Edited by Rose M.
What is the Gothic
From stormy nights and gloomy forests to haunted houses and decaying castles, ghosts and demons to murderers and villains, skeletons and hidden chambers to foreign lands and the distant past, Gothic texts seem to have a wide array of tropes. But while the presence of these things seems to indicate that we are reading a Gothic text, there’s certainly no such thing as a “check-list” of elements that a text must contain in order to be classed as Gothic.
The Gothic can be fantastic or familiar, suggestive or explicit, filled with horror or prompting terror: there’s no set formula. As Angela Carter says, however, ‘Gothic’ texts do all have one thing in common: “they retain a singular moral function - that of provoking unease”.
Where did the Gothic originate?
The word “Gothic” originally referred to the barbarian tribes of northern Europe who were believed to have brought down the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Because Roman society was closely associated with order and reason, the Visigoths were consequently seen as savage, brutal, and irrational. The rise in Neoclassicism (drawing inspiration from the classical culture of Ancient Greece and Rome) in the early 18th century was then followed by the idea of the “Gothic”. Now used to encapsulate anything associated with the Dark Ages, David Punter notes:
Where the classical was well-ordered, the Gothic was chaotic; where simple and pure, Gothic was ornate and convoluted; where the classics offered a set of cultural models to be followed, Gothic represented excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and uncivilised.
There was a Gothic revival in architecture, and in the 1740s wealthy landowners began designing homes that looked like medieval castles and building fake Gothic ruins in their grounds. Horace Walpole, who would go on to write the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, started to construct his own Gothic Revival castle, “Strawberry Hill House”, in Twickenham in the mid-18th century.
In literature, so-called “Graveyard Poetry” became popular, featuring titles such as Night-Thoughts (Edward Young, 1742), The Grave (Robert Blair, 1743), and “Ode to Fear” (William Collins, 1746). The Graveyard Poets were primarily interested in writing reflective, melancholy meditations on death and mortality, and their work abounds with graves, skulls, and worms.
With these foundations laid, it wasn’t long until the first Gothic novel appeared. Published on Christmas Eve, 1764, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, and his quest to ensure that his family line is not lost.
1764 – The Castle of Otranto, Horace Warpole
1786 – Vathek, William Beckford
1794 – The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
1796 – The Monk, Matthew Lewis
1797 – The Italian, Ann Radcliffe
1813 – The Giaour, Lord Byron
1818 – Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
1818 – Frankenstien, Mary Shelley
1819 – The Vampyre - John Polidori
1820 – Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles Marutin
1847 – The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
1845 – The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe
1845 – Varney the Vampire, James Malcolm Rymer & Thomas Peckett Prest
1847 – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
1857 – Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, George Reynolds
1860 – The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
1872 – Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu
Fin de Siecle Gothic
1886 – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
1890 – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
1892 – The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
1897 – Dracula, Bram Stoker
1897 – The Beetle, Richard Marsh
1904 – The Treasure of Abbot Thomas , M.R.James
1926 – The Outsider, H.P.Lovecraft
1932 – Light in August, William Faulkner
1938 – Rebbeca, Daphne de Maurier
1959 – The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
1968 – Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy
1979 – The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
1983 – The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
1984 – The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
1987 – Beloved, Toni Morrison
Advanced Notes & Revision
1697 ‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ published
1752 Benjamin Franklin discovers electricity
1775-1784 American War of Independence
1785 ‘120 Days of Sodom’ by Marquis de Sade
1685-1815 Age of Enlightenment (rational principles through which society could be improved, questioning traditional authority)
1792 Louis XVI guillotined
1793-1794 Robespierre's reign of terror in France
1789-99 French Revolution
1780s-1790s Galvanism experiments by Volta and Galvani
1803-1814 Napoleonic Wars
1819 Peterloo Massacre paved the way for parliamentary democracy and the 1831 Great Reform Act
1760-1830 Industrial Revolution
1830-1900 Romantic era (emotion over reason, connection to nature, emphasis on individual experience)
1833 Slavery abolished in the Empire
1838 Victoria’s coronation
1838-1857 Chartism (a working-class male sufferange movement for political reform)
1853-1856 Crimean War
1859 Charles Darwin publishes ‘The Origin of the Species’
1861 Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management published, setting the standard for aspirational middle class Victorians
1862 ‘The Angel in the House’ poem by Coventry Patmore
1864 Contagious Diseases Act, to test prostitutes for STIs
1865 The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery in USA
1885-1894 Largest series of successful blood transfusions in Edinburgh
1888 Jack the Ripper operating in Whitechapel
1894 Term ‘New Woman’ coined by Sarah Grant
1895 Max Nordau’s ‘Degeneration’ published
1904 Alien Act to control immegration
1917 Russian Revolution
1914-1918 World War One, 40 million dead
1919 Sigmund Freud publishes his paper on ‘The Uncanny’, using examples from Gothic literature
1928 Universal suffrage achieved in UK
1929 Wall Street Crash starts the Great Depression
1939-1945 World War Two, 85mill dead
1952 Christine Jorgensen transitions from male-to-female
1963 Martin Luther King gives his ‘I have a dream’ speech
1967 Oral contraception made available to all
1967 Abortion Act
1969 Man sets foot on the moon
1970 Equal Pay Act
1976 Anne Rices’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ novel paves the way for future sympathetic portrayals of vampires, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight
1979 Margaret Thatcher becomes UK Prime Minister
1990 World Wide Web invented
The Castle of Otranto is set in medieval Italy, and this distant historical and geographical positioning allowed Walpole to draw on the dark barbarism associated with the Catholic past in his exploration of the Gothic. Since the Reformation in the 16th century, England had been a Protestant country, and Catholicism was perceived as a foreign religion, associated with rebellion and danger. A similar distancing technique is also used by William Beckford, who in his novel Vathek combined Walpole’s excess with the rich exoticism of the Oriental. Both authors pretended they found the manuscripts - for Warpole it was “in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the North of England” and for Beckford it was “collected in the East by a Man of letters”. It was only in the second edition that Warpole admitted his deception, resulting in outrage and a sharp decline in sales.
As a youth Beckford loved to read a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories that had been translated into English in 1706 as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. When he wrote Vathekin French in 1782, he drew on this 18th-century interest in the Orient. The way in which Beckford, as a westerner, imagines – and thus “invents” – the life and customs of the East from an outsider’s perspective is known as “Orientalism”.
Beckford’s novel is Gothic in its use of the supernatural. Vathek – a rich and powerful ruler – enters a Satanic bargain with a demon named the “Giaour” in order to gain supernatural powers, but the text ends with him entering hell and facing torturous punishment for failing to remain “humble and ignorant”.
As Suzanne Daly writes, the Orient is “mysterious, barbaric, irrational, seductive and dangerous”, ripe grounds for Gothic literature. From Jane Eyre’s Bertha with her “dark” complexion indicative of an interracial relationship, to Dracula, in which Johnathan is “leaving the West and entering the East” - from safe, Protestant, civilised England to wild Trasylivia with it’s pagan “giving of the crucifix, of the garlic, of the wild rose, of the mountain ash”, foreign people and practises were used to inspire unease through unfamiliarity.
Terror vs Horror
After a slight lull in the production of Gothic texts in the 1770s and 1780s, the 1790s marked a high point in 18th-century Gothic romance, occurring alongside the violent and bloody events of the French Revolution and the European wars which followed. As Fred Botting observes:
Terror… had an overwhelming political significance in the period. The decade of the French Revolution saw the most violent of challenges to monarchical order. In Britain the Revolution and the political radicalism it inspired were represented as a tide of destruction threatening the complete dissolution of the social order. In Gothic images of violence and excessive passion, in villainous threats to proper domestic structures, there is a significant overlap in literary and political metaphors of fear and anxiety.
This sense of terror fed into the work of Ann Radcliffe, who like Walpole, was interested in ideas of lineage and identity, but her Gothic was less excessive. Radcliffe became known for her use of the “explained supernatural”, whereby supposedly ghostly phenomena are ultimately attributed to earthly sources. Through power of suggestion and narrative suspense, Radcliffe’s works, as Xavier Aldana Reyes notes, “came to epitomise terror”. In an essay written in around 1802, but not published until 1826, entitled “On the Supernatural in Poetry” she argued that terror and horror “are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them”.
The Italian is often read as a response to a novel called The Monk which had been published the previous year by Matthew Lewis, who subsequently became known as “Monk” Lewis due to the popularity, and reputation, of his text. This novel was explicit in its use of sex and violence, gleefully transgressing boundaries - at one point, the Monk, Ambrosio, rapes and then murders a woman only to discover that she is his daughter. Stephen King asserts that horror “invites a physical reaction by showing us something which is physically wrong” whereas terror implies that which is physically wrong.
For Radcliffe, terror was associated with the “uncertainty and obscurity” of the sublime. The sublime is an aesthetic concept suggesting everything that is boundless and cannot be understood, contained, or imitated. In his 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke had connected the sublime with that which is vast, great, dark, gloomy, solid, and massive.
In Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, the sublime is linked with feeling and emotion, giving the reader an insight into the heroine’s inner consciousness. Through description of “pinnacles and vast precipices of various-tinted marbles”, Radcliffe sought to replicate the visual effects of contemporary paintings of such scenes, with the reader viewing these sublime scenes via the gaze of the protagonist.
Radcliffe’s heroines often find themselves captured by evil villains, and when in The Italian Ellena finds herself imprisoned by the sinister Schedoni in the convent of San Stefano, she retreats to a turret to view a sublime landscape that prompts “dreadful pleasure” and “awaken[s] all her heart”. By viewing this scene of cliffs, mountains, and forests, Ellena finds herself refreshed and strengthened, experiencing the very expansion of the soul and awakening of the faculties that Radcliffe argues is prompted by terror.
As John Bowen remarks, the sublime is “terrifying and awesome and overwhelming”, making it the perfect device in Gothic setting to be replicated across the decades. Mary Shelley places the confrontation between Victor and his creature in Frankenstein on a “vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses” and Castle Dracula is placed “on the edge of a terrible precipice” surrounded by trees “as far as the eye can see”, a century later.
By the late 1790s, the Gothic had in many ways become formulaic, and it was this set of conventions (the persecuted heroine, the hidden passageway, the family secret) that Jane Austen parodied in Northanger Abbey, a send-up of the Radcliffian Gothic that was published in 1818 but written c.1798-99. Austen uses both pathetic fallacy in her exorbitant descriptions of “the violence of the wind” and parodies typically Gothic setting when Catherine, the heroine, imagines the Abbey to be full of “long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel”. In perhaps the height of her comedic pastiche, Catherine finds “a high, old-fashioned black cabinet” in which she believes she discovers a “precious manuscript” only to discover in the morning that it is a “washingbill”, prompting humiliation over “the absurdity of her recent fancies”.
Therefore, when Mary Shelley started to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus in 1816, she reworked the established tropes to respond to recent discourses on radical politics, science, and sensibility. She was part of a group of writers known as the Romantics, who frequently looked to the individual’s relationship with the natural world for inspiration. Many Romantic writers looked down on the popular Gothic mode of writing as inferior to the transcendental experience offered by nature. The poet William Wordsworth famously dismissed the popular “sickly and stupid German Tragedies” in his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, yet his own work – and that of other Romantics such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron – was undoubtedly indebted to the 18th-century Gothic.
In her Author’s Introduction to a revised version of the novel published in 1831, Shelley explains that Frankenstein was written as part of a ghost-story writing competition suggested by Lord Byron, and notes that she wanted to create a text that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”. Shelley’s text doesn’t contain a ghost, but her idea – which came to her one night in a waking-dream – “haunted” her like a “hideous phantom”.
In her depiction of the creature’s monstrosity, Shelley explores the idea of difference and our treatment of those who are Other – that is, not like us. The creature realises that “when I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the Earth, from whom all men fled, and whom all men disowned?”.
The creature is not inherently evil, but after being “dashed...to the ground, and struck...violently” by his cottagers, he “declared everlasting war against the species”. His rejection is made all the more potent by the character of Safie, who like the creature is unable to speak English and is ‘the other’ due to her Arabic heritage, is nonetheless accepted because of her “angelic beauty”.
The Other is perhaps one of the most prolific Gothic tropes. Delivered through appearance, such as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, nationality as in Vathek, supernatural qualities like Dracula, or gender as in The Wasp Factory, the Other continues to be an effective device to unnerve and dismay.
Both of Shelley’s parents, who were writers themselves, had examined the idea of monstrosity within a political context. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) that “man has been changed into an artificial monster by the station in which he was born”. Likewise, her father, William Godwin (to whom Frankenstein was dedicated), had suggested in his writings that monstrosity was a mark of cruel or corrupt socio-political structures, and argued that any monsters created by these systems reflect wider, more monstrous formations. In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, Godwin had described the feudal system as a “Voracious monster” whose legacy continued to give power and privilege to the aristocracy in the 18th century.
