Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic. Gender and Slavery in Nineteeth-Century American Literature

Posted by Maria Parrino on January 15, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic. Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Ashgate, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4094-0056-1

Reviewed by Maria Parrino, University of Bristol

This book focuses on one aspect of American Gothic literature that Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet believes has been overlooked: judgement. Underlining the need to consider the genre as a performative rather than an objective critical category, she sets out to prove that the gothic offers “a complex intellectual and ethical reading experience” (2). Her analysis of the writings by and about Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, H. James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a richly annotated study, at times daring but in the main well-grounded in her intent to treat the “Gender and Slavery” of the subtitle. Challenging the critical commonplace of gothic novels as predominantly evoking fear, Monnet offers an interpretative key valuable for the gothic of any time and place. Assuming that the gothic is a multi-faceted genre, Monnet tells us that among the things we can do with it is to investigate the implications of gender and politics. She also reminds us that the gothic offers “the paradoxical pleasures of contemplating dilemmas and having the luxury of not having to decide” (20). With its concern with ghosts, monsters, murders and bizarre events, Monnet argues, the gothic raises questions about cultural norms and moral codes, yet does not supply answers. Explanations are to be inferred by the reader looking into the poetics and the politics of the texts. In the American Gothic writings taken into consideration, Monnet looks for and finds a recurrent trait: characters’ and writers’ scepticism in judgement. The difficulty of judging the events (or the will not to) has its literary manifestation in what Monnet believes is the most important and typical rhetorical figure of the gothic: paradiastole, or the “re-telling of a narrative in a completely different moral light” (10). Writers choose the gothic so that they can suspend judgement, readers choose the gothic because they know what to expect and “among the things they want to expect to find are the unexpected, the unexplained and the uncanny” (25).

The extensive introduction provides an historical overview of the term “American Gothic”, from its being an oxymoron (the New World unrelated to the Old) to its connotation of British and female to the analysis of the famous painting by Grant Wood and the photograph by Gordon Parker. Monnet maintains that besides geographical and psychological isolation, the specific trait in North American gothic fiction is what she believes has haunted American history most, namely race and slavery. Monnet explains how American gothic texts reveal, each in their own way, the cultural and moral code of nineteenth-century America. In the narratives, Monnet reads the analogy (rather than the allegory) with the ideological debates of the writers’ own time and their impasse of judgement towards social, political and moral issues.

In the first chapter, “Irony and Conscience”, Monnet shows how Edgar Allan Poe has been misinterpreted. For an understanding of his actual position on political and social issues, Monnet suggests reconsidering the writer’s narrative devices. For example, the narrators’ unreliability and lack of conscience exhibits their moral blindness and creates an ironic effect. Claiming that Poe’s amoral and even anti-moralistic aesthetic philosophy was more apparent than real, merely a strategy aiming at pleasing his reading public, Monnet demonstrates how the absence of moral self-consciousness encourages the reader to raise his/her moral stance towards the evil deeds of the narrators, who, despite being powerful and authoritative figures, are objectively condemnable. In many of the stories conscience becomes an “alienated and externalized agent”, as in the case of “William Wilson”, or a ghost, since “ghosts generally function like a conscience”, haunting characters who are involved in crimes committed in the past (44). For “The Fall of the House of Usher” Monnet offers an innovative interpretation: the strange agony of Usher which is mistaken for mirth in reality raises the problematic of slavery. The burial of the sister and her reappearance after an evident struggle out of her coffin unveil what has been deliberately concealed: the fear of slavery revolt, the convertibility of human bodies into commodities. The short story is the analogous dramatization of a revenge for imprisonment and physical torture. Monnet’s analysis proves the clear distinction between Poe’s treatment of race and slavery, evident in “Hop-Frog” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, where the comic and grotesque physical description of the African Americans is balanced with the representation of their moral characters showing dignity and a justifiable need to revolt and punish their masters.

The second chapter looks at “History, Ethics and Slavery” in Hawthorne’s fiction, including The House of the Seven Gables, and focuses on The Marble Faun (both publishing dates are, obviously, typo) which Monnet defines a complex meditation on “race as well as a gothic thought-experiment about how to judge slavery”(56). Her interpretation here is unusual to the extent that it might even seem bold. Of a story in which, Monnet surprisingly declares, “nothing much happens” (four friends visit Italy and a mysterious monk is murdered by the strange Italian faun-like Donatello), we are told that there are important issues at stake: race and slavery. Nevertheless, Hawthorne “displaces” the problem and writes a “gothic meditation on the role of evil and sin in human social evolution” (29). The faun character is like the member of the earlier phase of human race whose emancipation becomes possible only because of the evil deeds committed. The judgement of the murder, considered both an act of heroism and of guilt, reveals the difficulty of dealing with justice and judgement at the same time. The obscurity of the ending is, for Monnet, to be taken as fully ironic. The way Hawthorne uses history, constantly providing two versions of a story, generates a pervading ambivalence in his narrative, a typical paradigm of the gothic.

