brightOnline: UOB Literary Journal

“BrightONLINE is a journal for undergraduate and postgraduate student writing, edited and driven by literature undergraduate students at the University of Brighton College of Arts and Humanities. This is an online academic and creative literary journal, and issues will include outstanding articles and contributions from students within our university.”

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The University of Brighton’s Literary Journal

 “Online journal of literary criticism and creativity from the students of the university of Brighton.” 

During my undergraduate studies, one of my papers was picked to be a part of the university’s online academic journal. The paper is a response to ‘Why are the Romantic writers fascinated by the gothic and/or the exotic?‘. Always enjoying a challenge, I decided that I would explain the Romantic’s fascinations with both the ‘exotic’ and ‘the gothic’, in relation to postmodern theoretical frameworks.


Q. Why are the Romantic writers fascinated by the gothic and/or the exotic? Explore the ways in which the literature we have considered engages with or exploits exoticism and/or the gothic.

A. 

The Romantic epoch can be characterised by the onset of complex socio-political occurrences that promoted radical shifts in ideology and social practice. It is during the Romantic era that Britain reaches a point of ‘economic take-off’ due to the ‘enormous profits’ of 18th Century slave trade and Britain’s imperial successes overseas, the financial ramifications of which provided the early structures of a capitalist nation. [1] In light of this, and the ‘classicizing, conformist rationalism’ and ‘Lockean empiricism’ of the Enlightenment era, Britain’s dominant ideological views became that of the utilitarian practices of a new emerging ‘middle class’ and capitalist society.[2] Initially, these practices are articulated by England’s move away from a ‘primarily agricultural society’ and a ‘landholding aristocracy’ to a ‘modern industrial nation’.[3] This new industrial Britain created a dominant ethos which understood ‘nothing’ that could not be ‘transformed into a commodity on the open market’.[4] Consequently, working-class factions (such as the ‘Luddite frame breakers’)[5] sought to challenge the oppressive industrial practices of the new ruling classes. In light of the turmoil surrounding the French Revolution, Britain’s ruling classes, fearing revolution, responded with ‘brutal […] repressiveness’ turning Britain into a ‘police state’.[6] Thus, many of the Romantic writers sought to question the impetus and ramifications of a growing industrialised England by challenging the perceptions of its emergent ‘mass media culture’, the empirical rationale of the Enlightenment era, and Britain’s utilitarian practices; all of which regarded Art as an ‘unprofitable ornamentation’ or a commodity built upon ‘hierarchy’ and ‘decorum’.[7]

 

These concerns are noted by William Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he comments that the new ethos of industrial England threatened to blunt humanity’s ‘discriminatory powers’, reducing mankind’s critical perspective on society to a ‘state of […] savage torpor’.[8]Wordsworth’s advocation of humanity’s ‘discriminatory powers’, in the wake of an early capitalist society, highlights the discourse between Art as an expression of Neo-Platonic ideals and the Sublime, and its indoctrination into industry as a commodity. Drawing parallels between Wordsworth’s concerns for humanity’s ‘discriminatory powers’ and Jean Baudrillard’s theory of ‘speculative distance’ (in The Vital Illusion)[9], and Jean-Francois Lyotard’s ideas of ‘speculative unity’ (in The Post Modern Condition)[10], we can start to see how literature of the Romantic era sought to challenge the dominant ideologies of its time. In the work of Baudrillard and Lyotard, mankind’s ‘speculative unity’[11] or ‘speculative distance’[12] is misshapen in the wake of an ‘acceleration’ in the ‘media’, ‘technology’ and ‘economic’ status of a nation.[13] As a result, literature is often characterised by an engagement with the expository inadequacies of a society’s dominant metanarratives. We can liken such conditions of ‘acceleration’ to that of a growing industrial Britain in the Romantic era; where ‘markets for and access to texts of all kinds were expanding’ due to new ‘circulating libraries’ and cheaper printing practices, producing a ‘growing reading public’.[14] Thus, it is the Romantic’s response to the ideologies of the new emergent reading public that Lord Byron’s engagement with the Exotic, in Don Juan[15], and Horace Walpole’s engagement with the Gothic, in The Castle of Otranto[16], finds greater meaning. This essay therefore, by applying postmodern theory, will present the ways both works seek to return humanity’s ‘discriminatory powers’ or ’speculative unity’. As a result of each text’s underlying socio-political musings, this essay will examine how both writer’s fascinations with the Gothic and the Exotic can be read as a means of exposing the inadequacies of a Romantic Britain; each text questioning the ‘legitimation’ of established metanarratives by presenting ‘incredulity’.[17]

