Gothic Literature

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Gothic Literature













c. 1764

The Gothic, a literary movement that focused on ruin, decay, death, terror, and chaos, and privileged irrationality and passion over rationality and reason, grew in response to the historical, sociological, psychological, and political contexts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although Horace Walpole is credited with producing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, his work was built on a foundation of several elements. First, Walpole tapped a growing fascination with all things medieval, and medieval romance provided a generic framework for his novel. In addition, Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, offered a philosophical foundation. Finally, the Graveyard School of poetry, so called because of the attention its poets gave to ruins, graveyards, death, and human mortality, flourished in the mid-eighteenth century and provided a thematic and literary context for the Gothic.

Walpole's novel was wildly popular, and his novel introduced most of the stock conventions of the genre: an intricate plot; stock characters; subterranean labyrinths; ruined castles; and supernatural occurrences. The Castle of Otranto was soon followed by William Beckford's Vathek (1786); Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797); Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796); Charles Brock-den Brown's Wieland (1797); Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); and Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

While it may be comparatively easy to date the beginning of the Gothic movement, it is much harder to identify its close, if indeed the movement did come to a close at all. There are those such as David Punter in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day and Fred Botting in Gothic who follow the transitions and transformations of the Gothic through the twentieth century. Certainly, any close examination of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker's Dracula, or Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the nineteenth century demonstrates both the transformation and the influence of the Gothic. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the ongoing fascination with horror, terror, the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night evinces the power the Gothic continues to exert.

In its attention to the dark side of human nature and the chaos of irrationality, the Gothic provides for contemporary readers some insight into the social and intellectual climate of the time in which the literature was produced. A time of revolution and reason, madness and sanity, the 1750s through the 1850s provided the stuff that both dreams and nightmares were made of.


William Beckford (1760–1844)

William Beckford, known as both the richest and most eccentric man of his time, was born September 29, 1760, in London, England. By all accounts, Beckford was brilliant, musically gifted, and highly artistic. He was also scandalous and hedonistic. He had no desire to follow in his father's political or business footprints, much to his father's dismay. Rather, young Beckford preferred to travel, write, spend money, and collect art. Because of improper relationships with his cousin's wife, Louisa, and a young man named William "Kitty" Courtenay, Beckford was sent by his mother to the Continent to give the scandal time to die down. Indeed, young Beckford's life followed this pattern repeatedly. He would remain in England until the scandals mounted and then would retreat to the Continent for a cooling-off period. He married in 1783 in a movement to save whatever was left of his reputation; however, his wife died in childbirth in 1785. During this time, Beckford built and rebuilt Fonthill Abbey, considered either the most amazing building or the greatest monstrosity in England at the close of the eighteenth century. Like Horace Walpole, only much, much wealthier, Beckford indulged his passion for the Gothic and for collecting art with his domicile. Another important trait of Beckford's was his fascination with Oriental mysticism. At an early age, he read and reread The Arabian Nights. This passion led directly to his composition of Vathek in 1786. Beckford died on May 2, 1844, at Lansdowne Crescent, after battling fever and influenza.

Emily Brontë (1818–1848)

Emily Brontëwas born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England, on July 30, 1818. She lost her mother and two of her sisters when she was very young, which brought the remaining family members—father, son, and three daughters—closer together. Along with her siblings Branwell, Charlotte, and Anne, Brontë created fantastical worlds as a child, which the children shaped with stories and poems. As young women, the Brontë sisters pseudonymously published some of their poetry although Emily is generally regarded as the great poetic talent of the family. The sisters each published novels, as well. Brontë's Gothic novel Wuthering Heights was published under her pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847 to mixed reviews. She died on December 19, 1848, at age 30, from tuberculosis, only a few months after the death of her brother Branwell. Anne died five months later, leaving only Charlotte and her father. Charlotte, then a renowned author herself, republished Wuthering Heights in 1850 under her sister's real name. Laurie Stone argues that Charlotte was disturbed by Brontë's untamed talent and is likely the one who destroyed much of her sister's letters and childhood poems and sanitized the rest.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)

The first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 17, 1771. Although he began his education with the intent to become a lawyer, the law soon lost its appeal for him. Apparently, the task of the lawyer to defend a client whether the client was innocent or guilty bothered Brown's sense of morality. This sense of morality often led Brown to take socially radical stances. In this, he seems deeply connected to and influenced by William Godwin. For example, Brown's novel Alcuin (1798) explores the ambiguities of marriage and the rights of women. It is for Wieland (1798), however, that Brown earned his reputation as a Gothic writer. Considered Brown's best novel, Wieland explores the roles of religion and rationality. Clearly, Brown's insistence on a moral stance separates him from some of the earlier Gothic writers such as Beckford and Lewis. Nevertheless, Brown's intense fascination with the inner workings of a character's mind deeply influenced later writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brown died in Philadelphia in February of 1810, probably from tuberculosis.

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818)

Born in London on July 9, 1775, M. G. Lewis attended school in Westminster and Oxford. He traveled to Germany in 1792, where he learned to speak German. While there, he became well-acquainted with German Gothic fiction. He stated to his mother that the reading of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho inspired him to write his most famous work, The Monk, published in 1796. Tradition has it that he completed the work in ten weeks and that it instantly made him a literary star at the age of twenty. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Lewis was referred to by his contemporaries as Monk Lewis. Lewis introduced graphic horror into the Gothic genre, describing in great detail physical torture and putrefaction, as well as steamy sexual encounters. Whereas Radcliffe relied on suspense, or the fear of violence, Lewis abandons the fear of violence for the violence itself. Unlike Radcliffe, Lewis used supernatural devices without feeling compelled to offer rational explanations for uncanny events. It was through such techniques that Lewis incorporated German popular literature into the mainstream of English literature. Lewis died of yellow fever in May of 1818, on the way home from Jamaica, where he had been visiting his inherited holdings.

Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824)

Charles Robert Maturin was born in Dublin, Ireland, on September 25, 1780. Maturin attended Trinity College, Dublin. His family, noted Huguenot refugees active in the Anglo-Irish community, met with reversal when his father was dismissed from his civil service job. Maturin, who had taken orders in the Anglican Church in 1803, attempted to augment his living by writing. Although his drama Bertram met with success on the London stage, Maturin's financial prospects continued to diminish. Some attribute his growing eccentricities to his attempts to deal with poverty. Certainly, both his nationalism and his criticism of the Anglican Church did not endear him to the Anglo-Irish community. The author of several novels, Maturin is best known for Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Many historians and literary critics call this both thelastand thegreatestofthe Gothic novels.His work was admired by such literary figures as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Makepeace Thackeray. The French writer Honore de Balzac even wrote a sequel to Melmoth the Wanderer. Maturin died at the age of forty-four on October 30, 1824, in Dublin.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

Born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, Edgar Allan Poe is a well known American poet and short story writer. He was orphaned at three and raised by John Allen, with whom he had an uneasy lifelong relationship. Poe was a victim of depression; he turned to alcohol for relief and eventually became an alcoholic. His marriage to his beloved cousin Virginia Clemm ended with her death in 1847. While many critics suggest that Poe is a post-Gothic writer, he nevertheless used many Gothic conventions in his own work, including medieval settings, supernatural occurrences, terror, and architectural ruins. Certainly, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1834) has all of the Gothic ingredients. Moreover, Poe is particularly important to the ongoing influence of the Gothic on contemporary literature, moving the genre from an external to an internal psychological focus. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, from complications related to a brain lesion.

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823)

Ann Radcliffe, born Ann Ward in London on July 9, 1764, wrote a series of Gothic romances that set the course of the genre for years to come. Indeed, Radcliffe's name is nearly synonymous with a particular style of the Gothic, one that uses the supernatural but generally provides a rational explanation at the end. Young Ann Ward married William Radcliffe, a well-to-do Oxford graduate, in 1787. They had no children and traveled extensively. Radcliffe's diaries of her travels seem to have provided settings and detail for her novels. Unlike other more notorious Gothic writers, Radcliffe lived in relative obscurity, although she achieved immense success with her novels. In 1794, Radcliffe published what was to become the most popular of her novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Like other Gothic novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in rugged mountains. Radcliffe's novel, The Italian (1797), written in response to Lewis's The Monk, is generally regarded as the superior novel, however. Alastair Fowler in The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature credits Radcliffe with establishing "wild landscape as a standard feature of romance; even if, as she wrote, the full terror of landscape was already fading." Fowler further argues that Radcliffe's technique was deliberate: By interspersing elaborate description into her narrative, Radcliffe "keeps delaying the action and distancing it into perspective." Perhaps the most influential of all Gothic writers, Radcliffe retired from writing at the height of her career, unhappy with the uses to which her writings were put. Ann Radcliffe died suddenly in London on February 7, 1823.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born in London on August 30, 1797, to feminist Mary Wollstone-craft and William Godwin, moved in the most radical literary circles of her day. At sixteen, she became the mistress of the poet Percy Shelley and a close personal friend of George Gordon, Lord Byron. The death of her mother when she was ten days old haunted her all her life. Mary Godwin, as the daughter of two intellectuals, was well educated and self-taught, able to hold her own with some of the best minds of her time. In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin, her lover Percy, and her stepsister Claire traveled to Switzerland, where they took up residence near Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. It was here that the well-known ghost story competition among the young literati produced Mary Shelley's best-known novel, Frankenstein. In December of 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin married. Six years later, Percy Shelley died by drowning in the Ligurian Sea. Mary Shelley died in London from a brain tumor on February 1, 1851. Her work continues to exert influence on contemporary fiction and criticism.

Horace Walpole (1717–1797)

Born September 24, 1717, in London, Horace Walpole was the Earl of Orford. Educated at Eaton and Cambridge, Walpole became friends with Thomas Gray, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton, early members of the so-called Graveyard School of poetry. Gray in particular influenced Walpole in his development of a Gothic imagination. In 1739, Walpole toured the Continent with Gray, crossing the Alps, another important influence on his development as a Gothic writer. In 1747, Walpole purchased Strawberry Hill, a home on the Thames River in Twickenham. For nearly thirty years, Walpole built and rebuilt the house, turning it into a "little Gothic castle," in his own words. Walpole also established a private press at Strawberry Hill, and it was from here that he published his most famous work, The Castle of Otranto,in December 1764. Initially, Walpole hid the fact that he was the author of the work, saying that it was a translation by William Marshall of a medieval Italian text. The book met with success, however, and in the second edition, Walpole revealed his own authorship. He told a friend in a letter that the idea for the novel had come to him in a dream. The Castle of Otranto is particularly significant because it was the first Gothic novel written. Indeed, the novel provided for later writers nearly every convention found in subsequent Gothic writing. After a long life of letters, politics, and architectural innovations, Walpole died at Berkeley Square, London, on March 2, 1797.


The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, published in December 1764, is universally regarded as the first Gothic novel. Set in some undefined medieval past, the novel draws on heroic romance as well as legends and folklore. In this one novel, Walpole established virtually every convention of Gothic literature. These include the Gothic castle, a presence so real as to nearly be a character in and of itself. He also uses gloomy weather, clanking chains, midnight bells, and subterranean passageways. The story is a strange one: Manfred, Prince of Otranto, has one son, Conrad. On the eve of Conrad's marriage to the lovely Isabella, a huge antique helmet falls on Conrad and crushes him. Manfred decides to put away his wife and take Isabella as his wife in order to continue his line. This is not something Isabella wants and thus begins the chase and imprisonment. In due time, readers find that the peasant Isabella encounters in the passageways is really the true heir of Otranto; the death of Conrad was in repayment for the sins of his father. It is impossible to overestimate the influence this novel has had on the course of Gothic writing. Walpole's invention and imagination set the arc of the novel for years to come.


