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The Gothic in Cormac McCarthy’s Novels

Info: 9499 words (38 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: English Literature

Chapter I

  1. From Context towards a Definition of the Gothic


It can easily be argued and, it has indeed been mentioned by one critic or another in the literature dedicated to the genre, that nobody quite knows what to do with the Gothic. Far from being a mere literary trend or ephemeral fancy, the Gothic still confounds critics with its history and evolution. In fact, it has by now become quite clear that, with an impressive course throughout history, the Gothic has constantly reinvented itself and changed along with the times. As Fred Botting claims, “this is the pattern of Gothic as a genre that, in generating and refracting diverse objects of fear and anxiety, transforms its own shape and focus.” (Gothic 20) This has extended to such a degree that, in the modern world, the Gothic seems to have become almost ubiquitous, or unrecognizable- depending on perspective, its proliferation never keeping within the bounds of literature, rather conquering society at large.

Still, in what concerns literature in the Western world, Fred Botting goes on to voice the contemporary critical consensus when he calls the Gothic “the thread that defines British literature” (Gothic 15) and when he argues that, in American literature, the Gothic tradition is even more substantial and overtly expressed. Therefore, he concludes, “Gothic can perhaps be called the only true literary tradition. Or its stain.” (Botting, Gothic 16) This statement epitomizes the condition of Gothic literature as well as Gothic criticism: disconsidered at first, the Gothic now seems to have a crucial role in the approach critics take when dealing with major works, contemporary or otherwise. Yet nobody seems to be able to generate a clear-cut or universal definition of the term; in fact, in the Encyclopaedia of Gothic Literature, the term itself is absent, while notions such as gay Gothic, German Gothic, Gothic art, drama or Gothic convention are all explained by operating under the assumption that the Gothic needs no definition or further explanation than the context shown in the introduction.

Even in their introduction to The Routledge Companion to the Gothic, Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy begin by underlining the elusiveness of defining the Gothic, when they claim their organizational principle has been to “foreground approaches to Gothic rather than ways of defining it.” (1) In fact, most thinkers who approach a definition emphasize in their own definition either one of the Gothic’s many traits, or a question of the context in which it was born.

In light of this obvious critical stand, would it not be more convenient to forgo a definition altogether and focus on the traits of the Gothic as a composite definition- description of the term? This would be at least plausible, especially given the fact that different books have a different approach to the Gothic, not to mention a different terminology for what the Gothic represents, calling it a genre, a mode, a literary phenomenon, tradition or avoiding the specific naming altogether and referring to it as simply ‘Gothic’. Moreover, some critics speak about the Gothic novel, others about the Gothic romance, and still others of Gothic works in general.

Therefore, it is the aim of this first subchapter to set the framework for what the Gothic represents, by contextualizing the emergence and naming of the concept, the three different moments of change or transformation throughout its evolution, and by working up to what will hopefully constitute a working definition of the Gothic, if not one which can hold true for every form of contemporary Gothic, at least one which will aid in the understanding of the following chapters in general and of Cormac McCarthy’s novels.

The Naming of a Concept

As a starting premise, it needs to be said that the Gothic novel, which will be the focus of this work, is mostly a “twentieth-century coinage” (Clery Genesis 21) and that Gothic as we understand it today represents an anachronistic perspective on a body of fiction which may or may not be homogenous in traits or themes. (Watt 1) With this in mind, it seems safe to assume that ‘Gothic’ meant different things at different moments in time, and as Andrew Smith well emphasizes, the word ‘Gothic’ still has different connotations in different contexts today. (Gothic Literature 2)

Despite the fact that the ‘Gothic’ is often said to have emerged in the eighteenth century, in what literature and literary criticism are concerned, the previous shades of meaning lingering in its understanding are important to acknowledge at least in passing.

The first connotation of the term is historically associated with the Visigoths, the Germanic people who sacked churches and precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. Therefore, even if these Nordic people were quite skilled at horsemanship, for example, the term ‘Gothic’ came to be a representation of barbarism, in direct binary opposition with the term ‘Roman’, which represented the cultural achievements of the Roman empire. (Spooner, Contemporary Gothic 12-13) These associations consequently gave way to such dualisms as barbaric and cultured or primitive and civilized, whose implications still follow the Gothic to this day by the implicit understanding of Gothic as the passionate overthrow of reason. (Ibid.)

In the eighteenth century, the Gothic had different meanings in politics, the arts and religion. (Miles Eighteenth Century Gothic 14). In politics, for instance, the Britons were said to be Goths, or Anglo-Saxons in this case, “whose liberty-loving spirit was manifest in the evolution of their political institutions, from the Germanic Witan, to Magna Charta, to the Reformation, and onwards to the Glorious Revolution”. (Miles 12) This positive mythology was meant to explain and validate the political changes of the age, so, before the French Revolution, the connotation of the Gothic was a largely positive one, meaning ‘primitive but vibrant and vigorous’ when associated with the virtues of the English. (Miles 16)

In architecture, the style which characterized the churches and cathedrals in the Northern part of Europe was called ‘Gothic’, and was easily recognizable by its broken arches, pointy lines and specific decorations. Like the Goths themselves, this style of architecture was considered primitive in comparison to the clean lines of the Roman style. (Miles 12) Yet, in the eighteenth century, with the advent of the ‘Gothic Revival’, this architectural style – Catherine Sooner draws our attention to the term ‘Gothick’ which was used to describe it (Contemporary Gothic 13), was reinterpreted and now seen to embody the freedom and all the achievements of the Middle Ages. So, as a testament to the favour Gothic architecture enjoyed in the eighteenth century, Robert Miles gives the example of Lord Cobham, one of the richest and most influential politicians of the age, who, in 1744, commissioned the construction of the Gothic Temple, or the Temple of Ancient Liberty, which represented the pinnacle of this nationalist political ideology which equated Gothic with a glorious past of freedom and achievements. (12-13)

The duality of the term is quite apparent at this point, the Gothic representing positive, as well as negative concepts at various moments throughout history and in different contexts.