Inspired by her father’s thinking, Shelley explored these ideas of monstrosity and justice in Frankenstein. When Justine – whose name, perhaps, suggests “justice” – is falsely accused of murder, Elizabeth, the orphan child who eventually marries Frankenstein, criticises the system that blamed and sentenced her, explaining that “men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood”. In granting her Gothic monster a voice, Shelley seeks to deconstruct our understanding of monstrosity, and makes us question whether the creature’s monstrous nature is in fact created by a monstrous society.
Fin de Siècle Gothic
During the early Victorian period, the Gothic came to be more familiar, set in domestic scenes and intruding upon family life. In texts such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (both published in 1847), the threat of the Gothic is located in the intrusion of the Other into stable, domestic settings: both Heathcliff and Bertha Mason are outsiders, with their dark, foreign appearances translating into monstrosity and violence. Likewise, in the ‘sensation’ novel that became popular in the 1860s and 1870s, blackmail, deception, madness, and murder all threaten Christian moral values and social conformity. Robert Kidd asserts “the fact that the foreign could exist in the reader’s own neighbourhood made it all the more frightening”.
The Gothic experienced a surge in popularity at the end of the 19th century: a period known as the fin de siècle(end of the century). The fin de sièclemarked a time of great uncertainty for the late Victorians: the Queen, who had come to the throne in 1837, was entering old age, and the celebrated century was drawing to a close. While the mid-century Victorians had considered themselves to be continually “improving” (scientifically, culturally, economically, and socially), by the 1880s there was a fear that this rate of progress couldn’t continue and that society would inevitably begin to decline.
This fear of degeneration is central to the Gothic literature produced in the period, which transformed the traditional Gothic motif of the ruined castle or crumbling abbey into an exploration of the decaying mind and body whereby the human becomes monstrous. The growth of cities provided the perfect setting for this new breed of Gothic, with their dark and labyrinthine streets and sense of anonymity resulting in the concept of the plurality of the self; a single person could now effectively lead multiple lives with different personalities.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the implications of living a double life are drawn out to create a distinctly Gothic tale. The repetition of experience, or déjà vu, suggests both doubling and deception within the familiar. Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who is seduced by decadence and descends into a life of cruelty and lies. While he should look “withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage” he instead appears as a “young Adonis”, portrait painted by his friend Basil Hallward showing his real moral and physical decay instead. Dorian stores the picture in the attic of his house, a space which becomes the head, or mind, if we “biologise” the building (as Gothic writers from Walpole onwards have often done). Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explore this with a feminist lense in The Madwoman in the Attic, looking at both Brontë’s Bertha and the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Doubles have also been used by Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), with the respectable Dr Jekyll transforming into an evil, criminal double, Hyde’s troglodytic appearance suggesting his degeneration. The use of the uncanny double also appears in Frankenstein, with Victor himself referring to the creature as “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave”.
Doubling is a common device in Gothic texts, and is a form of a phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny’; that is, a sense of unfamiliarity at the heart of the familiar that prompts feelings of strangeness or eeriness. The concept of the uncanny is generally acknowledged to have been developed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who, in an essay of 1919, argued that the German word unheimlich (“unhomely”) suggests that which is both homely and hidden. Nicholas Royalasserts that “The uncanny involves uncertainty...the uncanny is a crisis of the proper…More specifically it is a peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar.” As a form of the uncanny, the double – or doppelgänger– prompts anxiety due to its repetition.
Charlotte Unsworth Hughes notes that “doubles, mirrors and masks generate a false sense of reality, which, when stripped away, reveal something primal corrupt and desire-driven”. Alejandra Pizarnik's The Bloody Countess, for example, includes a “famous automaton” “the size and colour of a human being” that is used as a torture device. Similarly, Angela Carter creates a “clockwork twin” in the Tiger’s Bride,creating a sense of both life and lifelessness that falls into the Uncanny Valley - the phenomenon whereby something looks nearly-but-not-quite human, prompting revulsion. The dawn of Artificial Intelligence passing the Turing Test makes this particular Gothic trope ever more relevant today.
One of the most prominent theorists on the threat of degeneration was Max Nordau, who in a work of 1895 called Degeneration referred to the current epoch as the “Dusk of Nations”, arguing that the “day is over” and the shadowy night of the unknown coming era “draws on”. Nordau links degeneration with the decadence of the fin de siècle period, which was associated with the lifestyle of the aristocracy and characterised by refinement, an interest in artifice, and moral decay.
This fin de siècle fascination with degeneration, criminal behaviour, and the Gothic lurking in our everyday world is also found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. If Dorian Gray’s crimes are largely hidden from sight – even for the reader – then Count Dracula’s are presented in gory and explicit detail. Dracula, as a foreigner from Transylvania, can be read as a response to contemporary fears about immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe; long used to being the coloniser, by the end of the 19th century Britain was feeling threatened by reverse colonisation and the potential degeneration that this implied. In biting and sucking the life blood from his victims, Dracula invades and infects modern England, threatening to become “the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life”.
In other words, this foreign vampire is perceived as having the potential to transform civilised and moral British citizens into a new, degenerate race, taking over their bodies from the inside. This was especially pertinent considering the epidemic of syphilis occurring in London, which was so great as to encourage the creation of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 to medically examine prostitutes. As David Punter says, Stocker used “the supernatural as an image for real and carefully depicted social fears”. Dracula is a parasitic creature with an affinity for wolves and bats; his atavism and criminality are attributed to his “child-brain” and “imperfectly formed mind” – a sign of his degenerate nature. In depicting his monstrous villain in this way, Stoker was drawing on the contemporary thinking of Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist who is, in fact, referred to within the novel. Lombroso theorised that criminality is an inherited trait, with criminals displaying primitive, savage, or sub-human traits. The popular study of physiognomy, the telling of character through their looks, is especially relevant, with Dracula’s “very massive” eyebrows and protruding lips indicating his criminality.
Sexual Transgression and Infection
Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula explore fin de siècle anxieties within the context of transgressive sexual behaviour. In Dorian Gray, this transgression takes the form of suggestions about homosexuality - the book was used as evidence in Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency (homosexulaity) in 1895.
Dracula explores the dangers of sexual promiscuity. As a woman who questions “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her”, Lucy is particularly vulnerable to the Count’s infection, and her transformation into a vampire is unsurprisingly depicted in terms of a sexual fall.
Upon becoming a vampire, her “purity” changes into “voluptuous wantonness”; her sexuality is shown by her “opened red lips”, and her blood-stained white dress symbolises her loss of innocence in distinctly sexual terms. David Gates writes that “Lucy is an inversion of the modest and virtuous Victorian woman; she becomes sexually aggressive and anti-maternal”. The sexualisation of Lucy’s monstrosity is continued into her final death, with Arthur’s “untrembling arm” described as rising and falling as he drives the stake “deeper and deeper” into her heart in order to kill her. As Lucy is “writhing and quivering” beneath him, Arthur’s face reveals his “high duty” to destroy this impure creature; once the act is complete, his face shines with a “glad, strange light” that betrays his relief at having defeated the transgressive threat of a violent and predatory female.
Like a number of Gothic novels written across the 18th and 19th centuries, Dracula comprises a number of distinct voices that are collected together to form the narrative. Where novels such as Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), however, were structured around a series of stories-within-stories that spanned place and time, Dracula is an epistolary text, formed from a collection of contemporary journals, letters, and clippings. Rather than confusing the reader with its mix of voices like many of its predecessors, then, the novel is presented as rational and scientific, collecting together evidence about the nature of Dracula and the fate of his victims.
Indeed, the novel deliberately references a number of new technologies that mark the late Victorian period out as an advanced and civilised age, mentioning telephones, typewriters and phonographs, as well as alluding to modern thinkers like Nordau and Lombroso. These references, as well as the form, ground the novel in reality, fulfilling Henry James’ theory that a good ghost story “must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life”.
The epistolary form is also used in Frankenstein, with the entire novel being a letter from Walton to his sister, with Victor and then the creature’s narrative within that, as well as Henry Fielding’s Shamela (a satire of Samuel Richardson's Pamela).
Madness in Gothic literature is often portrayed as threatening, either through the potential for degeneration or by disrupting the natural order. The unreliable narrator was popularised by Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 short story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The declaration “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story” taints the narrative, unnerving the reader by creating a liminal protagonist between victim and villain.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper details the descent of the narrator into madness after she was confined under the “rest cure”, whereby a hysterical woman is isolated from all stimulating influences to calm her. Gilman herself said the rest cure brought her “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over”. Confined to the top of the house our protagonist can either be seen condemned to madness, or finding freedom in throwing off the confines of her socialised proprieties.
In Dracula, Jonathan pleads “God preserve my sanity” and the portrayal of the “zoophagous (life-eating) maniac” Renfield provides a horrifying representation of what he might become. Loss of control was the ultimate threat to the Victorian, with all the moral and physical degeneration that it implied and while our understanding of the mind has improved enormously, the mentally disturbed still haunt us, from the 2010 filmBlack Swan to 2016 film Split.
As the Gothic moved into the 20th century, it continued to respond to the contemporary intellectual and cultural climate. The ghost story became a popular genre, with Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James publishing collections of ghost stories in the first decades of the century. The ‘Jamsien’ method of story-telling emerged, with three parts. Firstly, the setting in an English or European village, university or abbey, secondly, the scholar-gentleman protagonist who is usually nondescript and naive and thirdly the discovery of an old book or antique that results in supernatural events.
Apart from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider, Gothic literature in this period was sparse. The Outsider is stuffed with Gothic tropes, from the “infinitely old and infinitely horrible” castle to the “unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable” creature, which the first-person narrator eventually realises is himself viewed in a mirror. Overall, however, the post-World War One period saw a preference for realism - people had seen enough to terrify in real life.
The Gothic became popular in the United States in the early 19th century, at a time when the prevalent ideal of America as a self-made and free society was haunted by deep-rooted anxieties concerning class and race. While the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (followed by the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865) ended the legal institution of slavery in the States, the legacy of slavery led to the continuation of racial tensions, particularly in the South. In the 20th century the so-called Jim Crow laws continued until 1965. As a response to both these racial tensions and a sense of the South as impoverished and isolated from the rest of the United States, a new breed of Gothic known as the “Southern Gothic” emerged.
Light in August written by William Faulker is a modernist text published in 1932, relating the story of Joe Christmas, a man from the Deep South who looks white but is rumoured to be mixed race. Faulkner explores the idea of the fractured self in this text, exploring how Joe’s uncertain identity leads to him being “othered” by those around him, unable to find acceptance in the white communities of a segregated South nor able to integrate fully amongst black people.
Living “as man and wife” with a woman who is said to resemble an “ebony carving”, he makes a conscious effort to become black; to breathe in “the dark and inscrutable thinking and being of negroes” while breathing out “the white blood and the white thinking and being”. Despite appearing white, Joe is feared by those of certain white heritage, and finds himself accused when a white woman is found brutally murdered.
Faulkner was not the first writer of Gothic fiction to explore how the perception of monstrosity can be influenced by such racial “othering”; in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, for example, the “dirty, ragged, black-haired” orphan Heathcliff is described by his white adoptive family as a “gipsy brat” and is said to be “as dark almost as if it came from the devil”. Likewise, some critics have argued that Mary Shelley’s depiction of the monster in Frankenstein – a book written in the wake of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 that abolished the slave trade in the British Empire – drew upon contemporary descriptions of black people.
Light in August deals explicitly with the legacy of the end of slavery in the American South, with the burning house alluded to in the novel’s title belonging to a woman whose family, the Burdens, were hated white abolitionists. There is no suggestion of the supernatural in the text, but this house could nevertheless be said to be ‘haunted’ in the sense that it is occupied by the ghosts of the past. The structure of the narrative reinforces the idea that the past continues to haunt the present, with flashbacks disorientating the reader and revealing the story piece by piece.
Running in parallel with Joe’s tale is that of Lena Grove, a young pregnant woman who is similarly ostracised due to her status as an unmarried mother. Like Joe Christmas, she is a wanderer, travelling from Alabama to Mississippi in search of her child’s father, Lucas Burch, who reinvents himself as Joe Brown in an attempt to elude his former lover. Several characters in the text either change their name or are mistaken for others due to the similarity of their names: just as he is unsure of his racial heritage, Joe Christmas does not know his “real” name due to being abandoned as a child; he is then renamed Joe McEachern when he is adopted by a devout Christian couple who see his original name as “heathenish”; Lena comes across a man named Byron Bunch when looking for Lucas Burch; and Lucas Burch, as Joe Brown, comes to partner up with fellow outcast, and fellow Joe, Joe Christmas.
The text itself can be seen to split into different layers due to the fact that it can be read as allegory (that is, a story with a double meaning that can be interpreted on two levels). The wandering Lena and her child can be read as a representation of the Virgin Mary and Christ, while Byron Bunch functions as the Joseph figure that Joe Brown refuses to be.
