This Halloween season, as you’re contemplating shadows on the wall and things that go bump in the night, I invite you to consider that the Gothic tradition includes works deserving of a recognized place in the literature of liberty canon.
If we follow the definition of the Gothic provided by Jerrod E. Hogle in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, we get four major ingredients for a Gothic story:
- It is rooted in setting (an “antiquated space,” whether it’s a castle or a spaceship).
- It is absorbed with the past (either in general or with a recent, personal past).
- It is associated with secrets (that are, either physically or psychologically, haunting).
- It is involved with blurring the line between the natural and supernatural (which makes the Gothic a natural “parent” of the modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres).
Scholars David Punter and Glennis Byron, in The Gothic, add context to this, nothing that “It is sometimes said that Gothic has flourished at times of actual or potential social upheaval—in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, or at the end of the nineteenth century…”
What these descriptions allude to but don’t say outright is that the Gothic is irrevocably tied to both feelings and genuine experiences of helplessness and disenfranchisement. The repeated questions posed by Gothic heroes and heroines from the very first Gothic work (Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764) forward go something like this:
- What is it that I don’t know? (What truths are being hidden from me? What lies are being told to me?)
- Even if I know the truth, who will believe me, given my status?
- If power is against me, how can I escape it and exert control over my own life?
It’s worth noting that—in part because of the questions it asks, as well as the metaphors it supplies—the Gothic has always attracted the marginalized and underrepresented. The great pioneer of the Gothic, English author Ann Radcliffe (1794-1823), published the 18th-century equivalent of runaway bestsellers under her own name at a time when women writers were few and far between in public. Since then, the Gothic has provided a home for women, gay and lesbian authors, authors of color, and other voices protesting political injustice, questioning dominant norms and customs, and calling for change.
This means that the Gothic tradition includes its fair share of liberty-oriented stories.
Here are just a few specific examples from the early days of the Gothic that show why works in the tradition deserve to be considered part of the literature of liberty.
- Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797) criticizes both the power and corruption of the Catholic Church through its memorable villain, Father Schedoni. Persecution by the Holy Inquisition is a central theme—how can an individual hope to combat such an institution?—and it becomes a staple metaphor of the Gothic.
- An apocalyptic pandemic serves as the backdrop for Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). A response to the libertine tendencies of the Romantic poets and authors with whom she had spent her youth, this apocalyptic fantasy reminds readers that the flip side of liberty must be responsibility if society and its evolved institutions are to survive.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) locates the source of the family curse not on the supernatural, but on the theft of personal property. When the powerful family patriarch can’t convince his neighbor to sell his prime piece of real estate, the villain accuses that neighbor of witchcraft and sees him wrongfully executed by their Puritan community, so he can step in and seize the man’s land.
- Wilkie Collins creates heroines whose peril arises from women’s lack of legal standing and property ownership in The Woman in White (1860). In the equally Gothic The Moonstone (1868), which is also the first detective novel in English, Collins explores the ugly faces of colonialism abroad (the plundering of other cultures and peoples) and at home (racism and xenophobia).
- As pro-liberty comments go, it doesn’t get any clearer than Jane Eyre’s definitive statement in Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic masterpiece of the same name from 1847: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Want more to explore? Check out the resources below.
- Check out the Goodreads list of “The Best Gothic Books of All Time”!
- Read “Feminism, Frankenstein, and Freedom: The individualistic works and lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley” by Amy H. Sturgis, Reason, June 2015 issue.