For Gothic literature, a defining moment came with the republication of The Castle of Otranto, in 1965. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. A Story was first published on Christmas day 1764, which is considered by most critics the official starting point for the literary Gothic. But it was not until the second edition, when the subtitle became ‘A Gothic Story’ that the author explained in the preface that the work was not in fact an Italian work printed in 1529, but rather a ‘modern concoction’. The explanations the author provides in the preface to his book give a unique perspective into what the Gothic represented in the eighteenth century and raise questions about the nature of the society which inspired it. E.J. Clery contends that this novel is the product of a “commercial society in which stability, leisure and plenty lead to a demand for artificial excitements” (29), which supports Catherine Spooner’s musing that only secure cultures produce Gothic texts or discourses. (Contemporary Gothic 19) Still, whether this premise will hold true or not when talking about the contemporary situation of the Gothic will be fully explained and argued in the following subchapters.

Yet, referring back to the problem at hand, in the eighteenth century, the literature which was related to the term Gothic was disconsidered and even ridiculed since, through its subject matter, it was considered a threat to the moral, social and literary values of the time, a mere “idle waste of time”. (Botting, Gothic 9) In fact, as Robert Miles explained, a century later, Gothic writing would evolve to possess a twofold negative connotation, since it was firstly associated with female readers, and secondly, with a propensity for sex and violence which reminded some Victorian critics of the excesses of the French Revolution. (16)

This negative connotation has been a constant companion to whatever the Gothic represented throughout the ages, and has only recently begun to subside, aided by the amount of critical interest in it, which the late twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century have brought about. Still, this tendency is perhaps most obvious when the Gothic is juxtaposed to other literary traditions.

The Gothic and the Romantic


The 1790s witnessed a resurgence of Gothic works, marking it as a very rich period for this genre, with countless and various types of innovations, including but not limited to experiments with the chronology of events, a new focus on interiority and the emergence of the hero-villain, who demands sympathy from the reader and who is described from within. (McEvoy, Romantics 22-24)

When it comes to the historical context, Robert Mills claims that the connection between the proliferation of Gothic writing and the French Revolution as its cause was only a contemporary phenomenon, and not a retrospective one. (Effulgence 42) In fact, another temporal issue to be taken into consideration is what is called fin-du-siècle literature, which analyzes the specific zeitgeist of the eighteenth to nineteenth century, nineteenth to twentieth century, and, more recently, twentieth to twenty-first century, and which Catherine Spooner dubs “a preoccupation with the darker side of human life”. (Contemporary Gothic 21) And, as David Punter reiterates, the Gothic is often associated with the turn of the century, “as though the very attempt to turn over a new leaf unavoidably involves conjuring the shadow of the past”. (Of apparitions 2) This tendency the two critics explain will be important in the context of the present thesis as well, since Cormac McCarthy boasts a literary career which encompasses the fin- du- millennium.

Yet, referring back to the period at hand, in the last decade of the eighteenth century the proliferation of Gothic terror could be explained, Miles claims, as a derivation of Burke’s cult of the sublime, and it stood as an active attempt to bring the Gothic towards the more elevated reader market by association with sublimity and terror, two superior concepts. [1](Effulgence 43) In the same article, Robert Miles surmises that at the time: “[i]n other words, the Gothic vogue fed off the revolutionary anxieties of its readership. As there was an explosion in the latter, so was there a burst in the former.” (44)

But this ‘effulgence’ in terror writing announces an important element in the course of Gothic evolution, namely its encounter with Romanticism. In fact, the relation between the Gothic and the Romantic is a rather complicated one, and has been treated differently through the decades of the twentieth century.

As Emma McEvoy explains, critics historically fall into two main categories when theorizing the relation between the Gothic and the Romantic, which is quite difficult to do due to the overlapping historical period they share. Therefore, one category of critics considered the Gothic as a first draft for the Romantic, since, even if both concepts deal with the psyche, for instance, the Romantic problemizes it in terms of transcendence, while the Gothic almost always gives it material parameters, such as a labyrinth or a haunted house.

As follows, a later category of critics try to break the distinction between the Gothic and the Romantic as a question of genre, since the Gothic was thought to be the novelistic form of Romantic writers. In this vein, the term of ‘Dark Romanticism’ has gained appeal among critics, mainly because it has the advantage of “stressing the kinship of Romantic and Gothic texts of the period.” (McEvoy, Romantics 19-20)

In recent years, however, critics have become more relaxed in what represents the relationship between Gothic and Romantic. Furthermore, many critics are not interested in attempting to distinguish between the two traditions, as the ideology which binds them is so closely inter-linked, and consider the Gothic as the darker side of Romanticism, or admit that certain features like the double or the uncanny are more likely to be based within the Gothic tradition than in the mainstream Romantic narrative. (McEvoy, Romantics 20 -21) Indeed, the transition is so easy to do between the two concepts that, after his famous announcement that ‘Gothic is dead’, Fred Botting continued his critical thinking with books such as Gothic Romanced, in the introduction of which he proposes a re-evaluation of the Gothic at the intersection with romantic ideals.

