The house as Gothic element in Anglo-American fiction (18th - 20th century)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2002 42 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Gothic Fiction
2.1. Definition
2.2. Roots, Developments, Impact
2.2.1. Britain
2.2.2. USA
2.3. The House – 'Commonplace' in Gothic Fiction

3. Aspects of the Gothic House
3.1. Building and Family Line
3.2. Looking-Glass House or (Gateway to) the Other World
3.3. The House of Bluebeard
3.4. The House as a Tomb
3.5. Culture Clashes and the House

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1. Primary Sources
5.2. Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

Throughout literary history the house has played an important role as a setting, a symbol or even semi-character. Drawing on British and American prose writing that ranges from Horace Walpole to Toni Morrison, this paper will investigate a specific aspect of the house - namely its use as a Gothic element.

It was not the author’s intention to undertake an extensive diachronic survey of the element, although chapter 2.2. is an attempt to give some insight into the rich heritage that can be discovered if one approaches the subject in this way. Instead, this paper will look into different types and functions of the house as a Gothic element. Since the author considers it a central theme in literature - also suggested by the latent pun of ‘house’ meaning either the building or the family line - this paper’s main focus will be on various forms of interaction between the house and the people who live in it. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, N. Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, E.A. Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and T. Morrison’s Beloved will provide the textual basis for this investigation. After that a discussion of other aspects of the house will follow, including the house as a junction on ‘Reality Road’ leading to forbidden tracks and hidden paths (ch. 3.2.), the House of Bluebeard (ch. 3.3.), the house as a tomb (ch. 3.4.) and the house as a stage for culture clashes (ch. 3.5.). As an in-depth study of every single text would have unduly exceeded the commonly accepted length of a seminar paper, these chapters, however, will only highlight certain aspects, using appropriate examples from a variety of texts by British authors, such as F.H. Burnett, A.C. Doyle, B. Stoker, C. Brontë, C. Dickens, D. du Maurier, O. Wilde and J.K. Rowling, and American authors, like N. Hawthorne, M. Twain, W. Faulkner and C.P. Gilman. Although the author is aware of the fact that very few houses in fiction can be assigned to only one of the categories mentioned above and that they often - and maybe ideally - simultaneously function in many different ways, this approach was chosen for pragmatic reasons.

2. Gothic Fiction

2.1. Definition

Some elaboration on the latter term might be necessary, especially since no clear definition of the term exists that would be commonly accepted by all scholars of literature. As Bissett states, „the term [...] proves endlessly mobile and endlessly anti-generic.“[1] The reason for this is that in the genesis and development of the term Gothic came to signify different things: a Germanic barbarian tribe (the Goths), an - in the eyes of Renaissance architects - similarly barbaric architectural style, the period of the Middle Ages, and also a literary style that became popular in the 18th century and which developed numerous different facets in the course of time.[2] Whether a definition of the Gothic that tried to incorporate all these elements would still be practicable remains doubtful. However, the same holds true for an approach as strict and narrow as Lovecraft’s, who claims:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain - a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.[3]

For the purpose of this paper, Gray’s flexible definition appears to be a better starting point:

Any work concentrating on the bizarre, the macabre or aberrant psychological states may be called Gothic. In this sense, Gothic elements are common in much nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction.[4]

Since in the understanding of this paper the house in fiction does not necessarily have to show characteristics of Gothic architecture in order to be Gothic in a literary sense - even though the two might coincide -, a house is considered a Gothic element if it gives expression to ‘the bizarre, the macabre or aberrant psychological states’ and thereby contributes to the creation of an atmosphere of suspense, uncertainty, terror or horror.[5] In this context, it is of no consequence whether ‘explained’ or ‘true’ supernatural horror prevails or whether the supernatural is employed at all.

2.2. Roots, Developments, Impact

2.2.1. Britain

As will be illustrated in chapter 2.2. the Gothic inheritance reaches far back in time and builds on various traditions including folklore, Medieval romance, Jacobean tragedy and so forth. Gothic fiction as a genre[6] in its own right, however, is a relatively recent development[7], the emergence of which can be interpreted as a countermovement to Enlightenment, the dominant philosophy of the 18th century. Gothic became interested in ‘the other’, in the supernatural, the human psyche, the past. It thus explored spheres that, tackled with reason and empirical methods alone, would not yield entirely satisfactory results. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (first published in 1764) is commonly considered as the first Gothic novel in Britain, although Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), with violence and terror at the core of its plot, would be a possible candidate to hold this place too. Numerous successful Gothic novels by authors such as Clara Reeves, Ann Radcliffe or Matthew Gregory Lewis followed throughout the late 18th century.

