Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction


An intriguing scholarly investigation, not so much of the ways the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries articulated pain, but of the ways in which pain itself articulated the late eighteenth-century experience. Through analysis of novels, plays, and poems, the author explores the transition from sensibility as a sense of "selflessness" to Romanticism, which puts the self in the foreground as the mediating consciousness. His tightly focused discussion sets a starting point for further critical investigation of the subject.


Eugene Delacroix 1827 canvas, The Death of Sardanapalus (see frontispiece), is not about the death of Sardanapalus. The moment captured by the painting immediately precedes the one in which the Assyrian king of Byron's drama will drink poison and immolate himself on his own bed. What Delacroix has chosen to present is a king who watches others die, a king who, in the painting, remains untouched. Poised with seeming insouciance on his bed, surrounded by riches and lushly attired, Sardanapalus watches the assassination of his concubines by the soldiers of his treasonous satraps. The painting is not about the death of Sardanapalus so much as it is about Sardanapalus's contemplation of death. It indulges what Norman Bryson calls the "beauty of barbarism" (Tradition 186) to contrast the thinking about pain with the experience itself. It sets the life of Sardanapalus's mind squarely against the lives of the harem's bodies.

This division of body and mind is replayed through another division, a veritable separation in the canvas. As Jack J. Spector notes, the painting is troublesome for the split between the background and the foreground, between the "opposed moods of pensive melancholy and animal energy, and of the detachment of the mental from the physical" (Death 23). The concubines' life-sized bodies eclipse the king who looks on from a

dark background [that] seems rather more like a somber stage setting than a believable receding space, especially in view of its apparent division from the brightly illuminated foreground, across which figures move like actors downstage under the spotlight. (17-18)

This intensified, focused light emphasizes the immediacy and vulnerable corporeality of these bodies. Like the bodies of their murderers, the women are mostly naked and exposed. Their glowing skin is set off by deep velvets of red and green, and by the lush pearls on earlobe, arm, and ankle. This sensuous nakedness, against which the sadistic violence is committed, depicts Delacroix's fascination with the violent in the erotic -- that familiar Freudian paradigm of sex and death -- a fascination that has resulted in critical dis-ease with the painting since its appearance in 1828 (see Spector . . .

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