Dracula was first published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, an Irish writer and theater manager. The novel is part of the Victorian Gothic period, a resurgence of Gothic literature that appeared approximately a century after the first Gothic literary movement started by Walpole. Stoker spent a year researching vampires and folklore before writing his novel. The tale is epistolary or told through letters and journal entries. Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer, visits Count Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains to give him real estate advice. Dracula trails Harker back to England where he stalks Harker's fianceé Mina. As Mina's friend Lucy begins to mysteriously waste away, a professor and vampire specialist, Van Helsing, is brought in to consult. When Lucy suddenly dies after being attacked by a wolf-like creature, Van Helsing finds her living as a vampire and kills her permanently. Mina marries Harker but Dracula does not give up, feeding her his blood to create a bond between them. Van Helsing and Harker use this bond to find out where Dracula is hiding. In the final confrontation, Dracula is killed and turns to dust, freeing Mina from their connection. Mina and Harker live happily thereafter.

"The Fall of the House of Usher"

Edgar Allan Poe's most famous story was published in 1839, some years after the height of the Gothic movement. Nevertheless, the story is, as are many of Poe's stories, classically Gothic in setting, theme, and mood. Fred Botting, in Gothic writes, "The house is both a Gothic manifestation, an architectural ruin set in a desolate and gloomy landscape and a family equally in decay, dying from an unknown and incurable disease." The story also contains the element of claustrophobia in the premature burial of Roderick Usher's sister as well as the scent of incest in the intimately close relationship between Usher and his sister. Unlike earlier Gothic novels, however, the plot of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not episodic, but rather builds steadily and intensely to its nearly excessive climax, when, just as Roderick Usher announces he has buried his sister alive, she bursts through the door, and the entire house collapses. Poe concentrates on "avoiding all impressions alien to his effect," thereby giving "his tales an extraordinary unity of tone and colour," according to Edith Birkhead in her seminal book, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. Poe's transformation of the Gothic in this and other works continues to influence contemporary horror writing.


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published in 1818. The novel does not fit neatly into any generic designation, but many critics suggest that it is the first modern work of science fiction. However, Shelley's emphasis on isolation, wild landscapes, supernatural occurrences, and the haunting presence of the double places the novel within the context of the Gothic. The narrative of Frankenstein is complicated; it opens on a boat


  • The Best of Gothic Horror is a collection of abridged novels and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mary Shelley recorded on audio tape by Counter-top Audio and released in June 2000.
  • A film of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" was produced in 1928 and directed by Jean Epstein. A second film adaptation of the story starred Vincent Price and was directed by Roger Corman in 1960. Both versions are available on videotape.
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, was released in 1994. The film claims to be a much closer rendition of Shelley's novel than the earlier film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and released in 1931, although both versions were very popular with viewers. As of 2008, both were readily available on video.
  • An audio tape of an abridged version of The Castle of Otranto, produced by Naxos Audio Books in 1995, provides a brief introduction to the famous work that started the Gothic movement.
  • Wuthering Heights has been made into a movie many times, but the 1939 film, which deals only with the first generation of characters, starring Merle Oberon as Catherine and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, is considered a classic. It won a 1940 Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Cinema-tography. The movie was directed by William Wyler and originally distributed by United Artists. As of 2008, it was available on DVD from most major retailers.
  • Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, is a classic adaptation of Stoker's famed novel. Lugosi's portrayal of the Gothic villain Count Dracula became the yardstick by which all other Dracula adaptations are measured. Directed by Tod Browning, this film was available on DVD from Universal Studios as of 2008.
  • Professor Jack G. Voller maintains a comprehensive Web site at with research suggestions, a library of e-texts, extensive factual material, a large database, and critical articles. The site is easily navigable, reliable, and useful for a student starting a study of the Gothic.
  • Professor Douglass H. Thomson of Southern Georgia University maintains a site at that offers a superb collection of articles, a glossy of literary Gothic terms, an author list, and other resources.

sailing in the Arctic, when the crew sees a large figure driving a sledge. The next day, they find another sledge, this one containing Victor Frank-enstein, who then recounts to the captain of the vessel the story of his life and the creation of the monster. Shelley also includes some six chapters from the monster's point of view, in which he speaks of his own life. Ironically, it is through the pen of a woman that this novel transforms the Gothic from a feminine form of literature. That is, earlier Gothic novels featured heroines fleeing for their lives and honor. In Shelley's novel, there are virtually no female characters, and Victor is a cold and hard scientist. Indeed, Shelley brings together both the rationality of science and the irrationality of the will to power. Victor is the model of a man seduced by the power of science, unable to see until it is much too late that there are some things, such as the creation of life, that belong to God alone.

Melmoth the Wanderer

Written by Charles Robert Maturin in 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer is often called the last Gothic novel. It is the story of a Melmoth, a Wanderer who has bargained his soul for a longer life. Regretting the choice he has made, he finds that if he can persuade someone to take his bargain on, he will be free. Most notable in Melmoth the Wanderer is Maturin's convoluted narrative style. While it hearkens back to the medieval frame story, it also looks forward to post-modern distortions of chronology and location. These dislocations create a story of the supernatural more closely related to dream sequences than the novels that had come before. Inside the frame is a series of tales that recount Melmoth's visits to the people he wants to take on his bargain. For example, in one story, he appears to a young woman whose lover has gone mad. The Wanderer offers to cure him if she will take on his bargain. She refuses. Indeed, although the Wanderer chooses to appear to people whose lives are utterly miserable, and although the Wanderer promises them that they can have the entire world, none of them will trade their immortal souls for what Mel-moth offers. At the conclusion of the novel, Melmoth has been unable to get out of his bargain and must sacrifice his soul. Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror suggests that the Wanderer is connected to the legend of the Wandering Jew, Dr. Faustus, and Milton's Lucifer. One might also add Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner to this list. Certainly, in his deeply divided, alienated state, he resembles the hero/villains of other Gothic novels. It is in the unity of its human misery, however, that the novel makes its mark upon the genre.

The Monk

M. G. Lewis wrote The Monk in 1795, when he was just twenty-one years old. It took him all of ten weeks to complete the novel, and it appeared in print in 1796. Lewis wrote the book after reading Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Two different stories compriseThe Monk. In one plot, two lovers, Agnes and Raymond, are separated by their parents and the Catholic Church. Agnes is pregnant and is sent to a convent where she is chained to a wall and tortured. She gives birth to her baby, who then dies in front of her. In the other plot, the monk Ambrosio breaks his vows of chastity through the machinations of the evil Matilda. Through a series of complicated plot twists, Ambrosio murders one woman and rapes another. He ends up in an Inquisition prison and then sells his soul to Satan. He dies a horrible and prolonged death. Critics of the day found the novel to be both obscene and blasphemous. Nevertheless, the novel was wildly popular. The Monkshifts the Gothic novel from the explained supernatural of Ann Radcliffe; the supernatural in The Monk is truly supernatural. In addition, Lewis's prose is both graphic and intense; his descriptions of the putrefaction of the dead baby, for example, are particularly disturbing. Nevertheless, The Monk continued to expand the popularity of the Gothic novel in its heyday of the 1790s.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Radcliffe's Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) built on the groundwork laid by Walpole. In this novel, Radcliffe draws on many of the conventional tactics of the Gothic novel but emphasizes the use of suspense. She sets Udolpho in the medieval past, 1584, and in France and Italy. Her novel is not the bloody, steamy affair of many of her contemporaries, such as Lewis; she instead chooses to use long passages describing sublime landscapes. Her novel does, however, include chases through subterranean passages and considerable violence. The narrative of the story is complicated: the protagonist, Emily, finds herself in an apparently haunted castle, replete with shadows, footsteps, inexplicable noises and music, and veiled portraits, under the control of her aunt's evil husband. Radcliffe introduces many supernatural elements but includes explanations for all of them by the time the novel concludes. The Mysteries of Udolpho, along with Radcliffe's later novel, The Italian, set the standard for Gothic literature in the 1790s.


First written in French and then later translated into English, Vathek, written by William Beck-ford and published in English in 1786, is the story of a mad caliph's vices and his descent into hell. Beckford formulated the idea of Vathek at a Christmas Eve orgy at Fonthill. Many consider Vathek the best Oriental tale in English. Lord Byron, in particular, found Beck-ford's work to be powerful. Certainly, any reading of Vathek will acknowledge Beckford's infatuation with The Arabian Nights. Some critics have identified Vathek's wild life as a reflection of Beckford's own; the author led a life of excess and eccentricity. For all that, Vathek moves the Gothic novel out of medieval Europe and into an exotic, Oriental setting. The novel exerted considerable influence on writers such as Hawthorne, Poe, and Stephane Mallarmé. Artists and musicians also engaged the fantastic world of Vathek.


In 1798, Charles Brockden Brown, an American, published Wieland, the first Gothic novel written in the United States. The work is known for its psychological depth as well as for its Gothic excess. Brown explores the role of religion in the lives of driven characters. For Brown, morality resides in the individual conscience, and revealed religion may produce horrific results. In Wieland, a ventriloquist's evil tricks, along with religious fervor, convince Wieland, the main character of the novel, that God wants him to kill his family. He does so, killing his wife and children. His sister narrowly escapes to narrate the tale. In the novel, Brown tries to negotiate between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the irrationality of religious fervor. By so doing, Brown shifts the Gothic tale from supernatural events and superstition into the realm of human psychology. Is Weiland mad or deluded? Do his crimes spring from insanity, or has his religious calling merely rendered him irrational? A dark and brooding book, Wieland remains a masterpiece of American literature.

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (1847) was unusual when it was first published because Brontëused a nonlinear narrative to tell her story. The novel is told as a flashback by Heathcliff's housekeeper Nelly to his new tenant, Lockwood. Nelly tells Lockwood that Heathcliff was brought to Wuthering Heights from the streets of Liverpool forty years earlier by Mr. Earnshaw who raised the child as his own. Nelly describes how his daughter Catherine becomes best friends with Heathcliff, while his son Hindley resents the other boy. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes head of the estate and drives Heathcliff and Catherine apart. Heathcliff is made to work like a servant while Catherine is pushed into the company of a nearby family, the Lintons. Their son Edgar Linton eventually proposes to Catherine who reluctantly agrees to marry him; she is really in love with Heathcliff. Enraged, Heathcliff leaves. When he returns years later, he is wealthy, bitter, and vindictive, intent upon ruining Hindley and Linton. Heathcliff is successful at destroying the happiness and lives of those around him, even extending this ruination to include their children. He finally gives up on his vendetta when he learns that Catherine's daughter Cathy is in love with Hindley's son Hareton. Heathcliff dies and is reunited with Catherine, who has haunted him since her death.


