The Good, the Bad and the Gothic

What with the new Tom Hiddleston film, ‘Crimson Peak’, the new ‘Macbeth’ being released and Halloween having just passed, gothic images are everywhere. Now, I have to put a small disclaimer before I continue, I love the Gothic genre, but I didn’t always. Before studying the genre at A-level, I wouldn’t have touched books like ‘Dracula’ or ‘Frankenstein’ with a barge pole. I’m a self-professed coward; anything remotely scary and you’ll find me hiding behind the sofa. You can imagine that I wasn’t too pleased to find them all on my A-level reading list. However, part way through ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ and I was astounded; admittedly I’ve always had a soft spot for Oscar Wilde; but it was nothing like the satirical plays I admired him for. This was dark and sexy, beautifully written, as is expected from Wilde, but so much more than the horror and melodrama that I’d been dreading.

To give some background to the genre as a whole, the beginning of the Gothic Romance novel is generally attributed to the ‘The Castle of Otranto’, written by Horace Walpole in 1764. This novel was seen as a reaction to the eighteenth-century period of literary neoclassicism. Unsurprisingly, for those in the contemporary audience who liked the straight lines and systematic neatness of neoclassicism (think rectangular houses with perfectly aligned windows and flower beds that have been arranged in parallel lines with a ruler – I’m not kidding, people actually used to do this), the introduction of the sprawling, romantic, highly charged Gothic novel was a bit of a shock. I think one critic even described Walpole’s novel as “spawning” the Gothic Romance genre, amongst other equally uncomplimentary comments. Even though many of these novels are now considered as classics, at the time, they were popular fiction; much the same as Twilight (a Gothic revival novel in its own right) would be over two hundred years later.

The main reason for the contemporary critics’ extreme dislike of this genre was in relation to its female readership. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the horror and gore that was central to the critics’ outrage, but the ‘bad guys’. Contemporary critics were convinced that the darker or evil characters would be perversely attractive to female readers; they believed that novels such as ‘Dracula’, with its charming and debonair eponymous character, would present vice as something desirable, consequently tempting female readers to sin. Gothic romances explored previously side-lined notions of sexual desire and passion alongside the excitement and heart racing suspense of the tales themselves. All of these inherent themes of the genre tended to be embodied in, or at least directly related to, the antagonist or ‘bad guy’ (think Count Dracula, Dorian Grey, Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster). In fact, in many novels these are the qualities that draw the female characters to the antagonist; often an almost subconscious attraction to something dark, mysterious, exciting and other. Even in novels where the female characters don’t show an explicit attraction towards the ‘bad guy’, there’s still a stark contrast between these figures and their protagonists – in Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ for example, Dr Frankenstein is quite frankly a complete wimp and a much weaker presence than the monster. He’s shown to be such an insubstantial and self-obsessed character while by contrast, the monster portrays a greater depth of self and emotion – despite the atrocities that he commits – to such an extent that the reader can’t help feeling a sense of compassion and sympathy towards him.

It was these blurred distinctions between good and bad, the moral and the immoral that critics had such a problem with. Unlike the previous neo-classical novels which were often didactic, the majority of Gothic novels didn’t pass a specific moral judgement, and therefore they made it harder for readers to distinguish between vice and virtue. They presented vice as being not wholly bad, through characters that always portrayed some inherently virtuous characteristic, despite their evident moral corruption.

Recent decades have seen a movement from concern about the Gothic novel’s influence on female readers, to a concern about the portrayal of women in the novels themselves. The stereotypical portrayal of a ‘damsel in distress’ recurs throughout Gothic fiction from the earliest novels such as Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ to the twentieth-century Gothic revival novels such as Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. The key difference, however, is that Carter intentionally stereotyped her heroines in order to highlight the inherent gender roles at the heart of this genre and society itself. However, like with almost every Gothic theme, there is an ambiguity surrounding the idea of the ‘damsel in distress’. Yes, there are moments in almost every Gothic novel when the female protagonist must be physically saved; but there is also the sense of a moral or spiritual rescue and in these instances there is frequently a role reversal between victim and saviour. Protagonists such as Ann Radcliffe’s Emily, in ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, and Mary Shelley’s Elizabeth are seen to epitomise qualities of virtue, bravery and selflessness and become the saviour of their respective male counterparts. It is possible that, as proto-feminist writers, Radcliffe and Shelley were unusual in their perceptions of women (Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights’ of Women’). However, in Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, Mina Harker is described multiple times as “angelic” as well as being said to have a “man’s brain”, and surprisingly, in the novel, the combination of contemporary ideas of masculine and feminine qualities within Mina is not seen as something undesirable. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; some critics have even argued that Mina is almost as important as or even more important than Dracula himself.

Gothic fiction is elusive and complex, like its characters, allowing each reader to take something different from it; but this is why it’s one of my favourite genres of literature. It’s a genre that will have you on the edge of your seat whilst still being able to laugh at its own melodrama, and it’s the perfect thing to read on a dark winter’s evening with the lights turned down – so get reading!

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