While in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro evocatively engages with Victorian fin-de-siècle Gothic tales (especially those of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood), the creative wellspring for his newest film, The Shape of Water (2017), pours from the Romantic period. It is Frankenstein meets melodrama (Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery comes to mind), and it’s absolutely brilliant. Romantic Romanticists, this is definitely the movie you want to see for Valentine’s Day.
If your inbox looks anything like mine this first week of January, it’s flooded with advertisements for gym memberships, discounted vitamins, and fancy planners that “guarantee” you reach your goals. I started wondering when the idea of a New Year resolution became such a widespread cultural phenomenon. The Romantic period seemed like a likely point of origin, given the increasing emphasis on individual experience.
“New Year’s Eve,” one of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays published in the London Magazine in January 1821, does not prove my hypothesis. But it does express an interesting attitude toward the New Year.
Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.
When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.
Upon suffering a concussion, I found myself in the hospital and attempted to convince the nurse that I was perfectly alright by holding up the copy of Pride and Prejudice that was in my bag and reciting dramatically, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Apparently, recitation of dear Jane is not evidence of a functioning brain (I had a grade two concussion after all). But the point is that even during a moderately traumatic event, literature was one of the first things to pop into my addled head.