History, Trauma And The Gothic in Contemporary Western Fictions

Authored by: Jerrold E. Hogle

The Gothic World

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  October  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415637442
eBook ISBN: 9780203490013
Adobe ISBN: 9781135053062


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When Patrick McGrath, a present-day novelist known for re-working older Gothic conventions, has his psychiatrist-narrator in Trauma define that word as “a shock to the mind so intense that you can't get rid of it” before a 1980s New York backdrop where the “twin towers” loom as “cliffs of blackness,” like Gothic ruins (McGrath 2008: 23, 90), he reminds us that Gothic fiction has always begun with trauma — usually multiple kinds of trauma at the outset and in retrospect. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first text subtitled A Gothic Story in its 1765 edition, starts with the crushing of Prince Manfred's son by a huge dark helmet that resembles part of an effigy on the underground tomb of Alfonso, the castle's original owner (Walpole 1996: 19–21). This breaking of a body by a monster-sized ghost already broken into fragments itself, an act which recalls the origin of “trauma” in the ancient Greek word for “wound,” even turns out to be rooted in the long-suppressed murder of Alfonso by Manfred's grandfather, a “shock the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed” (the psychological meaning of trauma in the OED) deep within the psyche of Manfred and his fictionalized culture. In addition, as we now know from studying Walpole's milieu, these imaginary traumas are rooted themselves in a “crisis in the experience of [his] eighteenth-century audience” as it felt the ideological construction of the basis for self-definition increasingly torn “between the traditional claims of landed property” symbolized by Walpole's preternatural specters and “the new claims of the private family” transplanted into his tale from the middle-class “realism” of Defoe, Richardson and Smollett (Clery 1995: 77–79). Gothic fiction-making has always been divided within itself, just as Walpole says in his 1765 Preface by announcing the “Gothic Story” as a “blend of the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern” (Walpole 1996: 9), and this forcing-together of conflicting forms was then and remains symptomatic of deeply traumatic social, ideological and broadly psychological conflicts among different ways of seeing the world and the self. The fictionalized exaggerations of physical and psychic woundings and hauntings in the Gothic's mixture of styles both intimates and holds at a distance levels of shock that are far more pervasive and complex than the fictive forms in which they are rendered as half-graphically real and half-anachronistically fanciful. All of this is especially fitting for trauma because its cutting into the norms of daily perception leads to “a collapse of witnessing,” as Cathy Caruth has shown, and any “making sense” of it must be anachronistic, done from the distance of a “temporal delay,” that combines a “repeated suffering of the event” with a displacement of it, a “continual leaving of its site” (Caruth 1995: 10).

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