Terror and Horror

Terror and horror are the tools of the Gothic novelist. Drawing on the work of Edmund Burke, Ann Radcliffe distinguished between the two terms, suggesting that terror grows out of suspense while horror produces disgust. In other words, a character experiences terror in the anticipation of some dreaded event; the character experiences horror when the event really happens. Thus, in Radcliffe's novels, there is an emphasis on terror and the terrible, which she creates through her long descriptions of sublime landscapes and her intimations of the supernatural. Moreover, the agonizing suspense to which she subjects her characters produces terror in both the character and the reader.


  • Many critics suggest that the Gothic continues to influence contemporary art and literature, primarily through the media of film and video. Consider Michael Jackson's Thriller video, various film adaptations of Frankenstein, and a selection of films based on Stephen King's books. How do these works reflect the basic characteristics of Gothic literature? How do twentieth- and twenty-first-century representations transform the idea of the Gothic prevalent in earlier centuries?
  • Read selections from Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, and then connect Burke's ideas to one Gothic novel. How do Burke's ideas find expression in the novel you select? Be sure to use specific examples from the text to support your claim.
  • Read about scientific, biological, psychological, and spiritual explanations for why humans dream. Sigmund Freud's On Dreams might also provide you with useful information. Connecting your reading about dreams with the interior landscapes of Gothic fiction may help you understand the imagery and narrative present in many Gothic novels.
  • Through parody, writers reveal and mock standard conventions of a given genre. For example, the Airplane series of films renders the convention of the disaster film both visible and very funny. In her novel Northanger Abbey, eighteenth-century writer Jane Austen parodies the Gothic novels of her day. Read Northanger Abbey and identify the specific characteristics Austen is parodying.

However, the eventual explanation of all things supernatural relieves her reader from the experience of horror. Lewis, by contrast, chooses horror for his novels. His prose focuses on the details of the horrible, including torture and putrefaction. In his work, Lewis describes in disturbing detail the physically revolting and morally decadent.

Appearance and Reality

Gothic literature often explores the difference between appearance and reality. For example, in Radcliffe's works, events often appear to have supernatural causes. However, by the end of the book, Radcliffe offers logical explanations. Thus, in the case of Radcliffe, it is possible for the reader to distinguish by the close of the novel what is real and what is apparent. By contrast, writers such as Lewis do not always differentiate between appearance and reality. This ambiguity leads to a dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere in the novel. Readers recognize the state: for all intents and purposes, a dream appears to be real until awakening. It is in the foggy fugue state, however, that the dreamer is unsure of what is the dream and what is the reality. In addition, other writers play with appearance and reality through the use of different narrative structures and voices. Poe famously develops the unreliable narrator who appears initially to be sane but who, through the course of the story, is revealed to be insane. The struggle to differentiate the reality from the appearance rests at the heart of much Gothic literature.


Nearly every Gothic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contains some element of confinement. Indeed, many critics have commented on the sense of claustrophobia found in Gothic fiction. Often this occurs with the entrapment of the heroine in some ancient castle. When she finally escapes her room or cell, she finds herself within a subterranean passageway with no apparent way out. It is the lack of escape that causes the terrifying claustrophobia. Isabella's flight through Otranto is an example. Likewise, in The Monk, Agnes is chained to a wall to be tortured. The struggle against the confinement elicits both horror and terror in the reader. Perhaps the master of confinement, however, is Poe. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Madeline Usher is buried alive. Such scenes hold considerable horror. Poe's The Cask of Amontillado is another tale of claustrophobic containment, as the narrator, Montresor, walls Fortunato in a crypt, where he has lured him to taste fine sherry. Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart also uses this theme, but in this case it is the heart of the murdered victim that is confined but refuses to remain hidden. Whether it be prison cells, monastic cells, shackles, locked rooms, or dark tunnels, the space of the Gothic novel is claustrophobic and confining, tapping into a primal human fear.

Justice and Injustice

While the world of justice and injustice might seem to be absent from the world of the Gothic, on closer examination, it seems clear that guilt and reparation of sins are at the center of many stories. In Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the death of Conrad, the heir to his father's estate, apparently takes place as a way of righting a wrong. That is, Conrad's ancestor comes back from his grave to assure that Otranto goes to the rightful heir. This is the case of the sins of the father being visited on the children; at no time does it seem that Conrad knows that his title is faulty. Likewise, Madeline and Roderick Usher pay for the sins of their family with their own decay and death. Their house collapses on them, ending the family line. Thus, the "fall of the house of Usher" has two meanings: the house itself literally caves in and the lineage of Usher also falls as a result of the sins of earlier generations. Melmoth the Wanderer also explores this theme. In the Gothic world, justice must ultimately triumph, even if the justice that is meted out is severe. Ambrosio, for example, in The Monk, deserves to be punished; however, his punishment is horrible. Because the Gothic is a literature of excess, it is little wonder that the justices and injustices are also excessive. Thus, the gloom that hangs over the heads of many characters is the knowledge that in their own day they will have to pay for the wrongs their ancestors committed.



In Gothic literature, the setting may be the single most important device. Gothic writers generally set their novels in wild landscapes; in large, often ruined, castles; and/or in subterranean labyrinths. In Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the castle itself plays a major role in the novel. Robert Kiely writes in The Romantic Novel in England: "If anything gives this novel unity and animation, it is the castle. The place itself seems sufficiently charged with emotion to require little assistance from the characters. In fact, external conditions play a larger part in determining the behavior of the characters than do their own internal motivations." Thus, the setting itself provides as much suspense as does the plot or the characters.

In addition, Gothic writers as a rule set their novels in the distant, medieval past, in what they thought of as the Gothic period. However, their descriptions have little to do with the medieval period as it was; rather, the settings in Gothic novels reveal much more about what eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers believed about the Middle Ages. For Gothic writers, the medieval past was a time of superstition and Catholicism, made exotic and eerie by monks, nuns, ghosts, and crumbling castles. Although most of the novels are set in some European landscape, others, most notably Beckford's Vathek, have foreign locations, such as the Middle East. Again, removing the setting of the novel from contemporary locations and time periods allowed Gothic writers to infuse their works with the fear of the unknown, mysterious occur-rences, and strange, unusual customs.


Diction is the choice of words and the order of words a writers make for their literary creations. Diction may be on the continuum from informal, or low diction, to formal, or high diction. In Gothic novels, writers opted to use somewhat archaic and formal language, particularly in dialogue. Although the word choices are not accurate representations of the speech patterns of medieval people, the diction of a Gothic novel is reminiscent of a medieval romance. Further, the diction removes the novel from the present-day reality. Walpole, for example, writes the following for his heroine Isabella in The Castle of Otranto: "Sir, whoever you are, take pity on a wretched princess standing on the brink of destruction: assist me to escape from this fatal castle, or in a few moments I may be made miserable for ever."


Narrative is an accounting of an event or sequence of events, real or invented. In literary criticism, the expression "narrative technique" usually refers to the way the author structures and presents his or her story. Gothic literature can be characterized by the complex and complicated narrative structures writers give their work. There are usually plots within plots, and there are episodes that seem to have little connection to the episodes immediately before and after. The episodic nature of the narrative perhaps can be attributed to the Gothic writers' attention to medieval romance. William Malory's early fifteenth-century Morte D'Arthur, a compilation of medieval Arthurian romances circulating in Malory's day, for example, comprises episodes of knights, damsels, challenges, and castles. Likewise, Gothic writers often provide little transition or explanation for the arrangement of their episodes. The overall effect, both in medieval romance and Gothic novels, is to render the narrative strange and fragmented.

Gothic writers also often present an exceedingly complicated narrative, woven around some theme or idea. For example, in Maturin's Mel-moth the Wanderer, there are stories within stories. Kiely describes the narrative of this book in his The Romantic Novel in England: "The structure of Melmoth the Wanderer, a series of narrations within narrations—often compared with a nest of Chinese boxes—defies conventional chronological sequence and replaces it with obsessive variations on the single theme of human misery." The overall effect of such construction is to distort the chronological and spatial development of the story and to give the overall work a dreamlike quality.


The mood of a literary work is the emotional attitude with which the subject is handled by the author. Mood is conveyed in a work through the author's handling of diction, setting, and narrative. In the case of Gothic novels, the mood is one of fear, anxiety, terror, and horror. Both the characters and the readers of Gothic novels experience these emotions to the fullest extent possible for human beings. The dark, dreary, and morbid settings as well as the sublime mountainous landscapes serve to invoke terror, while the suspense created by mistaken identities and long chase sequences through cellar passageways produce both fear and anxiety. Many critics speak of the claustrophobia of Gothic novels, created by coffins, prisons, dark halls, passages, and interior spaces. At its best, Gothic literature evokes the same kind of emotional response from its readers as do nightmares and night terrors. Just as the dreamers often find themselves fleeing from shadowy monsters or evil-doers, characters in Gothic novels likewise flee from those who would do them harm. Readers of Gothic novels are able to experience these strong emotions vicariously, through the trials of the main characters. They are able to be deliciously, if safely, frightened out of their wits by the narrative twists and turns. That this is able to happen can largely be attributed to the prevailing mood Gothic authors develop.


Architecture and Art

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the impulse toward the Gothic affected not only literature but also architecture. William Kent (1686–1748) was perhaps the best-known landscape designer and architect of the time, and he helped rich landowners design and build elaborate buildings and landscaping. These designs included mock towers, castles, and abbeys constructed to look as if they had been built in the Middle Ages and had since fallen into ruin. David Stevens, in The Gothic Tradition, reports that Kent "even went so far as suggest 'planting' dead trees to present an appropriately ghoulish effect."

Likewise, a number of artists of this time, including Spanish artist Francisco de Goya and English poet and engraver William Blake, produced works that visually represent the Gothic. In particular, Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," drawn in 1799, has been called by Richard Davenport-Hines in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin "perhaps the most important single image for the historian of the gothic."

American Variations

In addition to the eighteenth-century Gothic writer Brown and nineteenth-century writer Poe, American writers have embraced the Gothic in a variety of forms. Hawthorne's so-called family romances that include The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables demonstrate the author's fascination with the supernatural as well as the sins of the father. Herman Melville's great masterpiece Moby Dick, with its monstrous, ubiquitous whale might qualify as an American transformation of the Gothic. Clearly, the works of writers such as Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft also demonstrate the continued influence of the Gothic with their strange and grotesque subjects. In yet another variation of the movement, a group of twentieth-century southern writers came to be part of a movement called the Southern Gothic. Including William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, among others, the writers of the Southern Gothic used themes of decay, death, and dissolution as well as the grotesque. Later authors such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub have tapped the Gothic as a source for their writing. Vampires, monsters, and ghoulish creatures figure prominently in the works of these writers.

The Gothic and Film

Perhaps the most notable variation on the Gothic movement, however, is not a literary movement at all but rather the introduction of film during the twentieth century. From the first silent movies, audiences have demonstrated their delight at being terrified. In the 1920s and 1930s, many movies were made about Frankenstein, Dracula, and werewolves. Later films drew on the work of Poe. Actors such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Vincent Price made their careers on their roles in horror films. Furthermore, films such as The Shining, released in 1980, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Stanley Kubrick, featured many of the characteristic elements of the Gothic novel. Based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King, The Shining features a huge, deserted, old hotel that turns out to be haunted. There are supernatural events and chases through the corridors of the hotel. Madness and chaos reign. Nicholson's portrayal of the lead character, a down-on-his-luck writer, is both excessive and terrifying, as are the best of the Gothic novels. Many critics of the Gothic, including Punter, Davenport-Hines, and Botting, trace the twentieth-century horror film all the way back to The Castle of Otranto.

