Mysterious castles, isolated landscapes, stormy skies, dark interiors. All tropes of Gothic literature, which, as author Joyce Carol Oates states, is “the most imaginative of all literatures, bearing an obvious relationship to the surreal logic of dreams.” This literature of dreams, or nightmares as its imagery implies, takes roots in...
Mysterious castles, isolated landscapes, stormy skies, dark interiors. All tropes of Gothic literature, which, as author Joyce Carol Oates states, is “the most imaginative of all literatures, bearing an obvious relationship to the surreal logic of dreams.” This literature of dreams, or nightmares as its imagery implies, takes roots in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is a literature typified by ruined castles, secret passageways, concealed portraits, and claustrophobic labyrinths. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is situated in the genre of the Gothic because it complies with these tropes.
Gothic literature finds roots in Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the fantastic. Todorov contends that the fantastic exists in the real world, one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires. The fantastic arises within this world when an event occurs that cannot be explained through rational thought. When this happens, the individual must admit that the event is either a mere illusion, a product of the imagination, or that the event has really taken place. In the first instance, the laws of reality remain unchanged; whereas in the latter, the event is controlled by laws unknown to nature. Dangling in this mode of uncertainty, the individual experiences the fantastic. Has the event actually occurred or is it simply an illusion of the imagination? We see this with Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula. At first, he does not want to admit that the laws of reality have changed. He believes that his experience has all occurred in his imagination. As the novel progresses, Jonathan Harker comes to terms with supernatural events.
Once a choice has been made (is the event real or not), Todorov suggests that the individual moves from the fantastic and into a neighboring genre of either the uncanny or the marvelous. If the individual decides that the laws governing reality remain intact and permit the phenomenon to be described, Todorov argues that the event belongs to the genre of the uncanny. (We see this in the Gothic literature of Ann Radcliffe, for example.) However, if the laws of nature must be altered to account for the event, the phenomena becomes the marvelous. (This is what happens in Dracula.) Thus, the fantastic exists as a genre wavering between two adjacent realms; a period in milieu where the individual attempts to decipher reality. Therefore, it is precisely this state that, Todorov argues, embodies the Gothic novel.
Gothic fiction hovers between the uncanny and the marvelous, offering little explanation of events, often leaving ambiguous endings, and forcing the reader to examine the limits of reality. Unlike its predecessors, Gothic literature seeks to identify readers’ feelings with the characters’ emotions, or to arouse readers’ sympathy by evoking pity and fear; and to explore the mind of man and the causes of evil in it. In order to fully explore the subconscious, symbols and figures of this genre are deliberately hazy; thus, the surface narrative contains vague, unexplained horrors that refuse precise explanation. Tropes such as labyrinths and haunted houses are employed in the Gothic to penetrate the subconscious and evoke the emotion of horror. More than ever before, these tropes frightened 18th century readers because the referents exist in the real world and are already the figments of our dreaming imaginations.
It is no wonder then that Gothic literature evokes the emotion of horror when a referent, such as a house, corresponds with something both known and unknown. In the known, the house traditionally symbolizes a place of comfort and welcoming. However, when this known referent becomes a screen to project the individual’s fears, the fantastic is evoked, creating a sensation of horror. Therefore, the emotion of horror occurs when the trope, such as the haunted house, corresponds to something that is actually feared, whether that be known or unknown. The relationship between Gothic and horror lies in the relationship between the cognates of fear and a readership. In other words, ‘Gothic’ implies that the reader actually experiences an emotion of horror when the fantastic is evoked in the text.