– Ajanta Paul
The strong foundations of the short story in America along with a steady engagement with the Gothic by its practitioners in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ensured for the sub-genre an interesting extension that though examined earlier may well invite a fresh scrutiny. Nineteenth century American writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, equally adept at both long and short fiction, often infused their work with a noticeably dark strain which was taken up, and if not incremented upon, at least experimented with by later writers who sought to expand the boundaries of the genre.
While the haunted castles of European Gothic fiction with their closed and confined spaces have their equivalents in the decaying family mansions, labyrinths, catacombs, caves, and tombs in the American one there is a fundamental difference in setting which is a direct reflection of social conditions in the two continents. The frontier, forests and newly established plantations or settlements of the New World are simultaneously setting, situation and symbol in the American Gothic story seamlessly integrating physical landscape with the deeper content through conditions not to be associated with the British tradition. It is in the dark forest that Young Goodman Brown in Hawthorne’s eponymous story loses his bearings, literally as well as morally, and where he sees, or imagines he sees humanity assuming the semblance of sin, a revelation as shocking to him as it is horrific. Like the wilderness the frontier, too, with all its social implications appears in the Gothic stories of several American writers, notable among them being Ambrose Bierce.
The growth of the Spiritualist Movement and the advances in psychology in Victorian England were crucial to the development of the gothic genre. It accounts for the simultaneous inclusion of two distinct categories, namely the supernatural and the psychological which led to ambiguities of the type found in such famous examples of American short fiction as Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, stories which incidentally have been taken as illustrative texts for this paper. In ‘Young Goodman Brown’ the forest takes on a haunted and supernatural aspect even as it symbolizes the moral and psychological threshold that Brown crosses, and which changes his outlook forever. James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, one of the most well-known pieces of fiction in its class, derives its effects very largely from the ambivalences generated by competing viewpoints. If the governess’s visions are to be believed the ghosts in the story gain validity making the fiction a regular ghost story. On the other hand, if her account is to be viewed sceptically, and she is regarded as mad the ghosts become a figment of her diseased imagination, and the whole exercise becomes redolent of psychological terror.
At the heart of the Gothic short story in nineteenth century America is a religious and social attitude, the Puritan negotiation of evil and sin. The fledgling towns of New England with their theocratic societies spawned an intense, narrow and guilt-laden outlook, Calvinist in sectarian orientation and zealous in temper. Stories such as ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ by Hawthorne demonstrate this trend and coincide with his studies of religion, particularly Puritanism, reflecting the individual inclination of their author, as also of the general temper of the region and age. In ‘The Minister’s Black Veil,’ for instance, Hawthorne aims to critique the ideals of Puritan society and express his disdain for it, by exposing the true identities of socially prominent people. Brown’s fear of the forest, at one level, reflects the view of the Puritan colonists that the wild New World in all its unknown temptations needed to be dominated and controlled by their guiding religious ideology. ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ exposes the ubiquity of sin, depravity and hypocrisy in a society which stridently pretended to being just the opposite.
While Poe has generally been regarded as an author immersed in a world of his own making his links to contemporary society, and their influence on his writings are not exactly negligible. In his three famous detective stories Poe responded to the ongoing scientific debate about the origins and meaning of the universe. His story ‘The Mystery of Mary Roget’ was based entirely on newspaper accounts of a real murder that occurred in New York. ‘The Gold Bug’ reveals Poe’s racist and pro-slavery views which were in tune with the opinions held by the contemporary southern, white, landowning classes. Scott Peeples argues that Poe’s works were written to appeal to popular tastes and some elements in them that seem bizarre and grotesque to modern readers were in fact conventional. He goes on to state that they were written for a mid-nineteenth-century American audience, whose frames of reference and social contexts were different from those of late-twentieth-century readers 1, thus ascribing to Poe’s Gothic stories a topical interest and relevance that may not be detached from their larger social orientation.
