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Past and Present in Gothic Writing

One of the persistent concerns of Gothic is the relationship between the past and the present. Isolate and discuss two different treatments of this topic in Gothic literature or film.
Literature Essay

  • Assessment: Literature Essay
  • Mark: A
  • Year: 2007
  • Wordcount: 2176

In the eighteenth century many writers and readers regarded their contemporary present as ‘modern’ and enlightened and favoured a realist literature. As a consequence, Walpole (1986: 43) argues in his second Preface to The Castle of Otranto, “the great resources of fancy have been dammed up”; or to put it in Clery’s (2006: 27) words “what the modern era had gained in civility it had lost in poetic imagination”. One way to bring life back into the culture of this time was to re-establish the connections with a barbaric, mythical and unenlightened age. In particular, the Gothic age with its name referring to the Goths , was seen by contemporary readers and authors as a time of barbarism that “stood for the old-fashioned as opposed to the modern; the barbaric as opposed to the civilised; crudity as opposed to elegance; old English barons as opposed to the cosmopolitan gentry” (Punter 1996: 5). These and similar characteristics of a forgotten age became “invested with positive value” and were perceived as “representing virtues and qualities that the ‘modern’ world needed” (Punter and Byron 2006: 7).
The aim of this paper is both, to locate and compare the relationship of the past and the present in Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, but also to investigate the ambivalent nature of this relationship. Since the Gothic is by definition “about history and geography” (Mighall 1999: xiv), I will highlight the significance of the feudal and catholic past for early Gothic writing in analysing the texts’ settings and the authors’ use of the supernatural. In doing so, I will show that, on the one hand, the past was idealised but on the other hand, also served as the barbaric ‘Other’ to the enlightened present. Hence, this essay engages with one of the underlying questions of some early Gothic texts asking “which is darker, the murky past or an apparently enlightened present”? (Cavallaro 2002: 39).

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