Contents Index

The Survival of the Gothic

James M. Keech

Studies in the Novel, 6 (Summer 1974)

{130} Traditionally, the Gothic novel has been regarded as a work defined by its common elements, a sort of formula novel employing standard atmospheric trappings anal stereotyped characters. Conceptually, it has meant a set of stock devices used to evoke terror and horror: ruined castles and abbeys, dank dungeons, gloomy tyrants, mad monks, imperiled maidens, secret chambers, haunted galleries, creaking doors, mysterious portraits, ghosts, "skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms." Scholars, such as Tompkins, Summers, and Varma, have divided it into types: the historical Gothic, the terror Gothic, and the horror Gothic, or "Schauer-Romantik"; but it has rarely been seen beyond these types as any more significant than those "horrid" novels that captivated Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Reeking of excessive romanticism, employing farfetched terrors, such as Walpole's statue with the nosebleed, and beset with imitation rather than creative originality, the Gothic novel has been viewed as little more than a literary curiosity.

It is not my purpose to revaluate the worth of the Gothic novels of the past, though this in many ways needs to be done, for they have received short shrift for too long in the literary marketplace. Rather, in this essay, I intend to focus on some of the limitations of the traditional perspective of the Gothic novel which blinds us to its consideration as an element of the literary vision after 1820. The Gothic novel needs redefinition in order for this to be done.

Recently there have been attempts to expand the range of the Gothic novel's definition and to broaden its application. Lowry Nelson, Jr., and Robert D. Hume,1 for example, have seen such novels as Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, and Sanctuary, as falling within the Gothic mold. Both critics have, essentially, chosen to see the Gothic novel not so much as a set of rigid trappings and devices as an effect produced by certain {131} elements common to all Gothic novels. Though Nelson or Hume have not gone far enough in freeing the definition of the Gothic novel from its reliance upon traditional devices or in clarifying the distinction between the trappings and the effects these trappings produce, they have made significant steps toward a needed rethinking of what is called Gothic in fiction.

Basically, the Gothic novel should be seen as attempting to evoke a particularized response, and its stock devices as merely one means to that end. All literary artists attempt to involve the reader in a series of manipulated responses leading, hopefully, to an overall effect. The devices they use, call them setting, plot, character, imagery, shape the work to provoke that desired cumulative response. The response of the Gothic novel is fear, universally inherent in every man's nature, primitive and basic, and existing regardless of time, place, or culture. Imitation has rendered the traditional castle and Byronic villain, along with clanking ghosts, dungeons, and skeletons, as a hackneyed method of approaching that fear; and time, too, has changed the nature of what we regard as fearful. Certainly, at one time however, the stock devices worked. The early Gothic novels of the romantic period were not necessarily regarded as belonging to an inferior type of fiction. Until the flood of inferior Gothic imitations of the 1780-90s made the type recognizable and their inferior quality made them laughable enough to be ridiculed, as in Northanger Abbey, the first Gothic novels affected their readers with genuine power. Thomas Gray was made afraid of sleep at night by reading The Castle of Otranto; Byron called Vathek his Bible; Ann Radcliffe's novels established her to the age as a major novelist; Coleridge gave The Monk serious critical consideration in The Critical Review and thought it the "offspring of no common genius"; and genuine originality and serious literary skills were noted in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer. That their power and emotional force can still be felt, in part, today gives added weight to the need for legitimate recognition of the Gothic as a meaningful literary experience.

The best of the Gothic novels were, and still are in part, successful works of art because they produced a universal and enduring response that is also inherent in later literature of Gothic nature: in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, Absalom, Absalom! and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The element common to all these is not a set of stock devices but the production of an effect of fear and foreboding that carries the reader to the realm of the nightmare by means of a variety of techniques of which the traditional Gothic trappings is but one. A definition of the Gothic novel should outline not the dated means but the simplest elements common to its effect.

