Gothic Tropes: Madness

Madness is the monster that lurks inside our own minds. And in some ways, it is the most terrifying monster of all. Its intangibility means that it cannot be fought, and its irrational nature makes it nearly impossible to understand. Perhaps this is why insanity crops up as one of the most common themes in Gothic literature. I present it in this post as one trope, but madness is explored in many different ways in both the victims and the villains of Gothic literature, and the way it is presented has changed over time.

Madness in early Gothic literature tends to be depicted in connection with the moral failings of the antagonist. In Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), the titular clergyman is described as being “worked up to madness” right before he murders a woman. His madness is usually mentioned in conjunction with his rage or lust, and it motivates him to perform acts of violence he never would have considered before. Madness also comes up repeatedly in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), with Melmoth seeming to spread it wherever he goes.

But Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the author most responsible for making madness an integral aspect of the gothic genre. Poe seeks to explore the inner workings of the mind, and to take the reader along for the ride when those workings begin to rot and crumble. One of the best examples of this is Poe’s 1843 short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The story begins with the first-person narrator insisting on his own sanity, saying things like, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” By approaching madness from a first-person perspective, Poe is able to give the reader and up-close view of its horrors while blurring the line between victim and villain.

H. P. Lovecraft builds on Poe’s tradition of mad narrators. Almost all of his short stories end with the protagonist slowly devolving into insanity as he discovers horrors beyond his comprehension. One of Lovecraft’s biggest contributions to the genre is the invention of Arkham Sanitarium, which appears in his 1937 short story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The story begins with the narrator, Daniel Upton, acknowledging that many will think him mad after he came to the sanitarium and shot his friend who had been residing there. But to prove his sanity, Upton lays out his evidence for believing that his friend was possessed. Lovecraft’s fictional sanitarium inspired the Arkham Asylum of the Batman comics and has served as one of the prototypes for what has become one of the core settings of the modern horror genre.

Let me back up a century for a second to address the more specific trope of women and madness. During the Victorian era, madness, especially in the form of “hysteria,” was a malady associated mostly with women, since many believed that women had weaker minds and were less capable of rational thought. Several female authors, however, turned this trope around and used madness to represent the devastating effects of societal repression on women. One of the most iconic examples of this is the character of Berthe Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In the novel, Bertha Mason is Mr. Rochester’s first wife, a Jamaican of Creole heritage whom he locks in the attic due to her violent insanity. In 1979, a pair of feminist scholars, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, published a book called The Madwoman in the Attic, in which they use the character of Bertha Mason to illustrate how female writers work through their struggles with stereotyped views of women as either “angels” or “monsters” in their writing. Charlotte Perkins Gilman addresses the issue of women and madness more directly in her 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In this early example of horror literature, the unnamed female protagonist is driven mad by her boredom with the life she is limited to as a woman. Unable to have a fulfilling life outside the house like her husband, she instead confines herself to one room and becomes obsessed with its patterned wallpaper, convinced that there are women trapped inside that she must free.

Two weeks ago, I reviewed Emilie Autumn’s The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, which combines several of these aspects of the classic madness trope. As in Lovecraft’s story, Emily Autumn’s tale features an asylum as its central setting, complete with a number of inmates who have been wrongfully committed. And like Brontë and Gilman, Emilie Autumn explores that specific overlap in which madness is both the attributed cause and the effect of women’s subjugation.

What other examples of madness in Gothic literature can you think of? And what other tropes would you like to see me discuss? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Gothic Tropes: The Evil, Exotic East

As Gothic fiction rose to prominence during the height of British imperialism, it should come as no surprise that both fear of and fascination with foreign cultures would seep into the literature of this time period. Orientalism was pretty entrenched in all genres of English literature during this era, but the significance of the Other made it especially appealing to writers of Gothic fiction. The Other is a person whose identity can be defined in opposition to the Self, and is thus a convenient target on which to project fears, taboos, and other unknowns. In this case, the inhabitants of the East (Turks, Arabs, Indians, the Chinese, and others in between) differed from the average English reader in race, in culture, and often also in religion. Set among these differences, unspeakable evil, unknowable magic, and improbable events gained more weight and credulity. What might seem unbelievable in England could very well take place in a faraway land with strange people. In this way, cursed Indian treasures, tyrannical Arabian leaders, and mysterious Eastern mystics became staples of the Gothic genre.

Odalisque with Slave by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. This painting was inspired by descriptions of a harem in the letters of eighteenth-century writer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

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Gothic Tropes: The Doppelganger

The doppelganger, German for “double-goer,” is a literal or symbolic double set in opposition to one of the characters of the story. This theme has appeared in literature for centuries, but is especially popular in works of Gothic fiction. Though, in the most literal sense, a doppelganger is a fellow human being who bears a striking physical resemblance to another character, in these stories, supernatural or imagined doubles with symbolic significance, or sometimes even different aspects of the same person, can be considered doppelgangers. The idea of a doppelganger or alter ego allows for an exploration of human duality. The doppelganger is both duplicate and opposite, showing how opposing forces can exist in one being and forcing us to confront our divided selves.

Two of the many, many doppelgangers in the popular TV show, The Vampire Diaries.
Two of the many, many doppelgangers in the popular TV show, The Vampire Diaries.

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Gothic Tropes: Absent Mothers—A Mother’s Day Post

As many of you know, Mother’s Day in the United States is this upcoming Sunday. (If you didn’t know, there’s still plenty of time to buy a card!) I wanted to do a post about mothers in Gothic lit, but I realized…there aren’t many. One of the most prolific tropes of the Gothic genre is the absence of mothers.

Shout out to my awesome mom, who let me goth her up for Halloween!
Shout out to my awesome mom, who let me goth her up for Halloween this year!

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Gothic Tropes: The Creepy Housekeeper

It goes without saying that one of the defining characteristics of Gothic fiction is a creepy setting—a castle falling into ruin, a haunted manor, or some mist-covered moors. But what’s a creepy setting without some creepy inhabitants? One of the most iconic of these, particularly in mansions and manors, is the creepy housekeeper. The creepy housekeeper is usually an older woman with personal ties to the manor itself or its previous inhabitants. Her primary role is generally to make the young female protagonist feel anxious and out of place as a newcomer and to provide either threats or warnings of danger.

Mrs Danvers screetshot 1
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers looms behind the nameless narrator in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

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Horror vs. Terror and the Gender Divide in Gothic Literature

Horror. Terror. They’re synonyms, right? Actually, they’re similar, but their meanings are slightly different, especially in the world of Gothic literature. In fact the terms represent two different schools of thought that early writers of Gothic literature divided themselves along. And at the beginning, this division occurred loosely along gender lines, as Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe were held up as the representatives of each camp.

Radcliffe and Lewis
Ann Radcliffe (Terror) and Mattlew Lewis (Horror)

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Gothic Tropes: The Unreliable Narrator

This is one of my favorite gothic tropes. Often used in horror or mystery, an unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator of a story whose words the reader is not meant to take at face value. The narrator may be deliberately lying or their words may be influenced by unconscious bias or delusions. In the case of gothic fiction, it is most often this last reason that causes many narrators to be considered unreliable. Continue reading Gothic Tropes: The Unreliable Narrator