Victorian Gothic

A century after Walpole's novel launched the Gothic literary movement, Victorian readers enjoyed a resurgence of this genre. The Victorian era spans the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. Penny dreadful novels were popular at this time, so named because each installment of the serial tales cost a penny and because the writing was not very good and designed only to titillate the audience of young working-class men and women. Penny dreadfuls were not the only Gothic literature available at this time, however. Charlotte Brontëpublished her acclaimed novel Jane Eyre in 1847—the same year her sister Emily's novel Wuthering Heights was published. Both feature vulnerable women and fearsome ghost stories. Elizabeth Gaskell, who was the first biographer of Charlotte Brontë, used Gothic elements in her stories, including "The Doom of the Griffiths" (1858). A few decades later, Oscar Wilde published his frightening novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), Bram Stoker published Dracula (1897), and Henry James published The Turn of the Screw (1898). Even Isak Dinesen is recognized as having used Gothic elements in her fiction, as argued by Ellen Rees in her examination of "The Dreamers." In the United States, Gothic literature was also undergoing a revival. Edgar Allan Poe was publishing his stories and poems, including "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842) and "The Raven" (1845). Ambrose Bierce, a famed author in his day who met a mysterious end in Mexico, wrote fantastical and supernatural tales, including the short story collection Can Such Things Be? (1893). The Victorian era of Gothic literature came to an end with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Detective Fiction

Detective fiction is generally considered to have begun with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Murders at the Rue Morgue" in 1841 and is therefore also an outgrowth of the Victorian Gothic literary movement. Poe's story featured an eccentric detective named Dupin who reappeared in two later stories. He was most famously followed by Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictional detective Sherlock Holmes appeared in over fifty short stories and four novels between 1887 and 1927. Conan Doyle's fiction was nowhere near as noir as the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett wrote five novels and over eighty short stories, as well as comics and radio serials. His most famous novel is The Maltese Falcon (1930), featuring the fictional detective Sam Spade. The 1920s and 1930s marked a golden age of detective fiction and authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen (pseudonym for Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee), and Dorothy Sayers. Since its inception, detective fiction has never gone out of style; it continues to be a popular genre among readers.


The Enlightenment

Many historians and scholars explain the rise of the Gothic as a response to the prevailing mode of rational thought and reason. Indeed, eighteenth-century thought was dominated by an intellectual movement called the enlightenment by later historians. Enlightenment philosophers and writers privileged reason and human understanding above emotions and feelings. Furthermore, the rise of experimental science during this period offered an empirical model for how one could arrive at truth.

A secular movement, the Enlightenment strove to demonstrate that knowledge could only be derived from science and natural philosophy, not from religion. Indeed, religion and spirituality, particularly Catholicism, were relegated to the realm of the "irrational." Enlightenment philosophers steadfastly believed that only through attention to rationality, reason, and balance could humankind improve. The thinkers of the Enlightenment looked for their models to the classical period of Greece and Rome, rejecting what they saw as the "barbarism" of the medieval period.

As the eighteenth century waned, however, growing numbers of thinkers and writers began to rebel against the rationality of the Enlightenment and to produce works that privileged the irrational, emotional responses and feelings, and the uncanny. They argued that truth could not be derived from pure thought but rather could be approached through the senses. In particular, Gothic literature, art, and architecture revolted against the strict rationality of the Enlightenment. Gothic writers looked to the Middle Ages for their models. While some scholars see the rise of the Gothic as a response to the Enlightenment, there are others who argue that the Gothic is an essential part of the Enlightenment, with the Gothic providing the mirror image of the Enlightenment. In either regard, the two movements are inextricably linked in the study of the eighteenth century.

The Age of Revolutions

A second major influence on the rise of the Gothic was the military and political situation in North America and Europe. The late eighteenth century was a time of revolt and violence. In North America, the thirteen English colonies banded together and fought for independence from England. The first bloodshed of the war was at the battles of Concord and Lexington in April of 1775. In July 1776, the delegates of the First Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia declared independence, naming their country the United States of America. This was the first colonial war in England's history and the first time a new country had come into being by a declaration of independence. The war ground on for some seven more years before the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown. This victory was largely made possible by assistance from the French, whose naval power prevented English ships from coming to the aid of their army. Although the founding fathers clearly were Enlightenment thinkers who depended on reason and rationality to justify their bid for independence, they were nonetheless radical thinkers who opened the door to a democratically governed as opposed to royally governed understanding of statehood.

If the outcome of the American Revolution came as a shock to Europeans, it was nonetheless a ripple compared to the tidal wave of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, just six years after the 1783 treaty that settled the American War. The French Revolution shook the foundations of European statehood and introduced long years of terror and cultural anxiety. Many critics see the foundation of the Gothic movement in the French Revolution. Ronald Paulson, for example, in his article "Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution," argues that "The Gothic did in fact serve as a metaphor with which some contemporaries in England tried to come to terms with what was happening across the Channel in the 1790s." Whereas many pre-Romantic and Romantic writers supported the French Revolution early on, as the violence and bloodshed degenerated into what has become known as the Reign of Terror, English writers and other citizens became increasingly worried over the chaos and uncertainty taking place just across the Channel. The terror of the Gothic novel, along with its images of chase and capture and its threat of evil overcoming good, reflects how deeply anxious both writers and the reading public had become.

Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

A final influence on the growth of the Gothic sprang from a philosophical treatise on aesthetics called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, written and published by Edmund Burke in 1757. Burke's ideas had far-reaching implications. In this treatise, drawing on the classical philosopher


  • 1770–1820: Revolutions in North America and France cause changes in systems of government.

    Today: Breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 continues to cause widespread shifts and changes in government structures in Europe.

  • 1770–1820: Poor crops and widespread poverty fuel resentment among the low classes of the exorbitant court of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. The French Revolution produces the Reign of Terror, a period of rampant executions of all those who serve or are associated with the ruling classes and the Church. Perhaps as many as 4,000 are killed in Paris, including the king and queen.

    Today: Following two decades of civil war, ongoing crop failure, poverty, and starvation, conflict between various sects, civilians, and military groups in the early 2000s intensifies in Darfur on the western edge of Sudan. Some 600,000 people are displaced amid widespread destruction and killing that approaches genocide.

  • 1770–1820: Growing interest in the supernatural, the irrational, and the terrifying is evidenced by novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, and Frankenstein.

    Today: Growing interest in the supernatural, the irrational, and the terrifying is evidenced by the popularity of writers such as Stephen King, television programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X–Files, and suspense films such as The Sixth Sense.

  • 1770–1820: Romantic writers and philosophers privilege feelings and emotions as legitimate ways of knowing; they also locate truth in beauty.

    Today: Postmodernist writers and philosophers suggest that all reality is no more than language and that ultimate truth is impossible to determine.

Longinus, Burke distinguishes between beauty as a product of proportion and dimension and the sublime as a product of wild, irregular, and uncontrollable nature. For example, a perfectly groomed and well-designed garden could be beautiful, invoking pleasure in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, a view of the Swiss Alps with its craggy cliffs and huge dimensions would be sublime, invoking a kind of terror or fear in the viewer. The sublime carries with it both elements of attraction and terror. According to David Punter in The Literature of Terror, as a result of Burke's treatise, "the excitation of fear becomes one of the most significant enterprises a writer can undertake; thus also fear is recognized as the primary means by which the dictates of reason can be bypassed." Punter continues with a discussion of Burke's contribution to Gothic literature:

Many of the details of Burke's analysis have relevance to the Gothic writers—in particular his emphasis on obscurity, vastness, magnificence as constitutive elements of the sublime—but his most important contribution was to confer on terror a major and worthwhile literary role.

By the 1790s, Burke's ideas had become so widespread that Ann Radcliffe was able to write an essay distinguishing the differences between horror and terror. It is impossible to say whether Burke created his times, or the times created Burke. In any event, his writing proves to have continued significance in the field of horror writing up to the present day.


Gothic literature has elicited spirited critical debate from its earliest days. According to Botting in his book, The Gothic

Between 1790 and 1810, critics were almost univocal in their condemnation of what was seen as an unending torrent of popular trashy novels. Intensified by fears of radicalism and revolution, the challenge to aesthetic values was framed in terms of social transgression: virtue, property and domestic order were considered to be under threat.

Such reactions from critics are not surprising. The aesthetic values of the eighteenth century included order, proportion, and decorum, based largely on classical models from the Greeks and Romans. Works of art (including literature and architecture) that flouted these conventions and took shape from the medieval past were looked upon as inferior, so much so that the term "Gothic" was applied to anything that seemed barbarous or hideous. However, while Gothic literature may have been scorned by the intelligentsia and literary critics of the day, it found rapid and overwhelming popularity with the reading public. That the reading public included growing numbers of women and middle-class readers may suggest a reason for the widespread popularity of the genre. It is also likely that the shift in readership offered a threat to established scholars and writers of the day, making their response to Gothic literature vitriolic in the extreme.

Contemporary criticism was not entirely negative, of course. No less a personage than the Marquis de Sade, in his book Idee sur les Romans, offered that "this kind of fiction, whatever one may think of it, is assuredly not without merit; twas the inevitable result of the revolutionary shocks which all Europe has suffered." The Marquis de Sade points particularly to Lewis's The Monk as a work of special merit.

More recent criticism has approached Gothic literature from a variety of directions. Punter in his Literature of Terror outlines a number of approaches critics often take. First, critics often see Gothic literature as a "recognisable movement in the history of culture, with recognisable sociopsychological causes." That is, events and ideas present in the culture find an outlet through Gothic literature. Punter, David Stevens in The Gothic Tradition, and Ronald Paulson in "Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution," an article appearing in the journal English Language History, among many other critics and historians, all comment on the connections between contemporary historical events and the rise of the Gothic.

Another critical track is the formalist approach. That is, critics examine the narrative structure of the Gothic novel to find those elements that bring unity to the work. Conversely, other formalist critics approach Gothic fiction, according to Punter, by revealing its "narrative complexity and its tendency to raise technical problems which it often fails to resolve."

Three important critical strategies prevalent in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century include psychoanalytical, Marxist, and feminist critiques. In the first place, the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his 1919 essay, "The Uncanny," informs many critics, who use Freud's formulation of the death wish, the Oedipus complex, repression, and divided self as productive means of entry into the complexities of Gothic fiction. Likewise, Marxist critics examine the class structures of the novels. There are clearly upper- and lower-class characters in all the novels under discussion, and these characters reflect the class biases of the novelists themselves. Finally, feminist critics, such as Margaret Anne Doody, concentrate either on an analysis of the female characters of Gothic literature or on the role played by female writers in the development of the Gothic.

Although the Gothic movement itself may have ended in about 1820, the Gothic continues to exert considerable influence on both literature and criticism. If anything, critical interest in the Gothic continues to grow at a remarkable rate, perhaps because of the renewed interest in monsters, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the unexplained evident in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century culture.


Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Andrews Henningfeld is a professor of English literature and composition who has written extensively for educational and academic publishers. In this essay, Andrews Henningfeld considers the device of the "double" in Gothic literature and connects the prevalence of this device to psychological, cultural, and historical causes.

