In the Gothic, all hope is often lost for our heroine until providence intervenes. Although the odds will be heavily stacked against survival, suddenly the tables are turned; a series of incredible coincidences leads to her salvation. One example of this is the revelation of Ellena’s identificatory talisman in The Italian. The reader is certain Schedoni will murder Ellena until she happens to be wearing an image he happens to recognize, and he somehow assumes this means she is his daughter. Ellena is saved, though no human being has intervened on her behalf. The mysterious hand of ‘providence’ which in Christianity is provided by God, becomes part of the eerie sublimity of the story.

The use of providence as a device in fiction was not an invention of the Gothic, but derived from Restoration and Augustan tradition. According to Robert Geary, from the very beginning, Gothic novelists wrestled with their explanations of the supernatural, attempting to strike an agreeable balance between what the audience would accept as 'frightening enough' while avoiding the territory of fantasies they would deem too unreal to believe. Again and again in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), providence is credited with the hero's escape; Theodore himself says, "Providence, that delivered me from the helmet, was able to direct me to the spring of the lock." He is also saved by providence when his birthmark proves his identity which prevents his execution.

On some levels Walpole's use of providence is not so different from the tradition already established by Fielding or Defoe; it is used to justify a favorable turn for the character, just as it is in Robinson Crusoe, when providence is thanked for the generous abundance of food on the island. Walpole, however, does not provide Defoe's worshipful thanksgiving for God's generosity, or even mention God's name in accordance with the earlier conventional providential traditions. Also, once his plot moves away from traditional Romance and becomes truly Gothic in character, the providence can no longer quite bear the load of explanation. If the tragic events of Otranto can be blamed on providence it is clear Gothic providence has become its own creature; where in a traditional Romance, providence would continue to provide good turns for the lead couple, in Otranto it is a fickle thing, sometimes pushing Theodore and Matilda together, sometimes flinging them apart. When Matilda is finally killed, Manfred goes so far as to attribute her death to providence, saying "heaven directed my bloody hand to the heart of my child!" It is quite a stretch against any belief system to assume that the traditional providence of Christianity is at play here; Matilda has done nothing to incur God's wrath. Instead, providence in the Gothic becomes less the hand of God, and more a feckless instrument subverted for the advancement of a horrific narrative.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University

See also: plot devices

Geary, Robert F. The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction : Horror, Belief, and Literary Change. Lewiston, N.Y. : E. Mellen Press, 1992. Print.




Fatal Jealousy; or, Blood Will Have Blood! Containing the History of Count Almagro and Duke Alphonso; Their Combat in the Dreadful Tournament and the Death of the Beautiful Bellarmine, Through the Artifice of Sophronia, Her Rival, Unknown