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