“The face at the window”
Journal article by Heather Neilson
Item description: The Gothic novel is characterised by several established features: the supernatural, passion, violence and fear. In this article Heather Neilson examines the predominate characteristics of a genre which emerged as a response to a period of instability in personal, social and political life.
Whether conservatively defined as referring to a group of novels written by English authors between the 1760s and the 1820s- a definition which would include Frankenstein, but not Wuthering Heights or The Turn of the Screw- or more liberally as a genre still vital and evolving, the Gothic novel is characterised by several established features. The predominant characteristic is an ...view middle of the document...
In the Gothic novel there a precarious oscillation between anxiety an reassurance, as regards the alien or disruptive, a sustained tension between the expression and repression or irrational or unwholesome desires. While Gothic fiction seems ostensibly to uphold prevailing social structures and mores, implicit in the genre is a social critique, which may be directed, as for example in the three novels under discussion, against public institutions such as the church or the Law, whose efficacy is implicitly questioned. There is a correlative exploration of the issue of personal responsibility in the domestic sphere. Mothers in Gothic novels die before the narrative begins, or very early on, and are thereby freed to be idealized. Father and father-figures also disappear regrettably early, but often not before committing some minor sin of omission or inadequacy which will result in the tribulations of the hero or heroine.
David Punter has suggested that the defining fundamentals of a gothic narrative are the concepts of paranoia, the barbaric, and the taboo. Gothic fiction invariably involves a theme of persecution, often ambiguously rendered, with the victim of persecution being transformed into a persecutor, or vice versa. An undercurrent of insanity is a staple of any gothic plot, with ambition or vengeance driving at least one character to the brink of madness. The barbaric, in the broadest sense, is that which is codes, that which is disorderly and chaotic, challenging by its very existence what is assumed to constitute the civilised. The preoccupation of Gothic writers with the barbaric, metonymically represented in the image of a monstrous face peering in at a window, manifests itself as a symptom of class anxiety.