Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, Or The Return of Mina, Plus Others

So as the last novel we read for my Gothicism course, we chose Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, which is a work rich with allusions to Victorian literature, and because of its employment of famous literary characters, there is a great deal of Gothicism floating around.

First, and most obviously, we return to the exploits of Mina Murray from Dracula, now divorced, disgraced, and employed by a shadowy branch of military service. She returns here as leader of the League, a collection of various heroes and villains from Victorian literature: Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hunter; Captain Nemo, Scourage of the Empire; Hawley Griffin, Invisible Man; and Dr Jekyll, with Mr. Hyde in tow. Mina is the leader because she "has experience with monsters," i.e., the abhuman and the Other. Each of her subordinates, with the possible exception of Quatermain, has something specifically Gothic about them.

Furthermore the overreaching plot, especially the confrontation with Moriarty, brings to mind the human Gothic that we found in Bleak House and Northanger Abbey; we are confronted with a perfectly ordinary man as the antagonist, while the Others and the abhumans become the heroes of the work; quite a turn around from Dracula.

The Chinese Devil Doctor, however, relates to the sense of Orientalist fears to the east that plagued England during the Victorian era, as well as the sense of foreboding that permeates Dracula. That we find ourselves constantly in opium dens, crowded sidewalks, underwater, underground, and in the bat-like aerial ship seems a very codified use of the urban Gothic's restriction of space; meanwhile, the constant crush of people in the city street reinforces that element.

All right, so that wraps up the blog for the time being. I hope to continue on this summer, as I've just received a copy of Dracula: The Un-Dead, which is supposed to be the official sequel to the classic novel. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dracula or, So Totally About Mina, OMG, Did You Hear About Her?

So this week I read Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, which, I'm gonna level with you, is one of my favorite books of all time. It is, of course, the most important vampire book ever written--the most famous, the most adapted, and the most beloved of the genre. It is so famous that we encounter the same problems with it as we did with Frankenstein: we know "the story" so well that we neglect the novel.

But the story of Dracula isn't quite what we expect it to be. Even Nosferatu, the first film adaptation (even as bootlegged as it was) changes, subtracts, and re-imagines what the novel is about. The vampiric "rules" as we understand them, don't apply to Dracula. So every time that he appears in later works, he must be dealt with; in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he's adept a gypsy magic, in other works, he's just ancient.

There's a whole list of issues that Dracula brings up: the first, and arguably most accessible, is the issues with invasion and foreignness. We have the invasion of the Oriental danger--it's no accident that Dracula is from Eastern Europe, i.e., THE EAST--fought off by our stalwart and trusty Englishmen.

Then, we have issues of gender in Victorian, and arguably contemporary, society. Mina is ignored by the "big brave men" and finds herself under attack by Dracula--even though she's the one transcribing the damn novel.

Finally, we have issues of sexuality. The contemporary understanding of sexuality--Freud--leads the reader to some very awkward conclusions about Dracula's method of drinking--and sharing--blood. Mina's very erotically-charged encounter with Dracula makes for a lot of intellectual fodder.

All right, for serious lastly, Dracula remains one of the most pop cultural vampires. Why? The Victorians read the book as a purely adventure story, yet modern (and some contemporary) readers recognized the novel as a work of "literature". And even as the novel is read as literature, it enters the mainstream. Why? For one, it is a better telling of the Carmilla story (although, sadly, without lesbians), i.e., Overcoming the Monster. For another, Dracula's sexiness [even though he is sooo unsexy] calls out to both the Victorian sensibility and the Postmodern sensibility--that is, the era of Science is a fan of the un-scientific.

So, as a finale of sorts, next week, we will continue our exploits with Mina in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), which is a graphic novel starring many of our Victorian (and Gothic!) heroes,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray, or 'Twere Beauty, Killed the Beast

So this week, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the only published novel of the great Oscar Wilde. Not only is it one of his most famous works, but a great many of his quotable quotes comes from this book, and the preface outlines his aesthetic and artistic theory. Nevertheless, for a work that defines art and beauty, the novel seems to be saying quite a few pointed things about Hedonism.

Dorian, of course, retains his outward, youthful appearance as his portrait shifts and alters with time, not only aging instead of Dorian, but also absorbing the ugliness that is the byproduct of sin. In removing the consequences of action, the portrait allows Dorian to act only in pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its effect on those around him. In doing so, Dorian both experiences the supernatural, Gothic element of the work, while allowing himself to become the abhuman figure--as monstrous inwardly as the portrait is outward.

