Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Transgression in Gothic Literature

A key feature of the Gothic genre, and one that applies to all four texts I'm covering (Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, The Bloody Chamber and Macbeth) is transgression. Transgression, put simply, is the violation of a particular societal, moral or natural law. Put simply, it is breaking boundaries - or breaking rules of society. Gothic fiction frequently deals with transgressive protagonists, and many Gothic themes stem from transgression. Miller (critic) refers to transgression as "the dissolving of normative boundaries".

Wikipedia (don't knock it) defines transgression as:

"a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic."

Transgression in Wuthering Heights

In Wuthering Heights, there's a lot of boundary-breaking. Certain characters exceed what is usually expected of them in society.

It can be argued that Catherine is a transgressive character, since she breaks the boundary that was expected of women in her time. Catherine is presented as a violent character considering that she is a lady of the early Victorian era; when she is a child she asks her father for a whip as a gift, and when she is older she 'boxes' her soon-to-be husband Edgar and bites Nelly's hand. This behaviour is both extreme (an aspect of the Gothic) and transgressive, since it shows her as breaking the boundary of what is expected of women at the time. Yet it is also interesting to consider how obsessed Catherine appears to be with her status in society, marrying Edgar because he is wealthier than Heathcliff. On the one hand, she adheres to society's norms. On the other, she rebels against what society expects of her.

It can also be argued that Cathy, her daughter, is a transgressive character, which may also link to the theory that Cathy is another 'version' of Catherine, as though one lives on through the other. Stating, "'I gave him a cut with my whip'", the symbol of a whip is seen to apply to both characters and highlights Cathy's violent nature. Furthermore, just as Catherine attacks Edgar, Cathy pushes Linton. This behaviour is not expected of either character, and shows how they are breaking free from societal norms.

Heathcliff is probably the most important character to focus on when discussing transgression. Heathcliff breaks several boundaries throughout the novel. His very nature is transgressive; he is by no means gentlemanly, even after his mysterious three-year absence. Heathcliff is wild and untempered, as well as incredibly violent. When he hangs Isabella's dog, for example, he is breaking the boundaries of what is expected not just from a gentleman of the time, but from any moral and rational human being.

Furthermore, Heathcliff and Catherine both break a significant boundary: the boundary of death. Their love (which breaks boundaries in itself, since Heathcliff is named after Catherine's dead sibling and is raised as her brother) is so powerful it transcends death (as we learn when stories are told about people seeing the two as ghosts wandering the moors) - a typical example of how powerful transgression is in the novel. This transgressive love also leads to more transgressive behaviour from Heathcliff. Heathcliff breaks many societal and moral boundaries when he "disturb[s] the dead", as Nelly states. Opening Catherine's coffin and claiming her face is "hers yet", Heathcliff immediately breaks boundaries of what is expected at the time. And digging up your dead girlfriend certainly wasn't expected at the time, for some reason.

And the end of the novel, though, as with many Gothic novels, the transgression appears to be resolved, and natural order is restored. People are at peace, Cathy and Hareton are happy, and Heathcliff and Catherine also seem to have found peace in death.

Transgression in Frankenstein

One of the greatest types of transgression that applies to this novel is Victor's moral transgression, by rebelling against God. By creating his creature and using science to create life, Victor is actively going against what people at the time believed to be God's work. This relates to Shelley's use of intertextuality with Milton's Paradise Lost, whereby the creature refers to himself as Adam - "I ought to be thy Adam..." and likens Victor to a vengeful God.

Furthermore, the means in which Victor assembles the creature (grave robbing, more or less) links to the societal transgression seen when Heathcliff disturbs Catherine's grave in Wuthering Heights. Victor's actions also demonstrate a sense of scientific transgression - the fact that he uses science as the means to an immoral end. His transgressive personality also links to his excessive and extreme behaviour, which are other typical elements of a Gothic protagonist.

Also, throughout the novel Victor appears to neglect his family and his creature, which could arguably be another example of breaking the normal family ties that are to be expected of such a man. He even neglects his soon-to-be-wife, treating her as a correspondent rather than a companion, as Veeder argues.

The creature also breaks many boundaries - by murdering William, Henry and Elizabeth he breaks a hell of a lot of moral boundaries, for starters. More implicitly, though, the creature breaks boundaries by default of his nature. He is on the liminal boundaries between life and death and the natural and supernatural.

The novel also appears to be something of a warning against transgression. Think of where Victor's transgressive nature takes him; he dies alone and bitter after his family and friends have been killed at the hands of his own creation. Nothing good comes from his transgression whatsoever, and it is the core of what makes the novel so Gothic in nature.

