other works

Is the gothic ultimately a radical or conservative genre?

[T]he gothic appears to be a transgressive rebellion against norms which yet ends up reinstating them, an eruption of unlicensed desire that is fully controlled by governing systems of limitation. It delights in rebellion, while finally punishing it, often with death or damnation, and the reaffirmation of a system of moral and social order

‘[T]he gothic appears to be a transgressive rebellion against norms which yet ends up reinstating them, an eruption of unlicensed desire that is fully controlled by governing systems of limitation. It delights in rebellion, while finally punishing it, often with death or damnation, and the reaffirmation of a system of moral and social order.’ (Maggie Kilgour) In light of this statement, discuss whether the gothic is ultimately a radical or conservative genre.

This essay will be focussing on The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and the 1931 Frankenstein film directed by James Whale.  The Monk is widely regarded as an incredibly radical text, and received a lot of criticism due to the sensitive nature of its content; whereas The Castle of Otranto is much more conservative, and Frankenstein is a combination of the two.[1]  In order to determine whether the genre is radical or conservative, this essay will explore the works’ consideration of the rebellion against social norms, the eruption of unlicensed desire, the punishment of this rebellion and whether there is a reaffirmation of moral or social order at the conclusion of the works.  If a genre is radical, it is innovative and new; whereas conservative genres will have their grounding in tradition.  Gothic fiction definitely started off as a much more radical genre, as it was ‘a new species of writing combining…ancient and modern romance’.[2]  As the genre quickly gained acceptance and notoriety, this essay will evaluate whether the innate radicality of Gothic fiction can ever be normalised enough to determine it to be a conservative genre.

All three works show a divergence from social norms.  In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole references the supernatural having a prevalent impact upon the human world, prophecies and inappropriate contact between men and women, which would have been seen as against the social rules of the time period.  Lewis makes use of plots, many references to sin and depravity and also depicts a riot against a religious institution; whilst Whale focusses more on the mentality of Frankenstein and shows his isolation, obsession and descent into insanity to create this sense of rebellion.  The gothic genre is described by Frye as ‘a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth’, and as such it could be argued that the supernatural elements within Walpole’s text are more conservative.[3]  The description of Conrad’s body ‘dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for a human being’ gives a sense of unease to the reader and shows already a divergence from social norms as not only has a young boy been killed, but in such a way as to create a spectacle.[4]  The supernatural element of this helmet is continued throughout the novel, ‘the sable plumes…nodded thrice, as if bowed by some invisible wearer’.[5]  This gives a sense of a religious influence over the mortal world due to the sheer scale of the helmet and the fact it is moving in accordance with events that are transpiring.  Walpole may have used this to allude to God’s ever-presence which would not have been an altogether surprising allusion and gives a sense of the conservative nature of this tale.  There are other references to religion within the text, such as the ancient prophecy which is stated at the opening of the tale which creates a sense of foreboding, ‘the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’.[6]  When this is considered in light of the giant helmet appearing, it begins to seem as though the prophecy is coming true and the sense of terror is reinforced, a classically gothic trope.  At the time of writing, prophets were relatively common, and as such, this is not a real rebellion against social norms.  The largest opposition to this, in my opinion, is the fact that ‘Theodore and some lady from the castle…were in private conference at the tomb of Alfonso’ in the middle of the night, something that would have been greatly frowned upon at that point in time.[7]  Lewis depicts obvious rebellions against social norms with references to black magic, rape and murderous intentions; the sense of rebellion furthered here due to the fact they are being created by the mind of the ‘Man of Holiness’.[8]  Black magic is seen in the Bible as an immense sin, ‘those who practise magic acts…will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.  This is the second death’, and as such is not only rebellion against social norms, but against the whole notion of religion too.[9]  By mentioning the ability to ‘g[ive] laws to the elements; He could reverse the order of nature’ Lewis shows a threefold rebellion, against the sanctity of religion, against the expected behaviour of such a holy individual and against the unrelenting elements of time and nature.[10]  A much more radical sense of rebellion has been created here due to the layered readings.  Rape was a very serious criminal offence at this time, and could end in execution via the gallows[11]; therefore, the fact he considers ‘depriv[ing] her of the power of resisting your attempts’ to ‘satisfy [his] desires’ with the threat of such a grave punishment hovering over his head is all the more staunchly against the innocent image he is described in at the beginning of the novel.[12]  A similar argument applies to the references to murder.  The rebellion depicted in Whale’s film is not as much of a rebellion against society, but rather society’s idea of normality.  Frankenstein isolates himself in a physical sense, choosing to live outside the town on the top of a hill in an old abandoned building in the mountains, with no neighbours for miles around.  He also emotionally isolates himself, only communicating sporadically with his loved ones and saying that he would ‘let no one go’ to his laboratory.[13]  Whilst this is a divergence from the social norms, it is much less radical than in Lewis’s text as this is not that unusual of a situation.  He is also shown to have an obsession with his work ‘work must come first, at night the winds howl in the mountains, there is no one here.  Prying eyes can’t peer into my secret’, which causes his descent into insanity.[14]  The insistence and level of preoccupation shown here is what gives this more conservative gothic trope a more radical spin, elevating the level of terror created.

