A successful response to the Gothic is based on instability: one must be pleased by what one dreads, take pleasure from distress, luxuriate in terror. Though this paradox was repeatedly noted by critics of the period, and recurs in discussions of the sublime, it poses problems for the reader of Gothic fiction that are particularly disquieting. It is perhaps the peculiarly contradictory stance of the reader of Gothic that accounts for the emphasis on decay and disintegration in the form. Because the Gothic, though it retains its outward moral structure, increasingly flirts with ambivalence in ethics (the ascendancy of Schedoni in The Italian, the Gothic heroes of Lewis and Maturin, the works of William Godwin), the position of an audience that abandons itself to such pleasures without the witting supervision of an author or the reward of controlled moral truths becomes equivocal at best. That the search for disquieting effects could become amoral was a consequence realized by the earliest theoreticians of the picturesque;1 that the amoral or immoral itself could become fascinating was a premise explored by the later practitioners of the Gothic. As one approaches this latter pole, the delicate instability of balance that ideally defines the Gothic becomes more fixed: one's imagination cannot, as Ann Radcliffe hopefully argued, be infinitely 'expanded' by terror,2 but is inevitably periodically stupefied and fixed by it. The fixation exercised by evil and horror in the narratives of Godwin or Maturin is, indeed, petrifying and numbing; Emily's response when Morano enters her bedroom, or when she views what she thinks is the corpse of Madame Montoni, is equally dangerously debilitating. Thus, the most dramatic and striking scenes of Gothic death are fixed like pictures (Everhard covered with blood in Melmoth the Wanderer; the flayed novitiate in Melmoth; the burial of Madame Montoni in The Mysteries ofUdolpho____________________
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Publication information: Book title: The Failure of Gothic:Problems of Disjunction in an Eighteenth-Century Literary Form. Contributors: Elizabeth R. Napier - Author. Publisher: Clarendon Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1987. Page number: 147.