The way contemporary scholars define ‘race’ is considerably different from how it was understood at various times in the past, and how writers within various Gothic traditions conceptualized race impacts how racial discourses operate in their texts. In their study of racial formation in twentieth century America, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant provide a succinct definition of race: it is ‘a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies’ (55). In other words, race is now understood to be a social construction, a system of categorization in which difference, or even perceived difference, in the phenotype of one ‘type of human body’ means something to another group and is used as a mechanism of social organization. If ‘race’ is the signifying concept, racialization is, as Omi and Winant explain, the ‘sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ (56). Thus to understand exactly what ‘race’ means in terms of the Gothic and how Gothic texts participate in discourses of racialization, one must attend to the specific sociohistorical conditions from which the text arises.
Although the idea of race existed long beforehand, it is useful to locate the study of race in the British Gothic within the context of British imperialism, which brought British people into contact with numerous populations of racial ‘Others.’ From its early origins in the 16th century, the British Empire expanded into the largest empire in history, which, of course, put colonists in contact with racial Others whom they needed to categorize for the purposes of domination and the maintenance of imperial authority. Material culture, including literature, which served power, justified racially-based domination ranging from patronization to the absolute social death of slavery. In his important study of ‘Gothic images of race,’ H.L. Malchow describes his project as one which ‘explores the creation of a popular vocabulary in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by which racial and cultural difference could be represented as unnatural—a “racial Gothic” discourse that employed certain striking metaphoric images to filter and give meaning to a flood of experience and information from abroad, but that also thereby recharged itself for an assault on domestic and physical “pathology”’ (2-3). Of particular interest to Malchow is how this vocabulary of the racial Gothic could be ‘appropriated by racists in a powerful and obsessively reiterated evocation of terror, disgust, and alienation’ (3). That is, he studies ‘both the gothiczation of race and the racialization of the gothic as inseparable processes’ (3). Further, Malchow argues that the ‘racial Gothic’ not only facilitates colonial imperial projects, but that it also serves a normative function domestically by enforcing ‘civilized’ standards of class, gender, race, and culture against the terrifyingly unnatural, savage, foreign Other. By constructing the racial Other as an object of terror, the intersection of gothicized racist discourses and the racialized Gothic texts produced a material culture that rendered chaos and corruption, which resonated with deep-seated anxieties about the stability of civilized norms.
The racist discourses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were enabled by the residual discourses of the Enlightenment and scientific ‘progresses,’ particularly in anthropology. The pseudoscience of phrenology, for example, provided biological evidence for racial difference, both physical and intellectual, which was expressed directly or indirectly using the Gothic mode. This, along with first-hand narratives describing primitive colonial subjects, reinforced supremacy of the white, heterosexual, bourgeois European male. Indeed, the Gothic served the needs of the hegemony in that it made the racialized Other terrifying and unnatural in order to identify the boundary between the Other and the self; however, the uncertainty and the unknowns lurking in the Gothic express anxiety about the ability of such borders to hold. Thus, racialized Gothic texts and Gothicized racist discourses also highlight the potential limits of European knowledge and progress.
Malchow uses readings of Frankenstein and Dracula that focus on the vocabulary and imagery of race to explore the nature and operation of the racialized Gothic and the Gothicization of racist discourses. Any number of Gothic texts, however, use racialized vocabulary to induce terror and horror at the expense of the racial Other. From oblique depictions of swarthy villains to chaos of slave rebellions, the late eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic functioned to construct and solidify meanings of race, and use them to dominate and exclude a range of racial others.
It is also important to briefly acknowledge the significance, perhaps even the centrality, of race to the American Gothic tradition. One of the first narratives to emerge from the British colonies in North America was A Narrative of the Capitvity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), a text that explicitly confronts the dark racial Other: the Native Americans. This is a text that, while predating the Gothic tradition, anticipates its obsession with the racial Other and the entrapped female heroine, as well as the terror of the unnatural and the uncertain. What we now identify as the American Gothic emerged after the American Revolution. Influenced by Ann Radcliffe and William Godwin, Charles Brockden Brown, who saw himself as a political and social critic, wrote Wieland (1789), a foundational American Gothic novel wherein the conflict was between the insidious forces of superstition and psychological manipulation. Unlike the British Gothic, the American tradition did not have the ancient castles and haunted abbeys; the setting became the land and wilderness populated by hostile Native Americans.
In a later novel, Edgar Huntly (1799), Brown constructs a Gothic wilderness for the eponymous central character, a somnambulist turned Indian killer who, in the darkness of the American wild, devolves into savagery. This both positions the racial Other as violent and uncivilized and exposes the terrifying possibility that a ‘civilized’ man can revert to complete savagery in the haunted American wilderness.
Racism in the American Gothic is not limited to the racial Other in the figure of the Native American. The social and political institution of race slavery in the United States inevitably underscored the contradictions between institutional enslavement and a republic founded on the precept of individual liberty. The Gothic mode was employed by a range of authors who used the grotesque and terrifying both to justify the institution of slavery and to call for its abolition. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for example, features a murderous ‘Ourang-Outang,’ who was captured from its native habitat by a sailor who intended to sell it. The creature escaped its captivity, however, and brutally killed two white women with a razor. This can be read in light of the building anxiety about race in the antebellum period and pseudoscientific rationalizations, such as phrenology, which provided a biological basis for the construction of the ‘Negro race’ that was intellectually inferior and inherently violent.
After the Civil War, the related tradition of the Southern Gothic emerged, which utilized the grotesque and macabre to render the backwardness of the South and the decay of the Southern aristocracy, a significant aspect of which was the reconfiguration of the social hierarchy to account for the legal abolition of race slavery. Many of Faulkner’s novels, including Absalom! Absalom! (1936) and Light in August (1932) use the Gothic mode to deal with the social and sexual mixing of the races, while Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), and later Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) employ the Gothic to render the horrors of societies where in the constructions of race serve as a means by which the horror of racial violence operates.
Courtesy of Heather Noble, Marquette University
Crow, Charles L. History of the Gothic: American Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009. Print.
Malchow, H.L. Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. Print.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. NewYork: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Wheller, Roxann. The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Print.
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