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Gothic History Online

The first chapter of Fred Botting's Gothic begins with a description of Gothic as anchored in the written word: "Gothic signifies a writing of excess. It appears in the awful obscurity that haunted eighteenth-century rationality and morality. It shadows the despairing ecstasies of Romantic idealism and individualism and the uncanny dualities of Victorian realism and decadence" [Botting, Fred, Gothic, New York: Routledge, 2007,p. 1]. It goes beyond the civility of proper British society "stiff upper lip" cliché and evokes actual passion. Gothic is also historically characterized as an art form of transgressions. Botting shows that early Gothic novels warned against moral and social transgressions that could lead to retribution and the danger of losing civility. The Gothic also seems to lend itself to what Botting describes as diffusion. By that he implies that the essence of Gothic approaches stereotypes at its worst and archetypes at its best. Gothic writings over the centuries survive through repetition of theme, character type, and setting. It is as if The Castle of Otranto crystallized the primordial stage upon which every other Gothic story would later play.

Jerrold E. Hogle characterizes Gothic writing as a kind of stasis of opposites:

No other form of writing or theatre is as insistent as Gothic on juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction--about gender, sexuality, race, class, the colonizers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal versus normal psychology--and leaving both extremes sharply before us and far less resolved than the conventional endings in most of these works claim them to be. In this respect, ...writing, theatre, and films of this kind enact and reflect the most intense and important ambivalences in modern western culture, if only in a distortion mirror that ostensibly places these quandaries long ago or far away from us [Hogle, Jerrold E., Editor, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 13-14].

In the 17th Century, Gothic and politics were beginning to be viewed as related. It was surmised at the time that civilized forms of government and legal systems were introduced by the northern Germanic people who preceded the Romans. This view of Gothic as a positive influence continued through the 18th Century where it was eventually contrasted with the hedonism of Roman Catholicism, especially after the Reformation. In England, at least, the line was drawn between Germanic Protestant standards of freedom and Roman Catholic rituals and superstitions. So early Gothic literature suggested a nostalgia for a pristine past while simultaneously wallowing in the hauntings and supernatural events that originated in Catholic ritual. 

Gothic also came to signify abuses by political authorities. The word was becoming a kind of political football changing meaning according to the particular politics. "In the contest for the meaning of 'Gothic' more than a single word was at stake. At issue were the differently constructed and valued meanings of the Enlightenment, culture, nation and government as well as contingent, but no less contentious, significances of the family, nature, individuality and representation" [Bottings, Gothic, pp. 42-43].

Labyrinths and hidden passage ways became a staple of the Gothic setting early on...and are to this day featured in novels, online RPG games, and movies of the same genre. These twists and convolutions later became associated with deceit, corruption, and superstition. In the 18th Century, the Gothic and its labyrinthine stories alluded to the dangers of the French Revolution spilling into civilized British society. "Linked to novels that raise the contaminating spectre of democracy and excite readers with a 'Gallic frenzy' that simultaneously upsets proper national and sexual identifications, the labyrinth is also associated with confusion, deception and 'superstitious corruption'" [Botting, Gothic, p. 83].

This view of Gothic is related to Edmund Burke's ideas in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke's use of the term Gothic is linked to the evolution of Whig philosophy according to Botting: "In this context Gothic signified the northern European tribes, admired for their love of freedom and democratic institutions" [Gothic, p.88]. Bottings argues that Burke's language discourages radical actions in favor of democracy and political equality as a way of avoiding what was happening in France. Robert Miles points out that this view of Gothic was actually around long before the French Revolution: "Prior to the French Revolution, for any of those subscribing to Whiggism in its many varieties, 'Gothic' possessed a positive rather than negative political valence. It was a common belief among Whigs and radicals alike that the English Parliament traced its origins to an ancient, or Gothic, constitution brought to England by the Saxons" [Robert Miles, "The 1790s: The Effulgence of Gothic," The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 48].

But there was a counter view to Burke's that used the Gothic to represent instead "everything that was old-fashioned, barbaric, feudal and irrationally ungrounded" [Gothic, p.88]. Botting explains that Thomas Paine, in his own The Rights of Man,  criticized Burke's lamenting the passing of Gothic times as fantasy unduly praising oppressive political customs and institutions. Mary Wollstonecraft also criticizes Burke in her own A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790): "Man preys on man; and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer" [Gothic, p. 88]. And Botting concludes that

The continuing ambivalence and polarisation of the word Gothic until the end of the eighteenth century was significant not only in the changes of meaning that it underwent but in its function in a network of associations whose positive or negative value depended on the political positions and representations with which Gothic figures were associated [Gothic, p.89].

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