Increasingly from the late 18th century, breakthroughs in the physical sciences have strongly suggested the world can be explained by a finite set of natural laws and equations. This flourishing of the sciences arose from the age of Enlightenment which posited that rationality and reason lead to progress, and therefore rationality itself became increasingly virtuous. Being rational was now arguably more important to the persona of the 'good English person' than being loyal or faithful had been in ages past.
Gothic literature, however, often challenged the ability of reason and rationality to explain every aspect of the unknown. Rationality breaks down when society is shown to be beyond predetermination by mere equations. The Gothic explores the unreasonable and chaotic universe, rife with twisted desires where “progress” and the veneer of reason and rationality only conceal repressed desires paradoxically brought about by such values. It shows how the power of science can indeed transform life but not always positively and without cost.
There is a clear gendered split in the assignment of rationality as a character trait in the Gothic, particularly in terms of the author's treatment of the heroine. In the female Gothic, the heroine's ability to reason and find rational explanations serves to balance male physical prowess, sometimes allowing her to triumph, or at least to survive. In Ann Radcliffe's early novel Sicilian Romance (1790), the heroine Julia de Mazzini is a rational survivor, whose ability to think clearly and rationally allows her to overcome wrongdoing. Emily St. Aubert, Radcliffe's heroine in Mysteries of Udolpho similarly wields reason, and triumphs over her father and stepmother. Indeed, the Radcliffean mode of Gothic writing is often defined by its rationality. Radcliffe's use the "explained supernatural" technique served to remove superstition from her plots, instead supplying careful and rational explanations for each seemingly ghostly activity.
By contrast, the male authors of the early Gothic produced stereotypically vapid heroines with no recourse to rationality. Antonia in The Monk, for example, is portrayed as an over-sheltered, mis-educated simpleton who cannot possibly use her mind in her own defense. When in duress, her response is completely irrational: "Antonia prayed, wept, and struggled: Terrified to the extreme, though at what She knew not." Antonia doesn't even know why she is afraid, and when pressed, can only resort to emotional outbursts and prayer while she waits to be rescued.
Compiled by Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle : Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.
Fleenor, Juliann E. The Female Gothic. Montréal : Eden Press, 1983. Print.
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic. Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.
Winston Cheong, National University of Singapore class: EN 4223 - Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The Gothic and After, Gothic Keywords project .