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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ambivalent and nostalgic attitudes in selected gothic novels Madoff, Mark


This dissertation focusses chiefly on the sensibility underlying selected gothic fiction published between 1764 and 1820. A preliminary section deals with the history of the term "gothic" from the Renaissance onwards, and in this section and elsewhere attention is given to the revival of interest in gothic architecture as affording insights for the critic of the novel. The general emphasis of the study is on attitudes to postulated gothic ancestors, and how a recreated gothic world provides either a suitable environment for discovering an ideal social or political system, or opportunities for exercising greater imaginative freedom, especially in the treatment of sensational or erotic subjects. Political thinkers of the post-Renaissance seeking an "Ancient Constitution," as well as antiquaries indulging a taste for medieval artifacts, supplied a factual basis for the gothic, but its main attractiveness lay in its imaginative richness, novelty, and potency as a domain of art. In both literature and architecture, the vogue of the gothic was part of an innovative reaction against the apparent limits of harmonious, decorous, rational, balanced art. However, the innovation usually took a subversive direction, employing familiar forms and attitudes in order to conceal or palliate the strangeness of the gothic, in order to link it with more acceptable tastes. This dissertation traces the process of compromise with established styles in the literary and architectural work of the first prominent gothic fantasist, Horace Walpole, and contrasts his fictional techniques in "The Castle of Otranto" (1764) with those of Clara Reeve in "The Old English Baron" (1777), in which the gothic world is made an improved, purified version of Reeve's own society. Two distinct attitudes towards the gothic developed: ambivalence and nostalgia. The ambivalent attitude retained much of the modern contempt for the gothic while realizing its sensational potentialities; it combined amusement with a deeper source of fascination. The nostalgic attitude regarded the gothic world as an experimental site, where conservative and radical solutions to present problems might be imposed upon a loose historical framework. Ambivalent gothicism tended to follow an increasingly sensational line, investigating the attraction of evil and power, the plight of the victim, and the psychological accompaniments of extreme situations. An aesthetic basis of the art of strong sensation or terror is outlined through reviewing the central arguments of Burke's "Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1757). It is suggested that they helped to engender a controversy over the proper balance between sensationalism and decorum. The psychological theories of the "Enquiry" and the ensuing controversy are examined for the light they shed on gothic fictional practices, and critics' observations are cited as evidence of the tensions between ambivalent and nostalgic attitudes towards the gothic. Although exoticism served both gothic ambivalence and nostalgia, it was especially valuable for facilitating the approach to sensational materials, by providing a protective degree of aesthetic distance. The ambivalent attitude and the careful exploitation of exoticism permitted freer exploration of painful, disturbing subjects than was possible in "realistic" fiction. This is documented through close analysis of "The Monk" (1795) by M. G. Lewis; "The Romance of the Forest" (1791), "The Mysteries of Udolpho" (1794), and "The Italian" (1797) by Ann Radcliffe; and "Melmoth the Wanderer" (1820), by Charles Maturin. It is shown that, while nostalgic elements occasionally intrude in these novels, the usefulness of gothic exoticism lies in the increased ability to concentrate on certain obsessive themes. Psychologically-threatening problems of identity, knowledge, education, and authority often appear through monastic models, and the figure of the criminal or outcast, who is usually a sexual aggressor, indirectly represents anxieties about relations between parents and children, rulers and subjects, men and women. It is argued that the ambivalent gothic became a dark medium on which were projected visions of psychic disintegration and oppression. The novels analyzed sought to realize the extraordinary crises of the soul, while offering varying amounts of relief from the pressures of the anarchic forces portrayed in conflict.

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