Why is Gothic literature considered subversive? First we consider the definition of subversive. Anything that works against the dominant culture is called subversive. Gothic literature focuses on death and decay, which is a negative attitude. The majority of Gothic writers are not motivated by any high ideals. Instead they are intent on making money, and so aim for cheap thrills. A good example is the “penny-dreadfuls” of the Victorian era, which were cheap serializations of bloodthirsty tales carrying titles like ‘Varney the Vampire’. The Gothic mode is not necessarily subversive.
If it can be shown that the Gothic mode is expressive of culture, and therefore does not work against it, we may conclude that it is not necessarily subversive. It may be argued that Gothic is a subgenre of Romanticism, which is acknowledged to be a cultural phenomenon. There are possible exceptions, and authors may always take advantage of a popular medium, and will strive to pander to basic instincts. But the strategy is to show that there is an underlying social need that Gothic literature addresses to, and therefore it cannot be called antisocial. What it Romantic literature, and how do the Romanticists evaluate Gothic?
Romantic literature is professed to be that which emphasizes imagination over reason. William Wordsworth is a leading light of Romanticism, and the Preface which he wrote for the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads is seen by many to be the manifesto of the movement. In the same Preface Wordsworth reacted violently against the Gothic genre, averring that “the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not further know that one being is elevated above another in proportion as he possesses this capability” (2004, p. 6).
Wordsworth conceives Romanticism as an philosophical ideal. According to this ideal Romantic literature is meant to ennoble human passion and feeling. Gothic literature does not seem to measure up to this ideal, and so it is rejected by the Romanticists. Why the Romanticists are wrong in their assessment of Gothic literature, in the context of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto? The Romanticists fail to acknowledge that their philosophy is rational, and therefore they are advocating a merger of reason and imagination, and they are not merely surrendering themselves to imagination alone.
Analysing the substance of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, we also find a marriage between the imaginary and the factual. The novel is of imaginative content, and yet it is eager to establish itself as factual. To this end Walpole interposes himself as mere translator of an ancient manuscript that has newly been discovered. The long title and the extended Preface go to great lengths to establish this pretence. The substantive part of the novel is also engaged merely in keeping up this pretence, and therefore to keep the original mood intact.
There is a succession of mysterious occurrences, laced with energizing diction, which creates an aura of continuous suspense and action, without any effort towards a coherent and unified story. The setting of the story is all important, and it is meant to be evocative of a mysterious past. The pretence towards factuality is merely meant to be a trigger to the imagination. Thus, the factual leads to the imaginative, and the imaginative to the factual. In this way the two aspects are merged. This is why Walpole’s novel should be classed as Romantic. Gothic literature as protest.
Romanticism was a protest against the ethos of the Enlightenment. The latter was a 18th century phenomenon that emphasized reason above all else, and looked back to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. The Romanticists felt that too much stress on reason suppresses the imagination. If Gothic be classed as Romanticism we should be able to identify in it the same protest. Indeed, the earlier manifestation of Gothic in the context of architecture was indeed a protest of the same sort. The “Gothic revival” was a phenomenon that originating in Germany, and was a protest against the humanist tendencies of the Italian renaissance.
It meant to re-establish the medieval values of religion and community against the atheist and cosmopolitan tendencies of Italy. It was mainly expressed through the architecture of churches, abbeys and cathedrals. Its ornateness was deliberately pitched against the homogenizing tendency in classical art. Its elongated spires and arches were deliberately pointed towards heaven, emphasizing the otherworldly, which was a protest against the humanist ethos which wants to flatten all things to the earth.
Gothic architecture is indeed a precursor to the Romanticism of the 18th century, which was also a reaction against neoclassicism and the humanist ethos. Margaret Drabble suggests that the ‘Gothic’ in the title merely means medieval, so that “Gothic tale” merely means “medieval tale” (1995, p. 412). This may be true, but the term carries far more significance. It originally referred to the architectural style, which originates from Germany, the land of the Goths. The eponymous Castle of Otranto is a Gothic building.
Following Walpole’s cue the genre itself came to be heavily dependent on such ‘Gothic’ settings. It may be argued that Gothic literature is not only characterized by setting. Indeed, we may detect in it the same philosophy which has animated the Gothic revivalism of Germany. In this way Gothic literature is a protest, and coincides with the protest of Romanticism. This will establish the Gothic mode of literature to be a subgenre of Romanticism, and therefore no longer subversive. Why the fascination with death? The Marquis de Sade offers a contemporary explanation of the Gothic fascination with death.
