Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Looking at the Other: Cultural Difference and the Traveller's Gaze in 'The Italian.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Looking at the Other: Cultural Difference and the Traveller's Gaze in 'The Italian.'

Article excerpt

Established critical opinion on the Gothic romance has long identified landscape as one of the distinctive features of this genre. Its most widely followed systematizations, such as those by Montague Summers and Devendra Varma, consider the Gothic a highly patterned narrative form, and treat landscape as a recurrent topos in a stylized repertoire of motifs. It follows that much like the Renaissance locus amoenus, landscape appears as one among the various devices of a stable narrative rhetoric.(1) And yet this authoritative outlook has impoverished the significance of place in Gothic writing, allowing all subsequent commentators to regard it as a minor aspect that confirms what one has to say about the genre itself. Such critical construction of place seems to find its genealogical justification in the contemporary attitude to Gothic landscape as a backdrop made up of repetitive fragments. Thus, in a well-known letter to John Reynolds in 1818, Keats evokes an ironic list of Gothic spatial elements:

I am going among Scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel

Radcliffe--I'll cavern you, and grotto you, and waterfall you, and wood

you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous sound you,

and solitude you.(2)

On the one hand, Keats here anticipates the tendency of modern critics to reduce the representation of place in Gothic works to a set of topoi and to construct it as a stereotyped item in the syntax of Gothic discourse. On the other hand, the poet illustrates how both readers and critics have continuously considered this landscape as a mass of scattered and, needless to say, ruined fragments. Gothic place is hardly ever perceived as a whole, an all-responsive locale, and Keats offers a sizeable list of its sub-places: to his caverns, grottos, waterfalls, woods and rocks, one should add all the corresponding closed places such as castles, abbeys, labyrinths, dungeons, and churches. Besides expanding on this fragmentary representation of place, contemporary criticism has also tended to further regiment its repetitive features by subjecting it to other textual forces, so that place becomes expressive of the characters' psychology or a vaguely specified textual mood.

Gothic place then needs to be revaluated as a narrative site where the author stages confrontations between persecutors and victims, and dramatizes a conflict between agents of similarity and figures of difference. A new approach to place moreover calls for a clarification of the ideological assumptions relevant to it within Gothic textuality. Moving "locale" from a descriptive sphere to a more problematized cultural scenario is in keeping with recent reconstructions of the Gothic as writing and as a type of discourse, and no longer as simply a localized manifestation of narrative fiction. Such a liberating prospect allows us to investigate the Gothic aesthetic in its more topical aspects, and as a form of literary representation that "initially emerged as a debate about contemporary society and its licentious discontents," as well as about the instabilities and anxieties that cross it.(3)

Considered in this perspective, landscape in Gothic romances acquires a new interest, while at the same time moving away from a codification of mere exotic decorativeness. More specifically, I intend to read Radcliffe's The Italian as an explicit example of how Gothic novelists conceive geographic place as a unity with the cultural and human landscape and develop specific ideological issues and dilemmas within such distant locales. Similar claims can be staked for numerous other Gothic texts: The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer, for example, concentrate on Spain as a nightmarish oppressive system, whereas Lewis's tragedy The Castle Spectre contains an interesting, though secondary, confrontation between white European characters and a few anachronistic black slaves. The Italian, nevertheless, shows this activity of creating and facing cultural "otherworlds" at its most effective execution. …

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