This paper that I wrote last year is especially appropriate as we are doing the romantic poets right now in senior English.
Seminar in a Literary Period 1
February 23, 2006
Gothic Became Romantic
With the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764, a new genre was born. For the next sixty years, Gothic literature dominated the literary scene. After the publication of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, Gothic literature had seemed to run its course (Potter, The Gothic Lecture Notes). Romantic literature had dawned. However, the basic precepts of what we consider Romantic literature are actually just the evolution of the Gothic literature tenets.
Gothic literature is a genre that made readers think. Above all, it is a genre that made readers start to behold the great emotions that writers could evoke. As readers consumed texts with the supernatural and the horrific, they also tended to love that sensation that the suspense brought out. Gothic literature was melancholy. It contained elements of darkness and mystery and was often overly dramatic. “The Gothic creates feelings of gloom, mystery, and suspense and tends to the dramatic and the sensational, like incest, diabolism, and nameless terrors” (Potter).
Robert D. Hume wrote an immensely valuable essay on Gothic literature called “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel” (Hume). In this article, Hume says “that the Gothic novel is more than a collection of ghost-story devices.” While the genre incorporated these devices, it was the transfer of ideas that created them. At the time, authors were bending away from the neoclassical idea, shying away from the great Elizabethan authors like Shakespeare. They wanted to examine emotion and imagination. Indeed, Hume goes on to say, “That Gothicism is closely related to romanticism is perfectly clear, but it is easier to state the fact than to prove it tidily and convincingly.”
This romantic belief had just started. Hume says, “The early Gothic novels can be considered the precursors of romanticism in their concern with sensibility, the sublime, and the involvement of the reader in a more that rational way.” By saying this, one starts to see how the general principles of Gothic literature did not just vanish overnight. These thoughts and patterns were just fine tuned and developed and became what is considered a new genre.
As Gothic literature intended to awaken the reader’s imagination, terror was one of the main devices employed for this effect (Hume). Romantic literature simply took this to the next level. Romantic literature can be defined with the words imagination and emotion. These are the same terms that can be used to define Gothic literature. It is in simply understanding how the terms are used between the two genres that we discover what trends separate them.
By the time that the Gothic novel had run its course, these trends toward imagination and emotion had only grown. Instead of imagination being for horrific and terrifying imaginings, now the authors applied the use of imagination. The authors wrote “partly in the struggle of thinking persons to ground speculation and belief in what seemed the most certain facts of experience” (Perkins 9). These ideas that many were exploring in the literature of the Gothic tended to express themselves now in higher ideals. They coalesced more into grander and deeper meanings of life and emotion. “The essential meaning of the Romantic emphasis on feeling is not cultivation of one quality or power at the expense of others but the pursuit of an ideal of unity or completeness of being” (Perkins). Before, Gothic literature tended to strive for the “genteel aim of provoking no more than a pleasurable shudder” (Norton). Now, Romantic literature wanted to interpret what those feelings were, where they came from, and what on should experience from these feelings.
With these definitions, Romantic literature is simply a twist to the principles of the Gothic genre. Instead of reason derived from terror, now imagination, as Wordsworth put it, is the supreme faculty of the mind. While readers liked putting themselves into that suspenseful and terror-laden frame of mind that Gothic literature provided, Romantic literature now broadened their minds to thinking about deep subject matters.
Many Romantic writers were fed on the Gothic literature of the period as that was vogue and in style to their culture and age. This can be likened to modern authors such as John Grisham, whose bestsellers always seem to be summer reading fare. School districts across the nation, though, are putting some of his novels like The Painted House onto their high school reading lists. I know this because I taught at South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Washington, where this novel was part of a curriculum adoption that went through. Stephen King can be seen as just part of the horror genre but there are a few literary criticism books and articles out there that applaud his creativity and style. Since authors like these two are read by just about everyone, as the bestseller lists contend, everyone is influenced by them.
William Beckford’s Vathek was one of those early nineteenth century Gothic novels that everyone read. No less than Shelley, Keats, and Byron were known to have read Vathek (Thomson). “Vathek was a character who put his chosen pleasures above the humanity of those around him, and feeds directly into the Romantic movement's glorification of sensation and experience” (“Vathek”). Other Gothic novels such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto have been abandoned by literary historians, yet Byron sung the praises of the author, saying, “It is the fashion to underrate Horace Walpole.” But Byron applauds Walpole in the Preface to Marino Faliero, saying he is “surely worthy of a higher place than any living writer, be he who he may” (“Gothic Labyrinth”). For Byron to defend the author says a lot about how much he truly liked his style.
Romantic writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley read many easily digestible Gothic novels. Shelley liked the works of Charles Brockden Brown who wrote Gothic novels such as Weiland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Merwyn. Douglass Thomson, Professor of English at Georgia Southern University, said, “Nothing so blended itself with the structure of his [Shelley’s] interior mind as the creations of Brown.” In fact, Shelley published two Gothic novels of his own.
While a work like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus may tend towards many parts of the Gothic definition, there are numerous examples of its Romantic sensibilities. While Romanticism worked on the movement of ideas and intellect, Gothic was a link to extreme ideas and the understanding of the emotions that they developed, like thrill, fear, and terror. First of all, Frankenstein uses a monster. Most Gothic novels had some kind of supernatural or something in which to be terrified. It was this tension of fear, probably a precursor to the use of suspense in film that held the novel. The reader wanted to hold that intensity of fear and know more about it. That was Gothic thinking. Secondly, the novel likes to allude to dangerous information. Since Romanticism was a genre that wanted to learn more about the deep parts of human existence, this novel went a step further. The reason it is Gothic is that the knowledge is macabre and forbidden: the reanimation of human bodies. Even from today’s standpoint when we see the electric paddles resuscitate a victim, it seems plausible at least. Could this knowledge just be outside our reach, if we wanted to read those texts that others laughed at him for reading? Also, the novel has multiple facets on which to discuss for hours upon end. The role of women and their passivity should be examined in greater detail. The idea of the death penalty on an innocent and the idea of abortion, when Victor destroys the female creation, could be considered. These are all dark subjects that need to be brought to light and this text mentions them.
These authors simply took the next evolutionary step from Gothicism into what became Romanticism.
“Gothic Labyrinth.” 20 February 2006. http://pluto.scs.ryerson.ca/~monica/walpole.htm.
Hume, Robert D. “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” March 1969. 20 February 2006. http://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/knarf/Articles/hume.html.
Norton Anthology of English Literature, The. “The Romantic Period: Topics Introduction.” 20 February 2006. http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/romantic/welcome.htm.
Perkins, David, Ed. English Romantic Writers. 2nd Edition. Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Potter, Franz. “The Gothic Lecture Notes.” 20 February 2006. http://spectrum1.blackboard.com/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=/bin/common/course.pl?course_id=_74305_1.
Thomson, Douglass. “Gothic Literature: What the Romantic Writers Read.” 20 February 2006. http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/~dougt/gothic.htm.
“Vathek.” 14 April 2000. 20 February 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2060.