Furthermore, though the novel contends that art must hide the artist to be successful, the underlying gay subtext of the novel leads me to conclude that Wilde is, in some ways, rather close to the surface. Not only does the adoration of Dorian by Basil and Harry seem at least homoerotic, the fact that the majority of lives ruined by Dorian are men cannot be overlooked. Even the description of Dorian's short friendships with other men calls to mind romantic interludes. The stereotypically dandyish behavior that Dorian exhibits doesn't help in this regard.

The novel is also greatly concerned with art and the meaning of art. Whether it is Wilde speaking directly in the preface, or the art theories espoused by Basil or Harry, or the vast differences between Sybil's acting abilities, the treatment of art as valuable for it's own sake is a foremost theme. Dorian's various obsessions in the midst of his societal prominence point toward the enjoyment of art for art's sake, rather than for a didactic or moralistic reason.

As for the Gothic, we again have the motif of the portrait showing the truth, something of a throwback to Otranto and the like. We have also an anti-hero figure; Dorian's slow, tragic fall, I would argue, prevents him from being a Byronic Hero. There is the supernatural element, coupled with a scientific reasoning. It is interesting that, as usual, the supernatural seems to come from a reality of angels and demons. We also have the corrupting influence of the city, albeit in a smaller dose than in Dickens. Rather than concerning itself with the horrors of the Victorian Age, the novel satirizes the upper class avoidance of the topic.

So next week, we'll be reading Dracula (1897), one of my all time favorite books, as well as viewing both Nosferatu and "Buffy vs. Dracula."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights, or Heathcliff is Such a Bastard, Amirite?

So this week I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) and watched the Masterpiece Theater version from 2009. First off, there's literally only one worthwhile person in the whole book, and that's Nelly, our narrator. Every other character is either incredibly evil (Heathcliff) or spoiled (Cathy, Linton, Edgar, Isabella Cathy II...). And it becomes incredibly difficult to understand why Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship is so romanticized. I mean, she dies halfway through the book! It's hardly about her. And Heathcliff is such a terrible person that he can hardly be termed a Byronic hero at all. I mean, the Byronic hero is meant to earn redemption through his or his lovers actions, right? If we take Rochester as our quintessential Byronic hero (which he is) then Heathcliff doesn't count.

Which leads me to my next question: who is supposed to be the protagonist of this novel? Nelly? Lockwood? Don't get me started. They're the perfect narrators. And every other major character is only around for half the novel, or is Heathcliff. And while Heathcliff certainly creates conflict and makes the story unfold, those are hardly the actions of a protagonist, really. Villains act, while heroes react. But there's nobody to react against Heathcliff.

So Cathy, meanwhile, is a madwoman in the attic character. Even disregarding the fact that she literally goes mad, her obsession with Heathcliff--they're sharing a soul especially--is incredibly off-kilter. Furthermore, she is constantly being contained by the Grange or the Heights, both as a child and as an adult. Her daughter's cloistering amounts to almost the same treatment.

I think one of the major themes that runs through the novel is that evil begets evil. Everything that Heathcliff does (that anybody else does) is a reaction to the wrongs done to them by others. And given this theme, the very abhuman-human nature of Heathcliff should be examined in detail. More than once we have him described as a fiend or demon--his actions certainly correspond. The other abhuman-humans we've encountered (I'm thinking specifically of the vampiric Tulkinghorn from Bleak House) have corresponded to their Gothic roles even without the need of the supernatural.

All and all, though, this is a fabulous book. So long as you don't bring the baggage that Twilight would saddle you with. Next week, we'll talk Oscar Wilde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Vampyre and Carmilla, or We've Finally Gotten to Vampires. Geez That Took Forever. I Mean Really.

So this week I read two novellas about that most famed abhuman figure, the vampire. Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) is a literary relative to Frankenstein and both it and le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) are, obviously, ancestors to Stoker's Dracula. What I find most fascinating about the two works is the way in which each takes the time to explicitly spell out what, exactly, a vampire is. I mean, they obviously aren't new, per se, but Polidori and le Fanu are taking a figure of folklore and distilling it into a literary figure. Reading from a modern perspective, I'm again struck by how un-ironic the presentations are. I mean, yes, each vampire book spells out exactly what kind of vampire we're dealing with, but at least Polidori is making history with his description. From that moment on, we all know what a vampire is.

Furthermore, I'm also thinking about the very different way that these two works treat women in comparison to Dracula. Here, the women are again be acted on rather than acting. It feels like we're backsliding, even though we aren't, simply because we've just read Braddon and Alcott. Clearly, the discussion of the New Woman wasn't all one sided.