The pathology of evil, obsession, hysteria, madness and other related expressions in the Gothic mode, at a deeper level, is linked to a spiritual desire for ultimate truth, or even maybe to the dissolution of the self into a universal whole. The ideological cross-currents in nineteenth century America may well have been some of the foundational forces in shaping Poe’s fiction. The influence of Lockean Empiricism, for instance, which believed in achieving truth through the senses and the material world, and Transcendentalism which conversely sought to locate truth in the ideal world are found to co-exist in Poe’s short fiction. The propensity to build up sensations through mental reflection, (a direct influence of Lockean Empiricism) is pronounced in Poe’s writings, and may be seen in his choice of language in his short stories. Elaborate descriptions in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. which veered on the baroque depend for their effect on sensory perceptions. Expressions such as “a pestilent and mystic vapour” and “leaden-hued” extend this hypothesis while Usher’s dissatisfaction with the present and the palpable suggest his creator’s brush with Transcendentalism. Usher who “suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses” may, in this capacity be associated with Transcendentalism, a linkage that is reinforced by certain pointers that shed light on his character. One learns that. “If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher” and also that he created out of “pure abstractions”. The potential for transcendentalism,notwithstanding, Usher’s journey or change of state was a downward and negative one.
Right from its inception, that is since the time of Hugh Walpole and his chilling novel The Castle of Otranto, one of the main reasons for writing Gothic fiction has been to explore the human mind and trace the causes and patterns of evil behaviour so that the same may be avoided and virtue encouraged in their stead. Such a socio-moral rationale for the composition of Gothic fiction in its sheer plausibility justifies its place within the dominant canon through its identification with ethical imperatives such as improvement, advancement and purification of the individual and society. Generally regarded as having arisen out of a reaction to the narrowly rational eighteenth century it naturally became linked to the less explicable categories of human experience such as intuitions, apprehensions, dreams, fantasies, imagination, and visions, among other things.
Some critics viewed Gothic fiction as “a cultural anesthetic” used by readers to escape everyday dross and drudgery thereby implying the inadequate social and economic conditions which necessitate such an escape. The nature of events, spectacle, characters and setting in Gothic fiction, no doubt, benumbed the faculties of readers, inuring the same to the pains and privations of daily existence. Its function as an escapist outlet and indirect critique of society notwithstanding it is necessary to accommodate other, even opposite viewpoints in the pluralistic discourse generated by the topic. For instance, it may be argued that the very elements diagnosed as an anodyne by some may also provoke, stimulate and excite the passions in unprecedented ways in the reader to draw her in all her alertness to the excesses in the fictional world. Thus, the arguments for sedation and shock therapy seem to apply equally to the effects of the Gothic mode which is seen to spawn binaries of cause and effect in several spheres of its operation.
In veering away from the rational and the realistic, Gothic fiction enables the reader to perform a subliminal act of facing, and thereby neutralizing incipient, potential, barely recognized or even fully realized threats present in the personal, familial or social cosmos. Fred Botting maintains that imaginary creatures “populate gothic landscapes as suggestive figures of imagined and realistic threats” 2 which can be safely encountered, countered, challenged and expelled in fiction, thereby attributing to the genre a therapeutic value which is not without its social uses. In Gothic fiction, therefore one finds that social anxieties are supernaturalized and rendered in displaced forms fulfilling, in certain respects, Kristeva’s theory of ‘abjection’.
Yet, while the themes and events in the Gothic mode are of a heightened paranormal or supernatural order the genre is expected to be understood in a very realist sense. According to Linda Bayer Berenbaum “Gothic terror” is created by a merger of “the natural and the supernatural that undermines a sound, predictable reality”, 3 and it is the identification of the reader with the horrific events which effectively ensures the success of the formula. The “sound, predictable reality”, one assumes is the social norm which is interrogated, challenged or subverted as the case may be by the gothic canon. The Gothic narrative in both Europe and America has been subversive challenging institutional authority (like religion) and social taboos such as incest and murder.
