The Aspects of Gothic in Nineteenth-Century Scandinavian Literature

Yvonne Leffler

Yvonne Leffler

It is easy to agree with Tzvetan Todorov that fantastic fiction creates a certain “hesitation” in the minds of the intrafictional characters and the extrafictional readers. But it is not as evident that Todorov is right when he claims that what distinguishes the uncanny or gothic from the fantastic is whether the supernatural is explained or not (Todorov 1995:25).

Many scholars, as for example Jackson (1981), have stressed that Todorov’s definition does not work for those studying modern fantastic fiction. Neither does it work for nineteenth‐century literature in Scandinavia.

What distinguishes the uncanny from the fantastic in Scandinavian literature is not whether the fantastic events are given a rational explanation or not, but rather if the portrayal of the supernatural and the characters’ reaction to it is such as to arouse a sense of horror in the audience.

In nineteenth‐century Scandinavian literature, hair‐raising accounts of terrifying supernatural events are sometimes explained, but sometimes not. In neither case, the texts fit into Todorov’s categorisation of the fantastic, the uncanny and the marvellous.

Realism and naturalism have been keywords in Scandinavian literary studies and criticism since the beginning of the nineteenth-century.

Novels and plays exposing and discussing political and social problems have been classified as good works of literature while texts characterised by suspense, supernatural elements and intriguing plots have been marginalised as light reading, or accused of being dangerous and demoralising. Still, most of the greatest and most appreciated authors of the nineteenth century were influenced by the fantastic and gothic traditions in English, German, French and American literature.

Gothic fiction reached Scandinavia in the late eighteenth-century. At this time many of the famous English, German and French novels and short stories were translated into the Scandinavian languages as they appealed to a growing bourgeois audience hungry for fiction.

Judging from the selection of fiction available at commercial libraries, thrilling novels were the books most in demand. Of these, Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ (1797) and Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ (1796) seem to have been the two most widely read novels in the early nineteenth-century.

Writers like Eugène Sue, August von Koetzebue and E.T.A. Hoffmann became popular later on and by the end of the nineteenth-century Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant were introduced to the Scandinavian audience.

In the mid‐nineteenth-century, Scandinavian readers revelled in fantastic stories, sensational crimes, exciting adventures and thrilling mysteries. At the time, those concerned with public weal warned against the effects of reading fiction. Especially the Swedish critics raged against stories about extreme passions, horror and the use of violence.

Authors who had earlier been praised for rising above the trivial subjects of everyday life were now condemned for offering the readers “demoralizing entertainment”. The leading critics asked for realism and didactic novels of life and manners. Depictions of human passions and vices were claimed to undermine the moral foundations of society.

These violent reactions — especially in Sweden — against the contemporary novel made many authors either cease writing or adapt to the new recommended literary programme.

Very few authors continued writing uncanny horror stories or weird fantastic ghost stories, and those who did published their works in lesser known magazines and newspapers.

Most of the important authors chose to write realist fiction, telling everyday stories set in a contemporary, familiar Scandinavian environment. But there were some authors who on the surface adhered to the realist programme but, occasionally, included fantastic elements that undermined the standard concept of realism.

In early Scandinavian literature there are very few texts that have been discussed as belonging to the fantastic tradition in handbooks and studies on literature.

Those that have — or could be — are for instance the Swedish author Claes Livijn’s ‘A Fantasy of the Conscience’ (‘Samvetets fantasi’, 1818), the Norwegian writer Mauritz Hansen’s ‘Othar of Bretagne’ (‘Othar af Bretagne. Et riddereventyr’, 1819), the Danish writer Bernhard Ingemann’s ‘The Sphinx’ (‘Sphinxen, Et eventyr i den Callot‐hoffmannske maneer’, 1820).

Moreover, one of the most well‐known Scandinavian authors in the Spanish‐speaking world, the Swedish woman writer Selma Lagerlöf, is famous for her way of using fantastic elements in her texts, for instance in Gösta Berling’s saga (Gösta Berlings saga, 1891).

The narration in these stories makes the reader hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Especially the depiction of an ambiguous character, Sintram, provokes a sense of uncertainty in the reader as well as in the protagonist.

But these texts are exceptional cases in Scandinavian literature. Instead, I want to call attention to what I would call two distinctive categories of texts dealing with the fantastic.

The first category of texts was marketed as horror stories or ghost stories. The title and beginning of the story prepare the audience for an uncanny tale. But although writers use the narrative technique and the themes of the fantastic and gothic genres they also use a narrative voice that places the stories in a realist tradition.

The narrator’s focalisation is such as to induce an atmosphere of consensus reality and at the end the narrator delivers a natural explanation to those events or phenomena that earlier seemed unexplainable or supernatural.

In the second category of texts, the fantastic or supernatural events take place within a framework of realism. Somewhere in the story something strange and unknown breaks into the everyday world and this something remains unexplained and unexplainable until the very end of the story. That is, these stories have more or less an open ending because of the fantastic elements.

Let me give you some examples of these two categories. Two rather similar tales of the first kind of texts are the Danish author Bernhard Ingemann’s short story ‘The Werewolf’ (‘Varulven’, 1834) and the Swedish author Victor Rydberg’s short novel ‘The Vampyre’ (‘Wampyren’, 1848).

