young person’ unfit for real life.

The art that is completely fanciful, an autonomous creation that does not refer to reality, offers a tempting alternative to the mundaneness of everyday life. It was feared that readers of fictions, seduced by the enticing charms of an illusory world, would lose either their grip on or their taste for reality: “the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected and content despised.”

Too much mental stimulation of the sensibilities was seen as producing insensibility and apathy in real life. As Coleridge warned, novel-reading may be “especially injurious to the growth of the imagination, the judgment, and the morals, especially to the latter, because it excites mere feelings without at the same time ministering to an impulse to action […] they afford excitement without producing reaction”. Imagination and appetite are too closely connected, and reading itself a way of feeding destructive and anti-social desires. The ill consequences of reading works which fill “the mind with extravagant thoughts and too often with criminal propensities” are dramatised in numerous gothic stories in which the heroine is the victim of her own imagination and sensibility, indulged in reading, through which she loses the ability to differentiate between art and life.

Some of the most powerful critiques of the force of the gothic appear within the gothic, which internalised external criticism, both in stories such as those described above, and in tales of works of art that take on lives of their own.

As I will discuss further, in its various versions of the familiar Pygmalion myth, the gothic seems to both represent and punish the imagination’s power to realise its own desires. It, therefore, seems also to denounce precisely the transgressive qualities with which it was associated. While to earlier conservative moralists the gothic’s offer of an imaginative retreat from reality was seen as a potentially amoral subversion of social order, to many modern critics this, contradictorily, has proved it to be a reactionary, socially conservative form.

In the Radcliffean model, especially, the imagination is indulged through suspense, only to be ultimately contained, imprisoned by the final authority of morality, in which the good and bad are separated out by a poetically just system of rewards and punishments. The gothic appears to suggest that the inevitable can only be pleasurable, and fictitiously, deferred for a time, as the domestic sphere is the only appropriate end of a woman’s adventures: whether that woman be the heroine or the reader herself, who, the thrilling adventure of reading over, closes the book and returns to her daily duties.

The gothic thus both represents in the story of its heroine and offers to its readers a momentary subversion of order that is followed by the restoration of a norm, which, after the experience of terror, now seems immensely desirable. Reading is thus a dangerously conservative substitute for political and social action, offering an illusory transformation to impede real change by making women content with their lot, and keeping them at home — reading.

Like the carnivalesque, the gothic appears to be a transgressive rebellion against norms which yet ends up reinstating them, an eruption of unlicensed desire that is fully controlled by governing systems of limitation. It delights in rebellion, while finally punishing it, often with death or damnation, and the reaffirmation of a system of moral and social order. However, the fact that the endings are often, as Robert Keily notes, unsatisfactory when compared to the delicious experience of the middle of the text, might in itself suggest a radical, antiteleological, model for reading, in which closure, which necessarily involves some restabilisation of categories, is deprivileged.

For Sir Walter Scott, the notorious dissatisfaction of Radcliffe’s endings could not diminish our pleasure in the rest of the text, and “the impression of general delight which we have received for the perusal remains unabated”. The dissatisfaction of the moral at the end, in fact, forces us to focus on the aesthetic pleasure of the middle.

Some recent critics have claimed further that in its potential as a vehicle for female anger the gothic provides a “plot of feminine subversion”. Its escape from the real world has a deeper moral purpose, as distance enables literature to become an indirect critique of things as they are; in Punter’s nicely gothic description, the gothic is “not an escape from the real but a deconstruction and dismemberment of it”.

The female gothic itself is not a ratification but an expose of domesticity and the family, through the technique of estrangement or romantic defamiliarisation: by cloaking familiar images of domesticity in gothic forms, it enables us to see that the home is a prison, in which the helpless female is at the mercy of ominous patriarchal authorities. For Kenneth Graham, therefore, the gothic generally: “was as rebellious in letters as its contemporary parallel in France was in politics. It challenged fundamental notions of aesthetics and psychology.”

More critics argue, however, that whatever radical and subversive implications the gothic might have are radically limited by its own inconsistencies. Coral Ann Howells attributes the contradictory nature of the gothic to the fact that: “Gothic novelists did not know what to do with their own feelings of frustration and rebelliousness […]. Their fiction is both exploratory and fearful. They are not always totally in control of their fantasies, for having opened up new areas of awareness which complicate life enormously, they then retreat from their insights back into conventionality with the rescue of a heroine into happy marriage and the horrible death of a villain.”

For Robert Keily, “Gothic fiction was not only about confusion, it was written from confusion”. Terry Lovell argues further that its irresolution exposes the conflicts within a bourgeois ideology that it is supposed to hide, a conflict between morality and aesthetics, work and pleasure. Similarly, for Wylie Sypher, the ambiguity of the gothic is created by a tension between its reactionary moral and revolutionary aesthetic values, both of which, however, are bourgeois creations.

The gothic therefore reveals “the naked contradictions intrinsic in bourgeois romanticism”, but only through “a revolt so radically inhibited that it failed to be in a deep social sense creative”. Its ambiguity reflects tensions it cannot solve. For Hume, this makes it secondary to Romanticism, which asserts the power of the synthetic imagination to reconcile and resolve all contradictions; the gothic imagination, in contrast, cannot transform or transcend the everyday world: it “has no such answers and can only leave the ‘opposites’ contradictory and paradoxical”, ending in “only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity” P For Day, however, the gothic exposes the gothic reality of modern identity, and by failing to represent an adequate solution it forces its readers to address them in real life, thus (ideally) using literature to encourage social change.

In her rejection of such recent assumptions that the form is deep and significant, which she connects to a current post-romantic idealisation of fragmentation, Napier argues, however, that the gothic represents a flight from meaning into a quest for sensations. Its self-contradiction and critiquing reveal only that it is an irresponsibly escapist form marked by “profound uncertainty about its genuine status and intent”, which lacks the guts to confront its own moral and aesthetic implications.

The gothic seems a puzzling contradiction, denounced and now celebrated for its radical imaginative lawlessness, feared for its encouragement of readers to expect more from life than is realistic, and also for its inculcation of social obedience and passivity. Revolutionary or reactionary? An incoherent mess or a self-conscious critique of repressive concepts of coherence and order? Apolitical or a direct product and artistic equivalent of the French Revolution? Transgressive and lawless or conformist and meekly law-abiding? Psychologically deep in its representation of characters or motives, or totally superficial in its interest in mere appearances and coverings?

While at its origins, a concern with the social role and effects of reading made the gothic a debated genre, current critical interest in the politics of literature has turned it into a “contested castle” that is both attacked and defended for the secret it supposedly conceals in its hermeneutical dungeon.

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