Gothic Themes in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Stoker’s Dracula, and Poe’s poetry

June 3, 2021 by Essay Writer

The presentation of the Gothic has spanned the centuries, gripping each and every reader with its dastardly plot and unsuspecting victims. The Castle of Otranto, written in 1764 by Horace Walpole, ‘is generally regarded as the first Gothic novel’[1]. However, the Gothic genre itself has a ‘clear Shakespearian imprint’[2]. Macbeth, exploiting both manipulative witches and clandestine murder, embodies many elements of this particular genre. This can also be seen even today in the writings of novelists such as Angela Carter in her novel, The Bloody Chamber, and this can aid us in exploring the importance and profundity of the Gothic genre today. Expressionism in theatre, as an example, attempted to demonstrate the ‘inner workings of the human mind’[3] and sought to embody some elements of the Gothic whilst doing so. German playwright, Georg Büchner’s, most famous and influential drama, Woyzeck, portrays the ‘psychological deterioration of a lower-class soldier’[4] due to the oppression by the upper classes. This play, along with many others of its time, embraced the Expressionist ideas and created a focus on the psyche of the human mind and all its inherent horrors. Many have attempted to seek full understanding of why the human mind is so fascinated by these tales of madness and chaos, why Gothic has gripped readers since the beginning of recorded history. Was the lure of the terrified heroine and the tall, dark Byronic hero impossible to resist? Or does the obsession with the Gothic stem deeper, into the very heart of the human mind? The characters within Wuthering Heights, Dracula and Poe’s poetry experience internal conflict through the Gothic portrayal of themes in both European and American Literature.

Death within Gothic writings appears to be generally connected to the female characters, possibly implying a stereotype from 19th Century society of the frailty of women. In her novel, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross examines the five stages experienced by a person after the devastating news of an impending death has been given. The first stage, aptly termed ‘Denial’, functions as a ‘buffer’ and a ‘temporary defence’[5] before partial acceptance can be reached. Catherine Earnshaw in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights exhibits this fundamental idea as she proclaims, ‘No, I’ll not die.’ Her certainty that, should she so wish, she could prevent her demise could be an indicating factor of her denial or terror at this actually happening. Her subsequent ‘He does not love me at all – he would never miss me’ adds to the idea of her ever-present fear of death. The use of the dash, also seen after the first statement, indicates a more hurried, rushed tone with the possibility of a pause hinting the struggle to draw breath. Also, short sentences in this extract highlights Catherine’s determination to create her own destiny and this indicates at a strength to her character that has been conspicuously absent in recent chapters. Catherine’s death marks a devastating transformation within the text, beginning with her inherent madness displayed in the extract above. Her death and the birth of her daughter enables all the structural repetitions that are such an important feature, which aid in the atmosphere of mystery within the novel. Many of her attributes can be seen in the actions of both Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker in Stoker’s, Dracula. Lucy and Mina are constantly plagued with Dracula’s demonic presence, determined that the ‘Angel of Death’ is swiftly approaching. The personification used with ‘Angel of Death’ illustrates the idea of Count Dracula himself as the devil, or bringer of ‘Death’. Stoker uses the visual imagery ‘red eyes’ like ‘burning flames’ to emphasise this idea, with the diction ‘red’ and ‘flames’ perhaps symbolising the fires of hell. ‘Stoker borrowed the name ‘Dracula’ from the historical personage better known to us (though not to Stoker) as Vlad the Impaler.’[6] Vlad III of Wallachia, or Vlad the Impaler, ‘consequently became known as Dracula, meaning son of the dragon…the fact that ‘dracul’ also means ‘devil’ in Romanian adds an additional intimidation connotation to the name’[7]. This adds significance to the theme of death within the novel because Vlad murdered thousands in his quest for power. His reign of terror mimics Dracula’s own. This idea brings us back to the ‘Angel of Death’, who, with this in mind, couldn’t be anything less than Dracula, son of the devil. The audience presented with Poe’s poetry are not given characters in the same detail they receive with both Dracula and Wuthering Heights, but are instead given an anonymous narrator and the memory of beautiful women. This may have been due to the ‘repeated loss of women throughout his life,’[8] most notably his mother, Elizabeth, and his young bride, Virginia Clemm. ‘Lenore’ repeatedly makes an appearance throughout his poetry, as ‘Catherine’ does throughout Lockwood’s stay at Wuthering Heights, and Poe, or, more accurately, his narrators, appear to have the same sort of obsessive qualities seen in both Heathcliff and Count Dracula. The Raven and Lenore share the name of a dead woman, however, both approach this subject in a different manner. In The Raven, the narrator is in utter despair after having lost his beloved, believing that he will see her ‘nevermore’. In Lenore, on the other hand, the narrator believes that he will be reunited with his ‘Lenore’ in heaven, stressing the possible links between death and the supernatural within this poem. It is possible that there is a reflection of Virginia Clemm in the repetition of ‘lost Lenore’ and, therefore, both poems could be a replication of the devastated state her death left Poe in. Lenore also uses the wording ‘never more’, rhyming it with ‘Lenore’, to create an emphasis on this idea that the speaker will never see ‘Lenore’ again and how they will be reunited one day in heaven, but that day cannot be any time soon. The narrator of Annabel Lee also exhibits these obsessive qualities, as the name ‘Annabel Lee’ is repeated no less than seven times throughout the poem. This repetition could either emphasise the narrator’s fanatical obsession with his ‘beautiful Annabel Lee’ or his devastation at her death, as it is hinted that the two were married previously. Lenore mentions: ‘a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river’, which could be another reference to Hell, as the ‘Angel of Death’ was. The allusion to the river Styx, belonging in the underworld, highlights this idea of the devil, such as Count Dracula, and even Heathcliff has been described as something less than a man, as detailed by Isabella Linton: ‘Is he a man? If so, is he mad? If not, is he the devil?’

