In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of homosexuality because of his Gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He pleaded that homosexuality was “the love that dares not speak its name.” Following Wilde’s suggestion, queer critics often read the unspeakable, secrets and gaps in Gothic narratives as signs of repressed sexuality.
Gothic literature emerged in the midst of a series of changes in the way homosexuality was perceived and 'classed' in English society. In the mid-eighteenth century parliament produced legislation against homosexuality, while at the same time, a distinct homosexual subculture was on the rise. By the nineteenth century, while the English aristocracy was losing ground as a 'normative' social force, homosexual men were increasingly cast in a stereotypically 'aristocratic' role. In this manner, those at the center of the hetero-normative culture channeled people who were most different from them into positions of political isolation. Meanwhile in the lower and middle classes, homophobia was on the rise, along with the fear of anything outside what was considered the proper English norm. Just as the Gothic mode targeted (and inflated) the lower/middle class English reader's anxieties about the French, Europe, Catholicism, licentiousness, Jews, immigrants, aristocrats, and any other type of "other," it encouraged (and profited by) their increasing homophobia.
Some critics, such as Elaine Showalter in "Dr. Jekyll's Closet" consider the queer Gothic to be a reflection of an author's repression; though the writers could not speak of their sexuality explicitly, they reshaped their forbidden desires into Gothic narratives where sometimes the gaps in the narratives call forth the uncanny. Other scholars, such as Richard Dyer in "Children of the Night" argue that the Gothic represents homosexuals in the form of monsters and the Gothic other; they threaten the hetero-normative society and therefore must be expunged. Dyer likens the discovery of Dracula as a vampire and his death to the discovery of the homosexual and the expurgation of homosexuality.
Perhaps the most compelling writing on this subject is in Eve Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Giving specific examples of the 'unspeakable' in the Gothic, Sedgwick argues that it acted as an 'electrified barrier' between classes, between sexual choices, and between generations, inflating, exploiting, or illuminating the homophobia of the reader depending on the reader's identity. In Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Melmoth finally manages to wear down his victims' resistance, then tells them what he wants from them. Whatever Melmoth's demands are, the reader is not informed of them. Instead the manuscript crumbles, and the proposition is described as "one so full of horror and impiety that even to listen to it is scarce less a crime than to comply with it!" Sedgwick argues this gap is filled by the reader's fears, therefore the missing details depend on the audience. She proposes that for some of the audience with very homophobic sentiments, this suggested a homosexual act. For others, who were more concerned with a fear of religious zealotry, it could refer to some sort of Faustian pact. Sedgwick addresses the role of homophobia in the creation of the Gothic as well as the effects of a the Gothic novel (particularly Dorian Gray) on homophobia.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: otherness
Dyer, Richard . "Children of the Night: Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism," In ed. Susannah Radstone's Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988.
Ho, Aaron. National University of Singapore class: EN 4223 - Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The Gothic and After, Gothic Keywords project .
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men : English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York : Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.
Showalter, Elaine. “Dr Jekyll’s Closet” in Elton E. Smith and Robert Haas, eds., The Haunted Mind: The Supernatural in Victorian Literature. Lanham, MD & London: Scarecrow Press. 1999.