In most human communities any tendency to extreme behaviour is viewed suspiciously by the majority, and the perceived deviant is taken away, locked up or excommunicated as the case may be. This fear of the unfamiliar is a familiar theme in the Gothic short story which precisely because it trades in the unusual, the exotic and the bizarre finds itself extending this negotiation in interesting equations, repetitions and variations. The family of Roderick Usher in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is ostracized because of “a peculiar sensibility of temperament”; Bartleby in Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: a story of Wall Street’ similarly contradicts the dominant views of his local community, namely, the Wall Street fraternity and makes its members angry and confused by his actions leading them to conclude that “he is a little deranged” and plead that he must be taken away. In the time that the Gothic characters are able to interact with their community, however, that is prior to their rejection, removal or death they succeed in altering the balance of feelings in the latter, subtly intuiting apprehensions of change in them. Bartleby changes the atmosphere of the office in which he works, and the narrator and his other employees are at a loss to deal with the mysterious change that affects them.
The story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ with its porous boundaries between the paranormal and paranoia critiques patriarchal perceptions of women’s roles in society focusing on the reality, causes and effects of madness often brought on in women who find themselves in claustrophobic conditions. She examines the medical prescriptions and persecutions which turned on the proverbial pivot of male strength and knowledge as opposed to feminine weakness and ignorance, and which presupposing a privileged superiority assumed control over all spheres and forms of socio-cultural intercourse, and more particularly over women. Women with symptoms of depression and nervous disorder in 18th and 19th century America were medically forced to undergo complete physical and mental rest and were, in effect deprived of their intellectual and creative faculties in an unspoken conspiracy of patriarchal power and influence.
Drawing on her own experiences of nearly losing her sanity when prescribed the traditional ‘rest cure’ for her depression Gilman writes the story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as feminist protest, as vindication of the individual self, and as proof of a medical triumph courageously obtained in the face of a frightening social practice. The protagonist of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, consigned like Gilman to an enforced ‘rest cure’ by her physician husband in an upper room of a country house, described variously by the narrator as an “ancestral hall” and “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” became obsessed with the garish patterns on the ugly, yellow wallpaper of the room, and began to imagine a world behind the paper. This world, inhabited with a woman becomes palpably real to her, as she identifies intimately with her. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their study Madwoman in the Attic observe, “it became obvious to both reader and narrator that the figure creeping through and behind the wallpaper is both the narrator and the narrator’s double” 4, such is the empathetic projection of identity, or in Kristevian terms the ‘abjection’ explored in the story. The narrator’s own entrapment, frustration and anger are reflected back at her by the woman behind the wallpaper in an ironic exchange of hostility and sympathy. 5
From Edgar Allen Poe to Ambrose Bierce, several changes affected the Gothic tale in America. For one thing, it became less European and more American. Poe tended to look back to the Old World for his settings and characters while Bierce drew on the American frontier for the settings of his stories, and his characters were taken from the present instead of the distant past. No matter how macabre or bizarre the events his Gothic stories were narrated in a lucid, journalistic prose in keeping with his own professional training and the realistic tendencies of the age. Bierce helped to create the changing American Gothic tale by introducing into the narrative frame of the traditional Victorian ghost story a modern-day scientific empiricism that displayed an American preoccupation with a developing scientific and technological cultural vernacular.
While in the nineteenth century the Gothic short story comprised a canon of writers whose work lent itself readily to the well defined and accepted conventions of the genre in the twentieth century subtlety of treatment along with a dispersal and disguise of theme and plot (whether intended or not) led to problems of classification. As Joyce Carol Oates in the Introduction to her seminal anthology American Gothic Tales clarifies, the work of “Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever, Sylvia Plath, William Goyen, E. L. Doctorow, and Paul Bowles belongs to a rich, imaginative Gothic tradition, though these writers are rarely included in such anthologies”. 6 An American writer of the twentieth century Gothic short story, comparable in his influence to Poe in the nineteenth is H. P. Lovecraft whose familial circumstances and social conditioning bred in him a peculiar fascination with the grotesque prompting him to create dark and frightening projections of the human predicament. Some of his themes: namely inherited guilt (‘The Rats in the Walls’; ‘The Lurking Fear”; fate (‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, ‘The Outsider’), and civilization under threat (‘The Shadow over Innsmouth, threat from non-humans; ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, magical influence) along with his elaborate, and morbidly trenchant style left an imprint on the development of the genre.
