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.