The Supernatural and Sensibility: The Sacred and Superstition

As we have seen in our studies of 18th Century novels, the word sensibility has various meanings and connotations. As modern critics trying to pin down the denotation, it should be comforting to know that the word was prone to slippage for contemporary audiences as well. In fact, the differences between the forms of Gothic employed by Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe have been linked to these definitional ambiguities. As Syndy Conger asserts: "Lewis's concern to evoke a physical response and Radcliffe's emphasis on a psychological one represent legitimate, if discordant, aims of the literature of sensibility and can be traced to an ambiguity inherent in the term "sensibility" itself. . .

In its earliest uses, sensibility denoted physical feeling or sense perception . . . As sensibility became more and more closely associated with refined feeling, with consciousness and conscience . . . it became nearly interchangeable with sentiment, sympathy, and their derivatives . . . sensibility had two souls in its breast, one pulling it towards physical, the other towards spiritual experience. As a consequence, it also came to contain within itself the seeds of two opposing ethics: the one insisting on the centrality of self-fulfillment, the other stressing the importance of self-abnegation in sympathy and acts of benevolence.

Notice that there is also a connection between sensibility and belief systems, including views about what is sacred and what role superstition plays in fiction and in everyday life.


From the Preface of The Castle of Otranto, 4

Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events are exploded now even from romances. Theat was not the case when the author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.

If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation . . . Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe . . . Terror, the author's principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing, and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions.


From The Italian, 18-20.

"Hush!" said Bonarmo, as they turned the foot of a rock that overhung the road, "we are approaching the spot; yonder is the arch!" It appeared duskily in the perspective, suspended between two cliffs, where the road wound from sight, on one of which were the ruins of the Roman fort it belonged to, and on the other, shadowing pines, and thickets of oak that tufted the rock to its base . . .

After a pause of silence, during which Bonarmo was meditating, and Vivaldi was impatiently watching, "Do you really believe," said the former, "that any effort to detain him would be effectual? He glided past me with a strange facility, it was surely more than human!"

"What is it you mean?" enquired Vivaldi.

"Why I mean that I could be superstitious. This place, perhaps, infests my mind with congenial gloom, for I find that, at this moment, there is scarcely a superstition too dark for my credulity." . . .

They had remained watchful and still for a considerable time, when Bonarmo saw a person approach the end of the arch-way nearest to Altieri. He heard no step, but perceived a shadowy figure station itself at the entrance of the arch . . . They heard no footstep pass them, and, being convinced that this person, whatever he was, had not left the arch-way, they kept their station in watchful stillness.


Syndy M. Conger, "Sensibility Restored: Radcliffe's Answer to Lewis's The Monk," Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, ed. Kenneth Graham, (New York: AMS, 1989): 113-150.

Her novel [The Italian] steadily de-emphasizes the connection between sensibility, sensation, and matter, and works just as steadily to strengthen the link between sensibility and mind . . . In place of the sensory bombarment to which Lewis subjects both his heroes and his reader, Radcliffe offers sensory deprivation. Under the arch on the road to the villa Altieri, in the coach on the way to the Adriatic coast, in the chambers of the Inquisition--all central episodes in the parental counterplot against the lovers Ellena and Vivaldi--light is absent, sounds are muffled, and figures are shadowy and often seemingly substanceless, merely brushing those they pass by.


From the shadowy subjects of superstition to the suspension of disbelief:

From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 420-421.

Emily, listening with surprise and attention, distinguished the following invocation delivered in the pure and elegant tongue of Tuscany, and accompanied by a few pastoral instruments. [To a Sea Nymph] . . .

The last words being repeated by the surrounding group, the garland of flowers was thrown into the waves, and the chorus, sinking gradually into a chant, died away in silence.

"What can this mean, Maddelina?" said Emily, awakening frm the pleasing trance, into which the music had lulled her.

This is the eve of a festival, Signora," replied Maddelina; "and the peasants then amuse themselves with all kinds of sports."

"But they talked of a sea-nymph," said Emily: "How came these good people to think of a sea-nymph?"

"O, Signora," rejoined Maddelina, mistaking the reason of Emily's surprise, "nobody believes in such things, but our old songs tell of them, and, when we are at our sports, we sometime sing to them, and throw garlands into the sea."


Ann McWhir, "The Gothic Transgression of Disbelief: Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis," Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, ed. Kenneth Graham, (New York: AMS, 1989): 29-48.

Mrs. Radcliffe tells us here how to read the darker superstitions elsewhere in her novel: no one believes in them, but through the art of language we can discover what it would be like if we did. In other words, Mrs. Radcliffe consistenly discriminates between belief and the suspension of disbelief. Superstitious belief, according to Hume, is based on "Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance"; suspension of disbelief, which resembles it emotionally, is based on imagination.


