Anne Williams in her book The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic suggests that Gothic literature is “pervasively organized around anxieties about boundaries (and boundary transgressions).” Gothic literature, however, deals not only with boundaries (and transgressions) of “self and other;” it attempts also to show the problematic nature of boundaries in the first place. Social boundaries, for example, define what is correct, but at the same time repress the individual. Boundaries in Gothic fiction are often blurred, and things are never as clearly defined as they seem.
The establishment of the boundary between the self and other is important in Gothic fiction, in which everything that the Self is not is projected onto the Other. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster is clearly the Other for he, at least physically, has come to represent everything that the other characters are not. The idea of “self and other” extends also to geographical boundaries, where everything within the boundary of civilized world is good and everything beyond it is either seen as exotic or dangerous. In Stoker’s Dracula, London is seen as civilized and safe (at least prior the arrival of Dracula) and everything in Romania is considered to be dark, ominous and dangerous.
Boundaries create distinction, but they are also repressive in nature. Society upholds certain norms (boundaries) that individuals cannot transgress or risk being termed the ‘Other’. People in attempting to stay within these boundaries naturally have to repress any desires that may transgress these socially determined boundaries. It can be argued that Dr. Jekyll’s creation Mr. Hyde is an attempt to remain respectable at all times, as defined by Victorian societal boundaries.
Lastly, boundaries can be blurred as we see in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for is it really possible to create a boundary within oneself? The fact the Jekyll goes to bed as himself and wakes up as Hyde suggests that not only are boundaries problematic, it can also be easily blurred. Dracula too, represents a blurring of the boundaries between the living and the dead: he is not dead, but he is not alive as well, hence he is called the “Un-Dead”, which is really an oxymoron.
Physical boundaries in the Gothic tend to serve as metaphoric reminders of the untrustworthy nature of boundaries in general. Consider the early Gothic monastery and convent as portrayed in The Monk by Matthew Lewis. The entire purpose of a monastery is to afford the monks a cloister, in which they can be removed from the concerns of the outside world to contemplate matters of religion. Physical walls separate the monks from outsiders who would distract them or tempt them from their fate, but within the first few chapters, Matilda easily penetrates that boundary to complete her seduction of the monk Ambrosio. Indeed, it is the necessity of upholding the idea of the boundary that causes Ambrosio to keep Matilda's secrets. While Lewis and Ann Radcliffe tend to take very different approaches to the Gothic, they are in agreement on the porous nature of the physical boundary. In Radcliffe's The Italian, despite the fact that Ellena is in a convent and then imprisoned by Schedoni, she is able to maintain her relationship with Vivaldi across every type of boundary.
Courtesy of Ivan Ang, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: transgression
Williams, Anne. The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
Horatio and Camilla; OR, THE NUNS OF ST. MARY. A TALE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Inkle and Yarico; or, Love in a Cave. An Interesting Tale., Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
The Gothic Story of Courville Castle; or the Illegitimate Son, a Victim of Prejudice and Passion: Owing to the Early Impressions Inculcated with Unremitting Assiduity by an Implacable Mother Whose Resentment to Her Husband Excited Her Son to Envy, Usurpation, and Murder; but Retributive Justice at Length Restores the Right Heir to His Lawful Possessions. To Which is Added the English Earl: or the History of Robert Fitzwalter, Unknown
The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin [Transcript], Thomas Isaac Horsley Curties
The Vindictive Monk or The Fatal Ring [Transcript], Isaac Crookenden