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Features

Gothic Fiction: An Analysis
By Chen Yufei
Jan 1, 2010 - 12:14:18 AM

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Editorial Comment: This is the First of a 3 part article, originally written in English, as a Chinese Student's Bachelor Degree English Thesis. The thesis deals with the development and understanding of Gothic Fiction. It is an excellent analysis.

After extensive enquiry to determine if he was free to publish his thesis online, and receiving no clear answer, the thesis is presented here for your enjoyment. R.P. BenDedek (See Editorial Introduction)


Gothic Fiction
By Chen Yufei

1. Introduction

2. Classical Gothic Fiction
2.1 The Good versus the Evil
2.1.1 The legitimate versus the misplaced
2.1.2 The maiden and the villain

2.2 Symbolic Elements
2.2.1 Castle, monastery and crypt
2.2.2 Frankenstein and the monk

3. Edgar Allan Poe's Contribution to Gothic Fiction
3.1 A Brief Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe
3.2 Premature Burial
3.3 The Death of a Beautiful Woman and the Doppelganger
3.4 Mental Illness and Materialization

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

In many occasions, especially in the discussion of contemporary pop culture, "Gothic" is a frequenter among varied people with certain interest or knowledge in literature, horror movie, architecture or branches of rock music.

The word was derived from the name of a group of East Germanic tribes who harried the Roman Empire and then carried on Christian culture as successors to the Roman Empire. Then, the word "Gothic" indicated certain meanings of being brutal, barbarian as the Goths themselves often referred to as opposite to civilized Romans.

With the features in the medieval architecture style sharing the same name, the word "Gothic" was endued with dark, mysterious and superstitious overtones brought along by Gothic architectures in Dark Ages like churches with a crypt that well places the stage for the undead to lurk and castles with tall windows that barely let light in.

"Gothic fiction" was originally a term strictly defined by both historical and regional reference. In its narrow sense, the term especially refers to certain English fictions of the period from 1764 to 1820, with The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story by Horace Walpole as the herald, and Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin as the "terminator".

Usually, these fictions are set to dark castles or monasteries, featured by thrilling plot with suspense. However, when talking about this word in our days, people tend to start with its notorious uncertainty of definition, because the connotation of Gothic fiction has been transcending itself both in the sense of period and region.

So, in its general sense, the word Gothic fiction is widely agreed by present English researchers as a term which contains three large-scale revivals in the history of English literature, i.e. first, the English Gothic fictions in later 18th century; secondly, the Victorian Gothic fictions represented by Stevenson's Dr. Jecyll and Mr. Hyde; thirdly, contemporary horror fictions in 1970s represented by Stephen King's Salem's Lot.

Just like vampire, a famous figure often seen in Gothic fictions, the fiction genre itself is a zombie that died at 1820 while continuously reanimated through centuries. It used to wander at the edge of literature, disdained by the mainstream, while the diversified developments of thought in modern days such like psychoanalysis and feminism have well contributed to the renaissance of the research on Gothic fiction and the Gothic tradition in literature itself.

Finally, Gothic fiction melts itself into the ocean of literature and stands under the spotlight on the stage. Various writers employ the techniques or the style involved in Gothic fiction, and many a critic explores the core values and eternal beauty of this mysterious genre from varied angles.

However, as the forefather of later supernatural fiction and modern horror fiction, Gothic fiction is born with some fundamental characteristics which will be inherited by further variations and shared by works of seemingly other genres in common. In my opinion, the very treasures and beauty of Gothic fiction lie in its inherent concern on human nature and psychological status.

I shall discuss these virtues mainly with ideas of psychology and slightly other theories.

2. Classical Gothic Fiction

2.1 The Good versus the Evil

In many English Gothic fictions, there is a common theme shared by many different works. As we often hear in various circumstances, the theme is usually summed up as "the struggle between the good and the evil". In early Gothic fictions, the theme is carried out by a certain good protagonist and an evil noble with powerful influence on him or her. The villains in these novels are prone to snatch some property or important people that are supposed to be owned by or be united with the protagonists, such as a large sum of money inherited from a kin passing away, a title along with real estate like a castle bestowed upon certain successors or occasionally, a beautiful princess or a handsome young man that well matches the age, temperament, status and most importantly, the will towards love of the protagonist.

These can be found without difficulty in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in which Manfred, the arrogant lord who owns the castle of Otranto tries to avert the catastrophe of his loss of power by divorcing his own wife who failed to bear him an heir and marrying Isabella, the belle protagonist who was supposed to marry Manfred's sickly only son, whose life was carried off by an inexplicable event. This successive marriage is followed by a series of supernatural events that serve as warnings to Manfred's arrogation of the castle of Otranto which is supposed to be the possession of the true prince, Theodore of Falconara.

