Domesticating the Sublime


Addison, The Spectator 110 (July 6, 1711).

I was taking a Walk in the Place last Night between the Hours of Nine and Ten, and could not but fancy it one of the most proper scenes in the World for a Ghost to appear in. The Ruins of the Abbey were scattered up and down on every side, and half covered with Ivy and Elder-Bushes. . . . The Place was formerly a Churchyard, and still has several Marks in it of Graves and Burying Places. There is . . . an Echo among the old Ruins and Vaults. . . , the Walk of Elms, with the Croaking of the Ravens . . . looks exceedingly solemn and venerable. These Objects naturally raise Seriousness and Attention; and when Night heightens the Awefulness of the Place, . . . I do not at all wonder that weak Minds fill it with Specters and Apparitions.


Robert F. Geary, "Ann Radcliffe: The Aura of the Numinous." In The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction(Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).

In Addison, the great--vast open country, precipices, mountains, oceans--does not terrify but fills the mind with a sense of the infinite, leading to delight in the "contemplation" of God (Spectator 412, 413). But in Mrs. Radcliffe we find as well the mid-century touches of "pleasing melancholy" and the more direct emotional appeal issuing in a spontaneous (and unspecified) prayer rather than in contemplation alone. Her sublime resides in a vaguely pious emotion loosed from earlier religious arguments from design for God's existence yet not regressing to primitive religious awe.

Such a tamed sublime, associated with only the blandest of religious feeling, typifies Mrs. Radcliffe's scaling down of Gothic elements to fit them into a domestic novel whose major theme Emily's father imparts to her, telling her that true happiness resides "in a state of peace not tumult," a condition attained by prudently steering between the extremes of "the evils of susceptibility" (emotional overindulgence) and insensitivity. . . . Thus, by implication, the transports of sublimity must be made to nourish, not overpower, the tranquility associated with beauty. Gothic terrors, then, must be reduced to creating stimulating occasions for the growth of a disciplined sensibility. Terror, imaginary or real, is to be, in our terms, a "learning experience."


Cannon Schmitt, "Techniques of Terror." Eighteenth-Century Literary History (Winter 1994).

By placing their protagonists at a distance from eighteenth-century England--in medieval Italy, early Renaissance France, the Spain of the Inquisition--Gothic novelists enabled the proliferation of criminality and confusion. Such confusion involves a starkly physical problem of location (one result of the labyrinthine architecture of the Gothic castle is its opacity to heroines and readers alike), but encompasses as well ignorance as to the motivation of others, difficulty in communication, the unreliability of language itself.

Insight as to how such uncertainties might contribute to the formation of a certain kind of subject is provided by Nancy Armstrong in her Foucauldian reading of the novel, Desire and Domestic Fiction. Armstrong demonstrates that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels and conduct-books were active in the work of middle-class suject formation. Most important for our purposes is Armstrong's invocation of the Gothic at precisely the point where she discusses surveillance: in her account of the eponymous heroine's rise to middle-class power in Richardson's Pamela (1740). According to Armstrong, Pamela's forced move from the house where she is first persecuted to an estate in Lincolnshire indicates a relocation of the arena of power from aristocratic display to middle-class surveillance:

For the Lincolnshire Estate is represented as a grimly gothic version of the first manor house. . . . the nightmarish version of the country house leaves no doubt that the threat of self-annihilation intensifies as the assault on Pamela's body becomes more a matter of ocular rape than physical penetraion. Such a shift in the strategy of sexual violation to the violation of psychological depths provides a strategy for discovering more depths within the female body to write about. . . . Pamela wins the struggle to interpret both herself and all domestic relations from the moment the coach swerves off the road to her father's house and delivers her to Mr. B.'s Lincolnshire estate. The power dominating at the estate is already female power. It is the power of domestic surveillance.
. . . With Foucault in mind, we may extend this emphasis on surveillance of others to self-monitoring: for Foucault, the distinctive feature of the modern subject is surveillance of the depths of the self. . . . Radcliffean Gothic contributed to the formation of that subject by encouraging the adoption of habitual internal surveillance in heroines and readers alike.


Horace Walpole, Castle of Otranto (1764).

> It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if, in the latter species, Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions, sentiments, and conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days, were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.

The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the power of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed ordinary men and women would do in extraordinary positions. . . .

