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The Italian – gothic conventions

Gothic literature changes from age to age to reflect the current socio-cultural situation of the time. Stories such as The Italian, The Monk, Vathek and writers such as Poe, Carter, Radcliffe and Shelleyt have presented facets of the Gothic. The Gothic is the representation of the darker side of awareness, a realm of neurosis and morbidity whereby it is a fantasy world that reveals secrets of the human personality.

In this excerpt of The Italian, there are typical Gothic conventions of its age. From the setting, there is the idea of the Sublime in which it is a reflection of a situation of vastness in an imaginative, fantastical visual experience. The “grandeur” and the “proportions” in the “memorial” invoked Ellena’s awe and excess of emotions due to its majestic, grand and infinite characteristics that seems to overpower and pervade the environment for “everywhere prevailed”. From the imagery of infinite “proportions” and “mass”, man is seen as insignificant. The idea of the Sublime is further exemplified in Vathek, of the “immeasurable plain” that reveled in its “infinity” in which it had “overpowered” man until “he fell prostrate on his face”. The limitations of man are magnified in contrast to the environment thus challenging the senses and emphasizing the insignificance of humanity. Ellena’s awe and appreciation of nature overwhelms her thus it rendered the preconceived notion that humanity is in control of the world and destiny as obsolete. Thus man is left hopeless and impotent. This idea of the irrelevance of man in comparison to nature is typically Gothic for it undermines man’s state universally.

A recurrent characteristic is the internalization of decay and destruction. The setting itself reflected the “interior” of the villa in which it was projected as the “chamber of ruins”. The colour of the villa reflects the hollowness and the obscurity of the character. It foretells the idea that we cannot escape corruption for it is pervasive from the physical aspect to the intangible sense of “gloom”. This metaphorical sense of internalization of decay is seen in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in which the destruction of the Usher family is manifested in the “melancholy House of Usher”. Decay is manifested from its physical form to the innermost intrusive intangible form. Thus when corruption comes from deep inside in its most basic or innate form it is inescapable. Thus when the “passage terminated” it seem to project that all the internalization led to nothing and that in the end it is just the oblivion.

There is a play on “light” in which the “partial light” of the “evening rays” whereby “gleam fell” seem to project something that is not whole, not totally pure. It signifies the idea in which it is neither positive nor enlightening that goes with typical connotations to “light” but a dim, suppressed presence that is seemingly cryptic and sinister. The lack of strong, defined “light” in which the “gleam fell” seem to represent failing hope, future or life. The idea of “light” seem to reflect Ellena’s clarity of thought in which its insufficient amount seem to reflect her confusion in which the “partial light” signified her unclear or partial understanding and vision. The “evening rays” projects the time of dusk in which it is the twilight, the oblivion whereby nothing is definite. It reflected Ellena’s current state of consciousness whereby fantasy fades into reality and the distinction between both states is blurred. This play on “light” and the protagonist is present in Poe’s, The Masque of the Red Death in which Prince Prospero’s castle had “no light of any kind emanating” but only through “fire that projected its rays through the tinted glass” thus the perception of light in The Masque of the Red Death is skewed and unnatural. It reflected the lack of “light”, purity or nobleness in Prince Prospero’s character thus uncovering the dark, “gloomy”, decay it had degenerated into.

The play of “light” is connected to the failure of reason or logic in which Ellena could not discern reality from the imagined. She tried vainly to “ascertain the truth” or rationalize her experience to the portrayal of the sublimity of the Gothic before her. Ellena even thought her “imagination” could have “deluded her”. Her attempts to intellectualize failed and everything she “perceived” is not certain. This failure of reason and logic is further exemplified in the Pit and the Pendulum in which no matter how many times the narrator escaped certain death due to his “human resolution” and “understanding” he was eventually saved by “an outstretched arm” thus affirming that his ability to survive was not due to his intellect and will but reliant to luck and fate. Thus it proposes the Gothic idea that no matter how innovative and determined a person is in obtaining a goal, destiny is not in his hands. That measure of the unknown and uncertainty encompasses the mystic of Gothic.

The excerpt has some representation of the supernatural in which Spalatro was seen “gliding” and “hovering” in a ghost-like manner. The way he was “perceived” did not conform to realistic expectations of a normal human being. It was inconceivable how Spalatro behaved. The idea of supernatural is also evident in The Monk, from the spectre of Elvira coming back to foreshadow Antonia’s premature death to the appearance of Satan, a “seraph” with “crimson wings” and “silken locks” in “dazzling glory” altering to the vile “ugliness” of “blasted limbs” and “swarthy darknesssupplied by living snakes”. Thus the Gothic presents forces in the world that cannot be understood or controlled and which may be able to destroy humanity.

Ellena of The Italian has projected extreme psychological states in which her extreme fear has restrained her from “venture yet almost equally dreaded to remain alone”. Her horror had immobilized her and isolated her from the salvation of others. Her extreme anxiety and distress in her mind cut her off from everyone thus her current state of doubtful sanity has rooted her in a state of stagnation and decay. These extreme states of emotion is apparent especially in Poe’s Black Cat for the narrator thought of himself as “mad am I not” whereby he had “tearsfrom eyes” whilst he hung the cat to the time he celebrated triumphantly of his success in concealing his wife’s body. The Gothic dealt with extremes of emotions and psychological states which alienate the individual off from others in their state of mania.

However The Italian has other elements that made it difficult to conform to the typified Gothic theme. In most Gothic texts female characters are usually characterized as maternal figures, guileless and virtuous damsels or sexually deviant temptress. A woman is weak, naive but good or empowered, dominant but evil. On the other hand in The Italian Ellena is projected as a resilient individual though at moments “shuddered” and “startled” but “forgetting fear for herself” overcame odds to try and escape. All the masculine characters such as Schedoni, Spalatro and her father did not make a great impact throughout the excerpt but just in states of stagnation and flimsy manifestations of themselves. This apparent lack of masculine presence or patriarchal environment lends a different air to The Italian making it a bit harder to conform to typified notions of the Gothic.

There is the idea whereby intellectualization by the human mind is the anti-thesis of the Gothic as it is neither unexplainable nor indefinable. Therefore such connection to the ideas of logic and reasoning is different in Gothic perceptions if human will triumph over the Gothic. Humanity prided itself as superior due to intellectual reasoning and will. In The Italian Ellena believed she could overcome “every fear for herself”. Thus there is the belief that will and reasoning would save her and her father but in the typical Gothic convention in which human logic and determination would fail no matter how good the odds. Therefore the shred of human resilience evident in Ellena even though there was “momentary hesitation” but she overcame it to face her fears and the possibility of death signified the failure of the Gothic. Another instance of the victory of human will was when she had nothing to hold onto except “hope”, nothing solid or tangible, only a shred of mental capacity that had held her through. However the loss of human capacity to reason would mean the loss of “hope” thus that in itself is considered as Gothic.

In conclusion the passage is mainly Gothic due to a number of close characteristics to typical conventions. Nonetheless The Italian has unique qualities that distinguish it from mainstream Gothic literature.

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