E.J. Clery, "The Supernatural Explained," The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762-1800 (Cambridge; Cambridge UP, 1995): 106-171.

It was Walter Scott who properly launched a critique of the "explained supernatural": "We disapprove of the mode introduced by Mrs. Radcliffe . . . of winding up their story with a solution by which all incidents appearing to partake of the mystic and the marvellous are resolved by very simple and natural causes . . . We can . . . allow of supernatural agency to a certain extent and for an appropriate purpose, but we never can consent that the effect of such agency shall be finally attributed to natural causes totally inadequate to its production."

But to read the supernatural in Radcliffe through Scott, whose expectations are closer to our own, is in some ways misleading. There are dimensions of ghostliness in the work of Radcliffe and her followers that exceed and complicate the opposition of natural and supernatural, imitative and purely imaginary, presupposed by Romantic criticism of the "explained supernatural." The most obvious residue of the spiritual after all supposed apparitions have been cleared away is Providence. . . The bizarre coincidences that are produced to explain the supernatural are not just a technical convenience, as Scott asserted, but evidence of a higher supernaturalism that ensures every "accident" has its rightful place in the schema of Divine Justice.


From The Mysteries of Udopho, 672.

O! how joyful it is to tell of happiness, such as that of Valancourt and Emily; to relate, that, after suffering under the oppression of the vicious and the disdain of the weak, they were, at length restored to each other--to the beloved landscapes of their native country,--to the securest felicity of this life, that of aspiring to moral and labouring for intellectual improvement--to the pleasures of enlightened society, and to the exercise of the benevolence, which had always animated their hearts; while the bowers of La Vallee became, once more, the retreat of goodness, wisdom and domestic blessedness!

O! useful may it be to have shown, that though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed with injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!


Robert F. Geary, "From Providence to Terror: The Supernatural in Gothic Fantasy," The Fantastic in World Literature and the Arts: Selected Essays from the Fifth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. Donald E. Morse, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1984): 7-20.

Reversing Mrs. Radcliffe's approach, Matthew Lewis made frighteningly real both the elements of supernatural terror and demonic passion which Udolpho evoked but then suppressed . . . Yet The Monk achieved its considerable measure of terror by intensifying, not resolving, Otranto's confusion between the supernatural as primitive dread and as protecting Providence; for its blend of secular skepticism and the satanic supernatural created a world where characters were terrorized by unearthly evil from without and by hideous passion from within. The mixture was more horrifying than credible in an age for which the supernatural had not beome entirely a convention of literature. In the end, then, The Monk, for all its horror, did not escape the confusion that beset the Gothic; for it asked readers at once to believe and not to believe in the supernatural, to see saints as superstitions and devils as realities.


Robert F. Geary, The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction: Horror, Belief, and Literary Change (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992)

Skepticism undermines traditional redemptive beliefs but only to release rather than dispel the most primitive horrors, natural and supernatural . . . the skepticism works exclusively against agencies of supernatural redemption, against the ethical and theological context which raises primitive numinous dread into the "holy" of religion. The saints, emblems of supernatural assistance, are rendered distant and impotent . . . Saint Clare is, figuratively and literally, an empty shell, capable only of disguising the sadistic depths beneath the convent's ineffectual structure of redemption.

From The Monk, 364-367.

For time immemorial the Statue had been famous for performing miracles . . . Not having equal faith in the miraculous Saint, Lorenzo did not think this solution of the mystery quite so satisfactory, as the Nuns, who subscribed without hesitation . . . He drew nearer to the Image, designing to inspect it more closely: But perceiving his intention, the Nuns besought him for God's sake to desist, since if he touched the Statue, his death was inevitable . . .

In spite of their prayers and threats He approached the Statue . . . It struck him, that so particular an injunctin was not given without cause, not to touch the arm of the Image . . . He examined the object of his attention, and discovered a small knob of iron concealed between the Saint's shoulder, and what was supposed to have been the hand of the Robber . . . He applied his fingers to the knob, and pressed it down forcibly . . .

As He took his hand from the Saint, She trembled beneath his touch. This created new terrors in the Spectators, who believed the Statue to be animated. Lorenzo's ideas upon the subject were widely different . . . He once more attempted to move it, and succeeded without much exertion. He placed it upon the ground, and the perceive the pedestal to be hollow, and covered at the opening with an havy iron grate.


Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," English Literary History 40 (1973): 249-63.

