Gothic Fiction Essays

Essay Introduction

The Gothic fiction genre of literature was shaped by many contributors. One famous contributor to the expansion of this genre is Ann Radcliffe, or what she is notably known as the ‘great enchantress,’ named as such by essayist and critic Thomas Quincy. Radcliffe not only subscribed to this genre, but she also used visual elements and linguistic, visual patterns in order for the readers to visualize the events through words, understand the situations, and feel the terror which the characters themselves experience.

Her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, written in 1794, for example, is filled with the genre’s most beloved and parodied tropes: fainting heroines, haunted castles, and menacing villains. Discomfort pervades Gothic fiction through the paranoia and fear of the main character, Emily, a character who is upended by tragedy and finds herself in a grand location. Thus, the environment invokes a sublime experience, as the awe experienced by the surroundings is a fear of the magnitude and unfamiliarity of it all.

The natural world, while awe-inspiring, is an unknown entity allowing for the mind to question itself, to fill in the gaps of the dark with a terror that is unavoidable due to the present circumstances. In addition to this, the writer introduces the supernatural in her novels. Supernatural elements such as ghosts, eerie music, as well as the sublime provide a sense of fear in the characters and in the reader’s experience of the story. There is, however, an important distinction between terror and horror, which some critics believe indistinguishable.

Radcliffe’s Interpretation of Terror and Horror

In Radcliffe’s On the Supernatural in Poetry, she argues that ‘terror and horror [were] so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them’ (Radcliffe 1826). Radcliffe supposed that terror and horror were separate entities due to the horror being ‘definite,’ whereas terror often provokes ambiguous emotions. Horror is a direct experience; it could be the protagonist witnessing a monster or a murder. Terror is an attack on the psyche from both natural and supernatural elements. The unknown is a looming figure in terror, as it allows the mind to wander with no definite solution or end.

The use of terror rather than horror can be seen as a much more powerful method of writing as it gives rise to emotion through either seemingly harmless things, such as an open landscape, or apparent frightening components. The use of explained supernatural, a concept ‘in which to be of preternatural, other-worldly causes are eventually revealed to have rational, material origins'(Townshend, 2014), also demonstrates the way in which Radcliffe provoked terror through using the anticipation of a supernatural pretense turning out to be mundane. Through different elements of terror itself, Radcliffe was not only able to shape the way in which this story was told but also how the audience engaged with this novel as a piece of Gothic literature.

Ideas of The Sublime in Radcliffe’s Novel

The sublime is a key component in the creation of terror in Radcliffe’s novel. Radcliffe was greatly influenced by Edmund Burke, who was many things, including, most importantly to this topic, a philosopher. This is evident as she takes cues from his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in her own work On the Supernatural in Poetry to differentiate terror from horror in talking about the concept of the sublime.

Edmund Burke, in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, talks about the difference between the Beautiful and the Sublime, in that the beautiful is the experience of pleasure, and the sublime evokes a sense of terror in the fact that it has the power to compel and destroy us. Radcliffe expands on his idea by mentioning that the sublime places emphasis on the psychological suspense of something horrific through an omnipresent sense of mystery and obscurity. An example of this in the novel is when, earlier on in the novel, Emily and her father are walking toward the woods and observing the gloomy setting around them.

St Aubert goes on to describe the woods to Emily by stating: ‘I can linger, with solemn steps, under deep shades, send forward a transforming eye into the distant obscurity, and listen with thrilling delight to the mystic murmuring of the woods’ (Radcliffe 1794). As St. Aubert describes his vision of the woods, Emily begins to shed tears as she is overwhelmed by the obscurity of all of it. She even goes on to say that ‘it is like the voice of some supernatural being-the, the voice of the spirit of the woods, that watches over them by night’ (Radcliffe 1794). The experience of the sublime is seen through both of these characters.