In his Ideas on the Novel suggests that it was the shock of the French Revolution that caused literature to react in such an unusual way. He continues, “For one who knew all the miseries with which the wicked can afflict humanity the novel became as difficult to create as it was monotonous to read” (qtd. in Bruhm 1994, p. 161). In short, a new form of literature was required to take the place of the defunct optimistic strain of the Enlightenment. The chaos and terror unleashed by the Revolution represents a terrible shock to the general ethos of the age, and something that defied comprehension.
The reflection of this in literature was the advent of the Gothic mode. The unsettled imagination refocused on death, instead of on light and life, as was characteristic of the Enlightenment. But against this it may be argued that in previous ages people has turned to the supernatural for comfort in periods of discontent. The supernatural is not a part of the the Gothic, which is more inclined towards the natural and the factual. It may also be argued against Sade that Gothic literature begins well before the storming of the Bastille.
In this light, it is more reasonable to see the genre as an extension of Romanticism, and as constituting part of the same Romantic protest. From this point of view the French Revolution itself is a confirmation of the fears inherent in the Romantic protest. Gothic as a corrective to the ethos of the Enlightenment. Gothic should be properly seen as a protest against the cold calculation of extreme rationalism. The Enlightenment focused on light and life, and therefore tended to overlook death. It believed that with the light of reason all obstacles could be overcome.
But the French Revolution functioned as a staggering reminder of death. Even before the revolution the subconscious sought to explain death, which clarifies the Gothic fascination. Karl Marx warns us that “the tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (1963, p. 1). To ignore death is a form of suppression. Therefore, Gothic taste for death is best explained as a corrective to the ethos of the Enlightenment. In the age of reason men were reluctant to turn to the supernatural. Instead the focus was on death in outlandish and displaced circumstances.
Analysing the issue David Punter comes to the conclusion that “[w]ithin the Gothic we can find a very intense, if displaced, engagement with political and social problems” (1994, p. 56). The engagement, as we have seen, is through a focus of death, and the displacement takes place through setting the narrative in the medieval period, or in ‘Gothic’ setting which is evocative of a bygone age. How Gothic relates to Romanticism proper, and the question of being subversive revisited. The proper strain of Romanticism claims to work against the rationalist ethos.
But it too fails to consider death, and prefers to dwell on the ‘higher’ ideals of feeling and imagination. The Gothic mode makes up for this lack in Romanticism, and therefore must be considered more Romantic, than a typical work of Blake or Wordsworth, for it is spontaneous in its composition, and is not burdened by a conscious philosophy. Gothic literature can be said to have sprung from the context of its age. It professes all the Romanticism does, but in an entirely natural way. If Romanticism is a protest against the strictures of rationalism and neoclassicism, then Gothic literature is too.
In this context it is significant to note that the Gothic mode is still vigorously active to this day, while Romanticism is now studied as a historical phenomenon. This is testimony of the authenticity of the Gothic, as against the measured cadences penned by Wordsworth. The essential value of Gothic literature is attested to from many respectable quarters. Commenting on the genre, Edgar Allan Poe says that “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” (qtd. in Asselineau 1970, p. 17). Assessing the works of Ann Radcliffe, arguably the greatest of the early Gothic writers, Donald Spector says that “she united terror and beauty” (1963, p. 6).
These comments are indicative of the profundity and beauty contained in works that are otherwise merely sensationalist and lightweight on the surface. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen provides a spoof of the genre which is at the same time an affirmation. The naive heroine, Catherine, who is addicted to Gothic fiction, and lives in her imagination, in thrown headlong into the world to learn the ropes. Henry Tilney is attracted to her because of her naivete, and enthuses about her literary taste: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (Austen 2003, p. 77).
Austen portrays Henry as a paragon of common sense, and so it is not unlikely that his opinion is that of the author. Catherine has an irresistible urge to believe in Gothic literature, so when she comes upon a real Gothic abbey she begins to imagine dark designs in every unusual detail. Austen demonstrates that even in parody the gothic mode is intrinsically exciting, and to deny such pleasure is a mark of literary snobbishness. She intends to explain rather than condemn. The continuing relevance of the Gothic mode.
The inference is that the Gothic genre tries to make sense of death when the rational core of society is in denial. Rationalism is by nature retrospective, and Emerson explains, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes” (2003, p. 181). Out failure to apprehend nature directly leads to alienation, which Gothic literature means to address.
In its original context the Gothic was a protest against the cold calculation of extreme rationalism, and the same argument may be provided to explain its continuing appeal in modern mechanized society. Rationalism argues selectively from the past, but carefully ignores death. This is a form of suppression. Gothic literature is deemed to be subversive because of a seemingly unhealthy appetite for death. But when seen in the context of overcoming suppression and alienation, we must conclude that it is a mistake to classify Gothic literature as necessarily subversive.
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