Gothic Literature in 18th Century England Essay

  • Length: 10 pages
  • Sources: 8
  • Subject: Literature
  • Type: Essay
  • Paper: #83808044

Excerpt from Essay :

Relationship of "The Old English Baron" and "Vathek" to 18th Century English Gothic Fiction

The rise of Gothic fiction in English literature coincided with the advent of the Romantic Era at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century. Gothic masterpieces such as Shelley's Frankenstein, Lewis's The Monk, and Stoker's Dracula would capture the imagination by fueling it with the flames of horror, suspense, other-worldliness and mystery. These elements are significant because the Age of Enlightenment had been characterized by a cold, objective, analytical focus on nature and humankind. It had been based on the concept that reason was sufficient to explain all events in the world and in fact all creation. Yet as Shakespeare's Hamlet reminded readers, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Shakespeare 1.5.167-168). Part of this interest in the Gothic was inspired by tales from the Orient, which serves as the subject of Beckford's "Vathek." Another part of this interest was a reaction to the Puritanism of the times: the Gothic genre represented the mystery of iniquity and sin that lurked just below the surface of people and events, simultaneously attracting and repulsing them -- urging them to look and yet frightening them into wanting to run. This paper will relate Beckford's Vathek and Reeve's "The Old English Baron" to the early development of the 18th century English Gothic fiction and show how the two represent these two strains.

"Vathek" is a story of supposedly Arabian origin. Its Orientalism roots it in the same kind of mystery and otherworldliness as Bronte's Jane Eyre (the latter's mad woman locked in the attic, a common gothic motif or trope, conveys elements of Orientalism -- as does the "gypsy" who shows up at the Hall to read everyone's fortune) (Zonana 592; Bardi 31). "The Old English Baron" is a story that takes the gothic elements of "The Castle of Otranto" and provides a more realistic take on them, as was Reeve's intention (Bartolomeo 100). In both cases, there is a desire on the part of the gothic writer to set the tale in a setting that is at least somewhat realistic. It is in fact the mixture of realism and the fantastic that gives the gothic genre its inherent power to thrill. Were it wholly fantastic, its allure would not be as powerful: the charms would be obvious and the suspension of disbelief required for maintenance of one's attention too great.

However, by placing the realms of the fantastic squarely in reality (Stoker does so with Dracula -- bringing the demonic presence home to London), the reader is given the sense that the horror, the supernatural, the shock of murder, obsession, envy, sin, guilty and revenge could all be found just below the surface of real life if one were so inclined to look. "The Old English Baron" is certainly an attempt to illustrate that fact -- since Reeve felt that "Otranto" had gone too far in its fantastical elements: "the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost verge of probability, the effect had been preserved, without losing the least circumstance that excites or detains the attention" (Bartolomeo 100). This admission by Reeve that the point of the gothic is to excite indicates that the reading audiences of the late 18th century had grown tired of the rational, realistic epistolary works of popular fiction and now wanted something that spoke of those more sinister urges that were not spoken of in polite society. The Age of Enlightenment had, in other words, had its fill of reason and now wanted to remember what it meant to feel something. The gothic was
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giving rise to Romance and attacking the ideology of Puritanism at the same time.

In spite of Reeve's claim that the gothic genre should be more rooted in reality than Walpole made it seem in "Otronto," the text of "Vathek" begins with an almost exaggerated sense of the power of the main character (namely his wrath) -- to the point that the reader may feel compelled to think that the narrative is in line with a Tall Tale. For example, Vathek's angry eye is described as being "so terrible, that no person could be to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed, instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger" (Beckford 29). The humorous manner in which Beckford concludes his description indicates that the gothic author was not averse to providing the reader of the genre a sense of fun. Indeed, the gothic was designed to give pleasure in a way that the early 18th century English literature did not: it focused more on the sensational, emotional, and imagination-rousing ability of words that could create whole new worlds within the here and now. Vathek's origin in the Orient, however, does what Stoker achieves in Dracula -- the bridging of settings (one local and one foreign). While Vathek is set entirely in the Middle East (Turkey), the fact that it is being read in English is enough for the reader to feel transported and yet localized within his own region. The story itself is a window into another world: unlike Reeve's "Old English Baron," however, it has no business actually being set in England.

The exaggerated nature of the gothic genre that Walpole launched is instinctively picked up on by Beckford, as everything about Vathek is an exaggeration: he has not one palace but five -- each dedicated to one of the five senses and the pleasures that can be obtained by them. This obsession with pleasure and feeling is a dominant part of the gothic as well, pushing so against the grain of Enlightenment ideology (which emphasized the brain and the mind over feeling). For Vathek, it is not enough to be sensually gratified, however; he also wants to be enlightened and thus pursues scientific aims -- especially those that concern the mysteries of the universe (which is why he builds a tower so that he can study astrology). Vathek, in this sense, is a carbon copy of what Europeans since Galileo were doing all throughout the Enlightenment -- studying science, nature, and even dabbling in alchemy. Vathek is in a way the embodiment or representation of Enlightenment man, cast in the mold of a caliph (an Oriental) so as to seem mysterious and foreign -- yet really no different from any modern man (contemporary of Beckford) who put on a veneer of science and learning but underneath had all the same impulses, urges, desires, and cravings that every human creature has as a result of the what the medieval world called Original Sin (Laux 47). That the Age of Science and the Age of the Enlightenment rejected the concept of sin to a large degree (adopting a more naturalist take on reality) could explain why readers turned to gothic fiction: this genre gave them the "sin" that they were denied by the Enlightenment rationalist philosophers (Jones 187). If the medieval world was cut off from them practically speaking, at least they could get in gothic fiction and thereby find a reflection of the real reality that they felt and knew existed in spite of the propriety, manners, and rational discourse of the 18th century. In gothic fiction, the English reader could identify himself and the true nature of reality -- even if the texts themselves contained exaggerated forms and figures.

Cementing these exaggerated or grotesque figures in reality was important for Reeve for this very point: it allowed her to make sense of the themes and concepts she was exploring in…

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