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.
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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 ubject 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 to retreat before him. …] Drawing his sabre, he marched sedately onward, still directing his steps as the imperfect rustling sound before him led the way. The armour he wore was a like indication to the person who avoided him. Theodore, now convinced that he was not mistaken, redoubled his pace, and evidently gained on the person that fled; whose haste increasing, Theodore came up just as a woman fell breathless before him. ” (Walpole 75) Here, Walpole uses delicate pacing of the story to build tension.
He includes Theodore’s own thoughts, likely not too dissimilar from what the reader would be thinking at the time. When walking through a quiet cave dressed in full armor, wouldn’t the sound alone give away that I was there? But the character addresses that, reassures himself, and continues the pursuit. And as soon as he catches up to the character in question, it is very quickly shown that the prey was, infact, just Matilda. The fear and despair is very quickly replaced with joy.
He then takes advantage of that stark contrast to emphasize the connection between the two, appealing to the intense emotion of love: “He hasted to raise her; but her terror was so great, that he apprehended she would faint in his arms. He used every gentle word to dispel her alarms, and assured her that, far from injuring, he would defend her at the peril of his life. The lady recovering her spirits from his courteous demeanor, and gazing upon her protector, said, Sure I have heard that voice before? ” (Walpole 75)
First there is worry and despondency felt for the character, alone in the cave with danger. Then, there is joy because the person he was pursuing was not an enemy, but instead a lost woman. Then, the joy is increased, because the woman happens to be one who is much sought after. Finally, the joy is escalated again, when the romantic love is felt between the characters. The tool of suspense is used to both create and amplify emotion, in a variety of ways. As time progressed and methods grew more sophisticated, so did the implementation of suspense.
Changes in literary styles, dialogue, and vernacular gave authors more tools to work with, enabling them to better portray the intended emotion. Additionally, people had a better general idea of what inspired love, instilled fear, and generally created the emotional response the author wanted. But the fact was: the things that made the audience feel remained the same. The unknown was still scary, the villains were still evil, the love was still seemingly insurmountable. Even today, what makes us feel is generally the same sorts of things that made people feel back then, but evolved so as to be relatable.
In Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, she masterfully uses both language and content to make the reader feel. Throughout the entire book are instances in which we feel and fear for the main character, whether they be happy or sorrowful moments. When she meets Valacourt to when she loses her father, to being forced to the castle by Montoni, the ups and down of Emily St. Aubert are well empathized with by the audience. The most popular use of suspense in Mysteries, is without a doubt during Emily’s expeditions around the castle, fearfully but curiously exploring the various treacherous things within.
Late one night, while weeping, she sees a figure that seems to beckon to her, and then begins to make noise: Her scattered thoughts were now so far returned as to remind her, that her light exposed her to dangerous observation, and she was stepping back to remove it, when she perceived the figure move, and then wave what seemed to be its arm, as if to beckon her; and, while she gazed, fixed in fear, it repeated the action. She now attempted to speak, but the words died on her lips, and she went from the casement to remove her light; as she was doing which, she heard, from without, a faint groan. (Radcliffe 368) Instances such as this occur often in the castle, frequently with the same suspenseful results. We are first led to sorrow, by the character’s predicament. Sorrow is instantly shattered by the fear of looming figure in the distance. As the author does well to abolish all rational explanations for the figure, both the character and the reader’s mind begin to fill with the same conclusions. Our thoughts are scattered, we feel exposed, we feel repelled. She is too scared to speak, and we relate. The author’s use of suspense gives us new emotions, and amplifies those which we were already feeling.
This occurs often in Mysteries, particularly with the emotion of terror. Later in the story, as her and Dorothee are exploring the chambers of the castle, they come across a covered bed: “She had scarcely uttered those words, when the pall was more violently agitated than before; by Emily, somewhat ashamed of her terrors, stepped back to the bed, willing to be convinced that the wind only had occasioned her alarm; when, as she gazed within the curtains, the pall moved again, and, in the next moment, the apparition of human countenance rose above it.
Screaming with terror, they both fled[…]” (Radcliffe 536) This passage utilizes the same techniques as the one before it, in a manor just as effective. But in addition, this passage also emphasizes the shame she feels at being terrified so easily. After they flee the chamber, they run to the servant’s quarters, were they try to hide their fear and laugh at their response. Often, when fear is felt for a reason deemed inadequate, the terror is immediately followed by shame.
Some might even feel embarrassed that they were scared by something so trivial as a book. But it is a critical element of the suspense, the feeling evoked when it goes awry. Radcliffe is also adept at utilizing suspense for romance. When an emotion is a surprise, it can on occasion be more effective than if the emotion’s impact had been anticipated. In the circumstances of happy or positive emotions, the surprise can be critical. Terror is usually just as terrifying even if it is seen coming, but joy can be amplified by the revealing.
So when there is content in a story that will change the emotions of the character, it is often revealed to us the same way it is to them, by surprise. Such is the case as in the “ so-called “moral redemption” of Valancourt. Much later in the book, after Emily has discovered the truth and scorned him, she is reunited with Theresa, who asks of him. Emily, who still feels betrayed by him, asks her not to speak of him. “’Theresa,’ said Emily seriously, ‘you must name the Chevalier no more! ’ ‘Not name him, mademoiselle! ’ cried Theresa: ‘what times are come up now?
Why, I love the Chevalier next to my old master and you, mademoiselle. ’ ‘Perhaps your love was not well bestowed, then,’ replied Emily, trying to conceal her tears; ‘but, however that might be, we shall meet no more. ’ ‘Meet no more! –not well bestowed! ’ exclaimed Theresa. ‘What do I hear? No, mademoiselle, my love was well bestowed, for it was the Chevalier Valancourt, who gave me this cottage, and has supported me in my old age, ever since M. Quesnel turned me from my master’s house’” (Radcliffe 594) This information is new and unexpected, both to Emily and the reader.
It changes both perceptions of Valancourt, from the unreliable money-troubled heartbreaker into the type of man to selflessly pay for a cottage for an old woman. The inconsistency shocks both parties, and it’s the combination of the news and the surprise that make the emotion so poignant. This undoubtedly amplifies the sentiment, furthering our connection with the characters, and the connections between themselves. Essentially, suspense is a vital component of any story in which the main objective is to induce emotion, in both characters and readers alike. It is absolutely critical to Gothic literature for a few key reasons.
Gothic literature is almost entirely focused upon that transfer of emotion, that reach for the sublime. Additionally, critical aspects of the Gothic are its use of fear and romance, two components that can be critically augmented by suspense, apprehension, surprise. Any good novel’s intent is for the reader to care about the character, and being able to indentify with a protagonist makes that significantly easier. Being surprised with the character increases our connection with them, giving us more empathy, making the entire reading experience more enjoyable.
Learning new things about a story as we go along changes our opinions, and that is usually represented by a character learning these things with us. It enables us love the people whom they love. To fear the things that they fear, or do not yet understand. It enables us to care about someone who doesn’t even exist in reality, a fictional concept from an author’s head. From the beginning of a story we’re filled with wonder on how they’ll fare, and then on out we’ll be filled with the same wonder, of how it’s going to end.