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

By Elizabeth R. Napier | Go to book overview

6 Villainy: The Italian

The frequent disjunction of the affective and the moral in the Gothic is symptomatic of an aesthetic system with strong self- corrective tendencies, in which the affective may be used to break the bounds of the moral and the moral to repress the flights of the dramatic. In the Gothic novel, the two strains usually exist in marked tension, issuing in artistic constructs that revolve covertly or overtly around punishment, be they sentimental (as in The Mysteries of Udolpho) or erotic (as in The Monk). The peculiar fascination of the genre may reside precisely here: the reader, relieved because of his willing immersion in fantasy from contemplating the ethical implications of this struggle, can experience, under supervision, a world in which moral aberrations occur and be returned safely and confidently at the end to a domain in which such values remain properly separate. Because, furthermore, the moral tends to be applied punitively (especially at the novels' conclusions), the reader is also relieved from acting on what he has read: the works excite, in Coleridge's terms, 'feelings without at the same time ministering an impulse to action', to 'conduct according to a principle'; 'they afford excitement without producing reaction.'1

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1
Coleridge's remarks appear in a discussion on the education of children and are directed towards modern novels, especially ladies' novels. His sense that curiosity alone cannot stimulate moral conduct is particularly germane to the Gothic: 'The common modern novel,' he observes, 'in which there is no imagination, but a miserable struggle to excite and gratify mere curiosity, ought, in my judgment, to be wholly forbidden to children. Novel-reading of this sort is especially injurious to the growth of the imagination, the judgment, and the morals, especially to the latter, because it excites mere feelings without at the same time ministering an impulse to action. . . . The source of the common fondness for novels of this sort rests in that dislike of vacancy and that love of sloth, which are inherent in the human mind; they afford excitement without producing reaction. By reaction I mean an activity of the intellectual faculties, which shows itself in consequent reasoning and observation, and originates action and conduct according to a principle' ( "'The Education of Children'", Lecture xi, Literary Remains ( 1836), repr. in Coleridge Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor ( London, 1936), pp. 195-6).

-133-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements xv
  • Contents xvii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Techniques of Closure and Restraint 9
  • 2 - Techniques of Destabilization and Excess 44
  • 3 - Frenzy: The Castle of Otranto 73
  • 4 - Attractive Persecution: The Mysteries of Udolpho 100
  • 5 - Cross-Purposes: The Monk 112
  • 6 - Villainy: The Italian 133
  • Epilogue 147
  • Bibliography 151
  • Index 161
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