Biblical themes can also be found in a later work of Southern Gothic: Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark (1968). Like Light in August, this novel comprises two narrative threads, telling the stories of Rinthy and Culla Holmes, two siblings from somewhere in Appalachia. The brother and sister have an incestuous relationship that results in the birth of a child; Culla leaves the baby to die of exposure, telling Rinthy that it died of natural causes, but it is found by a tinker who takes it away. While Rinthy sets off in pursuit of the tinker in order to retrieve her child (much like Lena seeking Lucas Burch), Culla wanders in parallel, drifting aimlessly and arousing suspicion in every community that he enters. As Brian Evenson says, “More than any other [McCarthy] novel Outer Dark presents its characters as placeless and in motion, and unable to find rest.”
The title Outer Dark is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, in which hell is described as a place of “outer darkness” filled with torment and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The novel is in many ways hellish, and opens with Culla having a dream in which the sun turns dark and the world becomes cold. The vision echoes the description of the apocalypse – that is, the end of the world – depicted in both Matthew and Revelation, the final book of the Bible. This sense of hell and apocalypse continues throughout the text, with the landscape of the American South marred by a feeling of decay and horror.
When Culla is accused of prompting a herd of swine to stampede, the reader is reminded of Matthew 8 (28-32), in which Christ casts a group of devils out of two men and into some nearby pigs, which promptly run off a cliff “and perished in the water” (NKJV). This link with demonic possession is unsettling for the reader, and makes us wonder why ill fortune and chaos strike wherever Culla goes.
Similarly, Culla’s crossing of the river with the ferryman is reminiscent of Greek mythology, in which the river Styx must be crossed in order to enter Hades. Culla certainly finds himself in a hellish place when he reaches the opposite bank of the river, encountering the trio of evil men. In many ways, the text can be read as a parable in its presentation of the journeys of Culla and Rinthy; while Rinthy is presented as good, innocent, and maternal, Culla is unable to escape his sin. The text ends when Culla reaches the end of the road and finds a stale, stagnant swamp described as a “spectral waste” rearing nothing but “naked trees in attitudes of agony”. This apocalyptic space suggests ruin and infertility, representative not only of Culla’s past but also suggesting that there is no hope for his future.
As Culla wanders on his journey, he is stalked by three men who carry out terrible acts of violence and depravity. It is uncertain whether these shadowy figures are real, separate entities or a projection of Culla’s evil – often, they are presented as both simultaneously. When they encounter the tinker, for example, it is said that they “might have risen from the ground” like phantoms; the trio immediately become more earthly and corporeal, however, when one of them smiles at the tinker while holding a rifle. Likewise, when Culla encounters them for the second time, they are described as “revenants” wearing the same clothes and adopting the same attitudes as before, but although they are “spectral” they are also “palpable as stone”.
McCarthy’s trio, are as shadowy and terrifying as ghosts, yet are still able to commit very real – and very extreme – acts of violence, including murder and cannibalism. The threat of that which haunts is thus transformed in the novel into full-blown horror, shocking the reader and reconfiguring our expectations of this Gothic motif.
The blurring of the natural and the supernatural is an important concern in Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison that was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Like Light in August, it explores how, as Judy Simons says, “Memory and history, both apparently buried, are brought to the surface”, but unlike its predecessor the story is told by a black author from the point of view of the African Americans who were enslaved.
Morrison explains that she wrote Beloved after leaving her job, and was prompted by the “shock of liberation” to think about “what ‘free’ could possibly mean to women”:
In the eighties, the debate was still rolling: equal pay, equal treatment, access to professions, schools… and choice without stigma. To marry or not. To have children or not. Inevitably these thoughts led me to the different history of black women in this country – a history in which marriage was discouraged, impossible, or illegal; in which birthing children was required, but “having” them, being responsible for them – being, in other words, their parent – was as out of the question as freedom.
Beloved tells the story of a woman who felt she had no choice but to kill her child – who was buried as “Beloved” – rather than return her to a life of slavery, inspired by the historical story of Margaret Garner. Morrison argues that she uses her novel to relate African American women’s history to “contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s ‘place’”.
Initially, it seems that Beloved is going to be a conventional Gothic ‘haunted house’ story. The novel opens with the revelation that a household has been broken apart by a haunting, with two boys running away from home due to ghostly activity (including the shattering of a mirror and the appearance of “two tiny hand prints in a cake”). However, it becomes unclear whether Beloved is a genuine spectre or merely a psychological projection of her mother’s guilt. At times she seems grotesquely corporeal and real – her pregnant body growing bigger as she comes to dominate the household – but at other times her haunting is perceived as distinctly supernatural, with members of the community hearing the voices of “the black and angry dead” coming from inside the family home. Likewise, Beloved’s death can be read in different ways. In some respects, it resembles the exorcism of a supernatural spirit, with a group of local women coming together and singing outside the house, their voices breaking over Sethe, who finds herself “baptized” in the wash. Faced with this confrontation, Beloved – described as the “devil-child” – disappears, with some claiming that she “exploded right before their eyes”. Others simply think that she goes to hide out in the trees. Whatever the manner of Beloved’s death, however, she is ultimately banished, and her haunting – whether supernatural or psychological – comes to an end.
As in both Light in August and Outer Dark, then, Morrison’s tale of the Southern Gothic examines how the “ghosts” of the past – memories, legacies, and histories – continue to invade the present. Like Faulkner, Morrison uses flashbacks to disrupt the linear flow of the narrative, which emphasises this haunting process whereby the events of long ago continue to seep into and shape present-day life. Just as Mary Shelley before her constructed Frankenstein around a series of narrative voices enclosed around each other like a series of Chinese boxes, so Morrison uses different voices in her text to show different perspectives and to make us question the assumption that there is one single version of the truth or one sole source of authority. While Shelley’s narrative structure has a suffocating effect due to the fact that each tale is ‘buried’ within another, all of the voices in her text do at least remain distinct and identifiable. In contrast, Morrison’s narrative voices sometimes overlap, leading to confusion and disorientation for the reader.
With the rise of post-structuralism – a school of thought suggesting that meaning is inherently unstable – from the late 1960s onwards, the Gothic came to be re-examined and the potential of its plurality and excess embraced. As Angela Carter wrote in the Afterword to Fireworks, a collection of her short stories published in 1974: “We live in Gothic times.”
Although the Gothic appears in several of Carter’s works, it is perhaps most prominent in a collection of short tales published in 1979 entitled The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These reworkings of traditional fairy stories are used by Carter to, as Robert Stevenson Brown says, “attack the ideologies and institutions of her day” and show us alternatives to the patriarchy . In this sense, Carter’s texts can be considered to be ‘postmodern’; that is, they question the constructions that we accept as truth and present marginalised figures – in this case, women – for our reconsideration.
Postmodern texts are sceptical about originality, and are self-aware in their consciousness of the traditions from which they originate. In choosing to rewrite fairy tales, Carter uses a form familiar from childhood as a means through which we learn life lessons, but simultaneously twists the “truth” of these texts to reveal a different perspective - she “subverts...and strays from the expected norm” as Charlotte Unsworth Hughes points out. Bruno Bettleheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ from 1976 discussed how fairy tales reflect our desires and have latent sexual content, and as Robert Stevenson Brown notes, Carter “exaggerates” this content to both shock and teach.
The tales included in The Bloody Chamber aren’t stand-alone: they function as a unit, using Gothic unease to make us consider what we take for granted before showing us alternatives. Always keeping the precedent set by her predecessors in mind, she engages with Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe in her depiction of a gruesome torture chamber in “The Bloody Chamber”, combining a genre linked with innocence and instruction with tales of terror and gratuitous violence.
Similarly, our expectations of women in these texts are consistently challenged when Carter grants her heroines power and agency rather than depicting them as the passive, helpless victims familiar from fairy tales. Published in 1979, Carter was writing during the “second wave of feminism” with oral contraception being made available to all and the Abortion Act of 1967 giving women agency over their bodies for the first time.
In The Company of Wolves, a reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, our heroine does not cower in fear when the wolf declares that his big teeth are “All the better to eat you with”. Instead, the young girl bursts out laughing because “she knew she was nobody’s meat”, a statement that suggests bodily and sexual autonomy as well as an assuredness that she won’t be eaten. In a reversal of our expectations, it is the female who takes control of the situation, ripping off the predator’s shirt in an act of sexual assertiveness before discarding her own clothing. After the act of copulation, the wolf lays his “fearful” head upon her lap in a show of submissiveness and allows her to groom him before taking her in a “tender” embrace.
Carter also responds to the female Gothic of authors such as Radcliffe, reworking the traditional persecuted heroine trope in her depictions of strong, autonomous women who overcome Gothic villains without the help of (male) heroes. The Bloody Chamber uses the traditional space of the Gothic castle in a familiar way, presenting it as holding fearful secrets within its hidden spaces and setting it in “faery solitude”, with the nameless narrator is trapped as “both the inmate and the mistress”
Ellen Moers, the first critic to use the term “Female Gothic”, suggests that such situations represent a fear of domestic entrapment for women. Rather than being rescued by a hero, however, Carter’s heroine is liberated by her “indomitable mother”, who appears like a “wild thing” on a horse to kill her daughter’s husband. In Radcliffe’s work, mothers are frequently absent, and when Ellena’s mother returns in The Italian, it is to reveal her daughter’s true lineage and facilitate her marriage. For Carter, in contrast, the maternal figure returns at the end of the text to break down the institution of marriage and save her daughter.
This postmodern re-examination of roles and identity, including the artificial ‘performance’ of gender, is also found at work in The Wasp Factory, a Gothic novel of 1984 by the Scottish author Iain Banks. Just as contemporary reviewers of early Gothic novels such as The Monk were horrified by the violence and excess of the genre, so too did initial reviews of The Wasp Factory express unease and even disgust: Punch called the novel “a bad dream of a book”, while a writer for the Mail on Sunday declared: “If a nastier, more vicious or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised.” Fred Botting declared that “castles, villains and ghosts, already made formulaic by popular imitations, ceased to evoke terror or horror” and The Wasp Factory transcends these tropes to create something that has intense power to repulse.
The narrative is told from the perspective of Frank, a psychopathic teenager who believes that she is a castrated boy but, it transpires, is actually a girl. In many ways The Wasp Factory is a postmodern rewriting of Frankenstien. Frank’s father functions as a kind of Frankenstein figure (the echo between the names here is no coincidence), conducting experiments in a locked study that Frank speculates contains “a secret”. This secret, of course, transpires to be concerned with the monstrosity of an engineered body; just as Frankenstein constructs his monster from dismembered corpses, so Frank’s father constructs the fantasy of a mutilated, monstrous body for his daughter.
The instability of identity is a common concern in the Gothic novel, provoking feelings of unease, suspicion, or discombobulation in the reader. In The Italian, it transpires that Ellena’s parentage is not as initially thought, while Frankenstein’s monster despairs that he was “created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence”, explaining that he initially repeatedly asked himself: “Who was I? What was I?” Frank reveals that her birth was never registered, meaning that she has no birth certificate, no National Insurance number, and “nothing to say I’m alive or have ever existed”.
She ultimately comes to theorise that she behaved in the way she did (murdering three children and committing other acts of torture and violence) because of her sexual identity, speculating that she chose to destroy because she had been led to believe that she couldn’t procreate: “Having no purpose in life or procreation, I invested all my worth in that grim opposite”. When Frank argues that her child victims were, at the point of their deaths, “no more able to perform the required act than I was”, she explicitly refers to sexual performance while implicitly analysing her gender performance, proceeding to remark with frightening levity: “Talk about penis envy.”
Like The Bloody Chamber, The Wasp Factory is both depraved and darkly comic. Amongst examinations of murder and ritualistic torture, we find moments of absurd humour such as Frank experiencing an attack from a giant rabbit. This episode transforms a small, furry creature into a truly Gothic monster with “lips curled back, teeth long and yellow” – a description that would not be out of place in a vampire novel such as Dracula. The ridiculousness of, for example, the excessive naming ceremony for the new catapult, invites the reader to laugh at Frank, yet the flippant narrative voice “It was just a stage I was going through” also encourages us to sympathise with him.
In contrast, Carter uses characters such as Puss in Boots to create physical comedy. Through the use of comedia del arte conventions, Carter uses gymnastics such as the “death-defying triple somersault” to add comedy. Like Banks, it is not the actual action that is intended to amuse, but rather the narrative voice describing the action, which in the case of Puss is supremely smug yet very endearing. The anthropomorphism that Carter uses is intended to be light-hearted and although objectively a raunchy, sentient cat is disturbing, he is presented humorously.
Use of Colour
Colour is key in Gothic literature, used for everything from showing morality to foreshadowing later events.
● “Red-room” in which Jane faints in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre
● “Very red lips” of Count Dracula symbolise his depravity, which is echoed in the later “ruby” lips of the “weird sisters” and the “opened red lips” of Lucy as she is staked.
