Fear in Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Fear in Literature

The subject of fear, whether in the form of neurotic anxiety or supernatural terror, is among the most prevalent in literature. A common element in the motivation of character and a dominant motif in contemporary fiction, the psychological and aesthetic qualities of fear have demanded the attention of literary critics since classical antiquity. Generally, critics see the specifics of literary fear both as a function of historical time and as a constant feature aroused by the human dread of the unknown or unknowable. The latter sort of fear has since been largely identified with the term Gothic, which was culled from the eighteenth-century vogue of the romantic novel of terror in a medieval setting. Popularized by such writers as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew "Monk" Lewis, the Gothic novel gave way to the modern genre of horror fiction with its ubiquitous treatment of supernatural forces that conspire to victimize and destroy human beings. Writers in this vein exploit what have become stock effects—the physical isolation of the protagonist, suspense and misdirection, and the introduction of a shadowy "other" or mysterious evil—to excite readers. A parallel line of development in the literature of fear is illustrated by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, in which psychological aberration coupled with an evocation of the uncanny and the macabre play the primary roles in creating an atmosphere of terror.

The sensationalism of Gothic horror fiction does not account for the totality of that which is fear-inducing in literature. Critics observe in the modern period a literature of anxiety that draws its impetus from the cultural moment, such as the concrete fears of wartime dramatized in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage or in Jean-Paul Sartre's "Le mur" ("The Wall"). Additionally, neurotic fears that may exist as part of the ordinary psychological make-up of everyone in many ways characterize the literature of the modern era. This tendency is perhaps no more clearly expressed than in the novels and short stories of Franz Kakfa, works that dramatize an all-consuming anxiety created by the emotional isolation of a bureaucratic age.