Coleridge’s musing in his Notebook entry from 1808 bears the candid testimony of an earnestly moral critic attempting to come to terms with the disturbing power of Gothic Literature. His ambivalence also typifies the varied range of responses that have characterized critical reaction to the Gothic from the earliest reviews of Walpole down to present times. The problem for Coleridge and many subsequent commentators is that while this literature ostensibly panders to the “lowest of all human scarce-human faculties,” with its reliance on stock conventions to do so, it still comes uncomfortably close to eliciting from the reader the kind of response associated with high visionary (and profoundly Coleridgean literature: a thrilling sense of the mind emancipated from the ordinary restraints of nature, time, and space. How can such a “vicious” literature gratify instincts the Romantic imagination equates with our greatest capacity for creativity and even divinity?
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A brief history of critical reaction to Gothic literature provides a rich variety of answers to Coleridge’s final, unanswered, and endlessly provocative question, ranging from philosophical elaborations upon his moral and aesthetic premises to psychoanalytic subversions of them. More recent critical studies that analyze the power of the Gothic achievement take a different direction by grounding it very specifically in time and space, by reading it as a reflection of historical change and of the always-contested region where cultural values are formed. These new studies have stimulated an invigoration of Gothic studies, as we witness a dismantling of Coleridge’s implied distinction between high and low literary cultures and a rewording of his alarm about imaginative virtue assailed by popular vice. But the best of these studies still address his disturbing question of why the Gothic should exert such a powerful hold upon its readers, and perhaps especially upon those readers who would otherwise reject or disparage it.
J.M Barrie’s work has received wide recognition in modem scholarly circles, the term he coined to express the supernatural element in experience—the numinous—has passed into general use in a highly amorphous form. Nowadays, it is used to describe anything from a ghost to a movie idol to a computer. In my view, this situation is unfortunate. Until recent times, the supernatural tale has received little serious attention from literary critics. G. R. Thompson gives what must certainly be the correct explanation of this neglect: "Until the 1950's, the prevailing critical view of Gothic Literature was essentially that of the later nineteenth%u2010 century moralists: namely that the Gothic lacked 'high seriousness.' "Despite its antiquity, wide geographical distribution, and continuing popularity, the ghostly tale has often been looked upon as a literary curiosity, half-art, half%u2010anthropology.
Such a critical attitude is not difficult to understand. The ghost story, by its very nature, maintains only the weakest connections with the central themes of mainstream literature: romantic love, conflict between man and man, greed, ambition, political questions, and the like. It is true that in a few ghost stories, the protagonist falls in love with a ghost. When that has happened, the romance generally has been doomed to failure. In such cases, courtship is difficult and marriage is out of the question. In the supernatural tale, conflict takes on a peculiar form as well. The conflict usually is a matter of pursuit, on the one hand, and retreat, on the other. One "runs" from a ghost; if there is to be any sort of confrontation, it must be carried out with amulets, spells, incantations—objects not within the inventory of most people. Supernatural literature is often said to lack high seriousness or moral purpose (Horner, 98).
In other words, the genre of occult literature contains paradoxes. On the one hand, it is sometimes considered a fugitive form which is less than respectable; on the other, its popularity remains undimmed. One might be inclined to write off the paradox as an example of mankind's love of fantasy; but that would mean lumping the ghost story together with the fairy tale, the myth, and the legend. The problem with such a view is that the ghost story does not fit comfortably in the general classification of fantasy; it is somehow "different." One feels the difference. It is as though the ghost story occupied an ontological plane different from other kinds of fantasy.
These early twentieth- century scholarly surveys of the Gothic gave rise to a revitalization of critical inquiry into the nature and purpose of this audacious genre which had been long regarded since its invention by Horace Walpole in the Eighteenth Century as an inconsequential and superficial literary tradition to be scorned and avoided by serious students and real scholars. Except for the nearly universal rage of the Gothic 's first reviewers, almost no one had bothered to examine Gothic literature until the tireless and prolific Montague Summers thrust his erudite torch into the dark places of the haunted castle in quest of the lost and forgotten Gothics of the late Eighteenth Century in his exhaustive history of the early Gothic novel. Summers also laid the foundations for two parallel fields of bibliographical endeavour relating to the Gothic novel and its later manifestations in the short tale of terror. On the other hand, a great quantity of critical writing on the Gothic and its influence followed in the wake of Summers demonstration of the important place of the Gothic in The Gothic Quest. Inevitably, much of this criticism was appreciative, apologetic, and even militantly defensive as scholarship tried to compensate for a century.
