The Nature of Gothic Fiction
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
What, then, can we say of the Gothic school, if school it was? One of the standard affirmations is that it is a subset of the Romantic movement or that it is somehow “pre-Romantic.” I believe we have learned enough of the particulars of some of the leading Gothic novels—and, more relevantly, the stated goals of some of the leading novelists—to make one have at least a few reservations on this point. If we maintain that the fundamental characteristics of Romanticism are 1) its repudiation of classical didacticism, 2) its expression of high or extreme emotion unfettered by classical restraint or reason, 3) fragmentation of the narrative flow by abandonment of classical “unities” and other elements of rigid formalism, and 4) a general appeal to irrationalism (in this case signalled by a wallowing in mediaevalism), then we can quickly conclude (as Elizabeth R. Napier has shown in her pioneering study, The Failure of Gothic) that Gothicism adopted these traits only sporadically and tentatively.
Even if Walpole consciously eschewed classicism when writing The Castle of Otranto, he seems to have done so largely out of a spirit of boredom with the mundane realism of Fielding and Smollett, and we have seen that his repudiation of classical rationalism is ambiguous at best; the very fact that he adopted a mediaeval setting for his work allowed him to preserve the rationalism of his own age. And there is, as Napier has demonstrated, plenty of didacticism of a largely classical sort in the work of Walpole, Reeve, and Radcliffe, and we can see heavy-handed moralism also at work in the major novels of Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Maturin. The narrative fragmentation that we find in some of the novels of the period—especially those that, like Reeve’s The Old English Baron, purport to be mediaeval manuscripts—is frequently on a relatively superficial level, and even these novels generally conform to classical notions of unity and closure. In the end it may be undeniable that the Gothic novel is indeed some kind of subset of or antecedent to Romanticism, but its relationship to the leading Romantic works and authors is tangential at best.
In a very real sense, the Gothic novel is just as much an “anticipation” of the true history of the supernatural in literature as the works I discussed in the previous chapter; for, as I will argue in Chapter V, the genre genuinely commenced only with the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The reasons for this are many, and in large part have to do with the embarrassing absence of literary merit in the works in question. Napier has forthrightly exhibited the many aesthetic deficiencies of even the leading Gothic novels, especially in regard to issues such as the convincing portrayal of history and the depiction of character. In reality, there are very few memorable characters in Gothic fiction, even among the great villains like Manfred, Montoni, or Schedoni; indeed, it is a fundamental mistake to believe that the Gothic novel made any serious attempt to explore the complexity of human character on a psychological level. Long ago, Robert Kiely stated that “It is one of the pervading characteristics of all Gothic fiction—and initially one of its failings—that individual personality is subordinated to physical setting” (The Romantic Novel in England 41), and Eino Railo had largely made the same point even earlier, showing that the Gothic castle was a more impressive “character” than any of the actual figures placed within it. At the same time, it becomes difficult in many instances to see the Gothic castle or abbey as somehow symbolic of mental or psychological states. The standard assertion that the ruined castle stands for the fragmented nature of the disturbed protagonist’s psyche sounds good on paper but is hard to apply in specific instances. With the exception of Frankenstein, Melmoth the Wanderer, and a few others, psychological analysis was not a strong suit with the Gothic writers.
In regard to supernaturalism, the resolute anthropocentrism of even the most imaginative of Gothic scenarios should be noted. Everything revolves around the human characters on stage. There are, strikingly, no genuine “monsters” in Gothic fiction: even Frankenstein’s creature is merely a humanoid creature made up of disparate human parts. The threshold of death is, indeed, the most significant supernatural element utilised in those Gothic novels that are in fact supernatural, and in many that are not, whether it be the quest for eternal life exemplified by Godwin’s St Leon or Maturin’s Melmoth, or the death-in-life of Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, or the real or fake revenants of Reeve, Radcliffe, and many others. Perhaps it was not to be expected that the early Gothic novelists would extend their supernatural imaginations beyond the human form, but in this aspect as in so many others it was Poe who proved to be the pioneer.
As I have stated, the Gothic novel expired through surfeit and mediocrity. Indeed, it was the very fact that so many writers attempted—and, by and large, failed—to create horror in the space of a novel that led to their downfall; for, as Sir Walter Scott noted in “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,” “it is evident that the exhibition of supernatural appearances in fictitious narrative ought to be rare, brief, [and] indistinct” (273)—a formula that reduces the Gothic novel (at least of the supernatural variety) to an oxymoron. Since the emotion of terror is difficult or impossible to maintain over the length of a novel, the works in question (as so many others in later years, down to our own day) devolve into suspense novels with occasional supernatural interludes; only rare works like The Monk, Frankenstein, and Melmoth the Wanderer contain a supernatural idea with sufficiently complex ramifications as to require a novel for its execution. By the early nineteenth century, it appears that a number of writers began to come to a realisation of the truth of this axiom, and as a result they increasingly explored supernaturalism in both poetry and in short fiction. It is to these predecessors of Poe that we turn our attention.