The Gothic: What is it?
Some gothic conventions that can
appear in different combinations:
- A post-medieval and post-Renaissance phenomenon that can combine
long-standing literary forms
- First published work to call itself a gothic story: Horace
Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto
- Gothic explosion in the 1790s through the British Isles,
throughout Europe, and briefly in the U.S., particularly for female
- The Gothic remained a popular and controversial literary mode
throughout the Romantic period (1790s-1830s)
- Highly unstable genre that appears in many different
forms—Victorian novel, plays and operas, magazine and newspaper
articles and stories, “sensational novels” for the working class and
women, poetry, painting, etc.
- Classic “gothics”: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray,
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Henry James The Turn of the Screw (1898). In
the 20th century, the gothic explodes into a wide range of different
cultural products: the novel, television, film.
Confronting the past:
Readers caught between the attractions/terrors of a past once
controlled by aristocrats or priests, and the forces of change that
would reject such a past yet still remain held by aspects of it
(including desires for aristocratic or superhuman powers). The gothic
as a means of confronting what is psychologically buried in individuals
and groups; the gothic as a haunting of deep-seated social/historical
- Setting: an antiquated or
seemingly antiquated space (castle, foreign palace, abbey, a vast
prison, subterranean crypt, graveyard, primeval frontier or island,
large old house or theatre, aging city or urban underworld, decaying
storehouse, factory, public building, or some new recreation of an
older venue such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked
spaceship, or a computer memory.
- Secrets: Within
this space, secrets from the past are hidden that haunt the characters,
psychologically, physically or otherwise.
- Hauntings: These
hauntings can take many forms but frequently assume the features of
ghosts, spectors, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of
being, often life and death).
- The hauntings rise from within the antiquated space (or invade it
from alien realms) to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can
no longer be successfully buried from view.
- Crossing boundaries:
Gothic tales raise the possibility that the boundaries between the
earthly laws of conventional reality and the supernatural have been
- Terror gothic:
holds characters and readers in suspense about threats to life, safety,
and sanity kept out of sight or in shadows or suggestions from a hidden
- Horror gothic: confronts
the principle characters with the gross violence of
physical/psychological dissolution, shattering the assumed norms
(including the repressions) of everyday life with shocking/revolting
The female gothic: Though
the gothic is often about the “son” who wants to kill/strive to become
the “father,” women have used the gothic to create gothic heroines who
seek to appease/free themselves from male/patriarchal dominance (ie,
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
(1847). Women are the figures most fearfully trapped between
contradictory pressures and impulses, in gothic circumstances–caught in
a labyrinth of darkness full of cloisters underground and hesitant
about what course to take there, fearing the pursuit of a domineering
and lascivious patriarch who wants to use her womb as a repository for
seed that may help him preserve his property and wealth (but if she
flees she may be trapped by another man, who knows who?
--from Hogle, Jerrold. “Introduction: the Gothic in western culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction.
Ed. Jerrold Hogle. Cambridge UP, 2002: 1-20.
--From Trott, Nicola. “The Picturesque, the Beautiful, and the
Sublime.” A Companion to Romanticism.
Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998: 72-90.
- The word sublime conveys a sense of height or loftiness, coming
to signify the highest in a particular category (ie, the sublime style,
the sublime of war, the moral sublime).
- Initially associated with the thrill of mountain summits in early
Wordsworth – mountains as the topographical core of the Romantic
sublime (i.e., the sublime features of the alps)
- Commentaries on the sublime reach back to the Greeks (Peri
Hypsous, thought to be by Longinus) – and reach through thinkers like
Kant, Schiller, and Burke.
- Romantic writers focus on the notion that certain aspects of the
sublime style (grandeur of thought together with intensity of
passion) are dependent upon a nobility of soul or character. (I.e.,
Wordsworth: the soul’s obscure sense / of possible sublimity, to
which / With growing faculties she doth aspire (The Prelude, II, 336-8). Also, the
true sublimity of Milton….)
- The modern sublime shifts away from the classical aesthetic
emphasis on regularity and harmony, to emphasize irregular, even
- The sublime escapes the limits of representation (esp. as
observed by the merely picturesque) and moves toward an esthetic of
excess or non-representability.
- Rejects Enlightenment clarity for the pleasurable/terrifying
sense that all cannot be known about a particular landscape – Romantic
repudiation of the picturesque as middle class, in favor of amorphous
and moody sublime.
- Sense that poetry is more emotive/subtle than visual
representation, thus capable of raising the passion of the sublime.
- The sublime is associated with “masculine” qualities of strength
and size (capable of evoking admiration, awe or terror); the
beautiful is associated with feminine qualities of smallness,
smoothness, and delicacy. Mary Wollstonecraft questions this gender
- It is the idea of the thing (as opposed to the thing itself) that
has the quality of the sublime – it’s a mood or an approach rather than
a scary thing. “Imagination”
- The sublime has its roots in religion – i.e., the infinity of the
sacred inspires the aspirant’s reverence. Coleridge: “Where
neither whole nor parts, but unity, as boundless or endless allness –
the Sublime” (Wittreich, pp. 252-3).
Notes from Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry
into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger,
that is to say whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about
terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a
source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest
emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (499).
“the torments which we may be made to suffer , are much greater in
their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most
learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination,
and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy” (599).
“When pain and danger press too nearby, they are incapable of giving
any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and
with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we
every day experience” (500).
Sources of Sublime:
Sources of the Beautiful:
- Passion caused by sublime in nature
is most powerful; “astonishment” is the effect of the sublime in the
- From Terror: fear “robs
the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning”; includes fear of
pain or death; whatever produces terror visually is sublime too.
- From Obscurity: when we
know and can see the danger clearly, much of our fear “vanishes”;
“dark, confused, uncertain images” found in nature produce obscurity.
- From Power: “I know
of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power”; if the
ability to hurt is removed from a man or animal, the sublime vanishes
(ox and horse versus bull)
- From Privation: “Vacuity,
Darkness, Solitude, and Silence” “because they are terrible”
- From Vastness: “Greatness
of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime”; rugged and broken
surfaces; looking down a precipice
- From Infinity:
- From Difficulty:
“greatness” of work (ex. Stonehenge)
- Perfection not the cause of
Beauty: pg. 503 How is the image of woman used here?
- Beautiful Objects Small:
in most languages “objects of love are spoken of under diminutive
- Smoothness: pg.
503, what examples does he use to illustrate this?
- Gradual Variation: pg.
503, Female body
- The Physical Cause of Love:
See first sentence under this section. How is love, desire, and
beauty being constructed here?
- How Words Influence Passions:
words as expression of feeling from within artist
How is the female body represented in Burke’s writing? Do you get the
impression that the sublime is gendered as masculine? If so, what
are the implications of the binaries that Burke is describing?
How are elements of the sublime and the beautiful – and the gothic –
present in Christabel and/or
other poems like Lines Writen Above
Where do you see sexual imagery in Christabel
– and how is this sexual imagery being used by Coleridge?
In what ways is Christabel like the Albatross?
Women writers: How is nature described in Mary Robinson’s "The
Haunted Beach" (p. 221), Charlotte Smith’s “Far on the Sands” (pg.
50-51) and Joanna Baillie’s “Thunder” (pp. 317-319)? Do these poems
draw upon the ideas of the sublime and/or the gothic? How do these
female authors use romantic conventions, in comparison with the male
romantic writers we’ve read so far?