There is much eruption of unlicensed desire within all three tales.  In Walpole’s text, this is shown through incestuous designs, Manfred’s proposition of marriage to Isabella and signs from God being sent to the castle.  Lewis takes this theme a lot further, depicting gruesome murder scenes, kidnap, rape and black magic to name a few, all described in vivid detail.  In Frankenstein, the deprave acts, whilst being limited mainly to acting upon the creature, include exhumation of corpses, actually creating the creature and murder, however unlike in Lewis’s tale, this is not anywhere near as graphic.  This idea of losing control over yourself is a common one in gothic tales, as the descent into a more animalistic state due to extreme emotion imbues the text with a deep sense of fear and unease, as you can never truly predict what is going to happen next and uncertainty is felt.  In Walpole’s text the eruption of desire doesn’t really cause any long-lasting effects or physical harm to anyone.  Whilst Manfred has ‘incestuous design[s]’[15] and says to Isabella ‘I offer you myself…Hippolita is no longer my wife’, he never actually follows through on these remarks and ideas.[16] This gives a stronger conservative sense as whilst there is always the threat looming to create a sense of terror, the actual consequences are very insignificant as the threat is rarely acted upon.  Nearer the end of this text, there is a mention of a sign being sent from God to the characters, ‘three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alfonso’s statue’.[17]  The fact that there are three drops may be reflecting the Holy Trinity, and Biblically, blood represents the spiritual life therefore it could be taken to show how disapproving God is of what Manfred is doing.  As these are all just allusions and to some extent, little more than scaremongering, this is an example of a more conservative version of the genre.  This is a far cry from the vivid descriptions of the carnal sins committed in Lewis’s tale.  The murder of Elvira is probably the most shocking event in the novel, as it is committed with so little thought, ‘worked up to madness by the approach of ruin, He adopted a resolution equally desperate and savage’.[18]  The use of the word ‘savage’ gives an animalistic sense of depravity to Ambrosio’s actions, inferring that the more he succumbs to temptation, the less human he becomes.  Lewis writes in incredible detail of Elvira dying, ‘the convulsive trembling of her limbs…now become a Corse, cold, senseless and disgusting’.[19]  This graphic description enables the reader to almost feel what Ambrosio felt and to some extent, gives an idea of what it would be like to commit such an atrocious act.  The sinful events are elevated due to the fact the only reason Elvira died was because she was a witness to the attempted rape of Antonia combined with the black magic Ambrosio uses to get closer to achieving this, ‘A death-like slumber will immediately seize upon her…in this state you may satisfy your desires’.[20]  Once the murder is committed however, ‘he had no desire to profit by the execution of his crime’ and as such, it all seems to have been unnecessary.[21]  This gives a sense of futility to everything that is happening and highlights what Ambrosio risks losing by committing these acts and becoming ‘an abomination to the Lord’.[22]  This level of description and notion of sacrifice for desire is extreme, and as such gives a sense of the radical to the novel.  In Frankenstein, there is also this idea of murder and acts being committed against God.  The film opens in a graveyard at night, a conservative gothic trope, but then radicalises this situation by showing two men digging up a recently buried corpse and saying, ‘we must find another brain’.[23]  This highlights their sense of depravity as there is a complete lack of respect for the dead and instead all they want to do is achieve their own goals, no matter the cost to anyone else.   The blasphemy continues when we actually see Frankenstein creating the creature and saying, ‘now I know what it feels like to be God’.[24]  During the time this was created, blasphemy was a very serious crime, punishable by death in some cases, therefore making a character allude to this is a very radical idea.[25]

