Saturday, February 20, 2010

Time & Death

One characteristic of the Gothic selections we read this week was that they were extremely fast. The break-neck velocity results from the sing-song, short line structure that we commented on in class. In addition, the narrative accelerates the reading with people racing through corridors, chased through woods, kidapped by ghosts, etc. As we noticed, even the dialogue in The Castle was set in-line with the text.

In addition to their incredible speed, these works included a multitude of time-warps and twists. For example, many people seem to be returning from a previous time, like the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in The Castle, the promise and its fulfillment in Alonzo the Brave, the return of William in Lenora. All of these events put a weird sense of the passage of time in the texts.

It seems that time is a very important device in Gothic literature. While this may have been a byproduct of its commercialization, I think that it is more a byproduct of their emphasis on death. With death on every corner, every moment seems to be a race against time.

The Song of the Gothic

Reading the Gothic poetry, one can't help to see the lyrical, sometimes whimsical nature of the rhyme scheme. They are like nursery rhymes, sounding like songs, and meant to be heard rather than read. However, given the dark subject matter of these poems, like Robert Burns's, "Tam O'Shanter. A Tale," why would these authors want their poems to sound like nursery rhymes?


Tam O'Shanter, as a narrative poem, must be heard to understand its intricacies. Written in a Scottish dialect, the message in the poem is simple, and is meant for the common man. Tam ignores his wife, gets drunk, and witnesses a disturbing vision on his way back to the bar. He sees witches, ghouls and even the devil, while getting his horse's tale cut off in the process. The rhyme scheme in the poem works well as a narrative song, which enforces Burns's message.


I feel that the advent of poetry as a consumer good caused this form of poetry to become popular. People wanted poems that they could recite as scary stories to each other, and these poems lend themselves to that tradition. "Tam O'Shanter. A Tale," serves as a whimsical warning of the dangers of over consumption, and is written in a common dialect for common people to enjoy. These poems must have been wildly popular compared to the more difficult, sometimes inaccessible poetry of the early 18th century, which was often written by the higher class for the amusement of the aristocracy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

There is an Art to the Building Up of Suspense

The title to this post is a line from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and the ballads we read I think are perfect examples of this. The ballads have a jaunty cadence to them, and often start off with a light hearted setting and mood. By the end, however, the reader (or listener) is left with a grave, ominous ending that seems to completely contradict the flow of the verses. In "Alonzo the Brave, and Fair Imogene," we are left with a woman who has forsaken her promises doomed to be taken to her former lover's grave. In "Mary," we are left with an innocent, well respected barmaid seeing the corpse of her love, one she loved despite being told she shouldn't.

The biggest reason these endings are so perverse is that in many other settings, the woman loving the man despite social conventions or the maiden promising to wait for her knight have hopeful and promising connotations and endings. But here, in the jolliest of meters, there is no such brevity. Thus, we are left unsure whether to continue to clap along to the rhythm of the jingle or to weep at the misery of the story. It's definitely a powerful writing style.

Southey's Mary

I really enjoyed reading this poem because aside from all the references to the gothic, it in a sense empowers women. Mary, unlike the other guests in the diner, is the only person willing to go out as the wind grew more fierce: "O'er the path so well known still proceeded the Maid/Where the Abbey rose dim on the sight,/Thro' the gate-way she entered, she felt not afraid/Yet the ruins were lonely and wild, and their shade/Seem'd to deepen the gloom of the night." Southey purposely gives the woman agency to be the courageous heroine and defy the gender roles that we see established in Walpole's Castle of Otranto. Unlike the subservient and domesticated Hippolita, Mary assumes the masculine role to explore the public sphere outside her role as a maid and explore the supernatural.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Life (or Death) Lessons

After reading this week’s selections, I find it depressing to be a woman in this time period, subject to this genre of literature. In The Castle of Otranto, the women are mistreated: Hippolita is unloved and betrayed by her husband, Isabel is almost raped and Matilda is stabbed by her father. In these poems, the women suffer horrible fates as well: two are carried off to the grave, one becomes a maniac, and another (in female horse form) is left “scarce a stump” (l. 218). It seems, however, that the women are blamed for their actions—or at least that their sinful actions cause their unhappy fates. In Southey’s poem, “Mary”, Mary is too masculine, too brave for a woman—she goes outdoors by herself at night. This must have been scandalous in the 18th century. In Lewis’ “Alonzo the Brave, and Fair Imogene”, Imogene breaks her vow to always be faithful to Alonzo, whether or not he is alive or dead. She is seduced by the suitor’s “treasure, his presents, his spacious domain / … He caught her affections so light and so vain…” (ll. 27-30). For her infidelity and greed, Imogene is punished. In B├╝rger’s “Lenora”, Lenora despairs the loss of her William, curses her life, wishes for death and “Against the Providence of God / She hurlde her impious strains” (ll. 87-88). She blasphemes God’s name and falls into the sin of hopelessness. Thus, she gets her wish and is carried to the grave to die. These poems seem to serve like lessons to women—be faithful and virtuous or else you will become a maniac or dead.

"Mary, Maid of the Inn" - time structure

In connection to our Tuesday discussion of "Castle of Otranto" and the elements of Gothic literature, this ballad undoubtedly demonstrates the strangeness of the Gothic literature. Initially, Mary is described as a "maniac" and death is a central theme of the poem - her love Richard is discovered to steal bodies from the church graveyard and is later hanged, causing her insane status. However, one of the stylistic elements that I thought made this ballad particularly similar to the style of "The Castle of Otranto" was the use of the "flash-back," or not complying to chronological time.
In the poem, we are initially presented with Mary working at the Inn, already well into her "maniac" state of mind. However, the poem flashes back to Mary as a girl when she decides to go to the abbey, where she witnesses Richard's actions and his death. As we said on Tuesday, one of the elements of Gothic literature is that the plot goes back and forth through time. Likewise, this unnatural time structure further emphasizes the supernatural elements of the play such as insanity and death. It somewhat disorients the reader, adding to the strange nature of the genre itself.

