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Social Critique in Gothic Literature

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When Horace Walpole wrote the first ever Gothic novel in 1764, the world had never seen anything quite like it before. In an age we now call the enlightenment, where knowledge, science and philosophy had made huge leaps forward, this book dared to be openly absurd; to feature magic, weird curses, phantoms and prophecies. But despite its incongruence with the era, Not only did Walpole’s Castle of Otronto, sell countless copies, but it spawned an entire genre of imitators, who tried to evoke this same sense of mystery and gloom. From “Wuthering Heights” to “Frankenstein,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to “The Maltese Falcon,” books across the literary spectrum can trace their roots to gothic novels of the mid to late 18th century, or to literature from the “Gothic revival” era, which is more directly based on the Gothic. It may seem odd to find such a love of the supernatural and inexplicable emerge during times of enlightenment, when people were learning of Magic’s irrelevance, but it makes sense in a weird way. Even when the world began to make more sense, and belief in the weird and unknown was waning, there is, perhaps, an innately human desire to be fooled, to have something which is beyond comprehension.

Horace Walpole writes on this in a third-person preface to Castle of Otronto: Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them. If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation. ” When the mystery had been sucked from the world, when people’s gods and monsters had been banished from the realms of reality, the one place where mystery, terror, and the unknown could exist unfettered by cold and aromantic logic was in the pages of novels. Walpole understood this, and thus began to fashion a narrative and a genre out of both the real as well as the fanciful ad the absurd.

However, there is a rather unpleasant side effect to this conception. While readers and writers of the time admitted the books were unabashed fun, modern readers often assume the stories are nothing but archaic pulp, devoid of literary value or meaningful interpretation. This could not in fact be further from the truth. While the fantastic elements of gothic storytelling made it more compelling for the 18th century reader, they had another, equally important effect. By being so unabashedly phantasmagorical and strange, Gothic writers were able to conceal unpopular or controversial opinions and ideas.

It is not such an impossible idea. Today, we have talk show hosts like John Oliver and comedians like George Carlin who make potent points enjoyable to hear by fusing them with humor. A century ago, early science fiction writers made political and social arguments through dystopic allegory. That isn’t so different from using enchanted weapons or lost kings to satirize issues of the day. But while some effort has already been made to draw attention to the political implications of some specific Gothic texts, this is not sufficient. It is my intent with this essay to prove Gothic novels to be not only one of the first forms of literary social critique, but texts whose messages and ideas are still incredibly relevant today.

The first text I will examine is The Rime of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem is perhaps the quintessential Gothic tale. It features strange supernatural horrors of the unknown, a narrative within a narrative, meditation on death, and excessive violence. In it, a thoughtless mariner kills an albatross who was supposedly bringing good luck to the ship, and as a result, bad waters keep the vessel trapped at sea. The crew all perish, save the one sailor who killed the bird. He begs for forgiveness, and as a result, sea serpents stir the waters again, and the crew are reanimated as corpses to man the boat back to port. Once there, the mariner disembarks, and is compelled to tell anyone he meets of his ordeals, to keep them from making the same mistakes.

While it may seem a simple and fantastic tale, numerous interpretations of the story have appeared throughout the years. To fully understand these, however, we must first learn a little more about the poet who wrote the Rime. Coleridge was a close friend of Abolitionist Robert Southey, who wrote several popular works—including the poem “The sailor who served in the slave trade.” Coleridge himself shared some of this anti-slavery sentiments, and did little to hide them. Thus, there are many who read this story as an interpretation of the nightmarish journey of a slave to the decrepitude of the new world. In her essay “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade,” Debbie Lee examines the possible symbolic connection: “The poem, in fact, has frequently and convincingly been interpreted as a poem about the slave trade by writers who, in the tradition of John Livingston Lowes, contextualize the poem’s major tropes using Coleridge’s material, concerns with travel literature, colonialism, and the slave trade. J.R. Ebbotson is just one of a number of readers to view the poem as an indictment of maritime expansion where, ‘the central act of the ancient mariner, the shooting of the albatross, may be a symbolic rehearsal of the crux of colonial expansion, the enslavement of native peoples,’” (Lee 676). The poem goes on to also innumerate the symptoms of yellow fever, a disease which plagued British sailors as they went about their journey enslaving Africans. Many of the symptoms bear a striking resemblance to the ailments that plague the sailors in the poem. The Mariner’s shipmates die of gross diseases bleeding and vomiting, and their cadavers are forced into a sick parody of servitude, in order to ferry the weakened old man to shore and to force him to go about doing a set task, where he behaves like a madman and lives in abject poverty. It’s not hard to see the parallels to someone involved in human trafficking who caught the disease and lost their sanity and health. Despite, or perhaps due to the fact it takes place so firmly in the realms of the absurd and surreal, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner operates as a critique of the rampant exchange of human lives and labor for coin.

