Deals with an acutely sensitive response to the afflicted or pathetic in literature, art, and life. Originally formulated by Adam Smith as a positive force of compassion and moral sympathy, sensibility soon degenerated into something of a cult wherein its members (usually upper-class women or those aspiring to be so) proved their exquisite sensitivity through tears, blushes, palpitations, and fits of fainting. Many gothic heroines exhibit sensibility, but the term becomes a hotly contested one in the culture wars of the 1780's and '90's.'
Examples: We generally associate sensibility with the poetic reveries of Radcliffe's heroines and her many followers. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility parody this sentiment. An example of how slippery the term can be in terms of gender and politics: Mary Wollstonecraft accuses Edmund Burke of a gothic sensibility in his swooning sympathy for the sufferings of the French court.
To learn more, visit UVa's Dictionary of Sensibility
Somnambulism, better known as sleepwalking, exists as a type of dissociated mental state which occurs during sleep. Studies indicate that sleepwalking occurs during the period of "deep sleep," a time during which no dreams are taking place within the mind of the sleeper. While sleepwalking, a person may engage in a varied array of motor activities deemed as common during waking life. Many onlookers find this act to be frightening, noting that the sleepwalker is not propelled by any type of lucid mental activity. Through sleepwalking, characters often reveal hidden sources of stress and replay acts of guilt.
Example par excellence: Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly
The definition of this key term has evolved from the early days of Longinus through to various 18th and 19th century formulations. Always a contested term, the idea of the sublime is essential to an understanding of Gothic poetics and, especially, the attempt to defend or justify the literature of terror.
Longinus believes that power is the essence of the sublime style, as it literally moves or transports its hearers, and he offers among many examples a rare reference to the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis 1:3, "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light." This is an example of the absolute power in which word and effect are one. Longinus also foreshadows the development of the sublime in England in his attention to the rhetorical effect of natural forces: "Nature impels us to admire not a small river that ministers to our necessities but the Nile, the Ister, and the Rhine
"Samuel Monk's study of the sublime argues that the term became a repository for all the emotions and literary effects unacceptable to the dominant neo-classical virtues of balance, order and rationality" (Milbank).
Edmund Burke locates the sublime purely in terms of fear, the source of which is the "king of terrors" himself-- Death-- and a sense of possible threat to the subject's self-preservation: "In essence, whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful .) The threat must not be direct, else "delight" (a lesser form of literary "pleasure") cannot be experienced from the sublime moment. Burke's insistence on framing and distancing the sublime moment helped shape a Gothic aesthetic in which obscurity, suspense, uncertainty, ambivalence, and play attend presentations of terror. Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld) and John Aikin follow Burke's lead but go a step further in proclaiming a positive "pleasure" to be derived from the sublime in ways that anticipate later romantic theorists: "A strange and unexpected event awakens in the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of 'forms unseen, and far mightier than we,' our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy cooperating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement" ("On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror" ).
Kant's Critique of Judgement (1790) sees sublime pleasure as disinterested because it seeks no knowledge of the object. In Kant the sublime becomes a heightened and ennobled capacity of thinking in the human subject which enables the mind to rise above its physical limitations after an initial check to its vital forces. In essence for Kant, the sublime is not so much located in the direct experiencing of a terrific object but in the way that experience signals an apprehension of the infinite capacities of the mind's imaginative powers. (Indeed, in language that recalls Wordsworth's sublime mountain ascents, Kant speaks of the mind usurping upon nature during these visionary moments.)
One does find in Gothic literature a dialectic between the Burkean model of endangered subjectivity, and Kantian or idealist belief in the power of the mind to sublime, to rise victorious over opposition to desire or imagination's reach. In the Gothic sense, the idea of terrible nature (lightening, thunder, tornadoes) is extended to include supernatural beings, witchcraft, and many other vague and extraordinary phenomena. Visit UVa's The Sublime and the Domestic for more discussion of this complex term.