The theme of madness has reference to certain beings as monsters due to their inherent madness, indicated primarily through devil-like imagery. Madness also seems related to the theme of obsession. Poe’s poems appear to be quintessentially centred around the themes of madness and obsession and there is a popular suggestion that this stems from his own life. Poe ‘immersed himself in the overlay of dream states with reality and in the clouded reasoning and uncontrolled perversions of insane protagonists’ (Mary Ellen Snodgrass)[9] and this view can be seen within many of his poems. There is contextual evidence, such as the repetition of the name ‘Lenore’ in The Raven, to suggest a constant madness. The character of the ‘Raven’ within the poem may be used to illustrate the narrator’s descent into grief-stricken madness; the ‘Raven’ only serves to remind him of his loss. Annabel Lee, another of Poe’s most influential poems, highlights ‘Annabel Lee’s’ death. The narrators subsequent descent into madness encourages the idea that the female mentioned was an important factor in not only the life of the narrator but also Poe’s as well. Dawn Sova, a well-known literary critic, believes this woman to be his lost Virginia Clemm, but she also goes on to argue that ‘after his death, other women, including Sarah Anna Lewis, Helen Whitman, and Sarah Elmira Royster, claimed that they had been immortalized in this poem’[10]. Unfortunately, for contemporary critics, it is uncertain whom the poem was actually aimed at, although many agree with Sova’s statement. One thing can be certain, however, and that is that the devastated narrator is slipping into a grief-stricken madness throughout the course of the poem. Mary Ellen Snodgrass also highlights that: ‘insanity is a pivotal theme in Gothic literature, in part as a retreat of the mind from sensational or macabre events and apparitions that overthrow reasons’[11]. The 19th Century audience presented with the Gothic revival and this type of literature, as Snodgrass described, used it as an escape from their everyday, mundane lives. Another poem that emphasises the possible madness of an anguished narrator is Alone. The speaker appears scattered throughout this poem, utilizing conflicting views such as: ‘my sorrow – I could not awaken / my heart to joy at the same tone’. The oxymoron within these two lines creates an eerie atmosphere that adds to the idea of the infrequent musings of the narrator. As with his other work, this is most likely as a result of the death of a beautiful woman, highlighting that the impact of death within this poem, as will most others, was enough to drive the narrator to madness. Whereas Poe’s poetry has the pivotal theme of the madness and obsession of the narrator, Catherine Earnshaw’s ‘decline into madness significantly occurs in the domestic confines of her room in Thrushcross Grange’[12]. Some critics have read Catherine’s character as an externalisation of Brontë’s own desires, as Cathy’s life had the romance, danger and excitement that was conspicuously absent from Brontë’s own. However, unlike Catherine, Brontë never released herself to her inner demons and gave into the insanity that lived within her brother, Branwell. In her ‘feverish bewilderment’ Catherine uses diction such as ‘turkey’, ‘wild duck’ and ‘pigeon’ to highlight her unwilling imprisonment. Usually birds such as these roam free in the wilderness, like Cathy was as a child wandering the moors, but with their feathers plucked out and placed into pillows, they have been caged and imprisoned. It appears, through the language ‘they put pigeon’s feathers in the pillows – no wonder I couldn’t die’, that Cathy feels she, like the birds, has been unwillingly caged. This reflects back to The Raven because Catherine’s birds have been confined as the narrator in The Raven is through his descent into madness. As Hila Shachar demonstrates in her novel, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company, Thrushcross Grange ‘highlights the power struggles and feelings of frustration with the roles Catherine is expected to enact as a middle-class woman and wife’[13]. Many women within the three literary forms appear to create the same mentality Shachar believes Catherine exhibits, Stoker’s Mina Harker especially employing her determination in order to work with her male counterparts to finally vanquish Dracula. However, neither Mina nor Lucy employ significant elements of madness or obsession within the novel. This may have appeared uncharacteristic to a 19th Century audience because women were seen as weaker and more fragile than their male equivalents. With this in mind, Stoker still fashioned the character of Renfield to express madness and almost demonic obsession, especially highlighted through the diction: ‘I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am Your slave.’ A significant example of Dracula’s hold over the mortal man can be explained through use of the language ‘You’, ‘Your’, and ‘Master.’ Renfield’s madness began at Castle Dracula, just as Jonathan Harker’s did, indicating that the superstitions held by the locals in Transylvania may have been true. Therefore, Dracula’s purely demonic presence and emphasis on the ‘Devil’ may have been an indicating factor in the subsequent madness of his companions.