As The Monk and Frankenstein (probably the two most intelligent Gothic novels) most strikingly demonstrate, the Sacred in its traditional Christian form, even in the more purely ethical version elaborated by Christian humanism, is no longer operative . . . The problem of the Sacred in The Monk comes to crisis in its ethical relation, in the problem of guilt and its definition. The question is articulated in acute terms when the Monk's temptress, Matilda, proposes to call upon diabolical aid in the seduction of Antonia . . . Ambrosio at first refuses this momentous step: if he has sinned grievously, he is nonetheless unwilling to renounce all hope of eventual salvation . . .

Matilda shows herself a fierce logician . . . Her statement images a world in which God exists still, but no longer as a holy mystery and as a moral principle eliciting love, worship, and respect. No longer the source and guarantee of ethics, 'God' has become rather an interdiction, a primitive force within nature that strikes fear into men's hearts but does not move them to allegiance and worship.


From The Monk, 269.

Are you then God's friend at present? Have you not broken your engagements with him, renounced his service, and abandoned yourself to the impulse of your passions? Are you not planning the destruction of innoncence, the ruin of a creature whom he formed in the mould of angels? If not of daemons, whose aid would you invoke to forward this laudable design? Will the seraphims protect it, conduct Antonia to your arms, and sanction with their ministry your illicit pleasures? Absurd! But I am not deceived, Ambrosio! It is not virtue which makes you reject my offer; you would accept it, but you dare not. 'Tis not the crime which holds your hand, but the punishment; 'tis not respect for God which restrains you, but the terror of his vengeance! Fain would you offend him in sercret, but you tremble to profess yourself his foe. Now shame on the coward soul, which wants the courage either to be a firm friend, or an open enemy!


Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," English Literary History 40 (1973): 249-63.

"Throughout the novel the state of exacerbated passion--nearly always erotic passion--is what leads to the production and intercession of the supernatural. Tzvetan Todorov has argued that the fantastic, especially in its diabolical manifestations, is born of the psychological experience of limit situations, extreme moments of desire. In The Monk , the forces of the supernatural enter the realm of human experience in response to man's excessive erotic drives, as a representation of the forces within himself which he must recognize and struggle with . . .

Ambrosio's drama is in fact the story of his relationship to the imperatives of desire. His tale is one of Eros denied, only to reassert itself with the force of vengeance, to smite him . . . Matilda . . . makes her first approach to Ambrosio precisely through his piety and loathing for the impurity of the secular world, and works his downfall through his confidence in his own purity, his failure to recognize the repressions that it represents . . . Matilda's masterstroke is to have her own portrait painted in the disguise of the Madonna: underneath Ambrosio's passionate adoration of the sacred icon there will be, unbeknownst to him, a latent erotic component . . . The painting of the Madonna/Matilda is in fact a kind of witty conceit demonstrating why God can no longer be for Ambrosio the representative of the Sacred: spirituality has a latent daemonic content; the daemonic underlies the seemingly Holy. And the daemons represent, not a wholly other, but a complex of interdicted erotic desires within us. (Brooks)

From The Monk, 40-41.

"Who but myself has passed the ordeal of Youth, yet sees no single stain upon his conscience? Who else has subdued the violence of strong passions and an impetuous temperament . . . Religion cannot boast Ambrosio's equal! . . . Yet hold! May I not be tempted from those paths, which till now I have pursued without one moment's wandering? Am I not a Man, whose nature is frail, and prone to error? . . . Should I meetin the world which I am constrained to enter some lovely Female, lovely . . . as you Madona[sic]!" As he said this, He fixed his eyes upon a picture of the Virgin . . . This for two years had been the Object of his increasing wonder and adoration . . . "What charms me, when ideal and considered as a superior Being, would disgust me, become Woman and tainted with all the failings of Mortality. It is not the Woman's beauty that fills me with such enthusiasm; It is the Painter's skill that I admire, it is the Divinity that I adore! . . . Fear not, Ambrosio! Take confidence in the strength of your virtue . . . Reflect that you are now exempted from Humanity's defects, and defy all the arts of the Spirits of Darkness. They shall know you for what you are!"


Moving out of the texts and into the historical context, it becomes clear that the climate at the time was conducive to explorations of both facets of humanity: rational thought and supernatural belief/faith.

Joel Porte, "In the Hands of an Angry God: Religious Terror in Gothic Fiction," The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, (Washington State University Press, 1974): 42-64.

Levy tends to associate more with the political and, especially, religio-intellectual upheavals of 1688 and after--a Glorious Revolution which left to the eighteenth century an uncomfortable legacy of scientific rationalism, on the one hand, and religious reform, and uncertainty, on the other. What such an analysis reduces to for Levy, in a literary context, is the notion that "in some sense the fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of the imagination, for what he has lost at the level of faith." Viewing Gothic mystery thus, as a substitute for discredited religious mystery, we may consent to recognize that, despite its wild extravagances and puerile heresies, le genre noir represented for its producers and consumers alike a genuine expression of profound religious malaise.