In 1765, when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto during the Romantic period, the Gothic novel became acceptable writing material. Early depictions of the genre saw the use of stereotypical settings, usually an eerie castle or mansion on a wind-swept moor, where mysterious and macabre incidents occurred especially on stormy nights. It was also an accepted fact that evil and demented patriarchal villains occupied such places, with a penchant for inflicting these ‘mysterious and macabre incidents’ on young nubile women, who tended to run around screaming for help and mercy a lot.
When Romanticism had become widespread, several writers, artists and scholars embraced a fascination with the Gothic forms, which highlighted the questionably bizarre and grotesque aspects of the Middle-Ages. A better understanding of the Gothic was achieved in Victorian times, which gave rise to Neo-Gothic architecture.
Needless to say that the gothic novel, with a few exceptions, was not exactly known for its excellent depiction of characters, brilliant dialogue with multi layered storylines and engrossing subplots, but for creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspense, to a point where ‘the reader is nearly as powerless in her understanding as the heroine’(Modleski, 1996).
Today Gothicism is a subculture that consists mostly of dressing in dark and decadent clothing and wearing vampire-like makeup, hanging out in converted basements and listening to heavy metal. But the gothic novel is now seen as more then just as lowbrow entertainment for a mostly female readership. Historically the gothic played several important roles in the literature of the era of Romanticism:
a) To challenge the conventional and the restrictions of the norm (Kilgour, 1995)
b) To give shape and thus create an outlet for the chaos that is around us and within us (Shelley, 1831)
c) A transitional form exploited by later Romantics (Kilgour, 1995)
Take Shelley’s (1797-1851) Frankenstein and Coleridge’s (1772-1834) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example. Frankenstein and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner play with similar themes in the way that both are about transitions and giving form to the chaos of the unnatural and the supernatural. Frankenstein was published a year after The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Shelly refers to The Ancient Mariner several times in her novel:
I am going to unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and snow,’ but I shall kill no albatross; therefore do not be alarmed for my safety or if I should come back to you as worn and woeful as the ‘Ancient Mariner’.
Later on in the novel Frankenstein quotes directly a passage from the Ancient Mariner:
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned around walks on
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Despite being contemporaries, the two novels fulfil the roles of the gothic in different way. The gothic movement was seen as a revival of the spiritual and transcendent in a secularised world that had drifted away from religion and ridiculed belief in the supernatural. Society had become constrained and demanded a certain attitude and way of thinking from its citizens that conformed to a ‘neoclassical aesthetic ideal of order and unity’ (Kilgour, 1995).
The gothic was a cry of rebellion against the restrictive limitations of the prevalent system, but in the end only served to re-establish them. Wylie Sypher wrote in Social Ambiguity in the Gothic Novel, that the Gothic revealed ‘the naked contradiction intrinsic in bourgeois Romanticism,’ but only through ‘a revolt so radically inhibited that it failed to be in a deep social sense creative’ (Kilgour, 1995).
Shelley challenged ‘the conventions and restrictions of the norm’ by giving the male protagonist an abnormal role, by eliminating all female characters; she makes Frankenstein into a mother who creates a monster through unnatural means, a virgin birth conceived outside of a womb. Homans’ (1993) writes:
By making the demon masculine, Shelley suggests that romantic desire seeks to do away not only with the mother but also with all females so as to live finally in a world of mirrors that reflects a comforting illusion of the male self’s independent wholeness.
In the stereotypical gothic novel, there is always a lead female who experience all the tribulations and ordeals. In fact this was the whole premise of the gothic novel because it was mainly targeted at a female readership, as Jane Austen pointed out in her criticism of the gothic novel, that it was, ‘seducing them with the heroine’s vulnerability rather than exposing political dangers of abuse to women.’(Fay, 1998)
This element is missing from Frankenstein and The Ancient Mariner. All the major female characters in Frankenstein die or are killed off, and the only female entities in the Ancient Mariner are the ship, the sea and the ghostly spectre. The conspicuous absence of women is indicative of the repressive social role of women in 18th and 19th century England. Women were either expected to get married or lead lives as spinsters. The tolerated careers for women at the time were limited to either being governesses, teachers or dressmakers.
Coleridge challenges convention through the depiction of the supernatural. In the late 17th and throughout the 18th Centuries progress was being made in the fields of psychology and hospitals were being opened for the treatment of mental illnesses. The Ancient Mariner could easily be an escaped patient of one of these institutions with his mad blazing eyes and his deranged and dishevelled appearance. But Coleridge wants his readers to believe that another dimension exists that overlaps ours, or indeed is superimposed on ours. In this dimension men are cursed to wonder the earth, driven to fulfil an impossible and hopeless task and ghost ships, bearing spectres and demons that play with the fates and souls of men, haunt the seas.
This scenario can be found in many novels of 18th and 19th Century. The sanity of a traveller would be questioned if his tales conflicted and challenged societal norms, e.g. Frankenstein, Gulliver’s Travels and even Dracula. Even today, the majority of people in the West are unwilling to believe in the existence of the Unseen and the supernatural. Both Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein are parables of how mankind has abandoned belief in the Divine and the supernatural. The new religions are science and realism. The priests of these religions aspire to great heights without considering the morality of their actions, nor of the consequences. They do things based on the fact that they can, and forget to ask themselves whether they should. So the Mariner slays the albatross and Frankenstein creates a monster.
