The influence of Spanish Letters on the configuration of the Gothic villain.

Posted by Marina Pérez on November 16, 2015 in Blog, Marina Pérez tagged with , , ,

Spanish literature has shown so far a somewhat reluctant attitude towards the recognition of a Gothic literary tradition in Spain. However, recent research has demonstrated the reciprocal influence that both English and Spanish literary traditions have exerted upon each other throughout the history of the Gothic Imagination. Indeed, some authors like Armstrong-Roche (2007) or Lee Six (2012) date the first Gothic traces of Spanish influence back to the seventeenth century literature, more in particular, by means of the notion of the honour code.

Elaborating upon this chivalrous element, Armstrong-Roche explains how the notion of honour derives from the symbolic content of the honour duel, which arised asa spectacular means by which noblemen could distinguish themselves from commoners and reclaim some of the former privilege for resolution of disputes from a monarchy keen on monopolising justice and improving public order” (224). This circumstance will apply later on among the Gothic villains and heroes, who will struggle to maintain their honour and reputation towards society. In fact, the strict influence of the honour code upon these characters constitutes one of the most striking resemblances between Spanish honour dramas and the first Gothic works. This attitude applies, not only to the young Gothic heroines that seek to protect their female virtue, but also to the villains that attempt to consummate their most deviating passions. Lewis’ Ambrosio, for instance, is a perfect example of an evil character who, in turn, tries to keep his corrupted intentions behind the mask of religious faith. It is precisely among the first lines of Lewis’ The Monk where the reader discovers the powerful influence that society and religious worship exert over the antagonist:

When he remembered the enthusiasm which his discourse had excited, his heart swelled with rapture, and his imagination presented him with splendid visions of aggrandizement. He looked round him with exultation, and pride told him loudly that he was superior to the rest of his fellow-creatures […] What then now is left for me to do? Nothing, but to watch as carefully over the conduct of my brothers as I have hitherto watched over my own. (Lewis, 2003: 39).


It is evident from this passage that Ambrosio’s life is configurated according to the renown that his public image projects towards his followers, which obliges him, even beyond his religious duties, to protect this respected public status by all means. It is the twofold nature of Ambrosio which causes the origin of his moral and psychological conflict, leading the character to experiences a sense of entrapment when he starts perpetrating his hideous acts. Lee Six especifies that “entrapment is a Gothic predicament par excellence too, applying not only to physically trapped characters such as women in crypts, but to the psychological state of many who find themselves entangled in Gothic plots that seem to offer them no way out” (38). The author argues that this contrary feeling of repentance experienced by the monk in Lewis’ work evokes in a great extent the following fragment by Lope de Vega, belonging to the poetic composition Jerusalén Conquistada (1609): “Siguió a la injusta furia la tibieza/ Apareciose el arrepentimiento/ Que viene como sombra del pecado/ Principios del castigo del culpado (Lope de Vega, 133)”. These verses describe the thoughts of the rapist, King Rodrigo, after abusing the young Florinda, recalling the feelings of revulsion endured by Ambrosio after commiting his sinful act against Antonia: “The very excess of his former eagerness to possess Antonia now contributed to inspire him with disgust; and a secret impulse made him feel, how base and unmanly was the crime, which he had just committed” (Lewis, 384).

Similarly, the Spanish Gothic tradition also borrowed this concern in its staging of the conflict between the private self and public renown. In Cornelia Bororquia o la víctima de la Inquisición (1801), by Luís Gutiérrez, one of the most significant features is how the troubled nature of the perverse achbishop of Seville will lead him to death, without even having perpetrated his crime, agonising between guilt and remorse and desperated for maintaining the secrecy of his acts. This tragic end reflects clearly the spirit of a Gothic victim, despite Cornelia’s fatal death makes her the main victim of the novel. Furthemore, in La Urna Sangrienta (1834) the reader will find in Ambrosio’s turbulent growing and deviated education a justification for his horrid attitude throughout the novel. Thus, the “victimisation” of the villain in all these examples constitutes a quite relevant point to identify the potential influence of Spanish dramatic tradition on the later Gothic imagination and the creation of the hero-villain figure. Taking Frank Kermode’s words, these victimised villain characters are situated between everything but belong to nothing1, as a result of their unsettled and problematic nature. In other words, villain characters seem to wander between a right and a deviating attitude, as their evil nature is often stigmatised by an external force which escapes to their own control. Whereas Ambrosio’s difficult childhood in La Urna Sangrienta triggered his violent behaviour, the protagonist of The Monk is entrapped in a psychological inner dilemma as a result of his repressed instincts. In either cases, the reader cannot blame these characters for having an evil soul by nature, as they are both the consequence of what they have lived. Therefore, it is difficult to categorise these characters, bearing in mind the uncertain position they occupy in moral terms. Mulvey-Roberts refines this argument by pointing out that:

though the hero-villain may temporarily function as a vehicle for fantasies of unregulated desire and ambition or for sympathising for fantasies of unregulated desire and amition or for sympathising with the socially persecuted, the undeniable nature of his “otherness” always ultimately provides a means of distancing and disavowing his actions as unfeasible or illegitimate (1998, 114).

In all cases, it seems evident that the configuration of the Gothic villain has been shaped according to the external influence of values already established by an earlier literary tradition. In this sense, the profound ideals represented by the honour novels would inspire new models of interpretation for the future Gothic villains:

If Lewis did take from those deeply troubled and troubling Spanish honour-murderers, who are simultaneously villains and victims, part of his characterization of Ambrosio, which would in turn feed into the creation of later giants of the Gothic such as Dr Frankenstein, then that Spanish dramatic tradition deserves to be recognized as a significant precursor to the development of the Gothic mode (45).

Therefore, not only was Spanish narrative a source of inspiration in terms of setting and narrative strategies, but it also provided the Gothic imagination with a reinterpretation of the traditional villain, which will pave the way for forthcoming antiheroes of the Gothic tradition.


Works Cited

Armstrong-Roche, Michael. Cervantes’ Epic Novel: Empire, Religion and the Dream Life of Heroes in Persiles. Canada: University of Toronto Press. Web. 27 Jul 2015.

Gutiérrez, Luis. Cornelia Bororquia o la Víctima de la Inquisición (1801) Reprint. Madrid: Cátedra, 2005. Print.

Lee Six, Abigail. “The Monk (1796): A Hispanist ’s Reading”. Ilha do Desterro 62, Jan/Jun 2012. 25-54. Web 28 Jul 2015.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk (1796) Reprint. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.

Mancho, Ricardo Rodrigo and Pilar Pérez Pacheco. “Nuevas claves para la lectura de Cornelia Bororquia (1801)”. Olivar 4. Apr 2003. 83-103. Web. 21 Jun 2015.

Mulvey-Roberts. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Web. 26 Jul 2015.

Pérez y Rodríguez, Pascual. La Urna Sangrienta o el Panteón de Scianella. ed. Miriam López- Santos. Madrid: Siruela, 2010. Web. 19 Jun 2015.



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