LITERARY CRITICISM Some of our contributors analyse the work of other authors
The Gothic elements and their effects in Charlotte Bronte's 'Villette' by Mairi-Rose Wiseman
Perhaps I should begin with a little preamble as to what is generally meant by Gothic literature. The term is usually applied to works which contain a number of devices and techniques which strongly influence the sensibilities of the characters – and therefore by implication, those of the readers – in a particular way. The sense might be one of fear, dread, mystery, the significance of dreams, the weather, restrained emotions, the supernatural or indeed a journey to the darker side of life.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley is the classic of this genre.
But of course that particular novel is the epitome of the Gothic. Villette does not fall into that category. Nevertheless, the Bronte novel does dwell on many Gothic aspects. What these are, and why they are so effective in propelling the narrative forward, will now be discussed.
The sense of mystery and its oft accompanied dread, is an important aspect of the Gothic genre. Bronte immediately employs this technique with the introduction of her character Lucy. We are given virtually no background information about Lucy and indeed it could be argued that such is at the behest of the narrator, a deliberate enigmatic construction, perhaps hoping to mask the biographical element of the narrative. The effect created is one of mystery surrounding this person who turns out to be the main protagonist. And that mystery continues as Lucy returns to what she states as, 'the bosom of my kindred' in the chapter entitled, Miss Marchmont. Certainly she seems to have been comfortable with these kindred as she describes herself to be a, 'bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass', but of the details we know nothing. It is a mystery.
But of course, mystery of itself is insufficient to determine a Gothic text. At least some of the other elements must be present. And that is where we then address the element of weather and dreams.
As this chapter begins to progress and just when the reader is somewhat lulled into a sense of comfort with words such as, 'basking', 'warmed with constant sunshine', 'indolently soft', and the like, the Bronte character falls, 'overboard', and with references to, 'icy pressure on my lungs', there is created a dreamlike effect, but one that is both uneasy and unpleasant and furthermore, unprompted. No previous references have prepared us for this. I would propose we read this in relation to the final chapter. On reflection, its inclusion in the Miss Marchmont chapter, is presented as a foreboding of the denouement. Typically, Gothic.
Further on in the same chapter, Bronte states, 'After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring'. She uses language such as, 'The wind was wailing', 'plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves trilled in every gust'. Her heroine hears a, 'searching cry', 'a hopeless cry' Thereafter follows a series of spine-chilling images. This is consistent with the Gothic genre
Bronte then takes her character to London, and commences chapter 6 with an introspective of Lucy. 'When I looked, my inner self moved, my spirit shook its almost-fettered wings half loose...'. The image is completed with an ominous reference to Jonah. We are thus given the impression that all does not bode well for Lucy and this fact is all the stronger because Lucy is the narrator telling us so. She herself 'feels' a sense of foreboding.
Bronte then removes her character from London and sets her on board a boat for Belgium. The river is describes as being, 'Black … as a torrent of ink'. She states her destination as being, 'Where Fate may lead me', and with the capitalisation of the F, we immediately sense the supernatural. That feeling of the supernatural is continued as the character meets Madame Beck and it is said of the latter that she was, 'no ghost' and had , 'no spectral aspect'. By presenting the words, 'ghost' and 'spectral' albeit in a negative sense, Bronte is enhancing the prospect of the supernatural and thus preparing the reader for what is to follow.
By the time we reach the chapter entitled, The Long Vacation, a sense of unease has grown. Bronte refers to her character's nerves being, 'overstretched', a 'malady' is growing on her mind, an 'avenging dream', is brought to her and she utters the words, 'Thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind'. Thereafter, Lucy goes to visit the priest in an atmosphere of gloom and darkness. Slowly and insidiously, fear is surrounding the character. Once more, we have classic Gothic techniques.
As well as being fearful, Bronte portrays Lucy as an outsider. Even when living with the other characters in the school she stands alone, and of course, her single narration has the effect of distancing her even further. However, in this particular chapter with the stress on the long vacation, she is even more isolated and lonely. And the fact that she is a Protestant in a Catholic community – several references are made to this - isolates her further, so when the priest dismisses her not to 'come to this church' but meet him elsewhere for comfort, we feel her further estrangement. Bronte is perhaps illustrating the lack of Christian inclusivity, but more importantly, she is isolating her character and enhancing her sense of being an outsider.
