Thursday, March 7, 2013

Chapter One: In Which Some Things Are Explained

I vant you to read my portfolio.
Greetings, reader. I am using this blog as the platform for a  digital portfolio for a class on Victorian Gothic literature which I am currently enrolled in.  The goal of the class is to build a portfolio which displays an understanding of the genre and the works it encompasses.  In order to build a more complete understanding of this genre, I will be attempting to explore its broader historical context.  It is my hope that by examining the history of the time period in which it emerged and became popular, I will be able to better understand how the genre of Victorian Gothic lit evolved, and in turn, how the works read in this course fit into the genre.

The term Victorian Gothic literature refers to a revival of Gothic literature which took place in the mid-Nineteenth century.  During this time period, authors borrowed elements from the Gothic literature of the previous century, and blended it with more realistic elements, including a focus on science and human psychology.
The Castle Of Otranto by Horace Walpole.  It is regarded
 as the prototypical Gothic novel and contains many elements
 that influenced the Victorian Gothic genre.

Gothic fiction was born out of the Romantic movement in the late eighteenth century.  Horace Walpole is said to have invented the genre, with his  novel The Castle of Otranto.  Other authors were quick to capitalize on his success by writing their own stories in a similar vein, and so the Gothic movement took off.

The name of this movement was taken from the type of architecture which the stories commonly featured.  Old, crumbling castles and abbeys were popular choices for settings, as they were exotic enough to entice readers' imaginations, yet common enough - in England a century or two ago, at least - that they lent a slight amount of plausibility to the tales.  Other common elements of Gothic stories from this era were supernatural creatures or events, curses, madness, lust, and death.  Gothic literature often made use of dark and fantastic imagery, and appealed to the emotions of the reader in an attempt to create a sense of terror within the reader.  Anne Radcliffe, author of the immensely popular Gothic novels The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, is considered to have been an innovator within the genre, and is credited with having made it socially acceptable, at a time when reading novels was often associated with flightiness or lack of character.  However, her success paved the way for dozens of less talented and more morally ambiguous authors to flood the market with a surplus of sensational - and often scandalous - stories in the Gothic vein.  Still, readers, especially younger ones, eagerly devoured these tales.  Although the original Gothic movement garnered somewhat of a reputation for being melodramatic and formulaic, something about it must have struck a chord, because though the original Gothic movement

A Gothic Abbey
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Gothic movement was eclipsed by the emergence of realism as a literary style.  The beginnings of realism roughly correspond with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England.   The vast and rapid social change which industrialization brought spurred many authors to discard the fantastic trappings of Gothic fiction and focus instead on the realistic.  By the time Queen Victoria took the throne however, the Gothic movement was enjoying a resurgence.  But instead of the dark and stormy nights and abandoned castles that had characterized earlier Gothic literature, Victorian Gothic Literature took some of the most recognizable themes and tropes and transplanted them to a more familiar setting.  Victorian Gothic literature often included the same focus on the supernatural and spiritual, but left the conclusions more ambiguous, leaving the readers to question whether the thrilling events of the story have rational explanations or are indeed the results of supernatural activity.
Known for being prudish and difficult to amuse, Queen
Victoria's reign was nevertheless a time of great change
and innovation within the British Empire.  

One of the most interesting aspects of the Victorian Gothic genre is the commentary on science and human nature.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of the earliest examples of Victorian Gothic literature, was inspired by a conversation about the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin who was said to have reanimated dead tissue using electricity.  At Shelley's time, science was still an emerging field, and one that many people viewed with some level of distrust.  This is evident in Shelley's Frankenstein, where the efforts of one scientist go horribly wrong, and wind up causing huge amounts of destruction.  Also evident in this story is the innate belief that human nature is weak and easily swayed to evil.  From this belief stems the view shared by many early Victorian Gothic writers that science is too powerful a tool for our meddling human hands.  Shelley's other works, "Mortal Immortal" and "Transformation" also display this attitude, as do Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body-Snatchers" and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll and Hyde's setting in Victorian era London would
 have been much more familiar to most readers than the
exotic castles and mansions of earlier Gothic works.  
As time went on though, attitudes towards science began to change.  Both in real life, and in the reflections of real life that so often occur in literature, science began to become more acceptable.  The dire predictions of earlier writers doomsayers that science would be abused by humans for their own sinister gains failed to come true, and science instead began to have a palpable positive effect on the human race.  As a result, science and logic began to figure far more heavily in literature, and were generally portrayed in a positive light.  Writings from the later part of the Victorian era tend to exalt the triumph of reason and scientific method over the irrational and superstitious beliefs which had been so commonplace short decades earlier.  H.G. Wells' "Red Room," in which a rational and intelligent narrator attributes a "haunted" house to a manifestation of fear in the human psyche, is an excellent example of a work in which traditional creepy Gothic tropes are combined with a more advanced understanding of the human condition and the world we inhabit.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales also often rely on Gothic tropes in order to draw the reader in, but then ultimately deliver a rational and realistic explanation for what appears to be supernatural.
Sherlock Holmes: champion
of reason over superstition

Though the Victorian Era has long since come and gone, the Gothic literature which it gave birth to continues to terrify and entertain audiences.  Whether it is in the beloved tales and poems of Edgar Allen Poe, The Adventures of Everyone's Favorite Gumshoe: Sherlock Holmes, or the countless renditions of Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, these stories have staying power.  Perhaps it is the skillful blending of the supernatural and the scientific, perhaps it is the story they tell us about human nature.  Or maybe we just like to be scared.

