Differences Between the American and British Gothic Literature
Gothic literature came to America in the late eighteenth century. This genre was paradoxical to the new country based on liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Consequently, the people of America discarded the gothic genre because the novels seemed unreliable. Gothic was based on history, something America was in lack of. However, the genre came to a new light and Americans began to use this literary trend in order to convey the nightmare that’s hidden deep within the American Dream. In order to separate itself from other Gothics, American Gothic writers had to adjust the Gothic literary characteristics to their own cultural features and conceptions of horror.
American Gothic writers tend to favor the psychological appeal because it enables each individual to undergo a unique feeling; this was achieved through superstition and the utilization of strange events. Strange events are a characteristic that is shared between British and American Gothic. However, they differ significantly when it comes to the application of this characteristic.
British Gothic focuses on the aspect of terror through the usage of monsters, zombies, and vampires. This can be seen in Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley who uses a monster with incredible strength and a sense of revenge in order to inflict terror on the reader’s mind. Contrary, American Gothic emphasizes mystery and skepticism through strange events such as doors being shut, footsteps, and the sound of wind.
The American Gothic focuses on the psychological terror that is inflicted when the reader knows there is a threat, but the threat is undetectable and slowly progresses into a manifestation. In the novel The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson utilizes mystery and the power of stealth in the antagonist in order to strike a particular kind of uneasiness. Jackson uses the “unknown” antagonist to manifest into a “night cry of a child” in order to strike panic in the reader’s mind because “when we become involved in a supernatural event, we’re scared out of our wits just because it’s unknown.” (Jackson 120). People fear what they cannot explain or understand, therefore making this an exceptional way to utilize strange events and clearly separating it from other types of Gothic.British Gothic uses certain techniques in order to confuse the reader such as multiple plots and narrators. The function of confusing the reader is to make what happens next all the more surprising.
However, American Gothic utilizes rhetorical devices such as imagery, personification, and symbolism. Another device American Gothic writers employ is contrasting two ideas such as god and the devil or good and bad. The use of these devices enables the author to create a blood- curdling atmosphere. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson utilizes personification in order to create a nerve-racking atmosphere. By giving the house human characteristics such as being “hating” and “arrogant” Jackson enables the reader to delve deeper into the story of the House and what it truly represents (Jackson 24). These stylistic elements also allow the writer to explore the American dream and nightmare within (Hogle 190-200).
An important characteristic in Gothic Literature is violence. Violence produces an atmosphere that is necessary for creating fear, harm, and demise. This not only has an impact on the characters but also to the audience who are engrossed in the novel. A common form of violence in British gothic is physical violence. As seen in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the monster physically and brutally killed people who were close to Dr. Frankenstein. However, American Gothic revolved around psychological and emotional violence. This type of violence can be seen in many American Gothic novels and short stories such as the “The Black Cat”, by Edgar Allan Poe. In this short story, Poe utilizes psychological violence by tapping into a mind of an abusive man who tortured his cat by gauging its eye out and eventually hanging it.
A similar cat reappears with the same wounds and eventually causes the downfall of the man. This delves into the mind of the readers because it focuses on society’s deepest fears, fears of what can go wrong at home. Home is associated with a place where one can be comfortable and safe and is also where we are most vulnerable. Through psychological and gruesome violence, Edgar Allan Poe is able to exemplify the horror that lies deep within the mind. American writers utilize violence to portray the horrors of its past; Native American massacres, slavery, gender, and discrimination.(Llyod)Setting represents a major characteristic of Gothic literature. Gothic novels were usually based in a European setting during remote times with interesting landscapes. This setting is apparent in Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte. There are vast fields, large mansions with many rooms, and woods/marshes. On the other hand, American Gothic cannot use this kind of setting because of the lack of history. This gives a handicap to American Gothic writers who were forced to adapt to what America had to offer; nature, towns, wilderness, and houses. This type of setting can be seen in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The “Hill House seemed awake” and gave a “sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil.” (Jackson 24). Hill House was unlike any other house, it was the living the embodiment of pure evil, an evil that will never harm you, but an evil that will make you harm yourself. The isolation of the mansion complements the gothic characteristics because it gives a notion of vulnerability.
Through Eleanor’s illustration of the house, it is clear the Hill House has a vibe, unlike any home that society could imagine. Jackson utilizes personification in order to further the chilling image of the house. By stating the house is “arrogant” and “never off guard” she provides the house with characteristics of a hateful human. This adds to the eerie setting surrounding the Hill House and additionally exemplifies the significance of setting in the American Gothic.Another element American Gothic writer make use of dreams, nightmares, and dream-visions in order to make it more difficult to differentiate between a dream and reality. Nightmares are typically manifestations that exhibit the darker outcome. Dreams, however, display what the character truly desires and the writer often keeps the final dream a secret until the end of the novel or story (Fielder 110-120). This element of “dreams” is evident in from Eleanor in Hill House. Eleanor never had her own life so she dreamed of her future home and made it a reality to people surrounding her. One item she dreams to have in her home is a “cup of stars”(Jackson 14). The cup of stars was important to Eleanor because it was the manifestation of her freedom and independence she dreamed of. Jackson utilizes this element in The Haunting of Hill House because it exemplifies the American dream that lies in each and every human in America. It further demonstrates the nightmare that is always present in the dream as well.
At any moment the dream can quickly become a nightmare or it can lead to a reality of demise.American Gothic also revolves around the topic of obsession. Obsession is utilized to recreate certain feeling and thoughts multiple times. The concept of obsession can be utilized to notify society about the consequences related to it. This obsession can be seen in Eleanor and the dream of her home. Eleanor was so obsessed with her idea of her own home she made it seem like a reality when it truly was not. When Dr. Montague did force Eleanor to leave, she did not go back to her home but instead let the Hill House take advantage of her dream. The Hill House used Eleanor’s obsession with wanting friends and desiring a home gave the house the ability to force her to kill herself.Gothic is characterized by a nation’s past, Britain has a rich history which made it especially good for the Gothic genre, however, this was not the case for America.
Nonetheless, America still had somewhat of a history, the nightmare hidden beneath the American Dream. Writers employed the past in their novels; ghosts from the past, events, and buildings. This history consists of Native Americans, slaves, colonization, racism, and puritan intolerance. This traumatic past was the building blocks used in order to create the “greatest country”, America. This past can be seen in the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
This novel involves the Native Americans and heavy presence of Puritan intolerance. Hester was forced to wear the letter A to represent the society’s intolerance for sin and was outcasted from the town. The Puritans did not show sympathy for her or her daughter, “It was nonetheless a fact, however, that, in the eyes of the very men who spoke thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.” (13.35). This exhibits that Scarlet may wear the letter and be the version of justice for the Puritans, but it ultimately ends up being a judgment on the Puritan society. Where puritans see judgment and punishment, Hester is able to see mercy. Europeans dreamed about building a place of innocence in a new land where one could be free, but through the slaughter of Indians and use of slaves, it was clear that evil was still present and always will be.
The American Dream was built on the lives of others who sacrificed everything.Conclusively, America was a new country with dark roots that enabled the American Gothic literature to thrive. American Gothic did an outstanding job separating itself from other gothic genres that share many similar characteristics as others such as British gothic and romanticism. It is evident through the style, plot, and devices used in American Gothic is a one of a kind genre that isolates itself from other genres making it unique. The dark roots that enabled the new literary trend to thrive were the same roots that built the nation and defines what America is today.
The reason that American Gothic was different from British is that it dealt with complex themes and topic through the human mind and is a link between the present and the past, dreams, and nightmares. That is why American writers were a new era or writers that made changes to a tradition.
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