Theorizing the Gothic Sublime


David Morris, "Gothic Sublimity." New Literary History (Winter 1985)

In exploring the entanglements of lover and terror, the Gothic novel pursues a version of the sublime utterly without transcendence. It is a vertiginous and plunging--not a soaring--sublime, which takes us deep within rather than far beyond the human sphere. The eighteenth-century sublime always implied (but managed to restrain) the threat of lost control. Gothic sublimity--by releasing into fiction images and desires long suppressed, deeply hidden, forced into silence--greatly intensifies the dangers of an uncontrollable release from restraint. Such dangers no doubt help to explain why censorship and swooning were among the most common social responses to gothic texts. Terror was a liberating--hence dangerous--force. "A god, [or] at least a ghost, was absolutely necessary, Walpole insisted, "to frighten us out of too much sense." In its excessive violations of excess sense, Gothic sublimity demonstrates the possibilities of terror in opening the mind to its own hidden and irrational powers. It is a version of the sublime which demands a psychology adequate to Freud's belief that the ego is not master in its own house.

Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1791)

He entered what appeared to have been the chapel of the abbey, where the hymn of devotion had once been raised, and the tear of penitence had once been shed; sounds, which now could be recalled only by imagination--tears of penitence, which had long since been fixed in fate. La Motte paused a moment, for he felt a sensation of sublimity rising into terror--a suspension of mingled astonishment and awe! He surveyed the vastness of the place, and as he contemplated its ruins, fancy bore him back to past ages. "And these walls," said he, "where once superstition lurked, and austerity anticipated an earthly purgatory, now tremble over the mortal remains of the beings who reared them!" (15-16)

Vijay Mishra, The Gothic Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).

If we conclude . . . by prioritizing Mary Shelley, it is because the transition of the sublime from the historical sublime to the Gothic is so powerfully present in her works. In other words, confronted with the "colossal," the "absolutely great," the mind turned inward into its own unconscious, regressed into its own labyrinth, to discover, in the tangled labyrinth of its dreams, a depth from which it could no longer soar into the grand design of the Kantian/Romantic sublime. In the process (of writing out this confrontation) a marked schizophrenic intensity emerges, both at the level of the subject (forever on the verge of madness: Manfred, Caleb Williams, Schedoni, Ambrosio, Verezzi, Wolfstein, Ruthven, Melmoth, Matilda, Pierre, Frankenstein, and so on) and at the level of the signifying chain (there is a distinct radicalization of the relationship between the signifier and the signified, the word and its referent).

Ultimately, however, we are confronted with a kind of black hole theory of the sublime. The black hole, which surfaces in Piranesi's paintings, "Interiors measurelessly strange, / Where the distrustful thought may range," or in Mary Shelley's feverish handwriting, takes us back to the essential problematic of the Gothic and the Postmodern. The problematic takes two forms. The first, articulated so well by Kant, is the issue of the presentation of the unpresentable. Kant, of course, had seen that the representation of the "colossal," the absolutely great, can occur only at that moment when reason gives way to imagination for a fleeting moment before it regains its power. What happened during this gap, this lapse, this concession or giving way, is the coming into being of the moment of the sublime. The second, articulated by Schopenhauer and Freud, is the "oceanic sublime," the sublime as the dissolution of self in death. It is the latter, the compulsion toward our own ends (in death), that explains the inherently apocalyptic tendencies in the Gothic as the subject ingratiatingly gets absorbed into the sublime object.


Marquis de Sade, "Idee sur les Romans"

Perhaps at this point we ought to analyze these new novels in which sorcery and phantasmagoria constitute practically the entire merit: foremost among them I would place The Monk, which is superior in all respects to the strange flights of Mrs. Radcliffe's brilliant imagination. . . . Let us concur that this kind of fiction, whatever one may think of it, is assuredly not without merit: twas the inevitable result of the revolutionary shocks which all of Europe has suffered. For anyone familiar with the full range of misfortunes wherewith evildoers can beset mankind, the novel became as difficult to write as monotonous to read. There was not a man alive who had not experienced in the short span of four or five years more misfortunes than the most celebrated novelist could portray in a century. Thus, to compose works of interest, one had to call upon the aid of hell itself, and to find in the world of make-believe things wherewith one was fully familiar merely by delving into man's daily life in this age of iron. Ah! But how many disadvantages there are in this manner of writing! The author of The Monk has avoided them no more than has Mrs. Radcliffe. Here, there are perforce two possibilities: either one resorts increasingly to wizardry--in which case the reader's attention soon flags--or one maintains a veil of secrecy, which leads to a frightful lack of verisimilitude. Should this school of fiction produce a work excellent enough to attain its goal without foundering on one or the other of these two reefs, then we, far from denigrating its methods, will be pleased to offer it as a model.

On the usefulness of the novel:
Of what use, indeed! Hypocritical and perverse men, for you alone ask this ludicrous question: they are useful in portraying you as you are, proud creatures who wish to elude the painter's brush, since you fear the results, for the novel is . . . the representation of secular customs, and is therefore, for the philosopher who wishes to understand man, as essential as is the knowledge of history.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "The Structure of Gothic Convention." The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno, 1980).

Surely no other modern literary form as influential as the Gothic novel has also been as pervasively conventional. Once you know that a novel is of the Gothic kind (and you can tell that from the title), you can predict its contents with an unnerving certainty. You know the important features of its mise en scene: an oppressive ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society. You know about the trembling sensibility of the heroine and the impetuosity of her lover. You know about the tyrranical older man with the piercing glance who is going to imprison and try to rape or murder them. You know something about the novel's form: it is likely to be discontinuous and involuted, perhaps incorporating tales within tales, changes of narrators, and such framing devices as found manuscripts or interpolated histories. You also know that, with more or less relevance to the main plot, certain characteristic preoccupations will be aired. These include the priesthood and monastic institutions; sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial; doubles; discovery of obscure family ties; affinities between narrative and pictorial art; possibilities of incest; unnatural echoes and silences; unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable; garrulous retainers; the poisonous effects of guilt and shame; nocturnal landscapes and dreams; apparitions from the past; Faust- and Wandering Jew-like figures; civil insurrections and fires; the charnel-house and the madhouse. The chief incidents of the gothic novel never go far beyond illustrating these few themes, and even the most unified novel includes most of them.