Others have found a different meaning in Coleridge’s lines. They see it as a call for economic upheaval, complete financial reform and an end to poverty. To see this perspective in full, one must go to Coleridge’s other works—specifically his poem “To a Young Ass.” The poem itself is not nearly as psychedelic as “Rime of the ancient mariner,” pertaining merely to a sad young donkey, whose mother is chained to a post and cannot reach the tasty green grass, and is instead stuck eating the dried, brown, chewed roots. The poet lauds the Donkey’s suffering, calling it “brother,” which at the time was unheard of. This sort of brotherhood was felt only with other humans, not animals. While a streak of sympathy for animals may be what one takes from this poem—it is present in Coleridge’s Rime as well, as the killing of a bird is what brings on the lurid hellish torments—this sense of fellowship with beasts can be interpreted in an even more radical context. They view Coleridge’s ass as a symbol of the economically oppressed: struggling to survive, chained to a post, while the better off gorge themselves on whatever they please. David Perkins writes on the political implications of this in an essay on Coleridge’s incendiary word choice. “Of all English poems that sympathize with animals, this has been thought the most extreme. The term brother encoded a revolutionary ideal—Liberte, egalite, fraternite,” (Perkins 929).

Perhaps because it is a longer poem, or perhaps because it was Coleridge’s intention in writing it, but there is perhaps even more of a case for “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to be considered a criticism of 18th century capitalism. In fact, if we accept, as Perkins does, the theme of animals representing humans or the oppressed in Coleridge’s poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” may be a warning of some sort of Marxist revolution. The story begins with a poor, discheveled sailor taking aside someone who is about to attend a wedding. Weddings were often joyful affairs with decadent shows of wealth, and to this day are generally associated with happiness, celebration, and excess. But before the wedding guest can enter and join the ceremony, he is pulled aside by this maddened mariner. The mariner is not rich: working on a ship as crew member was not and is not a profitable career. Nor can he said to be happy, now that he is compelled to travel the land telling strangers of his adventure for God knows how long. Said adventure regards him slaying a well-meaning animal whose presence was bringing the ship and crew good luck. As a result, the seas go flat, and the other sailors all die. If the albatross is indeed indicative of the working class, Coleridge seems to be saying that should we as a society harm or refuse to care for the poor and the working class, it will end in our destruction. If the intent of the storyteller was to get this point across to the wedding guest, he succeeded. The guest misses the entire wedding celebration, and wakes up “A sadder and a wiser man,” the next day, implying he has changed from the day before, when he sought the joy of big festivities (Coleridge).

Were Coleridge merely to write something to this effect, especially in the 18th century, backlash would have been astronomical. There had not been a Karl Mark, a Lenin or even a Bentham when the Rime was written. Therefore the idea of valuing the poor over the rich would have seemed not only absurd but dangerous. After all, the rich kings and monarchs who controlled most of Europe at that time might have felt attacked or offended by these sentiments, and ordered the poet’s death. But by hiding his subtexts with the supernatural, Coleridge still manages to present a biting attack on the casually cruelty of the rich and the power held by the poor. The Gothic genre, then, makes an ample vehicle for such thoughts—coherent enough to make points about society at large, yet abstract enough to provide the writer with protection from possible blowback.