Lucy's personal introspection becomes more apparent as she refers to the evening of the visit to the priest as being, 'more firmly fastened in my soul'. Fate is further referenced with Hope being said to be a 'false idol.' It is as if she is doomed in some way and by forces over which she has no control.
Still in 'The Long Vacation',the classic darkness of the Gothic genre now descends and although Bronte tells us that the storm which had beset Lucy during her church visit has now abated, she refers to the wind which continues to howl ominously. The inversion of the adjectives, 'Strong' and 'horizontal' force a destructive image into the mind and this, together with the spire being detailed as 'giant' and 'turning black', prepares us for the penultimate sentence where she seems to 'pitch headlong down an abyss'.
Having established the darkness and distress of the heroine in book 1, Bronte changes the mood with a sense of brightness and goodness in the person of Mrs. Bretton, Lucy's good Samaritan. The introduction of such a bright character enables Bronte to begin the salvation of her character. Yes, Lucy is still isolated, this time isolated in a little room, but she states she 'passed into a dreamy mood, not unpleasant' And even when she has further dreams related to the sea, the tide and the largest waves, we are assured of her comfort and safety as the servant brings her a light and both Mrs. Bretton and her son are close at hand.
In the chapter, 'Vashti', Lucy states, 'A new creed became mine – a belief in happiness'. She seems secure. Or is she? Here we now have a classic technique of lulling the reader into a false sense of security. A fire engulfs the theatre, not a purging fire, but a fire that pre-empts the end of a possible relationship between Lucy and John Graham: it is as a result of this eventful fire, that Graham meets Paulina (again) and Lucy is once more isolated.
Despite this and other setbacks, she survives. She even survives the drinking of a sedative (probably opium) and in the chapter entitled Cloud, she leaves the school complex to go to the grand entertainment and all this while in a drug-enhanced state. Bronte creates a purposeful mien to the character's behaviour. Lucy states, 'I took a revel in the scene' and, 'I drank the elastic night air', and most interestingly, 'I scorned Despair'. The over-riding sense of this event is one of the macabre, an atmosphere made possible by the very fact that the character was under the influence of a drug. Yet another aspect of the Gothic genre.
When eventually Bronte brings us to a conclusion, she bestows a financial settlement on her character with the possibility of future romance. Yet the Gothic elements are ever-present in the final sub-division where a reference is made to a storm that 'roared frenzied for seven days', a 'banshee' and 'a destroying angel of tempest'. Although Lucy has survived, the impression is created that M. Paul has not.
So in conclusion, what kind of novel do we have. Gothic? Not totally. Romantic? Certainly romantic elements, but not a romantic novel. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is not what Bronte was trying to do in the novel, but rather what effect did she create.
Much has been written (I believe) about the biographical element of her story, and maybe indeed there are elements of such, but for me the outstanding effect is one of character against adversity. And not just any character, but that of a woman. We know of at least one feminist text written by Mary Wollstonecraft, 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women' which was completed in 1792, and Bronte, a women of letters, had probably read this. Elizabeth Barret Browning and Mrs. Gaskell both had works published in the mid-19th century, but most importantly, the Brontes were already published, but under pseudonyms. How difficult it must have been to be taken seriously as a writer, we can only imagine.
Bronte presents Lucy as a character who also faces difficulties but one who triumphs in spite of the difficulties. She 'sends' Lucy to mainland Europe by herself, has her survive the teaching post in a school where circumstances are challenging, allows her to find emotional comfort with Graham only to be disappointed when he meets Paulina. The increasing strength of this character enables her to survive the elements of the supernatural and she even appears to survive the probable loss of M. Paul.
So for me, the overall effect of this novel is one of survival. Bronte puts her character into the most devastating of circumstances,but manages to show her ability to survive. At the end of the chapter entitled, Cloud, they, Walverens, Beck and Silas, 'outnumbered me', 'but as yet, I was not dead', she states.
