Romanticism and The Gothic in Plath

If you were off during these lessons, please take notes on the points below – remember, it is YOUR responsibility to catch up with any work or deadlines you miss.

Romanticism in Plath

  • feelings, emotions, and imagination take priority over logic and facts (“Anything you want you can have if you only want it enough.” cf. romance narrative)
  • belief in children’s innocence and wisdom; youth as a golden age; adulthood as corruption and betrayal
  • nature as beauty and truth, esp. the sense of nature as the sublime (god-like awesomeness mixing ecstatic pleasure mixed with pain, beauty mixed with terror)
  • heroic individualism; the individual separate from the masses
  • “outsiders” as representatives of special worth excluded by rigid societies or irrational norms
  • nostalgia for the past
  • desire or will as personal motivation
  • intensification, excess, and extremes
  • common people idealised as dependable source of true common sense and sentiment
  • idealised or abstract settings; characters as symbolic types
  • the gothic as nightmare world of intense emotions and complex psychology


The Gothic in Plath

The gothic is a genre or style of literature that keeps showing up throughout Western literary history—from visions of hell to the novels of Stephen King—though it often goes by names like “horror,” “terror,” “thriller,” the grotesque or macabre, and it has many diverse features or elements (all of which may not appear in every text):

  • haunted houses / castles / woods, mazes; labyrinths; closed doors & secret passages / rooms
  • light and dark interplay with shades of grey or blood-red colours; fair & dark ladies twinning; doubling; doppelgangers
  • repressed fears & desires; memory of past crime or sin; death & decay; bad-boy Byronic heroes
  • blood as visual spectacle and genealogy / ethnicity; spectral or grotesque figures; lurid symbols
  • creepy or startling sounds, e.g. screams in the night, groans from unknown rooms

The indispensable feature of nearly any gothic narrative is a haunted space that reflects or corresponds to a haunted mind. In European literature the gothic space is typically a haunted castle or other architectural structure such as a maze or labyrinth.

Psychological / cultural projections of the gothic:

Especially in Poe but also in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and other gothic fiction, the haunted space appears as a correspondence or projection of a haunted mind. This psychological reading of the gothic would account for the style’s persistence across various periods, media, and cultures.

The darkness and irrationality of the gothic villain or setting may sometimes serve as a convenient characterisation of the Other or the Unknown. For instance, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) the Creole woman Bertha from the Caribbean is characterised in terms of gothic darkness and uncontrolled passion and depravity, in contrast to the pale, English, and restrained Jane.

Comparably, in early American literature Native American Indians are sometimes described as “black” or “dark” figures holding satanic ceremonies in the night.

Though demonic elements of the gothic are easily observed, more positive spiritual elements often escape attention. The gothic’s darkness depends on a corresponding light; the fair lady must be offset by a dark lady. Fascination with darkness requires an idea of light.

The Wilderness Gothic

Gothic literature in the early United States faced a peculiar problem with settings, however. European gothic tales typically featured a mysterious mansion, castle, or abbey. The American landscape had few or none of these ancient buildings with time-haunted memories of crime and betrayal.

So American writers used the American landscape:

  • Imagination peoples the unknown with threats that are symbolized by familiar images—for European colonists and their descendants, such threatening images might be darkness, demons, the innocent imperilled.
  • Early European-American settlers sometimes regarded the New World as “the Devil’s Territories” (Cotton Mather) and the Native Americans as either serving the devil, or devils themselves.
  • And then there’s the guilt of repressed crime or sin that the gothic explores. America’s original sin may have been taking the land from its original inhabitants and reducing them through disease, war, and exploitation.

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