Transcending the Gothic Canon

Gothic literature and I are pretty tight. What’s not to love? Isolated, looming mansions; floating, mysterious figures; sinister secrets. It speaks to the psychological thriller loving, mystery aficionado in me.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, a Gothic story will usually have these common identifiers:

  • an isolated, naive/idealistic/clueless protagonist (usually female);
  • who finds themselves in a large mansion (usually in the middle of nowhere);
  • the dark mansion will harbour a sinister secret of some sort;
  • that everyone else in the mansion is trying to keep from the protagonist;
  • this secret is a danger to the protagonist’s sense of identity, their physical well-being, and/or their emotional well-being (often it’s all three).
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A very recent & delicious addition to the Gothic canon

How the author chooses to present these can vary. Sometimes there are supernatural factors involved, and sometimes it can all be explained away by good old logic. Other times people are just plain crazy.

Gothic literature is labelled such for the Gothic style architecture of these great, looming mansions that these types of stories traditionally take place in. Over time, of course, the settings have changed. The great thing about Gothic literature is that it creates these parameters in which it can discuss the “unmentionables”. (And I don’t mean underwear.) It’s the place where the repressed comes out, and it does so with a vengeance. Everything that’s been swept under the rug no longer stays dutifully under the rug. The rug is now alive with all your worst thoughts, doubts, and everything bad that you ever wanted to do. Thus, the Gothic becomes a space in which social anxieties manifest, usually into a tangible monstrosity that can be pointed at, marveled at,and unpicked and discussed.

“Gothic monsters such as the vampire and the Frankenstein creature, for example, should not be read merely as nightmarish configurations of twisted fantasies, but important metaphors for understanding historically-specific socio-political crises. As Jeffrey Cohen posits, ‘the monster is born only at this metaphorical crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.’”

Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The first Gothic novel I read was Jane Eyre, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a part of this genre. Jane Eyre, published in the Victorian century, examined such outrageous notions as female anger, female desire and sexuality, and most outlandish of all: the female’s right to choose. Needless to say, sixteen year old me loved it. I did not expect to find a self-sufficient hero of  badassery garbed in a corset and sleeves wide enough to take out entire crowds.

Over time I have picked out and devoured various Gothic stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankentein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (possibly the first lesbian vampire story ever), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are all the Gothic Greats for me. But over time my reading tastes have also shifted dramatically to accommodate the marginalised authors: from continents other than North America and Europe, of varying degrees of sexuality and backgrounds, authors who push the boundaries of literature and dare to depict the world as it is. And I wanted Gothic stories from these authors, too.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon some magic words: the Asian Gothic, and the Post-colonial Gothic. The Gothic after all is about transcending boundaries, between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural. Who’s to say it can’t transcend geographical boundaries?

“… the Gothic has spawned many sub-species of itself including the postmodern Gothic, and more recently, postcolonial Gothic. This attests to the malleable nature of the Gothic to transcend its own historical, cultural and geographical parameters (its “canon”). After all, transgressing taboos, complicity with evil, the dread of life, violence, the return of the repressed (just to name some familiar Gothic themes) are not specific to any culture or people, but are experienced by all throughout history, although of course, the complexities in which these concerns take may vary from culture to culture.”

–  Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

In Western literature, the Gothic, when talking about the repressed, and the taboo has also examined The Other. The Other can be the monstrous, the irreverent thing that’s supposed to be kept in the dark, but it can also (unsurprisingly) be the foreign(er). In Dracula, Count Dracula is from Transylvania, the mysterious land of superstition and irrationality, trying to insinuate himself into London, where his very presence threatens their structure of science and rational thinking. Not to mention he’s literally a leech on their society. In Jane Eyre Jane’s alter ego is represented by :::spoiler alert::: Bertha Mason, the Caribbean foreigner whose rampant sexuality and madness are supposed to counter the calm, collected, and always in control Jane. Generally speaking, the Gothic has not been kind to non-Westerners.

But the Gothic is exactly the type of genre to subvert the conventional, even itself. It even transcends its own canon, as pointed out in the above quote. How powerful is it when the The Othered take the very tool that has been used to oppress and Other them (the tool being the Gothic genre, and simultaneously the English language), and use it, in their turn, to throw off the oppressors? Post-colonial and Asian Gothic can redefine the old canon to make way for a different set of Gothic stories. Not only that, but they can shed light on a Gothic genre that is as old and as long-standing as the Western one.

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Manichitrathazhu, a South Asian film with strong Gothic undertones

I’ve only just stumbled onto this concept of Post-colonial and Asian Gothic myself. Having read scraps of articles around this new canon, I would say I’ve only read two novels in this genre:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (which also fits into Caribbean Gothic, and is, incidentally, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the view point of Bertha Mason – talk about subversion) AND
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which falls into Post-colonial Gothic, and details the horrors of colonization of the body and the mind)

This convoluted post is also a way of asking you, dear reader, for any suggestions for stories that might fall into this category of Post-colonial and/or Asian Gothic. I will be publishing another post on South Asian Gothic myself sometime in the near future. As I said, though, it’s a genre that I’ve only just dipped into and I would very much like to dive further into it, so I welcome any and all suggestions.

