Uncertainty and the Gothic
Aristotle was convinced that in any drama, the critical element was suspense. In his definition, in order for it to have any chance of being a successful method, there had to be distinct components of real danger but also a glimmer of hope. Once the character in the narrative is consumed by the danger, the audience feels fear, despair, empathy. Once the hope prevails, the audience is driven to joy, with the contrast between the two emotions heightening the experience. This cycle can and has been repeated since the dawn of narratives, but first started taking root in literature in the Gothic. Those involved in pioneering the Gothic genre had a distinct goal for their literature: to make the reader feel emotions with the highest intensity. Gothic authors had a variety of tools available with which to do that. They learned to play off natural human intuition to produce their intended results, to take advantage of the reader’s natural instinctual reaction. They took their characters and put them in situations that would evoke the feelings closest to the core of human emotions, forcing the reader to empathize. They put great detail into the development and description of the physical world that their characters inhabited, as it was well-known the effect that physical beauty of nature had. But in order to truly capture their reader, they had to bring these concepts to front in delicate, artful ways. And therein lies the use of suspense within the Gothic. Gothic fiction is briefly defined by the Hutchinson Encyclopedia by:
“Making its debut in the late 18th century, Gothic Fiction was a branch of the larger Romantic movement that sought to stimulate strong emotions in the reader - fear and apprehension in this case. Gothic Fiction takes its name from medieval architecture, as it often hearkens back to the medieval era in spirit and subject matter and often uses Gothic buildings as a setting.” (Hutchinson)
Based off of this definition, we can begin to form an opinion on what the Gothic has in store for its reader. Being a branch or product of Romanticism, we can expect much of the same focus in themes. Premises centered on aesthetics and the formation of the sublime are prevalent. In addition, newfound views of love and romance are being formed, and are a hot subject of interest among authors. But what enables the Gothic to be set aside from its parent movement are the new concepts it brings to literature. Focusing on fear gives it a whole new emotion with which to make the reader experience. And in addition, much more focus is given to the using the technique of apprehension to heighten the experience. We can see these same techniques being taken advantage of throughout all Gothic literature. One of the earliest instances of a novel being deemed Gothic is that of The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. The story attempts to maximize on the various ways it can stir up emotions in the reader. It’s where the first steps out of Romanticism and into the Gothic can be seen. It contains the same drawn-out scenes of description, attempting to bring out the sentiments associated with nature. It has the same mystical and supernatural forces at work, with another foreboding family curse driving the plot. And, of course, it also takes place in a castle. But what truly makes this work Gothic is its use of the strongest emotions, fear and love. It additionally capitalizes on the use of those, by taking advantage of the element of suspense. Due to changes in style, language, and even paragraphing, it’s difficult for the suspense to be felt by modern readers. But the content alone does a good job of establishing the apprehension. Such as when the true prince Theodore has fled from the castle, and heads to the distant caves, only to find Matilda hiding there: “He had not penetrated far before he thought he heard the steps of some person who seemed...
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