Ancestry and genealogy are explored in the Gothic in a number of ways, each of which emphasizes the tenuousness of the family tree:
- Many Gothic tales are spun around the fallout that occurs when the family line has been broken. In Castle of Otranto the inheriting son's death triggers Manfred's tyranny. In The Italian Ellena doesn't know her parentage, and isn't qualified to marry Vivaldi until it is revealed, so the romantic plot hinges on her genealogy. The appearance and reappearance of ancestors and inheritors (whether that reappearance is literal or figurative) creates a consistent and typically Gothic critique of the notion of familial inheritance as a reliable method for the transference of wealth or maintenance of status. After all, as Gothic narratives eagerly reveal, families serve as a breeding ground for lies and betrayal; and even when everyone is virtuous, the line can be broken by death or misfortune. Ancestors and inheritors come and go, and their comings and goings are never without the potential for disaster.
- The Gothic also emphatically demonstrates the fallibility of genealogy as a deciding factor in inheritance and marriage. In this way, the Gothic narrative is surprisingly closely aligned with the novels of manners and sentiment, tending to privilege middle-class bourgeois values over the antiquated courtly rules of the aristocracy. Samuel Richardson's Pamela for example, questions whether a lower class serving maid whose parents are farmworkers can be (albeit forcibly) elevated by marriage to an upper-class household, while Ann Radcliffe's Italian asks the same question about Ellena Rosalba, an unknown girl who supports herself and her aunt by working as a seamstress. The difference between the Gothic and the novel of manners, however, is that Richardson's characters' genealogy is revealed from the very beginning. Radcliffe, in helping to originate the Gothic aesthetic, obscures Ellena's heritage until the end. Both Ellena and Pamela diligently attempt to protect their virtue as their fates are decided, suggesting that the value of individual perseverance is advanced above the value of genealogy in both milieux.
- In some Gothic narratives, genealogy is problematic because it lends itself to the preservation of long-held feuding which can then be complicated by matters of the bedchamber. In the case of the chapbook Oakcliffe Hall, nearly the whole family is killed in order to preserve the secret of Arthur's parentage, since he was conceived in defiance of the ancient family hatred. This is, perhaps, another example the Gothic writer working to reveal the folly of the aristocracy's chivalrous notions in light of enlightened modern thought.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Kelly, G.. "Social Conflict, Nation and Empire: From Gothicism to Romantic Orientalism." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, North America, 20, apr. 1989. Available at: