Gothic literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Gothic literature

Gothic literature

The double dealing and tyranny of imperialism suit the secrecy and conspiracy that characterizes gothic literature. A pervasive genre in world literature, gothic stories convey some classic themes, such as that of the strong bullying the weak, as seen in ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON’S writings of the Pacific, Nigerian author AMOS TUTUOLA’S The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), AMY TAN’S Chinese historical novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER’S PROPHECY of the Nazi empire in Der Sotn in Gorey (Satan in Goray, 1935), and the Japanese ghost stories translated by Lafcadio Hearn. Subtextual implications of barbarism, racism, miscegenation, insanity, and xenophobia dominate RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA’S novella Heat and Dust (1975) and JAMAICA KINCAID’S conquest allegory “Ovando” (1989). The same themes undergird Oscar Wilde’s biblical play Salome (1893), which portrays necrophilia celebrated at Herod Antipas’s Galilean palace. At the center of the action is the title character’s sensual solo performance for which she claims the severed head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), the harbinger of the Jewish messiah. In a similar stress on tone and atmosphere, the Argentine fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges, a purveyor of tales of victimization, anthologized episodes of robbery, piracy, and enslavement in Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy, 1935), a collection depicting crime in eighth-century Persia, late 17th-century Japan, and early 19th-century China.

In the postcolonial psychological novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), set in Jamaica's interior, the Caribbean author JEAN RHYS captured dance and ritual from the African diaspora in a rural setting. By sympathizing with Antoinette Cosway, the bartered bride, Rhys dramatizes feminist issues alongside the wrongs that English overlords commit against black islanders. Other examples of gothic terror and pathos, such as the body of Central American cautionary tales about “La Llorona,” the weeping wraith of an AzTEC-Mexica sex slave and interpreter named Malinche, increase emotional involvement in the plight of indigenous characters whom society has muzzled and marginalized by race, class, or gender. In ballads and ghost stories, Malinche wanders the night after she has murdered her children to save them from Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadores. Her presence in the darkness is both a warning for and a blessing on Indian and Mestizo women under the control of European adventurers.

Gothic Conventions

Gothic literary conventions display many stylistic details of the literature of empire. An ominous tone can project an author's attitude toward a work's subject and moral stance, as in NIKOLAY GOGOL'S depictions of an outcast in his Cossack novel Taras Bulba (1842) and in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), a novel of ostracism exposing Puritan self-righteousness in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Doom haunts anti-Semitic episodes about the wandering Jew in George Croly's Salathiel: A Story of the Past, the Present, and the Future (1828), a prophecy novel set in Jerusalem during the first- century regimes of the Roman emperors Nero and Titus. In an expression of hope, the exile observes the decay of his tormentors—Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony: “Every military genius, the natural product of a system that lived but on military fame, disappeared: the brilliant diversity of warlike talent, that shone on the very verge of the succession of the Caesars, sank, like falling stars” (Croly 1828, 224-225).

The establishment of Christianity increased the scope of surreal terrors. The somber, lethal atmosphere of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) suits a 21st-century reprise of medieval CRUSADER LORE. Gothic symbolism—codes, mazes, ambush, a mystic brotherhood—heightens ambiguous scenarios of alienation and stalking as well as calculated bloodbaths, all carried out to ensure the secrecy of Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene and their founding of a Christian dynasty. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe's horror story “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1843) fantasizes about the Napoleonic general Antoine de Lasalle and the French army rescuing an unnamed prisoner from near death in a pit in Toledo during the Spanish Inquisition (then in its final years).

Popular Fiction

From the beginning of the romantic era, European and American readers clamored for exotic lore brought to their shores by seamen, mercenaries, traders, and civil servants of empires. Narratives laced with unusual settings and wish fulfillment paralleled a minor European revolution in architecture, landscaping, furniture, and table settings that saw the introduction of Chinese designs, pagodas, and dragon motifs on fabrics and murals. Home libraries displayed ornate editions of the Rubdiydt of Omar Khayydm (ca. 1130); The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942); VOLTAIRE'S Candide (1759); and Samuel Johnson's quest FABLE The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), the story of royal Ethiopian siblings, Nekayah and Rasselas, who comb Egypt for utopian happiness. The English writer John Hawkesworth (ca. 1715-73) published a redemption plot, Almoran and Hamet (1761), set among Persian royalty; the English poet John Langhorne (1735-79) popularized Mesopotamian lore in Solyman and Almena (1762), a quest tale based on the exoticism and moralizing of The Thousand and One Nights. In the story, a gender turnabout in Delhi, India, capital of the Mogul Empire, has placed wives and concubines in charge of civil and military appointments. To find bliss with Almena, the protagonist Solyman sails with her on a seagoing trader to the Persian Gulf. The Irish romanticist Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan (1724-66) covered similar ground in her posthumously published The History of Nourjahad (1767), a tale of a Persian sybarite seeking happiness and fulfillment. Like Solyman, Nourjahad recoils from the thoughts of owning a harem and has no illusions about grandeur and sovereignty: “I shall there never aspire at high employments, nor would I be the sultan of Persia, if I might; for what addition would that make to my happiness?” (Sheridan 1822, 13).

