Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Goethe and the Gothic novel

Sunset at Wendy's house
Heather and I took the ferry yesterday afternoon to Vancouver Island and spent the day shopping, mostly for groceries, of which there is a much greater selection than on Malcolm Island. My cooking experimentation continues, with mixed results. Heather likes to go to used book shops, so we stopped at one in Port McNeill, at the church of Saint John Gaulbert (985–1073), the patron saint of forest workers (forestry being a traditional occupation of this region).

Roasted peppers with pine nuts
I did not intend to buy any books here, but the first one, literally, that my eyes fell on at the bookshop was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Just that morning I had read Jane Brown's discussion of that novel in Goethe's Allegories of Identity. In discussing the influence of Goethe on Romantic-period tales and, subsequently, on Freud's "depth psychology," Brown mentions that the former incorporate elements of "the newly popular gothic novel," a genre that began "quite suddenly in 1764" with the appearance of Walpole's novel and went on to greater acclaim with Ann Radcliffe. As Brown writes, Goethe's "Märchen" shares Otranto's interest "in family curses, mysterious ceremonies, and a vaguely Italian setting, but it [also] uses two striking motifs ... underground vaults and dangerous giants." Furthermore, Mignon's ancestry has much in common with such gothic elements: "Italy, monks, stubborn fathers, and incest." Similarly, Elective Affinities, for instance, with its preoccupation with death and places of burial.

From 1794 German translation of Otranto
So, I laid down $2.00 and brought The Castle of Otranto home. I was surprised at how readable it was, despite the outlandish events. Partly this derives from the amount of "low comedy" in the novel, especially when the noble figures interact with the domestics. Matilda and Bianca's discussion of the perfect lover would seem to come straight out of Shakespeare, as does especially Manfred's long exchange with two domestics about the "terrible sight" that has terrified them.

"Sot! cried Manfred, in a rage, "is it only a ghost then, that thou hast seen?"
"Oh, worse! worse! my lord," cried Diego: "I had rather have seen ten whole ghosts."

The terrible sight turns out to be a "great giant" hiding in the "chamber next to the gallery."

Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University

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