{132} One of these common elements is the particular quality of the Gothic response of fear, a fear characterized by a necessary presentiment of a somewhat vague but nevertheless real evil. It is a fear of shadows and unseen dangers in the night. Explicitness runs counter to its effectiveness, for Gothic fear is not so much what is seen but what is sensed beyond sight. The fearful inventions of J. R. R. Tolkien's imagination in The Lord of the Rings, the Night Riders and Gollum for example, are perfect illustrations of the power of the impressionistic over the concrete. Always seen as vague shapes or veiled in nebulous shadows, Tolkien's evil creations are genuinely fearful, and they impart a decidedly Gothic aura to his trilogy. In similar fashion, the fear in a traditional Gothic novel is created not only by that which frightens, the darkness of the underground passageways in Otranto's castle when the maiden's lamp is accidentally extinguished, but by the foreboding that magnifies its dangers: Isabella's apprehensions of her fate if captured by Manfred in this darkness. It is not only Victor Frankenstein's horror at the monster's brutal murder of his brother, but the premonition of those future atrocities which the monster's anguished hatred is both capable and desirous of inflicting. In The Monk, this fear is created not by Ambrosio's acts of murder and rape alone, but also by the presentiment that his process of moral corruption will intensify with further dreadful consequences. Thus, fear in a Gothic novel moves beyond the concrete in allowing the imagination to build upon and shape foreboding outlines into a sustained fear which is verified periodically by peaks of intense concrete terror or horror.

This association of fear and foreboding is not merely that suspense and dread to be found in those Gothic novels typed under the novel of terror, namely the works of Walpole and Radcliffe. It is present there in various plenty, of course, but it forms a vital part of the response in those novels classified by Varma as the "Schauer-Romantik," or romance of horror: the novels of Lewis, Shelley, Maturin. Horror does not negate fear, though Mrs. Radcliffe felt it did: "Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. . . ."2 Rather, the repulsive horrors of Lewis, Shelley, and Maturin magnify the apprehensions that characterize Gothic fear. Agnes's awakening in the tomb and touching the maggots bred in the putrefied flesh of adjacent corpses brings shudders of disgust and repulsion to The Monk, but it does not eliminate the dreaded fears of the future horrors that she might experience. Agnes can still suffer and the Prioress of St. Clare is still frighteningly capable of further atrocities. The mind is not closed by horror to the vicarious experience of the sublimity of fearful apprehensions (except to the reader who at this point closes the novel and {133} reads no more), but rather enlarged by a greater intensity. The real distinction between novels of terror and of horror is not a difference in kind but in degree. D. P. Varma implies that the nature of the difference lies in their degree of intensity: "The difference between Terror and Horror is in the difference between awful apprehensions and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling upon a corpse."3 Horror is not the finality of terror, but the magnification of it. Though we may be thoroughly shocked by man's, or a monster's, hitherto undreamt of acts, we also stand in greater fearful awe of the limits further acts may approach. The horrible sufferings of Moncada in Melmoth the Wanderer do not end the reader's fears, but build them toward some awful crescendo that promises to reveal what man's final capacity for inflicting horror will be.

Indeed, the fearful response in the better Gothic novels is marked by the common element of intensity. They depict violations of moral and religious norms that are fearful by their excess. The acts that create fear and presage even more in the Gothic novel are supreme. They are grievous sins, not mere wrongs -- the worst of what man or devil is capable. They stem not from accident or simple human frailty or corruption, but from an agency evaluated by the reader's moral perspective as approaching the ultimate in evil. The Gothic novel, therefore, deals not with gambling, thievery, or simple murder, but with matricide, rape, incest (The Monk); murders of innocent children and virginal brides (Frankenstein); blasphemy, infectious spiritual pollution, and damnation (Vathek, Melmoth the Wanderer, Dracula).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the best and most intense of Gothic novels employ hero-villains of Promethean proportions, giants among mortal men in their strength, in the intensity of their emotions, in their faculty for evil. They evoke terror not only by what they do but also by the presentiment of their dreadful capacities. Manfred, in The Castle of Otranto, fails materially to intensify the novel's effect, for he is merely a bad man, incapable of reaching beyond petty intrigue and impulsive murder. But Ann Radcliffe's Montoni in The Mysteries of Udolpho is truly fearful, for we sense that he is capable of extraordinary acts of human depravity. Shelley's monster, Maturin's Melmoth, and Stoker's Dracula are even more frightening, for, possessed of supernatural abilities, they possess a propensity for malevolence that exceeds human comprehension.

