Why Might The Gothic Have Re-Emerged In The 1960s, And What Sorts Of Pleasures And Meanings Did It Offer?

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Gothic in the 1960s

Gothic in the 1960s


Gothic literature, as numerous critics have pointed out, seems to capture so precisely the alienated nature of colonial experience. After its initial vogue between 1780 and 1820, the Gothic is constantly adapted throughout the nineteenth century as a way of capturing the uncannily bifurcated character of colonialism, where the familiar and the unfamiliar coincide in the settler-colony.

Gothics are romantic mysteries that focus on a vulnerable often orphaned heroine and exude a sense of isolation, mystery, and menace. The settings are often remote and usually feature large mansions or estates that sometimes become so important to the plot that they ultimately function as characters in their own right. The heroines are curious, brave, and intrepid, and they usually face the dilemma of which man to trust--often choosing the wrong one at first. These romances employ both historical and contemporary settings, and while supernatural happenings are not required, they are not uncommon. (McCann, 399)

Although its literary history goes back more than 250 years, the modern Gothic was most influenced by the works of the Brontës (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre), du Maurier, and Victoria Holt (Mistress of Mellyn), the leader of the Gothic craze of the 1960s. Other classic works include many of Phyllis Whitney's early contemporary Gothics and Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting. Several current authors are Christine Feehan, Anne Stuart, Maggie Shayne, and Barbara Michaels. (Ramsdell, 57)

American/European Gothic

Gothic representations of slavery, like Simon Legree's garret in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, imagine a social evil that has not been laid to rest. While the staged haunting of Legree's plantation predates the Civil War, gothic images of slavery recur in American literature to the present, marking the uncanny persistence of traces of slavery long after its abolition. One important reason that slavery continues to haunt the American literary imagination is its problematic involvement with one of the most authoritative strands of American culture, and Western culture generally: the rational discourse that comprises both abstract reason and empirical observation.

In the decades before and after the Civil War, the Western rational discourse in the United States lent prestige to "factual" genres like history writing. In its requirements for documentable evidence, the same discourse set limits on genres like the slave narrative. Gothic fiction may seem far removed from the normative genres: gothic images of slavery defy reasoned descriptions of that social institution, and imply that the truth of slavery is unspeakable within normative terms. Nonetheless, gothic representations of slavery often grapple with the dominant discourse they disrupt. In Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, and Toni Morrison's Beloved, gothic elements expose the complicity between a Western scientific world view and slavery; they reveal the distortions in the lens through which the rational discourse views the world, indicating the features of life and the lives of Others for which Western empiricism fails to ...