As exemplified by the works of Poe, Kincaid, and Borges, colonial empires serve gothic literature as evocative settings for exotic ritual, barbarism, and segregation—for example, the epic violence between a father and son, citizens of the Ghaznavid empire, in Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum (1853); JOSEPH CONRAD'S probe of the African ivory trade in HEART OF DARKNESS (1902); and the surreal time displacement of The Kadaitcha Sung (1990), a tale of South Pacific colonial horrors by Sam Watson, an Australian aborigine. William Beckford's oriental romance Vathek, an Arabian Tale (published in French in 1782 and in English in 1786) allegorizes the Persian sybarism of Caliph Vathek, who summons a giaour, or non-Muslim, to Samarah, Egypt, to provide forbidden pleasures. The caliph's depravity confirms British suspicions of Islamic countries and customs and substantiates rumors of Persian sexual indulgence, vice, and sacrilege. The torments of hell await Vathek, who is “sullied … with a thousand crimes” (Beckford 1970, 120). In 1816, the English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge pleased readers with “Kubla Khan; or, a Vision in a Dream, a Fragment,” an ethereal terror tale contrasting an insular edenic garden with a future war in the Yuan dynasty during the rule of a 13th-century Mongol emperor. The suggestion of finite joys emphasizes that imperial glory and luxury are illusions soon destroyed by subsequent conquerors.

Gothic Cliche

Although reflecting popular tastes in escapist romance, 19th-century gothic adventure literature also maintained a grasp on themes of rapacity and collusion. An English crime story about the snatching of a yellow diamond from an Indian temple dramatized international thievery during British colonialism in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), a best seller written at the height of Queen Victoria's reign. The heist of the diamond, a fictional version of the 105-carat Koh-I-Noor diamond from Golconda, India, as an addition to the British crown jewels attests to the usurper's desecration of an 800-year-old talisman. At the return of the moonstone to its source, the subtext implies that imperialists typically bungle their chance to acknowledge and learn from a another culture: “You have lost sight of it in England, and (if I know anything of this people) you have lost sight of it for ever” (Collins 1998, 472).

In the Americas, colonial gothic became an umbrella term for the multicultural lore of Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, the American South and West, Alaska, Hawaii, and New England. An example of Amerindian historical fiction, JOHN RICHARDSON'S Canadian romances Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (1832) and its sequel, The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled (1840), pit the 18th-century Ottawa chief Pontiac against British imperialists in a Cain- and-Abel story fraught with sibling animosity. In a more chilling tale, American writer Herman Melville (1819-91) depicted an African's revenge for wholesale kidnap and enslavement in “Benito Cereno” (1855), a ghoulish tale set on a Spanish slave vessel off the shores of St. Maria, Chile. In a subtle warning for Captain Delano, the title figure declares, “Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man” (Melville 1856, 211), a statement that strikes the African villain Babo and influences Delano, the transporter of captive Africans to New World slave markets. The horror tale concludes with a visual token of revenge—the skull of the schemer Babo skewered on a pike.

Beyond Gothic Stereotypes

Farther north in the Western Hemisphere, Jules- Paul Tardivel, an emigre from Kentucky to Quebec, employed plots against French frontiersmen in the separatist novel Pour la patrie (For My Country, 1895) to create a vision of APOCALYPSE. The narrative refutes the idea of colonialism as a means of converting pagans to Christ. The action occurs at a nadir in Catholic conversions, when “Faith was declining. Everyone could see it” (Tardivel 1975, 11). Tardivel blames satanic plots of Freemasons for undermining French colonialism. During a meeting of dissidents, the Masonic master opposes preservation of nationalism and language “if by sacrificing them, we can destroy the Infamous One and uproot from the Canadian soil the cross of the priests, symbol of superstition and standard of tyranny” (12). The author proposes an alternative to the futuristic liberation of colonial Quebec through technological advances.

Into the full flowering of romanticism and beyond into impressionism, imaginative tales of gypsy curses, piracy, seraglios, African sloth, and Islamic decadence played out in the fantasies of authors such as Lord Byron (1788-1824), Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE (1859-1930), Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), and Louisa May Alcott (183288). In the critical treatise Orientalism (1978), Columbia University professor Edward Wadie Said, a Jerusalem-born culture critic, charged such purveyors of colonial orientalism with ethnocentrism. He denounced classic world authors as being on a par with the British explorer Sir Richard Burton, the English novelist George Eliot, the French novelist Victor Hugo, the English author RUDYARD KIPLING, the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, and the American humorist Mark Twain for repeating centuries-old stereotypes of the inscrutable Asian, the camel-riding nomad trader, fortune tellers, and harem residents menaced by armed eunuchs and lustful sheiks. Said charged Westerners with a subjectivity based on racism, religious bigotry, and a voyeurism that fed curiosity about global societies and sexual customs. He warned, “These are the lenses through which the Orient is experienced, and they shape the language, perception, and form of the encounter between East and West” (Said 2003, 58). Out of such wrongheadedness comes “a restricted number of typical encapsulations: the journey, the history, the fable, the stereotype, the polemical confrontation” (58), all of which strip the literature of empires of humanity.

