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Supernatural, Spiritual and Spectral Gothicism
by Alicia Mistry Bookmark and Share
 

Spirituality and supernaturalism have always been topics of literary consideration, but there are specific historical moments when controversy erupts and new standards are put into place.  In the midst of this disagreement, the Gothic novel emerged as a new genre of writing, and it directly addressed this highly contested topic.  The realms of Gothicism constrained within the prose works of sisters Charlotte and Emily Bront  is a most fascinating and mesmerising domain.  We do not habitually think of Charlotte or Emily Bront  as  genre writers  as such, but in reality, much of their work falls more or less squarely into the Gothic tradition.  Their novels are full of thematic and symbolic references to isolated houses, gloomy, windswept moors, heavy atmosphere, and spectral visitations.  Magic, mystery, and chivalry commonly form the structural basis for the Gothic novel generating integrity of feeling and depth, which makes the spectacularly Gothic more than just a stereotype in the works of Charlotte and Emily. 

Moving away from conventional Gothic stereotyping, the Gothic revival was de-sensationalized and adopted into the mainstream by the likes of Charlotte Bront in Jane Eyre in 1847 and equally by Emily Bront in Wuthering Heights in the same year.  However, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Gothic mode shifted again towards romantic fiction and was revived yet again, this time by the likes of Daphne de Maurier who built on the works of the Bront sisters to the lay the foundation for the modern Gothic romance.  Nevertheless, the Gothic genre became an effective literary device for the novels of Charlotte and Emily, thrusting the Gothic novel and all of its attributes into the mainstream of British prose writers and their works.  In particular, this fine example of Gothicism is wonderfully depicted and explored in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte and Emily Bront respectively. 

It would prove uncomplicated to neglect the importance of the two Bront sisters, quite simply because they are responsible for some of the very best writing to come out of the nineteenth century, not to mention the most enduring. Their work represents genre with a twist, which gives the two novels a timeless quality whilst keeping them alive in the literary domain in the twenty-first century.  The Gothic, sinister tone that the writers adopt is bad enough for the Bront 's protagonists, but the really horrifying occurrences have prosaic explanations (malicious aunts, abusive husbands) and are perpetrated by their relatives and alleged friends. For the Bront's, hell really was, by definition, rooted in other people.  Nevertheless, what remains so fascinating about the Gothic genre lies with the fact that it is anything but a homogenous or static genre.  Belief and the suspension of disbelief are at the crux of Gothicism.  The credence of and disbelief in the supernatural manifests itself in connection to ideas of the sublime, to connotations of sensibility, to the core of the creation myth, and in theological concepts about damnation.  

Charlotte Bront composed Jane Eyre between 1799-1809 in a language that is unfailingly masterful, in accordance with the various generic conventions of the romantic/Gothic genre.  This novel is the classic Gothic narrative when thinking about escape, subversion and mobility.  Some critics have argued that Jane Eyre is not a Gothic novel but more an example of the use of Gothic by nineteenth century novelists like Charlotte and her sister.  Nonetheless, the traditional Gothic conventions are used, but in a personal way, from childhood terrors to all those mysterious and threatening sights and sounds that reveal the presence of some malevolent force, that anticipate the tragedy at Thornfield.  Charlotte s symbolic use of the Gothic demands a more complicated response than the simple momentary intensity of feeling sought by the early Gothic novelists.  Thus, her novel is heavily influenced by the element of Gothicism, which, at the time, was hugely popular.  Gothic novels of the time depicted the revival of interest in the supernatural, the abnormal and ultimately the horrible.  In  Jane Eyre,  the peculiar, old house with its malevolent atmosphere, the raving lunatic and Rochester s telepathic message to Jane, are all derivatives of the Gothic novel.  Jane Eyre is also a good example of how the interrogative texture of the Gothic works with regard to the supernatural and spiritual. Jane s refusal to compromise, her departure from Rochester and Thornfield after the encounter with Bertha, is virtually initiated by the mother as a ghost, in a beautiful Gothic scene:  1

I dreamt I lay in the red-room at Gateshead;  the gleam was such as the moon imparts to vapours she is about to sever.  I watched her come   watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk 

It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near it whispered in my heart. My daughter, flee temptation. Mother, I will.  

In this supernatural, nocturnal encounter, Jane Eyre  depicts the emotional dimension of the Gothic interrogative texture.  In other words, the generic Gothic excesses like horror and supernaturalism interact with the emotional aspect of Gothicism, by association with the realm of dream, desire and nightmare.  Here, Charlotte moves toward depth in ways that have an immediate impact like that of the Gothic.  Through Jane s strange, frightened yet symbolic state of mind, one witnesses Charlotte s flair for the surreal, in her plunging into feeling that is without status in the conformist world of the novel. 