There is a huge sense of punishment for the rebellion committed within all three works.  In Frankenstein this is a double sense, as not only does Frankenstein get punished by the death of innocent people which he is indirectly responsible for, the creature’s rebellion is also punished by his own demise.  In The Monk, Matilda and Ambrosio are both tortured relentlessly and sentenced to burn to death in the next Auto Da Fe by the Grand Inquisitor.  Walpole chooses instead to punish Manfred by forcing him to live with the murder of his own child.  Canuel claims that the ‘Gothic makes the death penalty into a persistent threat that motivates its plots’, which is shown clearly in all three texts.[26]  Frankenstein, whilst not being punished by his own death, is instead made to realise the consequences of his actions through being indirectly responsible for the deaths of Fritz ‘poor, poor Fritz.  It’s all my fault.  I did it’, Dr Waldman and the young girl at the hands of his creation.[27]  Whale shows him taking responsibility for this and resolving ‘I made him with these hands and with these hands I’ll destroy him.  I must find him’.[28]  This leads onto the dual persecution in this book, that of the creature’s demise due to his rebellious actions.  An angry mob of townspeople (a convention of gothic fiction) forms and is led to the mountainside to ‘see to it justice is done’, resulting in the creature being burnt alive in the same laboratory where he was first brought to life.  This follows the trope of punishment in Gothic fiction to some extent, however Frankenstein appears to be mostly cleared of responsibility due to his noble status and his part in this is somewhat overlooked.  In Lewis’s text we are given rich descriptions of the torture faced by both Ambrosio and Matilda under the hands of the Grand Inquisitor.  The torture is described as extreme ‘the most excruciating pangs, that ever were invented by human cruelty’ and then more vividly ‘his fingers mashed and broken by the pressure of screws’ to show the full extent of the violence.[29]  This is a mere snapshot of the list of injuries Ambrosio sustained, and this gives a perfect idea of just how traumatic the torture he faced was.  Matilda is sentenced to ‘expiate her crime in fire on the approaching Auto da Fé’, a trope used commonly in gothic fiction as a way to show religio-political violence and the true strength and influence of the church.[30]  In contrast, whilst Walpole writes of the murder of Matilda at the hands of her father, the description is much less vivid and there is little time spent dwelling upon it.  The only description is ‘drawing his dagger, and plunging it over her shoulder into the bosom of the person that spoke’, a very factual and non-visceral description of this act compared to the detail in Lewis’s text.[31]  The uncertainty of Manfred as to who he is murdering creates a sense of dramatic irony in the reader as we know what is about to happen, adding to the gothic nature of the tale but due to the bluntness with which it is described, it seems to be a conservative gothic event.

The final point to explore is how the tales conclude, and whether there is a sense of reaffirmation of the prior social or moral order.  It is fairly clear in Frankenstein that this happens, as when the creature is murdered Frankenstein returns to the family home and wedding plans are resumed; however, it is debatable whether this is a true representation as Frankenstein is never punished for his hand in the deaths of the innocent people by the creature he created.  Walpole also achieves this, as the rightful heir is returned to the throne and eventually weds whilst Manfred is left to repent for his sins.  In Lewis’s tale it is a somewhat bittersweet ending as whilst Ambrosio is punished greatly for his sins, it is revealed that all has been a plot by Lucifer to destroy his purity out of jealousy of the devotion towards God.  Lewis also notes that if Ambrosio had remained faithful to God, he would have been pardoned and escaped such a fate.  In this way, it seems almost as though the order shown in the opening has been subverted and we are made to dislike a man that has previously been so highly regarded.  Whale’s film concludes with a toast being made to ‘a son of the house of Frankenstein’ and with the reinvigoration of the wedding plans after the death of the creature.[32]  The creature’s death is brutal, being trapped inside the laboratory by a burning beam and dying an obviously horrific and painful death, yet it seems as though Frankenstein himself has avoided all culpability and is welcomed easily back into the community he played a part in destroying with seemingly zero negative consequences, due to his elevated status.  This combines both the radical and conservative elements of the gothic, showing excruciating pain as a punishment for the rebellion, seemingly restoring order to the community, but also radical ideas as status seems to override blame in the case of Frankenstein himself.  Walpole’s novel clearly shows a restoration of social and moral order, with Manfred coming clean about his usurpation ‘to heap shame on my own head is all the satisfaction I have left to afford heaven’ and the rightful heir being restored to the throne ‘behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso…the new prince’.[33]  Manfred is also confined to a convent as penance for his sins, therefore it appears as though all order is effectively restored, especially with the eventual marriage of Theodore and Isabella.  This is not as clear cut in Lewis’s tale, as whilst Ambrosio is effectively and violently punished by Lucifer ‘blind, maimed, helpless and despairing, venting his rage in blasphemy and curses, execrating his existence, yet dreading the arrival of death destined him to yield him up to greater torments, six miserable days did the Villain languish’, this is all the resolution we have.[34]  When this is coupled by the mention of his potential absolution of crime ‘the guards…came to signify your pardon’, we are given a sense of unease alongside a cruel sense of satisfaction, as we can see how close Ambrosio came to getting away with his crimes.  However, no mention of the world around him is ever given, therefore we are left with a sense of uncertainty as to how the community has been affected by all of the events which transpired and how it is possible to regain a sense of social or moral order in the light of such acts of depravity being committed by such a highly regarded and supposedly pure individual.