Research Paper on Radcliffe’s and Burke’s Concept of Sublime

In viewing the sublime as an omnipresent sense of mystery, the woods, which St. Aubert and Emily are admiring, can be seen as a direct cause of the sublime itself in this scene. Although both of these characters are not terrified by the woods themselves, they feel a sense of transcendence due to the overall mystery of what their surroundings possess, whether that be supernatural forces or rather seemingly normal features of a wooden area. Radcliffe uses the sublime in these instants, but she even goes on to infer that the landscape itself has the potential to contain supernatural forces, which adds to this idea of terror due to mystery.

Another occurrence of the sublime in the novel is when Emily and the other travelers are traveling to the castle of Udolpho. As they crossed the Apennines, ‘the gloom… their solitary silence, except when the breeze swept over their summits, the tremendous precipices of the mountains, that came partially to the eye, each assisted in raising the solemnity of Emily’s feelings into awe’ (Radcliffe 1794). This feeling of the sublime caused by her surroundings that were ‘equally gloomy and equally terrible’ (Radcliffe 1794) continued all throughout her journey as she persists in losing, ‘for a moment, her sorrows in the immensity of nature’ (Radcliffe 1794).

Radcliffe even goes on to write that as they reached the castle, ‘[these] sublime scene[s] the travelers continued to ascend’ (Radcliffe 1794). Once they are at the castle itself, Emily is again so in awe of her surroundings that she begins to feel fear. Emily’s imagination even goes to make her think that bandits might come up from the trees surrounding the castle and capture her. Throughout these scenes in which they journey to the castle itself, it is a common trend that the sublime provokes an overwhelming emotion in Emily, even causing her at one point to be fearful and paranoid of her own safety.

In not knowing the broad spectrum of the landscape, the characters mentioned prior feel either a sense of transcendence or a sense of fear brought about by the sublime. In bringing a sense of terror through the idea of the unknown, which would be the surroundings in which these characters view, Radcliffe is able to portray the sublime as a key component to the portrayal of fear itself.

Argumentative Essay Examples on Gothic Fiction

Radcliffe’s and Burkes’s conception of the sublime, although recognized, was not accepted by everyone. One of the most famous critics of their idea of the sublime was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who had a different view. Kant, in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, which was written in 1764, says that rather than just the beautiful and sublime, as mentioned by Burke and agreed by Radcliffe, there were actually three kinds of sublime: the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying. He further extended his argument in his later work Critique of Judgment (1790) by saying that Burke simplified the concept of the sublime through weak observations.

Kant states that ‘to make psychological observations, as Burke did in his treatise on the beautiful and the sublime, thus to assemble material for the systematic connection of empirical rules in the future without aiming to understand them, is probably the sole true duty of empirical psychology, which can hardly even aspire to rank as a philosophical science’ (Kant 1790). To try to simplify something so subjective through feeble observations, Kant thinks, is to disrupt the entity of the sublime. This critique is, however, insufficient as Kant emphasizes the need for an empirical recollection of the effect of the sublime rather than a psychological one. Kant even goes on to say the sublime includes the feelings of pleasure, which Burke and Radcliffe both disagree with as they again separate this feeling from the Beautiful rather than the sublime. Kant’s critique of Burke’s work, which Radcliffe was inspired by, is important in showing the ways in which the sublime can be looked at from outside opinions.

Additionally to the sublime, Radcliffe provokes a sense of terror through obvious means, such as using supernatural forces like ghosts and, mentioned prior, fairies. This is evident throughout the novel as the chateau itself is presumed to be haunted by ghosts. This idea that a castle can be haunted is directly tied to the force that the supernatural has on terror. Throughout the novel, characters tell each other ghost stories in order to tie terror to the castle itself. This is evident when Annette tells Emily a story about the woman with whom the Signor Montoni was in love, that walked into the woods and was seen to have never returned. The woman, later found to be Signora Laurentini, was said to have ‘been seen, several times since, walking in the woods and about the castle in the night …’ (Radcliffe 1794).

