The Failure of Gothic: Problems of Disjunction in An Eighteenth-Century Literary Form

By Elizabeth R. Napier | Go to book overview

2 Techniques of Destabilization and Excess

If the conventions of Gothic narrative that are designed to provide a comforting link to older fiction and older, moral themes -- the tendency to anchor the fiction in a real, historical past, the inclination to 'flatten' character to produce a more simply balanced ethical tale, the use of coincidence to hint at a providentially superintended universe -- often appear to be sources of problems rather than coherent stabilizing points within the stories (and hence disrupt the novels unintentionally), other techniques of the Gothic function deliberately to create an atmosphere of unease that is directly conducive to the 'Gothic' mood of fearful suspense. The result is a form of writing -- and an experience of reading -- that is essentially disruptive and subversive (though not always intentionally so). Part of the distinctive experience of the Gothic may actually derive from the reader's unconscious displeasure at the conjunction of these two structural modes: with its characteristic pattern of alternating static moralizing passages with scenes of often hectic action, it seems to demand an activity of consolidating on the part of its readership that its own design subverts. The result is a form that is fundamentally unstable, both in theory and in practice.

In 1800, the Marquis de Sade suggested a direct link between the instability of the Gothic form and the revolutionary turmoil of Europe: 'Pour qui connaissait tous les malheurs dont les méchans peuvent accabler les hommes, le Roman devenait aussi difficile à faire, que monotone à lire . . . il fallait donc appeller l'enfer à son secours, pour se composer des titres à l'intérêt, et trouver dans le pays des chimières, ce qu'on savait couramment en ne fouillant que l'histoire de l'homme dans cet âge de fer.'1 It is difficult to say in what degree the Gothic novel

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1
D. A. F., Marquis de Sade, Idée sur les romans, ed. O. Uzanne ( Paris, 1878), pp. 32-3. André Breton and Michael Sadleir, among others, share this view. See Breton, "'Limites non frontières du surréalisme'", Nouvelle revue française, xl viii ( 1937), 210; Sadleir, The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen, English Association Pamphlet no. 68 ( November, 1927) ( Oxford, 1927), p. 7. An interesting contemporary review links the two revolutions explicitly: "'A Jacobin Novelist'" [Letter to the editor], in the Monthly Magazine, i v ( 1798), 102-4.

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