Chapter 3 examines “Queer Knowledge” in Melville’s Pierre, a text where gothic mysteries are mixed with the “sexual meaning of its ambiguities” (79). Monnet elaborates extensively on the category of “queer”, illustrating convincingly how the term is appropriate if it includes issues of sexuality, ethics and moral norms. Monnet states that picturing what happens to Pierre, the man who does not conform to the class and gender roles given by society, manifests the political intense and radical scepticism about cultural and ethical norms. The story is gothic in the subject matter (a revolt against the power of the parents to choose their children’s marriage partners, an attack against the institutions) and in the mode (a wrong in the past that needs to be redressed). Pierre is the iconoclast of religion, sexual norms, and literary conventions, whose repudiation of the natural “is not only gothic, it is also queer” (83). Pierre destabilizes the power of desire as it displays its transgressive nature. Once again, the gothic use of the paradiastole is functional to the narrative for it leaves the ethical value of Pierre’s behaviour undecided and undecidable. Another gothic feature is the narrator’s own ambivalence, moving from sympathy for Pierre’s “nobleness” to admitting the character’s weakness. For Monnet the most gothic and queer aspect of the novel is manifested in “the scepticism about epistemology and ethics” (91), the impossibility of knowing oneself and the other people, together with the impossibility of combining justice and social norms.

“Queer Gothic” is also explored in chapter 4, which discusses the writings of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Monnet outlines both what the two stories have in common (an unnamed female narrator on whose judgement and sanity the interpretation of the narrative is based) and how they differ. Whereas in James the stereotypical female suggestibility and emotionalism seem to prevail (as in The Bostonians and “Covering End”) in Gilman (including her other gothic story “The Giant Wistaria”) what emerges is the feminist stance. It is easy to agree with Monnet when she comes to the conclusion that James emphasises the woman’s subjectivity and her subjugation to passion, while Gilman suggests there is nothing wrong with the narrator’s subjectivity except that it might be insignificant and invisible.

Aware of the innumerable interpretations Turn of the Screw has raised (ranging from the effect of the neurotic sexual repression of the governess to a story of real ghosts), Monnet analyses the workings of desire, thus the “queerness”, in a narrative whose ambiguity is unmistakably deliberate. By avoiding a clear explanation of the governess’ reliability, James leaves it to the reader to make the choice and judge the sexual, supernatural and psychological possible interpretation. The writer suspends his own judgement, as Monnet explains, shielded behind “prudence” regarding implied scandal or sexuality and “pleasure”, the aesthetic satisfaction of perplexity and wonder. The “suspension of judgement” marks the gothic trait of his story. In contrast, Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has a project: it aims at showing how and why the narrator, forced by her obtuse husband to rest in the room where she sleeps, becomes mad. The story launches an attack on marriage and male arrogance, without making the protagonist a female heroine and shows that Gilman deliberately used the gothic mode “to exploit its paradigmatic preoccupation with challenging accepted modes of judgement” (118).

Interestingly, Monnet observes that in both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Turn of the Screw the narrators are deceptive. In Gilman’s story the woman is continuously hiding something either from her husband (her writings, her feelings) or from the reader (her relationship with the woman-figure on the wall-paper). The secrecy of the protagonist and her imprisoned double-life increase the queer aspects of the story, allowing for both a psychological and a supernatural interpretation. In James’ narrative the governess’ concern not to express her suspicions to the children and the fact that it is not clear whether she pretends or not disorient the reader and create “uncanny effects”. As Monnet writes in her footnotes, the theatrical language and imagery of the story has been already analysed. Yet, Monnet adds her  own contribution and demonstrates how the “acting” in the novel emphasizes the passing effect and its ambivalence: we never know whether the children who seem angelic are corrupted or the story, which looks straight, is queer. Thus, the narrative is earnest and playful at the same time and develops in what Monnet calls a form of “camp style”, a sort of self-conscious artificiality. Confounding judgement and allocating the reader the decision whether he/she is dealing with the wish to hide or suggest queer desire make the story more gothic. Significantly, Monnet underlines that the early twentieth-century critics’ focus on the governess manifested a misogynistic attitude which obscured the queerness of the story.

Monnet’s fascinating study well contributes to a better appreciation of nineteenth-century American Gothic. It also reminds us of the “maddening and pleasurable” impasse in judgement which is paradigmatic of the gothic.

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