Gothic Fiction


Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror. It has a particular kind of literary style in which the terrifying has central place, set amongst archaic settings, with the use of a fear of the supernatural, highly stereotyped characters, and well-honed techniques of literary suspense.


“The Gothic tradition… ignores the value system of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane. Its great themes are incest and cannibalism. Character and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions. Its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural, and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the world as fact. Its only humour is black humour. It retains a singular moral function – that of provoking unease.”

Angela Carter – “Fireworks” Afterword 1974


There is a conscious decision made to eschew the contemporary world, the world of the everyday, the middle class world of business and manners, and revive the old and the lost world, that of post-Roman barbarism, a thriving and heaving medieval world. As such Gothic Fiction can be seen as an exploration of the atavistic, the barbaric, and the tabooed: an exploration of that which is at the edges of civilization, that which precedes modern civilization and that which, it is feared, could well succeed it too.

“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… the medieval, the primitive and the wild became invested with positive value in and of itself. …Gothic was the archaic, the pagan, that which was prior to, or was opposed to, or resisted the establishment of civilized values and a well-regulated society. And various writers began to make out a case for the importance of these Gothic qualities and to claim, specifically, that the fruits of primitivism and barbarism possessed a fire, a vigour, a sense of grandeur which was sorely needed in English culture.”

David Punter – The Literature of Terror – The Gothic Tradition 1996

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It has been argued that Gothic Fiction is merely voyeuristic, delighting in the pain and humiliation of certain characters, usually female, where the reader is set up as an obsessive observer of sordid and sensational goings-on, so that it is dismissed as having utterly no merit over and above what animal feelings it can excite in the reader, therefore the more sordid and sensational the situations presented are, the more successful the novel. Can all Gothic Fiction be judged solely on these terms?

Complexity of plotting was necessary for the Gothic writers because the mechanism of their fiction depended on the process of suspense and release. The thrill of entering forbidden realms; the terror excited by any number of spectres, thoughts, possibilities; the passions excited by the sexual allure of a young woman; the gross depths to which the criminal will sink, anything which defies rational explanation or which exceeds the bounds of the reasonable and practicable, all of the ingredients of gothic fiction serve to heighten the tension. Even the effect on the reader of a gloomy atmosphere and forbidding surroundings can be explained in this way – merely serving to raise the suspense in the novel. Gothic fiction is, some critics would say, all about the heightened emotions of the reader, and there’s no emotion in the reader that can be so readily stoked as that of fear.


Gothic Fiction is a mixture of horror & romance – an extreme form of romanticism – an extension of Romantic literary pleasures, but combining elements of the medieval romance, which were deemed too fanciful, and the modern novel which was seen as too confined to strict realism. It is a balancing of fantastic elements with 18th-century realism. The introduction of the supernatural – which can be treated as evidently absurd, or as the explained supernatural, or used in a non-ironic way simply to engender fear in the reader – into the a more or less plausible and realistic world of the past, enables the writer to achieve this mixture and balance the competing demands of realism and romanticism.

Whether Gothic Fiction does flout Realist Conventions, or merely rises to the challenges of the realist tradition in depicting overwhelming sentiments, has been debated, but there certainly is a particular antagonistic attitude towards realism, at least what accounted itself realism at the time. This might account for the Gothic writers embracing of the supernatural: here was a narrative device that flew in the face of the rules of realist fiction: anything could now happen. This creates as many problems as opportunities for the writer of Gothic fiction: yes, the most terrible treatment can be meted out at will to whichever character the reader most empathises with, but also the reader’s credulity will be stretched, perhaps to breaking point and their expectations will be so harried that they will cease to expect anything and fail to be surprised at the most shocking twists and turns of the narrative.


The origin and development of the novel English, as per the instances of the novels of Richardson and Fielding, was grounded in a concern with the justification of contemporary morality, rather than challenging or questioning it, and with the realistic depiction of contemporary life, populated with a cast of ordinary people getting caught up in slightly extraordinary though thoroughly plausible events. The Gothic novel, on the other hand, didn’t concern itself with the real world as it was then imagined to such an extent, it was primarily concerned with fantastic incidents, though they were grounded in the recognisable world of the everyday, which distinguished Gothic Novels from the Medieval Romances, which were simply fantastic accounts set in exotic and vaguely realised settings.


As it is extremely melodramatic it leaves itself open to parody (including self-parody) – Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the classic example, but many of the Gothic Novels seem to be at least winking towards self-parody, which is easily to do when the events which are described are necessarily extreme, the reactions of the characters excessive, and the consequences of error terrible.


