The progress of romance: literary historiography and the Gothic novel

1997 ChoiceReviews  
Thi s book has gone through many changes since its germination many years ago. I had become interested in the literary-historical aspects of my critical study of endings in didactic novels like Candide and Catch-22, and after that was published in 1974 I began wondering how much neater it might be to think about generic change in a genre that-unlike the apologue-had a real beginning, middle, and end. My original conception for the book, which I batted around with Sheldon Sacks before his death
more » ... n 1979, was of a straightforward history of the Gothic novel from the perspec tive of Chicago neo-Aristotelian critical discourse. But as I began working on that, I saw that, for all its merits, there was a great deal about the history of the Gothic that such a method would necessarily leave out. At first I be gan to see how reception theory provided a really necessary supplement to any specifically formalist approach, and later, after strongly resisting the claims of Marxist literary historiography, I came to understand in what ways that could enrich any understanding of how the cultural ground was pre pared for the Gothic, specifically why the Gothic arose around the time the Bastille fell. Finally I came to the Russian formalists, who had in many re spects anticipated by half a century what Ronald S. Crane, Sheldon Sacks, and Ralph Rader had taught me about literary history, but who were better able to express what happens when genres die, how in a strange afterlife they mutate into new forms, blend and merge, and even reemerge in later centu ries with different themes and techniques. Preface the imaginative play and escape that had formerly been confined to the "fe male reading" of the Gothic. Given the dominance of male over female ide ology, Scott (and the vogue of the historical novel) effectively killed off the Gothic as a genre; it was moribund by 1820. Chapter 6 takes up the question of the Gothic aftermath: the various off shoots of the Gothic novel. In one well-chronicled development, various elements of the Gothic novel-character types, situations, symbols, and so forth-begin to invade novels by realists of the "great tradition" like Eliot, James, and Conrad. In another, the Gothic develops literary progeny in the "horror story" beginning with the vogue of the literary ghost story in the fin de siecle in Stevenson, Wilde, James, and Stoker. In a third, the Gothic be comes the parent of other subliterary genres (science fiction, the mystery story, adult fantasy) emphasizing elements that had played a part in the origi nal genre. Here I suggest that the various forms of literary historiography, which had converged on the portrait of the Gothic in its original 1764-1820 vogue, diverge in their capacities to explain the later manifestations. (For ex ample, the causal relationships involved in the splitting off of science fiction from Gothic via Shelley's Frankenstein, or the detective story via the ex plained supernatural of Radcliffe, work best within a formalist perspective on literary historiography.) This chapter lays the groundwork for a sequel to 6 CHAPTER 1 successfully codifying games.) Thinking of the Gothic as a "game" with "rules" is an analogy that will eventually break down, but it can save us from making some strange assumptions. For one thing, there is no reason to sup pose that every convention of the Gothic will be unique to the Gothic, any more than the board used in chess is used solely in chess. And the history of some conventions supposedly typical of the Gothic, such as the storywithin-the-story, will be more accurately assessed if one remembers that nested narratives are used in non-Gothic early narrative from The Arabian Nights to Don Quixote. The Gothic as Feminist Charter It is no accident that, in recent days, the association of the Gothic with femi ninity has been reflected in the growing interest in the female Gothic, a term applied by Ellen Moers to Frankenstein (in Literary Women, 1976) and now used in any number of ways. It is applied to the works of Ann Radcliffe and her followers, more broadly to any romantic fiction by women, and fi nally to any fiction descended from the Gothic by its myriad lines of filia tion, from the Brontes to Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor to the nearly anonymous authors for Mills and Boon, and even at times to works by males who can be brought within the aegis of femininity. The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann Fleenor (1983), brought together essays from each of these groups, establishing a category that has been mined extensively ever since. 7 The most important of the many studies that take this line is surely The Madwoman in the Attic, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which can rightly be said to have instituted a revolution in feminist criticism. 8 The Mad woman in the Attic is not limited to traditional Gothic romance textsthough Gilbert and Gubar discuss at length Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and The Lifted Veil-but its ideology imposes an essentially Gothic myth upon all fe male creativity, which Gilbert and Gubar see in terms of "images of enclo sure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles function as surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors,. . . along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia" (xi). If these are the princi-# pal effects in which female creativity manifests itself, its causes are rooted in a very special version of the "anxiety of influence" posited by Harold Bloom. 9 Bloom's theory records the results of the struggles that strong sons engage in with their poetic "fathers," but this Oedipal picture cannot be 10 CHAPTER 1 become "symbolically, not literally diabolical" (81). Such a reading seems paradoxical if not entirely perverse, since no form of literature has insisted so strongly on portraying evil as an exterior force. And again Mac Andrew submerges the traditional and useful distinction between the "explained su pernatural," where the source of terror is finally assigned a naturalistic cause, and fantastic tales, whose probability schemes include monsters, ghosts, and demons to which we are asked to accord at least notional assent. The use of the monomyth not only fudges useful critical distinctions but often forces one into strange readings of the novels, which have to be stretched or forced to fit the preconceived scheme. Because the Gothic novel is about psychopathology, and because Horace Walpole was (as is shown by his play The Mysterious Mother) abnormally concerned about incest, this must also be the central theme of The Castle of Otranto. MacAndrew reiterates this half a dozen times until it is with difficulty that the reader recalls that the only incest involved is of the technical sort: Prince Manfred wishes to marry the former fiancee of his dead son. Again, since the Gothic is a monodrama, supernatural events must stand for psychological re alities; thus "the statue of Alfonso," which represents Manfred's conscious ness of sin, "bleeds when Manfred stabs Matilda" (13). Manfred does indeed stab his daughter, but the statue's demonstration-it is a nosebleed-occurs ten pages before that event in my edition. Similarly, MacAndrew tells us that the portrait of Alfonso "disgustedly slams a door in Manfred's face" as a "gesture of scorn" (13). My own edition of The Castle of Otranto says no more than that the miraculous portrait exits "with a grave and melancholy air" (Walpole 29). Choosing a better monomyth leads to different texts but ultimately to many of the same difficulties. William Patrick Day's In the Circles of Fear and Desire, one of the best studies of the Gothic to come out in the 1980s, reads all the central texts of the Gothic novel as different versions of the following story: The protagonist-either a Faustian male or a passive female-undergoes a descent into the "Gothic underworld," a nightmare world beyond Death, a world in which he or she is enthralled, where motion is circular and action futile, a world where the Self dissolves and disintegrates, attack ing itself as an Other; from this underworld the protagonist may be released (back to life as in Radcliffe's happy endings, or to death, as in Shelley's tragic ones) but he or she cannot escape. The virtue of Day's scheme is that it suc cessfully accounts for many of the most striking elements in the best Gothic narratives. It combines the notion of vampiric death-in-life with that of the eternal pursuit (as hunter or hunted), while positing that the objects of pur INDEX
doi:10.5860/choice.34-2637 fatcat:nrsuccragrekbefblby25fsice