In literature, "the gothic" broadly refers to works that emphasize or explore the supernatural or psychological in terms of a darker underside, works that embody a perspective of the world and/or human nature as fraught with uncertainty, dark forces – whether natural, supernatural, or human – beyond rational control, and danger both from without (from deceptive villains) and within (from immoral instincts and desires). More narrowly, the gothic refers to a literary movement emerging at the end of the eighteenth century in England with the publication of novels such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is often cited as the first Gothic novel. Read this introductory essay on the Gothic in the antebellum American short story.
"Gothic" is a term that has a great deal of flexibility and numerous references, from architecture to languages, letter fonts to post-punk youth subcultures and styles, etc. In literature, "the gothic" broadly refers to works that emphasize or explore the supernatural or psychological in terms of a darker underside, works that embody a perspective of the world and/or human nature as fraught with uncertainty, dark forces – whether natural, supernatural, or human – beyond rational control, and danger both from without – from deceptive villains – and within – from immoral instincts and desires. More narrowly, the gothic refers to a literary movement emerging at the end of the eighteenth century in England with the publication of novels such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is often cited as the first Gothic novel. In Walpole's novel, supernatural forces play a central role in the plot, but in the later works of Ann Radcliffe (most famously, perhaps, The Mysteries of Udolpho) from the 1790s, supernatural elements come to be explained as the malicious workings of villainous aristocrats or the failed perceptions of imperiled heroines. Similarly, in the contemporaneous works of William Godwin, such as Caleb Williams, supernatural forces are eschewed in favor of social critique, as the dark side of human nature and the dangers that main characters face emerge from an unjust political and economic system. These works were originally called Gothic because, as in Walpole's and Radcliffe's works, they were set in a late medieval period, a period already characterized as "Gothic" in terms of the ornate architecture of cathedrals, castles, and abbeys built during that time. Such settings feature prominently in many Gothic works; their intricate structure (hidden passages, the labyrinth, etc.), often become key plot devices. This medieval setting established a contrast for readers from the late Enlightenment with their own era and its emphasis on the power of reason and scientific explanation, a contrast that allowed authors to critique the superstition of the past or to expose the limits of rational or scientific explanation or, on occasion, to do both. The medieval setting also became a way to use continuing anti-Catholic sentiment in England (and the United States) that saw Catholicism as representing mystery, sensualism, misused power, and exotic ritual for accentuating Gothic themes.
The most important Gothic writer in the early United States was Charles Brockden Brown, who published four Gothic novels between 1798 and 1800 (Wieland 1798, Arthur Mervyn 1799-1800, Ormond 1799, and Edgar Huntly 1799). Rather than using medieval settings or ruined castles for establishing his atmosphere, Brown focused on the social and physical conditions of the new nation (yellow fever epidemics, political conspiracies, religious enthusiasm, Indian warfare, and immigration) and strange human capacities (sleepwalking, ventriloquism, etc.) in exploring, among other things, the limits of Enlightenment reason, the instability of knowledge, and the social effects of political upheaval and political institutions. Many American authors and critics during the first decades of the nineteenth century contended that Gothicism was foreign to the United States, because with its rational, democratic political structures and its lack of class distinctions and a dark historical past, the nation provided nothing but a vision of progressive improvement. Yet Gothic novels or novels with a number of Gothic elements by a variety of authors – John Neal perhaps most prolifically in the 1820s – appeared throughout the years before the Civil War as authors discovered a darker (or richer) historical past than others acknowledge, explored the underside of urbanization and capitalism, or plumbed the irrational depths of the psyche.