Gothic Fiction can be seen as a blend of history and fiction – indeed, it is often disguised as an actual medieval romance, or as a recently discovered ancient text, even featuring fake documentation, to lend to it both authenticity but also the sense of it being from a distant time in the past and so revealing truths that might have long since been forgotten and covered over by the veneer of civilization. Over and above inciting a vague sense of past-ness, there is an aspect of the sins of the fathers being revisited upon the children, the characters of the novel’s present; as well as the supernatural being tied up with this past, this ‘other’ time when life wasn’t necessarily conducted under the rational precepts of the modern day of the novel’s writing, where the modern norms of behavior and modes of thought were not yet established, and where things could happen, even supernatural things, because the world worked differently then, because the primitive desires were to the fore and unchecked, and in a world where there was absolute power in the hands of a few, and complete subjugation and servitude of the many, certain people could do almost anything: absolute power allowed any depravity or excess to be explored.


Framed narratives, discovered texts, interspersed letters and portions of recovered manuscript, throwing up many and conflicting points of view so that in the confusion almost any interpretation of events, of unexplained events especially, could be brought to the fore, and thereby colour what could have been a traditional realistic narrative with elements of the Gothic: the supernatural, the exaggerated and the unlikely can and do gain traction more easily when the reader isn’t completely sure of just what is happening, or of who to believe.


Gothic Fiction set itself up as an attempt at contravening the principles of the Enlightenment. The novelists and poets writing in the glow of the Enlightenment would have everything subservient to reason: everything could be explained and neatly put in its place. The emotions and the passions were accorded a tightly constrained area in which they could operate, but ultimately they were seen to operate in accordance with clear and objective reasons. But this was to ignore whole provinces of human experience, were a person’s emotions and passions pulled and pushed at them, and coloured the world in a way which escaped any attempt to rationalise human experience: the emotions, the Gothic writers might have argued, are not merely subject faculties which can be explained away and put in a box. If that is attempted, as they would argue the early novelists did, then the picture presented is a false one, and what’s more it is an unstable one, with the emotions and passions still clawing at the edges of that world, always about to pour through a crack, and so they were feared all the more, then more fiercely repressed, and in the end their impending and inescapable advance was seen as terrifying.


Treated as taboo, human passions don’t simply go away, they acquired something of a monstrous stature, always at the point of breaking down the door and overrunning the neatly arranged world of self-interest and rationalism which thought it had accorded everything a set place and firm foundation. It is the fear of such barbarians at the gate that provides gothic fiction with much of its tension, its substance and its story lines.


Gothic Fiction deals with the unadmitted, the outside, the unacknowledged…  whereas excessive feelings and uncontrollable passions were clearly of this category, anything else which didn’t fit into the neat rational world of Enlightenment thinking was readily employed to further rock the boat and unsteady the reader, and not just ghosts and demons, but the most terrible criminals, monsters most bizarre, the morally repugnant plebian, the insane, the unimaginably perverted, or the most sociopathic of protagonists: the Monk, of Matthew Lewis’s novel of that name, being a case in point.


The novels of Defoe are dominated by a series of arguments to do with self-interest as a grounding for the morality of the day. But whatever else, they are novels of rationalism – Robinson Crusoe does everything for a clear and straightforward reason, as does Moll Flanders. They are not led by their emotions – craven, base or otherwise.


Then, with the Sentimental Novel, which concerned itself with the closely examined emotions of its characters, novelists sought to explore the emotional side of human existence, but these were invariably fine and refined emotions, situations full of pathos and anguish, and characters whose own appreciation of their own and another’s emotions allowed them to come to a satisfactory conclusion of a fraught series of episodes. Sensibility, a keen and refined emotional responsiveness, was held up in these novels as the true goal of any worthwhile character’s reflections.


But all the while the wider set of emotions was not being explored or even acknowledged. So how do we get to the emotional chaos of a character such as Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) – a sentimental monster as hero, rather than the refined sensibility of a Jane Austen protagonist (c1800)?


The reason of the Enlightenment and the refined sensibility of the sentimental novels were both vulnerable to the depth of passion that was to be called up in the early Gothic novels, and the extremes of emotion being sought and explored by the writers in the Romantic Movement. It is with such extremes of emotion that the writer should be concerned, the Romantics believed, if that was either examining them or producing them in the reader.


It has been seen as a mode of revealing the unconscious – those unexplored atavistic desires that pull at us from our own depths and can cause cracks to appear in the civilized façade we don’t want to see beyond. If Gothic Fiction is seen as an attempt to reach a genuine and sophisticated understanding of human psychology, which many novels purported to aspire to, but couldn’t or weren’t willing to encompass the extreme emotions that made up an important aspect of the human condition. These novels, whether the early realist novels or the sentimental novels from Richardson onwards, couldn’t account for human motivation, especially when criminal and immoral behavior was to be considered in any kind of depth. It was clearly seen by some novelists that man did not operate solely by rational thought, that there were other forces pulling at him. So what of those forces? Gothic fiction brought them to the fore, choosing to consider deeds which were morally reprehensible as a starting point, going on to explore the extreme passions which could easily ensnare the excited, passionate, lustful, avaricious protagonist beyond all rational calculation.


There is a tension between what is perceived as a distinct shallowness of character presentation with the first attempts at exploring the psychological reality of characters, characters who could feel as well as think, who could be carried away by their feelings and who might ignore the dictates of reason for any number of reasons. The Gothic Novelists were beginning to explore the depths of motivation, rather than simply skirting around on the surface of self-interest and the possibilities of altruism.