Yet, no matter how critics choose to read this complicated relationship, one of equality or one of inferiority, the nineteenth century represents “the most significant shift” in the genre, as Fred Botting claims. (Gothic 91) In the nineteenth century, after its encounter with the Romantic trend, the Gothic has broadened its scope and adopted iconic features which modern readers associate with the Gothic, namely the misunderstood genius or the lonely wanderer.

And although the title of his chapter is ‘Romantic Transformations’, the critic also takes the two concepts as a whole, when he says that “it is at the level of the individual that Romantic-Gothic writing takes its bearings.” (Gothic 92) But perhaps the most interesting note is that the villain/ outcast is no longer the evil to be extricated so that order may be restored. The real evil resides in governmental hierarchies, with figures of tyranny, corruption or prejudice. (92)

This concept will become important in the transition to the Victorian Age, and later on, in the modern age, as a staple of Gothic writing. Therefore, the next logical step is to analyze the shapes or shifts the Gothic experienced within the frame of the influential British Victorian Age.

Gothic in the Victorian Age

Although only of limited interest for the present work, the Gothic does indeed suffer some vital transformations within the nineteenth century, a moment in time when scientific theory was at its peak, and when the domestic setting held dominion over British society. Therefore, the encounter between Gothic and this reasonable frame of mind is bound to yield influential phenomena, whose reverberations will be felt in the present day as well.

For these reasons, many more critics, authors and editors of volumes who deal with the Gothic at large have chosen recently to incorporate a special chapter on the Victorian Age, especially since this culture, so enamored with cities, houses and homes, was at the same time concerned with ghosts, haunting and the cult of the dead and of mourning.

The Victorian Age, taking its name from the long reign of Queen Victoria, is in turn divided in the high Victorian period, roughly between the 1840s and the 1870s, and the late Victorian period, which spans from the 1880s until the turn of the century. These temporal divisions are not arbitrary, as each of the two periods mentioned above is characterized by different shifts in the specific zeitgeist: the first stage was witness to economic growth and prosperity, while the second, with the fin-de-siècle looming, was a time of changes and uncertainty.

Within this context, and by comparison with the last decade of the eighteenth century, at first glance the Gothic seems to have lost its popularity. Yet, in truth, the Gothic has merely shifted in focus to better reflect the spirit of the age. In this sense, for Alexandra Warwick, the Victorian facet of the Gothic represents “the translation of Gothic to new locations: first to a bourgeois domestic setting, and second to the urban environment.” (Victorian Gothic 30) She explains that in the former the home is no longer a place of safety and peace, but rather a space charged with an ambivalence and even ambiguity which is strictly related to the role women in general, and female writers in particular, occupied in Victorian society, as it becomes apparent in the works of the Brontë sisters for example. (30-31) In turn, the latter shift has to do with a popular, if less well-remembered, series of instalments called The Mysteries of London, by G. W. M. Reynolds. In this case, the city itself seems to be gothicized, since the Gothic is “the texture and experience of the modern city”. (31-32)

In a work which draws parallels between the political discourse of the nineteenth century, once a young queen Victoria ascends to the throne, and the general similar patterns Gothic heroines follow in the works of famous authors in the Victorian age, Alison Milbank draws almost identical conclusions as Alexandra Warwick. In an age which is obsessed with ghosts and the dead, Milbank confirms that the locus of the Gothic has changed to a real space; as she points out, the consciousness now “inhabits an actual house.” (164) Yet this does not mean that the Gothic in the Victorian Age narrowed its focus only to the haunted mind or the haunted house, rather that “the mind taken alone [has] become another barrier to be breached”, a motif which is “reworked through an even more thoroughgoing existential focus on the human spirit trapped in a spectral but material universe.” (Ibid.) In her opinion, the meaning of Victorian Gothic revolves around the center figure of the heroine, without whose “entrapment and liberation, the Victorian Gothic suggests overall, the ‘real’ is drained of meaning, and the negative natural supernaturalism finally offers no way to connect the hunted mind with an equally haunted society.” (Ibid.)

The late nineteenth century is also the moment when some of the concepts that will influence Gothic and Gothic criticism the most take shape. As Alexandra Warwick claims, towards the end of this century “the last of the great Victorian Gothic writers is beginning his work, not in London, but in Vienna.” (Victorian Gothic 36) Sigmund Freud, as the father of psychoanalysis, has postulated notions which have intertwined with the Gothic and have dominated theoretical writing in this field for the better part of the twentieth century. In fact, the same Warwick suggests that the link between Freudian and Gothic works is so strong that they naturally allow a reversed and reversible reading. Both, she claims, can be interpreted as interrogations of the influence of the past on the present, and, in this light, Freud’s works are permanently concerned with death, survival and revival, thus expressing the “Victorian idea that we are, individually and collectively, haunted from within and by ourselves”. (Victorian Gothic 36) Concepts such as the uncanny or the double, which will be analyzed in detail in the following subchapter, are now considered staples of both Freudian and Gothic studies. As further explanation, Avril Horner underlines the fact that many critics have adopted this terminology as it allows them to “read texts as codified forms of instinctual drives and mechanisms of repression” (Unheimlich 288); this sums up the most popular critical approach to the Gothic in the twentieth century.