This essay has explored a conservative text, a radical text and a combination of the two in the form of a film.  In light of Kilgour’s statement, it has explored the extent of rebellion, the eruption of desire, the punishment incurred by this and then the conclusion of the tales and the reinstatement of order in order to evaluate whether the gothic is ultimately a radical or conservative genre.  It is clear to see the distinctions between the more conservative and radical elements of the texts, with the conservative often sticking to the tropes of gothic fiction and not elaborating upon it much, whereas the more radical elements are often created due to the intricate descriptions given of the depravity.  It is safe to say that even in Walpole’s text, the situations dealt with are radical as this was an innovative genre of fiction and none of the situations are likely to occur in normal life.  Murder and torture were not new ideas in literature, with many early hagiographical novels depicting these as punishments for heretics; however, this was in conjunction with the church and as such was widely accepted and even encouraged.[35]  By putting ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’, Walpole and the others further this sense of true horror and atrocity, as it makes it seem as though these crimes could be committed by anyone and integrates this idea of criminality into normal society.  Due to this, it seems safe to say that the gothic is ultimately a radical genre, especially at the time it first originated as no subject matter had been discussed in such a way prior to this.  As time has gone on and crime novels have become more normalised it becomes less radical, however due to the innate inhumanity of the subject nature, the genre as a whole can never truly be categorised as conservative.  The genre has become more accepted and enjoyed since the early 18th century, however due to the extreme nature of the scenarios depicted, it can never be a conservative genre, merely a conservative version of the genre as a whole.


Bible, Revelation 21.8

Bible, Deuteronomy 18.9

Botting, Fred, Gothic Romanced (Oxford: Routledge, 2008)

The British Library, ‘The Monk by Matthew Lewis’, British Library (n.d.) <> [accessed 28.01.18]

The British Library Board, ‘Heretics Burned at the Stake’, British Library (n.d.) [accessed 28.01.18]

Canuel, Mark, The Shadow of Death: Literature, Romanticism and the Subject of Punishment (New Jersey:

Princeton University Press, 2016)

Haggarty, George, ‘The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction’, Romanticism on the Net, 36-37 (2004) <> [accessed 28.01.18]

Lewis, Matthew, The Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Ruff, Julius R., Violence in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Frankenstein, dir. by James Whale (Universal Pictures, 1931) [on DVD]

White, Matthew, ‘Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain’, British Library (2009) <> [accessed 28.01.18]


[1] The British Library, ‘The Monk by Matthew Lewis’, British Library (n.d.) <> [accessed 28.01.18].

[2] Fred Botting, Gothic Romanced (Oxford: Routledge, 2008), p.132.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.17.

[5] Ibid p.56.

[6] Ibid p.15-6.

[7] Ibid p.104.

[8] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p.14.

[9] Revelation 21.8.

[10] Lewis, p.205.

[11] Matthew White, ‘Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain’, British Library (2009) <> [accessed 28.01.18].

[12] Lewis, p.214.

[13] Frankenstein, dir. by James Whale (Universal Pictures, 1931) [on DVD], 0.11.

[14] Ibid., 0.09.

[15] Walpole, p.48.

[16] Ibid., p.23.

[17] Ibid., p.93.

[18] Lewis, p.234.

[19] Ibid., p.235.

[20] Ibid., p.214.

[21] Ibid., p.235.

[22] Deuteronomy 18.9.

[23] Whale, 0.06.

[24] Whale, 0.25.

[25] Julius R Ruff, Violence in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.96.

[26] Mark Canuel, The Shadow of Death: Literature, Romanticism and the Subject of Punishment (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), p.107.

[27] Whale, 0.40.

[28] Whale, 0.57.

[29] Lewis, p.325-6.

[30] George Haggarty, ‘The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction’, Romanticism on the Net, 36-37 (2004) <> [accessed 28.01.18].

[31] Walpole, p.104.

[32] Whale, 1.08.

[33] Walpole, p.108-10.

[34] Lewis, p.339.

[35] The British Library Board, ‘Heretics Burned at the Stake’, British Library (n.d.) [accessed 28.01.18].

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