● Red is also shown to be staining - the “red scar” or “red blotch” on Mina in 1897 Dracula is echoed in the “Red mark” on forehead of the protagonist in Angela Carter’s 1979 The Bloody Chamber to show their sins
● Innocence and purity, from the “Rose white boyhood” of Dorian Gray, to Lucy Westenra “looking sweetly pretty in her white lawn frock”
● It often appears to exist solely to be tainted - Robert Kidd notes that much of fear generated by Gothic literature comes from the “tension provided by the possible violation of innocence” and this extends to colours, the most common colour being red, reminiscent of bloody sheets from a first menstrual cycle.
● Black can symbolise death, like the “ebony bird” in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem, The Raven
● As a hair colour it can be both good and evil - Bellatrix Lestrange has “long, dark hair”, yet good Snow White has” hair black as ebony”, which is emulated by Angela Carter in her tale The Snow Child
● Sickness and death
● “A smouldering, unclean yellow” of the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper
● It is the “yellow book” that Lord Henry sends to Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray that is instrumental in his descent into evil
Male and Female Gothic
While there are a few works that fit into the binary of male and female Gothic, most works contain a mixture of both.
● Tends to represent a male protagonist’s attempts to, as David Punter puts it “penetrate some encompassing interior”
● Questions of identity, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
● Supernatural is unexplained, as with the giant helmet and body from Horace Warpole’s 1764 Castle of Otranto
● Women objectified as victims and little else, as in Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein
● Tragic plot with male protagonist punished for breaking taboos, as in The Monk
● Typically represents a female protagonists attempts to, as David Punter puts it “escape from a confining interior”:
○ Secluded idyllic life, as Emily St. Aubert has in France in Mysteries of Udolpho →
○ Imprisoned, as in Ellena is in various convents in The Italian →
○ Trapped/ Pursued, as Isabella is by Manfred in Castle of Otranto →
○ Gains power, as in The Bloody Chamber, or finds mother, as in The Italian, when Sister Olivia is revealed to be Ellana’s mother
● Terror and suspense, often from the female point of view
● Madness, such as Bertha in Jane Eyre, or in The Yellow Wallpaper
● Male economic power presented as a threat, as in The Bloody Chamber
● Happy ending, most likely resulting in marriage, as in Jane Eyre “reader, I married him” or The Courtship of Mr Lyon
● David Punter summarises it with the phrase “Women were innocent, persecuted, usually on the run and have very little power of their own”
The Evolution of Vampires
● John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre introduced the “deadly hue” of the face but a passably human appearance that, as Victoria Elliot says is “sophisticated, attractive”, the “Byronic vampire”.
● By contrast, the 1847 novel Varney the Vampire portrayed something “so unlike an inhabitant of the earth” with adding “glaringly white, and fang-like” to the trope.
● The first female vampire is perhaps Carmilla, a creation of Sherian LeFanu that uses what Elliot calls “the motif of lesbiansim...to evoke a sense of perversion and danger”
● In the lull of production of new literature material, there was a proliferation of vampires on film. The first vampire film was Nosferatu, in 1922 which gained massive publicity after a battle about rights from the Stoker family and featured a vampire far more similar to Varney. Then came more official productions, including Bela Lugosi’s numerous turns as the more Byronic vampire, resplendent in a cape.
● Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, in 1976, started the trend for the more sympathetic portrayal of the vampire, which evolved into teen fiction such as Stephanie Meyer’s 2004 Twilight series and the 2007 Vampire Academy books.
● With these came media adaptation, through film and television, including the Twilight films, and the Vampire Diaries TV series. Unsurprisingly, these prompt satire, such as Taika Waitit’s 2014 mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, turning vampires from figures of terror or allure into bumbling, technologically inept figures of fun. Finally comes a return to the Bela Lugosi Dracula in the form of Claes Bang, a sexy Dane restoring vampires to their Byronic origin.
Critical Views of Castles
● Pete Bunten hypothesises that in Gothic literature "the castle seems to represent both physically and metaphorically the darkness at the heart of the Gothic" while Fred Botting agrees that it is a “necessary accompaniment to terror”.
● Castles are especially relevant to women in the Gothic, with Pete Bunten asserting that they represent “a threatening, sexually rapacious masculine world in which women are trapped and persecuted" a sentiment echoed by David Punter that “the castle is gloomy, forbidden, a place where maidens find themselves persecuted by feudal barons”. This representation can be seen in Gothic tales from Horace Warpole’s 1764 Castle of Otranto all the way to Angela Carter’s 1979 The Bloody Chamber, 215 years later.
● Bunten, however, goes on to add that “images of locked and unlocked doors within the Gothic castle often signify the sexual vulnerability of women", although arguably novels such as Bram Stoker’s 1894 novel Dracula overturn this idea with it’s presentation of the sexually confident “weird sisters”
● Botting writes that "A common feature of many Gothic castles is that they seem to distort perception, to cause some slippage between what is natural and what is human made; they act as unreliable lenses through which to view history and from the other side of which may emerge terrors only previously apprehended in a dream."
1. “Gothic writing is an exploration of what cannot be explained” Discuss how far you have found this to be the case.
2. “The conflict between the past and the present is an important feature in Gothic literature” Consider how far you agree with this statement.
3. “In Gothic writing, the presentation of place is often more interesting than the presentation of characters”. How far do you agree with this view?
4. “Gothic settings are typified by the use of pathetic fallacy to mirror the protagonist’s plight” How far is this true of the Gothic texts you have studied?
5. “Mutating bodies and disterbed souls are always key aspects of Gothic writing” Discuss this view with reference to the texts you have studied.
6. The conflict between reason and emotion is always characteristically Gothic” Consider how far you agree with this statement.
7. ‘Mad, bad and dangerous’ How accurate is this as a description of the gothic villains in the texts you have studied?
8. “Gothic writing is exciting because it allows us to think the unthinkable” Discuss how far you have found this to be the case.
9. “There is always a restoration of order at the endings of Gothic literature” To what extent is this true in the works you have looked at?
10. “Pleasure, power and pain are the main drivers in Gothic writing” Discuss how far you have found this to be the case.
11. “Gothic writing can be both disturbing and comic.” Consider how far you agree with this statement by using the texts you have studied.
12. “Gothic literature warns of the dangers of aspiring beyond our limitations” How far does your reading of the Gothic support this view?
'Gothic Literature often explores the very definition of Humanity'.
Consider how Carter explores this in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories with at least one other text prescribed for this topic.
Gothic literature has long used humanity, or lack of it, to terrify. The idea of someone appearing to be human, having humane aspects, yet being totally other is one that inspires strong feelings in many and therefore has been utilised throughout the Gothic. Through devices such as the Uncanny Valley or the use of the abhuman, Gothic writers can explore the hallmarks of humanity and then pervert them to horrify and delight audiences. In the dawn of Gothic literature, abhumanity took the form of grotesque monsters, morphing to suit Victorian fears of degeneration in the 19th century, then travelling to ideas of insanity in the 20thcentury and finally exploring the idea of technology and humanity with the rise of artificial intelligence in the 21st century. Both Bram Stocker's Dracula and Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, written in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, have used humanity, or lack of it, to terrify, although other novels such as Shelley's Frankenstein or Lovecraft’s The Outsider have also used it to great effect. David Punter said that '’whether in appearance or behaviour, monsters function to define and construct the politics of the 'normal'...they police the boundaries of the human, pointing to those lines that can’t be crossed” and it is this role of defining humanity, be that physical, moral or emotion, that abhumanity plays in Gothic literature.
Firstly, Carter and Stocker explore how human physicality can be subverted and presented, in order to unnerve the reader. Both writers use very similar ideas of classic Gothic features, including teeth, eyes, skin and lips, providing parallels between older Gothic books and providing material for future pastiches of the Gothic, such as Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. Dracula’s teeth as continuously described throughout the novel as “white” and “sharp” and this repetition fixes it as a motif in the reader’s mind. Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 and immediately set Victorian society into a panic about ideas of degeneration, so Stocker’s exploitation of animalistic sharp teeth, made for tearing flesh as prehistoric humans did, would have been especially effective. Stocker may have drawn inspiration for his description from previous Gothic novels such as in the 1845 Varney the Vampire, where the titular character’s teeth are “glaringly white, and fanglike”. In The Lady in the House of Love, Carter describes the girl’s teeth as “fine and white as spikes of spun sugar”, a far more precise description, perhaps born of Carter’s awareness of the common descriptive tropes. After all, Carter wished to “all for putting new wine into old bottles, especially if the pressure of new wine makes the old bottle explode”, so while she used the old bottle of the teeth trope, her description of it certainly makes the old simile explode with a new sense of horror.
Eyes are also used to show a characters abhumanity – Vathek, from an 1786 novel of the same name, can kill with just a glance. Dracula’s eyes were described as “positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them”, and this religious inspired imagery would have been very effective in communicating the extent of Dracula’s sinfulness to a Victorian reader, who would have been especially concerned by it. Moreover, despite the rise in availability of coloured contact lenses, modern audiences are still disturbed by irises of unnatural colour, proving that Stocker chose a perennially unnerving physical feature to show Dracula’s lack of humanity. Carter, rather than just using unnatural shades of colour, uses unnatural lack of life; in the Bloody Chamber, the Marquis’s eyes “always disturbed me [the protagonist] with their complete absence of light” and they are later likened to the eyes of a shark. Considering that the seminal film Jaws was released in 1975, 4 years before The Bloody Chamber in 1979, hysteria around sharks would have been at an all-time high. Despite the fact that the Marquis is entirely human, Carter’s use of his eyes to show his abhumanity and unnaturalness is especially innovative, signalling to the audience his ill intentions.
Likening characters to animals is another Gothic trope and both writers use this to great effect though their ideas of flesh eating. In Carter’s The Erl-King, the titular character is said to “sink your teeth into my neck and make me scream”, which, while used to insinuate sexual pleasure, has undertones of cannibalism that may have been inspired by the incidences of famine-induced cannibalism rumoured to occur in Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. Stocker’s description is more graphic, with blood sucking being explicitly described in relation to both Dracula and Lucy. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1993 film is more graphic still, and is Dracula is even more closely connected with the animal world with a shot of him half transformed into a wolf, blood dripping from his maw. This reversion to a more animalistic self was a hot topic in Victorian criminology; Botting says that "Categorised forms of deviance and abnormality explained criminal behaviour as pathological return of animalistic, instinctual habits" and therefore animals were associated with criminals, adding another layer to the instinctual fear inspired by something so clearly not human. This is exacerbated by Dracula’s ability to transform into other creatures, so while he may appear moderately human, he is actually far from it.
The colour of skin is another example of how Gothic writers communicate the abhumanity of a character, and the colour in vogue is white. Carter’s Erl-King has skin “the tint and texture of sour cream” and Dracula is described as possessing “extraordinary pallor”. Pale skin is effective in communicating a lack of humanity as for humans to be so pale they are white, they have to be deceased, so for a living person to be that pale they have to be abhuman. Lips are also commonly used, such as in The Bloody Chamber when the Marquis’s lips are said to “always seem[ed] so strangely red”. The contrast between the pale skin and the red lips is unnatural and further enhances the abhuman image the audience imagine. In Dracula, the red of the lips is linked with sinful lustfulness – a jewel metaphor is used for the vampire women and “the ruby of their voluptuous lips”, and this vivid red of the lips is used as a signifier for Lucy’s departure from humanity. As she descends into vampirism, her lips become change: “the lips were red, nay, redder than before”. This brings in the idea that someone can be judged by their appearance, which would have been of more importance in the Victorian era – Mina goes so far as to daube her feet with mud so that “no one” would “notice [her] bare feet”. Victorian ideas of what constitutes a respectable appearance were very strict, a concept that a modern reader may find humorous but also a little unnerved at how the state of your hair, lips or shoes could determine your labelling as a ‘wild’ woman. Both Carter and Stocker use the physical features of their characters in order to explore the definition of humanity. They both employ common gothic tropes, albeit in different ways, to show the reader how physical factors can indicate a lack of humanity.
