THE POETICS AND POLITICS OF THE AMERICAN GOTHIC-GENDER AND SLAVERY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE by Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, Reviewed by Christina Zwarg
 

THE POETICS AND POLITICS OF THE AMERICAN GOTHIC-GENDER AND SLAVERY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN LITERATURE
By Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet
(Ashgate, 2010), ix + 163pp.
Reviewed by Christina Zwarg on 2011-01-21.

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Fear and paranoia can be misleading terms for the impact of gothic narratives. Or so we discover in this new study.  Determined to show that affect need not be the point of departure for interpreting such narratives,  Monnet explains how the operations of the gothic often serve not so much to rouse the passions as to "scandalize judgment." Of course, blocking the reader's ability to make sense of competing ethical imperatives can sometimes produce pleasurable results, as Monnet allows. Unlike melodrama, for instance, whose form consistently invites the comforts of clarity,  the gothic mode can solicit the paradoxical relief of indecision

This move to the side of the psychological register emerges from a wish to highlight ethical concerns lost whenever certain affects have assumed primacy in the critical vocabulary.  As Eve Sedgwick noted in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1980),  the attributes we associate with those conventions  are all too coherent and available across the long stretch of its form. Yet Monnet presses us to challenge the "critical commonplace" that  gothic stories aim  "to provoke fear, horror, or dread in the reader" (2).  For Monnet, the gothic form, like  its "sister aesthetic of camp" can be "serious, silly, and sophisticated" all at once; Horace Walpole, after all, enjoyed cultivating a stylistic affectation that he wished to call "gloomth"(3).  Monnet believes that a particular gothic sophistication lies in the ethically charged  figure of paradiastole, or "rhetorical re-description, i.e. the retelling of a narrative in a completely different moral light" (10). Borrowing from Angela Carter, Monnet associates this trope with a mood of unease that a reader may experience in reading gothic novels, where ambivalence has been cultivated by irreconcilable narrative frames. Both an emotional and cognitive condition, this state of mind can be made to serve  a variety of ethical and political functions, though Monnet contends that readers of the American Gothic in particular often overlook their range.  

Monnet opens with a fine chapter setting both the ground rules and limits of her approach, beginning with an elaboration of the notion of "American Gothic."  In Grant Wood's famous 1930 painting by that name and its "re-inscription" by Gordon Parks in his 1942 photograph of Ella Watson, Monnet finds  an excellent analogy for uneven developments in literary history.  Juxtaposed, the words "American" and "Gothic" once assumed an ironic character, since the darker side of the gothic form seemed at first ill suited for helping critics distinguish "American" literary history from its British origins.  In the nineteen-fifties, Monnet suggests, the romance theory of Richard Chase quarantined the gothic as a minor aberration in American literature, even though nearly every major American writer adopted  some version of it.  But according to Monnet, this critical denial changed in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam War, when the phrase "American Gothic" took on new political meaning and particularly evoked unconscious forces animating the trials of American history. Invariably, the phrase became attached to racial and gender relations double-parked along side the normalizing tendencies of the nation state

While considerable energy has since gone into critical studies of the gothic strain throughout U.S. literary history, Monnet hopes to shift away from the psychological focus still residual in many of them.  Previously, critics who exposed  the political effects working throughout psychological domains  triggered a productive new look at American literature, especially at the work of Poe and its relationship to slavery and race relations. Yet Monnet sees a different approach to the American Gothic emerging now.  Rather than assuming the primacy of a conscious or unconscious racism, she writes, critics like Terence Whalen, Leslie Ginsburg and Clayton Marsh have adopted a less predictable approach, tracking a range of cultural response  across the field of Poe's gothic literary productions. Taking cues from this approach for  the framework of her study, Monnet wishes to move from deep readings of the gothic to the surface, where contradictions between "irreconcilable paradigms" can be found and placed in productive critical relief (23).

In a book of  four chapters on canonical U.S. authors, Monnet  begins with an analysis of Poe.  Citing  recent theories explaining Poe's self-presentation as "amoral and even anti-moralist" through his canny reading of the market driven literary culture (34), Monnet finds a productive parallel between  Poe's provocative self promotion and the unreliable narration upon which so many of his tales depend.  Poe's narrators often appear to work free of the ethical register of a conscience, though with various implications for the reader's exposure to that idea. What the discourse of conscience might have meant for Poe's readers is suggested by Francis Wayland's Elements of Moral Science (1835), which Monnet cites.  According to Wayland,  conscience could be an alienated entity, separated off from the "decision-making subject." As a result, whole communities could become alienated from this bothersome arbiter of ethics.  Applying this point to   "William Wilson"  and "The Masque of the Red Death," Monnet argues that suicide often found in both works signals a notion of denial and the alienation of conscience it involves, with wider repercussions for the centrality of denial in many of Poe's tales, including "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Hop-Frog." All of these readings show how Poe's refusal to assume a moral posture can obscure his aesthetic commitment to justice in a broader sense. The relevance of Poe's fiction to the discourse of slavery thus emerges through the mechanisms of alienated conscience that it exposes, though Monnet may not fully consider  a further point:  these exposures also seem to invite the reader to recognize  the scandalous nature of the actions, rather than of the judgments they provoke. Moreover, arguing-- as Monnet does-- that Poe's often ugly treatment of race should be separated from his treatment of slavery suggests the continuing pressure certain affects can place upon a critical reading of his gothic tales.

