The Gothic as the Salvation of Romantic Imagination: Of Consciousness, Sin, and Confession through Articulated Speech

During a time when the Romantic impulse favoured liberty and departures from stringent dominant systems that preceded the French Revolution, the Gothic genre exists as ‘the confessional’ (Ang 28) – a metaphor for the Gothic as the supposed ‘safe space’ for the confession of sins as it is bounded an oath known as the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ in Roman Catholicism, ensuring secrecy to whatever is said (Catholic Encyclopedia). The Gothic, arguably, can therefore be a didactic form of literature to test the extent of a society’s acceptance of the unorthodox. Gothic literature is thus a ‘safe space’ for the purging of sins – widely known as the taboo in societies, through language. However, what happens when this ‘safe space’ is compromised, and the sinner is punished? I believe that while the Gothic allows for the manifestation and existence of sin within society, sin and transgression is still punished as a form of penitence – as do with the ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation’ in Roman Catholicism where all sins, although confessed, still require an act of penance in the path to atonement (Catholic Encyclopedia). Therefore, the Gothic allows the limited permissibility of sin.

I therefore posit that the Gothic allows for the ‘safe’ awakening of the impermissible of society – the awakening of a consciousness borne out of what is considered forbidden that exists outside of society. This safety, however, is questioned when an attempt to articulate this ‘Otherness’ through the spoken confession of language, and the concealment of it as an unconfessed sin, both result in the penitential punishment of the sinner, nevertheless, thus resulting in the limited manifestation of impermissibility in the Gothic. Despite so, the beauty of the Gothic novel lies in this very permissibility for transgression and sin, though albeit limited and punished, allows for the recognition, growth, and salvation of the consciousness, to ideas beyond the boundaries of a society’s time.

For the purpose of this essay, I will be referencing Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, and Samuel Coleridge’s poem Christabel. Before I begin, it is key to understand the bridge between the Gothic and the larger movement of Romanticism. The Gothic is a subset of Romanticism, where darker thematics take form: the supernatural, the mythical, and transgression; it allows extreme Romantic imagination to venture untethered. The Gothic pushes boundaries by exploring the unbridled forms of departures like sin and transgression; it grants the existence of the imperfections of society, like how the confessional is a space for the purging and confession of sin.

The Gothic realm of Frankenstein and Christabel provide a ‘safe’ reality that allows for the awakening of an impermissible Self – the Self that is ‘Othered’ for existing outside of society; the conscious to which the Creature and Christabel awakes to is one of transgressive essential nature which manifests in the realm of Gothic. I use the term ‘essential’ in reference to the intrinsic nature of the Creature and Christabel. The former is artificially borne outside the laws of nature by his creator. The latter awakens to a possible realisation of the attraction towards Geraldine – while we are not certain if this confirms Christabel’s sexuality, since Coleridge’s Christabel is cemented in ambiguity, we can be sure Coleridge is pushing the boundaries of gender by suggesting the earliest forms of same-sex attraction in his poem.

Shelley reflects this ‘awakening’ in Frankenstein through the Creature, who on many occasions, through knowledge and the acquisition of language, realises that his essential nature is of a non-human borne out of artificiality, thus an outcast of society. After learning of the history of Felix, Safie and Agatha, the Creature procures the knowledge of human society and the flaws of the “division of property”, “immense wealth” associated with persons “of rank, descent and noble blood” (Shelley 123) that come with it. The Creature identifies these as markers of social status and learns that a man “might be respected only with only one of these advantages;” (123). The Creature then experiences an epiphany with regard to his existence:

And what was I? […] I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man […] When I looked around I saw and heard of no one like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley 123)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (p. 123)

The Creature awakens to his essential nature that exists outside of whatever is understood as human – it is Othered with regard to not only what is opposite of human, but he is also associated with everything that is not human. Albeit understanding the human language and equipped with human-like intelligence, it still is not intrinsically human, but rather, an ‘it’ that is easily analogous to an animal, an insignificant “blot upon the earth” (123), a creature. Through a Romantic lens, the Creature is outcasted to the margins of society for “possess[ing] no money, no friends, no kind of property.” (123), the Gothic however, manifests this ‘Othering’ by pushing it to the extreme, to be Othered as a result of an intrinsic nature that is deemed impermissible – a Creature borne out of a blasphemous creation outside the laws of nature, it is born in sin and thus, the essential nature of the Creature is the arguable manifestation of ‘original sin’.