Conformity and conventionality are a far cry from the origins that make Wuthering Heights  strike us as so unique, so unanticipated. This great novel, though not inordinately complicated, contrary to general assumption, manages to be a number of things: a romance that brilliantly challenges the basic presumptions of the "romantic"; a "Gothic" that evolves (with an absolutely inevitable grace) into its temperamental opposite; a parable of innocence and loss, and childhood's necessary defeat; and a work of consummate skill on its primary level, that is, the level of language.  Again we see the combination of the romantic and the Gothic, brought together superbly by Emily Bront in Wuthering Heights. There are many elements of the Gothic genre in the novel but Bront's treatment of Gothic concerns differs radically from her contemporaries.  Emily's novel operates through suggestion rather than overtly and sensationally inscribing the supernatural elements. Fantastic or supernatural events become acceptable in the novel because, for the most part, the text is grounded in reality and daily life. This is exposed in the setting of her novel, because in Wuthering Heights, Emily uses Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights to depict isolation and separation. The dark and foreboding environment described at the beginning of the novel foreshadows the gloomy atmosphere found in the remainder of the book. Wuthering Heights is an ancient mansion perched on a high ridge, overlooking a bled, windy, sparsely inhabited wasteland. The harsh, gloomy characteristics of the land are consequently reflected in the human characters, hence enhancing the deeper, darker feeling evident in her text. 

Dark and eerie landscapes are not reserved exclusively for the Bront  sisters though, as echoed in Mary Shelley's  Frankenstein.  Victor's country house near Geneva is described as isolated, dwarfed by massive, snow-capped mountain ranged and hunted by the emptiness of a calm lake. Victor also describes it as "an unusual tranquillity."  This effect of isolation and tranquillity generates a sublime mood in true Gothic convention.  Parallel to this in Wuthering Heights,  features the presence of the supernatural and throughout the novel, hallucinations and visions of Catherine and Heathcliff occur at moments of heightened emotion and passion. They have both endured illness and starvation prior to these psychological disturbances. Their emotional states are realised in shadowy figures by the consciousness of the character themselves. The highly passionate relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, forged in their embittered and savage childhood, has been variously interpreted: it is a doomed "Gothic" romance, whose depth of feeling makes the inane Lockwood and his narrative-mate Mrs. Dean appear all the more shallow.  These supernatural events happen in the beginning of the novel and continue until the very end.  In Chapter three, Lockwood is grabbed and pleaded to by Catherine's ghost through a window, and in the last chapter Ellen talks about people seeing the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine walking on the moors.  In between, Heathcliff tells Ellen about hearing Catherine sighing in the graveyard and sensing her nearby, and when he gives up his plans of revenge he even seems to see her ghost.  Ellen also sees Heathcliff as a goblin, and wonders if he is a vampire or a ghoul, although she realises that she is being silly. These themes and instances are tied to a spirituality and life-after-death theme present in the novel.  Hence, the idea of Wuthering Heights being a doomed Gothic romance is not wholly erroneous.

Despite indulging into the genre of Gothic romance with its customary touch of passion and  dark  emotion, we cannot ignore the Gothic influence, although it is clear that both Charlotte and Emily refine the technique considerably from the  authentic  Gothic of the 1790 s.  For example in Jane Eyre, we see the richness in the poetry, symbolism and metaphor, which marks it distinct from the definite pattern of previous Gothic novels.  It is neither a novel of  manners  in the tradition of Austen, nor a straightforward Gothic Romance in the style of Mrs Radcliffe.  Essentially, what Charlotte Bront  did was to create a work, which cleverly unifies elements of the two styles, and yet remains uniquely independent of them at the same time, since it addresses issues, which were at the time rather controversial.  Contextually, there was little freedom for middle-class women during the period of the Gothic novel, and this remained the case in the time of Charlotte.  Marriage especially was often considered to be a mere bargain, whereby fortunes were secured by using the female figure exploitatively.  However in Jane Eyre, Charlotte, and the characters she depicts, do not always conform to this conventionality.  In fact the novel exhibits a number of autobiographical elements and Jane is seen as a projection of Charlotte Bront herself, hence the element of controversy.  In illustrating this idea further, consider the way in which the heroine in Jane Eyre in fact undergoes the trials that the hero is habitually supposed to undergo in a Gothic romance.  Elements of this specific modern Gothic genre can be seen in Chapter 36 when we hear Jane say:
 
I recalled the voice I had heard; again I questioned whence it came, as vainly as before: it seemed in me - not in the external world.  I asked, was it a mere nervous impression which neither feared nor shook, but exulted as if in joy over the success of one effort it had been privileged to make, independent of the cumbrous body.  

