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

By Elizabeth R. Napier | Go to book overview

1 Techniques of Closure and Restraint

Many Gothic novels, following a pattern made popular in eighteenth-century poetry and prose, exhibit a strong tendency towards closure, towards stabilization and formal resolution. In no other respect does the Gothic novel betray its kinship with previous fiction more clearly. The urge to stabilize, especially marked in the early Gothic, indeed is often so extreme that other facets of the work, such as character and probable plot, are sacrificed to it; the occasionally disjunctive results are rarely acknowledged or explored. ( Mary-Anne Radcliffe is a hesitant exception: she concludes Manfroné, her sensational tale of evil, with the directive that the reader should attempt to extract from it lessons of virtue and happiness.) That closure should be insisted upon with such vehemence, and often with such naïveté, may strike one as surprising in view of the fact that these novels have repeatedly been called 'pre-romantic'. Structurally speaking, few of the early works exhibit designs that are consciously or coherently 'romantic' (at least in McFarland's or Weiskel's sense of the term). This failure to depart in any radical way from the structures of prevailing modes of fiction suggests the essentially conservative attitude of many of the first Gothic writers. Intent, it seems, on adapting to the current taste for the marvellous, or on stretching the limits of fictional design to see, for example, how extreme or remote an experience may still afford a lesson in moral sentiment, the early Gothic remains undisruptive because the basic structure of its experience is still so familiar.1

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Many Gothic writers, interestingly, professionally preserved this balance between conservatism and novelty by writing both in accepted 'higher' modes and in the Gothic manner. Eliza Parsons, for example, wrote Gothic novels as well as satirical, sentimental, and historical fiction; Clara Reeve wrote both supernatural tales and novels of education; and Walpole wrote widely (indeed, primarily) in other genres.

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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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