Example: A good Burkean example of the sublime (somewhat subdued) occurs when Radcliffe's Emily from The Mysteries of Udolpho first sees the the Campagna of Italy:
As the travellers still ascended among the pine-forests, steep rose over steep, the mountains seemed to multiply as they went, and what was the summit of one eminence proved to be the only base of another. At length they reached a little plan where the drivers stopped to rest the mules, whence a scene of such extent and magnificence opened below, as drew even from MadameMontoni a note of admiration. Emily lost, for a moment, her sorrows in the immensity of nature.
Wordsworth's ascents of the Simplon Pass and Mount Snowdon
provide classic Kantian examples of the sublime (see Books 6 and 14 of the 1850 Prelude): "in such strength / Of usurpation, when the light of sense / Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed / The invisible world, doth Greatness make abode."
A powerful example of the clash between "endangering" and "idealist" presentations of the sublime occurs in George Colwan's ascent of Arthur's Seat in Hogg's Confesions of a Justified Sinner. Hoping to break free from Edinburgh
and weirdly omnipresent persecution by his dark brother, George at first experiences an epiphany in nature, but this Romantic reverie is very gothically transgressed upon by the appearance of a horribly demonic, "carnivorous" spectre emerging from the mists. See a similar example of Gothic usurpation of a Romantically sublime space in the monster's interruption of Victor's Alpine reveries in Frankenstein.
The succubus is characterized as a female counterpart of the incubus. The core of this belief is said to stem from the legend in Jewish folklore of a demon named Lilith. In later Jewish literature, Lilith is identified as Adam's first wife who ran from him instead of acting as his subservient. Following, God sent three angels to bring her back to Adam. If she refused, one of her children would be killed each day. Lilith refused and, in an act of vengeance, vowed that she would bring harm to future infants of other mothers. Belief in Lilith still persists, in some cultures, to this day.
Example: Roasrio / Mathilda is a compelling instance of a succubus, bent upon awakening the sexual desires of Lewis's Monk and leading him to destruction.
Supernatural gadgetry refers to the physical elements in Gothic works that represent the means by which the various supernatural beings and or powers display their presence and uncanny abilities. Some common examples of supernatural props are "vocal and mobile portraits; veiled statues that come to life; animated skeletons; doors, gates, portals, hatchways, and other means of egress which open and close independently and inappropriately; secret messages or manuscripts delivered by specters; forbidden chambers or sealed
compartments; and casket lids seen in the act of rising" (Frank 437).
Example: Supernatural gadgetry can be found in John and A. L. Aikin's "Sir Bertrand; A Fragment". When Sir Bertrand first attempts to enter the antique mansion, the light moves about by some unknown power, and the door mysteriously slams shut as soon as the knight enters the castle. And a casket lid mysteriously opens to reveal a sarcophogal belle dame.
A pivotal term for the religious and political dimensions of Gothic Literature, especially its reception. "Superstition" generally gathered its sharply negative connotations in the late 18th century from two sources: 1) Protestant disdain for the ritualistic and miraculous character of Catholic worship; 2) rationalist opposition to unexamined systems of belief that impeded the search for truth (see the early Wordsworth: “Science with joy saw Superstition fly / Before the lustre of Religion's eye; . . . / No shadowy forms entice the soul aside, /Secure she walks, Philosophy her guide"). The term is also frequently invoked by conservative writers to characterize the potential volatility of the masses (The Monthly Review, 1794: "that superstition which debilitates the mind, that ignorance which propagates terror"). Or it can figure as a kind of cultural malaise, a psychic compensation for a time of troubles (Wordsworth in his "Preface" to The Borderers on the character of Rivers, but also of his age: "Having shaken off the obligations of religion and morality in a dark and tempestuous age, it is probable that such a character will be infected with a tinge of superstition"). In his discussion of the sublime, Kant distinguishes the good religious life, which is characterized by a kind of quiet sublimity, from superstition: "The latter establishes in the mind, not reverence for the sublime, but fear and apprehension of the all-powerful Being to whose will the terrified man sees himself subject, without according Him any high esteem."
Early critics of the Gothic constantly accuse it of appealing to and fueling readers' inclination for "superstition."
