A Bipolar Discussion through Texts by Walpole and Jackson

Posted by Ilse Marie Bussing on April 12, 2008 in Blog tagged with

In our initial Gothic reading group meetings we’ve discussed works which are very distinct from each other but which are nevertheless united under the label of "Gothic": The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), by the American author Shirley Jackson. These two novels, staged and written in two different contintents and separated by almost two centuries can be easily compared and constrasted by considering major literary devises such as characterization, plot, and setting or by more subtle elements such as the production of suspense and fear in the texts. Our discussion centered on the issue of setting in both works. Walpole’s work is the first classic of English Gothic literature, and already in this first work, setting is highlighted as one of the most important elements (one can’t ignore the fact that Walpole himself was obsessed with setting, since he rebuilt Strawberry Hill in the Neo-Gothic fashion). Even critics of the work who can’t help but refer to and laugh at the sometimes ridiculous happenings in the plot (a giant helmet crushing the heir to the castle is everyone’s favorite) defend the work because of the setting that is presented. The text inaugurates the eighteenth-century Gothic tradition of placing the action within medieval castles or religious structures and of presenting a chivalrous, often idealized world. The specific elements that we discussed about the setting in The Castle of Otranto were: labyrinthine staircases and passages, feelings of claustrophobia and oppression (generated by certain spaces), and the fabrication of an artificial medieval setting in general. In Shirley Jackson’s work, however, one can clearly see a shift in the setting. Beginning in the nineteenth century and culminating in the twentieth century, the home is now the focus of Gothic happenings. We discussed how the issue of the labyrinth, so exploited in The Castle of Otranto, could still be acknowledged in this modern text. However, instead of oppression and claustrophobia, the modern setting now generates feelings of disorientation and uncanny repetition; for example, the characters in the novel are always lost within the house and often walk into the same rooms thinking that they were headed in another direction. Jackson’s work and setting reflect the 20th century preoccupation with psychology and anxieties about the self. The difference in setting in both works clearly points to a shift in social and cultural anxieties. Whereas characters in Walpole’s work run away from external supernatural and religious forces, Jackson’s characters seem to be running away from their internal own selves. One could even say that by running away these characters are actually running into and clashing against their uncanny doubles, a fact which clearly announces a modern preoccupation with mental processes and madness.

Isle Marie Bussing, University of Edinburgh

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