It is important to remember that "Gothic" connoted architecture long before it connoted literature. Horace Walpole was the first to establish a link between the two; his obsession with his beloved miniature castle at Strawberry Hill was the inspiration for The Castle of Otranto, and the book's subtitle, "A Gothic Story," marks the first time that the term was used in a literary context. Ever since, representation of the labyrinthine and claustrophobic space associated with Gothic architecture has been the defining convention of Gothic fiction. This space is usually represented by a castle, but monasteries, convents, and prisons (often in ruins) also appear frequently.
This architectural space is integral to the psychological machinations of Gothic fiction, and is used to invoke feelings of fear, awe, entrapment and helplessness in characters and readers alike. Furthermore, the architecture itself can be said to be psychically alive; it is often depicted as having "a vile intelligence of its own" and as "hyper-organic in all its aspects" (Frank 436). The following excerpts all discuss the relationship between physical structure and emotional affect within Gothic fiction, exploring how the individual or social psyche is externalized in its various architectural forms.
[See also the closely related section on the "inner space" in the Female Gothic.]
From The Mysteries of Udolpho
The sun had just sunk below the top of the mountains she was descending, whose long shadow stretched athwart the valley, but his sloping rays, shooting through an opening of the cliffs, touched with a yellow gleam the summits of the forest that hung upon the opposite steeps, and streamed in full splendor upon the towers and battlements of a castle that spread its extensive ramparts along the brow of a precipice above. The splendor of these illuminated objects was heightened by the contrasted shade which involved the valley below.
There, said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, is Udolpho.
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the Gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark-gray stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper as the thin vapor crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipt with splendor. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity; and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.
Norman N. Holland and Leona F. Sherman, "Gothic Possibilities," New Literary History 8 (1977): 278-94.
We can begin with the formula, maiden-plus-habitation, and the prototypical habitation in it, the castle. An older psychoanalytic criticism would have assumed a one-to-one equation: the castle symbolizes the body. Unfortunately, this kind of easy isomorphism does not stand up under experimental testing or even close introspection. Rather, each of us resymbolizes reality in our own terms. A gothic novel combines the heroine's fantasies about the castle with her fears that her body will be violated. The novel thus makes it possible for literents to interpret body by means of castle and castle by means of body, but does not force us to do so nor does it fix the terms in which the two of us will do it.
Instead, the castle admits a variety of our projections. In particular, because it presents villains and dangers in an archaic language and mise-en-scene, it fits all we can imagine into it of the dark, frightening, and unknown. If, like Udolpho, it also has midnight revelry, violence, battles, confusing noises and disturbances, it can express our childhood fears at the strange sounds of "struggle" between our parents in the night and the sexual violence children often imagine as a result. At the same time, the gothic novel usually says that the castle contains some family secret, so that the castle can also become the core for fantasies based on a childish desire that adulthood be an exactly defined secret one can discover and possess....
The castle delineates a physical space which will accept many different projections of unconscious material. de Sade makes this receptive function of the castle quite terrifyingly explicit: its chief attribute is an isolation in which the heroine is completely controlled by someone else while separated from those she loves. The castle threatens shame, agony, annihilation--and desire. From the torture chambers of, say, the monastery in Justine, we can create a magic realm, beyond all normative associations and experience, where the best anodyne one can hope for is catatonia. Given such an arena for sexual and sadistic games, we are free to use de Sade's satanic imaginings to structure our own wildest wishes and fears about loss and helplessness.
From Melmoth the Wanderer
The magnificent remains of two dynasties that had passed away, the ruins of Roman palaces, and of Moorish fortresses, were around and above him;--the dark and heavy thunder-clouds that advanced slowly seemed like the shrouds of these spectres of departed greatness; they approached, but did not yet overwhelm or conceal them, as if nature herself was for once awed by the power of man....Stanton gazed around. The difference between the architecture of the Roman and Moorish ruins struck him. Among the former are the remains of a theatre, and something like a public place; the latter present only the remains of fortresses, embattled, castellated, and fortified from top to bottom--not a loop-hole for pleasure to get in by--the loop-holes were only for arrows; all denoted military power and despotic subjugation a l'outrance.... So thought Stanton, as he still saw strongly defined, though darkened by the darkening clouds...the solid and heavy mass of a Moorish fortress, no light playing between its impermeable walls--the image of power, dark, isolated, impenetrable.