They also both explore the idea of humanity through the lens of morality and rationality. Punter says that 'Gothic lies at the very boundaries of acceptable” and therefore the depths of human morality is often explored within it. Characters such as Dracula or the Marquis in The Bloody Chamber are exemplary in their lack of morality, although one is human while the other is supernatural. The Count was inspired by the Marquis de Sade, a member of the late 18th century aristocracy and a pornographer who committing several sexual misdemeanours. Although he is clearly not entirely normal, the Marquis is still portrayed as a human, although the depth of his “depredations” is revealed in his “enfer”. Carter skilfully weaves a web of terror, making the reader question how they can every know what inhumanity could be lurking beneath a human facade. Similarly, when Dracula travels to London, Mina simply sees him as a “tall, thin man”, with a face which was “not a good face” – she does not immediately see him as the abhuman he really is, introducing the idea of the undetectable infection. Victorian fears over disease where high at the time, with syphilis being especially rife, which can be compared to the recent Ebola epidemic in 2014 and 2015, in which the idea of a deadly disease ravaging the country causes panic among many. Botting writes that "Dracula feeds off prevailing cultural anxieties concerning corruption, and the idea of a vampire emigrating into England undetected and spreading, creating “a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” is something that has the capacity to terrify through generations. Johnathan Harker is an inversion of Dracula, he too appears normal, but hides an extraordinary strength of humanity. As a character, David Gates says that “Harker is a hero without an heroic appearance”, which is reflected in how Dr Seward views him; he expects to meet “a good specimen of manhood” but is disappointed by a “quiet, business-like gentleman”. Stocker explores the idea that true humanity and humane morals can be hidden behind an unremarkable face, using the Gothic theme of appearance versus reality. Carter has her own version of this in The Lady of the House of Love, with the “blonde, blue-eyed, heavy muscled” hero, who fails to save his love interest, again showing that despite appearance, the reality of a character may not be the same.
It could be claimed that in the Gothic, both human and monsters can be portrayed as evil, and only humans can be good but Carter subverts this in her story The Courtship of Mr Lyon, in which the Beast, an animalistic lion man complete with “mane” and “meat-hook claws” but inspires “a flood of compassion” and is the “source” of the protagonist’s prosperity. This contradiction is summarised by the phrase “so monstrous, so benign”, with the repetition serving to highlight these contrasting characteristics. Carter shows that, despite possessing what might be called classic Gothic characteristics, human morality is not solely the domain of those appear human. Carter also explores the duality of monsters and humans in The Tiger’s Bride, using The Beast to explore deception - “he wears a mask with a man’s face painted most beautifully upon it”, trying to present himself as human even though he is not. Later in the story, the heroine transforms into another beast, with “beautiful hair”, to escape her inadequate father, sending off her “clockwork twin” to “perform the part of my father’s daughter”. Carter is both commenting on how, despite being human, Beauty’s father has no humanity and also the idea that it is not appearance that defines humanity. Beauty dispatches the automaton in the knowledge no one will notice the difference in appearance, showing it is the soul and morality that matters. The recent advances in Artificial Intelligence and robot developments have exacerbated fears of something inhuman being able to masquerade as human, bringing a new perspective to this idea in the novel.
Both writers also use rationality as a classic human characteristic. In Dracula, Seward says “surely there must be some rational explanation for all these mysterious things”, and modern technology such as trains, phonographs and Kodak cameras are used to represent the modern, scientific society. This is paralleled by the way Carter elevates the bicycle in The Lady of the House of Love, proclaiming that “to ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, for a bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion”. Rationality is portrayed as a hallmark of humanity and a defence against the a human and as such, it is commonly used in Gothic novels, as in Frankenstein, whereby Victor constantly rationalises his decisions with reason, to alleviate himself of guilt, another human characteristic.
The authors also uses emotions to define humanity, which often takes the form of female love and sexuality. Punter and Byron typify this - "Gothic texts of the time repeatedly produce powerful and sexually aggressive females as alien or monstrous", which is especially true of Lucy. Her promiscuity is evidenced from the start with her question “why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her”, a trait which is punished by her transformation into a vampire, in which “the sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness”. Gates writes that 'Lucy is an inversion of the modest and virtuous Victorian woman; she becomes sexually aggressive and anti-maternal”. Stocker fans the idea that a woman’s humanity is directly linked to her purity and her willingness to care for others. Carter, as a 2nd wave feminist, does not take the same view – with oral contraceptive being made available for all in 1967, she was sexually active in a time of ever increasing liberation. Her female characters, while often victims, are not unaware and certainly do not have the same martyr-like devotion to each other that Stocker presents. David Gates hypothesise that “The virtuous characters in Dracula have the power of love...which sustains them when in distress”, Mina being the most obvious example. She proclaims “We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked” before comforting a crying Arthur then a crying Quincy. In Dracula it is often a characters love and emotion that exemplify their humanity and allow them to triumph. In Carter’s The Snow Child, the child melts away as soon as the Count is “finished” and a feminist critic might argue that this is because now she has fulfilled the male desire, her purpose is satisfied and she must die. Carter challenges the role of women and the idea of humanity through her depiction of female sexuality, while Stocker plays on pre-existing notions of the ideal woman.
Overall, both Carter and Stocker explore humanity in their work, through physical, moral and emotional lenses. While their times of writing differ by over 80 years and therefore their ideas over womanhood and morality are far removed, they both subscribe to the philosophy that it is not our physical appearance that makes us human. Through characters such as Dracula or The Erl-King, they do show that abhumanity can be recognised though appearance, but make clear that the true characteristics of humanity is found inside – our thoughts, values and souls is what makes us truly human.
By Rose Morley
'Gothic Literature often explores the very definition of Humanity'.
Consider how Carter explores this in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories with at least one other text prescribed for this topic.
Angela Carter and Bram Stoker explore what it is to be human in The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories and Dracularespectively both writers employ the abhuman to highlight man’s animalistic and primal nature in a similar style to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Moreover the authors explore the idea that humans can themselves be monstrous, Stoker employing the Victorian Gothic trope of the fallen women whilst Carter takes inspiration from the exploits of the Marquis de Sade to inform the titular story’s villain. However, the writers present what it is to be a woman in radically different ways. Stoker uses Lucy Westenra to target Victorian fears of promiscuous sexual behaviour and elicit a visceral reaction from his readers whilst warning Victorian women of the dangers of moral transgression. In contrast, Carter produces patriarchal structures and presents female desire and sexuality in a positive and freeing light, subverting the Gothic definition of the woman.
Both Carter and Stoker employed the abhuman to emphasise the primal and animalistic side of human nature. In the Tigers Bride the beast and his manservant’s attempt to conceal their identity behind masks, costume and perfume, however the Tiger’s mask is described as “too perfect, uncanny”. Carter therefore explores the idea that the hero’s predatory appearance and nature cannot be concealed, perhaps in the way that humans bestial desires cannot be fully contained. In a similar vein, although Dracula at first presents as a “tall old man” he cannot conceal his vampiric qualities. His “peculiarly white teeth” and “long and sharp” nails immediately align him with the wolves and predatory animals explored earlier in the text. Through this exploration of moral and physical degeneration Stoker exploited the contemporary fears of immigration and reverse colonialism, as well as the moral and racial degeneration it implied. The titular character is representative of a feudal, backward and superstitious old Europe, presented by Stoker to contrast the rational, civilised and modernised England of the late Victorian period. However, while Stoker explores the Gothic binary opposition of good and evil, man and beast, Carter elicits sympathy for her monsters through their human-like qualities. The vampire from The Lady of the House of Love “would like to be human” and both she and the Tiger experience the very familiar emotions of shame, sadness, love and loneliness. In this way, Carter’s use of the abhuman draws more parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster being described as a “poor helpless miserable wretch” and thereby invoking some pathos from the reader. David Gates argues that the vampirism of Carter’s work is “a type of imprisonment”, the soul being trapped in a lonely and endless liminal state between life and death. Furthermore, whilst Stoker presents man’s bestial nature as something to be feared, Carter argues that humans should sometimes give into their more primal desires, and thus secure freedom. In the The Tiger’s Bride, instead of the beast shedding his bestiality to transform into a handsome prince as in the original source fairytale’ La Belle et le Bete’, the female narrator embraces her savage nature and subsumes it, losing her skin and finding underneath “beautiful fur “. Therefore, both texts employed the abhuman to highlight man’s bestial nature. However, while Stoker uses this to strike fear into his readers, Carter present animalistic desires as positive and freeing, whilst presenting the typical antagonistic creatures of the Gothic as worthy of sympathy.
Both writers also present humans as monstrous, emphasising the idea that appearances can be deceiving. The Marquis of the titular story of Carter’s collection is perhaps the most monstrous of all the writer’s creations, so much so that the character does not require a repulsive appearance to be truly horrifying. Carter wrote and published ‘the Sadian Woman’ in tandem with The Bloody Chamber, and examines the way sex is portrayed in the 20thcentury culture through the lens of the Marquis de Sade works, his title been given to the villain of the opening story. His sadomasochistic desires and “instruments of mutilation” align the antagonist with the historical figure, and Erica Wagner argues that the primal sexual brutality of the Marquis is representative of the way “men and beasts are seamlessly blended” in Carter’s work. In a similar vein, Stoker explores the monstrous tendencies of humans through Renfield and Lucy Westenra. The former character is described as a “zoophagus maniac”, and his consumption of living creatures immediately aligns him with the villain of the novel. Furthermore, the inversion of biblical text and events subtly parallels Renfield to John the Baptist, the former holding and preparing for the arrival of Dracula is the latter does the Messiah. This alignment is shocking even to the modern reader, but would’ve been even more so to a contemporary Victorian audience living in a more theocratic society. Both Stoker and Carter therefore explore the hideous side of human nature, disseminating the idea that some if not all monsters are human. However, whilst the author of Dracula presents evil humans as physically grotesque, Carter’s human villans are often presented as sexually appealing, perhaps connecting the text more closely to Oscar Wilde is the picture of Dorian Gray then Stoker’s novel. The Marquis, although not conventionally attractive, has a “perfectly smooth” face, “leonine shaped” head and the narrator finds him sexually alluring. His evil is concealed behind a mask of wealth and respectability which is reflected in his appearance, his eyes the only clue of his monstrous nature through their “absolute absence of light “. Therefore, although both authors explored beastliness within humans, stoker presents his feelings as physically repulsing through their appearance and actions. In contrast, Carter’s antagonists can hide in plain sight, exuding a normalcy that belies their true nature and thus warns the reader that a monster is dangerous because he “maybe more than he seems”.
Both Dracula and The Bloody Chamber and Other Storiesalso explore the definition of the female, feminine desire and sexuality serving as a major theme in the texts. Carter’s heroines often decide to leave their state of innocence, freely choosing to take charge of their own sexuality. Red Riding Hood “freely gave the kiss she owed” in the Company of Wolves, and the heroine of the Erl King comes to the titular character of her own free will. Similarly, Stoker presents Lucy Westenra as sexually promiscuous even before her transformation, the character questioning “why can’t they let a girl marry three men” after receiving numerous proposals in the space of one day. The young woman’s “voluptuous wantonness” serves as a moralistic warning against promiscuity, tapping into the contemporary fears of transgressive sexual behaviour. The spread of Lucy’s vampirical infection through blood reflects the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases, and the characters descent into vampirism is depicted as a sexual fool. Therefore, both writers explore female sexuality, however they do this in drastically different manners.
Henrik Schultz argues that “Carters interpretations specifically shift the focus of the original fairy tales away from the male hero figures and towards the female heroines”, and the writer certainly parties and subverts the patriarchal structures inherent in the traditional form. Court of frames Virginia purity as a weakness easily exploited rather than a virtue, a “power and potential” that hints as an unexplored dormant sexuality. She reveals the inner desires and fears of her heroines, it’s establishing them as an active participants in their stories and thus removing them from the archetypal characteristics of the passive, beautiful and victimised women. There is an unmistakable feminist agenda underline the collection, combining the allegorical fairy tale with explicitly violent and pornographic content to challenge the essence of gender and sexuality disseminated by both genres. In stark contrast, Stoker condemns feminine design, Fred potting arguing that “Dracula subordinates female sexuality to a masculine perspective”. Mina is presented as the ideal Victorian wife, Van Helsing describing her as “one of Gods women”. She is a model of domestic per pint propriety, almost angelic in her sacrifice and sufferance, and her intellectual successes are exclusively in the service of men. At a time when Gothic literature was viewed as dangerous in the hands of impressionable young women, exemplified by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Stoker’s female characters serve both as the perfect warning against sexual deviance and as an example of a woman’s place in the Victorian world. In this sense, Dracula is perhaps more closely linked with Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market in its exploration of temptation and the fate of the fallen woman. Therefore, although both Carter and Stoker explored female sexuality the former is a proponent of the liberation of feminine desire whilst the latter want to get to the dangers of sexual deviance and promiscuity.
In conclusion, both writers explored the very definition of humanity through the use of the app human, the monster within, and their fascination with the role of women in the Gothic and white society. However, Stoker conforms to Christian morality in his presentation of the binary opposition of good and evil and female sexuality. In contrast, Carter encourages her readers to embrace the primal natures, particularly her female audience. The writer was working on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre at the time of her death, and this highlights her fascination with the female in the Gothic genre and this is an interest she does not ostensibly share with Stoker, who uses female characters as a plot and moral devices to elicit a response from his readers. Therefore, although Dracula and The Bloody Chamber and Other Storiesexplore the definition of humanity the former focuses more on the male experience whilst the latter is preoccupied with all things feminine.
By Jolie Ryan-Dawes
'The Outsider is a classic figure of Gothic fiction'.
