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University of Maryland

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Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era

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With considerable historical background in mind, I would like to examine a number of the stock gothic tropes, including the mysterious nun, the paintings of women, the theater scene, and the fête in Villette as examples of not simply one of last gasps of high Victorian gothicism, but also of the internalization and critique of gothic theatrical technology. As Castle observes, the "phantasmagoria should [have] become a kind of master trope in nineteenth-century romantic writing," and certainly she applies the representation in provocative ways to the symbols and imagery in Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution. In a similar fashion, I would like to read Brontë's novel as a transmutation of the phantasmagoria to the novel form, a translation of a theatrical topos into the novelistic universe. Doing so allows us to see both the cultural persistence and permeability of gothic conventions, at the same time it enables us to appreciate that Brontë must have been assuming a shared theatrical knowledge in her reading audience. Critics have persistently faulted the novel for its "unreliable narrator" (Knies) and its "odd structure" (Martin); however, an understanding of how Brontë uses and critiques the theatrical machinery of her era actually works to clarify both the purpose and the structure of the novel. It has become conventional to describe the central conflict in the novel as one between "Reason" and "Imagination" in the personality of Lucy Snowe, the narrator. But a materialist interpretation of the work finds a much larger issue at stake.


Published version. Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era (December, 2005). Permalink. © 2005 University of Maryland. Used with permission.