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
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
"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,
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
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
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
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