Example: (from Lorne Macdonald of the University of Calgary). Superstition is unanimously and repeatedly denounced (largely as a dyslogism for Catholicism) in The Monk (e.g., 35, 82, 144, 154, 159, 192, 198, 222, 236, 239, 334-45, 360, 413 in Peck's edition) while at the same time (309, 320, 324, 331, 349) the word is also used to indicate a belief in the supernatural--a belief which, as Mervyn Nicholson has pointed out, is perfectly justified in the world of the book.
Freud’s Unheimlich (the Uncanny)
"For Freud, the uncanny derives its terror not from something external, alien, or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it" (Morris 222).
According to Freud, we find things to be uncanny (unheimlich) when they are familiar to us (heimlich or “belonging to the home") yet also somehow foreign or disturbing. Uncanny feelings can arise when something seemingly inconsequential in our everyday lives calls forth repressed content stemming from past experience, especially experiences linking back to childhood and our passage into sexual awareness.
Examples: A non-gothic example of this train of association can be found in Virginia Woolf’s story "The Mark on the Wall." The story in itself isn’t all that scary, but it is a good example of the uncanny. Woolf's story tells of a woman who notices a small mark on the wall just above the mantle. Rather than getting up from her chair to investigate the mark, she sits and ponders what the mark could be—exploring everything from a small nail hole to the shadow of some small protrusion. The mark itself isn’t all that unfamiliar—after all how many marks do we see upon walls on a daily basis? The mark however does evoke a number of strange thoughts within the narrator, including a lyrical meditation about people who lived in the house before her.
Another, more Gothic example is "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Gilman. Here again we see a story centered upon something that is very familiar, wallpaper, which yet evokes strange feelings and hallucinations in the character. Many critics discuss Dickens' ghost stories as prime specimens of unheimlich.
See Freud’s seminal essay on E. T. A. Hoffman's "The Sandman" (“The Uncanny” ), in which he explains Nathaniel's terrified association of the Sandman, an old and arguably benevolent device to get children to sleep, with the loss of sight.
The metamorphosis of one being into another.
Examples: H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feature horrid transformations as part of their warning about the dangers of unreflective scientific progress. King's protean It takes the convention to furthest extreme.
A narrator tells a story and determines the story’s point of view. An unreliable narrator, however, does not understand the importance of a particular situation or makes an incorrect conclusion or assumption about an event that he/she witnesses. An important issue in determining the The Turn of the Screw.
A word of Slavonic origin, a vampire is a preternatural being of a malignant nature (or a reanimated corpse) who seeks nourishment and often bodily harm by sucking the blood of the living. Usually but not always described as highly sexual beings, vampires are often but not exclusively found in European folklore.
Examples of vampires found in Gothic Literature include John Polidori's "The Vampyre," Bram Stroker's Dracula (which tells the story of a Transylvanian vampire Count Dracula who can only be defeated by the occultist Van Helsing), and Ann Rice's Interview with the Vampire, which brings to the forefront the old bloodsucker's status as a villain-hero and even (gasp) invites our sympathy for him.
Visit UVa's exhibition on the Vampire for more information and images.
Villain-Hero (Satanic, Promethean, Byronic Hero)
The villain of a story who either 1) poses as a hero at the beginning of the story or 2) simply possesses enough heroic characteristics (charisma, sympathetic past, etc) so that either the reader or the other characters see the villain-hero as more than a simple charlatan or bad guy. Three closely related types exist:
- Satanic Hero: a Villain-Hero whose nefarious deeds and justifications of them make him a more interesting character than the rather bland good hero. Example: The origin of this prototype comes from Romantic misreadings of Milton's Paradise Lost, whose Satan poets like Blake and Shelley regarded as a far more compelling figure than the moralistic God of Book III of the epic. Gothic examples: Beckford's Vathek, Radcliffe's Montoni, Wordsworth's Rivers (in The Borderers); Polidori'sRuthven and just about any vampire.
- Promethean: a Villain-Hero who has done good but only by performing an overeaching or rebellious act. Prometheus from ancient Greek mythology saved mankind but only after stealing fire and ignoring Zeus' order that mankind should be kept in a state of subjugation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is tellingly subtitled the "Modern Prometheus."
