Gothic Literature - A Brief Outline of the History and Associations of the Word 'Gothic'
Wednesday, March 2, 2005 12:04:15 AM
Gothic literature has been a fascination of mine since boyhood, so it was inevitable that I should jot down some thoughts upon the subject sooner or later. Since those thoughts are both nebulous and extensive, I doubt I can make a definitive statement of them at this time in my life, when I am distracted by many things. For that reason, I should like to reshape some simple pedagogical materials I have previously prepared for the classroom and hope that this may provide an outline of the subject matter that is not entirely redundant and that contains something of my feeling for the genre.
First of all, my relationship with the Gothic is that of both insider and outsider. When I discovered Gothicism I recognised some deep part of myself within it, but at the same time, recognised its remoteness and exoticism. I never really attempted to study the subject until relatively late in thirty two years of my existence so far. Instead, being the dreamer that I am, I merely allowed my imagination to play with the associations that the literature, and the word ‘Gothic’ itself provided me. For some reason the word ‘Gothic’ seems particularly resonant with association. To a degree, it is almost preferable for me simply to daydream on the word itself rather than to sample the often flawed productions of the genre; such is the dense power of association the word possesses. When we look at that word’s history we may find that some of it corresponds with those associations in a way that almost seems to argue for the reality of race memory. Some of it, however, is strange and counterintuitive. This phenomenon corresponds with my feeling of being at once an insider and an outsider to the genre. In any case, it is the history of the word and its associations that I wish to explore briefly here.
The word ‘Goth’ derives originally from certain Germanic tribes who made attacks on the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD. Since Rome and Greece were the seat of civilisation, the people of Northern Europe were considered barbarians. Indeed, the words ‘Goth’ and ‘Gothic’ have become synonymous with barbarism.
You may also be familiar with the word ‘Gothic’ as an architectural term. Gothic architecture was prevalent in Western Europe between the 12th and 16th centuries. The style is best known for the pointed-arch that was a feature of Gothic churches.
Gothic literature, however, has little to do with Gothic architecture. In literature, the word ‘Gothic’ refers to a mode of fiction dealing with supernatural or horrifying events. At least, that is the dictionary definition. However, if we look more closely we will find that not all Gothic literature is concerned with the supernatural, and not all Gothic literature is horrifying. Rather, the term ‘Gothic’ as applied to literature refers to a kind of atmosphere or aesthetic that, while it is hard to define, may be understood at an instinctive level, in a way similar to that in which Japanese terms such as ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ are also hard to define, but are immediately evocative to someone with the right cultural background.
Gothic literature is generally believed to have begun in the year 1765 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. It should be noted that this novel was published in the 18th century, after the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment had attempted to bring reason to the world, and to banish superstition. The Castle of Otranto, therefore, was consciously written, in an almost post-modern manner, as a means of recapturing the atmosphere of a barbaric past; Horace Walpole made use of the superstitions of the past, without believing in them, as a means of freeing the imagination. Walpole himself, again using a literary device that to our eyes may appear post-modern, presented the novel as a manuscript he had merely discovered and translated, writing of it in his introduction as follows:
…[this] work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the time who should omit mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.
The title of the novel also gives us a clue to some of the essential elements of Gothic literature. The key word here is ‘castle’. For Gothic literature often focuses on huge and ancient buildings such as castles. Those ancient buildings may be viewed as symbolic of the unique atmosphere of Gothic literature; the writing style of Gothic novels is as heavy as castle masonry, and as gloomy as the maze-like corridors of such a mediaeval building.
Chris Baldick, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, has suggested that Edgar Allan Poe marks a turning point in the Gothic genre; before ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, he says, the keynote of Gothic fiction was cruelty, after, it was decay. In both cases the atmosphere is one of oppression and anxiety. Cruelty was part of the Gothic castle because of the dungeons where kidnapped damsels were imprisoned by evil monks or scheming Italian counts. In these dungeons all manner of unspeakable tortures were carried out. Decay was part of the castle because of its terrible age. I would add here that, although when I first read Baldick’s theory, it seemed to make intuitive sense to me – since I associated Gothicism with decay rather than the violence that one usually finds in what is simply called ‘horror’, and since I was surprised to discover the extent of the actual violence in early Gothic tales – I have come to wonder whether his theory is not based purely on personal impression. That is, both violence and decay seem to play a large part in Gothic literature before and after Poe. If this is true, then why does Baldick’s theory seem so intuitively correct? This is an interesting question that I feel is worth exploring further, but I lack the time and resources to do such at present. This, no doubt, is an area to be expanded upon if I live to write the extended version of this essay.
