Gothic Literature

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Why was the Gothic element attractive to Romantic writers like Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne?

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Gothic literature in general became more psychological and less overtly supernatural, as writers like Poe and Hawthorne were more interested in the characters' reactions to their worlds than they were with creating a world of pure horror.

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Gothic literature, especially as it developed in the mid-nineteenth century, was less concerned with outright horror and the supernatural than with the individual's reactions to fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. Poe's work, for example, is mostly psychological horror. It often turns out that there is no supernatural threat to the protagonists; instead, we study the character's descent into madness, his psychological devolution.

This is true in works like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Premature Burial." In the first and second works, the narrators have committed crimes and then been driven mad by their own actions, their guilt, and/or their overactive imaginations. The final story studies the protagonist's all-encompassing fear of being buried alive; his obsession leads to his heightened anxiety and borderline madness. It is ultimately the character's own psyche that destroys him in some of these tales. The same can be said of some of Hawthorne's Gothic-tinged tales, like "Young Goodman Brown," though his experience incorporates more supernatural horror than Poe's works do. Still, the protagonist is psychologically destroyed by what he learns in the woods by observing the satanic ceremony.

Washington Irving wrote slightly earlier than the other two authors, and his works are a bit more classically Gothic. I think his inspiration for his supernatural folktales is the uncertainty of "the new world" that colonists entered. There was so much they didn't know or understand about their new environment, and this presented fear and anxiety to them. The tales could function as a way to deal with the unsettling feeling colonists had in a world that seemed both promising and threatening.

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Another reason the Gothic was so attractive to some Romantic writers is that it allowed them to explore the darker side of human nature and our common fears.  Instead of focusing on the sunnier side of Romanticism, with its focus on the sublime, nature, beauty, and love, the Gothic focuses on the things that scare us and the things that worry us in the middle of the night.  Poe, for example, can show us a man who claims to be perfectly sane but who murders an old man because he does not like the old man's "vulture eye"; in reality, the murderer seems to fear the eye because it reminds him of his own mortality and the inevitability of death.  Hawthorne can show us a man who gives in to temptation and meets the devil in the forest. Even though he eventually decides to return to his faith, he finds that it is too late. He has lost his faith forever.  Irving can show us a teacher who exploits his students' families and attempts to manipulate a young woman to raise his social status.  If these authors only focused on the brighter elements of our natures, these darker aspects of ourselves would remain unexplored.

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Gothic horror was a sub-genre of Romanticism, as the Romantic movement sought to reverse the Enlightenment's focus on reason and emphasized sensation and emotion instead. The Gothic element, with its emphasis on suspense, horror, and the supernatural, was designed to provoke sensation and emotion in the reader and to confront the reader with elements of the supernatural that defied reason. Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, among other Romantic writers, found this element attractive because it could provoke a strong sensation in their readers.

Irving featured Gothic elements in works such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in which the Headless Horseman haunts the mystery-infused Hudson Valley, shrouded with mist and the supernatural. The Hudson is also the setting of Irving's story "Rip Van Winkle," in which Rip, a character modeled on the simple village dweller who was a staple of folklore, falls into a twenty-year sleep after meeting Henry Hudson's men. Irving's stories are Romantic in that they feature dark, gloomy natural scenes and supernatural elements that are designed to provoke a sensation of mystery and imagination in the reader.

Poe's stories also confront the reader with situations that are contrary to reason. For example, in "The Cask of Amontillado," the narrator, Montresor, descends deeper and deeper into a wine vault until he buries his nemesis in a crypt. This type of tale is contrary to the force of reason and again presents the reader with chilling sensations and a sense of doom.

Finally, Hawthorne's tales, such as "The Birthmark," show the limits of science. In contrast to the Enlightenment, which focused on science and scientific laws, this story is about a scientist who goes awry. Aylmer, the scientist, removes his wife's one flaw--her birthmark--but kills her in the process. His search for scientific perfection is misguided, which is a Romantic idea that goes against the belief in reason presented by the Enlightenment. Hawthorne's Gothic elements provide a sense of suspense and thrill in the reader.

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