Revolutionary or Reactionary?

The centrality of vice and the supernatural in Gothic lead many critics to fear a degeneration of reader's minds through the excitement generated by such imaginative indulgence. The Gothic was at the centre of the late 18th century debate on the dangers of reading, which voiced concerns that the growing middle- class, mainly female, readership could be corrupted by such socially subversive works. But the terror inspired in the Gothic can also be seen as a means of reasserting conservative values: moral digression is cast in a threatening form and finally expelled in the cathartic release of fears and the re-establishment of boundaries. There is a tendency towards closure and resolution in which the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious are punished, thus maintaining a moral and social equilibrium. Radcliffe in particular provides a strongly moralistic authorial voice, making generalised comments on human nature that have a stabilising effect. The aesthetic effects may be daring but the ostensible moral is reactionary.

For example, in one sense The Monk is subversively critical of the hypocrisy of social and religious institutions, relentlessly exposing the dissolution beneath the veil of respectability in both church and aristocracy. Such institutions represent to Lewis superstition, unreasonably harsh punishment and sexual repression. But individual desire conflicts with social duty with disastrous consequences and these two elements must be finally reconciled in Lorenzo's marriage to Virginia and Raymond's to Agnes. The offspring of the extra-marital encounter between the latter lovers dies because tarred by illegitimacy, while Antonia is removed as an unsuitable partner to the noble Lorenzo in favour of the ideal choice of Virginia. The initial transgression, from which all the narrative tensions spring, is the trespassing of class boundaries when Antonia's mother marries a man of superior rank and fortune, a sin visited indirectly on both son and daughter. There is also a distinct distrust of popular anarchy in the novel that was wholly conventional: the mob that riots at the convent of St Clare denotes the savagery of the French revolution and the Gordon riots in London in 1780. This instability is replaced in the end with a more respectable order, and the text can thus be read as highly conservative despite its subversive sensationalism.

In terms of technical innovation, the Gothic is considered a transitional and immature form that was superseded by the Romantic achievement, enjoying a tremendous popularity but quickly decaying as the conventions of terror became too familiar. This view of the Gothic as immature is given credence by the fact that many of its greatest practitioners, including Lewis and Shelley, were very young when they wrote their major works. Elizabeth R. Napier, in her book The Failure of Gothic, takes the view that the genre is reactionary and static:

"Gothicism is finally much less about evil, 'the fascination of the abomination', than it
is a standardised, absolutely formulaic system
of creating a certain kind of atmosphere in which a reader's
sensibility toward fear and horror is exercised in predictable ways
....The superficial and the formulaic, thus, paradoxically, form the
very heart of the Gothic."

It is indeed a studied and derivative form, a sort of Frankenstein's monster constructed from the sentimental novel, chivalric romance and the new sensational taste for terror. Mary Shelley acknowledges this dependency in her 1831 preface:

"Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in
creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in
the first place, be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot
bring into being the substance itself."

But this passage indicates the area where critics have found an element of radical literary innovation: in the Gothic's voicing of dark secrets and, through symbolic means, the desires and fears of the subconscious. The return of the past to haunt the present and the sudden outbursts of passion in Gothic villains can be very easily interpreted in a Freudian light as the return of the repressed to the conscious ego, and this psychoanalytic line can be a fruitful approach to the genre.

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