The ‘Exotic’ construct and the connotations of a text’s ‘Exoticism’ are subject to complex debate in the Romantic era. Whereas, the politician Thomas Macaulay commented, that a ‘single shelf of a good European Library’ was worth the ‘whole native literature’[18] of the East, the philologist Sir William Jones advocated the eminency of the ‘Eastern nations’ and their teachings.[19] This debate in the works of Byron evolves in to a discourse of the Orient’s growing prevalence in 19th century England. In a letter to Tom Moore, Byron states that ‘the public are Orientalizing’[20], indicating that literary success is achieved by ‘Stick[ing] to the East’.[21] Much like Edward Said’s discussions of ‘The Orient’ as a product of Romantic ‘European invention’[22] in his work Orientalism, 1978, we can see how Byron’s recognition of the nation’s ‘Orientalizing’ indicates his awareness of Britain’s fetishizing perspective of the Orient and the notion that literature is beginning to become a marketable commodity. The critic Terry Eagleton notes, that contemporary perceptions of ‘literature’ only began to develop in the Romantic era.[23] Romantic Britain sees a ‘new division and demarcation’ of discourses and literature, placing ‘creative’ concepts ‘at odds with the utilitarian ideology of early industrial capitalist England’.[24] In light of these ideas, Don Juan can be read as a vehicle by which Byron addresses the ramifications of Literature under an early capitalist consumer society that is perceived to blunt ‘humanity’s discriminatory powers’.[25] Begun in 1818 and published in installments up until Byron’s death in 1824, Don Juan is a satirical retelling of the legendary Libertine Don Juan. Under the guise of this satirical reimagining, Byron’s poem undermines the metanarrative of Literature, commenting on the hierarchical nature of literary works in light of Britain’s emerging capitalist society and utilitarian doctrine of classification, in an effort to return the 19th Century reader’s critical perspective.

 

In Canto I stanza twenty-five, Byron satirises the language of heroic poetry in his depiction of the young Don Juan. The description of the ‘curly headed child’[26] alludes to imagery associated with the mythical ‘Putto’ of the Italian Renaissance, a reference more commonly associated with the ethereal attributes of a subject in traditional Heroic poetry. The line is then followed in the stanza by the hilariously vulgar alliteration, ‘mischief making monkey’.[27] The introduction of this line undermines the preceding line, expounding the pretentious nature of the first image, consequently satirising the language of heroic poetry and presenting incredulity towards the meta-narrative of Literature in 19thcentury utilitarian Britain.

 

In stanza six of Canto I, the self-reflexive nature of the poem highlights a further incredulity towards the meta-narrative of Literature. Through the Narrator’s recognition of the tropes of Heroic poetry in relation to ‘his’ own work, we are presented with how Epic poetry has become artificial and commoditised.[28] The colloquial tone of the narrator’s commentary on how ‘Most’ epic poets ‘plunge “in media res” ’ undermines the grandeur of the heroic voice in traditional Epic poetry.[29] This undermining is further enforced by the idea that ‘Horace’ makes use of ‘in media res’ as a technique of the ‘turnpike’ of the ‘heroic road’.[30] The insipid image of a ‘turnpike’ highlights Horace’s approach as a mere ‘trope’ of Epic poetic form. The inherent irony in the poetry satirises the established form of Heroic poetry.[31] The critic Drummond Bone comments, that ‘Don Juan’ in particular ‘is reflexively concerned with its genre’.[32] Thus, by critiquing the Epic form in a reflective manner Don Juanpresents incredulity towards the metanarrative of Literature, with the aim of restoring a more critical perspective to the reader.

 

In stanza forty-two of Canto I, Byron comments on how certain texts are omitted from popular literary consensus when literature is commoditised in a capitalist society. As the narrator expounds on the ‘classical studies’ that the young Don Juan undertakes in his education, it is implied that upon learning the ‘pure’ songs of ‘Virgil’ the ‘horrid one’ (Virgil’s Eclogue II) is omitted from his curriculum for its erotic and passionate musings on love.[33] The notion that literature can be removed from the education system engages in a discourse of what can be constituted as ‘literary’ and what is suitable for a reader’s consumption. This discourse highlights the inadequacies of the established hierarchy of Literature and its canon, presenting incredulity towards the meta-narrative of Literature, with a view to prompting a more critical perspective on the consumption of texts in an emerging capitalist society.