Although the original barbarian tribes known by the name ‘Goth’ were associated with Northern Europe, it is interesting to note that many Gothic writers set their tales in Southern Europe. In The Castle of Otranto, for instance, it is an Italian prince who schemes to avert the curse brought on his family when his grandfather usurped the principality of Otranto. For the writers of these early Gothic tales, Southern Europe is now the source of barbarism. One reason for this is probably the fact that most Gothic writers were Protestant. Catholicism was seen as a superstitious form of Christianity, and therefore closer to barbarism. In fact, in his introduction, Walpole fictitiously claims of the manuscript that:
[it] was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England… The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of christianity…
This distrust of Catholicism can be seen in later Gothic works, such as The Monk, by Matthew Lewis, and Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin, both of which feature evil Catholic monks who imprison innocent maidens in the darkest cells of their monasteries. Although some people (professor Edith Birkhead being one of them) believe Gothic fiction to have ended with Melmoth the Wanderer, the same anti-Catholic theme may even be seen in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, which depicts the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, Poe, who came after Charles Maturin – the latter of whom professor Birkhead named "the greatest as well as the last of the Goths" – is quite possibly the writer whom most readers today would first associate with the term ‘Gothic’.
After Matthew Lewis and Charles Maturin, other famous writers in the Gothic tradition are Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, H. P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake.
Looking at the list of writers above, we may begin to see how inadequate the dictionary definition of Gothic literature is. The supernatural plays no part in Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance. In fact, Frankenstein may also be considered an early work of science fiction. In that sense it represents a development in the Gothic genre. H. P. Lovecraft brought about another such shift in the genre by abandoning all notions of a Christian god and the battle between good and evil; he represented the universe as being ruled by forces entirely alien to mankind. Often decayed Gothic buildings appear in his stories, but it is the atmosphere and use of language that are Gothic, rather than the technical details of the content. Lovecraft’s brand of fiction has also been called ‘cosmic horror’.
Mervyn Peake is another writer whose work is Gothic without adhering to the dictionary definition of that term. For there are no supernatural events in the Gormenghast trilogy that form Peake’s most famous work, and though some of the episodes in the three books are horrifying, horror is not an outstanding feature of the stories. Gormenghast, in true Gothic tradition, does have a vast decaying castle – the Gormenghast of the title – but this fact aside, it is only really the inherited aesthetic, the oppressive atmosphere and the writing style that makes Peake’s work Gothic.
Of course, whether or not such writers fall technically within the confines of the Gothic genre is a matter of debate, and since some declare the Gothic genre to have finished with Melmoth the Wanderer, presumably they would also deny that the works of Lovecraft or Peake are Gothic. Yet who today can read ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ or Titus Groan and not be tempted to attach the epithet ‘Gothic’ to these works? As I stated at the outset, the word ‘Gothic’ works by way of deep instinctive associations that are hard to define. Perhaps a study could be devised whereby new readers were asked to classify a variety of writers with single words. In such a case, my guess is that readers’ subjective responses could be found to be empirically consistent, for whatever reason, on the matter of the Gothic nature of certain works not recognised by many scholars as Gothic.
As to whether the Gothic tradition still exists today, I would say that it does. The most obvious heir to the throne in the crumbling castle of the Gothic is the American writer Thomas Ligotti. He follows H. P. Lovecraft in depicting a universe that is, from the point of view of humanity, entirely evil. He deals in the supernatural with a writing style that is heavy and oppressive, and he has a fascination with decay.
In one of his most recent tales, My Work is Not Yet Done, the hero, who spends much time in photographing derelict, decaying buildings, states that:
…I was seeking… the sabi of things utterly dejected and destitute, alone and forgotten – whatever was submitting to its essential impermanence, its transitory nature, whatever was teetering on the brink of non-existence…
Although I am not aware that Ligotti has described himself as Gothic, I do know that he has placed Edgar Allan Poe squarely within the Gothic tradition, and placed himself squarely within the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft.
It seems that The Castle of Otranto has cast a long shadow, which extends to the present day. The Gothic genre has shifted from an emphasis on superstition and cruelty, to an emphasis on decay, to an emphasis on cosmic horror. I await future developments with keen interest.