Though the better Gothic novels possess such Promethean hero-villains, they should not be seen as a basic defining characteristic of the Gothic, but merely a device for creating a high level of intensity of effect. Not all Gothic novels use them. They do not appear in The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, and Vathek, but the response of fear is still evoked, {134} though at a somewhat lower level of intensity than, say, Melmoth. Any agency of absolute power would suffice to produce a similar intensity of fear, and the Inquisition was frequently so used in the Gothic novel, for example in The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer.

Attendant to those novels that employ the hero-villain protagonist is the problem of what Robert Hume calls "moral ambiguity," a confusion in the reader's moral evaluation of the protagonist because of the coexistence of malevolent values and admirable heroic qualities. Though the reader may reject the evil the villain embodies, he is fascinated by his heroic greatness: by Montoni's strength of will and defiance of conventional moral and legal restraints, by Frankenstein's monster's alienation and superhuman physical powers, by Melmoth's tragic capacity for cynical suffering. This moral ambiguity imparts to the Gothic novel a greater complexity and dimension, and removes those novels which possess it from the morass of shallow sensationalism which is the major raison d'etre of the inferior novel. It is not necessary for moral ambiguity to be present for a novel to be Gothic: there is no moral doubt of Dracula's status as monster, pure and simple. Ambrosio is also obviously corrupt and contemptible. But it seems vital for a great Gothic novel, accounting in great measure for the serious literary consideration given Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer.

The term "Gothic," as I see it, consequently means a response, or effect, of fear characterized by foreboding and intensity rather than a set of traditional stock devices. The devices are merely a time-honored method of producing the effect with a minimum of artistic originality. Unfortunately, the word will never, perhaps, divorce itself from this association with ruined castles, graveyards, skeletons, ghosts, and imperiled maidens. It will always mean to some the stock elements. Perhaps, the modifier "traditional" should be used in conjunction with "Gothic" to imply, with some pejorative associations of imitative and hackneyed, the stock devices, and the term "Gothic" alone used to imply the response. Certainly, such a practice would emphasize that the traditional trappings are not necessary for a novel to be Gothic, but the response is, and it would distinguish between works which are Gothic by device, such as The Old English Baron, and works which are Gothic by effect, such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Nevertheless, though the stock devices are neither primary nor exclusive to the Gothic novel, they cannot be dismissed, for their use does reflect another common element vital to the Gothic response. In order for the abbey, tower, tomb, skeleton, or ghost to activate the imagination and evoke the sense of fear, an appropriate atmosphere must be created. This atmosphere is primary to the necessary effect. With the proper atmosphere a child's playhouse can be chillingly terrifying and a castle safe, {135} warm, beautiful, and romantic. Robert Hume has perceptively noted that "The key characteristic of the Gothic novel is not its devices, but its atmosphere . . . The setting exists to convey the atmosphere."4