Speaking of gender, the discussion of sexuality presented in the two works is also fascinating, given that vampires are often analyzed as metaphors for sex. Carmilla's sapphism is especially interesting in the context of a Dracula/Jonathan subtext. If we were to explore vampires as the sexual Other, there's plenty to go on. The sexual-predatory nature of Lord Ruthven is clearly followed in other vampire fiction, i.e., Lestat, Angel, Edward, Dracula. And the use of the vampire as the Byronic hero (or villain) is well documented also.

So, things that these sire texts teach us about vampires: drinking blood with pointy teeth, damsels in distress, ennui and languidness, decapitation, tombs, sleeping in blood, crazy professor guy, aristocratic, shape shifting, moving through walls, etc. The entirety of vampire fiction rests on these two texts as foundation. The fact that Twilight moves us so far away from these traditional aspects is only possible in a postmodern literary world.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Long Fatal Love Chase, or It's Jane All the Way Down

So this week I read A Long Fatal Love Chase (1995) by Louisa May Alcott, famed writer of Little Women. In regards to this class, this novel is unique in many ways from the other novels that we're reading. First, it is an American novel, though American in the style of Henry James, and second, this novel was published for the first time in the 1990s.

In regards to other novels, however, Love Chase is hardly unique. There are great similarities to Jane Eyre in terms of the novels content--the criticism of the Byronic Hero, the theme of bigamy, and the feminism embodied by the protagonist. The constant flight and chase seems to parallel Jane's flight in the middle of her novel, as does the relationship with the priest (or the priest-like figure of St. John). There are, however, striking differences between the two novels. For one, this novel is a tragedy, ending in the death of our protagonist. There is no redemption allowed for the Byronic Hero--here, unlike Rochester, playing antagonist--and Tempest remains a selfish monster to the end. In this respect, Alcott seems to be calling on the characterization of Heathcliff--perhaps positing, in the way similar to fan fiction, "What if Jane had met Heathcliff instead?"

The striking feminism of the novel is also, at least partly, due to Jane's influence. For all the novel's faults, Alcott gives us an active, round protagonist that does things, rather than having things done to her. The constant leaving, the willingness to put principle over pleasure marks Rosamond as Jane's literary sister. This marks Rosamond as exhibiting characteristics of the Byronic Heroine: not content to be merely persecuted, as in Udolpho, nor locked away as a madwoman, even metaphorically, as in Jane Eyre. Rather, Rosamond occupies a characterization that mixes parts of the two, while adding a great deal of agency, much like, again, Jane does.

The religious aspect of the novel is also, arguably, more pronounced than in Jane Eyre. While Jane does believe in God, I'd be hard-pressed to call her a religious person, whereas a great deal of Rosamond's motivation is the belief that she should do as God would want. Rosamond acts from a religious impulse while Jane acts from one of personal pride. The equation of Tempest with a Satan figure, while fairly heavy-handed on the part of the author, underscores both Rosamond's motivation and the Gothic tone of the work.

All right, so next week we're reading two books: Polidori's The Vampyre (main character based on Byron) and le Fanu's Carmilla (lesbians! vampires!), and we return to the supernatural elements that have been rather under-represented since Frankenstein.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lady Audley's Secret, or The Byronic Heroine in the Madhouse

All right. We need to start by stating that Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of the best novels I’ve read in the preceding year. Braddon has definitely earned her place next to the Brontes and Dickens, and the fact that she is under-read is a testament to the unbalanced nature of the traditional Western Canon. It is a fabulous read.

That said, the novel does remain problematic for multiple reason that call out for discussion. First of these is the treatment of madness. We haven’t much discussed madness in this blog heretofore, so we’ll need to become serious for a moment. The appellation of insanity has no place in the psychologist’s office; it is a meaningless, legal term that does not act as a true barometer of a person’s ability to interact on a societal level. That said, Lady Audley does exhibit several sociopathic characteristics which may have necessitated her confinement in the masion de santé; that’s as may be. But the way in which Braddon characterizes her confinement is incredibly problematic, i.e., that she must be sequestered in order to protect society; I’d like to see a man in a similar situation be so treated.

Furthermore, Lady Audley’s character reflects certain classic elements of the Byronic Hero; so much so that I feel it fully justifiable to call her a Byronic Heroine, along the lines of Jane and Cathy. She is devious, secretive, with a dark past, ravishingly beautiful, possibly or partially mad, a bigamist (Rochester) and finally sort of evil (Heathcliff). Her actions, meanwhile, are no worse than theirs are; none of them directly kill another, for example. The way that the text treats her, however, seems somewhat misogynistic.