Perhaps the single most interesting literary device used by Gothic writers is that of the "double." Generally, the most common form of doubling in literature is the doppelgänger, a German term meaning "double-goer." A literary doppelgänger often takes the form of an alternate identity of the main character. Sometimes this can be


  • The Days of the French Revolution (1999), by Christopher Hibbert, offers an excellent and readable introduction to the important historical event. Hibbert often uses vignettes of people's lives and events to bring to life the historical detail.
  • David Blayney Brown's Romanticism (2001), in the Art and Ideas series, focuses on European artists during the years 1775–1830, connecting radical new ideas about art to the larger social and political scene of the day. An important consideration for any student is how the Gothic fits within the larger scope of the Romantic movement in art, literature, and music.
  • A readable and thorough biography of Edgar Allan Poe is Jeffrey Meyer's Edgar Allan Poe (2000). This book concentrates on the events and details of Poe's life rather than offering a critical history of his works. As such, it is an important companion piece to studies of Poe's works.
  • Evil Image: The Literary Art of Terror from Daniel Defoe to Stephen King (1981), edited and introduced by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, is a compilation of Gothic short fiction and poetry from the past two hundred years. The book is an excellent start for students want to read a wide variety of Gothic literature in a short period of time.
  • Three Gothic Novels (1966), edited by E. F. Bleiler, contains the texts of The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole; Vathek,byWilliam Beckford; and The Vampyre,byJohn Polidori, as well as a fragment of a novel by Lord Byron. Bleiler also provides a short introduction to each of the novels included.

in the physical form of a biological twin; sometimes writers create a demonic character that functions as a representation of another character's dark side. A famous example of this


technique is Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer. In Gothic literature, the doppelgänger is often threatening and a cause for terror. Shelley's Frankenstein offers one of the best examples of the use of a doppelgänger in Gothic literature. As Aiga Ozolins points out in the article "Dreams and Doctrines: Dual Strands in Frankenstein," "There is ample evidence in the novel that the creature functions as the scientist's baser self." Further, Edgar Allan Poe makes use of the double in "The Fall of the House of Usher." In this case, Roderick Usher and his sister are biological twins, so closely connected that when the sister appears to die and is buried, Usher realizes too late that she has been buried alive. The horror of premature burial is doubled by this technique. The reader is first horrified by Usher's proclamation that they have buried her alive; and then even more horrified by Usher's horror. While the doppelgänger may be the most apparent form of the double in Gothic literature, there are many other, more subtle ways, that writers introduce notions of doubling in their fiction. Through mirrors, artwork, blurred characters, confusion between the dead and alive, the divided hero/ villain, and déjá vu, doubles in Gothic literature proliferate like reflections in a funhouse mirror.

So prevalent is the notion of doubling in Gothic literature that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify Gothic novels that do not use the device in some form. One way that Gothic writers often introduce a double is through the use of literal mirror images. A character gazes into a mirror, for example, and sees not only himself but also his darker side at the same time. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll looks in his mirror to behold the demonic Mr. Hyde.

Less apparent, but no less effective, is the use of a figurative mirror image. In an essay in The New Eighteenth Century discussing Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, critic Terry Castle argues, "Characters in Udolpho mirror or blur into one another. Characters seem uncannily to resemble or replace previous characters." Castle also points out the inability in this novel for characters and readers to distinguish the dead from the living. Again, death is a mirror image of life; the confusion over who is dead and who is alive created by this mirroring is major point of terror. "The Fall of the House of Usher" makes use of this device in the confusion of the burial of Usher's sister. Is she dead, or is she alive when placed in the tomb? Is she alive, or is she dead when she suddenly bursts into the room where Usher is in the process of revealing his doubts about her death to the narrator? "One sure sign of the double," argues critic Margaret Anne Doody in "Desert Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel," appearing in the journal Genre, "is his haunting presence."

Another way that Gothic writers introduce doubling into their work is through the use of artwork. It is a stock device in Gothic fiction that portraits and artwork can come alive at any moment. In Lewis's The Monk, the evil Matilda has a portrait of the Madonna painted for the monk Ambrosio. Unbeknownst to Ambrosio, however, Matilda has had her own image embedded in the picture of the Madonna. Thus, when Ambrosio adores the portrait of the holy Madonna, he also adores the satanic Matilda. This adoration of a doubled portrait leads to violently sexual dreams and Ambrosio's ultimate destruction.

A much less obvious, but nonetheless potent, use of the double is in the creation of the wanderer, a stock character in Gothic literature, represented by such characters as Maturin's Melmoth, Shelley's monster, and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. These characters are outsiders, the mirror images of the "civilized" men or women. They are alienated from society, solitary, and estranged. In The Adversary Literature: The English Novel in the Eighteenth Century—A Study in Genre, Frederick Karl describes the wanderer as "truly countercultural, an alternate force, almost mystical in his embodiment of the burdens and sins of society." Thus, the wanderer stands as a double for the character enmeshed in the trappings of society. For example, the Ancient Mariner doubles the Wedding Guest in Coleridge's poem. The Mariner,a wanderer, is doomed to periodically accost a civilized person and share his story. The confrontation allows brief respite for the Mariner, as he shares his burden with his civilized double.

The self-divided hero/villain, found so often in Gothic fiction, offers yet another way to examine the notion of doubling. In this case, the character is often brave and cowardly, strong and weak, moral and depraved. Certainly, Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein falls into this category. He is a brilliant scientist, so bent on overcoming death that he crosses the boundary that divides the moral from the immoral. He sees himself to be above such petty and bourgeois distinctions, a precursor of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Ubermensch, or "Overman." However, Frankenstein is both triumphant and repentant, a deeply troubled and deeply divided individual, so deeply divided that the warring sides of his psyche seem to belong to a set of mirror image twins.

Even time and experience become doubled in Gothic fiction through the use of déjá vu, the feeling that one has experienced an event before, and memory, the recollection of a real event. In many ways, this feeling is like a haunting; it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify why one has the feeling. By introducing the sense of déjá vu in their stories, Gothic writers bring both the past and the future into the present. Although a character may only experience an event once in reality, the twin devices of recollection and déjá vu allow the experience to happen again and again and again within the pages of the novel.

Finally, a number of critics identify an important theme in Gothic literature: that the sins of the father will be visited upon the son. In other words, the evil that someone does in his or her lifetime will be repaid in the lives of his or her offspring. Again, while this may not seem like an obvious use of doubling, it allows a Gothic writer to reintroduce the injustice perpetrated by a previous generation on the current generation, until the injustice is righted. Thus, sin is doubled and doubled until it is corrected.

Given that the use of doubling techniques features so heavily in so much Gothic literature, perhaps it is important to identify the roots of the double, as well as critical interpretations of its function in the literature. Most obviously, the use of the double in Gothic literature seems to spring from the duality of the Middle Ages, the era that Gothicists attempt to recreate in their writing. Certainly, medieval romance offers many models of the use of the double: Malory's story of the twins Balin and Balan who meet each other in combat, unknown to each other, is an excellent example, as is the Guinevere/false Guinevere motif of the Arthurian legend. G. R. Thompson's chapter, "A Dark Romanticism: In Quest of a Gothic Monomyth," in Literature of the Occult speaks to the duality of the Middle Ages made graphic by "the evocation of the transcendent, upward thrust of Gothic cathedrals" and "the vision of the dark night of the soul and the nightmare terrors of demons." That both are so present in the literature and the iconography of the Middle Ages demonstrates at least one channel through which notions of the double find their way to Gothic literature.

Likewise, the eighteenth century was also a time of extreme duality. The Enlightenment emphasis on reason and rationality, so dominant in this time, denies fully one half of human experience, that of passion and emotion. Writers of the eighteenth century were obsessed with distinguishing good from evil, truth from falsehood, and reason from passion. Perhaps the only way, then, for writers to account for both sides of this duality was to separate them in the creation of doubling experiences. And yet, throughout Gothic literature, it is as if what has been divided struggles mightily for reunion, a reunion that often results in death.

There are a variety of critical interpretations of how the double in Gothic literature functions as a response to the dualities discussed above. Frederick Frank in The First Gothics calls the Gothic "the literature of collapsing structures where even the narrative context itself is in a constant state of fall with no possibility of a visionary reordering." He further quotes Thompson, who argues that Gothic literature "begins with irreconcilable dualities." Thus, the attempted synthesis or reunion of the divided narrative, the divided psyche, and the divided culture ultimately and inevitably fails.

Botting in The Gothic identifies the use of the double in Gothic literature, along with other stock features, as the "principal embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties." The growth of science, for example, with the decline of religion offers such an example of a cultural anxiety. Thus, Frankenstein and his monster are both embodiments of the anxiety caused by the replacement of ultimate meaning with science. Likewise, the French Revolution, with its violent upheaval of social structures, is yet another cultural anxiety.

Finally, many critics turn to psychology for an interpretation of the function of the double in Gothic literature. Freud, in his essay "The Uncanny," reviewed the work of Otto Rank, who studied "the connections which the 'double' has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death." Freud argues that although the double starts out as a form of ego protection in children, it becomes "the uncanny harbinger of death—a thing of terror." Certainly, readers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century would find it difficult to even think about the notion of the double without referencing Freud and perhaps Carl Jung. The double can be seen as a representation of the divided self, personifying the pleasure seeking id, the self-aware ego, and the morality of the super-ego. Likewise, mirror images provide a way that the self can project its own darkness out of itself onto another.

Doubling, then, serves not only as a literary device designed to invoke terror in the reader, or as a complicated narrative maneuver, but also as an impetus for self-reflection and growth. Doody offers that "The most important point regarding the double is the necessity to confront and recognize the dark aspect of one's personality in order to transform it by an act of conscious choice." That is, the double allows a character to both confront his or her own darker self and reintegrate that self. Thus, the double, be it as doppelgänger, literal or figurative mirror image, artwork, or déjá vu functions as a means for self-confrontation and self-knowledge not only for the characters in the stories but for the reader of Gothic literature as well.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Gothic Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Ellen Rees

In this essay, Rees argues that modernist author Isak Dinesen in her Gothic short story "The Dreamers" uses two earlier Gothic stories. From Robert Louis Stevenson's story "Olalla," Dinesen was inspired to create her character Olalla who is an inversion of the title character in Stevenson's story. Dinesen drew from Jules Amadee Barbey d'Aurevilly's story "At a Dinner of Atheists" to create the character of Rosalba for her story.

We know that Isak Dinesen strove to create intricate intertextual puzzles in her writing. More than many other writers, she consciously engaged in an ideological dialogue with her literary predecessors by often subverting nineteenth-century patriarchal discourse, as Sara Stambaugh points out (19). Primary sources of inspiration and irritation for Dinesen include major writers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also lesser-known figures as well.