However, in one of the most famous studies in the field, A Geography of Victorian Gothic, Robert Mighall tries to break the loop of Gothic criticism centered only on psychoanalytic concepts, and approaches Victorian Gothic from a ‘historicist’ point of view. By doing so, he claims, he can correct the assumption that at the core of Gothic lies ‘psychology’ and he can prove that in its emergence and throughout its development, the Gothic is closely linked with the historical past and various methods to “locate the past and represent its perceived iniquities, terrors, and survivals.” (A Geography xiv) In Gothic texts, he says, the setting changes constantly, yet the crucial element remains: that particular space needs to be perceived as having “unreasonable, uncivilized, and unprogressive customs or tendencies.” (xviii) In the same vein, history is important to the understanding of Gothic, since it shows an underlining of the “distance between the enlightened now and the repressive or misguided then.” (Ibid.) Furthermore, “[t]he tyrants and monsters of this mode represent an attempt to exorcize the ghosts of the past” (Ibid.), but these specters are shaped by history and its specific circumstances. Overall, even if it shifts its focus from location to representation, Robert Mighall’s study sets out to offer alternatives to the psychological or ontological readings of Victorian Gothic texts, thus trying to bring to the fore the importance of spatial-temporal embedding when dealing with the Gothic.

His critical approach is important not only to the present work, but also to many critics who write about the Gothic in the twenty-first century, anachronistically dealing with forms of Gothic which thrives either a century or a couple of decades before.

Gothic in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century

The twentieth century has witnessed the proliferation of Gothic forms in even more shapes and media than before, making it widely diverse and often quite puzzling. Therefore, it is only natural that it should appear under various forms or names in various editorial or critical volumes dedicated to the Gothic. As such, many last chapters of the above-mentioned volumes promote a vagueness of terms by speaking of ‘contemporary Gothic’, “contemporary (re)versions” or “after-Gothic[2]”, by giving certain examples of contemporary writers who are considered Gothic or by declaring the death of the Gothic[3], but most of the times without specifying the transformations this mode suffers in its encounter with the two most influential concepts of the age, namely modernism and postmodernism.

A detailed discussion of modern and postmodern Gothic will be given in the last part of this chapter, as these two conceptual frameworks are vital to understanding Cormac McCarthy’s style, and thus, his novels. Still, in the context of this subchapter, it is sufficient to say that, as a general trend for the twentieth century, Fred Botting’s statement holds true. The critic argues that “[f]rom the high cultural position associated with Literature, Gothic not only signified popular fiction but remained a darker undercurrent to the literary tradition itself.” (Gothic 15) Or, in Jerrold E. Hogle’s words from Theorizing the Gothic: despite the constant production of Gothic texts in the twentieth century, their consignment to “low culture” or “pulp literature” has been one of the reasons why they have not been deemed of serious academic interest or have been considered too “distasteful” to be anything other than ephemeral. (29)

In this context and with a lengthier discussion to follow, I will now take only one example of how the Gothic in the twentieth century is treated. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction has chosen to speak about this in four main aspects, adopting a temporal and methodical, rather than literary or cultural approach; they speak about Gothic at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, about Gothic on the screen, about the ramifications of postcolonial Gothic, and, finally, about contemporary Gothic. What is interesting to note is the fact that the essay on “British Gothic fiction, 1885-1930” put together by Kelly Hurley admits the discord present among critics when it comes to labelling or describing this phenomenon. The critic mentions Nicholas Daly[4]’s rejection of Gothic as a mere literary occurrence, which re-emerges at difficult moments in order to express the current social anxieties, and, as such, does not deserve the label “literary genre”. Still, despite these objections, Hurley suggests that holding on to an “understanding of Gothic as a transhistorical genre” (British Gothic Fiction 193) is important, since its core preoccupations with “extreme behaviours and derangements of human subjectivity” remain constant throughout its cyclical resurgences. (Hurley, British Gothic Fiction 193-194)

After such preliminary discussions, Hurley goes on to introduce the notion of ‘modernist Gothic’ and to speak about its characteristics, identifying among them a prevalence for the image of the monster, as well as a tendency to regard all human beings as potentially abhuman. (passim) In this essay, she argues that in the encounter between Gothic and modernism the cultural anxieties of the time were not merely transposed, but rather aggravated and exaggerated, the Gothic “delineating the fluid and chaotic form of the modern abhuman subject” in a fashion in which “no realist genre ever could.” (Hurley, British Gothic Fiction 206)

Kelly Hurley’s work, even if not entitled this way, brings succinct clarity into what the Gothic morphed into when faced with modernism. On the other hand, the article on “The contemporary Gothic: why we need it” by Steven Bruhm does not mention postmodern Gothic at all. Instead, the critic focuses on the reasons why the Gothic has enjoyed such immense popularity in the last decades and on attempting to define this phenomenon. He states that contemporary Gothic has almost the same themes as its classical version, among which the effects of technology, the limits of reason or the dynamics of family life, but that a genuine definition would be like looking “into a triptych of mirrors in which images of the origin continually recede in a disappearing arc”; in this sense, we are left with “only ghostly manifestations”. (Contemporary Gothic 259)