In respect of Bronte's use of the Gothic elements, I would argue these were in keeping with the literary convention of the time and helped to illustrate the all-pervading power of the supernatural. In Lucy's case, that meant the weather, her dreams, the darkness ... Finally, although this is not specifically a Gothic novel, it still created a sense of strong moral closure with the triumph of the righteous, and Lucy was one of the righteous. Perhaps the love interest was dead, but the heroine survived.
How one thing leads to another..... by Mairi-Rose Wiseman
Searching through a list of poets of the Great War, I happened across the name of one Wilfred Wilson Gibson and I was slowly transported back to a poem of my childhood: Flannan Isle.
Long before I had been initiated into the terms of poetic analysis, I can still remember being terrified by the atmosphere embedded in the narrative of this poem; I knew nothing of the techniques employed by the writer to create the mystery of the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers; I was uninformed of style, metre and imagery as poetic concepts; I was simply captivated by the sense of the supernatural, the paranormal or the magical, as the child within me might have called it.
So what fascinated this child? Well to begin with, three men who had worked the lighthouse had disappeared and the lighthouse was not functioning. That's a serious matter. A lighthouse must send out a signal to inform sailors of the proximity of dangerous rocks. Even this child knew that. This lack of signal was a strong indication that something was amiss.
Having suggested this problem, Gibson, the poet, goes on to describe the journey of three other men who had travelled to Flannan Isle to seek out an explanation. And this is where the poem becomes really spooky. Gibson creates an image of the men being dwarfed by the lighthouse. It was 'towering white'. This figurative language sets up a contrast with the, 'three queer, black, ugly birds' which seem to be 'too big'. This child experiences an eerie tingling. She is well versed in fairy stories of the sea. She isn't able to access the internet – that's a distant techology – but she's heard stories about kelpies; she's steeped in ideas of devils and the supernatural and she know the power of magic. Fantasy can be easily explained; it's her reality. These three birds could actually represent the souls of the dead lighthouse keepers if they had lived an evil life, she reasons. If you were bad, you went to Hell; she knew that. Perhaps Hell meant being changed into a big, black ugly bird. The child 'knows' this is possible. There is no redemption for those who are evil. They might try plunging into the sea but that won't cleanse their evilness. That which previously had been spooky, now becomes spine-chilling.
And then the men land on the Isle itself. The entrance door is 'black'. It is distorted 'sun-blistered' and crucially, 'It gaped for us ajar', as if their arrival had been expected. The imagery is dark and inexplicable but this child is encouraged to read further because the door being, 'ajar', has been like an invitation. And also I may add, the frequent use of 'We' embraces this child. She is one with the men who seek. Perhaps she too can smell 'some strange scent of death'. She may not understand the implications of the 'black foreboding eye', but the ponderous effect of the diction is unsettling. So too is the fact that there's an 'untouched' meal on the table and there's a chair 'tumbled' on the floor. Why would three men take the time to prepare dinner and then leave it on the table. And the chair? Had there been a fight?
Gibson continues, 'We hunted high, we hunted low;' and he repeats this to deepen the mystery: everywhere has been searched; twice. As well as this, the men's disappearance is called their 'fate' as if to suggest the event has been predetermined A child may not understand the connotations of the word 'fate', but in this context, and aligned to the fact that apparently men in the past had also disappeared, makes this child wonder if the three who have gone to search, could be the next victims. And just to emphasis that possibility, the repetition serves to chill, especially the heart of THIS child. She has now been totally absorbed into the poem.
Finally, the last 4-line stanza reminds us of the ballad form established right at the very outset. The expression, 'ballad form', would probably not have been familiar to an 8 year old nor perhaps would the term, rhythm, but what would have been appreciated would have been the effect of the rhythming structure and the focus on the final word: 'dead'. And on top of all that, to discover that the story was based on fact would have added to the chill. I must also add, thrill, because this child read and re-read the poem and when she discovered, 'The Rime of the AncientMariner', she remembered 'Flannan Isle' and fell in love with poetry.
It begs the question,:do you really need a knowledge of the language of poetic analysis to appreciate a good narrative? Just sit down and read and let your imaginative muse stir your intellectual curiosity.