What Constitutes Horror in Victorian Gothic Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:55:00
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The original use of the term `Gothic” was applied to a group of novels, including Mary Shelley”s `Frankenstein”, written between the 1760s and 1820s. These novels usually employed some or all of the following characteristics, which seem demonstrative of the original use of the term `Gothic”: An emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters, barbarism as opposed to elegance, and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense.
In this way, although it does not fall into the defined period of original Gothic, Bram Stoker”s `Dracula” could be seen as conforming to this original framework. For example, upon his recent arrival in Dracula”s locality, Jonathan Harker states, “… the crucifix is still round my neck. Whether it is the old lady”s fear, I do not know, but I am not feeling nearly as easy in my mind as usual. If this book should ever reach Mina before I do, let it bring my goodbye”.
This extract builds tension and suspense, hinting at future events such as his mental illness and seclusion, and displays the superstition and folklore employed in archetypal Gothic literature. The principal figures within Gothic works were the wanderer, the vampire, and the seeker of forbidden knowledge, all of which may be found within the Victorian examples of Gothicism to which I make reference.
However, as with the characteristic change of genre over time, the concepts of `Gothic” and `Terror” have become intertwined in literary history, leading to misconceptions and difficulties in definition. Even within the original Gothic category the differences between works was great, each possessing extremely different aspects and values, although they are still generally grouped together within a homogenous body of fiction. However, the definition of this homogenised group is not the only literary use of the term Gothic.
Horror fiction is often called `Gothic”, as are some historical romances. This ambivalence of the term is encompassed within Angela Carter”s statement in the prologue of `Fireworks”, that “… it retains a singular moral function- that of provoking unease”. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Gothic literature, whilst often retaining many aspects of the original term, and certainly relevant to the previous quote, were usually a fragmented version of the original. This period produced works dealing with the mystical, and also socially controversial issues in order to raise social consciousness.
In this way, the term became modified from a fairly superficial art form into a deeper moral exploration, the aspects of the mystical and supernatural coming to be separated from Gothic, into the category of Horror. For contemporary Victorian audiences, the Gothic genre was, despite the need for confrontation of contemporary issues, a subversion of reality. Herbert Reed, quoted in `The Gothic tradition”, David Punter, referred to Gothic as “the representative of a particular antagonistic attitude towards realism. This is to say that not only was the Gothic genre an escape from reality, but also a deconstruction and dismemberment of it.
For example, the controversial use of women not as pure, chaste people, but as monsters and seductresses, which will be discussed within a later paragraph. Addressing contemporary issues, Robert Louis Stevenson”s `Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, containing the vile murder of Sir Carew, was connected with actual late Victorian fears about similarly untraceable murders, centred on the archetype of Jack the Ripper.
Concerning the change of values for Victorian Gothic literature, according to the public”s fears, the issues of boundaries and duality of self were raised. Jekyll states that his problem stems from a lack of `personal freedom”, implying that his problem was a social one, and therefore the novel attempts to connect social and moral aspirations, leading to the issue of internal ambiguity of morals, and social corruption, for which the individual may surely not be blamed.
The crossing of geographical boundaries creates terror within these novels, as David Clover opined in `Vampires, Mummies and Liberals”, “London was increasingly becoming the symbolic place in the late Victorian and Edwardian imaginaries where boundaries threatened to dissolved,” and therefore Jonathan Harker”s sighting of Dracula in Piccadilly is enough to turn the convalescing Harker `pale and dizzy”, precipitating a relapse. Clover continued “… in Dracula it is matter out of place that matters, the contamination and dissolution of the pure and sacred that counts, the transgression of boundaries and borders that is the ultimate horror.
The Victorian fears of mental, physical and moral degeneration are presented within Oscar Wilde”s `The Picture of Dorian Gray”, and Stevenson”s `Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. The horror the audience explored, and continues to explore, is that which is prompted by the dissolution, continuous and repeated, of society, the human subject, and indeed the entire nation. Dorian Gray”s committed murder and “cry of joy” upon the death of another, demonstrate his moral degeneration since he was first described as being of pure moral character. The wish that began Dorian”s horrific downfall “…
If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!… I would give my soul for that! ” stemmed from Lord Henry Wotton”s paradoxical and usually ridiculous views of society and life, and although it was received with outrage and called immoral, the novel”s fictionalisation of contemporary fears continues to be relevant today, through its understanding of human nature, and its horrors. The boundaries of what was socially acceptable and what wasn”t, were also exploited to add to the horror of the Gothic novel.
Dracula deals with the taboo, blurring the line between man and beast, man and God those with supernatural strength and unnatural longevity and man and woman, by displaying the existence of female passion, albeit in a demonic form. The theme of madness within the novels, especially that of usually stable and rational male characters, is prominent. Threats to body, mind and soul are recurrent, with extremes of optimism and pessimism during times of crisis, threatening the collapse of the characters” surrounding worlds.