The Southern Gothic mode, an offshoot of the national tradition is richly and resonantly purveyed through a range of talented writers who brought the American south alive, sometimes hauntingly so in all its pronounced and idiosyncratic flavours. The South with its geographical and historical positioning, and consequent and interrelated society, culture and economy is a living, breathing, and vibrant presence and persona in much of its fiction, permeating the same with its unmistakable ethos. Life in this region noted for its predominantly agricultural rhythms, racial tensions, class hierarchies, and conflict between its antebellum past and contemporary reality gave rise to alienation, mal-adjustment, escapism, poverty and violence among its inhabitants in ways that were, perhaps, peculiar to its history and culture. The Gothic mode, therefore, was a natural and popular choice for its writers some of whom excelled in the genre.
Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell, and Carson McCullers among others were drawn to the elements of Gothicism for what they revealed about human psychology and the dark, underlying motives of characters often pushed to the fringes of society. The American South revived in Faulkner’s Mississippi and fictionalized as Yaknapatawpha is as dramatically drawn and interestingly peopled as is O’Connor’s Georgia. Faulkner is known for his Southern Gothic stories featuring a wide variety of characters such as former slaves or descendants of slaves, poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, and Southern aristocrats. The figures that O’Connor plants in this landscape – farmhands, conmen, embittered intellectuals, bigots, Bible salesmen and killers, are on the surface, not distinguishable from ordinary folk, but have a hidden dimension which eventually betrays their difference. Several among the southern short story writers examined the theme of social structure in the south, in the process accommodating hypocrisy, irony and humour, not to mention prejudices, passions and pantomimes of a veritable regional provenance.
Anxiety about the New Woman in the South–and the way both Faulkner and Welty responded to the implications of her presence–might also tell us a fair amount about the intertextual relationship between Faulkner’s gallery of gothic women in his short fiction of the 1920s and 1930s–especially “A Rose for Emily,” “Dry September,” “There Was a Queen,” and “That Evening Sun”–and Welty’s own parade of monstrous women in A Curtain of Green. Susan V Donaldson sums up, “Half sympathetic toward and half horrified by the spectacle of women betwixt and between tradition and change, Faulkner creates short stories about dangerous women who serve as disrupters of male narratives and as signifiers of the breakdown of cultural codes of traditional manhood and womanhood”. 7
Whether Nancy in Faulkner’s ‘That Evening Sun’ or Clytie in Welty’s ‘A Curtain of Green,’ these women find themselves in various forms of confinement and entrapment, and quite often their imprisonment is signified by the boundaries of the stories that enclose them and by the communities and readers who scrutinize them. Emily in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ is a type of the southern gothic heroine who, being fetishistic about her gentility escapes into necrophilia and defiling putrefaction but cannot embrace the real world with its living people. On a slighter scale, and with much less voluntary preoccupation with the grotesque is a line of women in the O’Connor canon who are avid subscribers to the racial and social stereotypes that permeate life in the American south. The Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ who dresses well before the fateful journey so that in the event of an accident she would be taken for a genteel and respectable lady is an example of this mindset.
Viewed variously as the dark side of the Romantic imagination, eruptions of the sub-conscious, and as figments of the supernatural the Gothic mode in American literature has always been closely associated with the society in which it originated, developed and flourished. From its Europe influenced near-sensationalist bearings in the nineteenth century to subtler evocations in the twentieth the Gothic short story evolved into a distinctly American identity and presence that had as much to do geographical backgrounds as with national worldviews. In its explorations of science and technology, for instance, the older European construct of technology as malevolent presumption which undermines religious, political and social interests is eschewed in favour of an attitude, that howsoever non-committal grants autonomy to the machine and is peculiarly American in its democratic accommodation of diverse interests.
1. Peeples, Scott. The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe. Rochester: Camden House, 2007
2. Botting, Fred. Gothic. New York: Routledge, 1995
3. Linda Bayer Berenbaum. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982
4. Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Attic. New Haven: Yale University Press,
5. Hochman, Barbara. “The Reading Habit and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present. Eds.
Janet Badia and Jennifer Phegley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
6. Oates, Joyce Carol. American Gothic Tales. San Francisco: University of San Francisco, 1996.
7. Donaldson, Susan V. “Making a Spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern Gothic.” Mississippi Quarterly, 50, 4 (Fall, 1997), p. 567 – 583.