David De Vore
I. Introduction"Gothic" has come to mean quite a number of things by this day and age. It could mean a particular style of art, be it in the form of novels, paintings, or architecture; it could mean "medieval" or "uncouth." It could even refer to a certain type of music and its fans. What it originally meant, of course, is "of, relating to, or resembling the Goths, their civilization, or their language" ("gothic").
A. History of the Goths
The Goths, one of the many Germanic tribes, fought numerous battles with the Roman Empire for centuries. According to their own myths, as recounted by Jordanes, a Gothic historian from the mid 6th century, the Goths originated in what is now southern Sweden, but their king Berig led them to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. They finally separated into two groups, the Visigoths (the West Goths) and Ostrogoths (the East Goths), so named because of where they eventually settled. They reached the height of their power around 5th century A.D., when they sacked Rome and captured Spain, but their history finally subsumed under that of the countries they conquered ("Goths").
B. Connection to the Gothic NovelCenturies passed before the word "gothic" meant anything else again. During the Renaissance, Europeans rediscovered Greco-Roman culture and began to regard a particular type of architecture, mainly those built during the Middle Ages, as "gothic" -- not because of any connection to the Goths, but because the 'Uomo Universale' considered these buildings barbaric and definitely not in that Classical style they so admired. Centuries more passed before "gothic" came to describe a certain type of novels, so named because all these novels seem to take place in Gothic-styled architecture -- mainly castles, mansions, and, of course, abbeys ("Gothic...").
II. Elements of the Gothic Novel
The Gothic novel took shape mostly in England from 1790 to 1830 and falls within the category of Romantic literature. It acts, however, as a reaction against the rigidity and formality of other forms of Romantic literature. The Gothic is far from limited to this set time period, as it takes its roots from former terrorizing writing that dates back to the Middle Ages, and can still be found written today by writers such as Stephen King. But during this time period, many of the highly regarded Gothic novelists published their writing and much of the novel's form was defined.
As Ann B. Tracy writes in her novel The Gothic Novel 1790-1830 Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs, the Gothic novel could be seen as a description of a fallen world. We experience this fallen world though all aspects of the novel: plot, setting, characterization, and theme.
The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
The Gothic hero becomes a sort of archetype as we find that there is a pattern to their characterization. There is always the protagonist, usually isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Then there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil, either by his (usually a man) own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence. The Wanderer, found in many Gothic tales, is the epitome of isolation as he wanders the earth in perpetual exile, usually a form of divine punishment.
The plot itself mirrors the ruined world in its dealings with a protagonist's fall from grace as she succumbs to temptation from a villain. In the end, the protagonist must be saved through a reunion with a loved one. For example, in Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk, the monk Ambrosio is tempted by Matilda. She lures him into succumbing to his lust until he turns fully to rape and murder of another young girl. In the end, he makes a deal with Satan and dies a torturous death on the side of a mountain. Emily of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho does not have the same kind of temptations but finds that she cannot escape her evil uncle's castle (called Udolpho) without the help of a suitor. In the end she does find retribution in her affection for her once-lost love, Valancourt.
Even though the Gothic Novel deals with the sublime and the supernatural, the underlying theme of the fallen hero applies to the real world as well. Once we look past the terror aspect of this literature, we can connect with it on a human level. Furthermore, the prevalent fears of murder, rape, sin, and the unknown are fears that we face in life. In the Gothic world they are merely multiplied.
Because of the supernatural phenomena and the prevailing morbid atmosphere of Gothic novels, this genre is traditionally brushed off as "un-academic". But as George Haggerty writes in Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, "the Gothic novel is a liberating phenomenon, which expands the range of possibilities for novelistic expression" (Haggerty 34).
III. Criticism of Gothic Novel
The Gothic novel has received much literary criticism throughout the years. Critics of the genre have engaged in analysis of the various elements of the Gothic novel and tie those elements with the repressed feelings of individuals and, in a twentieth century perspective, the unconscious of the human psyche. Vijay Mishra, in his essay entitled "The Gothic Sublime," states the Gothic novel is a "presentation of the unpresentable" (Mishra 1). The Gothic novel deals with understanding attained through horror. Mishra also believes the Gothic novel, in the afore-mentioned sense, is a foil to the typical Romantic novel, wherein the sublime is found through temperance (Mishra 2).