That said, I’d be hard-pressed to call this work anti-feminist. Yes, we have woman as our antagonist [if we posit that Robert is our protagonist] but the language that Robert uses in regards to women, the fully-fleshed characterization of the women, and the neutrality that the narrator maintains while Lady Audley enters the madhouse, all speak to the (possibly half-hearted) feminist elements of the text. Yes, the treatment of women in this novel is incredibly complex.

Our insight into the character of Robert, meanwhile, labels him as less of a Byronic Hero and more akin to a Pathetic or Anti Hero. I mean, the narrator has no compunctions about calling out his shiftlessness or laziness, yet he is fully prepared to act when given a good enough reason. Braddon has a talent for characterization.

All right. Next week, we’ll be discussing Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women Fame) and her work A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866/1995).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bleak House 2, or the Victorian Horror

All right, so to continue from last week, we're discussing Charles Dickens's work Bleak House and the ways in which it forms a part of the Gothic canon. We're a day late because I'm currently in New Orleans, so please bear with the (somewhat) lessened reading experience.

I think, again, that the major underlying theme of Dickens's work is the necessity of taking responsibility; rather than foisting problems onto other people (Skimpole/Tulkinghorn), other circumstances (Richard), or the past (Lady Dedlock), Dickens is encouraging his readers to take action instead of remaining passive about the social problems that plague them and others. This is, of course, Dickens's M.O.; indeed, part of the issues that keep Bleak House from being a Great novel is the obviousness of Dickens in the text--he is never far from the surface of the novel.

Nevertheless, the urbanization of the Gothic that is present in this novel has a direct tie to our modern understanding of the genre. Not only does the Urban Supernatural genre exist in its own right, the increased industrialization of the West means that the physical isolation felt in the early Gothic works is paired with an isolation in an urban setting: not alone, but lonely.

Furthermore, the Victorian elements of the novel--the discussion of the issues of industrialization especially--point toward the understanding of the Gothic as arriving from the horrors of the everyday. Dickens simply skips making a supernatural metaphor in order to examine real-world problems. This is similar to the Brontes' exploration of patriarchy, given that the supernatural elements arguably play side-line or ancillary roles in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Rather than using the Gothic as a metaphor, Dickens is using it as figurative language--more along the lines of a literary mode than a genre. Dickens uses the rhetorical Gothic as an attempt to emphasize the horrors of reality.

This approach is clear in the death of Krook by spontaneous combustion, arguably the most (if not only) supernatural event in the book. Rather than focusing on the event or describing it in detail, however, Dickens only gives us the aftermath and its consequences. This is probably the exact opposite of what "Monk" Lewis would have done; rather than writing a story about the Gothic, Dickens uses the Gothic as a lens to explore the social order.

So next week, we'll be reading Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bleak House, or Fog. Fog. Fog fog fog. Fog? Fog.

All right. Bleak House (1852-53) is a novel that was published in serial by Charles Dickens. Recently named Dickens's best work by Time Magazine, Bleak House is the first literary reference to the Urban Fog of London, and is so massively complex (and long!) that I shall be spending two weeks on it.

The sheer number of times that Dickens repeats the word "fog" when first describing London requires comment; the fact that this is the first time in literature that London is described with the Urban Fog only adds to the importance of the moment. Here, Dickens is using the Gothic mode--normally confined to the countryside--in order to describe the cloying and claustrophobic atmosphere that clings to London, like a fog. This atmosphere reflects the main core of the novel--the destruction of lives caused by the Chancery court. Indeed, Jarndyce, near the end of this week's reading (to chapter 30), says that it would be better to die than to become involved with the Chancery suit.

Allan Pritchard, meanwhile, remarks that Bleak House's gothic elements have been largely overlooked until very recently. This is incredibly interesting to me, and Pritchard evidently, given the title that Dickens eventually chose. Rather than "In Chancery" Dickens chose "Bleak House," following the Gothic convention of naming houses and naming books after houses. I had noticed this in relation to Northanger Abbey, in relation to The House of Udolpho--indeed, in relation to Wuthering Heights. By choosing this title, Dickens clearly marked this novel as Gothic, intentionally or not.