Similarly, in The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, a sensitive and unusually beautiful young lady´╝îEmily St. Aubert who suffers several misadventures and then becomes ward of his aunt and later is imprisoned in Castle Udolpho by her aunt's husband, an Italian villain who deceives Emily's aunt into marriage for her property. Both of the two masterpieces of early Gothic fiction end up with the reunion of the protagonists and their true love, along with the restoration of their legitimate belongings.

2.1.1 The legitimate versus the misplaced

However, sometimes, this theme is embodied by other forms of conflict. In the sense of dualism, I incline to interpret it as the conflict between the "legitimate" and the "misplaced".

The "legitimate" can be seen as a well matched love or a due successor to a noble title, a property of a castle or ownership of a certain amount of money, etc. This kind of the "legitimate" as mentioned above can be found in Gothic fictions involved by struggles for heritage and mysteries around the hidden identity of a weak but virtuous protagonist. In other cases, in more abstract sense, it can also refer to something that serves as boundary or restrictions, whether as the moral principles, the proper ideas, the maximum ability of human, etc. In a word, it deals with the orthodox thoughts in our heart.

In contrast, the "misplaced" involves people who "don't deserve" certain property or bliss while practice some attempts to grip them or even take them away from those "legitimate". In a larger sense, it can also be embodied by misbehavior or overreaching something that is beyond the natural attributes or ethical. Besides the villains in novels mentioned above, Vathek, An Arabian Tale by William Thomas Beckford has well depicted such a character, a prideful, concupiscent while learned caliph named Vathek who trusts in his mother's word in believing a stranger named Giaour who claims to be an Indian merchant but in fact an evil jinn serving Eblis and then embarks on his way to damnation.

In this Gothic fiction set to Arabian world, Vathek's erudition is however, the seed of his main sin, the greed for knowledge. Thus, the "evil" itself is somewhat transferred to transcendence, as we see in here: "Such was, and should be, the punishment of unrestrained passion and atrocious deeds! Such shall be the chastisement of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be - humble and ignorant."(William Thomas Beckford, 1868, Page 206-207)

Here, as we read above, the words written by the author himself have led us to be confronted with the time when some of these novels are involved and urged us to take a look at the overall spiritual situations then. The 18th century English society witnessed a series of moral crises and later the renaissance of morality. In 1720, two notorious events, "the Gin Craze" and "South Sea Bubble" broke out. The former was an extreme epidemic of drunkenness caused by gin among British working classes, especially in London, which encouraged large-scale corruption of moral and public outrage towards it. The latter was rather a financial crisis seemingly caused by immoderate distribution of stock by South Sea Company, while in fact the consequence of the collusion between merchants and the government and moreover, the vicious circle developed by a trend of gambling and speculation prevailing in the whole society.

These events reflect the vacuity and depravation among the 18th English society where the domination of religion had been overthrown, meanwhile the thirst for large capital, instant pleasure and the loss of former moral guidance breeded disorder of ethic and sharp conflict inside individuals who were in trouble. Hence, a saviour, Evangelism came to the rescue. This renewed tide of religion with the attempt to convert more people to Christianity saved a number of people from their mental and moral damnation, through the formidable efforts of John Wesley and his fellow Methodists. We can find the reflection of this introspection in Manfred's arrogation and his final conversion to religion, alike in Vathek, an Arabian Tale, Vathek's fall is coincided with his renouncement with Islam, and his final punishment is quite mythological, i.e. showing sharp-cut sense of the triumph of the good over the evil like those in any sermon.

However, the difference lies in that Montoni and Manfred's betrayal to moral is rather secular, for its main purpose is but for wealth, family line or status, while Vathek's sin or his moral bankruptcy is somewhat metaphysical, for his attempt to gain knowledge that is supposed to be perceived only by supernatural beings ruling over mortals is merely a overdone aspiration for knowledge or even the expectation to improve and surpass the limit of human beings, if in the eyes of modern readers. We can even find something respectable out of his deed, though human sacrifice and vicious means can be found throughout his road to acquire his desired knowledge.

At the same time, the supernatural prodigies involved in religious doctrines can be found in early Gothic fictions in another aspect. As we can read in The Castle of Otranto, from the gigantic helmet that crushes Manfred's son to death to body-parts and other ancient oversized artifacts, the supernatural force has been affecting the whole process of the story. They mainly serve as warning to Manfred, hence the supernatural helps to correct the improper deed and compensate the wronged. This is the inner call to maintain justice and order which has long taken root in most individuals' heart and perhaps the ideal way for many in the abyss of desperation and lowest class to acquire their well-beings or somehow be equal to the others. Therefore, there is never a place where or a time when religion ceases to function as panacea.

However, correcting the disorder caused by immoderate behaviors and rebuilding the moral through the effort of religion may inevitably include a strong sense of the dualism of the good and the evil and thus emphasis on self restraint. This saviour at a time may turn to be the source for varied Gothic fictions later in the development of this unique genre. And, in the later part of this thesis, which is involved in a new era and its movement of thought, we will discuss them through other views.

Part 2.


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