Annette even goes on to say that ‘several of the old servants, who remained here sometime after [Signora had disappeared], declare they saw her; and, since then, she has been seen by some of the vassals, who have happened to be in the castle, at night’ (Radcliffe 1794). This is an obvious example of Radcliffe using supernatural forces, like ghosts, to evoke terror in the characters that live in this gothic castle. Inferring that there may be a ghost roaming around the castle psychologically disrupts Emily and the rest of the characters residing in the castle as they continue to fear a supernatural presence being found lurking. Radcliffe, along with the sublime, uses supernatural forces to further develop the sense of terror and fear throughout this Gothic novel.

Another example of the supernatural playing into the terror is the utilization of music. An example of this would be when ‘Father Denis frightened [Emily] sadly by saying that it was music come to warn her of her child’s death and that music often came to houses where there was a dying person’ ( Radcliffe 1794). The theme that music is supernaturally tied to death again causes Emily to be alarmed and a bit terrified. The idea that music would play without a musician is also a key component of the supernatural elements of this novel, as it is a reoccurring theme throughout the story.

This is seen at the beginning of the novel when Emily is walking toward the fishing house after St. Aubert tells her to get a lute. While walking towards the house, ‘she was surprised to hear the tones of the instrument, which were awakened by the hand of taste, and uttered a plaintive air, whose exquisite melody engaged all her attention’ (Radcliffe 1794). This causes Emily to be silent, ‘afraid to move from the spot, lest the sound of her steps should occasion her to lose a note of the music, or should disturb the musician’ (Radcliffe).

As she gets closer, she realizes that there is no one there at all. This causes Emily to be terrified as it dawns on her that something had to have been playing music, whether that be a person or a supernatural being. Music tied to the supernatural is also a way in which terror is provoked in the novel. This is seen when Emily, when she is talking to Annette, states that ‘… if we come to the corridor, about midnight, and look down into the hall, we shall certainly see it illuminated with a thousand lamps, and the fairies tripping in gay circles to the sound of delicious music …’ (Radcliffe 1794). In this, Radcliffe is connecting the eerie sound of music to a supernatural being, such as that of a fairy. This brings about a sense of gothic components to the novel as well as suspense and fear.

Ann Radcliffe, alongside being known for her utilization of terror, also domesticated the explained supernatural. Ann Radcliffe’s technique of the ‘supernatural explained’ is a way of relieving the readers after having read some horrible incidents of supernatural forces, evil villains, deaths, etc, while also emphasizing how terror was portrayed in the novel. An apparent utilization of the explained supernatural is when Emily finds out that she has been followed by a secret admirer Du Pont. The reason this is an example of the explained supernatural is that Du Pont was the reason why Emily’s mother’s bracelet was stolen at the beginning of the novel. Emily, before knowing this, thought that the ‘musician’ that played music in the fishing house mentioned prior stole it.

Thus, finding out that this leaves the readers with a rational explanation for the disappearance of the bracelet. Explained supernatural is also seen at the end of Mysteries of Uldopho when Emily lifts the black veil and finds that her ‘delusion and her fears would have vanished together, and she would have perceived, that the figure before her was not human, but formed of wax (Radcliffe 1794). Emily, as soon as she discovers the black veil in the book, creates this image that the corpse of someone murdered by Montoni would surely be behind it.

When she finally grows the courage to lift the veil, she sees that the figure behind it is not a corpse at all but actually turns out to be just a figure of wax, which was given to the castle of Uldopho. Radcliffe has provided a rational explanation for the scene with the veil, which she also does for most of the other presumably supernatural or horrific occasions in her novel. When Radcliffe explains such a situation as Emily finding a body that turns out to be a waxen figure at the end, this reduces the emotions of horror to that of terror for both Emily and the reader as it builds up psychological suspense only to be met with a mundane clarification. Therefore, the explained supernatural is part of Radcliffe’s mode of terror as it affects the psyche of these characters.