David Punter remarks, in `The modern Gothic”, “”How much”, they ask, “can one lose and still remain a `man? “”” The male protagonists frequently demonstrate signs of hysteria and madness, for example Harker”s illness resulting from imprisonment , Latimer”s prevision, which pushes him to the edge of his sanity, Jekyll”s mental illness, and Dorian”s clearly disturbed mind, and fits of feminine tears. Their hysteria is, according to David Clover, “both frightening and reassuring”. Due to the reader”s inclusion, the reasons for their madness are explicable and in most cases understandable.
Nonetheless, the horror at perceiving these strong male role models crushed is not diminished. The threats imposed on the protagonists are not, however, merely physical, but also spiritual. In `Dracula”, Professor Van Helsing warns his band of crusaders, “It is that we become… foul things of the night like him… To us forever are the gates of heaven shut… We go on for all time… an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. ” For an audience for whom true life began after death, such threats appear horrific.
After Lucy”s violation, the quest to save Mina”s pious soul becomes all encompassing, and their only reason for continuing their pursuit of the Count. `Dorian Gray”s separation of soul and body is, however intentional, horrifying and deadly. As aforementioned, the supernatural is key in increasing the horror of a Gothic novel, whilst keeping it true to the original guidelines, such as Latimer”s foresight. The descriptions Stoker utilises when portraying Dracula, modified to the extreme, and using simile, usually between the Count and an animal, attribute to him the revulsion he creates, and the wildness of his horror.
For example, within his journal, Harker describes Dracula”s method of leaving the castle: “But my very feelings changed to repulsion and fear when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down… and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall. ” However, Dracula is clearly already a supernatural character, with his essence grounded in opposing nature”s laws.
Another method of displaying the supernatural is that of using the natural, but rendered unnatural by the events surrounding them. For example, the resuscitation of the maid in George Eliot”s `The lifted veil” is in itself supernatural, because it is outside and above natural laws. Eliot uses the phrase, “The dead woman”s eyes were wide open, and met hers in full recognition”, whose use of the adjective `dead” creates a shudder in the reader when it is obvious that she is talking to, and being stared at by a corpse.
Another example of someone or something natural seeming unnatural, or too evil to be human, is Mr Hyde, who the following extract demonstrates as close to demonic: “… the man trampled calmly over the child”s body and left her screaming on the ground… he gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running… really like Satan. ” Dorian”s end, and his fatal error is absolutely supernatural, with the description of the unrecognisable, wrinkly old man, where there had recently been a vibrant youth, adding to both the awful moral and supernatural effect of the novel.
The Gothic novel frequently portrays the perverse union of passion and death, namely vampirism. Women are made into characters to fear rather than the embodiment of purity and goodness, and implications of necrophilia are rife, especially throughout Dracula. In `Sex and Death in Victorian literature”, edited by Regina Barreca, it was said, “If the eighteenth century Gothic novel is about psychological terror, the vampire novel is about physical, and specifically sexual, fear. ” To use an extract from Dracula as an example of sexuality to increase fear etc, “…
Holding his candle so that he could read the coffin plates, and so holding it that the sperm dropped in white patches which congealed as they touched the metal, he made assurance of Lucy”s coffin”. Also from `Sex and Death in Victorian literature”, it was remarked, concerning the use of sexuality and women as taboo subjects, and morally ambiguous, “Dracula”s penetration of Lucy”s and later Mina”s throat signals the essentially sexual way that he comes to possess them, and the effects on both women stress their loss of chastity, such as Lucy”s change from “purity to voluptuous wantonness”.
Once violated, they become, like prostitutes, “foul things of the night””. Latimer”s inability to read the mind of the cruel Bertha is demonstrative of the portrayal of women as less than pure, or as scheming, closed minded types. Dorian speaks of his `murder” of Sybil Vane in nonchalant or graphic terms, such as , “She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her”, and “So I have murdered Sybil Vane… as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife”. Woman is debased and treated lightly, even after her death, increasing both heated feeling towards the male characters of a novel, and controversy surrounding it.
Lastly, the setting of the novel contributed greatly to the effect it produced. The use of far off lands, bewitching and terrifying to a Victorian audience, is a key affect, and one relating to the original idea of the Gothic, although the Victorian Gothic novel found little need for ruins, wild mountains and labyrinthine castles, as the new landscape was that of the city as a source of desolation and menace. For example, in `Dorian Gray”, he explores the east end, and finds, “dimly lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses… grotesque children… monstrous apes. To its new background, the gothic novel produced a claustrophobic effect in its reader, cutting the narrator off, and separation and deception became rife. `Jekyll and Hyde” uses doors as a tool of deception. Each door promises a new line of enquiry, but these prove merely to lead further into the middle of it all, and the reader is left, unable to penetrate the mystery. The barren landscape of the city serves as the backdrop to the events themselves, and displays that even in the towns, where most contemporary readers would have lived, the loneliness and exposure left one prone to all kinds of horrors.
The question of boundaries becomes important again when discussing this subject, and whether one may feel safe inside a locked building, when reading a Horror story in which a man can enter a closed window in the form of mist? The novelists use pathetic fallacy, such as this use of the mist, in order to demonstrate events and emotions, and also to show the all-encompassing nature of such horrors. Nowhere is safe, and the Victorian reader knew this fact. This merely increased the macabre curiosity that compelled them to read such tales of the unimaginable.

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