Among the nightmare scenarios explored in the Gothic, torture stands out as one of the nastiest. In many Gothic tales, torture is used as a tool of the inquisition, often employing devices designed only for that purpose. One example of this is in Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk, in which “Having in vain exhorted him to confess, the Inquisitors ordered the Monk to be put to the question. The Decree was immediately executed. Ambrosio suffered the most excruciating pangs that ever were invented by human cruelty: Yet so dreadful is Death when guilt accompanies it, that He had sufficient fortitude to persist in his disavowal. His agonies were redoubled in consequence: Nor was He released till fainting from excess of pain, insensibility rescued him from the hands of his Tormentors.” By tormenting the extremely wicked monk in this way, Lewis brings the anti-Catholic sentiment in to another level, suggesting that in their actions, higher officials in the Catholic power structure were even more evil than Ambrosio and Matilda.
By modern standards, many of the ways heroines are treated in the Gothic would be considered torture. Surely being imprisoned in a crypt, starved, and watching her baby die is a torturous treatment of Agnes in The Monk. Similarly, the abduction of Ellena in Radcliffe's The Italian could be considered torture, since she is locked up in a remote location, held in isolation, and terrified by criminals. The word 'torture', however, does not appear in these contexts. In The Italian, Radcliffe describes instruments of torture in the chambers of the villainous monk Schedoni, but leaves it to the reader to imagine what that means. Radcliffe is also fond of using the word 'torture' when describing a character's mental state; Vivaldi is tortured by his love for Ellena, for example. Later, when he is in the hands of the inquisition, Vivaldi is threatened with torture, hears it occurring nearby, and sees apparatus he believes to be implements of torture, but is never actually subjected to torture himself. In this manner, Radcliffe evokes the terror of the torture chamber without actually having unseemly violence in her tale.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University