If these forces were not acknowledged, it might be argued, and it was argued, then they could just as easily overwhelm us on the practical day to day business of living our lives in the present world of the real, the world of objective reality – so surely here lies the moral centre of the Gothic Novel – didactic in the sense that it prepares us to deal with suppressed desires and forces us to confront our baser, wilder, animalistic selves.


Despite being criticized as formulaic, and stereotypical, usually including (pseudo) medieval buildings, a threatening mystery, an ancestral curse, hidden passages, oft-fainting heroines, superstitious elements, the brooding figure of the Gothic villain / the Byronic hero, a web of deceit, monastic debauchery, macabre physical details, black magic, and diabolism, and with Stock characters including the Virginal Maiden (young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous, showing these virtues by fainting and crying whenever her delicate sensibilities are challenged, usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family), the Older, Foolish Woman, the Hero, the Tyrant, the Stupid Servant (acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward), Clowns (break the tension and act as comic relief), Banditti and Ruffians, Clergy (always weak, usually evil), Gothic fiction seemed to exult in these stereotypes rather than seek to undermine, challenge or overcome them.


As it is often criticised as merely sensationalist entertainment, can Gothic Fiction be totally devoid of didactic intention? Can there possibly be any social purpose to exploring and inciting terror? Does the horror of the departure from civilized norms reinforce them in the reader, making him or her cling to them al the more desperately? Or does the exploration of perverse tendencies and extreme sentiments serve to mislead the reader of these novels and thereby morally corrupt them? And if not serving to the direct the reader one way or another, what other impact could have been the impact of the gratuitous sexual rapacity, terror, loathing and violence of Gothic fiction on the early novel reader?


If Enlightenment modes of thought suffer from a refusal to confront the baser and more uncontrollable passions of the human heart, what good is there in parading them across the pages of popular narrative fiction? If Gothic Fiction is to be dismissed as merely sensationalist pulp fiction, how else were novelists to address the gaping chasms in the rationalist worldview, where human sentiments and passions could not be accounted for, were ignored as a matter of course, and dismissed beyond the edges of an understanding of human interaction?


The Catholic Church, in the form of the tribunals of the Inquisition, monasteries, convents, etc. frequently appears in Gothic Fiction. This recalls the medieval world when the Catholic Church was dominant and all powerful. It also reflects the distrust felt in England towards the Catholic Church. Besides, here was a huge and ancient organization that exerted unimaginable power on huge swathes of late medieval Europe, if terrible deeds were to be perpetrated then they could best be perpetrated by a corrupted Catholic Church.


Sade critiqued the genre in the preface of his Reflections on the novel (1800), stating that the Gothic is “the inevitable product of the revolutionary shock with which the whole of Europe resounded”. The French Revolution of 1789 sent shock waves throughout Europe: here was an example of the established order being upset by an explosion of revolutionary passion: the world in France was for a period turned upside-down. The novel reading public in Europe would no doubt have looked on in horror, listening to the exaggerated tales of what was happening in France with a mixture of terror and excitement, worrying about their own position within society, and the immanent arrival of the inexorable mob, the masses, the common ignorant people which up until then had been successfully repressed, now filled with revolutionary zeal, and a unquenchable blood lust, as well as other lusts unmentionable, who would soon be banging down their doors.


Gothic Fiction embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime. And it is not just the characters who are to be excited beyond all levels of decency, but the reader too: it was conceived that inciting fear in the reader was something worth while, because it was fear which was the productive of the strongest emotion, a means of bypassing the rational faculties and so a means of accessing the sublime.


But there is also the emotion of guilt, which can exceed all sense in the depth of its influence on a character, and so defy rational explanation. And then there’s love, and sexual desire, both of which can make a character do almost anything, again side-stepping the sensible approach of the plethora of heros and heroines who had gone before, those stalwarts of the realist novel, who in the end acted with decency and a glossy version of benign self interest. Indeed, whatever can cause a man or woman to behave in a way not directly in accordance with their own immediate or long term good, was ripe for exploration, and for parading on the page to excite in the reader too the extreme of emotion that these Gothic Novels traded in.


Gothic Revival architecture reflected the Gothic revivalists’ rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment. Also the ruins of Gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations. Writers associated medieval buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, and superstitious rituals.


The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts, whether as a threat to society’s patriarchal structure, a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture, or as the subject of harsh and cruel suppression. The suppression of female sexuality can feature strongly, as either an underlying fear or as something that is cruelly repressed.


Fear is not merely a theme or an attitude, it also has consequences in terms of form, style and the social relations of the text; and exploring Gothic is also exploring fear and seeing the various ways in which terror breaks through the surfaces of literature, differently in every case, but also establishing for itself certain continuities of language and symbol.”

David Punter – The Literature of Terror – The Gothic Tradition 1996


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