The earliest critics of the Gothic in the English press establish the double plot of its reception, as their vehement reaction against “the trashy fantasies and cheap excitements of the Terror school” betrays anxiety about this fiction’s great popular appeal. Wordsworth’s withering contempt for these “fantic novels” that cater to a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” (600) represents a culmination of anti- Gothic commentary, reaching back to the first notices of The Castle of Otranto—“composed of such rotten materials, [it] is a phenomenon we cannot account for” —and finding its most spectacular demonstration in the controversy engendered by Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Monk. Most of these negative reviews build a moral argument upon an aesthetic premise: because Gothic fiction does not appeal to our more refined perceptions but instead panders to such low impulses as mere “curiosity,” “a craving for extraordinary incident,” and an overheated sensibility, it “blunt[s] the discriminating powers of the mind” and impairs active sympathy and serious moral reflection.
Given “the magnitude of the general evil”—and perhaps here Wordsworth refers to the flood of shilling shockers and pulp Gothics that were all the rage in the 1790s—one can understand the fiercely negative reaction, certainly from an Enlightenment perspective, reaching back to Samuel Johnson’s warnings in The Rambler about the deleterious effects of fiction, but also from the emerging aesthetics of Romanticism and its emphasis on a lyrical (or less “incident”-driven) imagination. Yet many subplots complicate this main assault on the Gothic as the literature of vice, not the least of which is the Romantic poets’ frequent appropriation of Gothic materials in their writings. One enduring strand of critical reaction finds writers offering philosophical defences of the Gothic that challenge its denigration on moral and aesthetic terms. Early on we find an attempt, based on Edmund Burke’s analysis of the sublime, to discover a redemptive value in the literature of terror. John Aikin and Anna Laetitia Aikin make this bold argument.
The Aikins also insist that “the more wild, fanciful and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it”; where the scene is “too near common nature”, we will be disgusted by it. Although Ann Radcliffe in her fiction preferred only the illusion of the “extraordinary” (later called the “explained supernatural”), she echoes the Aikins’ distinction between the high and low Gothic, insisting on a difference between mere “horror,” a vulgar and debased response, and a higher mode of “terror” that leads to an apprehension of the sublime (“On the Supernatural in Poetry,” 1826). Yet the terms of these distinctions have proved highly malleable. In the charged aesthetics of the 1790s, for example, at a time when literary forms of terror become entangled with the real Terror abroad, the distinction between “natural” (read “domestic”) and “extraordinary” (read “foreign”) was used by many critics in an exact inversion of the Aikins’ terms.
Coleridge, for example, indicts the Gothic for its “attempt to please by what is unnatural…by a departure from the observance of real life”—arguably the Aikins’ primary criterion for the sublime in terror. Despite the fluidity of such distinctions, one continues to find a fondness for dialectical ordering of the Gothic experience in the more philosophical approaches of today. S.L. Varnado defends the Gothic as a “numinous” literature whose primary value is the way it unsettles our complacent assumptions about the phenomenal world; he argues against those who would dismiss the Gothic as too unreal or removed from human experience or “morally neutral” by insisting that it has much “to say about man’s ethical condition”. Tzvetan Todorov’s influential distinction between the “marvellous” and the “uncanny” advances Radcliffe’s contrast between “real” horror and imaginable terror by focusing on what may be called “the uncertainty principle” of Gothic fiction, the way it challenges a reader to choose between accepting its premises (the “marvellous”) or prosecuting them (the “uncanny”).
These and other dialectical approaches, ably demonstrated by Jack Voller’s The Supernatural Sublime, attest to the serious philosophical interest in what many early detractors considered the least intellectually respectable of all literary genres. Another strand that powerfully complicates the moral argument against Gothic literature is attention to its political dimensions. Thanks to the efforts of such critics as Ronald Paulson, Maurice Lévy, and E.J. Clery (to name only a very few), we now read the moral strictures against the Gothic in the late eighteenth century as reflections of the anxiety occasioned by this revolutionary period of political and economic change. Some of the earliest reactions to the Gothic phenomenon recognize the politically volatile nature of the genre: an anonymous critic in the Monthly Magazine of 1797 memorably terms the genre the “terrorist system of novel-writing,” and the Marquis de Sade in his essay “Idée sur les romans” perceives the English Gothic novel as “the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe resounded” (Sage 1990, 120).
Whether from an eighteenth-century or a twentieth-century perspective, political readings of the Gothic once again emphasize its dual nature. On the one hand, with its gallery of dissipated aristocrats and long-suffering bourgeoisie heroes and heroines, the Gothic almost too obviously expresses middle-class rage against unchecked aristocratic power. On the other, its often-conservative framework, especially in what critics identify as “the female Gothic,” works constantly to undercut or to contain its more anarchic energies, providing a moral proving ground in which virtue and a whole range of domestic values are rewarded. Perhaps no approach to Gothic literature more sharply complicates the moral arguments against it than a religious reading, the very quarter from which one would most expect it to be considered sacrilegious (one recalls, for example, Coleridge’s fervent diatribe against Lewis’s blasphemous use of Scripture in The Monk).