Philip P. Hallie, The Paradox of Cruelty (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1969)
...[T]o look into the eyes of the villains is not to see the full force of the tremendum of the Gothic Tale. That force is embodied in the ambiente, the time and place in which those villains prey on their victims. The place is often a castle whose lord is the villain. And the castle, as Maturin puts it towards the beginning of Melmoth, is "...fortified from top to bottom--not a loophole for pleasure to get in by--the loopholes were only for arrows; all denoted military power and despotic subjugation a l'outrance...." A medieval castle was a fortress with one purpose: to maintain and intensify the power of its lord. Medieval castles came into being when nobles were comparatively independent of their kings, and could with impunity exert absolute power upon anyone living in or near them. It is just such impregnable power that the castle expresses in the Gothic tale.
And one reason it expresses this power has to do with the victims or prisoners of its lord. When they are in the dungeon of a lord's castle, their weakness is as total as his power. The castle heightens the power of the villain and the weakness of his victim by making it impossible for the victim to escape the "danger" or dominion of the lord, and equally impossible for him to get help from the outside, since even if his cries could be heard through all that distance and stone, his allies would have to "storm" an impregnable fortress.
...Cruelty occurs most readily in sequestered areas in which the dominion of the powerful one is inescapable and impregnable, at least for the moment. Whether it be a dungeon in a medieval castle or a group of boys gathered round to see a bird have its eyes burned out in a London street, sequestration from escape and resistance is important to cruelty. By heightening the strength of the strong one and by rendering the victim more passive, the castle helps generate and maintain the difference of power that helps make cruelty, like a spark of electricity, possible. The castle is the dynamo of cruelty.
From The Monk
The Monks quitted the Abbey at midnight. Matilda was among the Choristers, and led the chaunt. Ambrosio was left by himself, and at liberty to pursue his own inclinations. Convinced that no one remained behind to watch his motions, or disturb his pleasure, He now hastened to the Western Aisles. His heart beating with hope not unmingled with anxiety, he crossed the Garden, unlocked the door which admitted him into the Cemetery, and in a few minutes He stood before the Vaults. Here He paused. He looked round him with suspicion, conscious that his business was unfit for any other eye. As He stood in hesitation, He heard the melancholy shriek of the screech-Owl: The wind rattled loudly against the windows of the adjacent Convent, and as the current swept by him, bore with it the faint notes of the chaunt of Choristers. he opened the door cautiously, as if fearing to be over-heard: He entered; and closed it again after him. Guided by his Lamp, He threaded the long passages, in whose windings Matilda had instructed him, and reached the private Vault which contained his sleeping Mistress.
Its entrance was by no means easy to discover: But this was no obstacle to Ambrosio, who at the time of Antonia's Funeral had observed it too carefully to be deceived. He found the door, which was unfastened, pushed it open, and descended into the dungeon. he approached the humble Tomb, in which Antonia reposed. He had provided himself with an iron crow and a pick- axe; But this precaution was unnecessary. The Grate was slightly fastened on the outside: He raised it, and placing the Lamp upon its ridge, bent silently over the Tomb. By the side of three putrid half-corrupted Bodies lay the sleeping Beauty.
Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," in ELH 40 (1973): 249-63.