Another example of the Gothic novel being used as a social critique is Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otronto. Considered by many to be the first Gothic novel, the story is a complete flight of fantasy. Characters are killed by falling helmets, a mad old man endeavors to marry a girl half his age, pictures move, men who resemble long dead heirs to said castle suddenly reappear, and so on. Yet as with the previous text, this mask of fantasy hides an important attack upon the society of the time, particularly, the system of male inheritance. To fully understand the nuances of the work, we must first examine Walpole himself. Horace Walpole was a member of the British Parliament, and 10 years prior had become ensconsed in a fiery debate over the semantics of “Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage act” a bill which would nullify all marriages which had been conducted covertly without announcement or the consent of the parents, even if both parties being married did consent. Particularly, the parliament was concerned with what would become of the family lands and titles should the family patriarch die. Should the bill be passed, wealthy men of England would be able to monopolize most of the wealth and nobility through clever marriages, and would have a great amount of say in whom their children, particularly daughters, could marry. Where as before, when clandestine marriages were held valid by the church, a daughter who had married against her father’s wishes would inherit his wealth despite the fact she no longer bore his name or furthered his lineage. Now, however, a daughter who did not publicly announce her wedding with the support of her father would be considered unmarried, and because of how common it was for women to inherit their father’s titles and lands at this time, it gave the patriarchy unprecedented power.

Walpole voted against this act, and tried frequently to prevent it. He even went so far as to call it “…the bane of society.” (Clemens 32). Then, a mere ten years after this loathed act was made law, Walpole produces The Castle of Otronto, a tale that chronicles a mad and bloodthirsty prince chasing a young woman around a castle with the intent of marrying her and furthering his family name, but in the process killing his innocent daughter. The feminist critique of 18th century England is an active presence throughout the narrative.

And it is not only I who have found this parallel to be interesting. The gender relations in Gothic works have remained one of the defining traits of the genre. Feminist and psychoanalytic critic Claire Kahane takes note of this, when she examines several repetitive gothic tropes: “Within an imprisoning structure, the protagonist, typically a young woman whose mother has died, is compelled to seek out a center of mystery, while vague and usually sexual threats to her person from some powerful male figure hover on the periphery of her consciousness,” (Kahane 45). This center of mystery, almost always a Freudian womb-like structure, reveals an uncertainty regarding life and death, some mystery, and finally, an understanding of her identity as it pertains to the story. While lacking in Coleridge’s poem, these are huge themes in Otronto, and were picked up by future gothic novelists, who along with the surreal atmosphere and violence, lifted the feminist critique from the premier gothic writer, Walpole.

Yet despite how clear the attack on the patriarchy is to the modern reader, at the time it may have seemed somewhat cleverly disguised. At that point in history, speaking out against the government was still a very bad idea if you valued your continued existence. Thus the medieval setting, the fantastic plot, and the odd alien atmosphere are evoked. At first glance, no reader could possibly think that this work was anchored in reality, when it features falling helmets and ancient prophecies coming true. And yet at its hart, Castle of Otronto is a very real story, a story of controlling men who break and twist the women around them to further their needs, a narrative as true now as it was then. While at this point it is hopefully difficult to deny that gothic literature was often a powerful form of social critique, the question now is why? Why not satire or comic works, or fantasy or tragedy? While the idea of substitution, or hiding real concepts and ideas behind the symbolic presence of something else, does provide the Gothic with an edge over these other genres, it is still fairly easy to hide a controversial social critique in a tragedy say, as Shakespeare did in Othello, or in a Satire, as Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels. As mentioned earlier in this essay, most social commentary today takes different forms, and just as effectively. Why bother with the gothic, which is surreal and often shocking. Was it merely to appease a beligerent monarchy, or were their other reasons? There is one, and it has to do with the issues that gothic texts frequently deal with. To my knowledge, there are no works of Gothic horror whose main focus is the high price of turnips, or the weird shoe stores that seem to be everywhere these days. They always seem to deal with other issues: the poor treatment of women by men, the poor treatment of blacks by whites, the frightful treatment of the poor by the rich. In short, imbalances of power. And isn’t this the basis of any Gothic story?

Annotated Bibliography

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1969. 371+. Print.

Perkins, David. “Compassion for Animals and Radical Politics: Coleridge’s “To a Young Ass”.” Elh 65.4 (1998): 929-44. [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2015.

Williams, Anne. “An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” PMLA 108.5 (1993): 1114-127. JSTOR. Web. 04 May 2015.

Lee, Debbie. “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Elh 65.3 (1998): 675-700. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 4 May 2015.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otronto. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Dover: Dover Publications, 2004. Dover Thrift Edition. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 04 May 2015.

Clemens, Valdine. “Sexual Violence and Woman’s Place.” The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from The Castle of Otranto to Alien. By Valdine Clemens. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Albany: State U of New York, 1999. 29-40. Print.

Kahane, Claire. “Gothic mirrors and the feminine identity.” The Centennial Review 24.1 (1980): 43-64. JSTOR. Web. 04 May 2015.

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