Compare the ways in which at least 2 texts employ such characterisation. In your answer you must refer to either 'Dracula' or 'The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories'
The outsider has been a common troupe in Gothic literature, with writers such as H.P Lovecraft going so far as to use it as the title of one of his works. The outsider is a perennial idea in literature because so many people can find a sense of alliance with the character, as it is impossible to live your life without experiencing what it is to be an outsider at some point. One can be an outsider in several different ways, due to several different factors and this essay will explore how Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, and Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinuse the characterisation of the outsider in their novels.
One of the most obvious ways in which characters can be made outsiders is to their appearance. Gothic literature often utilises extreme or terrifying appearances in order to shock, scare and horrify their readers, and the effectiveness of this has been exploited through horror films and TV shows, such as the anthropomorphic horror in the 1984 adaptation of The Company of Wolves. Angela Carter wrote that the “singular function” “of the Gothic is provoke unease, and through the appearances of their characters Carter and Shelley do exactly that. In Frankenstein, the creature is horrified by his own appearance and bemoans it. He says that he had admired the “perfect forms of my cottages – their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how I was terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!”. It is this “personal deformity” that is so instrumental in the creature’s status as an outsider. As such, the visual medium of film provides a way to shock audiences, from the 1931 classic film, with the now famous neck bolts, to the 2015 version, with an enormous orc-like beast. Carter also uses physical deformity, but her unconventional characters are often presented as attractive. Charlotte Unsworth Hughes believes that “Carter subverts…and strays from the expected norm”, and she does this with the Erl-King. As a character he is clearly unnatural and an outsider, with hair that has “dead leaves that fall out of it” and “white, pointed teeth”, as well as his supernatural way with animals. However, he is characterised as clearly attractive to the narrator, and she goes “back and back to him to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away”. The idea of the dangerous yet attractive stranger has been particularly capitalised upon in recent years, such as with the BBC adaptation in which the actor playing Dracula, Claes Bang, describes him as “charismatic, intelligent, witty and sexy”. In this adaptation, Lucy Westenra is portrayed as a fully willing victim of the Count, and so traits which may have previously marked you are as an outsider are becoming more acceptable and even desirable.
Appearances are also shown to be deceiving by both authors. As Milton Millhauser says, “Frankenstein's monster has only the impulses of his nature - which are, to start with, absolutely good.” While a contemporary reader of 1818 may well have been continuously revulsed by the creature, a modern reader has been exposed to pitiable villains before and can therefore find humanity in the creature, despite his status as an outsider. The creature proclaims “my soul glowed with love and humanity” and yet others around him “spurn and hate” him, which inspires sympathy in many modern readers. Deceiving appearances are a common trope in Gothic novels, such as The Picture of Dorian Grey, albeit reversed. While Dorian should look “withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage” as in his portrait, he appears as a “young Adonis, who looks like he was made out of ivory and rose leaves” – he appears handsome and so is not an outsider, but hides a “corruption” which should make him one. The disguised monster would have been particularly terrifying to an 19th century audience, with fears of immigration on the rise, and is still relevant today with the advent of artificial intelligence passing the Turing Test to appear human, in ever greater numbers. Like the creature in Frankenstein, Carter also uses a kind soul as an outsider in Mr Lyon. Although he appears as a “leonine apparition” with “meat hook claws”, he inspires “a flood of compassion” and is the “source” of the protagonist’s prosperity. This contradiction is summarised by the phrase “so monstrous, so benign”, with the repetition serving to highlight these contrasting characteristics. However, through kissing the Beast and thereby accepting him, he is transformed into a “man” and is no longer an outsider. Therefore both writers suggest that should an outsider be accepted by one person, the Beast with Beauty and the creature with his desired bride, then they would no longer be outsiders.
Nationality can also have a role in creating outsiders. Safie, Felix’s “sweet Arabian”, is an outsider due to her ethnicity. Orientalism is a key Gothic trope and people who are foreign are often used as a cause of fear. This was because in the Georgian era the empire was still expanding and so as new peoples were discovered, so were new fears. This was capitalised upon by authors such as William Beckford, who wrote Vathek, in which the titular character, an Arabian Muslim lord, commits numerous sins. Carter also uses nationality, although in a different way to Shelley. In two of her stories, The Tiger’s Bride and The Werewolf, Carter uses ethnicity to alienate the reader from the characters, rather than the characters from each other. In the former story, Carter writes that “unkindness comes naturally” to her Italian characters and that “they lie to you and cheat you, everybody”, while in the latter, the people of the “northern country” “have not seen us, nor know they exist”. Both of these serve to distance the reader, and the use of nationality is especially effective considering the context surrounding immigration - The Bloody Chamber was published just 10 years after Enoch Powell gave the famous ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’. Dracula, too, exploited fears of reverse colonization with the threat that Dracula may “create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless”. David Punter writes that the Gothic uses “supernatural as an image for real and carefully depicted social fears” and this is certainly the method here. Outsiders that are characterised by nationality can be accepted though, if only they find the right companions as Safie did the deLacys, and as there is every increasing awareness and acceptance of those who are different to us, this is a trend which is likely to increase.
Outsiders are also often characterised in Gothic fiction through their social exclusion. Both Frankenstein and his monster are shown to be social pariahs but while Frankenstein chooses this exclusion – deliberately shutting out his family and friends in his frenetic quest for reanimation – the creature is desperate to be accepted, questioning, “am I not alone, miserably alone”. David Punter writes that "The creature's desire for companionship is one of his most human qualities." Despite the atrocity of strangling William, the reader feels sympathy for the trials he has faced as an outsider, and many would support his plea for a partner, “with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies which are essential for my being.” The creature effectively grew up without a parent, which would have been looked down upon in the Georgian times when socialised norms of religion and morals were heavily enforced by parents. Like the creature, Carter’s vampire in the Lady of the House of Love is equally desperate for human contact – she can be heard “sobbing in a derelict bedroom” because of her “perennial sadness”. She is also in a situation whereby the traits she was born with – vampirism – excludes her from a social life and therefore she is an outsider. Both characters are also given hope to end their status as outsiders. For the “beautiful somnambulist” this is though the arrival a “blond, blue-eyed, heavy-muscled” young solider, with the “special quality of virginity” who wishes to “cure her of all these nightmares”. Yet he is unable to save her and so she finishes the story dead. The creature is also given hope by the deLacey family, and when he finally enters their home this hope is sustained by the old man’s comment, “To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate; but the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity.” However, with the arrival of the seeing members of the family he is ‘dashed...to the ground, and struck...violently with a stick.” The creature decides that “From that moment I declared everlasting war against the species and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth to this and insupportable misery”. Therefore, outsiders can often be characterised by an inability to enter the world of those who are the norm, despite the hopes they may have.
Outsiders are also characterised by their awareness of their status. The creature in Frankenstein is not aware of his repulsiveness until some way into his existence, but once realised it becomes a considerable issue. He states “When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the Earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?”, and it can widely be agreed that his realisation of his inherent otherness is quite painful to see. Percy Shelly wrote "Treat a person ill and he will become wicked", which exactly describes the monster’s experience. He bemoans “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded”. With the advent of social media and the word FOMO (fear of missing out) added to the dictionary in 2016, the creature’s sentiment is one that a modern audience can easily identify with, showing the relevancy of the Outsider characterisation throughout time. Equally, however, there are characters who are perfectly happy with being outsiders, even prefer it to being a part of a society they do not agree with. The narrator of the titular story in the Bloody Chamber describes how her “indomitable mother” “gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love”, rejecting the expectations held for her and willingly becoming an outsider, for love. Robert Stevenson Brown believes that Carter uses her stories to “attack the ideologies and institutions of her day” and as a second wave feminist Carter attacks the patriarchy and the idea that women need men to save them. This is a sharp contrast to the circumstances in which Shelley was writing, although considering her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, it would not be unreasonable to suggest they may have shared more of the same views than might be initially thought.
Overall, it can rightly be concluded that the Outsider is a classic figure of Gothic fiction, and both Carter and Shelley use this characterisation – in similar and contrasting ways. Both authors include characters who are social outsiders, who are given hope before it is taken away. However, considering the social revolution in Carter’s time, including the popularity of androgynous outsider David Bowie, it is unsurprising that Carter uses the characterisation of the Outsider as a positive idea – particularly in regard to appearance. Shelley, on the other hand, almost exclusively shows it to be a negative thing, perhaps in response to her own experiences after her bastard pregnancy with a married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Regardless of author experience, the Outsider is likely to remain a perennial fixture in literature due to its endless potential for reader alliance and emotional response.
By Rose Morley
Gothic writing can be both disturbing and comic.
Consider how far you agree with this statement by comparing The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories with at least one other text prescribed for this topic.
Gothic writing can often be both disturbing and comic, although it could be said that Gothic is expected to be only disturbing rather than comic. After all, as Angela Carter says, the “singular moral function” of the Gothic is to provoke unease and therefore while Gothic writing can be solely disturbing, and disturbing and comic it is usually not only comic. However, while novels such as Bram Stocker’s 1897 work ‘Dracula’ are only intended to be disturbing, with changing attitudes and expectations, what once was disturbing is now simply comic. On the other end of the spectrum there are works such as Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’, which is intended to be both and has retained its unnerving nature. The comic and disturbing in the Gothic can be communicated in several different ways, though physicality and melodrama, but regardless, it is clear that Gothic writing be both disturbing and comic.
The primary way in which both the comic and disturbing can be explored in the Gothic is through melodrama. Ludicrous events and excessive reactions characterise Gothic fiction, from the very first Gothic novel, Horace Warpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’. From the unexplained giant helmet falling from the sky, to the lecherous advances of Manfred, the ‘Castle of Otranto’ is filled with the ridiculous. Although the very first audiences may have been disturbed by this, after it was revealed that the note of authenticity was, in fact, fictitious, even Warpole himself admitted his work could be seen as humorous. Gothic excess is a hallmark of the genre and can be seen in works such as ‘Vathek’, whereby a single glance from the titular character can cause instant death. However, as Fred Botting says, “castles villains and ghosts, already made formulaic by popular imitation ceased to invoke terror or horror”, and as such excess has continued, it is now subject to ridicule. The discovery of Lucy’s transformation into a vampire at the end of Chapter 14 in Dracula can be seen as an example of melodrama. Through use of exclamation, Van Helsing overdramatically throwing himself into a chair, and the use of a cliff hanger, Stoker almost manages to create a pastiche of the Gothic whilst writing entirely seriously, and concept reflected in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation. It could be argued that to a Victorian audience the reveal of Lucy’s anti-maternal actions would be disturbing, as they may have seen women’s roles to be entirely domestic, as evidenced by Coventry Patmore’s 1862 poem ‘the Angel of the House’. However, with writers such as Oscar Wilde writing complex and multifaceted women that reject this mould, it could be argued that many contemporary readers would’ve found this absurd rather than horrifying, as most readers do today. On the other hand, the disturbing climaxes in Carter’s work can be seen as genuinely disturbing rather than comic, such as the near beheading of the protagonist in the titular story. Despite the seemingly comic melodrama of a beheading, though building the unnerving characterisation of the Marquis, the audience are only disturbed by the melodrama rather than amused. Carter also diverts from Stocker by using perspective change for humour rather than horror. When Mina sees Dracula and, although admitting he does not “have a good face”, she does not see him monstrously, in comparison to Jonathan who views him as “the devil”. This is disturbing as the audience are reminded that there could be hidden monsters among them and as Robert Kidd says, "the fact that the 'foreign' could exist in the reader's own neighbourhood made it all the more frightening”. In contrast, when the perspective changes from the ‘Lady in the Lady in the House of Love’ to the boy, this provides humour. While the narrative voice for the “beautiful somnambulist” bemoans the inevitability of her “perennial sadness”, the change to the free indirect voice of the boy invites humour through its no-nonsense matron-esque tone and jarring desire to take her to a “dentist”. Despite the disturbing content, the ironic tone invites humour. The authors also use the reactions of the characters to invite humour, although it may not be intentional. The most obvious example of this is swooning, an almost disturbingly common reaction that characters in Gothic fiction have. Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel, faints a grand total of three times, while in a similar vein Jonathan faints in reaction to Dracula saving him from the “weird sisters”. This is a comic reaction to the disturbing events they encounter, and it effectively provides a break in the action for the audience to breathe and, most often, laugh. The hyperbolic language they use provides comedy, yet the events they are reacting to may unnerve the reader, showing how Gothic literature can be both disturbing and comic.
