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Sublime Terror And Uncanny Horror In Gothic Novels

Sublime Terror And Uncanny Horror In Gothic Novels
Copyright © Photograph by Marianna Orlova

Historians traditionally characterise the latter half of the eighteenth-century in England as an era of technological and political revolution. The engine driving these revolutions was the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, progress, and the individual. The construction of new epistemological paradigms, such as John Locke’s inquiries into the mind and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s examinations of human nature and civilization, challenged the monopoly that religious authorities held over metaphysical matters while emerging technologies and political theories challenged traditional social roles that remained from feudalism.

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s translation of Longinus toward the end of the previous century provoked a number of essays on the sublime, of which the most famous and influential was Edmund Burke’s ‘Enquiry.’ Edmund Burke contrasted the beautiful with the sublime, describing the beautiful as small, smooth, delicate, bright, and symmetrical, and the sublime as vast, rough, obscure, and awe-inspiring. This assessment challenged neoclassical assessments such as that of Lord Kames, Henry Home in his ‘Elements of Criticism,’ in which he gloried at the sight of Gothic ruins, but found the appearance of Grecian ruins to be melancholy. The dichotomy between the beautiful and sublime effectively enabled two standards by which to evaluate a work of art, architecture, or literature. Authors such as Richard Hurd excited interest in the English romantic heritage.

The Gothic novel engages in the debate over the relative merits of the sublime and the beautiful and fosters an appreciation for the beautiful by excessive engagement with the sublime. An appreciation for the beautiful often appears in Gothic novels by women, as the beautiful, identified with the heroine and domesticity, ultimately subdues the sublime, associated with the villain and with events that inspire awe, fear, and terror. As noted earlier, female writers of the Gothic tradition were an exception from the general retreat from the culture of sentiment during the 1790s, as they continued to promote sensibility due to its valorisation of the feminine. The female Gothic aligns the beautiful and the feminine with the sentimental. In contrast, emerging male Gothic authors such as Matthew Lewis capitalised on the reactions against sensibility, against faith in the progress of the Enlightenment, and against the resulting revolutionary upheaval that they heard about abroad. The volatile scenes of horror depicted in these novels, against which these Gothic authors, both male and female, were ostensibly preaching, caused reactionaries such as Thomas James Matthias in his book The Pursuits of Literature’ (1796) to accuse them of seeking to undermine traditional values and spread revolutionary or “terrorist” ideas to England.

Gothic novels often externalised English fears and anxieties regarding the decay or corruption of traditional institutions. The Gothic plot revolved around the undermining of these institutions, their near or actual dissolution, and their eventual reassertion or reformation. In Ann Radcliffe’s books, these traditional institutions are modified to reflect the English middle station’s more significant share of power. In ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ and ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ not only are traditional institutions restored precisely as they were, but historical challenges to this order that occur even prior to the events of the novel (e.g. Ambrosio and Antonia’s birth, the seizure of Otranto by Manfred) are corrected or punished. In early Gothic novels, these traditional institutions, characterised by their vast influence and unlimited power, were represented by the sublime.

The sublime in ‘The Monk’ is uniformly supernatural in nature. The Bleeding Nun, the Wandering Jew, and the Devil all represent the sublime. The Bleeding Nun is both the unquiet ancestor of Raymond and his spiritual wife, once Raymond inadvertently promises himself to her body and soul. When she first appears, Raymond mistakes her for his lover Agnes, but after a near-fatal crash, she returns to him night after night and drains him of all vitality. She inspires horror in particular because her reasons for attaching herself to Raymond are inscrutable until the Wandering Jew explains her history and that her bones must be put to rest, after which her spirit becomes quiescent. Because of her blood relation with Raymond, their necromantic union is not only sacrilegious but vaguely incestuous as well. She represents all the horrors inherent in the family and the domestic sphere.

The Wandering Jew is also an object of the sublime, due to the mark put upon him by God, which inspires revulsion and terror in all who see it. The Jew himself is characterised as an individual without family, country, or permanent home, forced to wander friendless and never sleep in the same place twice. He is also the source of forbidden and occult knowledge that, while helpful, also marks him as an outcast. In ‘The Monk,’ he is the ultimate foreigner. While both the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew are alien in nature, the appearance of the Devil is exceedingly protean and strange.