In Coleridge’s Christabel, Christabel likewise awakens to a consciousness of intrinsic nature: the possible same-sex attraction for Geraldine. As Christabel brings Geraldine home to her castle to rest, the latter unrobes, and Christabel could not resist to not “look at the lady Geraldine.” (Coleridge 244) Christabel’s “thoughts moved to and fro / That vain it were her lids to close;” (240-41) and “slowly rolled her eyes around; / Then drawing in her breath aloud,” (246-247). Christabel struggles to reconcile her thoughts and her sight of what is unfolding before her. In light of the good Christian girl that Christabel is as she presumed it was “vain” and uncourteous of her to close her eyes, we can perhaps shift our attention to how this is a reflection of Coleridge experimenting with a forbidden idea of his time. This forbidden idea is the ‘extremity’ birthed by the unbridled Romantic departure made explicit in the Gothic; the struggle to come to terms with gender and sexuality in a time when heterosexuality was the norm. Perhaps it would be a stretch to suggest a ‘sexual awakening’ of Christabel, but it is undeniable that Coleridge was indeed trying to tussle with the extreme flipside of heterosexuality surfacing in its earliest form – a same-sex attraction or the inquisitive awe at the same sex. This attraction then gravitates and solidifies as forbidden as Christabel literally awakens from her sleep to find herself and Geraldine both naked on the same bed. The ambiguity leaves readers uncertain if any sexual act was committed, but the act of two females sleeping beside each other naked, is a perspective cemented in transgression when Christabel exclaims that “Sure [she] have sinn’d!” (381). Christabel’s epiphany is akin to that of the Creature, both experience an awakening of their impermissible Self, in the former’s case, her intrinsic transgression is of sexual origin, and her eventual Otherness is reflective of the gendered dominant beliefs of her time.

Shelley and Coleridge have therefore birthed characters of forbidden nature existing in the realm of the Gothic. This gives birth to knowledge, an awakening of the conscious. If we follow the lens of the confessional as the metaphor for the Gothic, it is in this ‘safe’ enclosure that we come to terms with the dark sides of our Self, therefore inducing an awakening of the consciousness. The confessional, or the Gothic, is the site where unconscious repressed desires of potential transgression become conscious. The problem, however, lies in the degree of safety the Gothic permits. This is where the bargain ensues – the Gothic trades this ‘safety’ in exchange for the suffering of the sinner. Similarly, the confessional does not condone sin, instead it acknowledges it at the price of penitential punishment. Thus, the Gothic does not condone sin although it permits its existence; this comes at a cost where the sinner is punished – resulting in a therefore, limited permissibility of the sin in the Gothic.

I therefore would like to suggest that the sinner eventually suffers as a form of punishment in act of penitence. The ‘Othered’ sinner, in realising their sinful impermissible nature, is motivated to confess and negotiate one’s place in society through the articulation of language – speech. The attempt to speak, therefore becomes the attempt to articulate, to confess a ‘truth’ (which I refer to as the truth of their sinful nature which can be likened to the confession of sins similar to Sacrament of Reconciliation in Roman Catholicism) in hopes to negotiate one’s place in society. The confession of the sinner through articulated speech, is therefore seen as a form of ‘overreaching’: the sinner, in confession of the truth, reaches beyond its Othered place and pleads for one’s maintenance in society rather than one’s rightful exclusion from it.

In Frankenstein, The Creature’s acquisition of the human language reflects its desire to assimilate into the human world, despite its Othered nature as non-human. Language then becomes the negotiating medium between the Self and the Other, in attempt to negotiate its place in the human world. Drawing from Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘Theory of Semiotics’ in relation to the linguistic study of words and meaning-making, the Creature’s struggle in grappling with the semantics of language begins with the struggle to connect the sign (the word), the signifier (the object) and the signified (the meaning) (De Saussure 65) when it observed the life of the cottagers. Language was identified by the Creature to be a “godlike science” (Shelley 115), there was indeed a great difficulty in associating “the words they uttered” (115) with the objects the cottagers were referring to as they “did not have any apparent connection” (115). Soon, the Creature learns vocabulary and names – “I learned and applied the words, ‘fire’, ‘milk’, ‘bread’, and ‘wood’. I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves.” (115) By doing so, the Creature goes through the process of meaning-making and is likened to the early beginnings of a child making sense of the world, and in particularly associating nouns and meanings between “father”, “sister”, “brother” and “son” (115), it is transported to the social system of institutions: the family and community. The human social structure is something the Creature is amazed by and longs to be a part of.

However, through the usage of language to negotiate its place in society, he learns of his rightful exclusion from it. This becomes an act of ‘overreaching’, for the Creature does not fully accept its place as an ‘Other’ and is punished for wanting to exist beyond his Othered nature.

