“But I don’t like Gothic Lit”

This was the first thought which washed across my mind looking at the course objective of Topics in 18th Century Literature.

“I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like it Sam-I-Am” (Dr.Seuss).

The last time a class of mine ventured into dark Lit, the outcome was scathing; I was scarred by the wonton cruelty inflicted on my mind. I had no choice but to take this required course, as I’m graduating this year, and good friends had assured me my teacher was “sensitive” to his understudies. Surely this Doctor of Literature wasn’t going to relish in traumatizing his class as the last one had. Right? These high hopes, and a stubborn refusal to allow words to scare me, ushered me into class.

Perhaps I should back-track, take a moment to tell you who this author is, to let you feel the vantage point this blog is coming from for yourself. I am a fourth year Literature major. I will also graduate with a major in Political Studies. POLI was an after-thought bred from having all of the required courses and being terrified that I may not get into Graduate Studies at the school I wanted to go to with the English focus I was hoping to complete. I like theory. I’m in love with an artist who permanently bears a John Keats quote about Beauty and Truth on his sleeve. I like Jane Austen. I want to make the world a better place. I see the world painted in broad, universal strokes. Good strokes. Good in the biblical sense: fully functioning. I like happy endings and books with insight. Why would I read ghost stories? I don’t even like being scared.

Having little experience, I took the Doctors advice and read the “Introduction” to our textbook: Gothic Evolutions: Poetry, Tales, Context, Theory. Imagine my surprise when I read that Gothic Literature “began as both a reflection of, and a challenge to, Enlightenment emphases on secularization, commerce, and scientific method” (xxv). What? Gothic Lit’s scary themes “are manifestations of humanity’s deepest fears about the exercise of arbitrary power”? Hold the telegraph (because it hasn’t been invented yet). These are topics which interest me–across my studies (intended or accidental). Xenophobia, tyranny, revolution, irrational violence, capitalism and … gender (!) are themes associated with the tropes of the Gothic??! Be patient while I swoon.

Upon regaining my senses, I knew instantly I would rethink my playful judgements of Andrew – a good friend and colleague of mine for a number of years – with his Masters in History, his keen interest in my reading Frankenstein, and his Vampire tattoos. This was not going to be the Gothic Lit course I signed up for.

“This genre is Feminist??”

Upon entering class, I was swept into the originating Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. The menacing King Manfred is painted as an irrational tyrant with an “odious purpose” throughout (82). The “circumstances of his fortune” (being King) had “given asperity to his temper” and his “passion” obscures “his reason” rendering him tyrannical and irrational (87). His lust for Isabella drives him “frantic” (82). It struck me that Manfred, the primary patriarch, was acting rather ‘womanly’ in the patrimonial sense: he is out of control in regards to his feelings (92). These passions awaken a “transition of his soul” and he sinks deeper into an “exquisite villainy” due to self-centredness and a complete lack of ability to control his desires. Manfred lacks agency over his feelings. These absurd grounds for action have been, historically, reserved for women.

It becomes clear very early on that Walpole’s women characters are, mentally and emotionally, stronger and more stable. Manfred’s wife Hippolita remains “unshaken” in the face of his “inhuman treatment” (93). His “obscure menace” is thoughtfully considered by his daughter Matilda, and Isabella (the object of his violent affection) defies Manfred and escapes his pillaging advances (94). They remain strong through family loss and insanity on their patriarch’s part. This rational, unaffected disposition is historically reserved for men.

Walpole’s work may not illustrate the most feminine agency in the genre of Feminist literature, but it paints the King as “impetuous” exercising “causeless severity” on the women and therefore critiques the very law of patriarchy–that women require men to protect them. Not only does it criticize, it reverses the theory patriarchy justifies itself by: that women are emotionally weak, and only men are rational beings.

I gushed to Andrew: “I didn’t know Gothic Lit was social commentary and feminist!!”
He smirked knowingly. I watched Dracula swing on his sleeve as he walked away.

“I have gone down into the Gothic subterranean”

Huddled up at a friends house. Studying and buddying. A Lit major, a POLI major, a Turkish film-student and a Syrian diplomat-to-be walk into a living room… I’m reading Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance and make audible reactions to the beautiful prose. They look expectantly. I read:

“Her anxiety had now evaporated in joy,
and she experienced that airy dance of spirits which accumulates delight from every object;
and with a power like a touch of enchantment,
can transform a gloomy desert into a smiling Eden” (24).

POLI says she’d “love” to put this on her reading list for when she’s feeling blue: “a little pick-me-up” she says. I tell her this is Gothic Lit and “we will be down in the dungeon running from monsters” in no time. They all smile and duck back into their books.

Page 40 is turned and I exclaim “we’re in the secret passageway! They’ve gone down the steps into the corridor and are standing in a room filled with doors!” Turkish Film Student screams “WHICH ONE IS THE FLOATING WEDDING DRESS IN?!” She can’t help but visualize everything. The others watch transfixed, thinking: which door will they choose, they’ve seen a flash of light, will they follow it?

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am.” (Dr. Seuss)

Everyone, from Political Studies students, future employees of the United Nations, and Filmmakers alike, intuitively know the tropes of the Gothic–this isn’t anything new. Why was I so scared of it?

Terror engulfs our lives too: the state of the environment, civil war in Syria, Turkish parents who don’t care for film school, a Canadian economy  which slumps. We stand in perpetual rooms filled with infinite doors; we sit at the whim of authority figures. We see flashes of light too, we follow them into recesses below constructs, and sometimes we get chased out by monsters. Transformation is part of our daily lives and it begins to make sense… Why we all understand the voyage, and how we all sit in waiting for the outcome of the journey, into the Gothic subterranean.

Andrew gives me his dissertation on the 19th century reaction to the Gothic. His spider webbed arms don’t seem as sinister.