Literary critic, Davis Morris, believes the Gothic novel addresses the horrific, hidden ideas and emotions within individuals and provides an outlet for them (Morris 1). The strong imagery of horror and abuse in Gothic novels reveals truths to us through realistic fear, not transcendental revelation. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes about the same idea in her essay, "The Structure of the Gothic Convention," and she adds that the idea of a protagonist having a struggle with a terrible, surreal person or force is a metaphor for an individual's struggle with repressed emotions or thoughts (Sedgwick 1). Personifying the repressed idea or feeling gives strength to it and shows how one, if caught unaware, is overcome with the forbidden desire.
Another author, Joyce Carol Oates, writes of how the repressed emotions, which are personified in the Gothic novel, are horrible not only because of what they are, but also because of how they enslave a person (Oates 1). These desires are mysterious, and mystery breeds attraction, and with attraction, one is easily seduced by them. With this in mind, it is easy to understand how Bertrand Evans points out the hero in the Gothic novel is consistently weaker than the antagonist and usually flees from it rather than defeating it. The similar themes of repression of forbidden desires, and the horror surrounding and penetrating them, are clearly focal points of most Gothic critics. The enlightenment gained from these aspects is the driving force behind the Gothic novel.
IV. Parodic Efforts
A. What is a Parody?
Mikhail Bakhtin defines parody as a "'stylization,' that involves the appropriation of the utterances of others for the purposes of inserting a new orientation of meaning alongside the original point(s) of view. . . .The imitator [or the author] usually merges utterances so completely that one 'voice' is heard" (Howard 14).
B. Who Writes a Gothic Parody and Why?
By the 1790s, many felt that the Gothic novel was an exhausting trend, and other authors were starting to write against it (Roberts 83). Both Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey, published in 1818, were the first to react to the genre in the form of the Gothic parody (271).
When we look at one of the first Gothic parodies, like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818), we must remember one important aspect raised by Backhtin: the new author parodying the Gothic genre simply "inserts" his or her opinion into the previous author's "point of view(s)" (Howard 14). Austen does directly mock the genre with her references to Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. She in turn "adopts standard Gothic machinery -- an abbey, secret closets, and mysterious manuscripts -- only to undercut their significance in her denouement" (Roberts 271). Austen also depicts "General Tilney as a villain -- not a true wife murderer -- thus still recognizes that the fears of patriarchal authority are ultimately genuine" (Roberts 271). Even though she parodies and mocks the Gothic novel, she still retains part of the genre's overarching themes: "the individual is something so precious that society must never be allowed to violate it" (Morse 29).
In general, the Gothic novel, "behind its trappings and mysteries, . . . presents a powerful critique of arbitrary power" which many authors who parody it wish to retain (Morse 14). In American history there have been a few who wish to make the Gothic novel into a political parody, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig. It is important to recognize that the Gothic parody, and even the Gothic movement, extend beyond British literature and the 19th century. "The Gothic parody survives into the 20th [and 21st centuries] by way of the related technique of metafiction. Writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco habitually deploy, self-consciously and ironically, the narrative devices of the Gothic" (Roberts 271).
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Haggerty, George. Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Howard, Jacqueline. Reading Gothic Fiction: A Backhtinian Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Mishra, Vijay. "The Gothic Sublime." Albany: State University of New York Press. 1994.
Morris, David. "Gothic Sublimity." New Literary History. Winter 1993.
Morse, David. Romanticism: A Structural Analysis. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Reflections On the Grotesque." Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. Ontario: Ontario Review Inc. 1994.
Roberts-Mulbey, Marie, ed. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "The Structure of Gothic Convention." The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Arno. 1980.
Tracy, Ann B. The Gothic Novel 1790-1830 Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Bayer-Berenbaum. The Gothic Imagination. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.
Skarda, Patricia L. and Jaffe, Nora Crow. Evil Image. New York: Meridian Books, 1981.
"Fallen World": http://www.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/gothic/index.html
"Unconscious Woman": http://www.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/gothic/index.html
"The modern day Goth?": Kwan, Alexandra. Personal photo.
"Jane Austen": http://www.brocku.ca/greatbooks/quiz.html
1765: Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto
1794: Ann Radcliffe. The Mysteries of Udolpho
1794: William Godwin. Caleb Williams
1796: Mathew Lewis. The Monk
1798: Regina Maria Roche. Clermont
1806: Ann Mary Hamilton. Montalva or Annals of Guilt
1807: Charlotte Dacre. The Libertine
1818: Mary Shelly. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
1820: Charles Robert Maturin. Melmonth the Wanderer
1826: Ann Radcliff: Gaston de Blondeville
1826: William Child Green. The Abbot of Montserrat or The Pool of Blood