Friday, 2 February 2007
4am and I've finished the bugger!
The distinctive features of the Gothic may be defined as a series of strategies – partly revelatory, partly evasive – for dealing with tabooed material. Discuss with reference to one or more novels of the period.
“The Gothic” in art and culture has many manifestations, but this essay will be concerned with the Gothic novel, which was at its height in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I will be using, as a point of reference, The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, who is described in The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature as the “leading practitioner” in the genre. I intend to explore the distinctive features of the Gothic in relation to this question by seeking definitions for both the Gothic and taboo, by examining how the novel is narrated and also by seeking other features of the Gothic which are not mentioned.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms writes of the Gothic novel as being “a story of terror and suspense,” and terror and suspense in literature are indeed partly achieved by strategies of narration which involve a combination of revelation and evasion. Graham claims that “the principal source of terror is ignorance,” but I would argue that the principal source of terror is actually partial knowledge: the knowledge of something fearful and yet the absence of knowledge of its particulars, its extent or how to prepare for it. Radcliffe makes ample use of this in The Italian. She tells us that Marchesa began “inducing him (Schedoni) to believe that she had relinquished all further design against Ellena,” (p. 345) thus informing us that the Marchesa is plotting without telling us what it is that she is plotting. Similarly, Olivia says to Ellena: “Imagination cannot draw the horrors of – But, my sister, let me repeat that I would save you!” (p. 113) This is a typical example of Radcliffe’s employing both revelation and evasion, with Olivia’s interrupting herself because of her reluctance to speak. This technique is applied throughout the novel, not just in dealing with tabooed material, and so I would argue that its principal function is creating narrative tension and instilling fear into the reader.
One aspect of the novel in which this technique is most apparent is that of what Miles terms “the explained supernatural.” Vivaldi suspects he is encountering supernatural forces throughout: “Nor did these particular circumstances accord, as he was inclined to believe, with the manner of a being of this world” (p. 367), but Radcliffe always provides a rational explanation eventually. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms contrasts this with other Gothic writers who, “like M. G. Lewis in The Monk (1796), made free use of ghosts and demons along with scenes of cruelty and horror.” It then goes on to point out that the term “Gothic” was originally applied to medieval architecture and thus associated with superstition. Superstition, then, is a fundamental aspect of the Gothic novel and it naturally lends itself to narrative techniques of revelation and evasion.
The supernatural is also, of course, itself a taboo. The Oxford Dictionary of English Literature defines a taboo as something “prohibited or restricted by social custom.” It is therefore a social construct, with a specific function. Firth wrote that this function was social control, while Douglas saw it as “a social marker, creating and maintaining social classifications.” A Dictionary of Sociology claims that the most “famous” taboo is that of incest, and that, according to Freud and Lévi-Strauss, “society itself originated with the incest taboo.” If incest is such a fundamental taboo and taboo is such a fundamental aspect of the Gothic, it is curious that incest should be so absent from The Italian. Miles does point out, however, that Schedoni’s possession of his sister-in-law is “a kind of incest.” Moreover a single definition of taboo may not be adequate. It is worth considering that the word “taboo” derives from the Tongan ‘tabu,’ which means ‘sacred’ or ‘inviolable.’ For this reason, The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language provides quite a different definition: “In language terms, something taboo is not to be mentioned, because it is ineffably holy or unspeakably vulgar.” Taboo, then, can apply to the religious as well as to the socially unacceptable.
Religious taboos abound in The Italian. Graham describes the novel as being almost a work of “anti-Catholic propaganda,” and this view is certainly justified when one considers the presentation of the clergy and the Inquisition. Anti-Catholic propaganda published in a Protestant country would not necessarily be a taboo, but at times it seems that Radcliffe’s implied criticisms are not confined to the Catholic Church but extend to Christianity in general. “Barbarity of penance,” which in The Italian displays Schedoni’s pride (p. 262) is not exclusively Catholic, nor are “fierce ecclesiastics” whose behaviour contradicts the principles of Christianity (p. 347). The previous statement shows, however, that Radcliffe is not opposed to Christianity itself but rather to those within the Church who misuse it. Indeed, she provides two key examples of true religion as something undoubtedly positive with the characters of Olivia, whose “blue eyes were raised towards heaven, with such meek, yet fervent love, such sublime enthusiasm” (p. 102), and the abbess of the Santa della Pietà, whose religion is described as “neither gloomy nor bigoted; it was the sentiment of a grateful heart offering itself up to a Deity” (p. 347). Additionally, at San Stefano, Ellena finds that “the exercises of devotion seemed frequently to recal her fleeting spirits, and to elevate them with hope and courage” (p. 107). It is interesting to note that Radcliffe claims that it is the devotionals themselves which comfort Ellena, rather than the interference of God. The ambiguity about Radcliffe’s own beliefs is also apparent when the Marchesa sees “God hears thee!” on inscription over a confessional. Radcliffe writes that “it seemed to her an awful warning” (p. 205) but does not specify whether this is due to the Marchesa’s guilty conscience or whether it is truly a sign from God. It is possible that Radcliffe was disguising her own scepticism, at a time when she would have been criticised for expressing disbelief in Christian doctrine. In a sense, then, the religious taboos in the novel blend with the taboos of the society in which Radcliffe was writing.