As Andrew Smith details in his novel, Gothic Literature, dreams and the supernatural ‘possess a peculiar surrealism and rich symbolism’[14] within the Gothic tradition. The idea of the supernatural echoes within the work of all three authors, intertwined with the product of dreams and their devastating effects on a Victorian society haunted by superstitions. The supernatural, most especially the product of dreams in Brontë’s novel, comes to a head throughout chapter three, foreshadowing the death of the mysterious Catherine Earnshaw as she finally returns after having ‘lost [her] way on the moor’. Use of the diction ‘I pulled its wrist onto the broken pane and rubbed to and fro ‘til the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes’ highlights the power of Lockwood’s dream. ‘Blood’, in particular, emphasizes the possibility of the ethereal encounter being a dream because, once ‘awakened’, Lockwood mentions no note of any blood soaking the ‘bedclothes’. Unlike Stoker’s Dracula, who created horrified feelings from his Victorian audience from his induction, in this extract Brontë appeals to the empathetic nature of her audience in order to create a supernatural being that could be sympathized with. Harsh, severe language, such as ‘terror made me cruel’ and ‘rubbed to and fro ‘til the blood ran down’, reinforced this attitude. Vanessa Dickerson, as explained in her novel, Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, believes that:

‘It is the wild, heathered, and pristine moor unattached to any dwelling, unbounded by fence or wall, that expanse between Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights, between heaven and hell, that provides the space for Catherine and Heathcliff’s spirits.’[15]

