From its inception, Gothic fiction has been a literature of resistance, defying tradition and transgressing boundaries. At a time when the Enlightenment lauded reason and clarity, the Gothic persistently emphasized the presence of darkness and despair, of ambiguity and uncertainty amidst seemingly definite surroundings. With early authors such as Walpole, Radcliffe, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis, the bizarre and uncanny emerged as elements of the everyday. Lewis’ The Monk portrayed sexual perversion, spiritual confusion and violence with such explicit language that it was condemned as pornographic, libidinous and impious. The novel, chronicling the corruption of the hitherto pure monk Ambrosio, cast doubt upon the purity of people and places once deemed inviolable. If a monk, cloistered in a monastery, could descend to such depths of brutality, what limits could separate good from evil, what walls could confine corruption? The Gothic insisted that such boundaries are artificial, that the brutal lies beneath the veneer of the civil. Equally significant, however, is the potential for extraordinary circumstances – while challenging everything that established science, reason and religion have taught us to believe – to render us a new faith, a belief in what was once considered impossible:
The uncertainty evoked by the Gothic oscillation between reality and the imaginary can either result in faith, when new laws of nature are entertained to account for the strange phenomenon.… Or it can result in incredulity, leaving the laws of reality intact and seeking an explanation of the extraordinary phenomena within the confines of this reality. (Bronfen 40)
The co-existence of opposites characterizes the Gothic; its narratives offer us a veritable spectrum of alternatives: reality and the imaginary, ghostly and corporeal, self and other. These doublings define Gothic literature, and perhaps represent its only static characteristic; as a genre, it shifts, taking its structure from the movements or forces against which it reacts. We note this transition as the Gothic continued (and indeed, proliferated), both in collaboration with and in spite of Romanticism. If, as Walpole suggests, the Gothic is “an oppositional” fiction, finding its power in rebellion, we must examine how it flouts and defies conventions. Peter Garrett asserts that it depicts “isolated individuals and extreme experiences … absorbed in the self-enclosure of madness, the excess of passion, or the transgression of crime” (3-4). These conditions are closely connected, as they exemplify emotions and behaviors not traditionally sanctioned. The triangulation represents extreme margins of human experience, when the self violently clashes with its society, obsesses over its counterpart/lover, or, in the model of insanity, becomes lost in its own labyrinthine recesses. These situations are versions (or alternatives) of undercurrents that course through everyday life. The Gothic heightens affection to passion, introspection to monomaniacal obsession, and discontent to criminal action. We see this preoccupation with marginal experiences continue beyond the early, eighteenth-century Gothic into later texts. Some, like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, are only incidentally Gothic; others, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are highly conscious horror novels. The states of madness, crime and passion connect, indirectly or directly, not only to each other, but to death itself. Brontë’s interest in these extreme conditions is very evident in Wuthering Heights. Like Lewis’ The Monk almost a century before, critics were outraged at its intense depictions: “In Wuthering Heights, the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance,” and “it is wild, confused; disjointed, and improbable.” Brontë’s images of violent passion, suicide, self-induced sickness and mental disturbance and, in particular, the perverse –...
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