It's important to remember that the novel has the subtitle of The Modern Prometheus; Prometheus was famously punished for exceeding boundaries, namely by being tied up and having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day, only for it to grow back. Victor also warns against transgression when he sees something of himself in Walton and tells him the dangers of over-reaching ambition, which once again links to the intertextual references made to Samuel Taylor Colderidge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Victor is cursed, and warns others against what he did.

Transgression in The Bloody Chamber

There is a lot of transgression in Angela Carter's collection, mostly thanks to the violently sexual nature of many of the stories. Several characters break moral and societal boundaries thanks to their obsession with death, sex or both.

In The Bloody Chamber, the Marquis breaks moral and societal boundaries by fusing erotic love with death (a literary device called Liebestod). His bloody chamber, a "room designed for desecration", hides the corpses of his previous lovers. By murdering people, he breaks a significant boundary. By combining a sexual element with death, he expands his transgressive nature and tackles several taboos head-on. The way in which he breaks free from society is disturbing and unnatural to say the least. Yet, as with many Gothic stories, his evil is punished when he is murdered by the protagonist's mother, and a sense of resolution is present at the end of the story.

In The Snow Child, the Count breaks more boundaries, and in a more disturbing way, than perhaps any other Gothic character across the four texts. Once the child of his desire is dead, he has sex with her corpse. This fuses rape, incest, necrophilia and paedophilia in just a matter of sentences. The Count's carnal desires lead to this shocking and horrifying sense of transgression. This is also an example of how Carter takes transgression and modernises it, as she does with the Gothic genre itself; we are, as readers, more liberal than we were hundreds of years ago, so digging up bodies and seeing women being violent isn't as shocking to us nowadays. By tackling modern taboos, however, taboos that earlier texts daren't cover, Carter is sure to reinvent the Gothic to make it all the more horrifying for us. Interestingly, the Count isn't punished in this short tale; the only punishment he seems to get is the fact that the omniscient narrator snidely remarks "he was soon finished" (don't mention that in the exam, it's just a funny little 'owch!' moment. Carter is once again modernising the Gothic, and in a way just being realistic; the villainous, transgressive characters aren't always punished.

In The Lady of the House of Love, however, the transgressive titular character despises her own nature. She breaks moral boundaries by murdering young men, and is by nature resting on the boundary between what is natural and what is supernatural: "she is so beautiful she is unnatural." The Countess is 'punished', but only by her own conscience. Death seems to be a release for her when she is kissed by the young bicyclist.

Transgression in Macbeth

Macbeth himself breaks obvious moral boundaries when he orders the killing of many innocent people, such as Lady Macduff and her son. Yet before his reign of terror begins, Macbeth violates a much greater boundary at the time of writing: the divine rights of kings. By killing Duncan, Macbeth is indirectly rebelling against God, which links to the moral transgression explored in Frankenstein. Macbeth appears to break any and every boundary in order to achieve his own aim: to have power.

Lady Macbeth is also a transgressive character. She actively defies what is expected of her as a woman of her time by being involved with supernatural forces, patronising and condescending her husband, manipulating her husband, being blatantly duplicitous and getting involved with Macbeth's scheming. Yet it is arguable to suggest that Lady Macbeth is somewhat redeemed in the reader's eye before her death; her transgressive nature is immoral to some, yet she does seem to show genuine remorse and guilt when she descends into madness. Macbeth, on the other hand, is punished when he is killed, yet his sense of redemption is arguable. As a Gothic protagonist (in a pre-Gothic text), we should feel a slight bit of sympathy for him even at the end of the play, and to an extent, we do. Both characters are punished, and the play ends with a sense of the natural world being restored as Malcolm is given his rightful seat on the throne.

Yet it is important to remember that transgression isn't necessarily a sign of an inherently evil character. Heathcliff, Catherine, Victor, the creature, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Countess all still have aspects of their characters that we can sympathise with, even once they've broken their various boundaries.


  1. This is really great.

    1 question - why did you do four texts?

    1. Thank you!

      Because my school made us so we had a greater range of texts to discuss when confronted with whatever the exam threw at us. Also this way you escaped the pitfall of discussing, say, Macbeth in section A and then repeating some of your points in section B.

  2. Wow, I wish you did Dr Faustus as well, but then again I'm not complaining, this is really useful, thankyou :)

  3. i am doing/ have done dr faustus

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  5. This is amazing, really helped me at 01:44 am trying to do my essay.

  6. thank you so much for this, I keep coming back to your blog, it always helps when you search for something and find a post about exactly what you need!! thank you x

  7. This is great for my exam plan and thank you so much for helping me out on The Bloody Chamber for my A-Levels!!