Secondly, both Stoker and Carter use physicality to disturb although while Carter purposefully makes this comic Stoker does not, yet still manages to make a modern audience laugh. Firstly, Stoker uses the abhuman to describe Dracula’s physical actions as he crawls “face down” “just as a lizard moves along a wall”. To a Victorian audience this may well have seemed inhuman and therefore extremely unnerving, especially with Charles Darwin’s 1859 ‘Origin of Species’ provoking fears over degeneration. The immediate impact of such animalistic movement provokes visceral horror, as well as fear for Jonathan. On the other hand, a modern audience familiar with characters such as Spiderman and the wonders of CGI are likely to find it far less scary, and compounded with Jonathan’s abject horror, this creates a rather comic scene. To contrast, Carter uses characters such as Puss in Boots to create physical comedy. Through the use of comedia del arte conventions, Carter uses gymnastics such as the “death-defying triple somersault” to add comedy. Unlike Stoker, it is not the actual action that is intended to horrify or amuse, but rather the narrative voice describing the action, which in the case of Puss is supremely smug yet very endearing. The anthropomorphism that Carter uses is intended to be light-hearted, and although objectivity a raunchy, sentient cat is disturbing, he is presented humorously. Moreover, audiences now have been bombarded with sentient animal movies from the newer ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’ to the older ‘Charlotte’s Web’, meaning that the peculiarity of the idea is no longer present and all that remains is the comic. Contrastingly, the dog which Dracula transforms into is presented as wholly disturbing, and maintains this up to modern day interpretations, such as the spectacularly graphic image of Claes Bang emerging from the amniotic sack of the innards of a wolf in the 2019 television series. Interestingly, this directly parallels the images presented in the only media adaptation of Carter’s work, ‘The Company of Wolves’ in 1984. Other Gothic writers also employ physical comedy, such as Ian Banks with ‘The Wasp Factory’. The way in which the protagonist, Frank, describes the murder of his cousins and brother is very comic, although also disturbing. Through putting a snake in Blyth’s prosthetic leg, tying Esmeralda to a kite, and getting Paul to hit an unexploded WW2 bomb, Banks achieves comedy through incredulity whilst simultaneously horrifying the audience through Frank’s behaviour and his flippant attitude to his crimes. Therefore, while modern authors are more likely to combine physical comedy with the disturbing in their work, authors writing from the late Victorian period backwards are far less likely.
Overall, it is clear that Gothic writing can indeed both be comic and disturbing. Cultural norms and experiences play a huge part in dictating what we find comic and what we find disturbing, and this therefore means that your era and upbringing effect the reaction that you have to Gothic work. Therefore, while a delicate Victorian can be unnerved by Stoker’s work, a modern reader may find it funny, whereas the extreme topics broached in Carters work, specifically necrophilia, paedophilia, bestiality and incest, are disturbing to all audiences, yet her work is far more intentionally funny. Regardless of intent, however, it is clear that Gothic literature can encompass both the comic and disturbing, and often at the same time.
By Rose Morley
Gothic writing can be both disturbing and comic.
Consider how far you agree with this statement by comparing The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories with at least one other text prescribed for this topic.
Fred Botting defined the Gothic literature genre as “a hybrid form” combining elements of the horrific and humorous. It is therefore unsurprising that both Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Bram Stoker’s Dracula contain both disturbing and comic elements. However, whilst Carters work is deliberately comedic, parading the sexism of traditional fairytales and pornography to forward her second wave feminist views, the humour in Stoker’s text is largely accidental.
Sexuality is a theme explored in both texts and is a source of humour and discussed in almost equal measure. Helen Simpson describes the “libidinous top speed force” of Carter’s tale Puss-in-Boots which draws on traditional comedia del arte physical comedy and bawdy wordplay to create a story that the author describes as intended “to be really funny”. Thinly veiled innuendos and double meanings such “Haven’t I just now blocked the great hole?” emphasise the humorous and sexually charged nature of the tail in a similar vein to Stoker’s Dracula, the stakings of the vampire women almost comedic in their heightened sexuality “quivered and twisted in wild contortions” here Joe Lawrence argues that “the silliness of the Gothic” is most apparent into a desensitised and sexually liberated 21st-century audience the sexual quality of vampirism is is deeply amusing. This view is compounded by Moffatt and Gatiss’s recent BBC adaptation of the novel which further emphasised the sexual nature of the text for comedic effect. However, whilst Carter’s body humour is certainly intentional, Stoker’s exploration of female sexuality was designed to frighten and disturb. He also tapped into contemporary fears of female sexual promiscuity and the fallen women to scare contemporary readers, associating vampirism with STIs and promiscuity. Thus, Gothic literature exploration of sexuality can be both disturbing, frightening and comic, this certainly being true of 19th-century to texts such as Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Another theme explored within Gothic literature to both comedic and disturbing affect is the liminality between humans and animals. Carter’s Marquis in the collection’s titular story is depicted as a predatorial cat “the dark leonine shape of his head” symbolising his status as “carnivore incarnate”. Through this description, Carter explores the disturbing notion that the most dangerous monsters “or hairy on the inside”, highlighting man’s animalistic nature in a similar vein to such works as Shelley’s Frankensteinand Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The writer’s words would also have particularly resonated with northern contemporary readers currently being terrorised by the Yorkshire Ripper and the text taps into primary phase of development in a similar manner to Stoker’s Dracula. The author depicts the vampire women is licking their lips “like an animal”, this is targeting contemporary Victorian fears of degeneration and the devouring woman. Darwin’s 1859 ‘Theory of Evolution’ had shocked and disturbed English society, prompting fears of degeneration that Stoker plays upon in a similar manner to Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However, whilst the animalistic nature of man can be disturbing, it also has the ability to act as a comedic element in the Gothic. Sarah Whitehead argues that Carter’s “aim is not only to shock and horrify but also to provoke laughter” and the monkey like manservant in The Tiger’s Bride is a source of humour in the tale, walking with a “jolting rhythm upon splayed feet”. Similarly, Dracula’s beastly abilities are often a source of humour, although this is likely unintentional unlike Carter’s work. The hyperbolic, exaggerated and often ridiculous imagery employed by Stoker including the vampire’s exit from the castle “just as the lizard moves along the wall” is certainly amusing to a more scientifically enlightened 21st-century audience. Therefore, man’s animalistic nature is a source of both comedy and horror, particularly the latter in such adaptations of Dracula as Nosferatu which uses silhouettes of clawed hands to unnerve its audience.
Finally, the product and ironic nature of Gothic writing is a source of comedy within the genre whilst often revealing the disturbing nature of the world we live in. Such works as Austin’s Northanger Abbey and Ian Banks’s The Wasp Factory parody the extremes of feeling in the Gothic, and Carter uses a similar technique to parody the fairytales that inspired her work. Sarah Whitehead argues that Gothic literature laughs “at its own absurdities”, but Carter appears to mock traditional stories that subjugate female experience, this in keeping with her own feminist views. Such ironic phrases as “the invisible pentacle of her virginity” are subtly parodic and comedic in tone, compounding this argument. In a similar vein, the over exaggerated use of dialect in Dracula - “the supersteetion of foreigners is pairfectly rideeculous” - as well as the farcical supernatural occurrences parody the Gothic excess of such texts as The Castle of Otranto. However, parody can also serve as a means of emphasising the disturbing nature of the outside world, this being exemplified by Carter’s short story The Snow Child. The sexually explicit language at the end of the tale “[he] thrust his viral member into the dead girl” parodies the dialogue of pornography in a manner which reveals its disturbing and morally offensive nature through its victimisation of women. Thus, parody and self-reflection and sources of comedic comedy within the Gothic whilst also allowing for disturbing revelations.
In conclusion, Gothic writing can be, and is, both disturbing and comic. Robert Kidd argued that the Gothic has become a way of “subverting the establishment” so it is unsurprising that authors have chosen to fulfil the same through both laughter and disgust, this being the most effectively exemplified by the work of Oscar Wilde. However, whilst Carter’s work certainly employs disturbing and comedic elements with the intention of forwarding her second wave feminist views, Stoker’s work has largely become unintentionally comic with changes in society and the graphic nature of the entertainment 21st-century audiences consume.
'The juxtaposition of the ghastly and the every day is one of the defining characteristics of the Gothic genre.'
Consider how far you agree with this statement by comparing either 'Dracula' or 'The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories' to at least one other text prescribed for this topic.
Gothic literature often explores both the ghastly and the everyday though the idea of the uncanny, what Sigmund Freud identified as “that class of frightening which leads back to what is familiar”. The uncanny means that it is harder for the reader to distance themselves from the events of the literature, thus creating unease, what Angela Carter called the “singular purpose of the Gothic”. Both Angela Carter in her work ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ as well as Bram Stoker in his novel ‘Dracula’, use the idea of the uncanny in order to unsettle the reader, often to great effect. Something ghastly can be seen as that which is evil, horrifying and unnatural, while something everyday can be seen as that which is safe, familiar and good. Both novelists use the ghastly and the everyday alongside each other to create greater contrast and both present something every day as actually ghastly and vice versa. However, while Carter blurs this juxtaposition in her more nuanced work, Stoker remains more traditional in his definitions of good and evil.
Firstly, both authors present the ghastly and the everyday immediately beside each other, which effectively ensures that the reader’s sense of what is safe is subverted. Carter and Stoker both introduce the idea of the ghastly invading the every day to scare the reader. In Stoker’s work, it is the titular character who breaks into the rooms of both Mina and Lucy, penetrating the domestic sphere in order to spread the disease of vampirism. This can be directly paralleled to Sheridan LeFanu’s work ‘Carmilla’ written 12 years earlier, in which a female vampire invades the protagonist Laura’s nursery to feed on her. Both authors achieve the same effect - the invasion of the sanctity of the bedroom by the ghastly provides a contrast that makes the attacks infinitely worse. This would certainly have scared a contemporary audience as it was widely considered to be incredibly inappropriate to enter a woman’s bedroom without permission, as shown by Arthur, Quincey and Van Helsing’s hesitation in which they state, “it is unusual to break into a lady’s room”. In the 1992 film, Francis Ford Coppola intensifies the impact by adding a romantic and neigh orgasmic element of the feeding, a step too far for the socially conservative Stoker. Unlike Stocker, Carter does not shy away from this – as Robert Stevenson Brown remarks, she “exaggerates the sexual content of the tales” and therefore doubles the ghastly in juxtaposition to the everyday. Like Stoker, Carter also uses the idea of a safe space invaded by the ghastly to inspire horror in her short story, ‘The Company of Wolves’. Firstly, she endears the reader to the grandmother and her house by mentioning the “straining of the macaroni” and the “two China spaniels”, cultivating the image of a domestic idyll. Therefore, when it is invaded by the wolf, “carnivore incarnate”, we are more shocked and distressed, especially with the graphic references to the wolf’s “genitals”. Even a modern reader is likely to be disturbed by the implications of this phrasing, but it is the direct juxtaposition which creates such an intense effect, identically to Stoker. The 1984 film of ‘A Company of Wolves’ also draws upon this, with the images of the wolves dressed in clothes and taking afternoon tea both amusing the audience through its absurdity but also unnerving them due to its unnaturalness. Therefore, both Stoker and Carter juxtapose the setting of the everyday with ghastly events in order to shock the reader to a greater extent, drawing on the tradition of ‘Carmilla’ to create scenes which continue to scare.
Both novelists also use the idea of the ghastly appearing everyday in order to terrify the reader. Robert Kidd explains this by remarking that “the fact that the foreign could exist in the reader’s own neighbourhood made it all the more frightening” and this concept has been used throughout Gothic literature, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ to Ian Bank’s ‘The Wasp Factory’ written 98 years later. The vampire is a particularly popular figure of the uncanny, in that they may appear human and everyday yet are actually ghastly and dangerous. Although when Mina sees Dracula in London, she acknowledges that he has “not a good face”, she does not recognise him as a vampire. This may have been particularly terrifying for those in the Victorian readership that subscribed to the ideas of physiognomy - they would expect to be able to identify the ghastly and criminal but cannot with Dracula. Carter’s character of the “beautiful somnambulist” in the ‘Lady in the House of Love’ is also not recognised as ghastly by our protagonist, just like Mina does not with Dracula. The “hero” of the story merely sees her as a “hapless victim of inbreeding” rather than the “huntress” which she really is, again inspiring fear through the idea that there could be evil lurking beneath our noses. Vampires also have connotations of infection, and with Dracula’s aim to create an “ever-widening circle of semi-demons” the audience is reminded that the ghastly could be spreading without their knowledge. To Stoker’s audience this would have been especially pertinent with the epidemic of syphilis occurring in London, which was so great as to encourage the creation of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1864 to medically examine prostitutes. This fear remains today with the pandemic of Covid-19 creating global panic, demonstrating the perennial ability of the Gothic to, as David Punter says, “use the supernatural as an image for real and carefully depicted social fears”. Therefore, both authors use the idea of hidden vampires that appear everyday but actually represent infection and death, in order to inspire fear in the reader.
