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The Gothic: A History

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The Gothic: A History Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate! - Dante Just over two hundred years ago, literature was developing at a fantastic rate. Books and magazines had become economically viable for mass-production; a gamut of influences was creating 'reading for leisure'. One of the most popular forms among the public who were reading these books were tales of the macabre. Their sources were many -- collections of folk tales and medieval romances, translations of Eastern legends such as The Arabian Nights, and experiments by contemporary authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole began to create something distinct and new. Even... "novel", because the medium for this type of fiction just had not existed before. This something is still with us, and we even use the name the first critics used to identify it -- gothic. The structure of the gothic tale is simple. Nothing wrong with the formula -- just ask Doctor Jekyll. A character -- whose sensibilities will be sympathetically familiar and contemporary, no matter the actual setting -- is removed by circumstance from the familiar and 'normal' to another, darker realm. The castle; huge, decaying and surrounded by barriers that make escape near impossible, is the classic. An old house or a dark dungeon may replace it, but it is always unmistakable. ...read more.


This can be seen again, when Montoni arrives with Emily in tow inside his carriage after this description, his presence is a signal for the "great gates" to open and admit all to the inner sanctum of what is "his" castle. In Lewis' The Monk, this descent into the den of evil is described similarly when the evil monk Ambrosio is headed to meet his captive and unconscious victim, Antonia. The Monk's 'Emily' is an innocent and sensitive young man named Lorenzo, his Montoni the brilliant and forceful Matilda. There was no real evidence in the novel that Matilda was anything other than she appeared; a human woman possessed of passion, a will that at all times surpasses that of Ambrosio -- even when he is acting the villain in turn to his own victims -- and occult knowledge. To say she is literally a demon sent to seduce Ambrosio from his path to sainthood makes it much easier to write off the gothic as a man dominates -- woman loves it fantasy, but there are many ambiguous ways to look at the situation. When Lewis set out to write this book, he wanted to expand and develop how Radcliffe looked at the characters in Udolpho. Using the somewhat standard gothic structure, Lewis uses sex consistently and well to balance characters and see how one holds power over another. ...read more.


Matilda at first seems submissive and acts as Ambrosio's lover, but when his interest in her wanes and he sets his eyes upon another, she begins to change and become more dominant. As she uses her female and then daemonic and magical powers to help Ambrosio along his path to damnation, she becomes increasingly powerful, eventually ordering Ambrosio about like a servant boy while he meekly shuffles about doing as she commands. His purity and piety, once admired by all, are used as tools by him and by Matilda to hold back the realization and belief of what they are doing from the masses. This is paralleled in other novels such as Beckford's Vathek, where the evil Prince, again under the guiding influence of a powerful female, takes advantage of his standing in society to commit atrocities. As with the Mother Superior of the convent, Ambrosio is hiding behind a fa�ade, which eventually falls apart with the Mother Superior's death soon followed by his own. In every gothic novel, evil is a force all its own. There is no blurry moral line about what is evil and what is not, it always appears unadulterated and pure black, sometimes personified, sometimes not, but always strong and corrupting. Satan is often referred to or involved, as the obvious counterpoint to the church and God, although he sometimes already has all the help he needs from the duplicitous clergy. ...read more.

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