For Mysteries & More!

An Unrealistic Genre

Unearthed from my archives of things kept, I present a college midterm paper of interest to kick of Blog Week V.  For those who wonder what shapes a writer’s ideas and craft, the answers lie in our experiences past and present.  Those books, movies, and plays we’ve seen or read and the environment in which we live conspire to make us the writers we are.

I’ll not say that the following paper is my best writing.  Perhaps it’s rather simplistic in its handling of the topic of Gothic novels, but given the constraints of its length and the experiences of my then young age, I suppose that is to be expected.  This piece was written for a Gothic novel class I took at Syracuse University with Professor Choi.  Titled, An “Unrealistic” Genre, these were my thoughts, at the time, of those Gothic novels from the 17th and 18th Centuries.  We had yet to read more modern examples.

***

“Tranquility reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes.”  (Lewis, Chap. 1, p. 45)

Though this appears in a Gothic novel, this does not typify the Gothic.  Anytime readers see a phrase like this, they should anticipate that it is only a matter of time before such a character becomes enveloped by torturous, chaotic supernatural events.

A traditional Gothic novel virtually functions as a courtship dance between a heroine and a hero.  These two “primary” characters initially meet only to be separated by the chaotic “unrealities” of a tyrannical villain or supernatural occurrences.  A restoration to order, and thus to reality, by vanquishing the villain, supernatural, or both often leads to the end of the courtship dance with the wedding or heroine and hero.

Traditional literary novels, on the other hand, creatively and imaginatively recreate the real world populated by fictitious characters whose experiences reflect life.  Readers can readily identify with these characters and their experiences.  Even the superstitions of rural country characters as found in George Eliot or Thomas Hardy are accepted as an everyday part of life.  However, supernatural appearances of ghosts, demons, Bleeding Nuns, the living dead, and other inexplicable acts are simply too bizarre to be accepted as the norm, as literary.

As a writer interested who wishes to follow in the tradition of Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, or Bram Stoker, it has always disconcerted me that the Gothic novel has not, and to some respects is still not, taken as serious literature.  Even the novel, itself, when first introduced in the 18th century was not considered serious literature.  Said Jane Austen:

“And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior…and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” (Austen, Chap. 5, p.29)

Yet, curiously, as the Gothic novel came into popularity, the novel, excepting the Gothic, became acceptable as serious literature.  And why was the gothic novel so neglected?  The answer would appear to lie in the fact that many considered (and still do today) that the Gothic novel is “unrealistic” and therefore not worth merit, but it is my contention that the Gothic novel, though “unrealistic,” has given several works of literary worth.

“The earliest reviewers of Horace Walpole’s self-styled ‘Gothic Story’ objected to the ‘preposterous’ nature of his narrative – to the fantastic gothic machinery of ghosts, skeletons, labyrinthine passages, and wild, picturesque landscapes – and to its author’s initial attempt to pass the work off as an actual translation ‘from the original Italian’ of a medieval text written by one ‘Onuphrio Muralto’.” (Walpole, Intro., p. xi)

Both The Castle of Otranto, as evidenced above, and The Monk are examples of Gothic novels that truly would appear to have no literary merit as defined in the above definition.  With such occurrences as listed above affecting the plot of these two novels, it is no wonder that critics have found such novels as having no literary.  Unfortunately, as in many cases, people and critics alike are quick to condemn a whole bushel because of a few bad apples.

In some respects, Jane Austen herself has made a distinction between the Gothic Story and the novel.  In Northanger Abbey, when Miss Morland and the Tilneys go for a walk, they discuss the Gothic novel.  Catherine believes Mr. Tilney would not read them “because they are not clever enough for you–gentleman read better books.” (Austen, Chap. 14, p. 70)  Mr. Tilney then discusses the pleasures of reading a novel.  In this way it would seem that the Gothic novel is merely entertaining and worth reading for pleasure only.

Northanger Abbey, on the other hand, is a literary piece that provides discourses on history, aesthetics, and novels.  Jane Austen has often been termed a great social commentator, and she is a canonized female writer.  In her novel, she provides the reader with life at Bath.  Then in the second half of the novel, Austen delves more into her satire of the Gothic novel with Catherine’s experiences at Northanger Abbey.  However it is this very delve into the Gothic that Elizabeth Hardwick cites in her afterword as Jane Austen’s difficulty in getting Northanger Abbey published because of these “secondary aspects of Northanger Abbey.”