The essential nature of the atmosphere which produces the Gothic response is ominousness. Redolent of isolation, evil, death, the images which convey this ominousness are those of darkness, danger, grotesqueness, and gloom. To the romantic sensibilities of the early Gothic novelists, medieval castles and wild scenery suggested this atmosphere, but it is by no means inherent solely in them. A scientist's laboratory, through emphasis of the proper atmosphere, can be just as Gothic as the Castle of Montoni:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that 1 might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open. . .5
In similar fashion, though the ostensible framework for Vathek is oriental, its basic character, as established by its atmosphere, is essentially Gothic:
A death-like stillness reigned over the mountain and through the air; the moon dilated on a vast platform the shades of the lofty columns, which reached from the terrace almost to the clouds; the gloomy watch-towers, whose number could not be counted, were covered by no roof; and their capitals, of an architecture unknown in the records of the earth, served as an asylum for the birds of night, which, alarmed at the approach of such visitants, fled away croaking.
The more pervasive this ominous atmosphere and the greater its consistency of mood, the greater the sense of the Gothic response to the work. Manfred's dungeons in The Castle of Otranto are only mildly ominous: the passageways are intricate, silent, windy, dark, and ultimately "dismal," but so scant is the atmospheric detail that the novel's force is weakened. In comparison, the catacombs in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" are the essence of Gothic fear: dark, damp with dripping nitre, filled with skeletons and air so foul that torches glow instead of burn. The images that produce the atmosphere are so plentiful and so orchestrated in their connotative harmony that the story produces that supreme single effect that Poe demanded from a short story. Thus the extent of the development of atmosphere will, more than any other element, {136} determine the placement of a work in the Gothic category, for it is the key distinguishing mark of the Gothic response.

Other key elements of the Gothic are certain basic characters or agents. These characters are not so much stereotypes as embodiments of traits whose conflict produces the feelings of apprehension and fear. First, there must be at least one character or agency, such as the hero-villain or the Inquisition, whose essence is unrestrained power or force or passion; and, secondly, at least one character who embodies meekness or helplessness and serves as the artistic surrogate for the reader's feelings of inadequacy. The agent of power is the focal point of the Gothic novels production of apprehensive fear. His powers may stem from the human resources of strength, will, or intelligence, such as the powers of Manfred, Vathek, and Montoni, or they may be supernatural in origin, as are the powers of Ambrosio, Frankenstein's monster, Melmoth, and Dracula. In either case these powers are extraordinary and awesome. They are also powers either partially or totally perverted, even if innocent of conscious evil intent, as is Victor Frankenstein's pursuit of the secret of life. Only evil or misfortune comes from the exercise of these extraordinary powers, for some sort of moral corruption is at their core.

The character, or agent, or power appears magnified by his opposite, the character who represents helplessness, usually the persecuted maiden in the traditional Gothic novel but who can be any sort of victimized humanity. His helplessness stems either from the contrast of his ordinary mortality in conflict with superhuman powers or his meekness or vulnerability in conflict with greater human resources. This character reflects a moral norm which the reader finds acceptable, and consequently his persecution and his injuries seem terrifying or horrible when there is a shocking discrepancy between his moral position and undeserved calamities. This character's humanity and acceptable moral position enable the reader to identify with him and thus be drawn vicariously into the victim's world of fear and undeserved evil. There he finds himself in the frightening uncertainty of what appears to be a moral no-man's-land where ethical values and moral laws have no apparent weight, where the powerful ignore such standards with an ease and absence of conscience that bring the very validity or existence of the moral laws into question. If this process of victimization by the powerful is extended far enough, as it is in The Monk, Frankenstein, Melmoth, and in Dracula, the ultimate Gothic fear is momentarily reached, that surrealistically horrible recognition of a world of moral chaos where only power has meaning.

These, then, as I view them, are the basic defining characteristics of the Gothic novel: it evokes fear characterized by foreboding and intensity; this fear is created by an atmosphere of ominous detail and by the frightening supremacy of power and evil over weakness and good. If the {137} concept of the Gothic can be divorced from the traditional reliance upon definition by stock devices, the word "Gothic" becomes liberated and timeless. It can be applied to identify minor effects or the essence of whole works, from the eighteenth century to the present. It also enables us to perceive something thematically meaningful in the writer's perception of terror and horror that goes beyond mere sensationalism, the traditionally regarded graveyard for the early Gothic novelists' attempts to approach sublimity through fear.