As the two are kept apart by forces beyond themselves, such as the unsuspecting Lintons or Heathcliff’s lower status, Brontë appears to imagine that the expanse between ‘heaven and hell’ is the only hope for the doomed relationship the two face, with their spirits being reunited in death. Unlike Brontë’s presentation of the supernatural, Stoker’s supernatural takes the form of a figure who has instilled fear in the world since its creation. While the characters in Wuthering Heights reference the supernatural in passing, intertwined with superstition and religion, Robert Bisang and Elizabeth Miller believe that the survival of the protagonists within Dracula ‘will depend on their ability to understand, predict and control a supernatural menace.’[16] It is not just the Count, however, that needs to be ‘understood, predicted and controlled’. Lucy is described using the lyrical language: ‘in trance she died, and in trance she is Un-dead, too.’ This quotation appears to personify something that already has a humanoid appearance. Stoker repeatedly uses this reference to emphasize Dracula’s considerable power whilst also accentuating his devil-like nature. Also, at her transformation, Stoker uses the eerie imagery ‘the Thing in the coffin writhed’ to highlight the wickedness of vampires in general rather than creating a focus entirely on the Count. Stoker also emphasizes, as Brontë does, the position of women within Victorian society. Bisang and Miller emphasize that Lucy ‘succumbs to Dracula’s embrace to become a feminine version of the Count’[17], emphasizing the thoughts of men towards women within the 1800s. However, they then go on to explain that ‘Mina resists his advances and the promise of immortality’[18] in order to remain human. This emphasises the idea that Mina, whilst still an 18th Century woman, is twisting the expectations of her society and aiding her male counterparts in vanquishing Dracula. Therefore, unlike Lucy, the supernatural within the Count hasn’t succeeded in diminishing her spirit and emphasizing his control. While Poe doesn’t particularly reference the immortality of vampires or any creatures of the night as Stoker does, he ultimately references the supernatural through apparitions that could be either dream or reality, such as in The Raven. Rúben Darío, an influential Nicaraguan poet, journalist, and diplomat, related Poe’s ‘lack of religious faith or belief in the supernatural to his mathematical turn of mind’[19]. Despite this apparent ‘lack of religious faith or belief in the supernatural’ that exact concept appears to run rife throughout his poetry. Annabel Lee references ‘angels’ and ‘Heaven’, accentuating the religious and superstitious beliefs of the time and stressing that this notion of the poet’s personal thoughts may not be as correct as it first appears. The narrator appears to blame ‘Annabel Lee’s’ death upon the ‘angels’ and ‘demons’, who were jealous of their love. Poe portrays the supernatural through symbolism by stating ideas that clearly aren’t tangible and expresses them through a deeper, more profound meaning. He emphasises the cruelty of death because it has taken his one true love. However, he also appears to reiterate that his love is eternal and not even death can part them, emphasised through the diction: ‘neither the angels in Heaven above / nor the demons down under the sea / can ever dissever my soul from the soul / of the beautiful Annabel Lee’. The enjambment used at the end of each line represents a stream of consciousness, in which the narrator is detailing with stark accuracy that, no matter whether the supernatural beings were jealous of their love, their souls can never be severed and they can never be parted. A Dream Within A Dream can also be taken as the narrator’s devastation at the loss of a beautiful woman. The repetition of ‘while I weep’ emphasises this and, like Brontë, Poe immortalises the ‘dream’ to highlight the narrator’s devastation that everything he appears to ‘see or seem’ is just a ‘dream within a dream.’

Pathetic fallacy is routinely described as the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, most often relating to nature and especially in art and literature. Pathetic fallacy is used in all three literary works to represent tenacious emotions, such as devastation or loss, in order to emphasise the effect of such emotions. Its relation to the Gothic genre, however, as Suzanne Roberts describes, stems from the ‘personification of the landscape’[20], such as in the ‘storm [that] came rattling over the Heights in full fury’ the night of Heathcliff’s disappearance. Brontë utilised her power over the weather to ‘explore certain limits of experience with the help of the analogy of violent or peaceful forms of nature’[21]. For example, the use of ferocious language in this extract, such as ‘violent wind’ and ‘growling thunder’, highlights the effect Catherine’s harsh words had on Heathcliff when she mentioned to Nelly that should she marry him, they would ‘be beggars’. Brontë uses ‘full fury’ to personify the ‘storm’ to emphasise the extent of Catherine’s betrayal of Heathcliff’s love and devotion. Despite the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century England and, therefore, the appearance of additional buildings in the suburbs, Londoners would have wanted to read a novel set in the roaming moors of Yorkshire because it would have been far removed from their own lives. Consequently, Brontë would have employed pathetic fallacy to further draw her city-bound readers into the tale of childhood friendship and forbidden love. The diction used within the extract previously mentioned would, therefore, have been used to create feelings of sympathy towards both Catherine and Heathcliff. A particular example of the use of ‘violent’ language to explore the ‘limits of experience’ would be in Stoker’s, Dracula, as Lucy is wandering in the churchyard. The churchyard by day is described by Mina as a ‘lovely place’ and the ‘nicest spot in Whitby’, which creates a drastic change from later on in the novel, where Lucy is seduced into walking out there in the dark. Stoker uses an oxymoron to create atmosphere by mentioning the ‘bright full moon’ with ‘heavy black, driving clouds’. The personification of the clouds, through use of the diction ‘driving’, implies devastating consequences and Stoker used this, just as Brontë did, in order to create a feeling of sympathy for the characters. However, unlike the both Brontë and Stoker, Poe didn’t utilise pathetic fallacy to create sympathy towards certain characters. Instead, he used it as a mere statement of fact, most often highlighting the death of beautiful women. The Raven uses the diction ‘silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain’. The rhyme used with ‘uncertain’ and ‘curtain’ highlights the feeling of unease the narrator is feeling throughout the whole poem, while the alliteration ‘silken’ and ‘sad’ emphasises the narrator’s inner feelings at the loss of ‘Lenore’. Pathetic fallacy and the personification of the curtain, therefore, accentuates the narrator’s, and by extension, Poe’s distraught and disturbed emotions. The City in the Sea, another example of Poe’s poetry, employs pathetic fallacy through the diction ‘melancholy waters lie’. Although not expressly mentioning weather, as much of the Gothic did, the narrator’s obvious indulgence in the pathetic fallacy ‘indicates Poe’s critical distance from the narrator’s sentimental endowment of natural objects with human significance.’[22]. The significance of Pathetic fallacy not just in poetry but also within all works of the Gothic is that it personifies of the powerful emotions felt by certain characters, and this, in turn, creates an eerie, unbreakable atmosphere that draws the reader into the hypnotising tale.