Hardwick continues: “By secondary I mean the part of the novel designed to be a satire on the extremely popular Gothic mysteries of the time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Mrs. Radcliffe.  It is a relief, reading Northanger Abbey once more after the span of years, to find that the business about the Mysteries is actually the merest side issue, not even a true subplot, and that it is the weakest part of a strong novel…The romantic architecture of Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s suspicious fantasies about old passageways and the like, are spots of fictional landscaping.”  (Austen, Afterword, p. 214)

This afterword, written in 1965, clearly shows that the Gothic novel was not considered literary and that its use in Northanger Abbey nearly taints the novel!  Why then are romantic architecture and suspicious fantasies so damaging to a novel’s worth?  Gothic novels, including Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey are sharply critiqued for these very points.  This is too harsh a critique, for without such Gothic trappings as violence, horror, the supernatural, or repressed emotions, Frankenstein would never have existed.

Sir Walter Scott said that Frankenstein “impressed ‘with the high idea of the author’s original genius and happy power of expression.’“ And “despite and unfavorable reviews, the book was a great success; Thomas Love Peacock reported to the Shelleys that it seemed to be universally known and talked of.” (Shelley, Intro., p.ix)

Frankenstein, like Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which followed, explores the human psyche and the repressions or lack of repressed passions.  Victor’s drive to gain knowledge leads him along a dark path that ends in the destruction of both himself and the people he loved.  If any Gothic novel deserves to be considered a classic, a work of literary merit, it is Frankenstein.  The novel parallels the drive for knowledge and recognition of Victor and Walton, and explores the education and brutality of humans’ treatment of “outsiders” through the eyes of the “monster.”  When the “monster” philosophizes about his being and his origin, who his Creator was, his position as that of an outsider in society.  “When I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”  Thus, the “monster” views “Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition.” (Shelley, Chap. 15, p. 114)

In the end, Victor warns: “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.  Yet why do I say this?  I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.” (Shelley, Chap. 24, p. 200)  Thus, in the same breath, Victor tells of his lesson learned too late, but still clings to hope that success is possible.

Frankenstein is a multi-layered, tortured tale.  It explores three men’s want for a companion (friend): Walton, Victor, and the “monster.”  The first solves the problem by writing to his sister, the second wrongly thinks to create a being but then comes to regret this, and the third finds himself like Adam wanting from his Creator an Eve.  The novel, itself, particularly centers on Victor and his creation’s desire for happiness and acceptance in a world where they feel like outsiders; the former because of his beliefs and his work, and the latter because of his deformity.

The Gothic novel may have started out as a popular form of entertainment.  Such novels were often written by women and this is likely why they were deemed as mere entertainment.  However, with Frankenstein, the Gothic novel became something more than just mere entertainment.  The Gothic novel became another venue by which an author could explore the human psyche on a level that the mainstream novel could not.  With books like Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray appearing at the end of the Victorian era, Gothic novels were able to explore emotions and sexuality repressed by the Victorian era.  These, along with Frankenstein and Caleb Williams became the forerunners of the psychological novel which deeply explores the inner workings of the human mind through its behavior, thoughts, and actions.  Without such novels, it is inconceivable to imagine that there might not have been writers like Anne Rice, Stephen King, or Ruth Rendell.  As Victor “said” some Gothic novels were blasted, but others have succeeded.

Therefore, I do believe the Gothic novel, though it is unrealistic in several aspects that identify it as Gothic, has produced several works of literary note.  I also believe that the Gothic novel has also branched out to provide the modern reader with the “trashy” romance novels.  However, it appears to me that as each genre is created out of a previous one (thus the Gothic novel was spawned from a mix of ancient drama and the mainstream novel) that even these “trashy” romances may bring forth literary works of merit.

***

Bibliography:

Austen, Jane.            Northanger Abbey.  Signet Classic Edition.  (With an afterword by Elizabeth Hardwick), 1965.

Lewis, Matthew G.     The Monk.  Grove Press.  New York.  1952.

Shelley, Mary.           Frankenstein.  Bantam Books.  New York.  (With an introduction by Diane Johnson), 1981.

Walpole, Horace.      The Castle of Otranto and Hieroglyphic Tales.  Everyman.  Edited by Robert Mack.  London.  1993.

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