Extension English Final “Genres and the interpretation or adaptation of texts in genres are an embodiment of the value and ideologies in which they were written” During legal studies this past term, I’ve learnt that the law is a reflection of the values and ethics of the wider community. Law reform is therefore necessary to keep up with society’s changing views on right and wrong. Literary texts are also reflective of the social and historical context in which they are created whether they buy into the beliefs of the time or rebel against them.
We will see this by taking an in-depth look at the Castle of Otranto and the Turn of the Screw, two gothic novels. We will compare and contrast the effect of context on how the two novels use the following literary conventions: the role and depiction of the supernatural, the foreboding sense of danger and the setting of the novels. The Castle of Otranto was written by Horace Walpole in 1764, a period now remembered as the ‘Neoclassical Era’. Neoclassicism was a harkening back to the old, Greek school of thought which placed high value on rational thinking.
The Castle of Otranto rejected these ideas by embracing a supernatural, melodramatic style of story telling. However the supernatural is merely used as a plot device as it serves no purpose other than to reveal facts. This is in rejection of the emphasis that was placed on rational and logical thinking. When Manfred, the tyrannical prince of Otranto, is about to marry the woman who was betrothed to his late son: “three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alfonso’s statue” (p. 49). The supernatural element here is used as a plot device as it serves no purpose other than to symbolize the illegitimacy of Manfred’s reign.
Characters do not question the reality of the supernatural which is seen when Jerome, the friar, says: “mark this miraculous indication that the blood of Alfonso will never mix with that of Manfred! ” (p. 49). Walpole attempts to distance his work from Neoclassical thought by heightening the emotional reactions within his characters. Henry James wrote the Turn of the Screw, onehundred and thirty-four years later. During this period of time new ideas, namely psychology, were being introduced into public consciousness.
In fact, James’ father, Henry James Senior, was one of the first leading psychologists and wrote Principles of Psychology (1890). The introduction of psychology led to the supernatural themes becoming more layered and rich as both the characters and the readers question the reality of the apparitions that haunt Castle Bly (the setting). The Governess, the book’s narrator, describes a meeting with one of the ghosts, Peter Quint, saying: “the thing was as human and hideous as a real interview: hideous just because it was human”. (p. 69) The ghost is conflated with a human bringing his actual existence into question.
Therefore the supernatural becomes a psychological foe rather than a mere tool used to turn the cogs of the story. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose is characterized as a complex human with doubts and questions. As the Governess confides in her regarding Quint she notes: “Mrs. Grose’s large face showed me, at this, for the first time, the faraway faint glimmer of a consciousness more acute. ” (p. 39). This is in contrast to Jerome from the Castle of Otranto, who did not question the supernatural. From these examples we can seen how changes in context affected the depiction and role of the supernatural.
A key element of all gothic fiction is the slow, suspenseful sense of danger created by the plot. In the Castle of Otranto women are targeted and threatened at the hands of the malevolent Manfred. This can be seen through his disregard for Hippolita, his wife. Hippolita is characterized as weak, feeble and hysterical. She unswervingly bows to the will of her tyrannical husband as evident in this excerpt: “Hippolita needed little persuasions to bend her to his pleasure. ” (p. 50) Her subservient nature is hyperbolized to show how easily she is swayed by the will of Manfred.
In 18th Century England women were marginalized and considered inferior to men and this is reflected through the oppression of Hippolita. 19th Century England was a very different time. First wave feminism had begun allowing the Turn of the Screw to be a world dominated by strong female characters. Also, the idea that children were separate from adults, had begun to be commonly accepted and we can see this through the appearance of children’s fiction by authors such as Thomas Hughes and Lewis Carroll. Due to these two contextual factors the sense of danger shifts from women to children in The Turn of the Screw.
The Governess says of Miles, the boy in her charge: “He was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it. ” (p. 32) By painting Miles in an angelic light, James places an eerie aura of purity over him that compels the Governess to protect him at any cost. When the Governess is convinced that the ghosts (Peter Quint and Ms Jessel) are after the children she stops at nothing to preserve their innocence. When discussing the intentions of the ghosts with Mrs Grose, the Governess says: “For the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them.
And to ply them with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons, is what brings the others back. ” (p. 82) The connotation with hell and demons creates a vivid depiction of evil. This is sharply juxtaposed with the angelic description of the children and emphasizes their need for protection. As society began to see both children and women in a different light people realized that children needed protection, while on the other hand, women no longer did and this is evident in the differences between how the two novels depict the sense of anger.
Now we will look at how the context has influenced the choice of setting. The Castle of Otranto is set sometime between 1095-1243 in Italy. Walpole needed to legitimize his novel by placing the story into a historical setting because during the neoclassical era people were not interested in reading fiction. Walpole (under pseudonym) says in the first edition preface: “I cannot but believe that the groundwork of the story is founded on truth. The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle. (preface) This perversion of truth displays how the novel’s setting was affected by the cultural attitudes of the time. By setting the novel in a foreign, medieval environment in order to gain audience, Walpole unwittingly created the gloomy, intricate aesthetic that has come to define the gothic genre.
A case where this backdrop truly comes to the forefront is when Isabella is running away from Manfred in the catacombs:”An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions… hich grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. ” (p. 9) Walpole uses audible imagery to facilitate the development of the environment by attributing sounds (such as the wind grating on the rusty hinges) to enhance the gothic tone of the setting. In Victorian England fictional novels had become an accepted form of literature as people departed from neoclassical ideology. This allowed Henry James to set his book in modern day England. The change in time and location also led to a change in aesthetic.
We can see this in the way the Governess describes Castle Bly when she first approaches it: “I remember as a most pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains … and the clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed in the golden sky”. (p. 12) The nostalgic memory is painted in a fond overtone. The gloomy tone that was at the core of the Castle of Otranto no longer needs to be shoe-horned into the setting. Rather than the setting being an intimidating source of danger, the sense of danger now comes from the supernatural.
Just like the law is reformed to represent the changing views of the community, texts are influenced by the cultural norms of the time in the way they use common literary conventions. Through our analysis of these two books we saw how differing schools of thought such as ‘Neoclassicism’ and the introduction of new ideas such as psychology, and the idea of children as separate individuals had a major effect on how gothic tropes such as supernatural elements, setting and the sense of danger were presented. I hope that as a result of this speech, you can now see that texts are manifestations of the context in which they are created.