Date of Degree
Rachel M. Brownstein
Robert A. Day
English Language and Literature
Since the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1764 initiated the genre of the gothic novel, critics have claimed that gothic endings are bland, inadequate, or otherwise unsatisfying. Analyzing works written in the period 1764 to 1820 by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charlotte Dacre, Mary-Anne Radcliffe, Mary and Percy Shelley and Charles Robert Maturin, this dissertation demonstrates that the focus on endings has blinded critics to the reader's source of pleasure in the gothic. I have drawn upon a representative sampling of novels to present a model of the interaction of reader and gothic text focused on the reader's engagement with spectacle, defined here as insistently visual scenes of suffering framed and set apart from the text. This engagement is shown to be the controlling factor in the reader's reaction to closure.
The theoretical framework of this discussion is provided by current feminist film theory, based in the psychoanalytic work of Freud and Lacan, which shares with the gothic an interest in the act of looking as an expression of the desire to know. Evidence from the texts, viewed from this perspective, suggests that the encounter with spectacle acts as a switchpoint for an exchange of roles between reader and text. This engagement stimulates the reader's desire to continue reading while simultaneously promising the fulfillment of that desire. The intermittent but frequent repetition of the spectacle of suffering involves the reader in a paradoxical, seemingly endless pursuit of the satisfaction, through spectacle, of a desire whose stimulus lies within spectacle. The intense engagement with spectacle, in which the reader is both aggressor and victim, relegates a novel's ending to the level of secondary interest. The reader's enjoyment is based on the repeated experience of spectacle within the text and across the genre; the end of one novel promises the beginning of another. The dynamic created by spectacle produces in the reader a desire to continue that is stronger than the desire for the end. Models of closure which focus on endings misinterpret both the gothic and its readers.
Martin, Rebecca E., "The Spectacle of Suffering: Repetition and Closure in the Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novel" (1994). CUNY Academic Works.