A rich example of Dinesen's use of nineteenth-century sources is the second to last story in the 1934 collection Seven Gothic Tales, "The Dreamers." In this analysis, I will examine the gothic precursors for the figures Olalla and Rosalba, who are presented as alternative identities for the tale's female protagonist, Pellegrina Leoni. The figures and their hypo-texts can serve as a case study in Dinesen's intertextual practice, a way of interrogating the frequent comment that Dinesen can and should be read through the lens of postmodernism (see Rostbøll 12; Kyndrup 149). Two nineteenth-century texts—Robert Louis Stevenson's story "Ollala" from 1885 and Jules Amadée Barbey d'Aurevilly's story "Àun dîner d'athées" [At a Dinner of Atheists] from the 1874 collection of stories Les Diaboliques [The She-Devils], which contains a Rosalba


character—served as points of departure for Dinesen in her subversion of nineteenth-century patriarchal constructs of female identity. Just as the later story "Ehrengard" is in important ways a rewriting of Kierkegaard's "Forførerens dagbog" ["The Diary of a Seducer"], so too is "The Dreamers" a rewriting of these two gothic tales. I will give close readings of the ways Dinesen uses these two stories and conclude by suggesting that her intertextual use of these two gothic precursors does not in fact represent an anachronistic example of postmodernism, but rather that her narrative practice fits into the less-widely discussed literary movement known as late modernism. By late modernism, I mean the laughter and doubling, and the "excess of narration over narrated event" (150) that Tyrus Miller has identified in the works of writers such as Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, and Mina Loy. According to Miller, late modernism is a distinct literary historical development that anticipates certain elements of the postmodernism that was to follow and critiques the modernist formalism that preceded it.

Robert Langbaum made reference to "Olalla" in his 1964 monograph on Dinesen (104), but no other scholar has carried out a thorough comparison of the two texts although Stambaugh discusses "Olalla" briefly. The only scholars to make any mention of Barbey's text as a possible source for Dinesen's Rosalba figure are Susan Brantly (who makes the comment only in passing in noting that both versions of Rosalba have "a double nature" [60–1]) and, indirectly, Eric O. Johannesson, who lists Barbey along with Horace Walpole and E.T.A. Hoffmann as the gothic writers who come to mind as "sources of inspiration for Dinesen" (55). Yet in "The Dreamers" it is clear that Dine-sen consciously plays with pastiche and that the rewriting of these gothic precursors consists of more than just a superficial similarity. We see this pattern as well in Dinesen's reworking of Georges du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby, which presents a Svengali-Trilby dyad that Dinesen reworks in the figures of Marcus and Pellegrina, as Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jørgensen have discussed (148–51). We see here a pattern of inversion: whereas Trilby is an empty shell given voice only by the powers of Svengali, in Dinesen's version Pellegrina, even after having lost her once great voice, still holds immense power over Marcus, who is a help-meet rather than an impresario.

Beyond Pellegrina and the two female characters on whom I intend to focus in this analysis, Dinesen's male protagonist, Lincoln Forsner, also has a literary precursor as Tone Selboe has pointed out. The Norwegian author Sven Elves-tad's 1927 collection of neo-gothic short stories Himmel og hav [Sky and Sea] contains a text entitled "Lincoln Forssners siste dage" [Lincoln, Forssner's Last Days]. We know from Dinesen's correspondence that she was familiar with Elves-tad's work as early as 1923 (Letters 164). Dine-sen's library has been catalogued by Pia Bondesson, but it does not include Elvestad's Himmel og hav so it is likely that Dinesen borrowed the text from her Norwegian friend Gustav Mohr. That the use of the name is a conscious choice by Dinesen is borne out by the unmistakable similarities in theme between the two stories. Regarding the connection between "The Dreamers" and "Lincoln Forssners siste dage" Selboe makes the following comparison:

Novellen har flere likhetstrekk med "Drømmerne," men Blixen har sin vane tro snudd rollen om. I Elvestads novelle fortelles det om den svenske billedhugger Lincoln Forrsner [sic] som forlater sin kunst, søker fornedrelsen og gjennom intense nervepåkjenner til slutt oppløses forsvinner . . . Det er kvinnes pågående spørsmål— en "invasjon" ikke ulik den Pellegrina utsettes for—som er foranledningen til Lincolns endelige og mystiske forsvinning.

(The short story has many similarities to "The Dreamers," but Blixen has as usual inverted the roles. In Elvestad's short story, we learn of the Swedish sculptor Lincoln Forrsner [sic] who abandons his art, seeks degradation, and as a result of intense nervous strain finally dis-integrates and disappears. . . . It is a woman's insistent question—an "invitation" not unlike the one to which Pellegrina is subjected—that is the cause of Lincoln's final and mysterious disappearance.)

Selboe has here identified an intertextual pattern of inversion that is true not only for Lincoln Forsner, but for Olalla and Rosalba as well.

Given the pattern identified by Selboe, the fact that Dinesen's library contained the 1911– 12 edition of Stevenson's collected works (Bondesson 103) as well as an original copy of Barbey's Les Diaboliques (24), it is worthwhile to inquire more deeply into these intertextual revenants in "The Dreamers." I hope to demonstrate that Dinesen actively inverts the characteristics of the two female characters by reversing their roles and calling into question the assumptions about female identity that the source stories present. Further, I hope to be able to comment more broadly upon Dinesen's use of intertextualism as a narrative strategy based upon these examples.

All three of the writers discussed here consciously positioned themselves in relation to the English gothic tradition handed down from Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. Stevenson's literary project fits into the late nineteenth-century Victorian gothic shift from its original eighteenth-century concerns to a preoccupation with the monstrous body as Robert Mighall points out (139). Barbey was according to B.G. Rogers "an ardent admirer of Ann Radcliffe's novels" (27) and each of the six stories in Les Diaboliques contains gothic elements. Dinesen openly claimed the discursive space of the gothic with the title of her first collection of tales. Johannesson's 1961 study of Dinesen's works pointed out some of the important gothic motifs that Dinesen utilized. He notes "Dinesen's dependence on the Gothic and decadent tradition is evident, but the significant fact concerning this dependence is the manner in which she makes this tradition serve her own vision" (55). In recent years, a number of scholars have continued to investigate her relationship to the gothic, in particular Sibyl James, as well as Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jørgensen, who devote a chapter of their respective books to the question, "Why Gothic Tales?" Within a more limited context, Brantly has taken up the same question (14–6). For James, the most important aspect of Dinesen's engagement with the gothic tradition is the emphasis on imagination, and she argues that in her tales Dinesen was "reach-ingbacktotransformcertainaspectsofthepast that she considers valuable into modes operable in the present" (James 139). Further, James notes that Dinesen parts company with the gothic tradition on the question of "moral sentiment" (140). For James, Dinesen consciously rejects moral questions of right and wrong and focuses instead on alternative values such as wit, imagination, and narrative play. Juhl and Jørgensen compare Dinesen's gothic tales to those of Edgar Allan Poe and E.T.A. Hoff-mann, noting that while the fantastic or supernatural in Poe or Hoffmann is in many respects the key element of the story, Dinesen shifts her attention from depicting actual supernatural to what the notion of fantastic events can tell us: "It is thus not the general and principal character of the fantastic that interests Karen Blixen [Isak Dinesen] but, on the contrary, its indication-value for the approach of dawning recognition in thecharacterswithrelationtotheir ordinary human relationships" (132, emphasis original). Brantly provides a useful summary of the English and German gothic traditions as they relate to Dinesen as well as an overview of previous scholarship.

In "The Dreamers" Dinesen offers up an apology for the gothic through the voice of Mira Jama, who, no longer able to tell frightening tales because he has lost the ability to fed fear, longs for the days when his terrifying tales were popular: "The great princes, fed up with the sweets of life, wished to have their blood stirred again. The honest ladies, to whom nothing ever happened, longed to tremble in their beds just for once. The dancers were inspired to a lighter pace by tales of flight and pursuit." The notion of the honest ladies longing to tremble in their beds is key: as Brantly points out, Dinesen's engagement with the gothic is primarily concerned with the rewriting of traditionally restrictive representations of women and female sexuality. Brantly notes that within gothic conventions "women with sexual experience are dangerous, occasionally madwomen, and most often punished by the end of the story" (59). In this she builds on the arguments first presented in Sara Stambaugh's discussion of Dinesen's anti-misogynistic program in chapter 5 of her 1988 book The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen. Stambaugh says that "The Dreamers" "can be read as a study of the womanly woman's answer to misogyny" (100). In other words, in the tale Dinesen poses the question of what happens to male identity when confronted with female sexuality.


Before turning to Dinesen's probable hypo-texts, there are a few words that should be said about "The Dreamers." The tale is long—over eighty pages—and marked by an elaborate frame narrative, four separate inset stories, and a correspondingly complex chronology. To complicate matters even further, each part of the narrative takes place in a different geographical location. Juhl and Jørgensen have convincingly, but perhaps too dogmatically, mapped out the chronology of the frame and inset narratives (140). Lincoln Forsner tells his story to Mira Jama in 1863 on a dhow sailing from Lamu to Zanzibar along the east African coast. The story he tells is of a meeting at a pass in the Swiss Alps "twenty years ago" (279). Juhl and Jørgensen take this statement literally, but in my reading, the time span is probably a few years shorter, given the specific historical references. Stambaugh also takes issue with the rigid chronology, noting that the actualhistoricaluprisingonZanzibarthat serves as the background to the frame narrative took place a few years earlier than 1863.

Throughout the course of Lincoln's narrative, we hear the inserted narratives of three other men: his German friend Friederich Hohenemser (to whom Lincoln refers as "Pilot" after a dog he once owned), Hohenemser's Swedish friend Baron Arvid Guildenstern (Langbaum notes the reference to one of the two "undistinguishable nonentities" from Hamlet [105]), and the wealthy Dutchman Marcus Cocoza (who is frequently and reductively identified as "the old Jew"). All four are linked to the fate of a mysterious woman who bears a snake-like burn scar on her throat. Together they meet her at a mountain pass in the early winter of 1843, not long after Pilot's meeting with her in Lucerne during late 1842 and approximately nine months after Lincoln's affair with her in Rome, according to Juhl and Jørgensen's timeline. The Baron's affair had taken place even earlier, in 1836, in the Loire valley of France. The three men discover that the women they have loved are one and the same, and only after her protector Marcus Cocoza tells them of the terrible fire in the Milan opera house in 1830, do they learn the origin of her serpent-shaped scar and her real name, Pellegrina Leoni.

Although these inset stories do not appear in chronological order in the text, the dates and locations are important cultural referents, particularly since a number of identifiable historical figures populate the text. Dinesen consciously bends the boundary between authentic and fictional, and it is the task of her readers to interpret the significance of her manipulations. This tension between possible fictional worlds and historical reality gives her narrative a perpetual playfulness that shares qualifies with late modernist texts such as Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936) or Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography (1928), as I argue in On the Margins: Nordic Women Modernists of the 1930s.

The Madame Lola figure (a revolutionary hat maker of Lucerne) has so far proved difficult to locate within Dinesen's copious library. The reference to Hohenemser's uncle, Baron de Watteville, suggests Honoréde Balzac's Albert Savarus (1834–35) from La Comédie humaine as a possible hypotext since a Swiss Baron de Watteville is a central character in the novel. There is, however, no Lola character. Stambaugh speculates that Madame Lola may be a revision of the Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel]. She notes that the film's heroine, "Lola-Lola, destroys the identity of her victim. In his introduction to the authorized translation, Sternberg brags that he reversed the plot of his source, Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrath, as well as the name and role of the cabaret singer" (104 note 24). The date Juhl and Jørgensen give for Lola's revolutionary adventure (late 1842 or early 1843) does not correspond exactly with historical events in Switzerland. An uprising of radicals against Jesuits along the lines described in "The Dreamers" did indeed take place in the city of Lucerne but slightly later, specifically in December 1844 (Zimmer 124). With no clear literary precedent for Madame Lola, at this point I turn instead to Olalla and Rosalba.