Of the characters that Dickens creates--brilliant, of course, so we'll take that as read--the sheer evilness of Skimpole was enough to turn my stomach. I almost lost my suspension of disbelief because the other characters fail to see it. While his actions seem at least neutral thus far, the claiming of childhood at his age, and his unwillingness to become an adult, leaves me in mind of a sociopath, at its most extreme. More mildly, an apathetic person can be read as the most evil of people, given that even people, or characters, marked "evil" believe themselves to be good. Skimpole is amoral, and thus evil.

Esther Summerson, meanwhile, is Dickens's only female narrator. Her story is thus far fascinating, if only because she attempts--or says she attempts--to chronicle the lives around her, but manages instead to chronicle her own. She is clearly related to Jane Eyre--who is published previously--yet her future romance (I write the blog, so I cheated a little) seems to reject the ordinary Gothic version. Her relationship with Lady Dedlock, furthermore, seems to play on the fairy tale nature of her childhood, raised by a wicked stepmother figure, but our persecuted heroine seems to be less persecuted as we move along.

So next week, we'll finish up our discussion, and be taking this blog on the road.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Northanger Abbey or, if Radcliffe had been Intentionally Funny

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) is something of a jump backward in time for the purposes of this blog. As most Austenophiles are aware, this was the first book she ever completed, but it would remain un published until her death. So, throwing ourselves backwards, we find that in one way, Austen's work is a contemporary, and indeed response to, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Nevertheless, Austen's genius, which we'll discuss momentarily, and her perfection of the novel form ties her work more closely to Victorianism, due to the Realist style in which she writes. Austen simply belongs next to Charles Dickens.
The discussion of this novel as part of this course is somewhat problematic. Not only is this the only overtly parodic novel we're discussing, but categorizing this as a true Gothic novel is almost impossible. One of the major reasons that this book can be seen as lacking Gothicism is Austen's Realism. The weird that has been present in each of the previous novels--even, to an extent, in Radcliffe's work--is totally absent from this book. This partly due to Udolpho's scientific explanation of every strange occurrence. Writing directly in response, Austen gives her explanation for the strange happenings (what few there are) immediately; there is no black veil for Catherine to obsess over. Rather, her "mysterious document" is explained almost as quickly as it is introduced. Austen is directly parodying Radcliffe here-rather than inspiring terror at the unknown, Austen is more interested in satirizing the thought process that Catherine follows. The whole overblown style of Gothicism is incessantly mocked.
Nevertheless, by introducing us to Catherine, by subsuming Gothic works like Udolpho and The Monk and the Northanger horrid novels, Austen both enters a metatextual discourse about what it is to be a novel and incorporates elements of Gothicism. Rather than playing them for tragedy (or drama), as the other Gothic writers do, Austen instead plays them for comedy. Indeed, she's beginning here a fine, long tradition of parodying the Gothic--a trend perhaps most apparent in the treatment of Frankenstein as a text. Even though the laundry bill is quickly resolved, and General Tilney is innocent of murdering his wife, the fact that Catherine attempts to understand her surroundings through theorizing about the Gothic means that we, the audience, tend to do the same.
Another fascinating element of this novel is the narration. Obviously, with Austen and her free indirect speech, such a comment is superfluous; however, the ways in which the narrator here skewers the tropes that make up not only Gothic but all novels marks the beginnings of Austen's genius. As one of the greatest writers in the history of English, Austen is the perfecter of the novel--a genre which remained still nebulous in her time. The vast differences between Walpole and Austen do not properly convey that it's only been thirty to forty years difference in their publishing. Indeed, her perfect understanding of how a novel works--for example, writing about Catherine, plain, middle-class, with parents, rather than some beautiful orphan princess, and making it above all funny--must have contributed to her skill as an author.
Now, as for elements that this book adds to Gothicism, I can name two. First, we've already discussed the major element of parody that remains present in Gothicism up to the present--Rocky Horror, Young Frankenstein, Vampires Suck---but parody is not something that confines itself to Gothicism. Rather, the various elements that make up the Gothic (most obviously the weird) are simply ripe for parody, because they are incredibly ridiculous things that take themselves, at least mostly, seriously. Second, the blending of the Gothic with other genres, I think, has something to owe this book. This is Austenian Realism at its finest, yet it is also a Gothic novel. We'll encounter similar genre-blending in future books; we'll also see how other genres steal elements from Gothicism as part of writing a novel. In some respects, because so much of the novel's creation is indebted to Gothicism, it is difficult to find novels that don't contain something Gothic about them.
So, for the next two weeks, I'll be reading Bleak House (1852-53) by Charles Dickens, because Dickens is long-winded.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Frankenstein, or Frankenstein is Totally the Scientist Guy

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is at once many things. Widely considered the first Science Fiction novel, Frankenstein is also a Romantic discourse between from Shelley to her contemporaries as well as the first example of Kelly Hurley's abhuman (that is, the creature which is both human and nonhuman concurrently; the liminal figure of the wolfman, the vampire, and, arguably, Frankenstein's monster (192)) we encounter in the context of this course. Finally, the novel is inherently problematic given its appropriation into popular culture--most spectacularly through film.