The Devil appears before the reader twice in the narrative, once when Matilda summons him to present Ambrosio with the myrtle and again when Ambrosio contemplates selling his soul to escape the clutches of the Inquisition. In the first instance, the Devil appears as a beautiful, androgynous youth who is still marked by the sublime, as Ambrosio notes that there is “wildness in the daemon’s eyes, and a mysterious melancholy [...] inspiring the spectators with secret awe.” In the second instance, all traces of the beautiful are gone: His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty’s thunder. A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form: his hands and feet were armed with long talons. Fury glared in his eyes, which might have struck the bravest heart with terror. Over his huge shoulders waved two enormous sable wings: and his hair was supplied by living snakes, which twined themselves around his brows with frightful hissings.

The appearance of the Devil is analogous with the twisted nature of Ambrosio himself, the forceful resurgence of his repressed pride, lust and inhumanity, just as they appear emblazoned on the forehead of the unknown monstrosity in Lorenzo’s dream. This dream, in which Lorenzo imagines himself to be back in the church of the Capuchins while preparing to marry Antonia, approaches the experience of the uncanny as Sigmund Freud would later describe it. Lorenzo knows that he has seen the monster before (and he has just witnessed Ambrosio’s sermon), but he cannot recognise it. Just as Raymond thinks that the Bleeding Nun is Agnes, Lorenzo recognises that monsters lurk beneath the veneer of everyday life, but will not know them for what they are until it is too late. Ambrosio also experiences this dissonance, as he feels a strange affinity for Antonia that develops into sexual attraction, and both Antonia’s comments about Ambrosio and the confession scene between them lead the reader to believe that these feelings were the stirrings of fraternal affection.

In contrast, Ann Radcliffe’s use of the sublime is non-supernatural, restricted to Nature and architectural structures. The two objects in The Italian that represent the sublime are the mountains that Vincentio, Ellena, and Paolo stop to contemplate outside the town of Celano and the prisons of the Inquisition in the midst of the ruins of Rome. The mountains are described in terms of the territories they divide such as “the gigantic Velino in the north, a barrier mountain, between the territories of Rome and Naples” or by their character, such as the Monte-Corno that “stands like a ruffian, huge, scared, threatening, and horrid!” Paolo breaks in with a patriotically inspired ode to Mount Vesuvius, until Vincentio reminds him that the volcano is both awe-inspiring and dangerous. The appearance of the sublime in ‘The Italian’ also marks the point at which mortal danger replaces the relatively innocuous travails of the protagonists; the thugs of Schedoni capture Ellena and transport Vincentio to the dungeons of the Inquisition.

The ruins of Rome and the fortress of the Inquisition will be discussed at length in the chapter on ‘The Italian,’ but at this point, it will suffice to say that both, though the product of artifice rather than nature, are sources of the sublime. While the mountains of the Apennines are vital and majestic, the ruins of Rome are awe-inspiring in the same fashion that the ruins of a Gothic cathedral or monastery would be, as a tremendous waste of incalculable power. “Even Vivaldi could not behold with indifference the grandeur of these reliques, as the rays fell upon the hoary walls and columns, or pass among these scenes of the ancient story, without feeling a melancholy awe, a sacred enthusiasm, that withdrew him from himself.”

The only signs of habitation are the bells and torches of the Inquisition, and the fortress that Vivaldi enters appears to have drained the surrounding city of its former glory and transformed it into a foreboding gloom. “These walls, of immense height, and strengthened by innumerable massy bulwarks, exhibited neither window or grate, but a vast and dreary blank; a small round tower only, perched here and there upon the summit, breaking their monotony” and this fortress of the Inquisition, with no windows and thick, dark walls, is bereft of personality and inhabited by an oppressive spirit.

The architectural presence of the Inquisition is a source of sublime terror in ‘The Italian’ yet in ‘The Monk’ neither the institution itself nor the building that houses it is sublime. Both Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis rely upon the sublime as defined by Burke to evoke fear in the reader, but Matthew Lewis alters the focus of the reader’s awe and terror away from the sublime and towards the uncanny. While many Gothic authors, including Ann Radcliffe, identify the source of fear and terror as existing outside the self and involve a critique of institutional power, Matthew Lewis portrays the self as something unclean, an object of horror. Historical and economic forces create Ann Radcliffe’s villains, whereas Matthew Lewis’ evil is psychological.

Sarah Genner
Sarah Genner

Edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a British Dark Artist who creates obscure home decor and design for fans of horror and skulls.

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