Religious historians of the sectarian age in which the Gothic was conceived have revealed a host of ironies regarding its frequent condemnation from the pulpit. For one thing, many critics pointed to the too-enlightened and rational religion of the late eighteenth century, with its dismissal of “superstition,” as giving rise to the Gothic penchant for the miraculous and the irrational: what conventional religious belief failed to satisfy, the Gothic novelists did. Once again, we encounter an opposing thread of argument. Victor Sage enlarges upon the oft-noted anti-Catholic strain of Gothic fiction to argue that it is fundamentally a product of the Protestant imagination; other critics, such as James Rieger and Joel Porte, suggest that the power of much Gothic horror draws upon the return of traditional Christian teachings to haunt the freethinkers and radicals of the day. Consider the dark destiny awaiting that thrilling figure of the Gothic and Romantic imagination, the Promethean over reached, from William Godwin’s St. Leon to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or from Charles Brockden Brown’s Carwin to Herman Melville’s Ahab.
Consider the overreacher’s terrifyingly orthodox and archetypally Gothic double: the Wandering Jew, the being who denies and mocks Christ only to be tormented throughout eternity for his blasphemy. Although Gothic literature has frequently been attacked from religious quarters, its critical history reveals how profoundly its tales of the supernatural draw from and powerfully rework traditional religious materials. One can see, then, that from its inception, critical reaction to the Gothic has been characterized by a wonderful maze of cross-purposes that reflect the divided nature of the genre itself. The very term has generated two quite different critical narratives in the twentieth century: one of the strict constructionists who speak of the Gothic as a European literary phenomenon ranging from 1765 to 1820; the other of critics who treat the Gothic not so much as a genre as a literary “impulse” or mode of perception with broad dissemination abroad (Punter, 157).
It is therefore can be concluded that it should not matter if the meaning they find lacks reference in the social world. By making their books something other than reflections of that world, they should, by rights, have relieved themselves of all obligations to it. But in even the most perfect novel of privacy there always comes a time when purely contextual meaning ceases to be enough and one begins to wish for a kind of significance that will expand beyond itself and illuminate the universal issues of life. They have been able to create a separate and private moral context for each of their books and to find a meaning for the moral dilemma of their characters within that context. There is a tendency among some recent philosophers to treat the topic of 'fiction and reality' as though it were just a technical matter to be sewn up with the incisive needle of logical theory.
This is symptomatic of the impoverishment of contemporary philosophy, which, both in its narrowing range of specialist interests and in its professional jargon, has yielded to the temptation to cut itself off from the human problems that matter deeply to the intelligent layman. As far as the arts are concerned, this intellectual myopia has proved disastrous. Artists of any art do not simply produce. They are profoundly affected by theoretical conceptions of the nature and importance of the activity in which they are engaged. And while mainstream analytical philosophy has turned its nose in other directions, absurd and destructive theories of art and criticism have flourished in its absence, protected from its searching demands. Indeed it is quite paradoxical that some of these theories are far more abstract and less 'humane' than they perhaps would have been had they received more critical attention from analytical philosophers (Halberstam, 55).
In modern literary theory, which has not only failed to leave room for, but has in some cases actively eschewed, the idea that fictional characters are to be regarded as human beings. It is only a small step from a 'dehumanized' conception of character to a view of literature as devoid of moral ideas, and to a conception of criticism as a scientific or political exercise. However, if in understanding and responding to the representational content of literary works we are to regard fictional characters as persons, we must then take issue with those philosophers whose theories preclude us from talking about or 'referring to' characters as persons, and who make a huge fuss about the ontology of fictional existence. I am thus compelled to confront prevailing theories of reference and argue for their inapplicability to literary fictions. There is a long-standing prejudice based upon genuine insights that, unexamined, can be misleading: that life is one thing and art another.
At the opposite extreme there is the politicization of art which expects and demands that it be 'relevant to life', even conveying social truths and social messages (Mighall, 115). It argues that there is a distinction between art and life, but this does not mean that life in art is a different kind of life. Rather, the difference consists in the way that our interest and attention is directed, shaped, and organized. It contends that agreement with the moral vision of a literary work is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of our perception of its merit. That does not mean, however, that art has nothing to do with morality (a view found in for instance the 'aestheticism' of Oscar Wilde). For not only would such a view make the idea of literary merit or aesthetic qualities quite vacuous, it would run counter to our experience of literature.