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Gothic and Modernism

Essaying Dark Literary Modernity


Edited by John Paul Riquelme


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

Paperback. viii+236 p. ISBN 978-0801888656. $25.00


Reviewed by Christine Berthin

Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense



Gothic and Modernism is more than just the re-publication of articles previously published in a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies (46.3, Fall 2000). It is a book in its own right with a central argument and internal logic. This is made explicit firstly by the addition of two essays that extend the chronological—and thus conceptual—range of the Gothic from Frankenstein to Xenogenesis, and secondly by the addition of the revised introduction that ties in all the texts under scrutiny around two questions: to what extent has history become Gothic, and to what extent has the notion of “human” correlatively evolved with this gothicisation of history. The subtitle of the volume, “Essaying Dark Literary Modernity”, is crucial to the understanding of the project. The common denominator behind all the texts evoked, convoked and analysed in Gothic Modernism is a dark and Gothic conception of history in which the past conditions the present and in which there is no escaping the laws of genealogy, legacy and repetition. The essays collected in the book all show how, to a certain extent, “modernism receives and re-signifies a characteristically Gothic temporality” [208] of imminent catastrophe and endless repetition.

The darkness of history anticipated in Gothic fiction comes to fruition in modern writing since “modern literature projects global and postcolonial implications not yet available to Shelley, Collins, Stoker and Woolf” [3]. Although Gothic and Modernism addresses an atypical and sometimes eclectic canon of modern texts and confronts them with the most canonical texts of the Gothic tradition, the essays all share a common method: they are all “hunting for intertextual haunting” [177], and the texts under scrutiny all become “bodies possessed by the spirit of ancestor texts" [177]. Pater haunts Wilde, Radcliffean Gothic inhabits Jude the Obscure and Dracula is a ghostly figure at the heart of Beckett’s work. But the purpose is not simply to explore the relevance of the Gothic to modern literature and in particular modernist texts. It is to identify and track down the core of darkness in our modernity.

The collection begins with three essays that anchor the notion of modern Gothic in the 1890s. The 1890s are seen as the turning point for the formation of modernism in Britain via the Gothic tradition. Riquelme sees The Picture of Dorian Gray as a seminal text, which plays with the myth of Echo and Narcissus to undermine clear-cut definitions of realism and destabilise the reader’s positioning between life and art. He shows how Wilde anticipates “the mythical method”, which for TS Eliot was a defining element of modernism, to challenge Pater’s late Romanticism and carry its implications to their limits. Valente’s reading of the Gothic doubleness of “The Dualists” offers revisionary insight into the Anglo-Protestant literary heritage of Dracula. Less a Victorian elaboration on ethno-national anxieties and fears of degeneration, Dracula is thus perceived as an “incipiently modernist” text “engaging with the identitarian mindset” [48] and questioning the desirability of the law of “pure” identity. O’Malley’s reading of Jude the Obscure through the prism of Northanger Abbey on the contrary “rewrites Hardy to some extent back into the nineteenth century rather than see him as the harbinger of modernism” [61]. The Gothic moment of “unreality” in the discovery of the children’s corpses in the closet in Hardy’s novel thus becomes central to the vision of the sexually and religiously oppressive forces of England at the end of the nineteenth century. But unlike Radcliffean heroes, Hardy’s protagonists cannot escape the Gothic as a purely foreign experience: with Jude the Obscure, the Gothic “has come home to England” never to leave again.

The next three essays focus on the way the Gothic tradition has been transported and displaced across the Atlantic in popular fiction. Kollin’s essay on Dorothy Scarborough’s anti-Western The Wind shows how the text “uses the Gothic to uncover the suppressed histories of the American West (a past involving racial hatreds and territorial conquest, land theft and displacement)” [97] and thus “becomes a shadowy reminder of what the classic Western prefers to keep hidden” [98]. In his essay on The Big Sleep, Rzepka explores the transformation of a traditional male Gothic narrative like The Monk into American detective fiction and the transformation of the knightly figure of the cowboy of the Western, a double of the Gothic hero, into the Gothic urban hard-boiled private eye who ultimately becomes a figure of redemption. Ruth Helyer shows how the Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho represents an extreme development of Gothic horror yet a potentiality inherent in the genre.

The next section of the book identifies language as the ultimate hiding place of the Gothic. Penny Fielding’s insightful essay on the library as the site of modernity where regulating social reading practices and habits of collecting and cataloguing harbour “Book-Ghouls” clearly shows that “language itself, not surprisingly, turns out to be the most fatal collection of them all” [165]. A sense of the failure of the system of representation pervades all Beckett’s late texts and in particular his openly Gothic Ill Seen, Ill Said. Identifying a Beckettian Gothic, Graham Fraser shows how the tropes of the ghost stories are stripped of their emotional energy in minimalist arrangements that uncover a self-consuming melancholy at the heart of Beckett’s work.

The concluding essays focus on technological changes and the nightmare of contemporary history. John Paul Riquelme and Theodora Goss show how the struggle for emergence of the posthuman in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis could potentially be “the successful coming into being of a postcolonial national identity in which mutuality displaces the antagonism that accompanies ostensible monstrosity” [184], thus rewriting the dark vision of the world displayed in Frankenstein. Paul K Saint Amour’s identifies as the core of the Gothic a temporality of permanent imminence that “becomes a condition and feature of the present, producing effects in advance of an event that may or may not come”[210]. In the Atomic Age and the age of massive destruction, the “always-about-to happen” has become our condition rather than a momentary interlude.

Gothic and Modernism is an important book because it does not simply read modern fiction through the dark lens of a Gothic prism or present Gothic texts as precursors of texts to come. The book is an invitation to redefine the Gothic and to question what constitute the modern. Reshuffling conceptual and temporal borders, it also asks of its readers that they confront the dark corners of their modernity and that they look again at their political and cultural options. In the imminent future of our modernity, what will “human” really mean?


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