Preferably set in medieval Italy or Germany, the two major themes which dominated the Gothic genre were dark deeds in a monastery or convent and the haunted castle. As Haining lists, part of the stock situations were:

[...] abduction, rescue, seduction and villainy; secret passages and missing manuscripts; thwarted lovers and distressed maidens; ducal fathers and wicked barons; bandits, ghosts, lecherous monks and treacherous nuns. Plus, of course - unchanging through all adversity - the beautiful heroine with her unblemished virtue and ability to swoon at the first sight or sound of anything ‘horrid’.[8]

The genre became so popular that by the turn of the 18th century publishers adapted it to the needs of a wider readership, less affluent and educated than the purchaser of novels. The so called ‘bluebooks’ or ‘Shilling Shockers’ were cheap pocketbooks containing either abridged versions of popular Gothic novels or new short stories which aimed at giving “as many shocking, mysterious and horrid incidents [within the limited space] as possible.“[9] Although it can be said that Gothic fiction of this kind lost some of its popularity in the course of the 19th century, its impact on other literary genres and modes, like detective fiction, science fiction, fantastic fiction, psychological romance etc, can not be overestimated. To this day the Gothic in Britain is very much alive - be it in proponents of Neo-Gothic or female Gothic literature, such as Angela Carter and Emma Tennant, or in mainstream literature that employs Gothic elements to create particular effects.

2.2.2. USA

US Gothic literature, which emerged in the late 18th century with authors like Charles Brockden Brown or Isaac Mitchell, was influenced by British Gothic and “cannot be considered wholly as a native growth.“[10] Due to obvious historical reasons, writers in the New World could not look back on a cultural tradition of their nation as old as the European one. In addition to other socio-cultural peculiarities in the evolution of the USA, this called for an adaptation and transformation of the Gothic to fit the American frame. When C.B. Brown, for instance, lets Theodore, the protagonist and ardent believer in Wieland, or the Transformation (1798), become the tool of a ventriloquist and commit horrible crimes, the Gothic setting is not a castle but a mansion and Brown is not interested in the dichotomy between Protestantism (middle class) and Catholicism (aristocracy) as a great number of British writers are. With no aristocracy present and Catholicism playing only a minor role in society, Brown focuses on the relation between superstition and reason, thus exploring the implications of William Godwin’s political theory which he was fascinated by. Combined with the fact that the protagonist/villain is of European descent, Wieland is also an example of how American Gothic fiction makes use of a mythologised Old World and often evil Europeans in order to create or reassure a unique American identity.

The involvement of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors in the Salem witch trials of 1692 may be one reason for this author’s interest in the “pathology of guilt“[11], which Punter claims American Gothic is preoccupied with. In The Scarlet Letter (1850) Hawthorne explores the theme in relation to the Puritan legacy, so important for American (Gothic) fiction. Hawthorne’s romance The House of the Seven Gables (1851), evolving around a curse brought upon the builder of the house and his family, “is not a middle-class myth of the aristocracy“ - like a number of early British Gothic -, “but a lower-middle-class myth of an overpowerful haute bourgeoisie which has tried to usurp democratic privileges[...].“[12] At the same time Hawthorne created a model for the New England genre of ‘domestic gothic.’

Edgar Allan Poe, undoubtedly the most popular and probably the most meritorious American writer not only of Gothic fiction, refined Gothic writing by giving it a psychological depth unknown heretofore. According to Punter, Poe’s achievement lies in “the evolution of a variety of symbolist terror“ and in stories which move “by spiralling intensification.“[13] Poe reworks European Gothic material so that his “[...] terror is not of Germany [which is a common setting in British Gothic], but of the soul [...].“[14] Similar to Britain, the trend throughout the 20th century until today has been towards this psychological approach, applied by authors like Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Shirley Jackson.

In the current critical discourse on the Gothic two seemingly contradictory positions are held. One claims that horror fiction - as a variation of the Gothic - is more popular than ever - a view that is substantiated by the economic success of authors like Stephen King or Hollywood’s turnout of Gothic film adaptations. The other announces the ‘death of horror’ as an art form.[15] The latter view does not turn out to be contradictory, however, since it is based on the assumption that modern Gothic fiction tends to concentrate on the creation of horror without reaching the depths of the meaning of the human condition. It is thus a qualitative judgement which is just as valid as the other - quantitative - one.