While Dinesen's Olalla is a prostitute, Stevenson's is a secular saint. Stevenson's story concerns the adventures of a British officer and first-person narrator who finds himself in need of two months' rest after a battle injury in Spain. The specific war is not given, but in all likelihood it was during the French peninsular invasion that began in 1808, and the officer would have been fighting on the side of the Spanish. According to the doctor who attended him, the officer was "wounded in the good cause," and this judgment islaterconfirmedwhentheofficerusesthisfactas a reason why the local Spanish priest should think well of him. He is sent by his doctor to the country residence of a reclusive Spanish family that has fallen from its high position. The officer becomes acquainted with the three living members of the family, the Señora, her mentally deficient son Felipe, and her daughter Olalla, who is described paradoxically both as a "saintly poetess" and "a saint" and as a woman of extreme seductive beauty. After finally meeting her in person, the narrator says: "The pale saint of my dreams had vanished for ever; and in her place I beheld this maiden on whom God had lavished the richest colors and the most exuberant energies of life." Since Dinesen's Olalla is a prostitute in Rome, the connection between the two seems murky. It is important to remember, however, that Dinesen's pattern of inversion not only applies to her use of hypotexts, but also to her own story. Once the reader remembers that another of Pellegrina's roles, Rosalba, is that of the former consort of the Spanish general Tomás Zumalacárregui (Dine-sen calls him "General Zumala Carregui"), who led the Spanish troops in the Napoleonic invasion that forms the backdrop for Stevenson's "Olalla" and looks ahead to Barbey's Rosalba story set in the same war, it becomes clear that Dinesen created a complicated set of resonances between Rosalba and Ollala.

Despite its focus on Catholic saintliness and Calvinistic prudishness, "Olalla" stands out among Stevenson's fictional works because "of all the completed works . . . only 'Olalla' deals with sex as an animal passion," according to Edwin M. Eigner (206). Precisely because of their respective profound religious beliefs about the sinful nature of the body and sexuality, the officer and Olalla experience the sexual attraction they feel for each other as a threat to their identities. The two gaze at each other without yet having spoken, "exchanging salvos of attraction and yet each resisting." When Olalla finally does speak to the officer, it is to tell him that he must leave. The officer is utterly confused by their eventual physical embrace: "I hated, I adored, I pitied, I revered her with ecstasy. She seemed the link that bound me in with dead things on the one hand, and with our pure and pitying God upon the other; a thing brutal and divine, and akin at once to the innocence and to the unbridled forces of the earth." Stevenson's emphasis here on the predetermined, genetically coded attraction the two characters feel for each other threatens to overwhelm their sense of self and individualized identities as virtuous believers.

The narrator is prepared for his eventual meeting with Olalla by the portrait of one of her ancestresses that hangs in the room he stays in. The emphasis throughout is on the inevitability of genetic inheritance, on Olalla's inability to escape both her family's physical beauty and its moral degeneration despite her personal inclination toward saintliness. Olalla blames her own physical attraction for the officer on traits inherited from her corrupt family: "The hands of the dead are in my bosom; they move me, they pluck me, they guide me; I am a puppet at their command; and I but reinform features and attributes that have long been laid aside from evil in the quiet of the grave. Is it me you love, friend? Or the race that made me?." Kenneth Graham describes the dilemma with which the two characters grapple as a question of whether "the otherness of the body, its time-bound flesh, its genetic fixity [is] a curse and obliteration of the self; or is such otherness, in the impersonality and universality of passion, a release and a fulfillment" (45–4, emphasis original). It is perhaps this question in particular that drew Dinesen to "Olalla." Stevenson, however, seems clearly to side with the rejection of the body and its lusts. At the end of the tale Olalla and the officer part without having consummated their passion, but with both their identities reaffirmed by the rejection of the flesh. After the officer departs from the residencia, he remains in the vicinity, and the two have one final meeting at the site of a bloody and garish crucifix that emphasizes the differences between their respective Christian belief systems. Olalla again begs the officer to leave saying, "Suffer me to pass on upon my way alone; it is thus that I shall . . . be the most happy, having taken my farewell of earthly happiness, and willingly accepted sorrow for my portion." Reflecting upon the hideously suffering Christ and no longer aware of Olalla's presence, the officer gains a new understanding "that pleasure is not an end but an accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well." At this point the story ends with his setting off down the path and taking one last look at Olalla leaning against the crucifix. Dinesen, on the other hand, is more interested in exploring the second notion that Graham suggests, that the loss of identity that passion entails leads to a transcendence over conventional sexual mores, a triumph over the narrowness of patriarchal (and specifically Christian) definitions of gendered identity and sexuality. Whereas Stevenson's Olalla bends to the will of her church, Dinesen's undertakes a project leading to a transcendence of patriarchy and including performing the role of prostitute.

In his analysis of the tale, Langbaum relegates the connection to Stevenson to a footnote. In it, he conjectures: "Isak Dinesen must have been struck in Stevenson's story by the idea that extraordinary beauty is both more than and less than human. It is characteristic of her that she combines Olalla and the mother in the ambivalent figure of Pellegrina" (104, note 1). The inter-textual resonances that the textual origins for Rosalba and Olalla add to the tale go even further than Langbaum suggests in that they complicate and refine the questions of identity that Dinesen raises in the text. By looking to the hypotexts, we see more than the stereotypes of whore and saint: we see Dinesen radically rescripting the gothic tradition to create female identifies who are far from silenced by patriarchal fears about the (sexual) power of women and who instead propel at least some men into the realm of what Dinesen calls the "dreamer."

Stambaugh elaborates arguing that "because of his Calvinistic background, he [Stevenson] is a prime example of the loathing for one's body which Dinesen attributes to Christianity and especially to strict Protestantism. If Dr. Jekyll fears his body so much that he wants to split off what he sees as his evil, animal half, in 'Olalla' Stevenson projects the same hatred of the body onto women" (103). I would add that it is not only the Protestant prudery represented by the officer, but also the Catholic mores represented by Olalla and thus a whole range of Christian constructs of sexuality that Dinesen rejects. Stambaugh argues that Dinesen reverses the story by having her Olalla teach Lincoln "how to escape from a background and outlook similar to Stevenson's" (104). Lincoln knows Olalla carnally because she is a prostitute before he comes to know her as an individual and comments directly upon the foolishness of the prudish English codes of courtship exemplified by Stevenson's narrator. He states, "I have never been able to get anything out of the orthodox love affairs of my country." Dinesen's Olalla represents the opposite of determinism, namely the free play of identity. She is described as one of a rare kind of women "who are self-luminous and shine in the dark, who are phosphorescent, like touchwood." Dinesen's Olalla is in multiple senses a knowing—but not necessarily knowable—woman. As a prostitute she knows the ways of the flesh, while at the same time she exhibits extraordinary sense and sensibility about the world: "There never seemed to be to her much difference between joy and pain, or between sad and pleasant things. They were all equally welcome to her, as if in her heart she knew them to be the same." This conclusion contrasts sharply with Stevenson's Olalla, who lives in fear of awakening or acknowledging her carnal nature and thus must live in almost total isolation from the world. In creating her Olalla, Dinesen consciously unites virtue and sexuality to suggest a new construct of womanhood based on knowing. In this she refutes the fate of Stevenson's Olalla, who is denied both her saintly virtue (when she acknowledges her attraction to the officer) and the possibility of sexual fulfillment (when she refuses to marry him) because of Stevenson's notion of biological determinism. Yet despite having learned to embrace his sexual nature, Lincoln (perhaps somewhat like Stevenson's officer) makes a fatal error in reducing Olalla to one identity rather than emulating her multiplicity and acceptance of the fleeting nature of all things. Rather than moving on in life he (and one suspects the same of Stevenson's officer) fails to move ahead in life along a traditional trajectory becoming instead one of the tribe of male "dreamers" who have been privy to the multi-faceted nature of female identity and have been unable to master it.


In a similar reversal, Dinesen constructs a Rosalba widely (mis)recognized as a living saint while Barbey's Rosalba is a notorious consort to an entire battalion of the French army. Barbey dates Rosalba's story precisely to 1808 when she was the lover of a fictional officer in the French army during the campaign into Spain, the foreigner Major Ydow. Dinesen's Rosalba story takes place nearly thirty years later thus making it unlikely (though not impossible) that the woman whom Dinesen describes as having passed thirty is the same person as the young courtesan. Whereas Barbey's frame narrative surrounding the story of Rosalba describes a group of mostly military men who lost everything when Napoleon was defeated and who now espouse an unusually virulent form of atheism, Dinesen wryly sets her story about Rosalba in an extraordinarily pious and elitist conclave of aging royalists thus establishing further resonances within the pattern of reversal that marks her intertextual play.

On the one hand, Barbey's narrator describes Rosalba as "la plus corrompue des femmes corrompues—dans le mal, une perfection!" ["the most depraved of all depraved women—the perfection of vice" (emphasis original)] while on the other hand she is "pas seulement une fille de l'air le plus étonnamment pudique pour ce qu'elleétait; c'était positivement la pudeur elle même" ["not merely astonishingly modest, she was Modesty itself"]. Further, the narrator says, "La Rosalba était pudique comme elleétait voluptueuse, et le plus extraordinaire, c'est qu'elle l'était en même temps" ["La Rosalba was as modest as she was voluptuous, and strange to say she was both at once."] The comparison of this description, with Dinesen's inset narrator are striking. He calls Rosalba "a holy witch and wanton saint" and makes repeated reference to her sexual experience, as for example when he notes wryly, "that she had, before his death, stood in a more earthly relation to the martyr in no way damaged her reputation" or when he speculates that "either . . . Rosalba can count the names of her lovers with the beads of her rosary, or she is some perverse old maid." Dinesen's rewriting of Rosalba is thus not simply an inversion, for she maintains the character's paradoxical nature as a key element. What is different in the hands of the two writers, however, is the ways in which the two Rosalbas are interpreted by the male characters. In both the Barbey story and the Dinesen revision, the central masculine concern appears to be the threat of the knowing woman. In both cases, women of sexual experience exercise an irresistible attraction to men who subsequently struggle desperately to control that knowledge and the power it appears to give the woman, yet the results are nearly opposite.

Barbey's Rosalba, with her multiple sexual partners and disregard for the emotional turmoil that ensues, suggests a gender reversal of the Don Juan legend, which was a central preoccupation for Dinesen as well. Charles Bernheimer points out the problem that Rosalba's indifference poses to Barbey's narrator, Mesnilgrand: "She, however, refuses to romanticize their affair, to give him any kind of linguistic privilege over her sexuality, to narrativize her body" (336). Mesnilgrand is one of only many in a long series of lovers, and as Eileen Sivert notes "Rosalba responds to everyone and so to no one" (160). In refusing to name them, she thus effectively obliterates the identity of all her lovers. Conversely, Dinesen's Rosalba accepts the Swedish Baron as a lover who fancies himself a Don Juan in his own right. The importance of the Don Juan myth in "The Dreamers" has been examined at length by, among others, Lang-baum. For the purposes of this discussion, it is important to note that the generative narrative of the entire tale, the opera house fire in which Pellegrina lost her voice, took place during a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni just as Pellegrina in the role of Donna Anna sang the "Crudele" aria to Don Ottavio. Further, the climax of the Baron's inset narrative of seduction is subverted throughout the episode by Rosalba's talk of Don Juan. In "The Dreamers," Lincoln Forsner comments on the banality of the Baron's seductions:

It appeared from his talk that all his ladies had been of exactly the same kind, and that kind of woman I have never met. With himself so absolutely the hero of each single exploit, I wondered why he should have taken so much trouble—and he was obviously prepared to go to any length of trouble in these affairs—to obtain, time after time, a repetition of exactly the same trick.