Impact of Radcliffe’s Work on Contemporary Novels and Films

The way in which Ann Radcliffe created a distinction between horror and terror was not only extremely important to the shaping of gothic literature but also to contemporary novels and films that are perceived as horror. Radcliffe’s use of the ‘explained supernatural,’ although met by many critics, proved to be extremely influential among Gothic writers of the day, one being Jane Austin, as seen in her novel Northanger Abbey. The Northanger Abbey is considered a gothic parody because it satirizes the conventions of the Gothic novels that were utilized by Radcliffe in her novel The Mysteries of Uldopho. Austen mocks the genre itself by using obvious factors of Gothic literature in order to portray her characters as eccentric and irrational.

This is seen as Catherine Morland, the main character of the novel, continues to feel like a heroine of the Gothic novel due to the strength of her wild imagination. This is also seen when Catherine visits Northanger Abbey with the Tilney family. After being shown to her room, she finds a cabinet. Due to the combination of her love of gothic fiction and imagination, Catherine expects to find something horrible inside the cabinet. When she opens the cabinet, Catherine finds a manuscript and hopes that it contains secrets about the Abbey and that she will be a heroine. In the morning, all her hopes and fears disappear. The manuscript, as well as other mysterious things she created in her mind, such as thinking General Tilney killed his wife when Henry was a child, turned out to be only fiction. What she finds in the cabinet are only laundry bills. This is a prime example of how terror was provoked by attacking the psyche, only to be met with disappointment by a rational agent.

Her use of the explained supernatural also shaped the way in which modern horror films are produced today. Movies such as The Orphan which is about a couple who, after the death of their unborn child, adopt a mysterious 9-year-old child. Throughout the movie, the director creates a psychological effect on the audience as the couple, due to their eccentric mannerisms and violent behaviors, perceives that this little girl is demonic. At the end of the film, however, the audience finds out that the child is not a child at all.

Instead, she was a 33-year-old mental patient who had hypopituitarism, a condition that stunted her physical growth and caused proportional dwarfism, which caused her to spend most of her life posing as a little girl. This rational explanation of the horrid activities that occurred throughout the film allows the audience to feel a sense of understanding while also provoking terror, as the reality of the situation was unforeseeable. This is just one of the many ways in which contemporary films were shaped by Radcliffe’s creation of the explained supernatural and upbringing of terror.


Ann Radcliffe was one of the many authors of the 18th century to participate in the creation of a new genre, one that would shape the way in which terror is portrayed in Gothic literature. This is most evident in her novel The Mysteries of Uldopho. Through her use of the sublime and supernatural forces, Radcliffe is able to reach into the psyche of her audience rather than just provoke fear. Some may see these scenes of descriptive settings as purely imagery. This, however, is false as, as I have stated before, she emphasizes the emotions of the characters by looking at their environment. Through this, the sublime is evoked.

Thus, terror is brought about. In a more evident way, Radcliffe uses supernatural forces, such as ghosts, to utilize terror in a more apparent way. These things cannot be perceived as horror. Throughout her novel, Radcliffe uses the anticipation of a horrifying experience that directly attacks the psyche rather than a feeling of being scared of an experience to create a sense of terror. Although there are critiques that do not adhere to Radcliffe’s and Burke’s definition of the sublime, they ultimately reach for the same concept, which is that it provokes a sense of terror.

The utilization of the explained supernatural also provokes a sense of horror in the readers as it directly attacks the psyche while, in the end, ends up being a rational explanation. Although critics believe that with this utilization, disappointment arises within the reader, one cannot deny the impact it had on provoking a sense of terror throughout the novel The Mysteries Of Uldopho. Radcliffe shaped the way in which Gothic novels were perceived and also created for the years to come. Jane Austin was inspired by Radcliffe to create the novel Northanger Abbey, even though she used Radcliffe’s novel as a sort of mockery of gothic literature. Her utilization of the explained supernatural was just one main way in which future authors wrote gothic literature.

Ann Radcliffe was able to change the way in which Gothic Literature was created. She clearly separates horror and terror into two different entities, uses supernatural forces to provoke terror, and concludes her novel with a rational explanation leaving the reader with a psychological breakthrough. Without this sense of terror, one cannot foresee that Radcliffe’s novel would be in existence, never mind critically acclaimed.

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