Text: Robert D. Hume, “Varieties of the Gothic: A New Anthology,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:13-14


[page 13:]

Varieties of the Gothic: A New Anthology

Romantic Gothic Tales 1790-1840. Edited by G. Richard Thompson. Perennial Library. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. x + 337 pp. $2.95.

The appearance of this useful and inexpensive anthology serves to remind us both how far study of Gothic lirerature has come during the past fifteen years and how far it has yet to go. During these years, some readers have started to see that “Gothic” is not to be equated with trashy stock devices or cheap sensationalism, but rather that the Gothic is closely and significantly related to Romanticism. Is Gothic a subdivision of Romantic? Is Gothic really “the other side” of Romantic — perhaps best dubbed “dark Romantic“? Granting that no consensus is about to be achieved in defining Romanticism, I think many of us would now agree that a serious scholar of the early nineteenth century can no longer simply ignore or belittle the role of the Gothic in the intellectual currents of the time. Unastonishing as that assertion seems, it has been widely accepted only during the past decade.

Beyond ghosts, midnight scenes, and the paraphernalia of the thriller and the penny dreadful, what makes “Gothic” a definable entity? Is it a genre? an outlook? Is it best defined by the sort of affective response it seeks to elicit from its audience? Is it a historical phenomenon, and if so, how are British, Continental, and American manifestations related? We are srill far from having satisfactory answers to such questions, but, as Gothic material finds its way into the classroom, we are starting to get some hypotheses to consider. Unfortunately, the Gothic fiction readily available for student use has tended to be distinctly limited, not to say repetitive. The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Udolpho, Frankenstein, and even Melmoth have been available in inexpensive editions, but welcome as the fulllength novels are, they pose teaching problems. Short of devoting a substantial part of a course to several novels, one cannot illustrate more than an extremely limited variety of the Gothic. And as a rule, such illustrations are rather sharply bounded by national limits. What we have needed — and what Professor Thompson has most helpfully provided — is a compendium of short fiction illustrating both trivial-commercial and more serious Gothic writings, and one which conceives Gothicism as more than a generic gimmick popular in late eighteenth-century England.

Let me start my account of this welcome collection by saying that I hate the title. “Romantic Gothic Tales” as opposed to unRomantic Gothic tales? I have a strong suspicion that this is a publisher’s device to capitalize on two words considered to have sales appeal. I would greatly prefer plain “Gothic Tales” or (as the Introduction has it) “Gothic Fiction of the Romantic Age.” The chronological limits adopted seem to me very satisfactory. The early date of Otranto (1764) notwithstanding, serious Gothicism is basically a phenomenon of the end-of-the-century period. And given the strength of the . . . what? — movement? form? — on the Continent and in America, to cut [column 2:] off at a date like 1824, however suitable to British Romanticism, seems artificial.

The contents seem to me well-chosen. Every reviewer could no doubt dispense with two or three of the works included in favor of something else, and I am no exception, but I will be well satisfied with what this gives me for a class. The tales are arranged in chronological order, and the editor provides a ten-page “Commentary on the Tales” at the end of his Introduction. Some teachers may resent the lack of biographical and interpretive apparatus, but I welcome it. None of the named authors is so obscure as to present a problem — and in any case, emphasis should be on the fiction, as it is here. The fifteen selections run from five to forty-three pages and constitute a well-varied sampler. The principal works are E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bridegroom,” four short pieces from Blackwood’s (including Mudford’s celebrated “The Iron Shroud”), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Monos and Daimonos,” Balzac’s “The Elixir of Life,” Mary Shelley’s “Transformation,” Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Gautier’s “The Dead Lover,” and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

One of the most satisfying things about this collection is the substantial introduction — forty-three pages, plus the specific “Commentary on the Tales” and a six-page bibliography packed with useful names and titles. The publisher is to be commended for giving the editor space enough to get beyond the banal and the descriptive. Thompson rightly stresses the wide range of Gothic fiction, from humor to despair. The inclusion of Irving’s “Spectre Bridegroom” may seem questionable to some readers, but I would defend it — not because I would really dub this largely satiric tale “Gothic” (I would not), but because it capitalizes on Gothic devices and helps us see one border. Whether tragedy marks another border is arguable (p. 42), but this is certainly a defensible position. Perhaps most Gothic fiction does “indulge” the reader in raw terror, rather than “purge” the emotions it evokes, and Gothic fiction cannot, in its nature, achieve the calm or transcendence sought by many great tragedies. But in its most serious manifestations (Moby-Dick, Doktor Faustus), Gothic fiction is anything but trivial, escapist, or self-indulgent.