These three literary works demonstrate the clear similarities between European and American Gothic themes such as the ones studied. The underlying topic in all three rests on the portrayal of themes within this particular genre. Violence, not studied but none-the-less extremely prevalent, is an example of a Gothic theme, one most highlighted in the work of European novelists. Whether just in Poe’s work or in American Gothic in general, this theme remains conspicuously absent. Poe’s clear instability, emphasised throughout his poetry, adds to the thought that, despite his possible insanity, he was not a particularly violent character. The revival of the Gothic, both in Europe and America, created the framework for the possibility to understand the workings of human minds such as Poe’s. As Fred Botting declares at the beginning of his novel, Gothic, ‘in the contrasts displayed in Gothic presentations of darker themes, criticism finds an explicit invitation to indulge in traditional psychoanalysis: Gothic becomes a fiction of unconscious desire, a release of repressed energies and antisocial fantasies.’[23]

Word Count: 2,999

BibliographyKristie Leigh Musgrove (2008), Lilith Rising: American Gothic Fiction and the Evolution of the Female Hero, page 5.

Jerrold E. Hogle (2002), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, page 21.

Andrew Smith (2007), Gothic Literature, page 7.

William Downs, Wright, Erik Ramsey (2012), The Art of Theatre: A Concise Introduction, page 203.

Michael Bodden, (2010), Resistance of the National Stage: Theater and Politics in Late New Order Indonesia, page 142.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (2011), On Death and Dying, page 32

Elizabeth Miller (2005), Dracula Handbook, page 88.

Edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (2014), The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, page 178

Edgar Allan Poe (2013), The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Annotated): Volumes I and II.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2009), Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, page 189.

Dawn B. Sova (2007), Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, page 25.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2009), Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, page 189

Hila Shachar (2012), Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company, page 174.

Hila Shachar (2012), Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company, page 174.

Andrew Smith (2007), Gothic Literature, page 6.

Vanessa D. Dickerson (1996), Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, page 71.

Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller (2008), Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, page 292.

Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller (2008), Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, page 292.

Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller (2008), Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, page 292.

Lois Davis Vines (2002), Poe Abroad: Influence Reputation Affinities, 218.

Suzanne L. Roberts (2008), The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies in the Gendered Gothic Landscape, page 3.

Edited by Valeria Tinkler-Villani, Peter Davidson, Jane Stevenson (1995), Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Development in the Gothic Tradition, page 105.

Edited by Shawn Rosenheim, Stephen Rachman (1995), The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, page 307.

Fred Botting (2005), Gothic.

[1] Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002)[2] Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (2007)[3] William Downs, Wright, Erik Ramsey, The Art of Theatre: A Concise Introduction (2012)[4] Michael Bodden, Resistance of the National Stage: Theater and Politics in Late New Order Indonesia (2010)[5] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (2011)[6] Elizabeth Miller, Dracula Handbook (2005)[7] Edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (2014)[8] Edgar Allan Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Annotated): Volumes I and II (2013)[9] Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (2009)[10] Dawn B. Sova, Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (2007)[11] Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (2009)[12] Hila Shachar, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company (2012)[13] Hila Shachar, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company (2012)[14] Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature (2007)[15] Vanessa D. Dickerson, Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural (1996)[16] Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula (2008)[17] Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula (2008)[18] Bram Stoker, Robert Bisang, Elizabeth Miller, Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula (2008)[19] Lois Davis Vines, Poe Abroad: Influence Reputation Affinities (2002)[20] Suzanne L. Roberts, The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies in the Gendered Gothic Landscape (2008)[21] Edited by Valeria Tinkler-Villani, Peter Davidson, Jane Stevenson, Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Development in the Gothic Tradition (1995)[22] Edited by Shawn Rosenheim, Stephen Rachman, The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1995)[23] Fred Botting, Gothic (2005)

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