My rule was nature. However grave, important, or even melancholy, the sensations of heroes and princes may be, they do not stamp the same affections on their domestics: at least the latter do not, or should not be made to, express their passions in the same dignified tone. In my humble opinion, the contrast between the sublime of the one and the naivete of the other, sets the pathetic of the former in a stronger light.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Toward the Gothic: Terrorism and Homosexual Panic." Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985): 83-96.

Even beyond the allure of decadence to the naive and ambitious reader, though, the Gothic makes a teasing proffer of insight into important historical questions. Within the historical frame of the Industrial Revolution, the Gothic is preoccupied with dramatizing versions of the mutual reappraisal of the middle and upper classes. The ties of the Gothic novel to an emergent female authorship and readership have been a constant for two centuries, and there has been a history of useful critical attempts to look to the Gothic for explorations of the position of women in relation to the changing shapes of patriarchal domination. A less obvious point has to do with the reputation for "decadence": the Gothic was the first novelistic form to have close, relatively visible links to male homosexuality, at a time when styles of homosexuality, and even its visibility and distinctness, were markers of division and tension between classes as much as between genders.

Notoriously, as well, the Gothic seems to offer a privileged view of individual and family psychology. Certain features of the Oedipal family are insistently foregrounded there: absolutes of license and prohibition, for instance; a preoccupation possibilities of incest; a fascinated proscription of sexual activity; an atmosphere dominated by the threat of violence between generations. Even the reader who does not accept the Oedipal family as a transhistorical given can learn a lot from the Gothic about the terms and conditions under which it came to be enforced as a norm for bourgeois society. Indeed, traces of the Gothic are ubiquitous in Freud's writing, and not only in literary studies like "The Uncanny" or "Delusion and Dream"; it is not surprising, though maybe circular, that psychoanalysis should be used as a tool for explicating these texts that provided many of its structuring metaphors.

Particularly relevant for the Gothic novel is the perception Freud arrived at in the case of Dr. Schreber: that paranoia is the psychosis that makes graphic the mechanisms of homophobia. In our argument about the Gothic, . . . we will not take Freud's analysis on faith, but examine its grounds and workings closely in a single novel [Confessions of a Justified Sinner]. To begin with, however, it is true that the limited group of fictions that represent the "classic" early Gothic contains a large subgroup--Caleb Williams, Frankenstein, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, probably Melmoth, possibly The Italian--whose plots might be mapped almost point for point onto the case of Dr. Schreber: most saliently, each is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male. If we follow Freud in hypothesizing that such a sense of persecution represents the fearful, phantasmic rejection by recasting of an original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire, then it would make sense to think of this group of novels as embodying strongly homophobic mechanisms. (This is not to say that the authors . . ., or the overall cultural effects of the novels, were necessarily homophobic, but merely that through these novels a tradition of homophobic thematics was a force in the development of the Gothic.)


Mary Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret (1862) (New York:Oxford University Press, 1992)

Mad-houses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion within:--when we remember how many minds must tremble upon the narrow boundary between reason and unreason, mad to-day and sane to-morrow, mad yesterday and sane to-day. (205)

"Why did that unaccountable terror seize upon me?" he thought. "Why was it that I saw some strange mystery in my friend's disappearance? Was it a monition or a monomania? What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link is woven out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crochets--the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Mr. Harcourt Talboys sees no meaning in the events out of which I have created a horrible mystery. I lay the separate links of the chain before him, and he cannot recognize their fitness. He is unable to put them together. Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the mystery lies; if--" he smiled bitterly, and shook his head. "I have the handwriting in my pocket-book which is the evidence of the conspiracy," he thought. "It remains for me to discover the darker half of my lady's secret." (254)


George Haggerty, "Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, Lewis." Studies in the Novel (Winter 1986).

The madness with which The Monk approaches its brutal resolution is but the final measure of the distance between private and public experience that these gothic novelists continuously express in their fictions. In the language of fiction itself, this madness emerges in the disjunction between tenor and vehicle that supernatural presences suggest. It is inherent, moreover, in the break between metaphorical flights of fancy and the contextualizing, normalizing effect of the novel itself. Madness, in other words, is the mode of discourse which answers the intense private anxieties that these novelists could barely disguise in their fictions. If meaning looms so large for them that it overcomes any sense of context, it can at least suggest to us the power of their feelings and the inability of existing social forms to offer them any means of dealing with themselves. (350).