 

In the 18th and 19th Century, the Gothic style finds a new reactionary impetus under the ‘emergence of Enlightenment beliefs’. Likened to the aspirations of the Romantic poets by Edmund Burke, in his work, A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, feelings of ‘Fear’ and Terror’ were considered transgressive in effect and therefore akin to the Sublime.[34] This freedom of emotion and ‘imagination’ in the Gothic, as noted by Richard Hurd, is an expression of what Britain sought to regain in ‘poetic inspiration’ as a result of the rise in ‘civility’ of the (utilitarian) ‘modern era’.[35] The Castle Of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole, was initially published with a fictional preface that sought to ironically legitimate the novel’s validity in 1764; the second edition of the novel identifies itself in actuality as a ‘new species of romance’ literature, namely the Gothic romance.[36] The critic Andrew Smith notes that the Gothic is a style that ‘reworks’ different ‘images’ from history, with a view to revealing the ‘moral’ and ‘political’ outlooks and sympathies of the author.[37] Therefore, a close reading of The Castle of Otranto conveys Walpole’s incredulity towards the meta-narratives of Religion and Capitalism in his contemporary Britain. In the hope of exposing the inadequacies of British society, the novel subtly critiques the ideological systems of the church and the utilitarian middle class, which were perceived to blunt the critical perceptions of the era.

 

The preface to the first edition of the novel, authored by the fictitious ‘Onuphrio Muralto’[38] presents incredulity towards the metanarrative of Religion. The notion that the book is written by a ‘scheming priest, bent on encouraging superstition’ in the ‘darkest ages of Christianity’ presents the narrative of the novel as a sight of spurious intent.[39] Before the novel has begun, Walpole (under the guise of translator William Marshall) invites the reader to be skeptical of the opinions raised in the narrative. The critic Fred Botting notes, that Enlightenment rationalism displaced religion as the authoritative mode of explaining the universe and […] social worlds’ therefore, Gothic works can be seen as ‘effects of fear and anxiety [that] attempt to account for or deal with the uncertainty of these [ideological] shifts’.[40] Walpole’s skeptical engagement with the validity of religious doctrine portrays his anxieties surrounding the meta-narrative of Religion. By presenting such incredulity, Walpole encourages the reader to maintain a critical perspective with regards to religion in society.

Through the discourse of Friar Jerome and Manfred we can see how the established doctrine of the Church is critiqued, presenting incredulity towards Religion. The notion that Friar Jerome entertains the attempted rape of Isabella by Manfred because of the ‘scruples’ of ‘legality’ in Manfred’s first marriage to Hippolyta portrays the prevalence of religious doctrine over ethical and moral behaviour.[41] This notion is further enforced when Friar Jerome, ‘suffered to deceive himself… determined to traverse his views rather than second them’, fails to act against Manfred, under the implications of Religious law.[42] The critic Andrew Smith further comments that the ‘convents and monasteries’ of Otranto are places ‘one goes to escape’ rather than ‘cultivate spirituality’.[43] Therefore, the discourse between Jerome and Manfred present incredulity towards ‘outmoded beliefs’ of Religion’.[44]

The ‘enormous helmet’[45] that kills Conrad can be read as a metaphorical critique aimed at Britain’s ruling classes, which presents incredulity toward Capitalism. The ‘helmet’ can be read as a symbol for Conrad’s lineage, or ‘legacy’.[46] Therefore, the ‘homely’ and ‘sickly’ Conrad is literally crushed by a physical manifestation of his families overbearing and wrongful need to maintain power.[47] We can liken this allegory to a commentary on the utilitarian practices of the emergent middle class in the Romantic era. The notion that Conrad is unable to maintain his lineage presents skepticism towards the middle class as his status is torn away from him from by a supernatural occurrence that favours the rightful inheritance of land and kingdom. This favoring of feudal landholding practices presents incredulity towards 19th century Capitalism.

 

The character of Theodore further highlights a fear of political decline due to emergent capitalism. As Theodore is left to ‘forever indulge [in] melancholy’[48] at the loss of Matilda, his tragedy symbolically shows that despite the return of the landowning aristocratic rule of his lineage his future is ‘at best an uncertain one’.[49] This uncertainty is further reinforced by Theodore’s simultaneous position as ‘nobility’[50] and ‘peasant’.[51] If Manfred is representative of the emergent middle class, an unnatural heir who attempts to maintain power by utilising any means possible, Theodore’s ‘imprisonment’ in the tower is symbolic of the fear the aristocracy (nobility) and agricultural working classes (peasantry) face in the wake of a rising utilitarian middle class. Thus, Walpole’s commentary on the political instability of Britain’s former aristocracy and working class, embodied by Theodore, presents incredulity towards the meta-narrative of Capitalism and Britain’s emerging utilitarian practices.

 

In conclusion, Byron’s engagement with the Exotic in Don Juan, and Walpole’s engagement with the Gothic in, The Castle of Otranto, can be viewed as a means of returning Britain’s discriminatory powers by highlighting the inadequacies in the ideologies of Romantic Britain. In Don Juan, Byron conveys incredulity towards Literature by underlining the conceit of heroic poetry, the omission of texts from the canon of academia, and the alienating qualities of scholarly works. This satire can be read as a response to the introduction of literature to the British market in the wake of utilitarian practices and an emerging industrial capitalist society. In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole presents incredulity towards Religion through Father Jerome and Onuphrio Muralto. Furthermore, Walpole presents incredulity towards Capitalism through the death of Conrad and Theodore’s imprisonment. These examples of Walpole’s skepticism allude to anxieties surrounding the critical perspective of mankind in the face of capitalist utilitarian endeavors advocated by a new emerging middle class stratum of British society.