Nevertheless, Bruhm states that there are three main anxieties today which we, as the audience, need the Gothic to both arouse and alleviate. The first is related to political and historical events, drawing on such traumas as World War II or the Cold War that followed, to give just two examples. The second, somehow adjacent to the first, is the rapid and frightening evolution of technology and weaponry in the second half of the twentieth century, while the third has to do with the rise of a myriad of civil rights movements. In this instance, Bruhm contends, there was an obvious assault on “the ideological supremacy of traditional values where straight white males ostensibly control the public sphere.” (Contemporary Gothic 260) Unlike previous versions of the Gothic, a characteristic of contemporary Gothic is that it seems to obsessively or compulsively return to its own fixations. Therefore, the Freudian machinery overcomes its status as a “tool for discussing narrative”, becoming rather a very specific background for the internal life of those who create in the vein of the Gothic mode. The two concepts become so tightly interwoven in the twentieth century that “the contemporary Gothic subject is the psychoanalytical subject (and vice versa), she/he becomes a/the field on which national, racial, and gender anxieties configured like Freudian drives get played out and symbolized over and over again.” (Bruhm, Contemporary Gothic 262) In this sense, the most striking particularity of the Gothic in this century is that all the unconscious desires expressed with the help of the psychoanalytical mechanism revolve around the issue of a “lost object”, which now becomes the supreme need for the Gothic and “almost everything else”. (Bruhm, Contemporary Gothic 263)

What is also interesting to note, especially in light of the ensuing discussion about McCarthy’s novels, is the fact that storytelling in and of itself represents a crucial focal point in the Gothic of the twentieth century.[5] Bruhm argues that this very act of telling stories contains the suggestion of various traumas which cannot be expressed as a coherent whole, and which, therefore, in the spaces left blank by narratives, lead to the proliferation of Gothic texts. Trauma, expressed through storytelling, prompts the confrontation with the fears of the age, as well as with the forces which create and influence us, as people of the modern age. And, conversely, in the spaces which trauma leaves, all sorts of narratives are created, narratives whose sole role is to provide a convincing argument that the horrors are not internal, but external in nature. (Contemporary Gothic 270-271)

In this process, Bruhm claims, the role of the Gothic is to hold up a mirror of reality which would represent the confrontation with historical and very real traumas of the West; these traumas, represented by wars or the collapse of long-held ideologies- have been created by humans, who now find themselves in the impossibility of facing them completely.  Thus, the Gothic makes these unspeakable, collective traumas reappear in distorted, “ghostly and far-fetched fantasies”, keeping contemporary men and women in a Freudian repetition-compulsion, in which “we are compelled to consume the same stories (with minor variations), experience the same traumatic jolts, before the same devastating sights.” (Bruhm, Contemporary Gothic 271-272)

In the conclusion of his article, Steven Bruhm summarizes the function of the Gothic in the contemporary age as the “guarantee of life in the face of so much death.” Surrounded by the constant reminder of impending death, the critic claims, people need the Gothic in order to realize they desire life, such as it is, and to attempt a rewriting of historical events as a “way of healing the perpetual loss in modern existence”. In short, the role the Gothic plays in our day and age is the following: “we want our life and our death, and in the vacillation between wanting life and capitulating to destruction, we keep needing the Gothic to give shape to our contradiction.” (Contemporary Gothic 274)

Notwithstanding his insight into the mechanisms which fuel the contemporary need for Gothic narratives, Steven Bruhm’s article, with its many examples and quotations from best-selling novelists or popular television and big screen movies, illustrates another important aspect of Gothic in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, namely its relation with films, television and various other media.

As it has been observed by critics in the field, the emergence and popularity of moving pictures, the cinema and, later, television played a crucial role in the abundance and diversification of Gothic images, themes and forms. Yet, it has also contributed to the maintenance of its status as a disregarded form of art, which did not deserve the attention of serious critical studies. It is perhaps interesting to note that, similarly to the original perception that the Gothic was a transient fashion and nothing more, Auguste Lumière, one of the pioneers of films, did not put too much stock in his mechanical invention, claiming that besides a purely scientific purpose, the motion picture camera did not have any commercial use.

Nevertheless, as Catherine Spooner observes, the Gothic has never been a uniquely literary occurrence, since, as early as the eighteenth century there were magic lantern shows and sensational theatre spectacles which followed Gothic patterns and satisfied the crowd’s appetite for “thrills”. (Gothic Media 195) In this vein and within this framework, when the cinema started producing its first lengthier films, the inspiration was Gothic in origin or even an adaptation of a Gothic novel, with the early horror films garnering great success.  Moreover, as David Punter and Glennis Byron suggest, the horror film, from its early days as a genre, to the modern horror movies of today, has its roots firmly planted into the Gothic tradition, using and reusing the same sources of horror the Gothic proposes. (Blackwell Guides 65; 70)

