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Outpost Gothic(06 Mar 2015)
By Miss Arden Hegele
Hello! I’m Arden Hegele, and I’m delighted to be your regular blogger for March 2015. I’m a PhD candidate at Columbia University and the Managing Editor of the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus blog. I look mainly at how Romantic literary form intersects with some of the more grisly forms of nineteenth-century medicine, like madhouse-keeping, morbid anatomy, galvanism, phrenology, and preformationist theories of generation. At the moment, I’m teaching an undergraduate course on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other Romantic-era novels, which is producing some wonderful conversations about how the gothic intersects with contemporary discourses of medicine. So this opportunity to write for the International Gothic Association comes at a timely moment, and I’m very pleased to share my thoughts with you.
For this first post, though, I’m going to talk about something quite different from my usual research, which I’d never considered in Frankenstein until teaching it this term: the section of the novel that takes place in the remoter British Isles. After Victor hears the Creature’s story and accepts the charge to create a female companion, he travels through Britain to the Orkney Islands; then, after he destroys the body of his new creation, he drifts hundreds of miles to Ireland, where he is unlawfully imprisoned for the murder of Clerval. This novel is the first representation of Orkney in English fiction (anticipating Walter Scott’s The Pirate by four years) – though it’s notable that Shelley herself had been neither to Orkney nor Ireland. In his review of the novel in the Athenaeum, Percy Shelley argued that the Irish episode was the weakest and most derivative section of the book; yet Mary Shelley required an islanded setting for this central plot development. Why does the narrative insist that Victor travel to these islands, and what is their effect on the novel’s psychology of character?
The idea of outpost seems to play a vital role in the formation of identity in the gothic text. Beyond the sublime barrenness and broken-down thatch houses that characterize Shelley's Orcadian landscape, there is something about how islandedness shapes identity that seems to be peculiarly suitable, or even necessary, for creating the psychology of gothic fiction: "the sea ... I almost regarded as an insuperable barrier between me and my fellow-creatures," reports Victor. The isolation of the outpost, it seems, allows for the enlargement or fruition of certain parts of a personality that a social fabric would otherwise hold in check. One couldn’t imagine, for instance, a personality like Heathcliff’s emerging from elsewhere than the isolated Yorkshire landscape of Wuthering Heights. In that novel, the setting seems almost to be bounded by an invisible sea: there are crossings, but never bridges, to the outside world. The Orcadians of Frankenstein are likewise warped, but by poverty rather than passion: "I lived ungazed at and unmolested, hardly thanked for the pittance of food and clothes which I gave; so much does suffering blunt even the coarsest sensations of men." Their isolation renders them disturbingly unsuspicious of Frankenstein’s activities. It is as though their capacity of unusual tolerance for the macabre, developed through the culturally alienating nature of the outpost, has been formed specifically to permit Victor’s work, whereas the scientific professionals with whom the protagonist conversed at the Edinburgh medical school would never countenance it. How, then, does outpost work to transform psychology, or in broader terms, community?
One theory for how the outpost reshapes personality comes from Canadian literature, which deals explicitly with how a culture becomes torqued by its displaced assertion in places of isolation. In her book Survival, Margaret Atwood discusses the uneven formation of character in a “garrison mentality.” When one lives in a place with a “tendency to believe that the Great Good Place [is], culturally speaking, elsewhere” – an outpost, an island, a colony – one’s sense of self is strangely altered. The outpost self contains, simultaneously, a sense of personal inferiority, an absolute commitment to the culture of the urban centre, and a deep-seated resentment of that culture’s precedence. The geography of outpost, meanwhile, bounded as it is by wilderness or water, produces an “ever-present feeling of menace” from the external landscape. In defiance of this menace, the garrison emerges as the stand-in for the distant cultural order it is supposed to maintain. The garrison is governed by an absolute (usually patriarchal) authority, whose nature is perverted by the combined shaping forces of isolation and power; meanwhile, the garrison’s subordinates are expected to conform utterly, and to resist the influence of neighbouring outposts, whose differences from one’s own garrison become exaggerated and form pretexts for rivalry between ostensibly allied houses.
Sound familiar? That’s because this pattern of warped isolation and islandedness happens so frequently in gothic fiction. In Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, for instance, the Irish landscape is transposed onto Styria, but the transplanted English family at the centre of the story remains attentively differentiated from the peasantry that surrounds their isolated schloss. The protagonist, Laura, who has never seen England, speaks the language with her father “partly to prevent its becoming a lost language among us, and partly from patriotic motives.” The family’s attempt to maintain a kind of garrisoned Anglo-centric order backfires, though, with the entrance of Carmilla the vampire in the place of the socially-sanctioned girl from a rival household who is first expected (it emerges that she was the vampire's first victim). Carmilla, in turn, represents some ungoverned component of Laura’s own psychology, left unchecked to flourish in these isolated circumstances, and ungoverned by her feckless and unobservant father. In Wuthering Heights, the Linton family, who represent southern England and civility, but also personal weakness, become similarly distorted by their surroundings, culminating in Isabella’s elopement with Heathcliff. Whether or not the novel reestablishes a conservative order in favour of the Thrushcross Grange southern-looking garrison, as Q. D. Leavis argues, the alienating and warping effects of outpost have certainly shaped the eventual inheritors of both houses, Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw.
But what happens when gothicised island-dwellers enter cities? Colm Tóibín argues in his introduction to Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis that outpost-dwellers develop doubled personalities in urban spaces, and this is in keeping with the gothic trope of the doubled self. Tóibín writes that in the great supernatural tales of the late nineteenth century – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Dracula, or The Picture of Dorian Gray – we have an author who has been transplanted to London from another place, an outpost, where an Anglo-centric culture was valued. The writer experiences the division of his identity between the outpost where he comes from, and the London culture where he finds himself, which he both understands and perfectly imitates – to a point. The doubled figures in these gothic novels, Tóibín finds, are “radically both” versions of the self (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson) – the self of the outpost, and the self of urban culture. These divided selves act in perpetual tension with one another, producing an instability of tone that inflects the literary text.
Returning to Frankenstein, then, we find that the female creature’s formation in the Orkney Islands, and Frankenstein’s subsequent arrest and trial in Ireland, both work to illustrate his increasingly unhinged psychology within a thematically-charged setting, while strengthening the power of his doubled self in the Creature’s increasing hold on the order of the text. In contrast to the collegial environment of Ingolstadt, where the scientist’s secret work stood in horrifying juxtaposition to his scholarly community, in the Orcadian section of the novel, Frankenstein appears to have found a group of people who, in their isolation, are able to tolerate his experimentation. When he is arrested for the murder of Clerval in Ireland, a criminal charge that is morally (if not legalistically) appropriate, Frankenstein’s truth is very nearly exposed by a community that reads his nature better than his own family.
In Frankenstein’s cohesion with society in Orkney and Ireland, the British Isles passages anticipate the full exposure of his ethical monstrosity and the perfect sympathy of Robert Walton that he will experience in the Arctic-locked frame narrative, the novel’s most exaggerated form of the outpost/island. Thus, by insisting on Frankenstein’s visits to isolated and islanded settings, Shelley provides a backdrop where the protagonist, in his division from his other self and his increasingly warped ethical code, comes closest to being understood.
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