A darkened room and a secret passage, a beautiful heroine in a flowing nightgown, candles that go out and doors that mysteriously open are all trademarks of the gothic literature tradition. Dark and stormy nights where a young woman is trapped in an unfamiliar place with individuals who have nefarious purposes are the norm and unfortunately for a heroine in a gothic novel, it is unlikely that she will make it out of the story unscathed. So ingrained are the icons and stereotypes of the gothic tradition that they are still found in horror or suspense to this day, as well as those which parody the style. In works of gothic literature, there are characteristics which clearly classify the novels into the genre and without these trademark criterion, the novel cannot be claimed to be part of the gothic branch of literary works. Both Ann Radcliffe's The Italian and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey are stories which utilize the trademarks to tell a specific story, one of great suspense and intrigue in the former and one which serves to mock the characteristics of the gothic tradition in the latter.
Literature is a reflection of humanity, of human beings and the culture in which they live. Each period has a unique culture and this is indicated historically by the works of fiction which originated in that same historical era. There are certain themes in literature which is always present, the fear of death being one of the most common. Through the lens of an historical period, the understanding and perception of death can also be understood. Death appears frequently in gothic literature. Characters die from natural causes or are murdered or die mysteriously. Some stories have only a few deaths and some have bodies piled up quite high. Horror and the gothic were very popular during their time period and have maintained popularity since their publishing and this is because the fear of death is a universal one that spans time and place. People read stories about death and murder because they can live vicariously through the hero, or the heroine more commonly in the gothic tradition. Yet, when the story is over, no matter what has happened to the book's protagonist, the reader still sits in their chair. They have fought death alongside the heroine but have lived through the experience even if she was not so fortunate. Author Edmund Burke in the book A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful explains:
Most of the ideas which are capable of making a powerful impression on the mind, whether simply of pain or pleasure, or of the modifications of those, may be reduced very nearly to these two heads, self-preservation, and society; to the ends of one or the other of which all our passions are calculated to answer. The passions which concern self-preservation, turn mostly on pain or danger. The ideas of pain, sickness, and death, fill the mind with strong emotions of horror; but life and health, though they put us in a capacity of being affected with pleasure, make no such impression by the simple enjoyment. The passions therefore which are conversant about the preservation of the individual turn chiefly on pain and danger, and they are the most powerful of all the passions (I.Vi).
The sublime, the things in this world that we cannot understand like death and the afterlife are all intangible things which cannot be truly explained. Gothic fiction allows the reader to explore these mysteries without endangering the self. Burke makes the point that self-preservation is one of the most important aspects of human existence. People will go to any means in order to protect themselves and stay alive. Through gothic fiction, the reader can face the potential of death and either survive or die without actually putting themselves into the slightest bit of danger.
The Italian by author Ann Radcliff is an early example of a work in the gothic literary tradition. Written in the year 1797, the story shows all of the attributes which would become hallmarks of the gothic novel, including concealment of truths, hiding in darkened passageways, and heightened fearful emotions of the main character as she approaches the climax of the novel's narrative. The sense of foreboding and fear which is necessary for a story to be a gothic work begins in The Italian at the very start of the story. An Englishman approaches an Italian friar and inquires about the man hiding himself in a dark passage, visible but obviously trying to be secretive about himself and his intentions which is logical when the Englishmen and the reader learn that the man is an assassin who has killed others. Radcliffe writes, "They perceived the person who had appeared upon the steps, passing towards a confessional on the left, and, as he entered it, one of the party pointed him out to the friar and enquired who he was" (8-9). Concealment and hidden truths are a major part of the gothic tradition. Literary critic Elizabeth Broadwell says:
In all her novels Ann Radcliffe capitalizes on the typically Gothic theme of concealment and revelation. Placed in a "physical setting which corresponds to an aroused emotional state," Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines wind their way through the secret passageways and labyrinths of Gothic castles laden with mysterious persons, and they eventually gain their freedom only after all the mysteries and hidden identities have been resolved (76).
The reasons behind his action and his presence in the monastery are highly mysterious and set the tone for the rest of the novel. Had Radcliffe chosen to tell the story chronologically, the image of a man of death would not be influential on the reader's interpretation of the plot elements. By including the framing device, the author forces the reader to understand that somehow murder and death will be involved in the story and to anticipate its occurrence throughout their reading. The Englishmen is never referenced again; the novel ends with the characters presented in the letter to the Englishmen, proving that his only function is to distance the reader chronologically from the events and to introduce the character of the mysterious assassin, a character that is also never fully explored or exposed.
Mysteriousness and uncertainty about identity is a key part of the story's narrative and continues when the protagonist Vincentio di Vivaldi comes across a monk who warns him away from a certain location. The monk is otherworldly in his warnings, predicting danger if the young man violates his word and continues on his quest to find his beloved. He is revealed in the end of the novel to be not the evil Father Schedoni whose crimes are only hinted at until the end of the story, but a good man trying to help. When they meet the monk, Vivaldi and his followers find him extremely odd and therefore part of the intangible world of curiosity and the sublime. The narrator says, "As he emerged from the dark arch of a ruin, that extended over the road, his steps were crossed by a person in the habit of a monk, whose face was shrouded by his cowl, still more than by the twilight" (Radcliffe 21). Vivaldi's impression of the mysterious monk is to label him as a person who everyone suspects to be wicked although they have yet to pinpoint exactly what it is that he has done wrong. Suspicious and mysterious acts like sneaking about and giving ominous warnings
The heroine is an integral component of the gothic literary genre. In The Italian, there is an extremely beautiful young woman named Ellena di Rosalba. Ellena is beloved by Vincentio di Vivaldi, but instead of welcoming the union, Vincentio's mother conspires to have the young woman kidnapped to prevent a marriage from taking place. Ellena's virtues are many as explained when Radcliffe says, "Ellena was the sole support of her aunt's declining years; was the sole support of her aunt's declining years; was patient to her infirmities, and consoling to her sufferings; and repaid the fondness of a mother with the affection of a daughter" (12-13). In order to be a heroine of a gothic novel, there are characteristics which a woman must embody. She must be virtuous and kind, never sinful or salacious in her attitudes and always virginal. This is of paramount importance because the peril in which she will be put must threaten her maidenhood as well as her life, with the loss of her virginity being potentially more terrifying than the likelihood of being murdered.
Murder is a common quantity in gothic literature and in The Italian, many people are intent on killing Ellena in order to prevent her union with Vivaldi once mere kidnapping proves to be an inefficient means of keeping the two lovers apart. She is to be killed by the murderer Spalatro but that does not happen and instead Father Schedoni comes to the seaside house in which…