I suggest that the Gothic as a literary response neither ended with Maturin, nor did it degenerate further into the drugstore book-racks as cheap popular literature. Rather, I believe, serious novelists, after the traditional Gothic novel had ended its vogue, recognized something aesthetically meaningful in the Gothic novel: that it conveyed a universal and timeless response that could be used as a metaphor with thematic weight. Indeed, traditional Gothic novels such as Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer employ the Gothic scene as metaphor. Mary Shelley used it to characterize the moral horror of Victor Frankenstein's experiments, and Maturin used the Gothic as a thematic reflection of the dark horror of spiritual despair. Later novelists, though not known as writers of Gothic novels, for example the Brontës, Dickens, Conrad, Wells, Faulkner, have utilized the Gothic response for thematic emphasis.

The Victorian novelists first saw the literary potential of the Gothic effect separated from its traditional heritage. Charlotte Brontë, perhaps more unconsciously than voluntarily, sensed within the Gothic novel certain symbolic elements that would convey thematic meanings of power, fear, and awe within a more realistic background. Mr. Rochester, ugly, powerful, willfully defying convention and law in his passionate love for Jane, is in direct descendency from Manfred, Montoni, and Melmoth. This Gothic hero-villain symbolized for Charlotte Brontë the power of the masculine essence and its sexual force: dominating, ugly yet fascinating, instilling a fearful helplessness in the female. In her novel Gothic fear metaphorically imparts a thematic moral perspective of complete free will divorced from social duty. Emily Brontë's Heathcliff is also a symbolic embodiment of power, will, sexual force, and passion -- as perfect a Byronic hero-villain as any in a traditional Gothic novel. It is Heathcliff as Gothic villain, who stands as her central metaphor for fearful sexual passion, perhaps even a reflection of the subconscious sexual yearnings of Emily Brontë's own dark Id.6

Charles Dickens also utilized the Gothic effect for its metaphorical meanings of fear and horror. Dickens was drawn not by the symbolic power or sexual energy inherent in the hero-villain, but by the metaphorical connotations of Gothic atmosphere. There is, however, a difficulty in determining Dickens's conscious use of the Gothic in his novels, for his {138} symbolic atmosphere is complex, blending social misery with Gothic effect in such a way that it becomes impossible to separate his vision of bleak misery, imprisoned humanity, and spiritual poverty from that of horror and terror. The images of misery and Gothic fear are similar: decay, death, darkness, disease; they belong as much to slums such as Tom-all-Alone's as they do to castles and dungeons. There are occasions in Dickens's novels, however, when he seemed to be consciously thinking in terms of the traditional Gothic effect. This Gothic strain in Dickens's work runs from the inset stories of Pickwick Papers to the ominous cathedral crypt and tower of Edwin Drood: in the undertaker's shop and city slums of Oliver Twist; in the miserly decay of Scrooge's office of A Christmas Carol; in Krook and his shop, in the Ghost's Walk of Bleak House; in the grotesque specimens of Mr. Venus of Our Mutual Friend; in the gloomy prison of the Clennam house of Little Dorrit; and especially in Satis House of Great Expectations. In evoking the Gothic response to these settings, Dickens used thematic atmosphere to imply that fear and foreboding are integral elements of a society which esteems self or money more than people. The reader's expected shudder when encountering these settings of Dickens was to be one of moral horror, in the reflection that the Gothic was not necessarily an imaginary fancy in a cheap novel but a part of the very nature of normal society.

This influence of the Gothic novel upon the Brontës and Dickens has long been recognized; but, once this recognition has been noted and suitably filed in the correct pigeonhole of literary history, analysis of the author's purposeful uses of the Gothic fails to follow. The Gothic has, quite simply, too frequently been regarded as an end in itself. Thus the thematic intentions of the novelist's Gothic effects, that metaphorical equation through device and atmosphere of the fearful in the Gothic world and the fearful in his own world, becomes ignored. It is this thematic function of the Gothic that needs to be recognized in the fiction not generally associated with the Gothic tradition.