“I improved, however, sensibly in this science, although I applied my whole mind to the endeavour: for I easily perceived that, although I eagerly longed to discover myself to the cottagers, I ought to not make the attempt until I had first become the master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure;” (116)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (p. 116)

I defined ‘overreaching’ as the act of reaching beyond the boundaries that restrict the Self. In the case of the Creature, it lies in its desire to integrate into the human world. Language therefore becomes the medium of negotiating the Other’s place in the Self of human world through the confession of truth – which is the Creature’s essential nature of a non-human, which is a form of original sin. Ludwig Wittgeinstein, a German philosopher of the late 17th century once said: “the limits of my language is the limits of my world”; from the quotation above, being the “master of [the human] language” grants “knowledge” (116) to both the Creature and the cottagers. Language gives birth to a knowledge of the world we reside in, and the Creature revels in the hope that this knowledge he has procured through language is able to achieve the understanding of humans into “overlooking the deformity of [its] figure” (116) and accept it into the world of the Self. While the Creature “overlooks” to its future of possible integration with the humans, this “overlooking” is an act of overreaching which is eventually punished. The Creature’s “heart yearned to be loved and known by these amiable [cottagers]”, and even acknowledged that it “required kindness and sympathy” and “did not believe [itself] unworthy of it.” (134) It not only desires for acceptance, it desires love and affection, to be treated as an equal human, similar to the interactions between the cottagers. The Creature desires what lies beyond its nature: to be treated and seen as human, and its attempt to achieve this desire through language is therefore, an act of overreaching because it rightfully is not human.

By articulating its Otherness though speech, the Creature confesses, bearing the truth of its form before the cottagers and is dejected and outcasted by them. The Creature’s encounter with old man De Lacy reveals the human’s resistance in accepting something ‘Other’ than itself. De Lacy, albeit blind, listens to the Creature and assumes it to be a “human creature” (136) – this paradox encompasses the Creature: it is a non-human who speaks like a human. If any case, the phrase “human creature” reestablishes the separation between creature and man, that man is not creature and creature is not man. The only hope for connection between the two nouns could have been done with the hyphenated “human-creature”, but the absence of it speaks more of its immiscibility over its capacity for integration. The Creature is then cast off by Felix, Safie and Agatha who “struck [it] violently with a stick” (137). The Creature’s attempt to negotiate its place in society by confessing its nature as a forbidden un-human being through the communication of articulated speech, is not enough to condone its existence as a sin and is casted out as punishment.

The spoken confession takes on a slightly different turn in Christabel where the desire to speak is subverted and what becomes of an unspoken confession is likewise punished in the realm of the Gothic. While the Creature in Frankenstein acquires language imbued by the desire to confess and speak the truth of its being, Christabel is stripped off her communicating abilities by the spell of Geraldine, making her unable to speak of the night when they slept together. She is only capable of “hissing sound[s]” (Coleridge 459) and “lowly tones” (481) for “she had no power to tell / Augst else: so mighty as the spell.” (474-75) of Geraldine that stripped her off the ability to confess of her sin. Christabel then descends and encroaches to an animal-like figure of the “mastiff bitch” (7) by Geraldine’s spell; the human Christabel is stripped off her humanness for wanting to confess of the truth (the truth being the night with Geraldine), which she has perceived as a possible sin. She is reduced to a “dizzy trance / Stumbling on the unsteady ground / Shuddered aloud with a hissing sound;” (591-93), she is described similarly to that of an animal, perhaps possibly even a reptile as her eyes are that of a  “snake’s small” (585) and “shrunken serpent” (604), which is contrary to her initial pure humanly “eyes so innocent as blue” (614). In a time when the female is taught to be docile and submissive, Christabel’s desire to confess is also an act of overreaching beyond her gendered role as a female in the patriarchal society. She becomes the embodiment of the Other – where the Self is good, she is evil; where the Self is human, she is the non-human, where the Self is male and healthy, she is female and hysteric. As a result, the unspoken confession is still nevertheless punished in the Gothic, resulting in the limited permissibility of sin. With regard to the unfinished status of Christabel, a greater significance lies with the unsaid; the manifestations society’s imperfection revel in the Gothic as a site that allows for previously unspeakable things, to be spoken of. Thus, Coleridge’s unfinished poem perhaps is a reflection of his own struggle in grappling with the earliest forms of forbidden ideas; his struggle to speak of something so taboo, is likewise mirrored in Christabel’s inability to articulate and confess her sin.

The common thread between the Creature and Christabel is that while the former struggles to articulate its Otherness through language, the latter is stripped off her ability to do the exact same. Thus, a simultaneous generation and degeneration takes place: the non-human Creature who confesses seems increasingly human, while the human Christabel who wants to confess is reduced to a non-human by a spell denying her of speech. The Creature and Christabel are thus punished for ‘overreaching’ – this can encompass both an attempt to overreach beyond their social compartments through speech as the Creature is outcasted, and Christabel is silenced and removed of her humanness. Both suffer for existing outside of the dominant system and are thus punished for the confession and attempt to plead their place in it. The Gothic, therefore, levels the playing field of sin and transgression – all transgressions are treated equally and, confessed or not, sin is not condoned, and punishment ensues as a form of atonement.