Therefore, when it comes to discussing the link between the Gothic and film, most authors have chosen to speak about horror films, working under the assumption that horror films are the closest cinematic representation or counterpart of the Gothic novel. Still, this pattern is changing, and many critical volumes have appeared which talk about the Gothicization of certain films and adaptation or the mechanisms behind ‘screening’ the Gothic. For instance, Lisa Hopkins claims that what defines Gothic film in general is “doubleness”, which can be expressed in two paradoxical phenomena, either in the extreme polarization of a theme or motif, or, conversely, by minimizing on screen the impact of such a mechanism. (Screening xi-xii)

Although these two areas, of the literary and filmic Gothic, have been working independently for some time now, a minimum of information needed to be taken into account. Since the last part of this chapter, dubbed Gothic in the Contemporary World, will be mainly interested in the link between modernism or postmodernism and the Gothic, the connection with film was mentioned here, in order to at least delineate the proliferation of so many contemporary Gothic media, including, but not restricted to all manner of film genres, graphic novels, Goth subcultures or Gothic music. Thus, the part which has just ended will remain and serve as a very wide frame of reference for a novelist who draws inspiration from every- and anywhere around him, irrespective of labels or medium.


A Working Definition


In light of all these elements and after a short chronological presentation of Gothic transformations through the centuries, a core understanding of what this mode entails has now taken shape. The Gothic comes from a countercultural starting point and has flexibility as a fundamental characteristic.  Yet, as adaptable as the Gothic is, one question still remains, namely what exactly does the Gothic represent or, in other words, how is the Gothic to be defined?

This is a question which counts as the starting point of almost all critical volumes in the field and it is well justified since the Gothic may be “a plot, a trope, a topos, a discourse, a mode of representation, conventions of characterization, or a composite of all these aspects” (Mulvey-Roberts, Introduction xvi) Thus, sometimes described as a literary trend, sometimes as a mode, and other times as a literary phenomenon, the Gothic has been defined by various critics in a number of manners, most often by bringing to the fore one or another of its features. Consequently, at first glance, the Gothic could be branded a mere compilation of images and symbolic themes which resurface spontaneously across time, in the writings of various authors from around the world.

With such a vague guiding line, it is tempting to agree with Eve Kosofsky Sedwick when she claims that ‘Gothic’ has not been “the most subtle or useful of critical adjectives.” (The Coherence 1) The critic goes on to say that if one is to accept the Gothic as “the great liberator of feeling”, a mode which “acknowledged the non-rational in a world of things and events”, this would be to tantamount to accepting its lack of coherence or discontinuity throughout history. Since her goal in this book is to shift the negative associations of sub-par literature which have always haunted the Gothic and to make other critics feel at ease when branding a passage or a novel as “Gothic” (Coherence 2), and since she goes about attaining this goal by analyzing the coherence of its traits, it becomes clear that the Gothic does indeed have a nucleus of traits which bear definition.

Yet, this nucleus has not been so easy to identify. In fact, even the name of the category raises issues of form, since some critics speak of “Gothic”, others of “gothic”, while still others of “the Gothic”. A terminology which this thesis will adhere to, “the Gothic” as a denomination needs further explanation.  Fred Botting claims that the use of the definite article in the name seems to lend it “the illusion that there is a well-defined genre to discuss”, but that sometimes, between the two there needs to be a further term which would fully define and elucidate the phrase. (Preface 1) “The modern Gothic”, “Victorian Gothic” or “queer Gothic” are all terms which both classify the Gothic in conjunction with another category, and create at the same time a new hybrid form, with its own individual features. (Ibid.)

“The Gothic”, because its unity is something accepted and assumed in this work, has been explained either in more abstract or more concrete terms, by different critics, leaving no two definitions the same. For instance, one of the first attempted theorizations of the Gothic is attributed to David Punter, in his seminal Literature of Terror, in 1980. In the first volume, Punter sets the groundwork for one of the earliest and most complete definitions of the Gothic, claiming that, in his book as well as in this research area, the categorization of the Gothic is a secondary aspect in comparison to the real issue: “how are we to define the Gothic?” (16)

David Punter starts from the premise that the Gothic cannot be defined without the texts from which it surfaces. Still, from the body of criticism produced until that particular point in time, Punter identifies five possible ways in which to tackle a possible definition of the Gothic.

A first approach would be that which takes the Gothic in general as a recognizable movement within the history of culture, and Gothic literature as an “outcropping” of a different wider flow of ideas. In this case, the analogy between Gothic literature and Gothic architecture is perfectly acceptable. (Punter, Literature of Terror 16) A second method of defining the Gothic is in terms of plot and narrative achievement, while the third method concerns narrative complexity.  The fourth possible definition of the Gothic stems from its opposition to realism, since this genre deals so easily and frequently with what is considered taboo at a certain moment in time. (Punter, Literature of Terror 17)

The fifth and last definition which David Punter mentions is put forth by a pair of researchers from the early twentieth century, namely Eino Railo and Devendra Varma, who choose the thematic parameter and who “subscribe to the idea that there are particular themes which are distinctively Gothic”. (Punter, Literature of Terror 18) As it has been already mentioned, the perpetuation of this type of definition is still in use today, with each critical volume focusing on a chosen number of features which make up the nucleus of Gothic in that particular vision.