This metaphorical function of the Gothic becomes even more unnoticed in modern novels which produce the Gothic response without employing the traditional devices. It is with these works that a definition of the Gothic based on effect becomes critically meaningful. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example, is a novel colored throughout by a sense of the Gothic; and Kurtz's whispered cry," 'The horror! The horror!'" at the thematic climax of the novel, precisely focuses the novel's essence. Heart of Darkness is a novel of Gothic horror.

Though it has no tormented victim and no Promethean villain of power (unless Kurtz can be seen as filling both roles simultaneously), the novel's atmosphere is profoundly Gothic. This atmosphere serves as an extended metaphor to characterize the dark submerged bestiality at the {139} core of man's biological nature as fearful and horrible. Marlowe's search for Kurtz is like that of Browning's Childe Roland for the dark tower: a mythic quest through a frightening symbolic wasteland dominated by Gothic scenery which impressionistically imparts the work's theme. Atmosphere in Heart of Darkness is symbolically meaningful, and that atmosphere is decidedly and consistently Gothic.

The novel opens with the contrast of the morally neutral sea, luminous in the evening haze, with the land, long tainted by the darkness of man's potential for brutality: "The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth." The symbolic landscape is further developed into a Gothic metaphor with Marlowe's summation of the historical heritage of England hidden behind its present civilized facade:

"And this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth . . . I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago. . . The very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke. . . . Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages -- precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay-cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death -- death sulking in the air, in the water, in the bush."
This Gothic atmosphere metaphorically imparts its foreboding to all segments of Marlowe's quest: to the vision of the African river on the map as "an immense snake uncoiled . . . its tail lost in the depth of the land"; to the Belgian trading company on "a narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses . . . a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones," with its fatal women "guarding the door of darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall"; to the dark continent itself with its sense of decayed civilization imparted by ruined machinery, enslaved natives, solitude, and silence.

The forest itself is the principal Gothic metaphor in the novel, for its darkness, fearful and fascinating, conceals the mystery of Kurtz and of man that Marlowe seeks. The forest is the equivalent of the Gothic agent of power, suggesting the very strength of those primal urges to which Kurtz succumbs: "The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight was like a rioting-invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence." Above all, the forest, symbol of concealment and strength, is fearful; for its black shadows hide mys- {140} teries far more ominous than those behind The Mystery of Udolpho's black veiled recess: "the forest, the Creek, the mud, the river -- seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart."

Heart of Darkness is a Gothic novel. It is not traditional; it has no castles and dungeons, no skeletons and ghosts; but it fully embodies what is basically Gothic: apprehensive fear, ominous atmosphere, the sense of frightening power inherent in evil. Conrad saw this evil as an inherent part of man, not in a collection of literary trappings, and metaphorically used the Gothic effect in a meaningful way as the major symbolic force in his novel.

The fiction of William Faulkner has similar Gothic elements. Indeed, Faulkner was primarily regarded in the 1930s as a follower of Poe and Ambrose Bierce.7 Though this was a narrow perspective, the early critics of Faulkner perceived, even if they did not value, the Gothic strain that underlies much of Faulkner's chronicle of Yoknapatawpha County. An examination of the Gothic in his novels would show that Faulkner, rather than creating mere gory sensation, was artistically utilizing the Gothic to capitalize upon a stock response that metaphorically emphasizes the innate horror underlying certain aspects of Southern tradition.

Malcolm Cowley, in his famous introduction to The Portable Faulkner, first recognized this purposeful use of Gothic materials. In discussing Absalom, Absalom! he said: "It seems to belong in the realm of the Gothic romances, with Sutpen's Hundred taking the place of the haunted castle on the Rhine, with Colonel Sutpen as Faust and Charles Bon as Manfred. Then slowly it dawns on you that most of the characters and incidents have a double meaning; that besides their place in the story, they also serve as symbols or metaphors with a general application."8 These applications are varied, but they do form discernible thematic patterns in Faulkner's work.

