Teaching the Gothic

“We trust… that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.”

Thus says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in response to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk in 1797, a strange statement from the writer of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel.”[i]  Treated with a certain degree ambivalence by many of the Romantic poets—Wordsworth expressing an outright disdain for “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies” in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads—the popularity of the Gothic in the late eighteenth century was difficult to ignore, as was the Gothic nature of the political climate that made most literary and visual descriptions of the French Revolution Gothic almost by default.  Indeed, the genre seems to almost anticipate such violent and bloody upheaval, revealing the period’s anxieties about tyrannical rulers and corruption of the aristocracy in its earliest texts.  Because of its popularity, bolstered through stage-productions and cheap chap-books, the Gothic’s place within “serious” Romantic literature, it would seem, is itself somewhat meta-Gothic: a position of ambivalence and abjection, of reluctant importance and acknowledgement.  It’s almost Twilight-esque status as “pop-lit” of the age (and most subsequent ages) deterred its recognition as a literature of value until surprisingly recently, despite the fact that many Romantic poets—Robinson, Southey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats to name a few… and, yes, even Wordsworth and Coleridge—experimented with the Gothic tradition or at least its features.  Clearly, it was something of which even the most established writers could not “weary.”  And some, like Mary Wollstonecraft, found ways of shifting Gothic tropes to work for their own purposes, to expose and contextualize the reality of horrors in the here and now:

“Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul and absorb the wondering mind.  But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavoring to recal her scattered thoughts!”[ii]

With these contemporary attitudes toward the Gothic in mind, I recently had the opportunity to give a guest lecture introducing the Gothic to an upper-level undergraduate class on Romantic Literature.  They had just finished Frankenstein and were two acts into The Cenci.  I will be taking my comps at the end of the semester, examining in the major field of Gothic literature, Romantic to Contemporary, and in the minor field of Romantic Literature.  I have, thus, had my head buried in Gothic texts for the past nine weeks, so it was easier said than done to distinguish between what I have been obsessing over and what might actually be useful for students in this survey class.

Some background: Gothic 101

We started with the basics: what does “Gothic” mean?  The term Gothic originated from the Goths, the Germanic tribes that brought about the fall of Rome.  Its original connotations were barbaric, primitive, uncivilized, and medieval.  Yet, around the mid-eighteenth century, a new interest arose in the Goths as conquerors, yes, but the conquerors of Britain.  As such, with a rise in nationalism, the British began to see the Goths as the origins of their own civilization and the values upon which it had been built.  Thus, the term “Gothic” came to have two meanings associated with the primitive: barbaric but also virtuous.[iii]  This second definition is facilitated by a subsequent glorification of the past, antiquity, and medievalism.  The perfect example of this is, of course, Horace Walpole, whose behavior even before he pens the Gothic grandfather, The Castle of Otranto, gives insight into the beginnings of the genre.  Obsessed with Gothic architecture and antiques, Walpole built Strawberry Hill, a construction which mixed styles, time periods, and materials to cater more to what Walpole considered Gothic than to the restrictions of historical aesthetics.  Thus, we have the fragmented mixing of pasts and present that would characterize the literary tradition, emphasizing atmosphere over realism in the interplay between truth and performance.  All it needed were a few ghosts. And thus we have the inspiration for the first Gothic novel.

What does that mean?: Making sense of the texts

While it seems obvious that The Cenci would fit into the same Gothic as The Castle of Otranto, it is less clear how Frankenstein can also fall into this classification.  We can trace the origins of the Goths, but the definition of what is “Gothic” is still (and probably always will be) contested among scholars, both past and present.  My favorite definition and one I see often-cited is Chris Baldick’s: “For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.”[iv]

By then breaking the two texts down according to how they depict time and space, we were then able to touch briefly on other important key terms and aspects.  We could begin to see how Victor’s dangerous preoccupation with the ancient forbidden texts of magical science and alchemy might line up with the dangerous power of the Cenci’s ancient and decaying line.  We noted the family structures in the two texts, highlighting the absence of the mother and the presence of incest.  We compared the structures of the texts themselves, both sprung from the fabrication of manuscripts that frame the narrative itself as old or dangerous.  Doubles, the uncanny, paranoia, isolation, excess, the return of the repressed: all could be structured, compared, and contrasted through time and space. I found that keeping it broad and simple, tempting though it was to go into other more dark and dusty corners of this tradition, provided the students with a general framework to apply to their upcoming readings… even those of Wordsworth and Coleridge.


[i] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Critical Review 2nd ser. 19 (February 1797): 194-200 in Matthew Lewis. The Monk. Ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. Ontario: Broadview, 2004. 398. Print.

[ii] Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 69. Print.

[iii] Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2004. Print.

[iv] Baldick, Chris, ed. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xix. Print.