2.3. The House - ‘Commonplace’ in Gothic Fiction

Early literary records suggest that ‘the house’ has always been a powerful symbol in literature. Offering shelter, warmth and stability, the house marks the change of human lifestyle from a nomadic to a settled existence. Moreover, the house can be seen as the manifestation of man’s triumph over nature. Protected from the unpredictable and merciless workings of the latter, man can withstand and attempt to tame it. Where then could the conflict between nature and civilization be more effectively given its literary expression than in the house-garden motif. The depiction of the relation between the two spaces and its quality can be considered part of the Gothic tradition.

For people in classical antiquity man-made space had become so precious that they knew gods, called lares, that were supposed to guard the household. The lar familiaris, “which was the spirit of the founder of the house which never left it,“[16] can be seen as a predecessor to the motif of the past haunting the house in ghostly form. Also in the Christian tradition the symbolical and metaphorical use of the house is frequent. “In my Father’s house are many mansions,“[17] tells the Bible, thus referring to God’s heavenly kingdom, which offers a place to every true Christian.

Equipped with the appropriate furnishings, the house can display the wealth, honour and dignity of its inhabitants. In the Old English epic Beowulf, for instance, the “tall, high and wide-gabled“ hall Heorot with its “high roof shining with gold“[18] is haunted by the monster Grendel. Beowulf, the poem’s hero, is entrusted by King Hrothgar, the owner of Heorot, with slaying the monster. Hrothgar claims:

Never before, since I could raise hand and shield, have I entrusted to any man the great hall of the Danes, except now to you. Hold now and guard the best of houses [...].[19]

Beowulf does not fail in his task, and the house that once “stood shining with blood, stained with slaughter“[20] is freed from “its enemies, from demons and evil spirits.“[21] In Beowulf the house (or hall) represents the building and a people (the Danes) at the same time. Thus, the violation or haunting of the hall is also a violation of the Danes’s honour, which has to be defended. This can be seen as a variation or forerunner of the motif of the family curse, where a building and the owning family are similarly connected. William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, with castle Elsinore being visited by the ghost of the hero’s poisoned father, who calls for revenge, is a famous early example.

Furthermore, the house can also serve as a hero’s trial ground. In the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, Sir Gawain is tested on his loyalty in a magnificent magic castle that appears on Sir Gawain’s desperate request “within a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs / Of many a tree great of girth that grew by the water -/ A castle as comely as a knight could own (...).“[22] In the opinion of this paper’s author, the castle’s depiction as an apparition justifies its evaluation as part of a literary ground the Gothic could take roots in, even though the element of horror or terror is not part of it yet.

In 1757 Edmund Burke gave shape to the latter in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful which came to have a considerable impact on Gothic literature. Interestingly, coming from the Latin (sub limen) the word „sublime“ either means “under the threshold“ or “beneath the top of the doorframe.“ Thus, this ‘building metaphor’ once again hints at the popularity of the house as a literary symbol.

With the rise of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century old castles, ruins and monasteries become the most frequent settings. Whereas the Gothic monastery shows that evil is omnipresent and does not even evade the House of God, castles and ruins add a historical perspective to the narrative, resulting in its location in the twilight zone of the past where almost everything seems possible. Especially the ruin does not only hint at the frailty of man and his creations - what Bloch calls “[eine] Allegorie der Vergänglichkeit, auf der die Ewigkeit sich niederläßt“[23] -, but also at mankind’s fragmented knowledge of the past. Therefore, it qualifies to be an extremely effective tool in the hands of authors who are interested in that which is not visible or perceivable with the logic of an enlightened age. The true achievement of the Gothic novel, however, is the transformation of the house from a mere setting to a participating agent, crucial to the development of the narrative and its protagonists. As Berg puts it: “In ihr [der Gothic novel] ist der literarische Bewegungsraum zum ersten Mal vom Ornament zum Handlungsträger geworden.“[24] Frequently, the building’s threatening outer appearance is paralleled to the inner psychological situation of the protagonist.[25] Carried out to the extremes, the house and its master are identical. As Williams puts it eloquently: [T]he self is a structure, like a house: that is haunted by history - both one’s own and that of one’s family; that this psychic ‘house’ has secret chambers that need to be opened if the house is to be liveable.[26]

In this context it is interesting to note that etymologically the Old English word for house, hus, and the O.E. word for skin, hyd, both have the same P.Gmc. root.[27] This indicates the term’s inherent potential to symbolize dead and organic matter at the same time. One can also take it one step further and relate it to a Freudian reading of the Gothic house which differentiates the ‘external’ (representing the conscious) from the ‘internal’ (representing the subconscious) sphere of the house. In this approach, walls, towers, gates etc are seen as belonging to the former, whereas passageways, secret chambers, dungeons and subterranean vaults are considered to be symbols for the latter sphere. In feminist terms one could thus see the house as “a public identity enfolding (and organizing) the private, the law enclosing, controlling, dark “female“ otherness.“[28]