One pattern can be noted in Faulkner's use, as metaphor, of an equivalent of the Gothic castle or haunted abbey: the ruined Southern antebellum mansion, such as the houses of Emily Grierson, Thomas Sutpen, Joanna Burden, the Compsons, the McCaslins, and the old Frenchman place. Each suggests a conventional Gothic device, yet the complex metaphorical implications go much further toward the suggestion of themes. The atmosphere of romantic decay accompanying the traditional device thematically conveys the sense of decline of the South's vanished glory, implying the need for the region to recognize the advent of a new age and to accept a new culture based on new values. Tragically, perhaps, neither the Compsons nor Emily Grierson can, and their Gothic houses symbolize the unyielding heritage of the past that plagues the {141} South. But also, like the grandeur of a medieval castle, these mansions also convey other meanings: the worthy essence of a chivalric tradition, that gentleman's code of honor of the Compsons and Sartorises, which is crumbling under the less noble values of industrialization and the morally corrupt entrepreneurship symbolized by the rising Snopeses. There is also associated with these mansions a latent horror, a kind of Gothic curse, arising from their associations with slavery. The symbolic ghosts that haunt Sutpen's Hundred and the ledgers of the McCaslins are as fearful in their moral implications as the literal specters of Gothic galleries. The attitude toward the black man that evolved from slavery was the curse that doomed Thomas Sutpen, Joanna Burden, and Joe Christmas and which torments their descendants. The atmosphere surrounding the Gothic architectural setting was the perfect metaphor for Faulkner to use to convey the shadowy sense of doom and terror underlying Southern values.

The Gothic villain is another Gothic device that Faulkner employs for symbolic implications. As Robert Hume has argued, Sanctuary's Popeye is the impotent, vicious monster symbolic of the inescapable evil in life? Thomas Sutpen, a more classic hero-villain of the Byronic stamp, represents the heroic will needed to create a civilization from raw wilderness, but he also serves as a metaphor symbolizing the fearful elements of Southern values: the self-destructive moral rigidity, the inhumanity of the South's caste system, the failure to acknowledge the brotherhood of all men because of race. Like Melmoth and Heathcliff, Thomas Sutpen belongs to the hazy regions of moral ambiguity. He is a gloriously dynamic mixture of admiration and Gothic horror who symbolized the ambiguity of the South, for Quentin Compson and also for William Faulkner.

The Gothic in nontraditional literature has, therefore, become a means of evoking a response, both emotional and moral, to those aspects of life which we fear, or ethically should fear, most. To the Brontës and Dickens Gothic fear was equated with sexual energy and inhuman materialism. To Conrad it was an integral element in the nature of man, and to Faulkner it was slavery and the distorted values of caste and honor. It may be interesting to now ask: what major fears of today find symbolic reflection as Gothic metaphors in our current fiction, and what does their use tell us about the way current novelists view contemporary society? Since the Gothic has become a metaphor for the ominous, destructive forces in life, the Gothic in today's art forms will point a finger of moral condemnation at those fearful elements of life that make man seem the impotent victim of the currently terrifying.

Novelists of today, I feel, find the Gothic responses of horror in an increasingly complex and amoral technology, in giant industry, giant {142} government, and giant bureaucracy. When millions can die with the push of a single button on a machine, or fall victim to the perversity of a computer, or sense the very air they breathe is toxic, the Gothic becomes an apt evaluation for the nature of existence. The ordinary man is seen as a powerless victim of life's incomprehensible forces. The Byronic hero-villain recedes as an object of fear to be replaced by abstract agencies, evoking a correspondent Gothic horror, which, though more vague, are just as powerful, frightening, and inhuman. Instead of Manfreds, Montonis, and Melmoths, the new evil forces in life given Gothic substance by modern novelists are Big Brother government, scientifically controlled humanity, the suppression of individual freedom in a world grown too complex for ordinary comprehension.