Still, David Punter sets a slightly different standard for any definition of the Gothic, which, he says, needs to be considered in terms of both style and theme. Furthermore, he claims that “in studying Gothic fiction, almost nothing can be assumed, not even the limits of the field.” Along these lines, Fred Botting claims that now Gothic writing is “a mode that exceeds genre and categories, restricted neither to a literary school nor to a historical period”, making the Gothic “a hybrid form, incorporating and transforming other literary forms as well as developing and changing its own conventions in relation to newer modes of writing.”(Gothic 14) In this sense, the conclusion which Punter and Botting draw fits perfectly the prose of Cormac McCarthy, since the author pushes the boundaries of this mode, reshaping and recreating it in his own individual style of writing. The connotations to McCarthy notwithstanding, what is innovative in Punter’s definition is the fact that he takes as a pivoting point for the Gothic the concept of “fear”, which links works from the mid eighteenth century to the present day and which lends the title of his most famous book.

Even if his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales cannot compare with Punter’s The Literature of Terror, either in terms of size or of complexity, Chris Baldick is also one of the most cited critics when it comes to a definition of the Gothic. His perspective is that the Gothic has to be understood in terms of the relation between past and present (Introduction xix). His views are taken up by Catherine Spooner as well, who states that “[i]n Gothic texts, the past returns with sickening force”. (Contemporary Gothic 18) It follows that the past is a site of terror, the locus of some “injustice that must be resolved, an evil that must be exorcised”. (Ibid.) This is the case for what Spooner defines as the contemporary Gothic, but she also mentions that this represents a departure from earlier forms of Gothic understanding of the past, when this was “invested with nostalgia or idealism”. But, for the most part, a defining characteristic of the contemporary Gothic is that “[t]he past chokes the present, prevents progress and the march towards personal or       social enlightenment. (Spooner, Contemporary Gothic 18-19)

With this axis well in place, another aspect which needs to be taken into account for a definition of the Gothic is the fact that it mirrors the particular wounds or fears of the society it is a part of. As Robert Mighall remarks, “that which is Gothicized depends on history and the stories it needs to tell itself.” (A Geography xxv) This embedded social function is not only a key part in the definition of the Gothic, but also one of the reasons it is still thriving as a genre and seems to be a fixture of any century. As Jerrold E., Hogle explains, the Gothic is still necessary to modern western culture because it permits our confrontation with ourselves “in ghostly disguises of blatantly counterfeit fictionality”. (Introduction 16) The Gothic also:

serves to symbolize our struggles and ambivalences over how dominant categorizations of people, things, and events can be blurred together and so threaten our convenient, but repressive thought patterns, its creators and onlookers have the opportunity to make Gothic show us our cultural and psychological selves and conditions, in their actual multiplicity, in ways that other aesthetic forms cannot manage as forcefully or with such wide public appeal. (Hogle, Introduction 19)

As a continuation of this idea, it is also Jerrold E. Hogle who argues that the Gothic is grounded in trauma. This subject will be discussed further in other chapters of the thesis, but at this point, it should be sufficient to emphasize Hogle’s view that “Gothic fiction has always begun with trauma” and that it usually revolves around multiple kinds of trauma at the outset and in retrospect.” (History 72) In this light, “[t]he fictionalised 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-anachronistically fanciful.” (Hogle, History 72-3)

Although only partially true within the economy of this work, the last critical opinion which should be reviewed is that of Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith who start their Introduction to The Modern Gothic with the claim that the Gothic is “not merely a literary convention or a set of motifs: it is a language, often an anti-historicising language, which provides writers with the critical means of transferring an idea of the otherness of the past into the present.” (1) Their view is of import not because of their mentions to the past or those to the concept of otherness, but rather because their naming the Gothic “a language” instead of any other labels it has been given, seems particularly appropriate in my view, giving the Gothic the benefit of the doubt: presupposing that it is coherent and functional in its machinations, as well as made up of different parts which work together to serve a purpose.

Therefore, in the context of this thesis, a working definition of the Gothic begins to take shape. Although sometimes called either a mode or a genre (which seem the closest synonyms to ‘language’), the Gothic is considered a language which deals with the revenants of the past and symbolically represents the fears, anxieties or traumas of an individual or of the society her or she is part of, with the intention of coming to terms with these wounds.

Having sketched in broad strokes a definition of the Gothic, the last part of this sub-chapter will tackle methodology. Throughout this sub-chapter, the connection between psychoanalysis and the Gothic has been repeatedly mentioned, but besides the great tradition of the psychoanalyst methods, there are many perspectives in which the Gothic has been analyzed.

William Patrick Day brought forth the notion that the Gothic refuses the idea of history being taken seriously, as it primarily shows human desires in relation to the real world (6; 9-10) But as it was mentioned before, Robert Mighall refutes such a claim and builds his study on Victorian Gothic discourses from a historicist perspective. Still, besides Mighall’s historicist approach, there are at least two other distinct perspectives, one physiological, the other, economic.