However, this is not at all a bleak outcome of the Gothic. The nature of the genre, in all its supernatural inclinations and mysticisms, allows for the manifestations of the forbidden to surface, despite its limited permissibility. While Frankenstein and Christabel are both widely known as cautionary tales that warn against the harbouring of such controversial notions – it nevertheless is an opportunity for growth. Perhaps this positive outcome is more evident in Frankenstein, with the Creature eventually repenting its murderous acts at the deathbed of Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps this is what makes the Gothic valuable: it challenges by putting forth these extreme, dark ideas, gives it a place to manifest and take form, and through the awakening consciousness of the narrative, we likewise question the permissibility and ethics of these ideas as readers, through the witnessing of sufferings and punishment.

Considering the poetic form (or the lack thereof) in Coleridge’s Christabel, the unsettling struggle of trying to convey and grapple with ideas beyond the boundaries of the existing time is reflected in the poem’s deviation from poetic form – arguably granting a sense of hope and continuity as a result of an unfinished poem. The poem does not adhere to a stringent form typically associated with the lyrical ballad; each stanza differs according to number of lines, meter and feet – beginning with a predominantly trochaic feet but departing from it eventually. Coleridge purposefully challenges these institutions of form and structure through Christabel, rendering it an exploratory piece out of its time. Also, considering the tone of Christabel’s ‘awakening’ scene, we question the persona and/or the narrator, for it was written primarily through a male gaze. In doing though we also question the subtext considering it was written through the male gaze of Coleridge. Perhaps this explains why these controversial ideas like same-sex attraction, are conflated with the taboo, the supernatural, and the mystic elements of the Gothic. Coleridge uses these to explore the themes beyond the realms of conventional society (Ng et al. 3), and in doing so, it paves the way for a potential progress in the acknowledgement of such controversial themes.

As a result, the Gothic then becomes a salvation piece that motivates the growth and progress of society through literature. By tugging between the controversial and the accepted, the Gothic gives birth to an awakening of conscious, which then leads to the punishment of these forbidden ideas as a form of penitential atonement. However, in atonement there is salvation, as progress and growth are borne out of the acknowledgment of transgression. There is redemption in the act of acknowledgement, because we cannot discuss growth based on what does not surface, which is exactly what the Gothic does – it acknowledges. Coleridge’s inability to finish the poem in its entirety mirrors the spell that Christabel has been put under herself, that which was once pure, assailed by evil and yet being unable to speak about evil itself. Perhaps, he too, has not yet found the right words to articulate these controversial ideas (Ng et al. 4), but nevertheless, its open-endedness inspires a capacity for progression and perhaps even change. For whatever is not yet cemented in words anticipates an open interpretation – anything is possible, and how far this interpretation goes, lie in our capacity for unbridled imagination, which is the purpose of the Gothic with regard to the Romantic imaginative impulse.

In conclusion, in light of the confessional being the metaphor for the Gothic, Gothic literature bestows the capacity for salvation in the acknowledgement and surfacing of ideas that go beyond the boundaries of society so as to pursue and fulfil the Romantic ideal of imagination and departures. The Gothic is a site which we can perhaps analogise to what “a culture wishes to deny, hide, and bury, but which needs to be extruded somewhere.” (Ang 28) The genre thus allows the awakening of an impermissible conscious that exists outside of the dominant structure, although the manifestations of the impermissibility are limited, it paves the way for a sense of growth. It is the site of the ‘confessional’ where the Romantic ideal of imagination can peruse and explore, freely and untethered, in order to progress the thought of the human condition by challenging and going beyond normative boundaries.

Works Cited:

Ang, Susan. “Gothic Narratives.” EN3227 Romanticism, 18 Mar. 2019, National University of Singapore. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation. Lecture Transcript, pp. 1-29.

Catholic Encyclopedia. “Seal of the Confessional in the Catholic Church.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 25 Apr. 2005, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_of_the_Confessional_in_the_Catholic_Church. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Coleridge, Samuel. “Christabel (1797)” English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald., The Harvard Classics, http://www.bartleby.com/41/420.html.

De Saussure, Ferdinand. “Part One: General Principles (Nature of the Linguistic Sign).” Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, translated by Wade Baskin, 3rd ed., McGraw Hill Book Company, 1915, pp. 65-70.

Ng, Ryan, et al. “On Structures and Ending in Christabel (1797).” EN3227 Romanticism, 15 Feb. 2019, National University of Singapore. Tutorial Group Presentation Essay, pp. 1-4.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (1818). Penguin Classics, 1992.

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