A Commentary on Marriage

Matthew Lewis's "Alonzo the Brave, and Fair Imogene" seems to be making a commentary on marriage. Lewis himself was the product of a broken home, the effects of which echo throughout his life and work. His attitude towards marriage (and perhaps his sexuality) kept him a single man throughout his life. This piece, in addition to being in line with the melodrama that was popular during his era, reveals an ambivalence to marriage. Imogene's character suggests that love is fickle and fading and rarely a truly enduring force. Likewise, the depiction of Alonzo as a terrifying ghost speaks to the horror of promises kept. Inevitably the two end up in a torturous dance for all eternity where the man torments the woman for her slights against him. This dance speaks of the hell that is marriage (at least as Lewis sees it). There's a feel good Valentine's Day poem if there ever was one. haha

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Class Divisions in the Castle of Otranto

I thought it was really interesting how Walpole adressed class divisions throughout the novel. First, he says that Matilda cannot associate with Theodore the peasant because she is noble and he is not. Later, however, when it is discovered that he is "of noble birth" it's okay that they get married. What interests me, however, is the fact that they associated virtue with class.

According to the footnotes, on "discovering the mark of the bloody arrow," there was a conservative view that "status and inner merit are linked, and that gentility will shine through in spite of circumstances." So basically, if you are of noble blood you will be a good person, while everyone else is morally incapable of the same virtue because they are naturally of the lower class. The book does, of course, show that the transition from peasant to King is possible IF you have the right blood—in a way this allows someone to rise from rags to riches—yet at the same time it says that moral improvement isn't really possible, since you are born with a certain type of virtue that seems to be predetermined.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Northanger Abbey & Castle of Otranto

As I was reading "The Castle of Otranto," I couldn't help but think of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland filled her mind with these types of Gothic stories and her unrealistic imagination led her to problems with the Tilneys. It was really interesting to read the plot and understand how girls in the eighteeenth/nineteenth centuries could get so twisted in their thoughts and their view of men and relationships within families. After Conrad's death, the way Isabella escapes from Manfred's wrath is unrealistic. The trapdoor, the lock, the moonlight, and the stranger all add to the idea of a prince charming who can rescue a damsel in distress. The idea of running throughout the castle, escaping from parents, and rescuing ladies in trouble are similar to Catherine's idea of Mr. Tilney and what he did to his wife.

I must say that I was expecting the end to be tragic and unique. The fact that Matilda died by her father's hand was surprising but I don't think it was that unusual for these novels. The ending has to be tragic in order to capture the emotions of the readers. I think it was successful and the way Walpole writes the story keeps the reader interested and tied to the story.

Hippolita: An Allusion to the Amazonian Queen?

As soon as I read the name of Manfred's wife, Hippolita, I could only assume that it was a reference to the Amazonian queen Hippolyta. Hopefully that is a useful conclusion, if it's not please disregard the rest of my post! The Amazons are warrior women who cut off their breasts in order to improve their archery; they are known to be powerful and fearless. Most importantly, they are not subjugated by men (the actually lived separately from men and killed male children). The myth of Hippolyta specifically has a bit more ambivalence. She was kidnapped and married by Theseus, the ruler of Athens, and she bore him a son. Hippolyta fell out of favor with Theseus, and he remarried, but some stories hold that Hippolyta returned to the wedding out of jealousy. This seems contradictory for an Amazon, but it does have interesting implications for Manfred's Hippolita. She seems to be a very strong woman, sacrificing her happiness for her family even calling into question her religious beliefs against divorce. Hippolita is the source of rationality and security in the novel; she accepts her fate much like Hippolyta when she is kidnapped by Theseus. This allusion to Greek mythology could either imply that women are strong and perhaps the saving grace/foundation of society, or it could imply that even the strongest women can be controlled by men. Does anyone else have insight into the significance of this allusion? -- It also seems interesting that a Gothic novel, thus anti-classical, would have Greek allusions, so maybe I am completely off point...

At a Loss for Words

The failure of speech seems to be an important mechanism in the driving of the plot of The Castle of Otranto. At moments when the characters find themselves unable or unwilling to speak, Walpole is able to move the plot forward. The story itself rests entirely on the increasing compounding of lies and deception that characters (particularly Manfred) put forth. As a failure of speech, lies point to an instance in which the arbitrary act of speaking and naming (which is integrally related to the idea of truth) breaks down, allowing a space that is filled by Walpole's plot structure. When the truth is spoken, it is given a certain sense of weight, almost occupying physical space: "I am no imposter, my lord; nor have I deserved opprobrious language. I answered to ecery question your highness put to me last night with the same veracity that I shall speak now: and that will not be from fear of your tortures, but because my soul abhors a falsehood" (53). The explicit failure of speech for a character has similar implications, as when the servants find themselves unable to describe what they have seen: "We thought we had, my lord, said the fellow looking terrified -- but -- Bust what? cried the Prince; has she escaped? -- Jaquez and I, my lord -- Yes, I and Diego, interrupted the second, who came up in still greater consternation -- Speak one of you at a time, said Manfred" (33). The servants struggle for words in the face of the supernatural, which seems to have taken from them their ability to speak. That which is outside of the natural world, then, has undermined what is fundamental to humanity. The struggle to find words and speak truth throughout the story points to the importance of those moments in which one cannot rely on speech, which seems to have implications for Walpole's uderstanding of his own authorship. If the tools of his craft become untrustworthy, what does that mean for the state of his novel for readers?