- Byronic Hero: a later variation of the "anthithetically mixed" Villain-Hero. Aristocratic, suave, moody, handsome, solitary, secretive, brilliant, cynical, sexually intriguing, and nursing a secret wound, he is renowned because of his fatal attraction for female characters and readers and continues to occasion debate about gender issues. Example: Byron's Childe Harold and, more gothically, Manfred are the best examples, but this darkly attractive and very conflicted male figure surfaces everywhere in the 19th and 20th century gothic.
The Wandering Jew
Also known as Ahasuerus, Cartaphilus, Malchus, or John Buttadeus. The term originates from a legend about a Jew who either ridiculed Jesus or refused to allow him to rest at his door on his way to the cross. As a result, Jesus condemned the Jew to roam the earth until judgement day. Some variations of the legend connect this figure to the story of Cain. God condemned Cain for killing Abel and cursed him to wander the earth with a mark upon his forehead to protect him. In Gothic works, the Wandering Jew often symbolizes the curse of immortality. Some characteristics include large, black, flashing eyes; a look of deep melancholy; a black velvet band across his forehead; slow steps; a vast knowledge of distant countries and events from long ago (Railo 191-7).
Examples: from Matthew Lewis' The Monk. The Wandering Jew known as "the stranger" says: "No one is adequate to comprehending the misery of my lot! Fate obliges me to be constantly in movement. I am not permitted to pass more than a fortnight in the same place. I have no friend in the world, and from the restlessness of my destiny I never can acquire one. Fain would I lay down my miserable life, for I envy those who enjoy the quiet of the grave but death eludes me, and flies from my embrace" (169).
Also see the example from Percy Shelley's St.Irvyne. According to Wade Nichols Krueger, the following description of the character Wolfstein suggests a connection to the Wandering Jew: "Driven from his native country by an event which imposed upon him an insuperable barrier to ever again returning thither, possessing no friends, not having one single resource from which he might obtain support, where could the wretch, the exile, seek for an asylum but with those whose fortunes, expectations, and characters were desperate, and marked as desperately, by fate, as his own?" (36).
In European folklore, a werewolf is a normal human by day that turns into a wolf at night. These wolves eat people, animals, or even corpses. The condition can be hereditary, or acquired through a werewolf bite. Also, some werewolves are able to control when they change shape, while others are unavoidably turned by the fullmoon. In countries where wolves are not common animals, people can change into other dangerous animals. There is a psychological condition for people who believe themselves to be werewolves, called lycanthropy.
Witches and Witchcraft
Within Gothic Fiction, the witch is normally depicted as an elderly hag-like crone or as a beautiful, seductive woman (and she is frequently both). However, the term witch applies not only to these stereotypes but also to Gypsies, heretics, and women of loose virtue. Witches, in Gothic Literature, are able to perform various acts of witchcraft including "divination; communing with spirits of the dead; maleficia and heresy; sexual magic; healing and white magic" (Ringel 254). This depiction of witches and witchcraft is quite common within Gothic Tales and has seemingly set the standard within the minds of the readers.
Example: Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" is set against a background of Puritan rigidity. Within the tale, the very female occupants of Brown's village are depicted as a coven of witches devoted to the worship of Satan. While the physical descriptions vary, the working of witchcraft and the presence of evil are common in the Gothic definition. However, it should be noted that within Gothic Literature a person does not actually have to be a witch in order to earn the term. Tales based upon the trials and persecution of innocent people were also very popular within the Gothic Period. A primary example of this can be found within another work by Hawthorne
. Within The Scarlet Letter, heroine Hester Prynne is believed to be a witch by her townspeople based on her adulterous nature and is persecuted accordingly. Another example is The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a work based upon the Salem Witchcraft Trials wherein a group of innocent women were hanged as a result of group hysteria. Critic Amos Herold notes that "the presentation of the witch hunting mania evokes the Gothic atmosphere of irrational fear and mass dread" (196).
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