Saturday, November 8, 2014

Extremes of Gothic Writing

There are many facets and aspects to gothic writing which are considered defining of the genre.  Terror, sexuality, depiction of the senses and the ever-present suspense are all parts of the gothic mode.  These mediums are all used to the extreme, or as Becker put it in 1999, “excess: excess in moral terms, excess of realism into the supernatural, [and] formal excess”.  According to Botting in Gothic, he agrees that the gothic mode signifies a writing of excess, and further goes to explain that it shows itself in the obscurity that plagued eighteenth-century morality and rationality, shadowing the romanticised pleasures of idealism and individuality while at the same time making use of the gluttony of the Victorian era.[1]  This view and concept of the excess of the gothic mode will be discussed in relation to the first of the gothic novels, The Castle of Otranto, and to the poem The Eve of St Agnes, looking at the examples of these types of excess in these specific literary works. 

To begin, this essay shall examine The Castle of Otranto, as it is regarded as the first work of gothic literature, and the defining and influential standard for the genre.  The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is the story of a man, Manfred, who lives in a castle with his wife, daughter, and son whom is shortly to be wed.  The opening of the book provides a perfect starting example of the excess that is used in gothic writing.  Within the first 3 pages of the story, Manfred’s son, Conrad, is found to have been violently killed, and the scene is described with Manfred finding “his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human beings, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers”.[2]  This excerpt contains clear examples of excess in realism, where the description of the dashing to pieces of the son is described, excess in the size of the helmet that did the crushing, and excess in the amount of black that is used for the feathering on the helmet.  It is recognised that this was written in this manner to convey a sense of grandiose presence and as a shock for the readers of the late eighteenth-century. 

Continuing on further in The Castle of Otranto, more examples of the excess in the gothic nature can be found, specifically of the morally depraved kind.  A few pages further from where Manfred discovered his son dashed to pieces on his wedding day, he devises a plan to secure himself another male heir.  Manfred calls the young girl Isabella whom was to wed Conrad, to his chambers.  Isabella goes thinking that Manfred wants to talk to her about Conrad and seek some sort of comfort, but Manfred quickly reveals that he plans to divorce his wife than night so that he can take Isabella as his new wife, as she is young and beautiful and can bare him many sons.  Further, Manfred continues in his debauchery-driven self-deprecation of his moral character by explaining that his love of his son was misplaced as Conrad was a sickly child and would not have been fit to carry on his line nor be worthy of Isabella herself and proceeds to throw himself at her, causing her to flee.[3]  This is a clear example of the degree of depravation that is depicted in the gothic mode, which was clearly written to go beyond the normal proper British standard of literature of the day and was meant to provoke actual emotion and passion in the readers.[4]  This need to invoke an emotional response in the readers and populace of the time could have been due to the restrictive nature of the church and the way that it portrayed sex, drugs, and anything else that it did not like at this time in history, and the people feeling a need to express themselves.  Frank agrees with this observation in his introduction that he wrote in a 2003 edition of The Castle of Otranto & The Mysterious Mother, which he also edited.  Frank said that “Walpole’s purpose in both his architectural and literary Gothicizing was to secure freedom from the ennui and malaise engendered by neoclassic order and form.”[5]  It appears then that the motivation behind Walpole writing The Castle of Otranto was that the current Victorian, or neoclassical works available were too dry, routine, and boring; lacking in substance that would engage and challenge the current population in Europe to think differently and to become emotionally invested in what they were reading.  In order to illicit a substantial response, Walpole poured as much excess of moral depravity, supernatural haunting, scandal, and suspense as he could into the short story, and in turn, and quite accidentally, created an entire genre that focused on the supernatural, the emotion, the senses and feelings. 

More examples of the scope of excess used in the gothic mode can be found in the poem The Eve of St Agnes.  This poem is the tale of how a man named Porphyro steals his way into a church during a holy ceremony for young virgin women who are hoping to see a vision of their future husband, and spies upon and then takes advantage of a young maiden named Madeline, which he loves but cannot be with due to feuding houses, much like Romeo and Juliet.[6]  The excess that is depicted in this poem is mostly of a sensory and of a sexual nature, most likely to try and play-on, and provoke, the stronger senses and emotions in a person, which holds with the previous stated purpose behind the gothic mode being to pull the populace out of a dull existence and create emotional responses. 

The poem opens with a two-stanza long description of the cold; over-emphasizing the degree to which the low temperature was felt, seemingly in order to help once again to draw on the senses of the readers and try to spark emotional connections and a true perception and feeling of the atmosphere.[7]  Phrases such as ‘bitter chill’, ‘frozen grass’, ‘frosted breath’, and ‘icy hoods’ all serve to help instil the sense of a deep, cold winter night for the reader, void of warmth and comfort.[8]  This is then met with a contradiction to the senses by the warmth and comfort of being inside depicted in the lines that follow which describe Madeline’s preparation within the church for the ritual of St Agnes.[9]  Again, there are lines spent depicting the scene which are heavily dependant on the senses, using the alliteration of ‘music’s gold tounge’ and ‘silver, snarling trumpets’ which show an excess of activity during the preparations for this holy rite.[10] 

The excess that is used in The Eve of St Agnes is not confined to just the sensations created by the weather, though.  Another example is the sexual content and tension that exist within Porphyro and is the resulting cause of his deception to Madeline in her bedchamber.[11]  From the moment that he steals himself away into Madeline’s closet and watches her slowly undress, until the time that he ‘melts into her dream’[12], this poem displays an excessive amount of sexually oriented content that was, once again as stated previously, most likely written to shock the readers into having some response and move out of their nineteenth-century comfort zone. 

Thus with a close examination of these two examples of gothic literature, and focusing on only a few of the aspects that define the genre, it can be demonstrated that Becker’s view of the gothic mode being explained as excess is well founded.  The excessive size of the armour in The Castle of Otranto, the sexual depravity displayed by Manfred and the resulting death of his own daughter and loss of his kingdom because of it, coupled with the extremes that Keats goes to in The Eve of St Agnes to describe the sensations of cold and warmth, and the sensual sexuality of the interactions between Madeline and Porphyro within the bedchamber go far in proving that the gothic mode was developed specifically to stir up feelings and emotions in the readers, and does so using excess in all things. 


Botting, F.  (2007).  Gothic.  Routledge, New York. 

Frank, F.  (2003).  The Castle of Otranto & The Mysterious Mother by Horace Walpole.  National Library of Canada, Toronto. 

Keats, J.  (1819-1820).  The Eve of St Agnes.  ENG211 Reading 05, 2007. 

Shakespeare, W.  (1980).  Shakespeare: The Complete Works, (edited by G. B. Harrison).  Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Orlando. 

Walpole, W.  (2008).  The Castle of Otranto, (edited by W. S. Lewis).  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[1] Botting, Gothic, pg. 1-3
[2] Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, pg. 19
[3] Ibid, pg. 24-26
[4] Botting, Gothic, pg. 3
[5] Frank, The Castle of Otranto & The Mysterious Mother, pg 12
[6] Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, pg. 468-511
[7] Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, Line 1-18
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid, Line 28-54
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid, Line 163-352
[12] Ibid, Line 320

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