The construct of otherness is represented in Gothic fiction in three primary ways: (1) An underlying emphasis on the supernatural is a strong platform to presenting a sense of the other to readers. (2) Moreover, women are portrayed in a manner that characterizes them as being very different from men. (3) The behavior of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves and put themselves is profoundly different from the quotidian experiences of the readers, thereby imparting a separation between fiction and real life that comfortably maintains the characters in some kind of otherland.
The "Otherness" of the Supernatural
With his 1764 writing of the novel The Castle of Otranto, Horace Wapole is said to have invented the Gothic novel genre -- a classification that relies heavily on representation of the supernatural. In the minds of contemporary readers, supernatural being are closely associated with elements of physical and psychological terror. The media today has spun out a broad assortment of ghost stories, haunted house television shows, and mystery theatre. The gothic novel, in its original form and in the contemporary form of the popular vampire books and movies -- depend on a pleasant (or not so pleasant, as the case may be) juxtaposition of terror and romance.
The old romance novels -- with their emphasis of magic, fantasy, and the supernatural -- were simply too unbelievable. In the 18th century, the new form of romance novel was intended as realistic depiction of people, situations, and events as they were in real life. Walpole believed he was creating a new genre that combined old and new approaches to writing romantic fiction. He attempted to balance his reliance on fantastical situations heavily overlaid with the supernatural, such as portraits that walk about and helmets that fall from the sky, by placing characters he intended to be seen as ordinary -- real, not endowed with supernatural powers -- into these scenarios. The conceit of putting real people in mysterious situations is a staple in contemporary fiction. Wapole may have adopted his approach to legitimize the story, particularly since romantic fiction was viewed during his time as a debased form. Walpole's protagonists were created with the idea of making them more accessible to the reader -- they were wholly recognizable despite their proclivity for behaving melodramatically.
With a normalized set of characters in The Castle of Otranto, Walpole was free to introduce elaborate set-pieces -- which would ultimately become classic examples of Gothic fiction. The seemingly ordinary characters encountered all manner of mysterious happenings and strange sounds -- the creak of a door opening by itself, some noise leading to a mysterious passage -- and the ever-present vulnerable maiden fleeing some villainous and often licentiously malevolent male figure. For instance, the story The Castle of Otranto begins when Conrad's death occurs when an enormous helmet falls on him and crushes him. This is not perceived as an accident, bur instead is considered to be an ominous portend -- a harbinger of many bad things to come for the family residing in the Castle of Otranto.
In Matthew Gregory Lewis' Gothic novel, The Monk, a variety of supernatural apparitions reveal themselves, however, only one apparition appears to be benevolent -- Elvira's ghost. Antonia's mother's ghost visits her daughter to warn of her impending death, saying, "yet three days, and we shall meet again!" This pivotal point in the plot is the catalyst for a chain of events that does culminate in the death of Antonia, thereby fulfilling the prophesy of Elvira's ghost.
A frame story in The Monk about the triangle between Raymond, Agnes, and the Baroness is transformed when it turns out that the disguise that Agnes assumes -- the bleeding nun -- actually is the bleeding nun, an ancestor who must be buried by Raymond to release her from her hauntings. Agnes, meanwhile, has retired to the convent where she assumes yet another disguise as a gardener residing and working at the convent. Agnes exhibits as much trickery as a witch, changing forms as it pleases and serves her. Time and again, Raymond is easily deceived by women, but he finally prevails (in a manner that men tend to consider an indicator of some level of finality and domination), and overcomes Agnes, an act that brings him her complete rejection.
In the story The Monk, Matilda calls on her supernatural powers and performs a ritual in the cemetery that rids her body of the poison she acquired while saving Ambrosio. From Ambrosio's POV, there is much shaking of the ground and flashes of light, to which he appear not to attribute much significance -- which is probably a major oversight as he quickly develops a wandering eye, leaving Matilda to question her sacrifices.
The "Otherness" of Women
Walpole's second fiction -- he wrote only two -- The Mysterious Mother was published in 1792 and was later adapted for the stage. Fundamentally, the story is bout incest -- of the sort that Greek writers of tragedy would have found intriguing -- and the play created the requisite upon its opening. The feminine "other" in this story is radically marginalized by a pair of less than honest priests who threaten blackmail. Edmund says it all when he implores, "Art thou, or not, a mother?" In The Monk, the frame story told by the character Raymond about Margarite and Baptiste is another example of Lewis' portrayal of women as deceivers and beings that are at once both good and evil. Clearly, Walpole and Lewis categorize women in a manner that has eternally perplexed men: Good and bad, licentious or pure, mother or other.
In The Monk, Ambrosio learns that his trusted companion Rosario is really a woman named Matilda who has concealed her identity so that she can be close to Ambrosio. Matilda agrees to leave the monastery, but having saved Ambrosio from a poisoning prick of a rose thorn, she is about to die. Ambrosia caves in to her deathbed request for him to make love to her, an idea he cannot refuse when he learns that Matilda is the model for the painting of the Virgin Mary that he adores. The moral tension that is generated by thinking that categorizes women, particularly in a manner that results in sexualized women being evil temptresses, is evident for poor doomed Ambrosio. The protagonist's inability to withstand temptation that is held out to him by the other -- a man who is a really a woman -- is a harbinger of things to come.
The overarching theme with regard to the position of women in The Monk is that women who seek their own pleasure or question their social role, and consequently, their destiny will fail in their efforts to improve their lives. Clearly, such themes are a manifestation of the double standard so blatantly prevalent at the time when Lewis and Wapole penned their works.
The "Otherness" of the Characterization
Upon reading The Monk: A Romance, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, one wonders about the fantasying of an overwrought, sexually oppressed, young man who was chronologically, and perhaps mentally, still in adolescence -- Lewis wrote this Gothic novel in the span of 10 weeks, just before his 20th birthday. The Monk wanders from the path taken by most morality tales of the period, as it does not maintain the typical balance between virtue and vice, and evil forces are permitted to dominate. Ambrosio is doomed by his congenital propensity to not confront evil even as he observes it in himself. It is the worse kind of sin for Victorians who would be more forgiving -- based on Biblical examples -- of someone who sinned, but was ignorant of the sin. To Matilda, Ambrosia insists that "the consequences [of witchcraft] are too horrible: I…am not so blinded by lust as to sacrifice for her enjoyment my existence both in this world and the next." Yet, Ambrosia holds to the notion that he can repent at any time, until finally he is overwhelmed by the physical presence and power of the demons he encounters.
The horrors that unfold in The Monk are intended to explicate the ethics of the author, and to unequivocally demonstrate that the behavior of the protagonist brings about the conditions he or she experiences. The "otherness" of the protagonists is inevitably wrapped in a cloak of poor choices, the likes of which the reader of a morality tale has difficulty envisioning for himself or herself. That is, the choices that are made -- or that could be made -- are so abysmal that they do not resonate with reader, particularly since a likeable protagonist is necessary for the reader to care about the story. It is in those morality tales where the protagonist resolutely resists temptation and defies the evil powers of the supernatural, or the naturally villainous, that the reader can identify with the protagonist. Lewis' The Monk does not…