It is notable that toward the end of [The Monk], all the major characters are compelled to descend into the catacombs of the Convent of St. Clare, and that it is deep in this multi- layered sepulchre that the climaxes of all the different plots in the novel will be played out: here Agnes has been imprisoned by the Domina, here Ambrosio has sequestered Antonia in order to rape her, and here the nuns of St. Clare retreat as the incensed mob sacks and fires their convent. The sepulchre, into which the Domina descends for her sadistic punishments, and Matilda for her diabolical conjurations, has come in the course of the novel to represent the interdicted regions of the soul, the area of the mind where our deepest and least avowable impulses lie, and at the novel's climax the characters are driven unconsciously, but all the more powerfully, to go to confront their destinies in the sepulchre. The force of this drive is imaged in the description of Lorenzo's decision to descend: this arch-rationalist of the novel is impelled by a movement "secret and unaccountable "into the labyrinth" of the sepulchre (p. 347). He then discovers the trap-door into the lowest depth, a "yawning gulph "which he must go on to explore "alone . . . and in darkness " (p. 354) . That the young lovers of the novel will eventually find a measure of peace and tempered happiness is no doubt a product of this experience in and of the central darkness of the soul: their exploration of the content of the unconscious will be curative.
The erotic implications of the sepulchre and its labyrinth are patent, for it is here, down below the daylight world, that Lewis can indulge the richest, and most sadistic, urgings of his decidedly perverse imagination. The descriptions of Agnes's attachment to the putrefied corpse of her baby become almost unbearable. But Lewis's exploitation of sepulchre and labyrinth also confirm our sense of his intuitive understanding of his psycho-historical moment. It is easy to document that there was a veritable explosion of "claustral" literature at this period, especially in France from the onset of the Revolution. We know in fact that shortly before starting to write The Monk, Lewis had seen one of the most celebrated and melodramatic plays on the theme, Boutet de Monvel's Les Victimes Cloitrees-- which he later translated--and he probably also knew Olympe de Gouges' Le Couvent, ou les Voeux forces. Part of the epistemological moment to which The Monk belongs, and which it best represents, is this opening up of sepulchral depths, the fascination with what may lie hidden in the lower dungeons of institutions and mental constraints ostensibly devoted to discipline and chastity. What does lie hidden there is always the product of erotic drives gone beserk, perverted and deviated through denial, a figuration of the price of repression.
Lewis's psychic architecture, then, offers what we have suggested about the nature of the supernatural in the novel, and the transformation of the Sacred into taboo. Ambrosio's story is most centrally a drama of conquest by a desire made terrific by its freight of repression. Its liberation will be led to commit both matricide and incest. That is, through the play of repression, erotic pleasure has been necessarily tied to the idea of transgression, violation of taboo; and Ambrosio, once he has given himself over wholly to his erotic drive, will manage to transgress the most basic of them. Particularly, Ambrosio with growing urgency discovers the need to violate, defile, to soil and profane the being who has come to represent for him the sum of erotic pleasure precisely because she is most clothed in the aura of the Sacred, and most protected by taboo.
Max Byrd, "The Madhouse, the Whorehouse, and the Convent," Partisan Review
In the first half of the eighteenth century the primary meaning of the incarceration that occurs over and over in fiction is restraint. Unbalancing, socially destructive passions like greed or lust are simply pressed into submission by moral and social institutions, by the madhouse and the prison. In the later eighteenth century the primary meaning of incarceration becomes, not restraint, but burial, a meaning already implied in the Persephone myth. The dungeons in these houses are Tartarus, the deepest recesses of the human mind in which unreason still clings to life. Toward the conclusion of M.G. Lewis's The Monk the hero Lorenzo, searching through subterranean passages, stumbles upon the following:
"in a corner of this loathsome abode, a creature stretched upon a bed of straw, so wretched, so emaciated, so pale, that he doubted to think her woman. She was half naked: her long disheveled hair fell in disorder over her face, and almost entirely concealed it. One wasted arm hung listless upon a tattered rug, which covered her convulsed and shivering limbs: the other was wrapped round a small bundle, and held it closely to her bosom."
