chapter  6
14 Pages

Homely Gothic

In the mid-nineteenth century there is a significant diffusion of Gothic traces throughout literary and popular fiction, within the forms of realism, sensation novels and ghost stories especially. Eighteenth-century Gothic machinery and the wild landscapes of Romantic individualism give way to terrors and horrors that are much closer to home, uncanny disruptions of the boundaries between inside and outside, reality and delusion, propriety and corruption, materialism and spirituality. These are signified by the play of ghosts, doubles and mirrors. In both American and British writing the influence of Radcliffe, Godwin and Scott is still evident, though their Gothic styles are significantly transformed. The bourgeois family is the scene of ghostly return, where guilty secrets of past transgression and uncertain class origins are the sources of anxiety. The modern city, industrial, gloomy and labyrinthine, is the locus of horror, violence and corruption. Scientific discoveries provide the instruments of terror, and crime and the criminal mind present new threatening figures of social and individual disintegration. The traces of Gothic and Romantic forms, however, appear as signs of loss and nostalgia, projections of a culture possessed of an increasingly disturbing sense of deteriorating identity, order and spirit. The development of the American novel owes much to the reception and transformation of European romantic literature. Significant differences appear in the use of Gothic images in writing that was predominantly realist. Hackneyed Gothic machinery was abandoned, but contrasts of light and dark, good and evil, were inflected in texts in which the mysteries of the mind or of family pasts were the central interest: the human and social world completely replaced the grand Gothic terrors of a super-natural kind. In the American context a different

geography and history were available to writers: romantic adventures could take place in the wilds of an uncharted continent or horrors could be found in the Puritan witch trials of Salem in the seventeenth century. Gothic psychology and the questions narratives raise of the reality of strange incidents are framed with different issues: of rationalism, democracy and religious organisation, and their relationship to individual freedom and social control.