And I had done a hellish thing
And it would work ‘em woe;
For all averred I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
This concept is best described by the words of Mary Shelley in her introduction to Frankenstein:
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself . . . Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject; and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
Shelley poetically captures what essentially a fiction writer does. Kilgour (1995) suggests that the gothic is not an independent form of writing itself. That does not mean that it is a simple collage of elements, but a skilful amalgamation of welded and stitched together traditions and materials in a self-consciously artificial form. Chaos works on three levels. The first meaning one could take is that of the uncertainties and ordeals of real life. Frankenstein for instance has been read as a novel that reflects on Shelley’s concerns regarding her pregnancy and about giving birth, for she had already lost a child in March 1815. The pregnancy must have held at least two distinct fears. One, giving a birth to a child was not an unheard of cause of death for mother or child, or even both. The second cause of anxiety could have been the illegitimacy of her child. In October 1816, Mary Shelley’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay committed suicide by drowning on discovering her own illegitimacy. Harriet Shelley also drowned herself (in the River Serpentine) in December 1816, when she learned that she had been impregnated by an adulterous affair (Guest, 1992). This fear of the illegitimate child seems to be plainly carried over in Frankenstein, where the monster, born of a single parent in the most unnatural of ways, ‘causes the death of the parent as well as the principles of motherhood’ (Homans, 1993).
Chaos could also represent the fears inherent in all humanity. Fear of the dark and of the supernatural has been with humanity from the beginning, when man first cowered in recesses of his cavern afraid of what lay beyond the warm circle of his fire. Nothing scares us more than the demons and monsters created by our own imagination, which we know lurk just outside of our perception. The albatross in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and forbidden knowledge in Frankenstein are gateways to this alternative dimension. Only after passing into this dimension do the protagonists realise their error, but too late, they must suffer the consequences. As Frankenstein reflected, ‘I had desired it with ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’
The third meaning of chaos is the unconscious mind itself, that which Freud termed the id. This is the part of the mind that constantly seeks appeasement and satisfaction of its earthy and immoral desires. One thing that was apparent in the Gothic novel was the use of Nature to create atmosphere. In the novels, Nature was often seen as a powerful and frightening force. Later Romantics such as Wordsworth adopted the image of Nature as a nurturing mother. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a prime example of how scary Nature can be. In the Ancient Mariner’s retelling, Nature takes on the form of some gargantuan monster that endlessly pursues the Mariner and his ship. But no matter how fast he flees he can not escape the menacing hulk of the storm clouds crouching on the horizon, nor the chill claws of the rending wind as it tears at the sails and masts of the ship.
And now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong;
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us along.
In Frankenstein we see the maturing of this form of describing Nature in its many forms. In the opening chapters Shelley takes us to the North Pole to join Walton, who even as we arrive is writing to his sister, Mrs Saville, who is describing to his sister the sights and sounds that surround him: ‘Last Monday (July 31st) we were nearly surrounded by the ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea-room in which she floated,’almost paraphrasing the Ancient Mariner:
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled
Like noises in a swound.
Then, later on in Frankenstein, we see another facet of nature, that of grandeur:
Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains, the impetuous Arve, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, habitations of another race of beings.
Here in a novel hailed as one of the most chilling ever written we see sights rendered in a style that at times are reminiscent of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Later, in Chapter 11, as the monster relates his story to his creator, we see in Nature the mother that Romantic poets spent so much time reflecting on, supplying the monster with all his basic needs of food and water. ‘This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate berries which I found hanging on the trees or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook, and then lying down, was overcome by sleep.’
The gothic also satisfied other needs. It created an emotional outlet for the writers and a source of empathy for its readers. It became a kind of public sphere where the social and psychological opinions and beliefs were aired and discussed without fear of rebuke from the dominant patriarchal society. Modleski (1996) writes, ‘The Gothic has been used to drive home the core of truth in feminine paranoid fears and to connect social with the psychological, the personal with the political.’ The growth of the gothic novel and its transitional qualities did not wither with the end of the Romantic era. Instead it metamorphosed into something new. Frankenstein was the harbinger of this change, for even today it is hard to categorise it in just one genre. Today we see its strains running through several genres, such as horror, science fiction and even fantasy fiction. The gothic was and is more than a puerile form of writing. It was the forerunner of science in the exploration of the human psyche. It was a history of the silent struggles that marked the rebellion against repression and prejudice. The gothic is both compelling and mysterious and has captured the imagination of many over the last two centuries. The gothic novel therefore was a necessary milestone that contributed heavily to the growth of English literature and society.
Coleridge, S. T., Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in Wu, Duncun (ed.), 1999, Romanticism – an Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell.
Fay, E. A., 1998, A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism, Oxford, Blackwell.
Guest, H., The Wanton Muse: Politics and Gender in Gothic Theory After 1760, in Copley, Steven & Whale, Tom (Eds.), 1992, Beyond Romanticism – New Approaches to texts and Contexts 1780-1832, London, Routledge.
Homans, M., Bearing Demons: Frankenstein and the Circumvention of Maternity, in Chase, Cynthia (ed.), 1993, Romanticism, Longmans.
Kilgour, M., 1995, The Rise of the Gothic Novel, London, Routledge.
Modelski, T., 1996, Loving with a Vengeance – Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, New York, Routledge.
Shelley, M. W., 1994, Frankenstein, London, Penguin.