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.

Early interplay between Orientalism and the Gothic culminated in William Beckford’s 1782 novel Vathek. Subtitled “An Arabian Tale,” the novel was inspired by The Arabian Nights, which had been translated into English at the beginning of the century and helped to fuel England’s obsession with exotic stories of foreign lands. Vathek‘s titular character is a fictionalized version of the historical Islamic caliph, al-Wathiq. In the novel, Caliph Vathek is lured by an Indian merchant called “the Giaour” to commit atrocities in pursuit of supernatural power.

The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan by Eugène Delacroix (1826)

Beckford’s novel inspired the Romantic poet Lord Byron to pen his popular poem “The Giaour” in 1813. This fragmentary narrative poem is the first of Byron’s four “Turkish Tales,” which helped to bring Orientalism into the Romantic movement. “The Giaour” depicts a love triangle between an Ottoman lord, a member of his harem, and another man simply called “the Giaour”—a derogatory Turkish word for non-Muslims, especially Christians. The story explores the differences in religion between the two men, and how these affect their views on love, sex, and death. The poem is also significant for its early mention of vampires, several years before Byron’s friend John Polidori wrote his short story “The Vampyre” which brought these creatures to public attention.

Orientalism peaked again in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the British Empire expanded to include India and other parts of Asia. One popular novel of this era was Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which I discussed before in my post on detective fiction and the gothic. Known as the first modern detective novel, The Moonstone centers on the theft of a precious stone from a young English woman during her birthday celebration. The moonstone in question is a large gem from India that was stolen from a Hindu temple. The plot suggests that the moonstone curses those who possess it with ill fortune until it is returned to the temple where it belongs. The novel shows some self-awareness of the genre and is even somewhat critical of English colonialism, drawing comparisons between the oppression of women and the oppression of colonized peoples. The three Indian characters that appear in the novel are at first easy scapegoats for the crime, but they turn out to be red herrings and the real villain is an Englishman. Nonetheless, The Moonstone still paints the East as a place where dangerous and mysterious magic can be found.

The craze for Orientalism began to ebb at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it still found its way into a few works in the gothic tradition. W. W. Jacob’s classic 1902 horror story “The Monkey’s Paw”—much like Collins’ novel—features a cursed object brought back to Britain from India: in this case, a wish-granting mummified paw that was given its magical properties by an old fakir. Crime fiction author Sax Rohmer played up anti-Chinese sentiments throughout the first half of the century with his many novels featuring the evil Dr. Fu Manchu.

I could go on, but I think the examples I’ve discussed here are enough to show that imperialism and an ethnocentric view of foreign cultures, especially of the East, are deeply entwined with the gothic tradition. The genre relies on depictions of the Other, the taboo, the unknown, and the exotic to create its signature atmosphere of terror and unease. For many gothic writers, the lands of China, India, and the Middle East were the perfect places to locate these characteristics. The trope is problematic for a number of reasons, and its inclusion in centuries worth of popular literature helped to feed stereotypes and misconceptions about these cultures. Gothic writers today have an obligation to learn how to participate in the gothic tradition without perpetuating its worst aspects.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What other tropes would you like to see me discuss? Please let me know in the comments!

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