Readings for the Course:
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)
Transformation - Mary Shelley (1831)
Mortal Immortal - Mary Shelley (1833)
The Fall of the House of Usher - Edgar Allen Poe (1839)
Murders in the Rue Morgue - Edgar Allen Poe (1841)
My Last Duchess - Robert Browning (1842)
The Old Nurse's Story - Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)
An Account of Some Disturbances in Aungier Street - Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1853)
Last House - Dinah Craik (1856)
At Crighton Abbey - Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1871)
Carmilla - Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1872)
The Body-Snatchers - Robert Louis Stevenson (1884)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Dracula - Bram Stoker (1897)
Jeromette and the Clergyman - Wilkie Collins (1887)
The Withered Arm - Thomas Hardy (1888)
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde (1890)
A Scandal in Bohemia - Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The Red Room - H.G. Wells (1894)
The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire - Arthur Conan Doyle (1924)

Monday, March 4, 2013

At Crighton Abbey
Would you believe such a jolly bunch of sportsmen
could portend a tragic death in the family?
         For the first Interpretive Problem assignment, I examined the short story At Crighton Abbey, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  This story tells of the events immediately preceding the untimely demise of Edward Crighton, the last male heir in the long history of a rather unlucky family.  For generations now, the first-born males of the Crighton line have died suddenly just before reaching marriageable age.  Each of these deaths was heralded by the appearance of a spectral hunting party, giving rise to the rumor that there is a curse on the family.  At the beginning of the story, Edward is about to get married, and his parents are biting their nails, hoping that he will survive the remaining few weeks till his wedding, at which point they believe he will be safe from the curse.  Edward,  however, has been left entirely in the dark about the existence of the curse. Given the amount of danger that his parents seem to believe him to be in, it seems odd that they would keep this information from him.  According to a servant who has been with the family for years, Mr. and Mrs. Crighton have avoided explaining the curse to Edward because they did not want to give him cause for worry.  Given, however, that Edward is a robust and somewhat hard-headed young man who doesn't seem like the type to be alarmed by a ghost story, this answer didn't cut it for me.  Is there another reason that Mr. and Mrs. Crighton would hide this information from their son?  If so, what is it?  Or, is it possible that Braddon included this seeming inconsistency in order to work some dramatic irony into her plot?
         In this portion of the project, I will be incorporating details from Braddon's short story with other research on broader themes and tropes within the Gothic genre in order to examine possible explanations for my interpretive problem. 
          When I first started working on the interpretive problem assignment, I tried to consider any possible reasons Mr. and Mrs. Crighton could have for hiding the story of the curse from their son, but struggled to find one that fit the bill. The most plausible answer I could come up with was that the Crightons were afraid that telling Edward about the curse would only provoke him to engage in rash and foolish behavior, in an attempt to prove to them that their belief in the curse was foolish. However, this possibility stands in direct opposition to the explanation given by the servant in the story.  Another possible explanation is that Mr. and Mrs. Crighton did not tell Edward about the curse because they did not want anyone thinking that they were silly or superstitious.  At first, this theory seems to stand up to scrutiny.  After all, the Crightons are prominent members of society in their town, and thus have a vested interest in retaining at least a veneer of wisdom and sensibility.  Such proud and well-to-do gentlefolks would surely hate to be the laughingstock of the neighborhood.  On closer inspection though, this theory begins to unravel.  After all, the Crightons seem genuinely concerned about their son's safety.  They are even ready to bless his marriage to a woman they disapprove of, simply because they feel that it is best to have him safely married as soon as possible.  Since they presumably want what is best for their son, it doesn't make much sense that they would refrain from warning him about the danger he is in, just to save face for themselves should their fears prove unfounded.
         If there is a lack of evidence in the story itself to provide an answer to this question, perhaps we can turn to an examination of the literary techniques Braddon employs.  One of the most noticeable techniques in this story is the dramatic irony.  Since the reader knows about the curse, but Edward does not, Braddon has created a situation in which the reader has a good idea of what is coming next, but the characters involved are painfully oblivious.  This technique can create a good deal of tension and suspense - both of which contribute to the "creepiness factor" of the tale.  Because of its' ability to make a reader's heart race with anticipation, dramatic irony is a technique commonly used in Gothic literature.  Many Gothic stories rely on the reader having some idea of the horrors that await the tragically naive narrator in order to create a gripping and suspenseful tale.  Edgar Allen Poe, arguably the most famous Gothic author, and inventor of the detective story, was a master of dramatic irony.  The fact that Poe' stories are frequently used to introduce high school students to the concept of dramatic irony stands as a testament to the power of that technique.  Considering the prevalence of dramatic irony in this genre, it seems reasonable to posit that Braddon left Edward unaware of the curse in order to utilize this technique.  If her intention in doing so was to create suspense within her story, it certainly worked.