In the first, a clergyman is reporting something he has witnessed during his time in a small village. In his parish there is a young farmer who sincerely loves a young girl but strangely enough seems to do everything to delay their wedding. When they eventually get married their union turns into a tragedy.

On the wedding night, the young bride is found brutally murdered, and the bridegroom is nowhere to be found. The explanation to what has happened is according to the clergyman that the young farmer is suffering from a delusion because he thinks he is a werewolf, bound to transform into a wolf on his wedding night. He, therefore, considers himself condemned to kill his bride on their wedding night. After the deed, the killer disappears never to be seen again.

Also in Rydberg’s ‘The Vampyre’ the so‐called vampire, Ruthven, is — just as in ‘The Werewolf’ — seen from an external focalisation position. A young Scotsman meets a young gentleman during his travels in Italy, and he accompanies his new friend, Ruthven, to his fiancée’s home.

The night before Ruthven’s wedding the bride is found brutally killed and Ruthven has disappeared. Next time Ruthven is seen is at his friend’s castle in Scotland, where he is to marry his travel companion’s intended bride. The day before the wedding Ruthven tells his bride that he is a vampire and that he is condemned to sacrifice the woman he loves. But at the very moment, he is about to kill her; he suddenly discovers a letter that he starts reading.

The letter reveals that he is suffering from a delusion, that he believes he is a vampire because he once was poisoned and considered to be dead, but that just after the funeral he woke up in his grave. Because of this, he has ever since been convinced that he has become a vampire and therefore has to kill the women he loves.

Just as in Ingemann’s ‘The Werewolf’, there is a natural explanation to the young man’s strange behaviour. In both cases, the killing monster is reduced to a madman, a tragic antihero suffering from a delusion.

Another example of gothic stories in which the mysteries are explained is ‘The House of the Devil’ (Hin Ondes hus, 1853) by the Swedish woman writer Aurora Ljungstedt. In this short novel two men visit an old haunted house in Stockholm. They soon discover that the ghost of the house is obsessed by a manuscript hidden in an old cupboard.

The manuscript reveals a strange story about a man, called Herbert, and his irresistible attraction to a young girl, Anna. Eventually, he submits to his passion and marries Anna. But after their wedding, he finds out that he has married his own daughter, a daughter he did not know of as she was born of his former mistress Agatha after he had left her. The ghost of the house is their son who, full of shame, hides in the house haunted by his parents’ crime.

Like in Ingemann’s and Rydberg’s tales, the audience is drawn into a strange world of mysteries in ‘The House of the Devil’, but at the end, there is a natural explanation to it all.

In all three stories, the events are seen by an external focaliser, as the narrator is external to the represented fantastic events. In Ingemann’s and Ljungstedt’s tales the narrator acts like a detective. He is investigating what he has witnessed, and he is trying to find an explanation to something he at first cannot understand.

In some other cases, the narrator is an internal character‐focaliser. In the Norwegian author Mauritz Hansen’s tale ‘A Ghost Story’ (‘En spökhistoria’, 1855), the first‐person narrator is the one who has been frightened by the ghost, but he still tries to find an explanation for the strange things that happened to him one winter night when he was travelling in the Norwegian countryside.

Thus the first category of texts seems to illustrate what Todorov calls the uncanny. The texts are introduced to the audience as fantastic or gothic stories by their titles and start as typical fantastic narratives. However, at the end, the narrator gives us a more or less believable explanation to the mysteries.

The second category of texts is quite different. They are not immediately recognized as fantastic or gothic texts. Instead, they introduce the reader to a fictional world that in every way, seems to work as our own everyday world. But at some point, something happens that sets the normal rules aside. It is also this second category of texts that is the most common in Scandinavian nineteenth‐century literature, especially in Swedish literature.

Many Scandinavian novelists, such as the Swedish authors’ Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Fredrika Bremer and Emilie Flygare‐Carlén, are known as early realist novelists. But all of these writers frequently use fantastic elements in their novels and short stories.

Emilie Flygare‐Carlén was known, for instance, to be the first author to portray life at the Swedish West Coast north of Gothenburg. Her most famous novel, ‘The Rose of Tistelön’ (‘Rosen på Tistelön’, 1842), could be described as a combination of a domestic novel and a crime story.

The novel starts with a crime that will haunt the killers’ family until the very end. During a stormy night at sea, a smuggler and his oldest son kill a customs officer and his crew.

The crime is kept secret by the family, and the young heroine Gabriella, the killer’s daughter, does not know anything about it. As a grown-up woman she falls in love with the murdered customs officer’s son. However, her youngest brother, who witnessed the murder, and who is, since then, considered insane, imagines that he belongs to the sea god, or the water sprite. He, therefore, acts on what he believes to be the sea god’s demand when he starts to persecute his family and finally betrays his father and brother.

In one way, the novel could be read as a psychological thriller, but there are many elements that demand another reading. The composition is such as to create a gothic atmosphere, and the characters are obviously subject to forces beyond their control. Gabriella’s youngest brother is insane, but he is also portrayed as a being with an uncanny connection to the sea.

Gradually, he appears more and more as a supernatural or monstrous being. It all ends like a Hollywood film, the bad are punished, and the good are rewarded. But however satisfying this closure may have been to the contemporary critics, the reader of the novel is left hesitating between a natural and supernatural explanation, between a reading based on a realist or a fantastic code.

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