As a science-y novel, the classification of Frankenstein as Gothicism is somewhat contentious. As Kelly Hurley remarks, science fiction can be, and frequently is, recognized as separate from supernatural occurrences (191). Nevertheless, like Radcliffe before her, Shelley's work fall directly into the previously defined weird--the hints that Shelley drops about the nature of Frankenstein's creation of Adam, our monster, clearly mark an impossibility. Even given our modern medical understanding, the return of life to dead tissue is an inherently rare or miraculous act--at the time of writing, even more so. Furthermore, the other aspects of the Gothic that Hurley uses to define it, as well as my own definition, include gloomy and dangerous settings, taboo, transformative, and transgressive themes, hyperbolic and suspenseful atmosphere (191). All of which, it happens, are contained in Frankenstein.

The often-overlooked element of Romanticism in the novel, meanwhile, differentiate this novel and others from that of the Victorian. Likewise, the until-recently-overlooked Shelley make her very distinctive presence known in the novel. Her quotations of both Wordsworth and Coleridge meant that this novel acts as a discourse between her and her Romantic contemporaries. It cannot be overstated that Shelley was very much a player in the intellectual games of her time. The mark of the French Revolution, with its rejection of Christianity and its concern with the individual experience, permeate the novel. This is one of the least religious novels we've read thus far, yet, with Adam's reading of Paradise Lost, this book takes up the same kind of questioning that we found in Lewis--most obviously, what are the responsibilities that a creator owes its creation? Furthermore, the fact that we hear from the abhuman figure directly cannot be accidental, given the importance of democracy to the Romantic discourse as well as the failure of the French Revolution. This novel is one of the very few times that we hear the viewpoint of the abhuman--no one, for example, knows what Dracula is thinking. The moments where Shelley enters into the literary and intellectual discourse of her contemporaries points toward her novel's staying power.

The treatment of Frankenstein in film is, arguably, one of the most controversial aspects of the novel. Gone, on film, is the personal explanation from Adam's own mouth. In its place, the creation scene involving lightning that has so dominated popular culture. The 1931 version of the film with Boris Karloff is especially interesting in this regard. Not only is Shelley credited under her husband's name, Frankenstein and his confidant switch names, Elizabeth is no longer Frankenstein's adopted sister, and a school professor in the vein of Van Helsing is added. Even more fascinating is the Mel Brooks parody Young Frankenstein, if only because Frankenstein is twenty in the book. How much younger need he be? Arguably, the vast difference between these two versions mark a similar occurrence in the previous century on the stage. I would argue that the tendency toward parody returns somewhat to that ever-present theme of self-parody, brought on, no doubt, by the highly stylized elements of Gothicism. As one final comment, I find it interesting that, with the method of framing that Shelley uses, there is no neutral narrator voice--each of the narrators has an agenda. This is one of the main reason, I think, that the novel is so unfilmable as written.

Finally, the elements that Frankenstein contributes to Gothicism include, obviously, the mad scientist; the human-created monster; and, most likely by accident, the sequel-hook. All of these elements make their way into B-movies, if nowhere else. As one of the strands that binds Gothicism to the present, Frankenstein is a big one, only second to the popularizing of the vampire.

Newt week, I'll be discussing Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818), written well before this novel, but published as a contemporary.

Hurley, Kelly. "British Gothic fiction, 1855-1930". The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold Hogle. Cambridge UP. Cambridge, 2002

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Monk: A Romance, or Satan?!

So to start off this week's discussion of Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis's The Monk: A Romance (1796), we have an interesting fact: this novel was written while Lewis was still 19, in less than three months. Interesting, yes? Especially when you consider that, unlike the two previous novels of this course, The Monk has some very interesting (and literary) things to say. First, there's the very beginning of the novel; rather than haphazardly leaping into a death (I'm looking at you, Walpole!) the novel gives time to establish its characters before being horrible to them. Conversely, unlike Radcliffe's doorstopper, Lewis begins the novel right in the middle of the action--no Victorian wasting disease in sight.