Thus far we might feel we were reading another description of justly punished whores in Mrs. Sinclair's brothel; but the next sentence places us elsewhere: "A large rosary lay near her: opposite to her was a crucifix , on which she bent her sunken eyes fixedly, and by her side stood a basket and a small earthen pitcher." The convent in Gothic novels, outwardly a symbol of self-control and reason, in reality exists as a den of incarceration, just as the madhouse and the whorehouse do in earlier literature; inwardly it harbors row after row of dungeons like this one in The Monk where unreason is shut away. Within the farthest reaches of this building, learns the heroine of The Italian,
"is a stone chamber, secured by doors of iron, to which such of the sisterhood as have been guilty of any heinous offence have, from time to time, been consigned. This condemnation admits of no reprieve: the unfortunate captive is left to languish in chains and darkness, receiving only an allowance of bread and water just sufficient to prolong her sufferings, till nature, at length, sinking under their intolerable pressure, obtains refuge in death."
The scene Lorenzo discovers in The Monk reminds us of numerous other eighteenth-century descriptions of Bedlam cells as well as of brothels....The bundle an inmate clutches is the corpse of her baby, an emblem of her original female sin....like mid-century European fiction, The Monk extends the meaning of its symbols of incarceration, adding isolation, fantasy, and incest to the themes of restraint, passion, and death that mark the Augustan madhouses and whorehouses.
In its convents and dungeons, for example, The Monk shows us what the Age of Reason seems never to have doubted, the disastrous consequences of incarceration when it is understood as isolation from society. The wretched mother whom Lorenzo discovers in The Monk has been "plunged into a private dungeon, expressly constituted to hide from the world for ever the victim of cruelty and tyrannic superstition. In this dreadful abode she was to lead a perpetual solitude, deprived of all society, and believed to be dead, by those, whom affection might have prompted to attempt her rescue."
...But two further points should be noticed here. The first is how often the incarcerating house is destroyed by these incestuous children...Ambrosio is responsible for a mob's destruction of a convent and the slaughter of its nuns; and Moncada, in the most terrifying episode of all, brings down the palace of the Inquisition in fire....All the shattered and smoking convents of the Gothic novel prove to us the power of unreason to destroy its prisons, if it can break free or if the keeper lingers in their dark passages. The recurring theme of incest in these novels also conveys to us the destructive power of unreason, its ability to tear apart the central institution of order and stability in a public society, the family.
From The Italian
The carriage having reached the walls, followed their bendings to a considerable extent. These walls, of immense height, and strengthened by innumerable massy bulwarks, exhibited neither window or grate, but a vast and dreary blank; a small round tower only, perched here and there upon the summit, breaking their monotony.
The prisoners passed what seemed to be the principal entrance, from the grandeur of its portal, and the gigantic loftiness of the towers that rose over it; and soon after the carriage stopped at an arch-way in the walls, strongly barricadoed. one of the escort alighted, and, having struck upon the bars, a folding door within was immediately opened, and a man bearing a torch appeared behind the barricado, whose countenance, as he looked through it, might have been copied for the
of the poet.
No words were exchanged between him and the guard; but on perceiving who were without, he opened the iron gate, and the prisoners, having alighted, passed with the two officials beneath the arch, the guard following with a torch. They descended a flight of broad steps, at the foot of which another iron gate admitted them to a kind of hall; such, however, it at first appeared to Vivaldi, as his eyes glanced through its gloomy extent, imperfectly ascertaining it by the lamp, which hung from the centre of the roof. No person appeared, and a death-like silence prevailed; for neither the officials nor the guard yet spoke; nor did any distant sound contradict the notion, that they were traversing the chambers of the dead. To Vivaldi it occurred, that this was one of the burial vaults of the victims, who suffered in the Inquisition, and his whole frame thrilled with horror. Several avenues, opening from the apartment, seemed to lead to distant quarters of this immense fabric, but still no footstep whispering along the pavement, or voice murmuring through the arched roofs, indicated it to be the residence of the living.
Jacques Blondel, "On 'Metaphysical Prisons,'" Durham University Journal 32 (1971): 133-38.
