Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

Gothic literature has elicited spirited critical debate from its earliest days. According to Botting in his book, The Gothic:

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Between 1790 and 1810, critics were almost univocal in their condemnation of what was seem as an unending torrent of popular trashy novels. Intensified by fears of radicalism and revolution, the challenge to aesthetic values was framed in terms of social transgression: virtue, property and domestic order were considered to be under threat. Such reactions from critics are not surprising. The aesthetic values of the eighteenth century included order, proportion, and decorum, based largely on classical models from the Greeks and Romans. Works of art (including literature and architecture) that flouted these conventions and took shape from the medieval past were looked upon as inferior, so much so that the term “Gothic” was applied to anything that seemed barbarous or hideous. However, while Gothic literature may have been scorned by the intelligentsia and literary critics of the day, it found rapid and overwhelming popularity with the reading public. That the reading public included growing numbers of women and middle-class readers may suggest a reason for the widespread popularity of the genre. It is also likely that the shift in readership offered a threat to established scholars and writers of the day, making their response to Gothic literature vitriolic in the extreme.

Contemporary criticism was not entirely negative, of course. No less a personage than the Marquis de Sade, in his book Idee sur les Romans, offered that “this kind of fiction, whatever one may think of it, is assuredly not without merit; twas the inevitable result of the revolutionary shocks which all Europe has suffered.” The Marquis de Sade points particularly to Lewis’s The Monk as a work of special merit.

More recent criticism has approached Gothic literature from a variety of directions. Punter in his Literature of Terror outlines a number of approaches critics often take. First, critics often see Gothic literature as a “recognisable movement in the history of culture, with recognisable sociopsychological causes.” That is, events and ideas present in the culture find an outlet through Gothic literature. Punter, David Stevens in The Gothic Tradition, and Ronald Paulson in “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution,” an article appearing in the journal English Language History, among many other critics and historians, all comment on the connections between contemporary historical events and the rise of the Gothic.

Another critical track is the formalist approach. That is, critics examine the narrative structure of the Gothic novel to find those elements that bring unity to the work. Conversely, other formalist critics approach Gothic fiction, according to Punter, by revealing its “narrative complexity and its tendency to raise technical problems which it often fails to resolve.”

Three important critical strategies prevalent in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century include psychoanalytical, Marxist, and feminist critiques. In the first place, the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” informs many critics, who use Freud’s formulation of the death wish, the Oedipus complex, repression, and divided self as productive means of entry into the complexities of Gothic fiction. Likewise, Marxist critics examine the class structures of the novels. There are clearly upper- and lower-class characters in all the novels under discussion, and these characters reflect the class biases of the novelists themselves. Finally, feminist critics, such as Margaret Doody, concentrate either on an analysis of the female characters of Gothic literature or on the role played by female writers in the development of the Gothic.

Although the Gothic movement itself may have ended in about 1820, the Gothic continues to exert considerable influence on both literature and criticism. If anything, critical interest in the Gothic continues to grow at a remarkable rate, perhaps because of the renewed interest in monsters, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the unexplained evident in late twentieth-century and early twentyfirst- century culture.

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