These supernatural visions and experiences we see Jane discover a great inner-passion, whilst rehabilitate the extra-rational, moving deeper and deeper into the less known realities of human life.  The power of these private dreams and spectral visions manifest themselves in the protagonist as she moves through the novel.  

Spectral visitations and visions appear throughout Wuthering Heights, as they do in most other works of Gothic fiction, yet Emily Bront always presents them in such a way that whether they really exist remains ambiguous. Thus the world of the novel can always be interpreted as a realistic one, despite the clear Gothic undertones, which form the generic structure of Emily's novel.  Even certain ghosts, such as Catherine's spirit when it appears to Lockwood in Chapter three, may be explained as nightmares rather than bizarre or misinterpreted features of Gothicism. How one chooses to interpret these events however, remains a question for the individual, of which Emily Bront  poses no clear answer. A further example is the villagers' alleged sightings of Heathcliff's ghost in Chapter 34, which again could be dismissed as unverified superstition or nightmarish visions.  Whether or not these ghosts are "real," so to speak, they symbolize the manifestation of the past within the present, and the way memory stays eternally with people, permeating their day-to-day lives.   The point is that that in various ways Charlotte manages to make the patently Gothic more than a stereotype.   In doing so, she addresses  a new dimension of Gothic.  2

By initiating this new Gothic dimension into the mainstream of the literary world, sisters Charlotte and Emily aided in the modification of the Gothic  genre.  By doing so, they demanded of the reader a more mature and complicated response than the relatively simple thrill or momentary passion of feeling sought by primitive Gothic.  This intensity of feeling common to both novels enhanced the role played by dreams and the sheer fascination with the spiritual. Thus, Emily Bront's Wuthering Heights  is enriched with fresh details, transfigured by a sense of the supernatural and the extraordinary. The Gothic novel may also have exercised its influence on Emily in another way, by concealing the author s personality from the reader.  This is thanks to the use of an interpreter-narrator, allowing Emily to share in the illusion created but at the same time detaching herself from it.  Wuthering Heights can also be paralleled with the Gothic novel in the way that we find the same schematic simplification in the casting of characters.  On the one hand, sympathetic figures, victims of the  villain s  wickedness, and, on the other hand, a set of unappealing figures.  At the centre of her novel, Emily situates the dark character, a descendant of the traditional  traitor  who is positioned outside all social conventions, namely Heathcliff.  However he has this originality, which sets him apart from the archetypal  dark  figure I have hitherto discussed.  In keeping with the traditions of this genre, that the evil-doer should be distinguished in appearance, Heathcliff is physically tough and sober in his habits.  He tells Mrs Dean,  With my hard constitution and temperate mode of living, and unperilous occupations I ought to, and probably shall, remain above ground till there is scarcely a black hair on my head.  (Chapter 33)  Even closer to the  villain  of the Gothic novel is Mrs Dean's description of Heathcliff s appearance: 

Do you mark these lines between your eyes; and those thick eyebrows, that instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends so deeply buried who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil s spies? (chapter 7)

So it is the primacy of Emily's own creative imagination, so far as the use of ideas borrowed from various sources, which encourage us to place the influence of the Gothic novel.  Privacy of one s creative imagination and the fact that both Charlotte and Emily have experimented with the Gothic genre may reveal something about the nature and appeal of Gothicism In the first instance.

Undeniably but not unexpectedly, both the Bront  sisters were deeply influenced by and involved in the Gothic genre but their involvement with Gothicism did not end there.  Aside from utilising the Gothic romance genre, Charlotte and Emily gave a great deal back to the genre by introducing  new Gothicism  into the mainstream of English literature through the novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The influence of the Gothic had a profound effect on the Bront s because it was  seen as part of female culture and as a  woman's genre.  3  In the past, Gothic has been variously defined as  a literary exploitation of the avenues to death [F. Cudworth Flint] or as the essence of romanticism [Montague Summers] and romanticism was the literary expression of supernaturalism.  However, either way, the emergence of this new Gothic form permitted Charlotte and Emily to develop their talent the talent for discovering and giving dramatic form to impulses and feelings which, because of their depth or mysteriousness or intensity or ambiguity, raise wonderfully the sense of realism in both  Jane Eyre  and  Wuthering Heights.  For the sisters, the new Gothic genre was not, therefore, the reinvention of an old mode into a new form.  Hence, Charlotte and Emily's novels are not rebellions against Victorian social standards, as is believed by many critics.  Rather, they prove to be their way of transmuting Victorian ideals into a symbolic and emblematic form.  In studying such aspects of the Bront's literature as imagery, ideas of love and indeed Gothic stylistics, it is possible to observe  how most interpretations invariably return to the question of Charlotte and Emily's personal involvement in their novels.  [Ian Gregor.]  How far that is true remains to be seen.

 

23-Feb-2003
More by :  Alicia Mistry
 
Views: 1867
 
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