Genius Without Discipline

Almost everyone knows, or has heard of, the story of Frankenstein – either Frankenstein, the man who created the monster, or (as seems to be the general misconception) as Frankenstein, the monster. Shelley’s portrayal of her protagonist scientist conveniently allows for both interpretations.

As a child, Victor Frankenstein’s every whim is indulged, every opportunity presented to satiate his overwhelming curiosity of the world around him.

“Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.” (Ch 2)

His ultimate goal is to understand everything around him, to grasp the reasons for action, and to understand the cause behind life. This immense thirst for knowledge and hunger to conquer life propels him on a mission to create it.

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Unfortunately, for Victor, he succeeds. His success, though, is not what he imagined. He is disgusted and horrified by his creation. As soon as the life he has given his creation begins to take effect, he immediately wonders why he has undertaken such a deed. He rejects his creation and refuses to think about it, pushing it as far from his mind as much as he can. (I’d say he does a pretty good job, as he manages to put the creature out of his mind for two years. That’s right. Two. Whole. Years.)

And therein lies the problem. Victor, whose every passion and curiosity has been indulged from a young age, who has been lauded and praised for his discipline and his genius, does not have the integrity to take responsibility for his actions. Upon seeing his creation come to life his immediate thought is that his actions have been unsuccessful. Things have not gone according to his plan; therefore these things are apparently no longer his responsibility. I could not understand this behavior, and therefore I could not forgive it. What person, calling himself a scientist, can undertake an experiment, and then abandon that experiment without pausing to consider the outcomes this abandonment may cause? Without pausing to consider his duty as the conductor of the experiment? For all his previous undying curiosity about life and everything to do with it, he displays an alarming lack of curiosity about the result of his actions.

I could not fathom it. My entire face was a question mark during that scene.

SPOILER

He literally goes and hides under his bed covers when he sees his creature get up and move. It doesn’t even attack him. He’s just that repulsed by it. And then he runs out into the church yard or something. And then just forgets about it. It vanishes from his sight, and his (apparently affected) mind as well. I mean, REALLY. How can you ignore something like that?

/END SPOILER

It seems to me that Frankenstein is just as much of a monster as his creature. The creature does do unspeakable things, but each crime can be linked right back to Frankenstein and his neglect. Even before I’d read this novel I was aware of the layer of tragedy that this novel carries. But that tragedy is more pressing after reading it. I can’t help but feel immense pity for the creature. Frankenstein curses it, believing that his creature’s actions stem solely from evil. Yet, the creature demonstrates to him several times that this is not the case. Frankenstein laments the fact that he even created this abomination, but he does not pause to reflect that all the sorrow in his life might have been avoided if he had acknowledged his responsibility to the creature; it is not the creation of the creature, but the neglect, which brings about the calamity.

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For the creature proves that given the opportunity it can exercise great compassion and understanding.

“Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (Vol. 2, Ch. 2)

The creature has abilities which are limited by the darkness to which it is forced to cling; his desire to love is eroded by the wilderness to which he is shunned. In a way, his restrictions are an extension of the limitations Frankenstein faced in his scientific pursuits; and just as Frankenstein’s powers explode in what he deems as his horrible creation, the creature’s untended abilities also explode in devastation and tragedy. Their inevitable connection means that the creature’s crimes are Frankenstein’s crimes, too.

Perhaps Frankenstein’s neglect of the creature is also a reflection of the lack of proper guidance in science given to Frankenstein. His initial studies of the outdated philosophers are laughed at, and though he proves himself to be a genius at Oxford his rise is largely undeterred and undisciplined by anyone, least of all himself. But I couldn’t find in myself any sympathy for Frankenstein. The fact that he did absolutely nothing about his creation until he heard news of its destructive behavior appears to be a gross misstep. The fact that he was so determinedly able to forget the creature’s existence is amazing to me; and his consequent neglect of his creature is unforgivable. Genius, without disciplined application is only useless, but destructive.

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Unsurprisingly, this story left me feeling rather hollow afterwards. The writing is at times a bit cumbersome, and the descriptions (despite the book being a slim one) I found to be tedious. This probably had a lot to do with my mood at the time, but I didn’t find anything spectacular in the writing style itself. It could be that I felt the prose was a bit too long-winded for such a story as this (I guess I mean ‘action-packed) but I suppose it has to do with the time it was written. The story on the other hand is clearly a very gripping and thought-provoking one (as proven by my rambling). The best bits were the one with the creature, and I wish they had been longer. I inevitably ended up siding with the creature (why do I say inevitably?). The creature isn’t all good, however, just like Frankenstein, but I think I might have fallen for the former’s sorrowful tale. He did, after all, have to pay for the punishments of a world he was excluded from, as well as the neglect of a creator who rejected him.