In his The Biology of Horror, Jack Morgan states that his intent is to find the nature or function of the gothic (11), but that will intentionally revisit this clarification in full detail in his last chapter, so that the shadow of the Gothic, as it were, would linger through his chapters of analysis and only become clear in the end. He starts from the premise that any type of consciousness is encapsulated in a corporeal form, and seeks to prove that horror literature is “an aspect of our mental lives in which the physiological constitution is most notably implicit” and that the horror is in fact “bio-horror”, since “involves the tenuous negotiations between rationality and a looming biological plenum that defies rational mapping.” (Morgan, Biology 2-3)

On the other hand, Gail Turley Houston sees the Gothic through the lens of economics and explains how the financial aspects of Victorian society have produced a certain type of writing. Drawing on the notion of ‘home’, the critic builds a parallel between the “unheimlich”- in a word by word translation, the ‘un-homely’- and economics, which comes from the Greek and refers to control of the house (From Dickens 2), and argues that “Gothic tropes register, manage, and assess the intense panic produced and elided by the unstable Victorian economy”, leaving the economic discourse of the century to be haunted by phantasms.

Interesting as it may be, the economic perspective on the Gothic serves only an informative purpose, since the main approach this thesis chooses to follow will be defined by the psychoanalytical tradition and will fall within such framework- further explained in the next sub-chapter. In fact, the chosen methodology finds itself at the confluence between violence studies and Gothic studies, with the focus resting on how violence, in the broadest sense, feeds and helps to express the Gothic machinations in Cormac McCarthy’s novels.

Therefore, even if the main approach of the Gothic for this thesis is going to follow in the footsteps made by the great tradition of psychoanalysis, since it links the two main theoretical approaches of Gothic and violence studies, these new perspectives on reading the Gothic, namely the previously mentioned historicist method of Robert Mighall and the physiological proposed by Jack Morgan, need to be taken into account not only for a fuller image on what the Gothic represents, but also because of the personal beliefs of the writer, who uses, almost indiscriminately,  everything around him as a source of inspiration for his writing.

In short, the primary goal of this sub-chapter was not a clear-cut and universal definition of such a complex phenomenon as the Gothic, but rather a sketching of a working definition which would aid and guide in the better exploration of how one author, through his five decades of writing, has moulded a specific Gothic form for himself, has internalized and rendered his own particular brand of the Gothic. In this case, one cannot ignore the above-mentioned interpretations of the Gothic, especially since they pose relevant questions regarding the nature of fear or the importance of the physiological dimension in Cormac McCarthy’s novels.  With this definition in mind, and in order to shed further light on the parameters of the Gothic, the following sub-chapter will deal with               concepts, motifs and recurring themes which are associated with the Gothic.


Baldick, Chris. “Introduction”. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. xi-xxiii

Bottig, Fred. Gothic. London and New York: Routledge, 1999

Botting, Fred. “Preface: The Gothic”. The Gothic. Ed. Fred Botting. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001. 1-6

Bruhm, Steven. “The contemporary Gothic: why we need it”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 259-276

Clery, E.J. “The genesis of ‘Gothic’ fiction”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 21-39

Day, William Patrick. The Circles of Fear and Desire. A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Introduction: the Gothic in western culture”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1-20

Hogle, Jerrold E. “History, Trauma and the Gothic in Contemporary Western Fictions”. The Gothic World. Eds. Glennis Byron and Townshend. New York: Routledge, 2014. 72-81

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Theorizing the Gothic.” Teaching the Gothic. Eds. Anna Powell and Andrew Smith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 29-47

Hopkins, Lisa. Screening the Gothic. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005

Horner, Avril. “Unheimlich”. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998. 287-288

Houston, Gail Turley. From Dickens to Dracula. Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Hurley, Kelly. “British Gothic fiction, 1885-1930”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 189-207

Kosofsky Sedwick, Eve. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Arno Press, 1980

McEvoy, Emma. “Gothic and the Romantics”. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 19-28

Mighall, Robert. A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Milbank, Alison.”The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories, 1830-1880”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 145-165

Miles, Robert. “Eighteenth-Century Gothic”. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 10-18

Miles, Robert. “The 1790s: the effulgence of Gothic”. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 41-62

Morgan, Jack. The Biology of Horror. Gothic Literature and Film. Illinois: Southern Illinois University, 2002

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. “Introduction”. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998. xv-xviii

Punter, David. “Introduction: of apparitions”. Spectral Readings. Towards a Gothic Geography. Eds. Glennis Byron and David Punter. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1999

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: Volume 1. A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the present day. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013

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Smith, Andrew. Gothic Literature. Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2005

Spooner, Catherine. Contemporary Gothic. London, Reaktion Books, 2006

Spooner, Catherine. “Gothic Media”. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 195-197

Spooner, Catherine and McEvoy, Emma. “Introduction”. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-3

Warwick, Alexandra. “Victorian Gothic”. The Routledge Companion to the Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 29-37

Watt, James. Contesting the Gothic. Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

[1] This was an attempt made by Ann Radcliffe and her school of the Gothic

[2] The terms can be found in  in Spectral Readings, edited by Glennis Byron and David Punter for “contemporary (re)versions” and in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle for “after-gothic” and “contemporary Gothic”; this last term appears in more editions, and the Cambridge Companion is only one example

[3] This refers to Fred Botting’s last chapter , ‘The End of Gothic’, from his seminal Gothic ,where the critic claims that “Gothic dies”, pp. 180

[4]  Kelly Hurley references Nicholas Daly’s Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle: Popular Fiction

and British Culture, 1880–1914, published atCambridge University Press in 1999

[5] One of Cormac McCarthy’s recurring themes is that of storytelling and the inability to properly express one’s ideas through words. For further elucidation, see chapters III, IV and IV.

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