Furthermore, we return to the authorial justification that we saw at the beginning of Otranto; this time, in the mid-book. Lewis whines about the difficulty implicit in writing a book--the way that each reader "judges" the quality of the work, etc--through Alphonso explaining the "thousand mortifications" that an author faces. This short passage of the novel is interesting in light of the self-parodying aspect of the Gothic novel.

I also found the treatment of the supernatural in this novel to be very interesting. Even given that the main (tragic?) hero is a priest (and minor characters act as clergy) the hugely Catholic nature of the novel is staggering. The Spanish setting is not incidental to this aspect of the novel, but the Bleeding Nun and Wandering Jew episode are extremely unexpected, given the previous two novels. Of course, they only act as a lead in to the arrival of Lucifer and the use of witchcraft later. They serve to strengthen the Suspension of Disbelief that is so necessary for a Gothic work (perhaps more so than other works?) to function--if ghosts, then Wandering Jews, if Wandering Jews, then Lucifer. What's very interesting to me is that there is no definite "good" supernatural to balance out the bad. If the Great Mogul is the Wandering Jew (and as the narrator doesn't comment to the affirmative, we merely speculate) then Jesus would logically have existed, but where is he? Where is the angel to lead away from temptation? The lack of the God side of the morality binary is certainly a play with the "morality tale" that Lewis is referencing--an interesting one, given the severity of the Catholicism.

The treatment of women, meanwhile, is ambiguous at best. Each female character acts more as a device--Antonia, our persecuted "heroine"? She's one-note in her innocence, which eventually kills her. Matilda? transvestic witch. Interesting on paper, but her all consuming love of Ambrosio is essentially her entire characterization. Oh, and she's Lucifer's emissary. A seductive Eve figure. Leonella? Flighty, vain gossip. Interestingly, the character Agnes, for me, read as more of a heroine figure, given that the main narrative is a morality tragedy. However, she's a pregnant nun who wants to marry Alphonso. In fact, the best female characters seem to be Elvira and Marguerite--but only for the way they are treated by men. I can believe a 19 year old boy wrote this novel.

The way that The Monk influences its literary children--its contribution to the Gothic tropes--are fairly numerous. The evil priest character is nearly ubiquitous after this point. The lack of divinity is also apparent--a Gothic universe is one of an uncaring (or at least un-intervening) God. Ambrosio's contribution to the Byronic Hero is almost immeasurable, though I would more likely characterize him as Villain Protagonist. Also: a Gothic novel with some actual literary merit? I would say so. The questioning aspect of the novel--is there a god?--definitely allows for a more nuanced interpretation of the work.

So, next week, I'll be reviewing Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1823). Published in France! And I'll also look at the Hammer Horror version of Frankenstein and how it relates to the actual novel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mysteries of Udolpho, or Emily's Fainted. Again.

“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 .... And where lies the differentce between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity that accompany the first, respecting the dreading evil?" (Radcliffe)
So begins my discussion of The Mysteries of Udolpho, perhaps the quintessential Gothic Horror novel. Published in four volumes by Ann Radcliffe (called the Queen of the Gothic and the Stephen King of her own time) in 1794. I begin with this quote not only because it is from Miss Radcliffe, as she is affectionately known, but also because her distinctions between terror and horror continue to inform discussion of the Gothic, even to this day. Udolpho is filled to the brim with terror--that is, the emotional response solicited by the unknown and the unseen. The most obvious example is in the black veil that Emily, our persecuted heroine, lifts--Radcliffe refuses to describe what's hidden underneath until the end of the novel, which facilitates a fear of the unknown in her reader.

Udolpho is also filled to the brim with what I want to call the weird. There is absolutely nothing of a supernatural nature in the novel: everything that seems supernatural is perfectly (and rationally!) explainable. This is in obvious contrast to Walpole before, and most Gothic writers after. But there's plenty of weird to go around--secret passages, foreign armies, mysterious scientific phenomena, odd religious rituals, and a healthy dose of superstition. This aspect of the novel is especially important, given later developments in the Gothic--there's nothing explicitly supernatural in works like We Have Always Live in the Castle, after all.

