The ineffable refers to that which is incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable. A second sense of the word connotes that which should not be uttered – the taboo or the sacred.
The ineffable in Gothic literature, however, may conflate the taboo and the sacred, both sublime in their own rights. While the great name of God can be ineffable, the terrible dread of a devil-like creature like Dracula is just as ineffable; he is at times referred to as “He” although such capitalization is usually reserved for God. This conflation could reflect how uncertainty towards religion has resulted in superstition and its equally-ineffable origins.
More commonly, the ineffable in Gothic texts foregrounds the secrecy and withholding of information common in Victorian England; the resultant hypocrisy veils what must be kept unspoken. Besides secrets, the unconscious mind also remains hidden. Its inaccessibility and the analyst’s desire to access it – eg. through hypnosis in Dracula – is a common trope. The detective novel can also be seen as a quest to uncover and express the ineffable, but many overdetermined symbols present problems of definition to detectives and readers. The ineffable can thus be seen as a response that either resists definition, or refuses to try defining anymore.
Frankenstein’s monster’s language-learning process draws attention to the failure of words to articulate adequately. This inadequacy comes about in an age of changing literary taste fuelled partly by the efficiency that the 19th century’s financial and industrial revolutions demanded. To Gothic writers, the ineffable may well be a better alternative to the inadequacy of words.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has suggested that the unspeakable in the Gothic serves as a type of container for societal fears. If we link the ineffable with the unspeakable, therefore, we must consider that it could be a placeholder for homophobia, xenophobia, or any socially unacceptable fears of the reader.
Courtesy of Lionel Lye, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: Gothic literary techniques
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men : English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York : Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.