Sorcery is a very old and recurring trope of wickedness, hearkening back to Chaucer's Parson's Tale and Malory's Morte d'Arthur. In many cases, sorcery is painted as the ultimate of evil acts, often involving the opening of a forbidden text, evoking the biblical pursuit of forbidden knowledge blamed for Adam and Eve's fall from grace. Sorcery's appearances in the Gothic begin with very early Gothic texts, and are often linked with this forbidden knowledge and a fallen (or falling) character.
In Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1794), the fall of Ambrosio does not happen in a single instance; instead, Lewis creates a ladder of transgressions upon which Ambrosio climbs from righteousness down to damnation. The first rung of this ladder is his sinful pride. The next 'rung' is lust, although it is not acted upon. Next is oath-breaking, then comes consensual sex, then his attempted ravishment of the unwilling Antonia. At this point in the story, Ambrosio has already decided that he is going to rape Antonia; he was only foiled because her mother interrupted him. When Matilda asks Ambrosio to consider participating in sorcery, however, he is loathe to descend to that level of wickedness, saying:
"'To look upon guilt with horror, Matilda, is in itself a merit: In this respect I glory to confess myself a Coward. Though my passions have made me deviate from her laws, I still feel in my heart an innate love of virtue. But it ill becomes you to tax me with my perjury: You, who first seduced me to violate my vows; You, who first rouzed my sleeping vices, made me feel the weight of Religion's chains, and bad me be convinced that guilt had pleasures. Yet though my principles have yielded to the force of temperament, I still have sufficient grace to shudder at Sorcery, and avoid a crime so monstrous, so unpardonable!'"
By depicting sorcery as a greater evil than rape or oath-breaking, Lewis completes his alignment of Ambrosio's fall with that of other seekers of forbidden knowledge. By the end of the novel, Ambrosio's descent is complete only once he uses the sorcery book to summon Lucifer and sign a pact with him. With this act, however, Ambrosio doesn't hurt anyone else; it is a victimless crime. The essential question, then, is why would Lewis, who is clearly so interested in blood and violence, seek to paint sorcery as the ultimate step towards wickedness?
For Lewis, and possibly many other early Gothic writers, sorcery is closely associated with the fall from grace as it is depicted in the legend of Faust, a myth that was well-explored for centuries before the beginnings of the Gothic, and had survived retellings and revisions in chapbooks, verse, drama. Lewis knew Johann von Goethe and spent some time with him at Wiemar, so in his case, it's probable his fascination with the Faustian bargain and its inherent sorcery came from his exposure to the decades-long development of Goethe's Faust.
At the other end of the traditional Gothic period, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Frankenstein, 1817) would use the Faust legend less directly, not echoing it as Lewis had, but instead drawing upon it to build a psychological frame for a character. While it is still possible to view Victor Frankenstein as an updated twist on a sorcerer character, Shelley never uses the word 'sorcery' and it is up to the reader to judge whether science and sorcery are similar things.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Haining, Peter. Gothic Tales of Terror; Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, Europe, and the United States, 1765-1840. New York, Taplinger Pub. Co., 1972. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.