Considering the Gothic habit of using the perception of a physical boundary to create horror, one might expect any imaginary line dividing people from one another would be portrayed with the same degree of unswerving “Othering” and paranoia. Although Gothic treatment of different races, religions, and nationalities tends toward outright vilification, it is interesting to consider the variety of approaches Gothic writers use when building characters whose difference is based on (what we would today consider) ethnicity.
Jews: In a modern view, Jews can be viewed as members of an ethnic group, or (if applicable to the person) as members of a religious group. Although some will still attempt to define Jews as a race in anti-Semitic rhetoric today, this practice denotes a massive misunderstanding of their diverse genealogical and geographic origins. Unfortunately, Gothic works tend to complicate, amplify, and propagate these misunderstandings.
Probably the most famous Jewish character in the Gothic tradition is the Wandering Jew, who is a borrowed figure from popular legends. The original character of myth is defined by his immortality: he is doomed to live until the end of the world because he taunted Jesus on the way to his crucifixion. The character developed over the course of many centuries as storytellers all over Europe claimed to have seen the same Wandering Jew, and created versions of his story for their own audiences. As early as the seventeenth century, the character became a commercial commodity when English readers could buy the story in the form of a broadside song, The Wandering Jew: or, The Shoemaker of Jerusalem. In this version, the shoemaker shoved Jesus as he was carrying his cross, and was therefore cursed to wander the earth forever. By the end of this version of the story, the Wandering Jew is a miserable figure who can never find rest, but nonetheless proclaims positive virtues by giving alms to the poor, and cautioning everyone not to blaspheme by taking God’s name in vain.
The British Library also has a 1765 chapbook with the same title. The Jewish shoemaker in the chapbook version behaves terribly: he spits in Jesus’ face and then pushes him away from the front door of his shop, denying him a spot to rest on his way to Calvary. One key change in this version is that it is presented as a framed narrative, in which four Englishmen claim to have met the Wandering Jew in contemporary Yorkshire and asked him a series of questions. The beginning of the chapbook summarizes the poem in prose form, and then the four men report his responses to their questions: that Moses’ body was hidden to prevent the Jews from worshipping him, that when God marked Cain he changed his skin color to black, and that men and women should eat less meat and practice temperance. For whatever reasons, this chapbook amply demonstrates the anonymous author’s impulse to employ the Wandering Jew in the dissemination of moral lessons along with pro-slavery imperialist rhetoric (the mark of Cain was often used to justify slavery, casting black skin as a mark of God’s disfavor). This morality-laden, racist imperialist version of the character most likely represents the tradition of the Wandering Jew available to the general public before the intervention of the Gothic.
Matthew Lewis, who had likely read a version of the story in Schiller’s Der Geisterseher, made significant changes to the character when he inserted him into his Gothic novel The Monk, and the 1803 chapbook The History of Raymond and Agnes: or, The Castle of Lindberg, a Romance. Lewis’ Wandering Jew is characterized by the observations of the townspeople as follows: “By his accent He is supposed to be a Foreigner, but of what Country nobody can tell. He seemed to have no acquaintance in the Town, spoke very seldom, and never was seen to smile. He had neither Servants or Baggage; But his Purse seemed well-furnished, and He did much good in the Town. Some supposed him to be an Arabian Astrologer, Others to be a Travelling Mountebank, and many declared that He was Doctor Faustus, whom the Devil had sent back to Germany. The Landlord, however told me, that He had the best reasons to believe him to be the Great Mogul incognito.” This description breaks the tradition of the earlier legend, ballad and chapbook tales, in that Lewis’ Wandering Jew is wealthy, which is a stereotype of Jews common to that period. The description Lewis provided also paints the mysterious stranger as an extreme ‘other’ who is so foreign that people cannot tell if he is an Arab or a German, they simply know he is not one of them. Although other characters do not describe him in a particularly negative light, the Wandering Jew emphasizes his own frightfulness, explaining that God has cursed him so that he is “doomed to inspire all who look on me with terror and detestation.” The character also possesses supernatural power, since he has knowledge he shouldn’t be able to have, and can command a vengeful ghost to withdraw. This innovation likely reflects the influence of Schiller, whose Wandering Armenian in Der Geisterseher also had magical powers. The Wandering Jew’s behavior cannot be characterized as particularly Jewish, though, since he uses a Bible and crucifix to confront the ghost, and bears a burning cross on his forehead; although Lewis does not say so, he certainly implies that the Wanderer has been converted to Christianity. In the end, his ethnicity is not revealed until after he has already performed the exorcism and departed, both of which are essentially benevolent acts. The Wandering Jew is almost heroic in the context of Lewis’ overwhelmingly anti-Catholic novel, in that he rids the world of one lingering echo of the problematic history of the church (the Bleeding Nun) and saves the hero Raymond from being haunted to death. The first portrayal of the Wandering Jew in the British Gothic, then, is a relatively benign one: he is miserable, and looks frightening, but uses his power to save the novel’s chief romantic hero.