This observation compares to what Bernheimer calls Rosalba's "insistence on the substitutability of her sex partners" (337). Whereas the male Don Juan's depersonalizing pursuit of women holds a central place in the European literary imagination, the notion of a female Don Juan who correspondingly depersonalizes male individuality (and thus identity) is far more problematic. Barbey's story strives to punish the female who dares to obliterate male identity in this way, while Dinesen's sets out to explore what the existential possibilities of a female sexuality that objectifies men might be.

In both texts the women present a conundrum and are repeatedly asked questions which they sphinx-like refuse to answer. In Barbey's story the questions are "M'aimes-tu?" ["Do you love me?"] and "Estce à moi, cet enfant?" ["Is this child mine?] bringing together the linked male anxieties of fidelity and paternity. Bernheimer notes,

The voice Mesnilgrand considers natural speaks to a man of his right to possess a woman, control her sexuality, and inscribe her in his genealogical story. By placing her body outside this patriarchal scheme, Rosalba throws the scheme into confusion: Paternity becomes a mere fiction, a matter of her arbitrary naming.

Dinesen's male characters are equally concerned with validating their own existence through winning the love of the female. Olalla/ Rosalba/Pellegrina's unwillingness both to maintain one stable identity—"I will not be one person again"—and her unwillingness or inability to recognize the men who pursue her at the end of the story undermines their unproblematic masculine identities and turns them into what Dinesen refers to as "dreamers" instead. In a devastating rhetorical gesture, Pellegrina Leoni asks them—the men who thought they had won her love—who they are, as though she had never met them before.

In the beginning of "The Dreamers," Lincoln Forsner introduces the story of Pellegrina Leoni by saying "It all goes to teach you how I was, twenty years ago, taught . . . to dream, and of the woman who taught me." Similarly, at one point when Barbey's narrator breaks out of his inset narrative about Rosalba and his listeners at the dinner of atheists to reflect on the troubling characteristics of Rosalba, the frame narrator interjects: "Avec ce qu'il venait de dire, il avait, le croira-t-on? transforméen rêveurs ces soldats qui avaient vu tous les genres de feux, ces moines débaucheś, ces vieux médecins, tous ces écumeurs de la vie et qui enétaient revenus" ["It seemed as though his words had transformed into dreamers all these soldiers who had been under fire of every sort, these debauched monks, and old doctors, and brought back to them visions of their old life"]. Whether or not this reference is the direct source for Dinesen's meditation on dreamers fifty years later, the suggestion that the knowing woman functions as an important catalyst for and provocation of masculine identity is strong.

Here again, then, in the case of Rosalba is an instance of Dinesen rewriting a misogynistic nineteenth-century tale in a way that calls into question male paranoia about women's sexual knowledge. Dinesen subversively assigns value to the experiences of the female character that is not present in the hypotext while maintaining meaningful resonance with the female characters' fruitless struggles against patriarchal oppression in the original texts. Barbey's Rosalba is particularly troubling and relevant to the self-reflective nature of Dinesen's literary project because her horrifying mutilation and possible murder are so intricately linked to an act of writing. Barbey's Rosalba openly embraces desire and seeks multiple sexual partners. She is caught in the act of writing to an unspecified lover (Barbey implies that it may be the narrator Mesnilgrand) by Major Ydow, who seals her genitals with his sword and the blue and silver sealing wax—notably the colors associated with the Virgin Mary—she used on the envelope of the love letter she has just written. He tells Rosalba "Sois punie par otù as péché, fille infame!" ["Be punished where you have sinned, miserable woman!"]. Given that Dinesen was particularly preoccupied with creating a professional persona for herself as a writer and storyteller and that she explicitly linked her storytelling to the art of seduction and her ability to seduce one man in particular, Denys Finch Hatton, the fact that in Barbey's text sealing wax—an important part of nineteenth-century written documents—is used by Major Ydow to silence Rosalba creates a compelling parallel between sexuality and writing. Bernheimer notes, "Barbey reflexively links the very possibility of narrative control and closure to the successful repression, even obliteration, of the female sexual body" (330). I suggest that Dinesen's concern in "The Dreamers" is the exact opposite: she attempted to create an open and porous narrative form that resists control on multiple levels through the "female sexual body" that writers like Barbey and Stevenson sought to repress.

Barbey leaves open the question of whether Rosalba survived the mutilating act, and it is perhaps this opening in the text—this generative locus of other possible narratives about Rosalba—that inspired Dinesen to contemplate the possibilities of a female with multiple identities. It is an example of Dinesen simultaneously writing with and against the grain of Barbey's text. Certainly there is a metaphorical connection between Rosalba's body during the scene of mutilation and the scar that Dinesen's Rosalba—in all her permutations—carries: Barbey's narrator tells us "son beau corpsánu, tordu, comme un serpent coupé, sous son étreinte" ["her beautiful, naked body twisted like a wounded snake beneath his grasp"]. This small visual link to the distinctive snake-like scar compounded by the other similarities between the two textsistoomuchtodismissascoincidence.Given Dinesen's well-documented predilection for biblical language and narrative, the linking of the image of the snake and the problem of women's knowledge appears to hearken back to the original narrative about male anxiety in response to the knowing female, the story of Adam and Eve.


The series of intertextual resonances I have attempted to point out between Dinesen's "The Dreamers," Stevenson's "Olalla," and Barbey's "À un dîner d'atheés" raises the question of why Dinesen chose to construct a pastiche of those two tales in particular given the large body of gothic fiction with which she was familiar. I think the answer can be deduced, at least in part, in Mira Jama's first story, which appears in the introductory frame. In the story, a Sultan seeks "a true virgin, such as had never heard of men." The sultan's hopes are dashed when he catches her looking out her window at an attractive young water-carrier, and he has the two buried alive in a coffin "broad enough to make a marriage bed." This brief story, in which a woman gains knowledge and is put to death for it, sets the scene for each of the four inset stories contained by Dinesen's frame and resonates with both Stevenson's and Barbey's hypotexts. For at the heart of both Stevenson's and Barbey's stories lie patriarchal terror in the face of female sexuality. Susan Hardy Aiken calls "The Dreamers" "a proliferation of mutually displacing accounts wherein 'woman' is the indecipherable ever-elusive 'story'—remembered in/as a kind of dream text, at once product and producer of multiple male-authored narratives" (53, emphasis original). This strategy of displacement subverts the patriarchal anxiety—represented by the British officer's fear of the supposedly inhuman nature of sexuality and Major Ydow's concerns about fidelity and paternity—that demands women's ignorance and suppression of sexuality. Dinesen offers her readers an alternative world populated by knowing women who ultimately, if ambivalently, elude patriarchal attempts to master them.

Given this sophisticated use of intertextuality, is Dinesen a postmodernist writer as Grethe Rostbøll and Morten Kyndrup suggest? Dinesen's strategy is, I think, too directly linked to a dialectical model of patriarchal versus feminist constructs of female identity to be considered postmodernist. Yet, on the other hand, the fact that the female identities that Dinesen ultimately constructs vigorously refute knowable, epistemological readings does show strong affinity with the postmodernism of a half century later. In this respect, it is not the self-conscious intertextuality in response to nineteenth-century male writers that Dinesen employs but rather the resulting free play of identity that she suggests as an alternative that connects her first collection of stories to later postmodernist developments. The fact that Dinesen chose "low-brow" Gothic texts, such as du Maurier's Trilby, Barbey's Les diaboliques, and Stevenson's "Olalla," as sources of inspiration for her highly complex and intellectual tale, "The Dreamers," is intriguing, suggesting a rejection of the classicism and formalism of her high modernist contemporaries. Dine-sen's intertextual practice demonstrates an acute sense of the absurd, with its keen awareness of the fine line between the sublime and the philistine in the romantic tradition. While this anticipates postmodern critiques of the conventional distinctions between high and low culture, this critique is also a central element of late modernism. Keeping in mind the fact that intertextual rewriting has existed throughout literary history, as Linda Hutcheonremindsus(18),Ifindthatinherparticular intertextual play Dinesen creates a radical, ontological questioning of female identity that fits in well among her contemporary late modernists, rather than anachronistically placing her among the postmodernists.

Source: Ellen Rees, "Holy Witch and Wanton Saint: Gothic Precursors for Isak Dinesen's 'The Dreamers,"' in Scandinavian Studies,Vol.78,No.3, Fall2006, pp.333–48.


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Davenport-Hines, Richard, Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

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"Emily Brontë(1848–48): An Overview," in Victorian Web, (accessed July 17, 2008).

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Freud, Sigmund, On Dreams, translated by M. D. Eder, 1914, reprint, Dover, 2001.

———, "The Uncanny," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 17, edited and translated by James Strachey with Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson, Hogarth Press, 1955, pp. 218–56.

Graham, Kenneth W., ed., Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, AMS Press, 1989.

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Punter, David, ed., A Companion to the Gothic, Blackwell, 2000.

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Rees, Ellen, "Holy Witch and Wanton Saint: Gothic Precursors for Isak Dinesen's 'The Dreamers'," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 78, No. 3, Fall 2006, pp. 333–48.

Skarda, Patricia, and Nora Crow Jaffe, eds., Evil Image, New American Library, 1981.

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Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, edited by Elizabeth Mahoney, Everyman's Press, 1994.

This novel is a parody of the Gothic romance, popular in Jane Austen's own day. The student acquainted with the conventions of Gothic novels will find Northanger Abbey, originally published in 1818, an entertaining and comical read.

Goddu, Teresa A., Gothic America, Columbia University Press, 1997.

Goddu examines the Gothic in American literature from the 1770s through the 1860s, looking particularly at African-American, southern, and female writing. The book would be of interest to anyone concerned with the way that oppression and social myth interact to produce the Gothic in literature.

Oates, Joyce Carol, ed., American Gothic Tales, Plume, 1997.

Oates selects forty-six American tales, ranging from some by Charles Brockden Brown in the eighteenth century to Nicholas Baker in the twentieth century. What the tales have in common is a "gothic-grotesque vision," according to Oates. Students of the Gothic should enjoy this influential collection.

Spark, Muriel, Mary Shelley, Constable, 1988.

This book is a very well-written biography of the author of Frankenstein by a well-known British writer.

Spillane, Mickey, and Max Allan Collins, eds., ACenturyof Noir: Thirty-Two Classic Crime Stories, NAL Trade, 2002.

Spillane and Collins collect stories by thirty-two eminent crime writers from the twentieth century, although critics have noted a lack of representation by authors from the early part of the century and some argue that many of the stories are simply crime fiction and not noir. Each story is preceded by an introduction that provides a short biography on the author.