The Gothic: Enlightenment’s Shadow

As much as I love digging through the history of the Gothic, 50 000 words quickly became a too tiny space in which to explore even the shallowest representation of its beginnings. Consequently, I’ve had to cut broad swathes of text from my thesis on Neo-Gothic fiction, and where better to use what literally elicited blood, sweat and tears than on my blog? I’m thus hoping (thesis-allowing) to post a couple of introductory excavations into the history and development of Gothic fiction as I explored it for my thesis. This second post gives some indication of the world into which the Gothic was ‘born’ or, more aptly, resurrected.

Photo by  Mendhak: No alterations were made.
Photo by Mendhak: No alterations were made.

The Gothic beast was not brought into a world friendly to its existence. This world was bright, ostensibly reasonable and didn’t like things born of darkness and mystery. However, it was perhaps because of the bright light shone by the Enlightenment that the Gothic found shadows deep enough to accommodate its resurrection. Without the Enlightenment’s stark focus on reason as the prime human faculty and its Neoclassical focus on harmony and balance in art and literature, the Gothic might not have found those resistant humans amenable to its revival as an alternative manner of expression. As Fred Botting asserts, “[t]he Enlightenment, which produced the maxims and models of modern culture, also invented the Gothic” (“In Gothic Darkly” 13).

The Enlightenment is commonly known as the ‘Age of Reason’ that developed in Western Europe during the seventeenth century and reached its apex in the eighteenth century (Abrams and Harpham 96). Based initially on the teachings of French thinkers Diderot and Voltaire, the Enlightenment eschewed reliance on faith, religion and superstition, and promoted reason as the faculty that can know and conquer all (Punter 23). Two of its principle aims were the use of reason and science to uncover universal truths and the perfection of humanity as a logical, reasoned species. Positivism and empirical observation were employed to encompass the world in a system of knowledge that left no room for other, messier human faculties like the imagination, passion or emotion. For this reason, the object of Enlightenment works of art and literature was “to instruct rather than entertain, to inculcate a sense of morality and rational understanding and thus educate readers in the discrimination of virtue and vice” (Botting, Gothic 14). As Emma Clery often asserts, the motto of the Enlightenment in the face of superstition or the supernatural would be Horace’s incredulous odi: that which I cannot believe, disgusts me (22). Therefore, that which cannot be brought to heel under the scrutiny of a reasonable mind was abjected and transformed into an Other.

‘The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp ‘ by Rembrandt. This image illustrates the ‘Age of Observation’, which entailed studying everything from a positivist perspective in order to establish universal ‘rules’. Image via Wikipedia.

In terms of art and fiction, this period came to be referred to as the Neoclassical or Augustan age. Poets and authors like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson saw themselves as living in a ‘silver age’ akin to the Augustan period of the Roman empire – an era that was on the verge of devolving into a ‘barbarian’ bronze age (Punter 27). In this view, artists and writers carried the responsibility to “maintain the defensive fires of culture” against the “barbarians at the gate” (Punter 27). Neoclassical authors sought to replicate the structures, rules and concerns of classical writing, and strove towards “their ideals of moderation, decorum and urbanity” (Abrams and Harpham 254). As Punter explains, “reason was again the dominant mental faculty, and was the main barricade against invasion and the death of civilisation” (28).

This drive resulted in an increasing focus on realism and mimesis, and prose forms consequently underwent a dramatic change during the eighteenth century (Punter 20). Before this, prose fictions were defined under terms like histories, memoirs, or romances and the prose romance was a particularly well-developed genre (Punter 20). However, the works of such authors as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding marked “the abandonment of the fanciful in the name of a realistic depiction of contemporary life” (Punter 20). Where poetry aspired to the lofty ideals found in classical writing, prose had the freedom of focusing on the individual and his or her place in society. The shift away from the prose romance – a genre that involved chivalric narratives set in the past and that focused on stories of adventure and the supernatural – reflected the Enlightenment’s focus on the faculty of reason, the necessity of composure and the abjection of threats to the march of progress.

An engraving for the frontispiece of the 1772 Encyclopedie, featuring Truth and her adoring fans and the slogan “If there is something you know, communicate it. If there is something you don’t know, search for it.” Words to live by.

Set against these strictures of reason and balance, the Gothic presented an avenue for expression that allowed for fancy, the marvellous and the supernatural. Botting explains:

“In Gothic productions imagination and emotional effects exceed reason. Passion, excitement and sensation transgress social proprieties and moral laws. Ambivalence and uncertainty obscure single meaning. Drawing on the myths, legends and folklore of medieval romances, Gothic conjured up magical worlds and tales of knights, monsters, ghosts and extravagant adventures and terrors”. (Gothic 2)

Thus, while the Gothic has often been simply classified as a violent reaction against Enlightenment and Neoclassic values, vis-à-vis psychoanalytic notions of the return of the repressed, it was less of protest against these ideals than an exploration of alternative ways of experiencing and expressing eighteenth-century norms. As Botting suggests, “despite being associated with literary and moral impropriety, many Gothic novels set out to vindicate morality, virtue and reason” (Gothic 30).

The Gothic, then, was not merely a violent reaction against the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism, but a part of the discourse surrounding reason, progress and art. The first Gothic works provided an alternative mode of expression that, while offering resistance to the strictures of Neoclassical aesthetics, necessarily still served a socially didactic function that participated in the condemnation of the old superstitions and the validation of modern ways of thinking and being. Gothic narratives, as they later came to be known, originally were not meant to rupture or question the status quo, but ultimately to reinforce it through the restoration of order and the exorcism of history. In these narratives, what was essentially considered Gothic – magic, superstition and monsters – was either dispelled or defeated in the name of modern reason. A distinction must thus be made between the Gothic – those dark, medieval and subversive things described in The Gothic: A Beast is Born – and Gothic fiction, which used the Gothic to provide villains and monsters for modern characters to resist or defeat.

A still from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu depicting one of the more effective vampire-killers: light. The Enlightenment trope of reason as a beacon driving back the darkness has permeated Western portrayals of monsters, and light more often than not serves to exorcise your average demon.
A still from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu depicting one of the more effective vampire-killers: light. The Enlightenment trope of reason as a beacon driving back the darkness has permeated Western portrayals of monsters, and light more often than not serves to exorcise your average demon.

The Gothic was thus resurrected into a time when its being was denigrated, mocked and strictly controlled through the employment of hegemonic Enlightenment values. As an aesthetic, it provided something a bit wilder and expressive than the clean lines of Neoclassicism, but ultimately Gothic rupture was contained through strict structural controls that cast the Gothic as bad and the Enlightenment as good. A true monster, the Gothic was bred in the shadows of the Enlightenment so that it may be dissected, exposed and deemed irregular and therefore Other. However, the Gothic would evolve through history – its ontology would become a truly disruptive and uncontrollable force that bled through the values of reason and empiricism to provide a subversive and sublime alternative.


Abrams, M. H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.

Botting, Fred. “In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture”. A New Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Botting, Fred. Gothic. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Clery, E. J. “The genesis of ‘Gothic’ fiction”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Hogle, Jerrold E. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: The Gothic Tradition, Volume 1 Second Edition. New York: Longman, 1996.

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