Science, with its nuclear bombs and nerve gases, is one of today's monsters. The relationship between science and the Gothic response is an old one, existing as early as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and continuing through nineteenth-century fiction with Wilkie Collins's depiction of the horrors of vivisection in Heart and Science and H. G. Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau. A Gothic atmosphere was thus seen very early as a means of symbolically expressing the cold objectivity of science and the sense of fearful power resident in the control of natural forces. In the twentieth century, this attitude toward science has been coupled with an awareness of the basic inhumanity of man's institutions; and novelists' projections of the future, in such novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and occasionally in Brave New World, significantly impart a sense of Gothic gloom and apprehension to their political-technological antiutopias. Each novel opens with the creation of a Gothic atmosphere which shapes initial attitudes to the narrative that follows: Fahrenheit 451 with a glimpse of lurid, fiery destruction; Brave New World with the Central London Hatchery, a cold, grey skyscraper equivalent of the Gothic castle; and Nineteen Eighty-Four with scenes of ruin and decay. In addition, each novel contains scenes of a clearly Gothic horror: the mechanical hound in Fahrenheit 451; the Pavlovian conditioning room in Brave New World; Winston Smith's tortures in the Ministry of Love in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thus each novel utilizes the metaphorical implications of the Gothic response thematically to project the sense of fear surrounding a future built upon our present tendencies and values.

Of the three novels, only Nineteen Eighty-Four can be called primarily Gothic, for only it contains all the elements necessary to place it within the Gothic type. The other novels use the Gothic as an occasional metaphor to suggest possible reactions to future life; Nineteen Eighty-Four sees a future under Big Brother government as synonymous with Gothic horror. Its passive victim is Winston Smith. Big Brother is the symbolic representative of ominous power. The prevailing atmosphere {143} is one of gloom, decay, and fear. Its horrors are equal to any in The Monk. For example, the apprehensive terror of Room 101 in the Ministry of Love builds to a crescendo of genuine Gothic horror:

"The rat," said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, "although a rodent is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town: In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless." There was an outburst of squeals from the cage. . ."I have pressed the first lever," said O'Brien. "You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap onto your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue."
With this response of absolute horror evoked, the Gothic is seen as the prevailing metaphor characterizing the nature of existence under the political system of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Undoubtedly, the Gothic will be used in other works as a metaphor for the scientific-bureaucratic future or for the present. Perhaps, like the absurd, it will become a dominant motif used to characterize perspectives of modern life by novelists who find our present existence not only meaningless but fearful or horrible. Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five for example, demonstrates how the two metaphors can operate concurrently. In a description of an Iron Maiden, Vonnegut imparts a brief but powerful moment of traditional horror, thematically establishing an historical precedent for man's brutal nature, which is further augmented by a flippant repeated phrase which emphasizes the absurdity of his concomitant callousness:

Weary's father once gave Weary's mother a Spanish thumbscrew in working condition -- for a kitchen paperweight. Another time he gave her a table lamp whose base was a model one foot high of the famous "Iron Maiden of Nuremburg." The real Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a woman on the outside -- and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then {144} close the door slowly. There were two special spikes where the eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood.

So it goes.

Certainly the. Gothic response offers significant potential to the modern writer, not only in conjunction with the absurd, but on its own as a metaphor of fear and horror. We have seen it advance from a perspective of the romantically fearful medieval past to a metaphor for contemporary evils and fears: sexual passion, materialism, the hereditary savagery of man. Today it reflects the individual's sense of impotence in a fearfully incomprehensible world. As a metaphor, the Gothic response is still alive and functioning with properly disturbing effectiveness.


1. Lowry Nelson, Jr., "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review 52 (Dec. 1962), 236-57: Robert D. Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA, 84 (March 1969), 282-90.

2. New Monthly Magazine, 8 (1826).

3. The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966), p. 130.

4. Hume, p. 286.

5. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

6. See Thomas Moser, "What Is the Matter with Emily Jane? Conflicting Impulses in Wuthering Heights," PMLA, 27 (June 1962), 1-19.

7. See Granville Hicks, "The Past and Future of William Faulkner," Bookman, 74 (Sept. 1931), 17-24.

8. (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 13.

9. Hume, p. 288.