One characteristic that distinguished Gothic novels from their sentimental predecessors was their willingness to debunk the notion that beautiful people are always good people. As early as Lewis' The Monk (1796), the woman who appears to be the Virgin Mary (Matilda) is revealed to be the most wicked possible sort of temptress and witch. Ambrosio, whose beautiful, noble features are highlighted in the beginning of the text, retains his outward beauty while he loses every shred of his moral virtue. Heroines like Antonia who blush, faint, tremble and cling to virtue are beautiful, but so are heroines like Agnes, who are pregnant nuns whose virtue is questionable. The Gothic continues to experiment with this idea of well into the end of the 19th century; beauty without morals or chastity becomes unnatural and bestial, evoking attraction and repulsion. Dracula's Lucy possesses two faces of beauty within herself, the seductive and cold beauty when she is a blood-sucking vampire and the earthly and peaceful one when she is truly dead as a virtuous woman. Similarly, RL Stevenson's Ollala’s beauty is that of degeneration, like the house, and is an indication of illness, insanity or bestiality.
In the later Gothic, the beauty of nature is often juxtaposed to what is man-made or corrupted. Victor in Frankenstein, in his scientific transgression, fails to enjoy the ‘charms of nature.’ Hence it can be an indication of the state of one’s inner mind. The beauty of nature is pervasive in Frankenstein and it contributes greatly to the sublime. There is a sense of the overwhelming in its grandeur and infiniteness as compared to man who is small. It acts as a refuge by diminishing man’s problems, but it can accentuate them also because it is threatening and uncontrollable. Victor’s escapade to Montanvert filled him with ‘sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar.’ The mountains are ‘terrifically desolate’ yet possessing a ‘solitary grandeur.’ Such a beautiful landscape becomes almost paradoxical as it would witness Walton’s and Victor’s suffering travels across the frozen seas, and its attractive-repulsion parallels the nature of the construction of the monster as well-attractive, dangerous and uncontrollable.
Courtesy of Candida Ho, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University.
MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York : Columbia University Press, 1979. Print.