Spring 2021 Undergraduate English Courses

359:315 The Gothic: Allegories of Fear

01   09321  JACKSON  MTH 11:30-12:50 

The Gothic: Allegories of Fear

No doubt about it. We seem to be living a Gothic novel. Our world seems turned upside down—and fear of contagion, insurrection, injustice in 2020-2021 seem oppressively close. In this sense, we seem to be living inside the fantasies that Gothic literature has exploited since its eighteenth-century inception. The earliest American Gothic novels, for instance, were set in epidemic-ravaged cities. Heroines confronted civic violence, mob rule, twisted villains, earthly cataclysms, the effects of disease, and—most of all—fear itself. The Gothic has long used the existential threat of disaster to measure humanity’s capacity to cope. In this way, the Gothic is always psychological. How does its themes test our ability to overcome our terror and horror? While yellow fever swept the streets of eastern cities, Charles Brockden Brown’s young protagonist, for instance, surrounded by death, endured the anguish of isolation, poverty, starvation, and the terror of people who could only be described as the walking dead. And, as if that weren’t enough, a mysterious psychopath, who moved unseen inside the walls of the ancient house in which she lived, stalked her as she fled the city to a run-down mansion in the wilderness.

 Writing around 1800, Brown lived in an age before the advent of modern psychology, but he sensed that the mind operated within recurring patterns that hinted at a mysterious identity—a shadow self—that lay buried within each one of us. He sensed that beneath the conscious mind lurked something much less knowable, something dark and sinister, perhaps some ancient and secretive pre-human faculty deep in the brain’s structure. What might such a primitive organ predating our rational, “civilized” self be capable of? Was each of us, he wondered, capable of unspeakable savagery? If so, what triggered it? And if triggered, could it be controlled or subdued? These are some of the psychological themes that animate and unify the fiction we will study in this course.

We will focus both on novels and short stories. We’ll also look to the critical frameworks offered by psychology, folklore, anthropology, philosophy, and literary and cultural theory. We’ll examine the aesthetic payoff of fear, tracing it back from our present time to its roots in ancient occult practices. Expect to talk and write about the way the Gothic has long traced social fissures and cultural anxieties.