Postmodern Gothic

In the second half of the 20th century, the merger of gothic conventions with social commentary renewed literary concern for the lingering effects of colonialism, racism, sexism, and human bondage. In the anticolonial historical novel La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits, 1981), the Chilean writer Isabel Allende recaptured Hispanic exploitation of mestizo field laborers and house servants. For Chilean planter Esteban Trueba, after his rape of the virgin peasant Pancha Garcia, retribution connects the blood-spattered dress with a shameful history: “Before her, her mother— and before her, her grandmother—had suffered the same animal fate” (Allende 1982, 57). The monstrosity of colonial concubinage gives birth to social unrest and revolution, realism's wages of sin. The narrative adapted well to screen in 1993 with an all-star cast—Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, Glenn Close, and Antonio Banderas as the peasant leader of a revolt against European oppressors.

Late in the 20th century, Africa and Australasia received their share of postcolonial survey. The Australian novelist Peter Carey resurrected issues of the GENOCIDE of aborigines in the symbolist novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the source of a 1997 screen version starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. The transportation of a whimsical glass chapel upriver in Australia to a parish of aborigines represents the transparency and fragility of British plans to suppress native culture by enforcing Church of England mores in the outback.

In Jane Campion's feminist novel The Piano (1993), the concubinage of Maori women is part of a program of domination. According to the villainous conqueror, Alasdair Stewart, “The bush, like the Maori people who inhabited it, needed to be brought to order” (Campion, 1995, 18), a free- floating statement of “need” implying coercion. The Oscar-winning film version captures the sullied morality of the colonizer ruling the colonized by engulfing the land that Stewart clears and torches with a blue haze, a symbol of hellish pollution.

In a more prophetic glimpse of world power struggles, the Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje reprised gothic conventions in a World War II romance, The English Patient (1996), a Booker Prize winner set in an Italian villa and a cave in southern Egypt during the fall of the Italian colonial empire. The bizarre retrieval of a corpse,

subsequent plane crash, and catastrophic burns to the title character epitomize a familiar gothic motif, the triumph of love over violence, betrayal, suffering, and death.

Victimization and Feminism

The stereotype of the cowering female proved useful to feminist literature. Through images of timid, light-skinned women fleeing swarthy kidnappers, pirates, and warlords, gothic literature cultivated new territory as an opportunity for the New Woman, a late 19th-century feminist ideal. The adventurer freed of dependence on fathers, husbands, and male authority figures, fights misogynistic superstition and social obstacles to selfhood, the focus of the Danish memoirist and fabulist ISAK DINESEN’S Out of Africa (1937) and Babettes Feast (1959).

For models, many authors followed two pinnacles of Victorian gothicism: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Over a three-year period, readers altered their view of female self-sufficiency through the actions of two heroines. Jane Eyre, an orphaned English governess, empowers herself upon receipt of a colonial inheritance from her uncle. Motivated to succeed, she runs from the man she loves, a bigamist, and shapes her future through independent action. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, an English settler of Puritan New England, escapes the stigmatizing of the mateless mother by establishing a home for her daughter Pearl in Massachusetts Bay Colony and by working as a seamstress and nurse. Amid misogyny, social ostracism, and prolonged loneliness, she liberates herself during a daily test of forbearance by refusing to be judged and intimidated, much like the heroines of medieval hagiography.

Female gothic themes suited the writers of new HERO stories. The Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston battled Chinese patriarchy in a gothic saga, The Woman Warrior (1975), which immortalizes the female fighter against repression, female servility, foot binding, and the stoning of a madwoman during the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, China, during the winter of 1937-38. A healer like Hester Prynne, the midwife Brave Orchid challenges ghosts at a bridge, a symbol of the Chinese woman’s difficult crossing from victim of male hypocrisy to self-actualization. The interpolated tale of Fa Mu Lan, an epic woman hero, supplies survival tactics that empower women, who arm themselves for opposition by sharing talk-stories.

In 1986, the French Caribbean writer MARYSE CONDE published a Caribbean version of the female hero story: Moi, Tituba, sorciere noire Salem (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), a biography of victimization during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A black slave living far from her former home in Barbados, Tituba honors a matrilineage of female persecutions that include the burning of an African village and the stabbing of a grandmother who refused to enter the hold of a slaver’s vessel.

In 1998, Barbara Kingsolver created the durable Orleanna Price, a missionary’s wife, in The Poisonwood Bible, an American’s glimpse of the emergence of the Belgian Congo out of imperial control. The text conjures horror stories of the fate of former European colonies as they pass into the hands of indigenous exploiters and despots, bringing female gothic literature into the late 20th century.


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Beckford, William. Vathek. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Campion, Jane. The Piano. New York: Miramax Books, 1995.

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Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Melville, Herman. Piazza Tales. New York: Dix &

Edwards, 1856.

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Nourjahad. Philadelphia: Hickman & Hazzard, 1822. Tardivel, Jules-Paul. For My Country. Translated by

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