As the Wandering Jew was picked up by later Gothic writers, however, he slowly transformed into a more sinister character. Only a few years after The Monk, Godwin’s St. Leon converts the Wandering Jew into a character type, and uses him to caution the English against the adoption of too many stereotypically Jewish values, which, for Godwin, loomed threateningly large in industrialist, materialist, bourgeois London at the eighteenth century fin de siècle. The title character, St. Leon, is a figurative vampire; a miserable, loveless materialist whose greed acts as a poison to all. In this version of the story, the original Wandering Jew of legend has somehow passed his immortality in the form of an elixir to another wanderer, who then assumed his curse, and St. Leon exchanges his own soul for the same elixir and the secret alchemical recipe for making gold. By making the Wandering Jew’s curse transferrable to others, Godwin implies the character is much more dangerous, since he might tempt others to adopt his godless ways. Godwin promotes anti-Semitic stereotypes in many ways, maligning the Jews as gold-hungry hyper-capitalists, self-serving gamblers and usurers, and a danger to the cohesion of the English family.
After St. Leon, the concept of the Wandering Jew moves farther away from the original legend, and he becomes a different monster altogether. In 1820, John Galt’s (pseudonymously published as T. Clark) book The Wandering Jew: Or the Travels and Observations of Hareach the Prolonged, the Wandering Jew has taken on many of the attributes the vampire myth; he cannot bear to touch an image of God, then dies mysteriously, but leaves his grave in the middle of the night. Other than being somewhat mad and frightening his hosts with his godlessness, however, Galt’s Wandering Jew doesn’t act in a harmful way; his role in the book is to provide an immortal view of history. His journal, which his hosts find after his death and disappearance, gives his recollection of major events, from the Biblical sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans to the ‘present day’, which is an unnamed period ‘many years’ before 1820. His view of history is a very specific one reflecting Galt's views from many of his non-fiction works; even his telling of Henry VIII’s trial is given as evidence that “the English, above every people, are distinguished for their love of justice, and the open administration of the law” (353). As an outsider, the Wandering Jew provides a narrow perspective on events, since he seems to be unaware of the extenuating circumstances, and therefore his description represents Galt’s impulse to deliver his ‘theoretical history’ for the entertainment of his readers. For example, The Wandering Jew reports only a single confrontation between Catherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII in court, describing it in such a way as to suggest that Catherine meekly offered to return to Spain on her own accord (which the current historical record suggests is very far from the truth). His entire account of the life of Henry VIII is episodic in a manner that condemns his split with the Catholic church, but ignores his treatment of his wives, never mentioning annulments, divorces, or beheadings. On the other hand, the author expresses his outrage at the treatment of Mary Queen of Scots by Queen Elizabeth, depicting it as “a crime, in which the whole English nation participated. Elizabeth can in no respect be considered as having committed a greater outrage on the decorum of national justice, in the public murder of the Scottish queen, than her counsellors who advised the trial, than the parliament who implored, or that the people who clamoured, that the sentence should be executed” (389). These opinion-laced quasi-historical narratives demonstrate Galt’s use of the Wandering Jew to capitalize on the novelty of his alien perspective to critique society, much in the same way Heinlein used Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land. Galt’s can be construed as a somewhat anti-Semitic portrayal, since it does place the Wandering Jew clearly in the ‘terrifying other’ category.
For a detailed and fascinating exploration of the negative, distorted representations of Jewish culture in Gothic fiction after Galt, see the 2004 book Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature, by Carol Margaret Davison.
‘Gypsies’: The term ‘gypsy’ itself represents misunderstandings of this group of wanderers that originate in the sixteenth century, when theEnglish somehow conceived the idea that these strangers had come from Egypt (hence the ‘gyp’ in ‘gypsy’). The word was used as a pejorative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a contemptuous term for a woman of questionable integrity. Since the group refers to themselves as the Roma, Romany, or Romani, this entry will adopt those terms to avoid any possible negative connotations.
The Romani have a very complicated set of identities which have been a prickly topic of debate among academics in the literary community and in other fields. They can only loosely be included in this entry under the heading ‘ethnicity’ because academics have yet to conclusively determine whether the Romani should be termed an ‘ethnic group’ or a ‘race’, and many governments haven’t determined whether they should be treated as a cultural group or a sociological problem. There are seven distinct linguistic groups in the Romani language, which reveals the insularity of smaller units, and also the problem of attempting to address them as a single cultural group. They are also somewhat difficult to address along with other immigrant groups, because unlike many émigrés, the Romani are strongly characterized by their ability to resist assimilation by dominant cultures. Whether they chose to resist because they preferred to maintain their lifestyle, or whether they were rejected by their host nations is debatable, however.