In Hawthorne's late novel The Marble Faun, Monnet  finds a different way of representing the ethical problem of slavery.  Here, she argues, the gothic form exhibits a "will to justice"(59) that often permeates  the narrative in some form, either through "narrator, plot, or setting" (59). Yet as explained  earlier, the gothic mode invariably thwarts that will, given its predilection for an uncertain and indifferent moral universe. Once again Monnet invokes the figure of paradiastole, which she finds in the tension Hawthorne generates between Hilda and Kenyon's interpretations of Miriam and Donatello. In Monnet's account, Donatello assumes a primary role as a discursive referent for the enslaved African. Through the scandal of judgment the reader confronts concerning Donatello (is he evilly compounded or morally transformed through crime?), the novel exposes Hawthorne's unwillingness to align himself too closely with the apology for slavery which the novel precariously suspends. That is, Hawthorne's aesthetic skill exploits the "scandal of judgment" central to the operations of the gothic form to obscure and perhaps even elevate the scandal of his conservative inclinations.

Linking  the gothic mode to gender issues and an emergent queer performativity, Monnet examines the work of Herman Melville, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Henry James.  Calling  Melville's Pierre" one of the earliest queer American texts," Monnet shows  how circuits of desire  in this novel destabilize knowledge to address "non-normative desire at the moment that the homosexual was being invented as a cultural concept" (29). Not surprisingly, the incest theme serves to shift normative understandings of sexuality even as it unsettles Pierre's knowledge of himself,  including his own desire. With an assist from Eve Sedgwick, Monnet shows how the secrets, exposure, and shame figured by Melville engage and disarm his reader into sharing the scandalous world Pierre inhabits so uneasily. Monnet thus sets the stage for her final chapter, which turns to  two different gothic tales by Gilman and James,  more precisely to political action in "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and entertainment through obscuration in The Turn of the Screw.

 For Monnet, both gothic stories not only present us with female narrators; they also both challenge our judgment.  Given the Progressive Darwinism which Gilman used to promote and support women who never wished to marry, the madness of her narrator provokes the feminist reading now familiar to most readers, though Monnet argues that this reading was also available to Gilman's contemporaries. Moreover, Monnet finds in the narrator's obsession with the female figures in the wallpaper an index of homoerotic attachment whose presentation depends upon its superficiality, though one that can be said to have gothic origins. Linking the James story to Gilman's through the narrative voice allows Monnet to open refreshing possibilities, for her readings depend upon taking the haunting figures in each story seriously, less as figments of a psychological register than as markers for thwarted knowledge and queer sensitivities. Deeply unsettled by what he called the "Oscar Wilde horrors" (which Monnet considers the horrors of the "ghoulish public" 114), James understood how the gothic form offered a proscenium with euphemistic protection.  Monnet sets The Turn of the Screw beside  "Covering End," the play turned tale and written, like the novelette,  in the aftermath of the Guy Domville debacle. Read together, these works show how James knowingly used "double entendres and deliberate ambiguities" to "both hide and suggest queer desire"(129). Rethinking the narrative of the governess through these associations exposes the multitude of queer relations proliferating throughout the novel.

Short but fertile, Monnet's study is deftly written. Her opening chapter succinctly traces the history and various meanings of the phrase "American Gothic." Her individual readings build on insights and theories drawn from  specialists in the authors she treats.  Though her readings are consistently persuasive,  the freshest and most compelling part of her critical story emerges--for this reader--in her chapters on Poe and James.    Given the early work of Eve Sedgwick on the Gothic novel (to which her admirers were returned in one of the recent MLA sessions honoring Sedgwick's legacy),   Monnet's study may prompt us to yearn for a still richer story about the associations and paths generated by this form in a longer and more culturally diverse literary history.  Additionally, one might find  important connections between the two longstanding critical tendencies that Monnet contraposes from the start:  reading the surface of a text and plumbing its depths.   As for the other set of contraries in this book, Sedgwick's work in particular reminds us how difficult it is to separate the idea of paranoia from the gothic form and its challenge to judgment. Thus, as the abjected other of this study, a still stronger weaving of affect into our understanding of ethical operations seems to hover on the horizon.   Yet rather than fault the book for what is missing, one may commend it for what it delivers. Monnet's study provides a crisp and useful challenge to our understanding of the gothic mode at a moment when literary study itself continues to "re-describe" its own narrative in contradictory, uneasy, and productive ways.

 

Christina Zwarg is Associate Professor of English at Haverford College. Her most recent essay "Vigorous Currents, Painful Archives" appeared in Poe Studies, Vol. 43, 2010.


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