While the Gothic is perhaps most associated with the novel, for our purposes, we will focus on the development of the Gothic in the short story. Washington Irving's most famous stories, as described in the previous subunit, are often taken to inaugurate the short story genre in the U. S., readily draw on Gothic elements: mysterious or supernatural events (Rip van Winkle sleeping for twenty years), fears related to the supernatural (Ichabod Crane's obsession with witch stories and terror of the headless horseman), and settings with a mystical past detached from the present (the Dutch villages that remain outside American progress). While "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have, on the whole, a lighter tone, although with some melancholic shadows, the short stories of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville frequently display more sinister tones. As noted in the previous subunit, Poe defended his use of Gothic elements in terms of achieving popularity, but he also used the Gothic to explore deeper ideas concerning human psychology and metaphysical existence. For Poe, the Gothic features prominently in his exploration of intense psychological states, especially potentially more destructive emotions, as in famous stories such as "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Black Cat", and "The Tell-Tale Heart", stories which explore the motivations and feelings of either murderers or potential victims of violence. The titillating pleasure of the stories comes from projecting one's self into the position of the killers, even as the stories also work to create distance between us and the murderers by providing insights into how their obsessions, pride, and self-consciousness twist their reasoning so that they feel justified in their violence. As Poe explores in "The Imp of the Perverse", these stories also focus on a distinctly self-destructive element in the human psyche. Poe theorizes that perverse desire in some of his poetic theory, providing a rationale for the frequent appearance of dead women in his poetry and tales. While psychological and biological readings of these figures abound and seem to have firm ground in Poe's own history of losing women he loved, stories such as "Ligeia" hint, as his poetic theory does, that the longing for a dead beautiful women parallels or embodies a deeper metaphysical or spiritual desire for ultimate truth or dissolution of the self into a universal whole.
While most of Poe's short stories seem to have no distinct setting, either in terms of place or time, Hawthorne's most famous Gothic tales all take place in the historical past of New England, most often in reference to the first century of Puritan settlement. Hawthorne's great-grandfather, John Hathorne (Nathaniel added the "w" to the last name), was one of judges in the Salem witch trials, and beginning with Herman Melville, his work has often been read in terms of his Calvinist lineage of his Puritan past. Melville, in "Hawthorne and His Mosses", identifies Hawthorne's darkness with recognition of "that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin". For the Puritans, whose theology drew heavily on the work of John Calvin, humankind's spiritual condition was defined by our complete reliance on Christ's free gift of grace to redeem our utter sinfulness. According to such thought, since Adam's fall (Original Sin), we have all been born into sinfulness that we cannot escape (Innate Depravity). Because we are all condemned by our own innate sinfulness, none of us deserves anything other than damnation, and it is only through Christ's grace – his sacrifice – that a select few (the Elect) will be redeemed and will achieve salvation. Hawthorne was no Calvinist, but his stories seem to update central elements of Calvinist thought and its application by the Puritans – human moral frailty and inability to overcome those flaws completely, a tendency towards self-examination and judgment of others for those flaws – in more secular, psychological terms. Stories such as "Young Goodman Brown", thus, are probably best read as having less to do with theological issues concerning sin than with the psychology and morality of viewing one's self and others through the lens of sin.
Melville can also be seen as exploring the Calvinist legacy he identifies in Hawthorne, although his short stories perhaps go even further in blurring the boundaries between moral and immoral behavior. In stories such as "Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby the Scrivener", characters indirectly become agents of evil through their inability to perceive or react to evil or through their own seemingly moral impulses of charity and sympathy. In these and stories such as "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids", Melville begins to emphasize contemporary social and historical forces behind the Gothic in a manner that anticipates much literary criticism of the past few decades. Most literary criticism focusing on the Gothic throughout the twentieth century emphasized psychological or specifically psychoanalytic explanations of the supernatural or terrifying elements of the works. Ghosts, inexplicable events, various terrifying phenomena could be best understood, from such a perspective, as displaced concerns about psychological trauma or desires surging up from the unconscious. Such traumas or desires might be specific to the author's history (Poe's relationships with women proves particularly fruitful here) or might speak to more universal elements of the human psyche and its development. In the past few decades, however, academic critics have paid increasing attention to how the Gothic, especially in the U. S., might better be understood as reflecting, uncovering, or sublimating social and political trauma. Melville's stories most explicitly encourage such readings through their engagement with issues of slavery ("Benito Cereno") and capitalism ("Bartleby" and "Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids"). But critics such as Renee Bergland, Teresa Goddu, and Joan Dayan have demonstrated how issues of Indian removal and the expropriation of Indian lands, slavery and the violence of the slave system, fuel the psychological complexity and moral ambiguity of the antebellum American Gothic more broadly. From these various points of view, then, the Gothic can be understood as a complex, multivalent mode that draws on personal and social trauma in its exploration of the darker passions and inexplicable behavior of human existence that disturb any judgments based in morality and rationality.
Source: Saylor Academy
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