When literary scholars want to study the way the Romani have been portrayed in literature, the situation becomes a little simpler, as there are basically two stereotypical ‘gypsies’, which are used in some form again and again. The first is the romantic stereotype, which presents the ‘gypsy’ as an attractive, exotically colorful group exemplifying the simple joy of a wandering life in the beauty of nature. Authors like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Reade used these romantic figures as mysterious characters or in minor romantic plots. In these cases, the ‘gypsy’ tends to be a benign character due to his or her avoidance of the complexities of English society. The romantic stereotype is repeated in chapbooks and penny dreadfuls, operas, children’s literature, visual art, and music. These descriptions often operated to promote the notion of the ‘gypsies’ as a distinct race with a singular set of characteristics; the romantic Romani is always dark, agile, and handsome, with a wild temperament ill-suited to the rules of English society. This romanticized picture of Romani life isn’t terribly truthful; in fact the group was persecuted, outcast or outlawed altogether in many European countries. Their life on the fringes of the bustling economies around them was probably much more difficult than romantic portrayal suggests.
The second stereotype of the ‘gypsy’, which was propagated in folklore, and which appears most often in the Gothic, was the wicked character with the ability to bestow curses, steal things (and children), and see the future. This stereotype was likely reinforced by the Romani practice of fortune-telling to earn money. In the Gothic, novelists sometimes use ‘gypsy’ characters as vehicles for foreshadowing by giving them the true gift of foresight. For example, in the first chapter of MG Lewis’ The Monk, innocent Antonia sees a ‘gypsy’ dancing on the street, and asks her aunt if she is mad. Leonella responds: “Mad? Not She, Child; She is only wicked. She is a Gypsy, a sort of Vagabond, whose sole occupation is to run about the country telling lyes, and pilfering from those who come by their money honestly. Out upon such Vermin! If I were King of Spain, every one of them should be burnt alive who was found in my dominions after the next three weeks.” Regardless of this injunction, Antonia allows her palm to be read, and the resulting prediction accurately forecasts her doom. The child-stealing version of the ‘gypsy’ stereotype is featured in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Sister Gudule accuses Esmerelda of being child thief. Gudule also thinks her daughter Agnes was abducted and eaten by ‘gypsies’.
According to Katie Trumpener, both stereotypes have fed into a ‘process of literarization’ which has placed the Romani in a difficult position at the center of an increasingly powerful pattern of Western symbolism. The Romani, who were forbidden to attend school, remained almost entirely illiterate, and therefore lacked a voice with which to proclaim their own identities and histories. Since in literature they have been cast as a race to be romanticized and demonized, their actual history has been obscured. Trumpener highlights the dangers of this ‘literarization’ of the Romani with an example from World War II, during which the Nazi secret police justified their persecution of the Romani by citing Schiller’s depiction of them. Scholars of the Gothic would be well advised to investigate whether the ‘gypsy’ character in a novel or chapbook is treated as a Saidian ‘other’, even though they might be long-term residents of the setting, and may be described in romantic terms.
Tartars / Tatars / Turks / Arabs / Moors: Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand ideas of ethnicity in the Gothic in isolation, as they are so often intertwined with (or trumped by) more obvious and rigid constructions such as nationality or race. The matter becomes even more difficult for scholars when it is sometimes unclear whether an author is referring to race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity when using a word like “Arab,” “Moor,” “Tartar,” “Tatar” or “Turk.” Such words can also sometimes not mean anything at all, but simply operate as a slur. Scholars will have to examine instances of these terms on a case by case basis to determine whether writers in a particular period was using the term precisely as we would today. As in the case of the Romani, it is probable that the use of any of these terms indicates that there are instances of ‘othering’ in the text.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Alcott, Louisa May. Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 1995. Print.
Bardi, Abby. "The Gypsy As Trope In Victorian And Modern British Literature." Romani Studies 16.1 (2006): 31-42. Humanities International Complete. Web. 5 June 2015.
Clark, T. The Wandering Jew: Or the Travels and Observations of Hareach the Prolonged. Comprehending a View of the Most Distinguished Events, in the History of Mankind Since the Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. London: John Souter at the School Library, 1820. Google Books. 3 June 2015.
Davidson, Carol Margaret. Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 2004. Print.
‘Gipsy.’ Oxford English Dictionary. Online.
Hancock, Ian. “The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature. 11(1):47-59. 1987.
Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500–2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-men to the ethnic Romany. London: Routledge, 2004.
Trumpener, Katie. The time of the Gypsies. Critical Inquiry 18: 843–84. 1992. Web.
"Wandering Jew." Encyclopædia Britannica (2014): Research Starters. Web.
“The Wandering Jew, or the shoe-maker of Jerusalem.” 1765. Shelfmark 11621.e.4.(18). The Romantics and Victorians Collection of the British Library, London, England. www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-wandering-jew, 1 June 2015.
“The Wandering Jew, or the shoe-maker of Jerusalem.” English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California Santa Barbara Department of English, Santa Barbara, California. ebba.english.ucsb.edu, 1 June 2015.
See also: xenophobia