„I am glad that it is old and big. I myself am of an old family, and to live in a new house would kill me. A house cannot be made habitable in a day; and, after all, how few days go to make up a century.“[29]

3. Aspects of the Gothic House

3.1. Building and Family Line

Considering the latent pun that is inherent in the word ‘house’ - meaning either the building or a family line - it seems not surprising that literature in general and Gothic literature in particular have frequently made use of the motif. Using The Castle of Otranto, “The Fall of the House of Usher“, The House of the Seven Gables and Beloved as examples, different literary realisations of the connection between building and family line will be explored in the following.

In Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797) The Castle of Otranto (1764) both aspects are very much present. It might be said that the portrayal of the castle itself is rather neutral in tone compared to those in later Gothic stories by other authors. However, the essential ingredients are already there: a picture that begins to move until “it quit[s] its pannel, and descend[s] on the floor with a grave and melancholy air“[30], “a subterraneous passage which [leads] from the vaults of the castle“[31] to a nearby church and to which a hidden trap-door has to be overcome. There is an “awful silence“ only disturbed by occasional blasts of wind that shake the doors “which grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness.“[32] Walpole creates suspense by evoking a “dread that is nameless“, as DeLamotte puts it:

[...] because its object is diffuse, unclear, insusceptible to definition. The vast, mysterious castle tends to depersonalize the threat of violence diffusing the titanic, villainous personality into something even larger - and more obscure.[33]

Thus, the prominence of external ingredients like the apparition of “the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl“[34] or the recurrent appearance of the giant knight is heightened. They can now cause shock and horror among the castle’s inhabitants more convincingly and lead Manfred’s servants to such outcries as: “[B]ut for heaven’s sake, good my lord, send for the chaplain and have the castle exorcised, for, for certain, it is enchanted.“[35]


[1] Bissett (2001), p. 3.

[2] On the different meanings of ‘Gothic’ cf.: Kliger (1945), 115-130; Stevens (2000), p. 8-21.

[3] Lovecraft (1973), p. 15.

[4] Gray (1993), p. 129.

[5] Since this is not a paper on the general nature of the Gothic, the term cannot be discussed in depth.

However, it seems worth mentioning that a distinction is usually made between terror (which

widens and stirs the psyche) and horror (which brings about fears of destruction in a physical sense)

as Gothic affects. Cf. Williams (1995), 71-79.

[6] However, it might be argued that Gothic fiction is a mode rather than a genre. (cf. Cuddon (1993),

p. 515.

[7] Cf. Cuddon (1999), p. 355-61; Seeber (1993), p. 262-65. On the differentiation between male and

female gothic cf.: Schabert (1997), pp. 397-419. On Anglo-American women's ghost story

tradition cf.: Carpenter (1991).

[8] Haining (1979), p. 17.

[9] Haining (1979), p. 15. Cf. Bloom (1998), pp. 1-22.

[10] Punter (1999), p. 173.

[11] Ibid., p. 155.

[12] Ibid., p. 175.

[13] Ibid., p. 177.

[14] Poe (1993), VII.

[15] Joshi (2001), p. 15.

[16] Cobham Brewer (1993), p. 624.

[17] NT, The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, According to St. John, ch.14, 2.

[18] Beowulf, p. 39.

[19] Ibid., p. 35.

[20] Ibid., p. 39.

[21] Ibid., p.39. On the subject of the haunted house cf. Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The

Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1999.

[22] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p. 218.

[23] Bloch (1974), p. 107. On ruins also cf.: Morrissey (1999).Daemmrich (1995), p. 298-302.

[24] Berg (1991), p. 39.

[25] Cf. Berg (1991), p. 43.

[26] Ibid., p. 121.

[27] Cf. www. geocities.com/etymonline/index.html

[28] Williams (1995), p. 44.

[29] Stoker (1995), p. 21.

[30] Walpole (1990), p. 24.

[31] Ibid., p. 25.

[32] Ibid., p. 25.

[33] Delamotte (1990), p. 16.

[34] Walpole (1990), p. 102.

[35] Ibid., p. 33.


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Gothic Anglo-American Inheritance



Title: The house as Gothic element in Anglo-American fiction (18th - 20th century)