The gothic genre definition
The tradition of the Gothic was a small sub-genre in literary circles emerging during the 18th century. It is widely thought to have been started by Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto published in 1764 (Hume, 1969: 282). Within this tradition, imagination and emotion take center stage, pushing the idealism and reason of the Romantic and Transcendental traditions to the side. Gothic literature particularly is characterized by its unique way of combining horror and romance to create a completely new approach to story-telling. This became even more effective following the publication of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory which demonstrated the power of the mind to terrify itself (Freud, 1966). Common elements found within Gothic literature include terror, the supernatural, ghosts, death, madness, darkness, secrets, hereditary curses, and crumbling architecture. Characters typically fall into stereotypical personas such as the flawed hero, the femme fatale, and supernatural or natural monsters of various types. Typically, three characteristics served to designate a Gothic novel. These included the presence of some form of darkness, the element of the sublime, and the exploration of psychometry. The presence of darkness seems self-explanatory, but there is also the darkness of the soul that becomes employed in which the individual is incapable of escaping their situation simply because they are unable to discover their thoughts within the darkness of their mind. The sublime refers to the presence of something intangible that is felt like a present but cannot be discovered with the human eye. This element can be used in several ways, but within the Gothic novel, it is typically used to illustrate the presence of supernatural evil either disembodied or as an element trapped within the body of a known person. Psychometry is a strange-sounding word that refers to the concept of the eternal conflict between the body and the soul. It was an often-used technique in Gothic novels because of the obvious relationship of this to the concept of madness. These elements can be found in three of the more popular literary works produced in this time such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and H.G. Wells’s story War of the Worlds.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece work, Frankenstein (1818), is a classic tale of horror and darkness, set in the wilderness areas of Europe, particularly Switzerland. Unlike the interpretations familiar to the Hollywood movie set, this novel is focused more upon the drama that occurs as Frankenstein’s creature searches for love and acceptance and instead finds only rejection and revulsion, finally taking out his frustrations in revenge against his creator. Darkness is found in Shelley’s novel in several forms beginning with how the scientist conducts his explorations. It is a process in which he was “forced to spend days and night in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings” (Shelley, 2004: 45) while “my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (Shelley, 2004: 49). This darkness then extends to the creature who lives in the darkness of ignorance because of how his creator abandoned him and then moves into physical darkness as the only environment in which the creature can operate. The sublime can be found in this work in the miracle that Frankenstein does bring life to inanimate material and that the life he produced was capable of love and devotion. He tells Frankenstein of his early days in the wood: “My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy” (Shelley, 2004: 119). Psychometry enters as Frankenstein is both forced to take responsibility for what he has created and rejects this creation entirely and as the monster that wanted only peace and happiness is forced to engage in murder and terror to be heard.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886, another scientist discovers a potion that enables him to separate himself into two distinct personalities. The purpose of this potion was to provide the scientist with a means of separating the good portion of his nature from the evil, but the evil proves too enticing and he becomes completely unable to control it or withstand it. In the end, the good doctor loses his life by abandoning himself to the strength of the monstrous evil portion of his being. Physical darkness hides much of the spiritual darkness that Mr. Hyde visits upon the citizenry at the beginning of the story. His first mention in the book comes as the townspeople talk about the trampling of a young girl that happened the night before. “It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man, it was like some damned Juggernaut” (Stevenson, 1982: 5). Regardless of what the respectable and good-hearted Dr. Jekyll might have felt about these actions, Hyde was capable of carrying them out without feeling any remorse or guilt, revealing his inner darkness. The sublime element enters in the form of the potion that Dr. Jekyll has created, unbeknownst to anyone else, that enables him to so completely separate his good nature from his evil that he appears to be two distinctly different people. As Mr. Enfield tells Mr. Utterson in one of the first connections made between the monster and the doctor, “my man was a fellow that nobody could have to do with, a damnable man; and the person that drew the cheque is the very pink of the proprieties, celebrated too, and (what makes it worse) one of your fellows who do what they call good” (Stevenson, 1982: 6). Psychometry exists in the obvious division of the human soul that takes place upon ingesting the potion. Although Dr. Jekyll struggled to contain the evil nature within himself, he increasingly found himself losing control of the freedom and guiltlessness of his alter-ego. Mr. Hyde’s ability to completely take over the form of Dr. Jekyll, regardless of whether the potion has been taken or not and regardless of the level of Dr. Jekyll’s awareness leads Dr. Jekyll to the conclusion that his life is over and his body will become completely inhabited by Mr. Hyde. It is perhaps his last act of goodness that causes Mr. Hyde to commit suicide in the doctor’s lab.
Freud, Sigmund. (1966). On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hume, Robert D. (1969). “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” PMLA. Vol. 8, N. 2.
Shelley, Mary. (1818; 2004). The Essential Frankenstein. Leonard Wolf (Ed.). New York: Simon & Schuester.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. (1886; 1982). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Bantam Classics.