Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810

Terror and Horror
Terror and horror are the project of the Gothic novelist. Drawing on the work of Edmund Burke, Ann Radcliffe distinguished between the two terms, suggesting that terror grows out of suspense while horror produces disgust. In other words, a character experiences terror in the anticipation of some dreaded event; she experiences horror when the event really happens. Thus, in Radcliffe’s novels, there is an emphasis on terror and the terrible, which she creates through her long descriptions of sublime landscapes and her intimations of the supernatural. Moreover, the agonizing suspense to which she subjects her characters produces terror in both the character and the reader. However, the eventual explanation of all things supernatural relieves her reader from the experience of horror. Lewis, on the other hand, chooses horror for his novels. His prose focuses on the details of the horrible, including torture and putrefaction. In Lewis’s work, he describes in disturbing detail the physically revolting and morally decadent.

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Appearance and Reality
Gothic literature often explores the muddy ground between appearance and reality. For example, in Radcliffe’s works, events often appear to have supernatural causes. However, by the end of the book, Radcliffe offers realistic explanations. Thus, in the case of Radcliffe, it is possible for the reader to distinguish by the close of the novel what is real and what is apparent. On the other hand, writers such as Lewis do not always differentiate between appearance and reality. This ambiguity leads to a dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere in the novel. Readers recognize the state: for all intents and purposes, a dream appears to be real until awakening. It is in the foggy fugue state, however, where the dreamer is unsure of what is the dream and what is the reality. In addition, other writers play with appearance and reality through the use of different narrative structures and voices.

Confinement
Nearly every Gothic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contains some element of confinement. Indeed, many critics have commented on the sense of claustrophobia found in Gothic fiction. Often this occurs with the entrapment of the heroine in some ancient castle. When she finally escapes her room or cell, she finds herself within a subterranean passageway with no apparent way out. It is the lack of escape that causes the terrifying claustrophobia. Isabella’s flight through Otranto is an example. Likewise, in The Monk, Agnes is chained to a wall to be tortured. The struggle against the confinement elicits both horror and terror in the reader. Perhaps the master of confinement, however, is Poe. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Madeline Usher is confined prematurely to her coffin and buried alive. Such scenes hold considerable horror. Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado is another tale of claustrophobic containment, as the narrator, Montresor, walls Fortunato in a crypt, where he has lured him to taste fine sherry. Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart also uses this theme, but in this case it is the heart of the murdered victim that is confined but refuses to remain hidden. Whether it be prison cells, monastic cells, shackles, locked rooms, or dark tunnels, the space of the Gothic novel is claustrophobic and confining, tapping into a primal human fear.

Justice and Injustice
While the world of justice and injustice might seem to be absent from the world of the Gothic, on closer examination, it seems clear that guilt and reparation of sins stands firmly at the center of many stories. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the death of Conrad, the heir to his father’s estate, apparently takes place as a way of righting a wrong. That is, Conrad’s ancestor comes back from his grave to assure that Otranto goes to the rightful heir. This is the case of the sins of the father being visited on the children; at no time does it seem that Conrad knows that his title is faulty. Likewise, Madeline and Roderick Usher pay for the sins of their family with their own decay and death. Their house collapses in on them, ending the line. Thus, the “fall of the house of Usher” has two meanings: the house itself literally falls down and the lineage of Usher also falls as a result of the sins of earlier generations. Melmoth the Wanderer also explores this theme. In the Gothic world, justice must ultimately triumph, even if the justice that is meted out is severe. Ambrosio, for example, in The Monk, deserves to be punished; however, his punishment is horrible. Because the Gothic is a literature of excess, it is little wonder that the justices and injustices are also excessive. Thus, the gloom that hangs over the heads of many characters is the knowledge that in their own day they will have to pay for the wrongs their ancestors have done.

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