Tropical Gothic II

Posted by Daniel Sá on April 23, 2012 in Daniel Serravalle de Sa, Guest Blog tagged with

Over the past decade or so, critics worldwide have endeavoured to locate their own culturally specific traditions of the strange and the supernatural, and there has been a growing sense of a less circumscribed Gothic. My contribution to this emerging new field of Gothic Studies has been to investigate potentially Gothic Brazilian literary and film texts. Although I have referred to this work Tropical Gothic, perhaps Brazilian Gothic would be more appropriate, whereby the former could stand as an umbrella term to identify different Gothic manifestations in Latin America and beyond. Still I shall continue to refer to Tropical Gothic as a touchstone for justification of the broader and more specific points I aim to make.

Establishing the concept of Tropical Gothic as a critical term to investigate specific cultural traditions of the supernatural and the strange in the warmer parts of the globe is not an easy task. At first glance the expression itself seems to be rather contradictory; an oxymoron that combines the opposing ideas of ‘solar’ and ‘gloom’ in one concept. Academics that do not work in the field of Gothic Studies question the value of applying the Gothic – a literary and critical term originated in Britain – to the investigation of texts from other traditions. In the case of Latin America, a lot of scholars do not envision any benefits in a Gothic re-classification of a local text, many arguing that the category of Magical Realism already covers the tradition of the supernatural and the strange. Moreover, there are scholars who do not even believe in the existence of the Gothic such João Alexandre Barbosa, who affirms that it is an aptly invented critical category but not original to the Baroque.

I accept some of these observations, although I consider some of them to be in support of a rather isolationist point of view. I also believe the Gothic can effectively provoke discussions about social contexts of brutality, torture, and violence in ways that other theoretical frameworks cannot. And this is very important for Latin American countries which tend to shirk the cruelty of a broad sweep of history that is marked by the genocide of the native population, enslavement of African peoples, vicious military governments and modern urban violence. All in all, I learned that although the Gothic is a well-established critical category in the field of English Studies, it is still largely misunderstood elsewhere.

In Victor Sage’s writings I have found a way to circumvent some of these obstacles. His definition of the Gothic as being a “momentary derangement of the perceptual apparatus” in which “characters struggle to adjust their perceptions of sensory experience against the rational structures that sustain their world view” (176) is useful for my arguments. He calls these moments of misperception coda dell’ochio, or tail of the eye, indicating a fantastic vision that is later denied by the rational, materialist viewpoint. Thus the moment of Gothic misperception is a rhetorical effect that challenges the reader’s epistemological assurances. Although reason can be restored by means of authorial explanation, bringing readers back to their senses, still the Gothic will linger on as a seed of uncertainty lodged in the cracks of knowledge. The idea of the Gothic as a language, as Sage puts it, liberates the concept from national/temporal/language-specific connotations and allows for cross-cultural comparisons. Moreover, it is particularly useful in the investigation of Brazilian texts, wherein the horror, the uncanny is often limited to punctual demonstrations or instants of bewilderment i.e. a horror image contained in a sequence or scene and dispersed within plots of other ‘genres’.

In José de Alencar’s The Guarany (1857), a founding novel of Brazilian Romanticism that is still widely read in the country’s secondary schools to this day, I identified Gothic moments of misperception in some of its central passages. For example 1) in the destruction of the House of Mariz, emblematic of the Portuguese Empire, a scene in which Amerindian hero Pery sees “at a single glance of the eye, like a living picture lighted up for a moment by the instantaneous flash of the lightning” (140); 2) in the scene where the villain Loredano defies the laws of probability by walking over the abyss, “clearly this man was an infernal spirit, hovering over the abyss, and laughing danger to scorn; a superior being, whom death could not touch” (90); and 3), in the scene representing the attack of the Aymoré tribe. The latter scene features a depiction of animal-like Amerindians – the image of the savage country Alencar intends to suppress. The men throw themselves into war in a monstrous single-mass “a dreadful whirlwind of men jostling each other, falling and twisting; of heads rising and disappearing; of arms and backs moving and contracting, as if they were all parts of a single body, members of some unknown monster writhing in convulsions.” (114). These visions or Gothic moments of misperception disrupt attempts at constructing an ‘objective’ chronicle of the events and remain as unforgettable horror moments within a narrative that is usually read as a ‘historical novel’.

In the book Tropical Gothic, I used these arguably Gothic scenes of misperception to debate matters of colonisation and national identity, depictions of Nature, representations of villainy, among other issues of relevance in a local context. Still I considered it necessary to combine this theoretical perspective with some factual evidence in order to strengthen my claim about the presence of the Gothic in Brazil. I believe that to explain the Gothic as an originally British type of fiction can give my work more credibility, especially in Brazil, where the Gothic is seen as a term linked to Anglo-American literature and cinema. In a previous post I discussed in more detail the cultural-material circulation of eighteenth-century British Gothic novels in Brazil and how they may have affected the formation of the novel genre in the country. More recently I have been investigating Brazilian Gothic cinema, particularly the character Zé do Caixão and his theoretical and thematic connections with what has been called ‘Hollywood Gothic’. I am currently in contact with a fair number of Brazilian researchers of the supernatural and terror tradition in Brazilian fiction, although most of them do not call it Gothic. In some of my recent publications I have been specifically trying to demonstrate the value of a Tropical Gothic reading strategy in deepening meanings in Brazilian texts, and ultimately this is part of a larger research project that aims to put the Gothic critical category on the Brazilian Studies map beyond its current limited uses.


Barbosa, João Alexandre. ‘Entrevista’, Revista Cult, n/d.

Sá, Daniel Serravalle de & Emilene Lubianco de Sá (Org.) The Guarany: a Brazilian Romance. Florianópolis: Biblioteca Digital de Literatura – NUPILL, 2006.

Sá, Daniel Serravalle de. Tropical Gothic. Rome: Aracne, 2010.

Sage, Victor (2003) ‘The Ghastly and the Ghostly: The Gothic Farce of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy’. In: Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre? Edited by A. Smith and W. Hughes. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 172-191.

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