However, the Gothic is not limited to tabooed material. The Gothic, like taboo, is not easy to define: it has many facets, and it would not be possible to explain all of them in an essay of this length. Miles briefly lists some of the “staple ingredients” thus: “a menacing castle; a villain; incest (near); rape (threatened); a ghost; labyrinths; plenty of ‘gloomth;’ a tyrannical father; an ineffectual mother; a scheming Catholic; and a happy couple.” In The Italian, we clearly have the villain, the near incest, labyrinths, ‘gloomth,’ the scheming Catholic and the happy couple. The castle is missing but the theme of imprisonment remains intact; the rape is wholly absent; the ghost likewise but Vivaldi often thinks himself to be encountering ghosts; and the tyrannical father/ineffectual mother are replaced by a very tyrannical mother and less tyrannical father. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature emphasises the importance of “enclosed and haunted settings such as castles, crypts, convents, or gloomy mansions, in images of ruin and decay, and in episodes of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution.” Here The Italian is a classic example, with the ruin of the home of Baróne di Cambrusca, the convent at San Stefano and the Inquisition itself, with its “subterranean chambers” and “dimly lighted” passages (p. 358). It is clear, then, both that The Italian conforms to the genre of the Gothic novel, and that the genre is a flexible one.
In conclusion, then, the Gothic novel’s distinctive features are not limited to narrative strategies and tabooed material. The Gothic genre comprises all of the above and more, for example Spencer notes an emphasis on “the heroine’s mind.” She goes on to say that “women are always represented as persecuted, deprived of power, and imprisoned, yet the places which confine them also protect them too. The heroine escapes from imprisonment into a natural world that symbolises her own free nature, the spiritual freedom which she maintains under physical oppression.” This leads to another regular feature of the Gothic novel: that of dramatic scenery, and the effect that nature has on characters. In The Italian, Ellena’s mind is “capable of being highly elevated, or sweetly soothed, by scenes of nature” (p. 106). Strategies of revelation and evasion in narration are indeed features of the Gothic novel, as is tabooed material. However, the narrative techniques not only deal with the taboo is a manner acceptable to an eighteenth or nineteenth century audience, but create much of the fear and suspense which is so central to a Gothic novel.
Word count: 1436
Radcliffe, A. The Italian, (London: Penguin Books, 2004)
Graham, K. Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, (New York: AMS Press, 1989)
Konigsberg, I. Narrative Techniques in the English Novel – Defoe to Austen, (Conneticut: Archen Books, 1985)
Spencer, J. The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986)
Tompkins, J. M S. “The Gothic Romance” in The Gothick Novel, ed. Victor Sage (Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press, 1990), p. 87-99
"Gothic fiction" The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t54.e2561)
"Gothic novel" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Christopher Baldick, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e421)
"Taboo" A Dictionary of Sociology. John Scott and Gordon Marshall, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t88.e2318)
"Taboo" The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t29.e1204)
"Taboo" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Ed. John Bowker, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t101.e7127)
"taboo” The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t140.e77971)
 "Gothic fiction," The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer, Oxford Reference Online
 "Gothic novel" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Christopher Baldick, Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e421)
 Kenneth W. Graham, Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression (New York: AMS Press, 1989)
 Robert Miles, ‘Introduction,’ in The Italian (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. xxvii
 "Gothic novel," The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
 "taboo” The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t140.e77971)
 "taboo" A Dictionary of Sociology. John Scott and Gordon Marshall. Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t88.e2318)
 “taboo,” A Dictionary of Sociology
 Miles, ‘Introduction,’ p. xxviii
 “taboo,” A Dictionary of Sociology
 "taboo" Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford Reference Online. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t29.e1204)
 Graham, Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, p. 6
 Miles, ‘Introduction,’ p. vii
 "Gothic fiction," The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature
 Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1986), p. 193
 Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, p. 194