 

 Bibliography

 

Bone Drummond, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Byron’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004)

 

Botting Fred, Gothic (A New Critical Idiom) (London: Routledge 2013)

 

Burke Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008)

 

Byron Lord, Don Juan (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004)

 

Curran Stuart The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism (Second Edition) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010)

 

Eagleton Terry, Literary Theory an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2013)

 

Keymer Thomas and Mee Jon, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004)

 

Klancher Jon A Concise Companion To The Romantic Age (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Press 2009)

 

Malpass Simon, The Postmodern (London: Routledge 2005)

 

Norton Anthology of Literature, Norton Topics Online, Minute on Indian Education,

http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_4/byron.htm

 

Norton Anthology of Literature, Norton Topics Online, Minute on Indian Education, http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/victorian/topic_4/macaulay.htm

 

Reidhead Julia, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period Volume D (9th ed.) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 2012)

 

Rivkin Julie and Ryan Michael, Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd 2004)

 

Said Edward W., Orientalism (London: Penguin Group 2005)

 

Smith Andrew, Gothic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2008)

 

Walpole Horace, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008)

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2013) p. 17

[2] Marshall Brown, ‘Romanticism and the Enlightenment, in The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism (Second Edition) ed. Stuart Curran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) pp. 34-55 (p. 35)

[3] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2013) p. 17

[4] ibid p. 17

[5] P.M.S. Dawson, ‘Poetry in an age of Revolution’, in The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism (Second Edition) ed. Stuart Curran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) pp. 56-82 (p. 62)

[6] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory an Introduction (Blackwell Publishing 2013) p. 17

[7] ibid p.17

[8] William Wordsworth, ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period Volume D (9th ed.) ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 2012) pp. 292-303 (p.293)

[9] Simon Malpass, The Postmodern (London: Routledge 2005) p. 93

[10] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd 2004), pp. 355 -364 (356)

[11] ibid p. 356

[12] Simon Malpass, The Postmodern (London: Routledge 2005) p. 93

[13] ibid p. 93-94

[14] Fred Botting, Gothic (A New Critical Idiom) (London: Routledge 2013) p. 43

[15] Lord Gordon Byron, ‘Don Juan’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period Volume D (9th ed.) ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 2012) pp.672-726

[16] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008)

[17] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd 2004), pp. 355 -364 (356)

[18] Norton Anthology of Literature Norton Topics Online, Minute on Indian Education, http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/victorian/topic_4/macaulay.htm [accessed 13th May 2014]

[19] Saree Makdisi, ‘Romanticism and Empire’, in A Concise Companion To The Romantic Age ed. Jon Klancher (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Press 2009) pp. 38-56 (p. 38)

[20] Norton Anthology of Literature Norton Topics Online, Romantic Orientalism,http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_4/byron.htm [accessed 13th May 2014]

[21] Saree Makdisi, ‘Literature National Identity and Empire’, in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830 ed. Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) pp. 61-80 (p.72)

[22] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Group 2005) p. 259

[23] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2013) p. 16

[24] ibid p. 16

[25] William Wordsworth, ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period Volume D (9th ed.) ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 2012) pp. 292-303 (p.293)

[26] Lord Gordon Byron, ‘Don Juan’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Romantic Period Volume D (9th ed.) ed. Julia Reidhead (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc. 2012) pp.672-726 (p.676)

[27] ibid p. 676

[28] ibid p. 674

[29] ibid p. 674

[30] ibid p. 674

[31] ibid p. 674

[32] Drummond Bone, ‘Childe Harold IV, Don Juan and Beppo’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Byron’ ed. Drummond Bone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) pp. 151-171 (p. 157)

[33] Lord Byron, Don Juan (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004) p. 379

[34] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful(Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) p. 36

[35] E.J. Clery, ‘Introduction’, in The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) pp. VI-XXXIII (p. X)

[36] ibid p. VIII

[37] Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2008) p. 4

[38] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008)

[39] E.J. Clery, ‘Introduction’, in The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) pp. VI-XXXIII (p. XI)

[40] Fred Botting, Gothic (A New Critical Idiom) (London: Routledge 2013) p. 15

[41] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) p. 51

[42] ibid p. 51

[43] Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2008) p. 24

[44] ibid p. 24

[45] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) p. 19

[46] E.J. Clery, ‘Introduction’, in The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) pp. VI-XXXIII (p. IX)

[47] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) p. 17

[48] ibid p. 115

[49] Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2008) p. 23

[50] ibid p. 58

[51] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008) p. 20

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