THE GOTHIC CANON

 

These walls,' said he, 'were once the seat of luxury and vice. They exhibited a singular instance of the retribution of Heaven, and  were from that period forsaken, and abandoned to decay.' His words excited my curiosity, and I enquired further concerning their meaning.
Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance

     Often criticized for its sensationalism, melodramatic qualities, and its play on the supernatural, the Gothic novel dominated English literature from its conception in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole to its 'supposed' demise in 1820. The genre drew many of its intense images from the graveyard poets intermingling a landscape of vast dark forest with vegetation that bordered on excessive, concealed ruins with horrific rooms, monasteries and a forlorn character who excels at the melancholy.

     A fabled spectre or perhaps a bleeding Nun were images often sought after by those who fell victim to the supernatural influences of these books. Gothic literature as a movement was a disappointment to the idealistic romantic poets for the sentimental character idealized by Ann Radcliffe could not transcend into reality.

     The modern critical view of the Gothic canon limits it to a set of high reaching artistic achievements: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe's The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) are cited as the defining parameters of the genre.

     Although the Gothic novel influenced many of the emerging genres, like romanticism, the outpouring of Gothic novels started to ease by 1815 and with the publication of Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820 ,the genre began to fade. The Gothic novel had come full circle, from rebellion to the Age of Reasons order, to its encompassing and incorporation of Reason as derived from terror. The influence of the Gothic novel is felt today in the portrayal of the alluring antagonist, whose evil characteristics appeal to ones sense of awe, or the melodramatic aspects of romance, or more specifically in the Gothic motif of a persecuted maiden forced apart from a true love.

     The Gothic genre today has remained an elusive minor literary upheaval that has had immense influence on genres today. Literary critics though, have been slow to accept Gothic literature as a valuable genre. The first critics to examine the Gothic, approached it reverently with historical interest. They tried to rescue it, to revive the dead and obscure genre. These critics looked at the presence of the text by examining it within a historical context. The original critical approach of historical interpretation allowed the text to validate the text, as it was a reaction to the age of reason, order, and politics of Eighteenth century England.

     The development of the Gothic Novel from the melancholy overtures of sentimental literature to the rise of the sublime in the graveyard poets had a profound impact on the budding Romantic movement from Wordsworth to Shelley. The astounding features and use of the sublime and the overt use of the supernatural, profoundly influenced the style and material of the emerging romantics. Gothic Novels such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett, Longsword, Earl of Salisbury by Thomas Leland, The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story by Clara Reeve and Vathek: An Arabian Tale by William Beckford led Coleridge to write a Gothic drama, Shelley to write two Gothic Novels and Byron to write Manfred.

     The effects of the Gothic still reverberate though modern literature from Joyce Carol Oats to Ann Rice. The literary motifs set forth by Horace Walpole can be found scattered throughout all forms of literature, yet the Gothic Novel has been left to molder in libraries in obscurity and except in rare instances, the novel has all but vanished from the canon of western literature. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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