However, the authors diverge in their representation of how something that seems everyday and safe yet is ghastly inside can be appealing. Oscar Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most famous example of this – although he should look “loathsome of visage” he appears as a “young Adonis”, hiding his ghastly sins behind his attractive features. Although the Marquis in Carter’s first story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ may not be as ravishingly handsome as Dorian Grey, he nonetheless attracts the protagonist and she is “aghast to find myself stirring”. He attracts her yet repulses her, but despite that fact that there is an “absolute absence of light” in his eyes, there is nothing to suggest that he is as evil as he is. Similarly, in her work ‘The Erl King’ we are presented with a humanoid character which is deeply attractive yet turns his sexual conquests into caged birds. Carter, as a second wave feminist explored the idea of attraction, as she does in her work ‘The Sadeian Woman’ and shows the reader that attraction is not necessarily wrong as Stoker does. When ‘The Bloody Chamber was published in 1979, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe, was still active, so the idea of the evil serial killer that looks entirely unassuming would have been particularly relevant to her contemporary audience. By contrast, Stoker does not show attraction to be positive or even allowed, as demonstrated by his portrayal of the ‘weird sisters’. Although, like in Carter’s work, Jonathan is shown to be attracted yet revulsed by their “voluptuousness” they are clearly ghastly, not everyday at all, and therefore we do not have the same level of unease as we do with Carter’s reveal of evil. Ironically, in adaptions, the vampire has now become a figure of attraction, such as the portrayal by Claes Bang in the 2020 BBC series. Therefore while both Carter and Stoker present characters which are both attracted and repelled by other characters, in Stoker’s work they are unambiguously ghastly, yet in Carter’s work they are more nuanced and more likely to seem everyday, which effectively ensures the reader is more horrified when their true nature is revealed.
Finally, both authors present the idea that something ghastly and evil can actually be everyday and good, although Carter does this more with actual characters rather than ideas as Stoker does. In ‘The Werewolf’ the “huge” wolf with “red eyes” is shown to be the protagonist’s grandmother, as the dismembered limb is “no longer a wolf’s paw” but instead a hand, creating a rapid transformation from the ghastly to the everyday. Similarly, the character of Mr Lyon lives up to his name with ghastly “meat hook claws” but is actually incredibly kind and generous. He is “so monstrous” yet “so benign”, informing the reader that although he may look evil the reality may be different. The same idea is explored in Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ in which the creature, a self-proclaimed “blot upon the earth”, is actually kind, saving children and desperate for friends. As Mike Rossington points out, ‘Frankenstein’ details the “importance of not judging people by their looks”, showing just as Carter does that the ghastly can in fact be good. Stoker diverges from this narrative by instead presenting a practice as something that seems ghastly but becomes everyday, reflecting the wider notion in the novel of clear-cut black and white morality. At first, Jonathan is disturbed by the “superstition” of Transylvania, “the giving of the crucifix, of the garlic, of the wild rose, of the mountain ash”, but they soon become vital to him in the fight against a creature which “mere modernity cannot kill” changing from the ghastly to an everyday object that is necessary for their success. Therefore, while both authors present the idea of the ghastly actually becoming the everyday, Carter applies that to her characters while Stoker limits it to practises.
Overall, the juxtaposition of the everyday and the ghastly is indeed one the defining characteristics in the Gothic. It has been used throughout the Gothic literary canon for a number of effects, either to scare readers further or to teach them life lessons. Both Stoker and Carter use this idea, in some cases to the same effect as with vampires and the invasion of the everyday by the ghastly. In other cases, their use differs, usually due to their opposing ideas on the rigidity of morality which can perhaps be explained by their respective times of writing and changing moral standards. Regardless, it can definitively be said that both the ghastly and the everyday are key aspects of Gothic literature and the interchange between them provides an effective source of emotion, at whatever time a novelist is writing.
By Rose Morley
'Setting is always a key aspect of Gothic writing'.
By comparing at least two texts prescribed for this topic, discuss how far you have found this to be the case.
Setting is usually extremely important in Gothic writing, going a long way to achieve what Angela Carter calls the “singular moral function” of the Gothic: “to provoke unease”. As Gothic writing has evolved from Horace Warpole’s seminal novel, Castle of Otranto in 1764, the sorts of setting that writers use has also evolved, to suit the changing attitudes of the day, and continue to horror and terrify the reader. Both Dracula and The Bloody Chamber make use of Gothic setting tropes, although due to the 80 years between then, Carter writes with far more self-awareness about tropes than Stoker, therefore creating a different effect.
Castles are one of the first Gothic motifs that spring to mind when considering setting. From the original Gothic novel, which uses it in it’s title, to more modern piece such as The Bloody Chamber. David Punter writes that “the castle is gloomy, forbidden, a place where maidens find themselves persecuted by feudal barons”. This is certainly the case with Castle of Otranto, in which Isabella finds herself perused by the archaic Manfred to be his wife. But why the castle, what in it inspires such fear? Firstly, there is a certain element of impenetrability to it, which is of course the aim of a castle in the first place. This creates a sense of mystery, an aura that makes it inaccessible to the modern man. Considering that for most of the time that castles have been built they have been the preserves of the aristocracy, this lends another layer of secrecy, the clandestine nature of what occurs behind their walls serving to excite and unnerve. In modern times, many castles are open to the public, removing this furvitiousness, but returning it in a different and equal measure. We wonder what has occurred - as L. P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”. Therefore the castle is a perennial setting of Gothic literature. In Dracula Jonathan Harker must stay in the titular character’s layer, a “vast, ruined castle” evocative of the “mass of ruins near the edge of a cliff” described in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian nearly a century earlier. In the recent BBC adaptation, the castle (incidentally the same one used in the first Dracula film, Nosferatu) is said to be impossible to navigate, adding further terror in the watcher as they see Johnathan desperately attempting to move around it, just as he does in the book. Fred Botting hypothesises that “castles...already made formulaic by popular imitation ceased to evoke terror or horror” and it could be said that therefore by the time that Angela Carter uses one in the titular tale of The Bloody Chamber, it no longer has the same effect. However, both authors arguably use it in the same way. Both are inhabited by incredibly rich, noble gentlemen, who are deeply evil and hid the evidence of their sins in their lairs. Indeed, both authors use the word “lair” to describe their domains, and both write of the stench of “decay” permeating the depths of their castles. Carter capitalises on the expectations that a more modern audience has of a Gothic castle when creating her “luminous murmurous castle”, meaning that the reader is already apprehensive as it is described, perfectly reflecting the feelings of the protagonist. The castle remains an example of very male architecture, with it’s turrets and “spires” as Radcliffe calls the appearance of the monastery. This again serves to empower the male characters, often placing them within their own domains. The castle is based on Mount St Michael in Normandy, separated by the sea from land, creating a sense of isolation, another Gothic trope. This also makes the castle into what the protagonist calls a “lovely prison”, and Carter is perhaps drawing on her own feelings of restriction felt during her childhood, when her overly protective mother did not allow her to dress or go to the loo without her. The protagonists feelings of entrapment are directly paralleled by Johnathan Harker’s feelings in Dracula when he proclaim s that “the castle is a veritable prison”. Stocker unusually upends the trope of a female trapped within a castle as described by Punter, to use a male instead which would have served to frighten a Victorian audience who would have seen men as supposedly infallible. Carter has several more castles used in her tales, including in Wolf Alice, The Tiger’s Bride and most notably The Lady of the House of Love, in which the protagonist has to live within “Nosferatu’s castle” – a female character once again restricted by her male ancestors, something which as a second wave feminist Carter would have been firmly critical of.
However, it also symbolises another aspect of the The Lady of the House of Love. It is the “castle of her inheritance”, bringing into play the idea of the ancient regime, the past coming back to haunt. Laura Krenzler describes the idea of the “threat of ancestral repetition” and this is exactly what the Lady must do, she has to “perpetuate her ancestral crimes”, watched by her ancestors in their portraits. The idea of the fading bride confined to her ancestral home is prevalent in other novels, including most famously Miss Haversham, a character whose rotting surroundings still provoke unease today, as proven by the repeated adaptations. Dracula too employs the idea of antiquity, when Johnathan proclaims that “the old centuries...have powers of their own which ‘mere modernity’ cannot kill” providing an ominous warning. This is especially relevant because Stocker was writing after the industrial revolution, a time when rapid change the in setting of society caused massive upheaval as urbanisation occurred and people looked back fondly to the times of picturesque village life. As homes and architecture continue to evolve and modernise, the idea of decay and rot continues to invoke fear in the audience, making it a provocative setting still today.
Many Gothic authors also employ isolation as a Gothic trope, both physically and emotionally from other people. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the protagonist is confined and isolated to the attic, what Victoria Leslie calls the “head space” of the house, “symbolising the psyche”. The idea of women being confined was extremely common in the time Stocker and Perkins Gilman were writing, with poems such as Coventry Patmore’s 1862 work “The Angel in the House” advocating the woman remaining in the domestic sphere. Jonathan Harker is isolated in Dracula’s castle, realising with horror that there is “no one else in the castle” which successfully provokes terror in readers in any era as they realise that there is no one to help him. Very similarly, the Marquis’ castle is in “faery solitude”, the causeway serving to cut it off from the rest of the world. However, there are, unlike Dracula, servants, although this adds no more security. The protagonist realises that the servants are “his creatures, after all, and that they are “bound...in the upmost feudal complicity”. Therefore, despite the presence of humans, the protagonist is just as isolated as Johnathan, just as Angela Carter was isolated by her marriage with her much older husband. In the modern age, with the advent of GPS and mobile phones, we arguably find it far scarier to be isolated and alone as we are more use to be in connection with people, so for that to be cut off is even more unnerving.
The sublime is another common element in Gothic literature. First explored by Edmund Burke, in his 1757 treatise of aesthetics called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, the sublime encapsulates what John Bowen calls “terrifying and awesome and overwhelming”. It is especially effective in Gothic literature, where the express aim is to terrify, and that is why it is used so commonly. The sublime in the Gothic is perhaps most famously used by Ann Radcliffe, who in The Italian writes of “pinnacles and vast precipices of various tinted marbles” creating a scary sense of vastness. Similarly, in Dracula the castle is surrounded by trees “as far as the eye can see” and perched on a “terrible precipice”. The overwhelming effect of the sublime continues to be effective today and is commonly utilised in photographs, in a far more advanced way than the Kodaks of Dracula.
Climate is also used by Gothic authors to add to setting most notably colder weather, as in Frankenstein on the “glacier” or the “ice sheets”. In Dracula, the final battle takes place in “deadening snowfall”, very similarly to how in The Snow Child, “the whole world was white”. Ray Cluley writes of the “use of colours in the snow child” and how they effect the reader and the use of snow is particularly effective. Climate change and it’s effect on the polarisation of weather has been capitalised upon by writers including Ian McEwan with his Solar, and has also effected the way we think about snow. Now it is more common, we are familiar with the obscurity it can cause and the damaging effect it has on our lives, maintaining it’s role in scaring readers today.
Many Gothic authors also use the idea of events occurring near to or far from out home. Traditionally, Gothic events occur often in foreign countries, and both Carter and Stocker do this. In two of her stories, The Tiger’s Bride and The Werewolf, Carter uses setting to alienate the reader from the characters. In the former story, Carter sets it in Italy and writes that “unkindness comes naturally” to her Italian characters and that “they lie to you and cheat you, everybody”. In the latter, the people of the “northern country” “have not seen us, nor know they exist”. Both of these serve to distance the reader, and the use of nationality is especially effective considering the context surrounding immigration - The Bloody Chamber was published just 10 years after Enoch Powell gave the famous ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’. The reads is distanced by the use of setting and this can decrease the emotion that they feel for side characters and increase the empathy they have for the main character who they can often align themselves with. Indeed this is exactly what happens to Johnathan Harker. In his train journey he is “leaving the West and entering the East” and this fear of the Orient and foreigners was especially prevalent in the time, as shown by William Beckford’s Vathek. Max Nordau wrote ‘Degeneration’ in 1895, based of Charles Darwin’s work and it typified many Victorian fears of the time. With the expansion of the Empire came increased fear of foreigners and immigrants, culminating in the 1905 Alien Act, born of Invasion theory, the idea that British culture would be overwhelmed by a flood of immigrants from abroad. Unfortunately this fear has remained until today, prompting leaders such as Donald Trump to promise walls to keep foreigners out. However, as this fear has maintained, Gothic authors have started to use it to scare readers by brining the Gothic in, as done by Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or more recently in The Wasp Factory. Robert Kidd wrote that “The fact that the foreign could exist in the readers own neighbourhood made it all the more frightening” and that is certainly the case with Dracula, and his wish to go to London and create an “ever widening circle of semi Demons”. This continues to inspire fear in readers, as the rise of artificial intelligence and increasing numbers of AI passing the Turing test, meaning that we can no longer tell who is human and who is not.
Therefore, setting is indeed always a key aspect of Gothic writing. It has several purposes including to exacerbate the horror and terror created by Gothic authors, to represent characters, and also to add to the atmosphere created in novels. Although ideas of what constitutes a Gothic setting has changed over time, from the following to the familiar, aspects of said the same such as use of castles, although they may be for different reasons. Regardless, setting still remains one of the most important factors in writing Gothic literature and will likely continue to do so due to its capacity to change our perception and increase our fear.
By Rose Morley
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