Udolpho is also long, in contrast to its Gothic siblings. This is partially due to its time frame, of course: the eighteenth century novel was full of experimentation because the novel as a genre was one giant experiment. Therefore, it's no surprise the immense influence that the Picturesque has on this novel as well--gloriously purple-prosed and meticulously descriptive, the novel is an excellent travel-book, like many of its contemporaries. As such, the plot seems a bit wanderous, very Cervantes-esque in its lack of clear rising and falling action. Rather, the novel reads much more like real life as opposed to the conventions of what modern readers expect from a novel. That said, the four different volumes do seem to contain more coherent conflicts, separate from each other. In some ways, Udolpho reads like a quartet of novels, rather than a single one.
The characterization by Radcliffe, furthermore, is definitely a step up from Walpole. No longer simply caricatures, the depth that Radcliffe has managed to convey is surprising, given the very plot-driven (or rather life-driven) feel of the novel. Each character is fairly unique--there is no replacing of one woman for another like is capable in Walpole. The Persecuted Heroine makes a much more solid appearance in this novel as well. Given the similarities, and vast differences, between Jane Eyre and Emily, it seems fairly obvious that Charlotte is writing back to Radcliffe with her novel. The nature of the characters, however, continues to follow the fairy-tale like archetypes that Walpole uses. The Persecuted Heroine is our Virgin, of course, but we also having the loving (and dying) father from Cinderella, the wicked step-mother from Snow White, and the overbearing, dangerous male from Bluebeard. It does seem interesting to me one, that Montoni is a clear villain, given his near Byronic characterization, and two, that Valancourt has his own brush with corruption and darkness. The seeds of Rochester are clearly in the making.
All right, so next week we'll be discussing The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis, which shares many things with this week's novel. It was apparently written in only ten weeks, so who knows what it will be like.


Radcliffe, Ann. "On the Supernatural in Poetry." New Monthly Magazine, volume 16, number 1. (1826), pp. 145-152.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Castle of Otranto, or What's Going on with the Helmet, Exactly?

So, as promised, today I'll be discussing The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. As the first true Gothic novel, I was a little surprised at a few of the different elements that make up the work. First, the quality of the writing is simply lacking. This book is clearly more of an important piece of literature than it is a great one. The varying, almost bipolar, method of conveying the plot--where for a few pages there is no dialogue and the narrator explains everything, and then there are large chunks of dialogue without any real context--is perfectly understandable in a novel from this time period. However, it is the contents of the novel which are valuable to this discussion. One of the things I noticed immediately is that Walpole coaches the novel as a translation (a very old one at that) from Italian. Obviously, this is part of the contemporary style of novel writing; that said, given the nature of the work as a Gothic text, the self-effacing nature of the preface can be viewed as an element of self-parody that tends to turn up in similar works.

Furthermore, the setting of the novel centuries before its publishing marks another aspect of the traditional Gothic--this aspect would soon fall out of favor, leading to novels set in contemporary times. What the setting does, however, is strengthen the suspension of disbelief. It is simply easier to imagine the supernatural elements of the novel when they are placed long ago and far away. As far as the supernatural is concerned, it is also interesting that over-laying essentially every action is a light dusting of Catholicism. This element of Gothicism would continue on in various ways from this moment forward--I'm thinking here of exorcism films in which all Christianity is Catholic. The foreign-ness of Catholicism to the Anglican Britain also plays into the weirdness factor.

Finally, in this novel we see the beginnings of the Gothic archetypes, most obviously the Virgin Maiden and the Corrupt Man. Both Isabella and Matilda are obviously Virgin Maidens--the narration seems to fall all over itself praising their piety and grace--especially that of Matilda who originally wanted to be a nun. Likewise, Manfred plays the role of the Corrupt Man, willing to do anything, even the most grievous of sins, in order to further his aims. His pursuit of Isabella near the beginning of the book is, most likely, what was appropriate in an attempted rape scene at the time. It will be interesting to see how these Gothic elements play out in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) next week.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

First Post

So, as part of my independent study course on Gothicism or Gothic literature at Southern Arkansas University, I'll be keeping this blog as I read fourteen novels over the Spring Semester 2012. We'll see how this blogging thing works over the course of these next few months. I should be having at least one posting per week over the different novels that I'm reading, starting with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). As the first Gothic novel, it laid down a great many aspects that would come define Gothicism for decades after its publishing. Gothicism's main traits continue to evolve even to the present day, however, and the study of how the genre has shaped and been shaped by popular culture for centuries will be my main focus in graduate school. Bowing to one of Gothicism's ever-present forays into self-parody, I am concluding my introduction with this quote by Walpole (1753):
Were I to print any thing with my name, it should be plain Horace Walpole; Mr. is one of the Gothicisms I abominate.
"Gothicism." OED.com. Oxford English Dictionary, 2012. Web. January 11, 2012.