Professor Thompson’s division of Gothic fiction into four types (Historical, Explained, Supernatural, and Ambiguous) does leave me with some reservations. I would argue that these categories are not sufficiently parallel and exclusive: “Historical” comprises considerable portions of the other three. And indeed, I am not sure thar my first concern would be to distinguish among Gothic tales in terms of their treatment of a “supernatural” component, significant though this is in dividing Lewis from Radcliffe, for example. Thompson does endorse the affective differentiation (originally drawn by Ann Radcliffe) between terror Gothic and horror Gothic, and I would be inclined to develop that approach. This might give us 1) Humorous treatments of the Gothic; 2) Suspense Gothic, works largely capitalizing on “terror” and the anticipation of dreadful events; 3) Shocking Gothic, works capitalizing on audience response to the horrific; and 4) Philosophical Gothic (a term Thompson actually uses), works [page 14:] self-consciously conveying a psychological or metaphysical message ranging from doubt to despair.

Yet another way of categorizing Gothic works is to focus on the author’s response to those fundamental existential questions which seem to underlie all but the most superficial Gothic works. Gothicism is closely related to the quasi-religious quests and search for transcendence characteristic of Romanticism. Both reject rationalism as inadequate, but where the Romantic tends to assume the glorious possibility of absolute knowledge, the Gothic expresses the ultimate “inscrutability” (in Thompson’s phrase) of our world. Gothic tends to remain mired in pain, doubt, and despair. What we have come to see in recent years is how closely related Gothic and Romantic are in genesis — the impulse behind both is essentially a quest for knowledge which would satisfy the needs previously fulfilled by religion. This somewhat grandiose view may seem remote from the routine bits of frisson literature from Blackwood’s illustrated in this collection. But when we ask what the dark tales of Balzac, Hawthorne, and Poe signify, we cannot well pretend that they do not draw heavily upon a popular literature generally treated with condescension. Qualitatively the difference is drastic, but thematically there is a good deal of common ground.

Psychological aberration, the notion of man as helpless victim, the difficulty of comprehending human motives, lack of self-control — these are recurring subjects in the tales collected here. Two of the most common themes are loneliness and hostility to religion. A tale need not be particularly profound to make a telling comment. Tieck’s “The Fair-Haired Eckbert,” for example, uses fairy-tale simplicity to communicate a chilling sense of how little we know, and how alone we must always remain. Balzac’s “Elixir,” “a nihilistic artack on family, love, and religion” (p. 48), throws a disgusting view of our values in our faces and dares us to question our premises. Considering the short length of these tales, several of them possess a remarkable amount of psychological subtlety and insighr. Both Mary Shelley’s “Transformation” and Gautier’s “The Dead Lover” push on us a perception of the total content of the self which is the more disturbing the more we think about it.

The broad Gothic-Romantic context established in the Introduction is a good background for the tales. On psychology and Weltanschanung Thompson is very solid indeed. His concluding statement well sums up the crux of the matter. “The vision of human existence that emerges is one of despair over the inability of the mind ever to know anything, either about the reality of the world or about the mind itself — the central apprehension of the dark Romantic world view” (p. 54). This is what we need to remember if we are not to get bogged down in trappings and thrill value. Even a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be read at very different levels. It is a fine chiller. Beyond that it can readily be viewed as an expression of a morbid state of mind. But to get the full impact and import, we must go further yet and ask what produces that state of mind, and what it implies. Professor Thompson’s introduction discreetly but firmly pushes the reader toward this broader view. On affective and generic matters the Introduction is sketchier — not that I mean this as a complaint. Too little study has yet been devoted to [column 2:] Gothic technique and how it can be used to work on the reader. Reading fifteen variegated tales in quick succession does help to make one aware of the differences imposed by narrative vantage point. Consider, for example, Hoffmann’s “Sandman,” which shifts from epistolary to third-person semi-omniscient narration midway through the tale — for good reasons. Or reflect on the difference between first- and third-person narration in the tales gathered here.

This volume should make a useful text in Romantics courses as well as in novel courses. Perhaps in some respects it does not fit our pigeonholes (what am I to do with Tieck, Hoffmann, Hawthorne, and Poe in my British novel survey?), but this fact is one of its principal virtues. More than a collection of chillers, this anthology is a highly readable selection of Gothic fictions which will repay our close attention both by themselves and in a number of broader contexts.

Robert D. Hume, Pennsylvania State University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]