The theme of metaphysical prisons in art and literature...expands on three levels....The first is that of reasonable sublimity implying some ambiguity in the nature of the supernatural; the next is deliberately that of moral ambiguity and negation of traditional norms; while the third is that of 'paradis artificiels' and self-created prisons. The absence of escape in a fictitious universe devoid of the redemptive scheme and the absence of forgiveness command this diversified approach to fantastic worlds of their own. On every level the implications of 'generic guilt' are there to account for the density, so to say, of walls and the depth of romantic chasms, to create or challenge the metaphysics of heated brains and to preside over the fate of both victims and executioners.
A diachronic study of our theme would less forcibly throw into relief the relationship, between the ethical implications of 'metaphysical prisons' and their artistic or literary representation....Granted that Mrs. Radcliffe follows in the wake of Walpole's canons in the genre-- namely romance--and that romance breaking with 'strict adherence to common life' should include the marvelous, both writers claim to be enfranchised from superstition, though allowing room for 'stupendous phenomena' (The Castle of Otranto, 2nd Preface) confronting the 'moral agents of the drama'. The description of the well-known castle, an adumbration of Strawberry Hill, anticipates the architectural designs of Mrs. Radcliffe's structures, that of Montoni and the prisons of the Inquisition:
"The lower part of the castle was hollowed out into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern"
...However, the structure of the plot in all cases implies a return to the world of light, a liberation from the devilish machinery which, as in the case of The Italian, eventually recoils on its devisor (p. 243); the innocent pair, as in the sentimental novel, are duly permitted to marry, after the trials undergone in the labyrinthine vaults of Rome. The caves here, more emphatically than in The Mysteries of Udolpho, have been the proper setting where Vivaldi realized the danger of inclining too much to the marvelous (p. 347):
" . . . he dismissed, as absurd, a supposition, which had begun to thrill his every nerve with horror."
Stress is thus laid on his weakness from the point of view of the rational-minded novelist who remains content with offering the 'delightful horror' (John Dennis) of plunging one's eyes into depths, mountain gloom, and mountain glory in turn. Prisons here are contrasted by visions of the sublime; thus Ellena loses the consciousness of her prison (San Stefano), "while her eyes ranged over the wide and freely-sublime scene without . . . She perceived that this chamber was within a small turret . . . and suspended, as in air, above the vast precipices of granite, that formed part of the mountain" (p. 90).
Such contrasts evince Mrs. Radcliffe's avoidance of any whole-hearted commitment to the powers of darkness; Vivaldi is made to descend further and further, but the final vision is daylight and open air, even as in Girtin's sublime landscape. The captivity motif remains external to the mind, except for the guilty villain, when we are invited to approve of the judgment of the awful tribunal sentencing him to suffer. Illusions of any kind have had to be dispelled and prisons have never been properly metaphysical.
The Gothic nocturnal world of The Monk (1796), though influencing The Italian, develops the prison theme on medieval metaphysical lines.... In The Monk, the conditions of both physical and moral claustrophobia are fully achieved. Lewis's story, originating from German 'horror' tales, concentrates on the powerlessness of the victims (Agnes, Elvira, Raymond) in the face of adverse forces hailing from the darksome world. Thus Raymond, once captured by the 'Bleeding Nun' whom he negates as a phantom, has to be released from his trance by a magician.
Matilda, another Fuseli-like figure, traps lustful Ambrosio, whose perverse and morbid passion leads him willingly to persevere in sin and face damnation. The ambiguity here lies not with the fiction itself, as in the case of Mrs. Radcliffe's visions of imprisonment, but consists in the divided commitment of Lewis, strumming on the strings of sensuality in order seemingly to rouse indignation while pandering to the desires of the flesh. Thus it is a willing prison the setting of which tallies with the requirements of the fantastic....Ambrosio's is the "metaphysical" prison of a belated medieval age, the creation of an unmetaphysical imagination. Thus all possibility of redemption is and has to be made absurd (hence the blasphemous pronouncements here and there in the book) in a world where the constants of reality are nullified, an illusionary yet strikingly real one.