Context, Gothic Novels, and the Tolerance of Ambiguity

(This is So Long, I APOLOGIZE, friends) (but I especially apologize to Kristin).

I was fairly entertained by the infographic that Kristin posted about How to Tell You’re in a Gothic Novel, mostly because I sometimes feel legitimately confused about what classifies any text into any category, since I so often notice such different features of a text than most people. When I read the infographic, I felt a sense of lightness/ reassurance; I thought “oh, great, this is simple, now I KNOW what a gothic novel is, and don’t need to be worried.” I also felt that it was pretty funny–it seemed it so simple and reductive that it was almost ridiculous. The reason I’m talking about this is because I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about the effect of CONTEXT on my understanding of texts, and the implications of those understandings.

I’ve taken 3 out of 6 of my literature courses with Abby Goode (including the first one, Studies in English, which definitely set the standard for how I engage with texts), one with Paul Rogalus, one with Joe Mealey, and now, one with Kristin. Out of all these classes, only Global Lit with Joe and this class [which, notably, are the only two that use Norton Anthologies or any anthologies (except for the purpose of doing a meta analysis of anthologies)] are the ones where there was time spent looking at virtually any biographical and historical context of the authors and of the specific works.

In other classes we sometimes have readings that discuss literary theory in depth as separate from the specific text (like Studies in English and Crit Theory), so for the most part, we are never really given a kind of context that TELLS US “what a text is about” or what it exemplifies. So many of the introductions and footnotes to authors and texts in the Norton give authoritative explanations for what you are about to read. I feel so very aware of how this affects my reading of texts–what I pay attention to, what I take away from the text, how I fit it into my understanding of literature over time, etc.. I will admit that for Global Lit, I struggled to keep up with the reading and the context often went unread, so this is really the first class that it has deeply affected me.

I find that I often pay attention to very different things than most of the people in my class, and this has always felt valuable to me, but with this context, I find that I am less accustomed to really thinking deeply about patterns in the text and the methods the author is using and the effects they’re having. It’s very strange, because some part of me thinks this context is important (and sometimes actually very interesting), and yet, I can’t help but notice that I miss working hard to see other things that most people don’t see immediately or always agree on. And you might think that I would be able to put the Norton’s interpretations aside to develop my own, but I don’t seem able to do that?

ANYWAY. The point of this is that when I read that infographic, I felt relieved to have some kind of definitive conception of the gothic novel–I felt relieved to have “The Correct” context that would allow me to read Austen’s novel in “The Correct” way. That kind of thinking is fairly new to me, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I like it. I don’t think I believe there is one correct way to read a text, and I certainly don’t think the anxiety around having to conform my understanding to the Norton Anthology serves me well in literary studies, or life in general, since I am also always resisting the common interpretation of everyday situations in life, and that feels like an important part of my way of being.

But to be even more meta, the reason this so particularly strikes me is actually because, after letting my thoughts about all of this percolate for a few days, I am starting to feel really uncomfortable with the way I seem to have temporarily been pulled away from my own very elaborately developed understanding of what I believe to be a big feature of The Gothic. Though I had not been introduced to the text (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) that helped me develop my understanding of this feature as specifically a “Gothic Novel(la),” I feel pretty certain that it is gothic, and that the themes I found in it are also heavily gothic.

While almost every single person in my class focused on the provocative suggestions of sexuality, ghosts, insanity, repression, child sexual abuse, etc., I was extremely fascinated by the ambiguity in the narrative, and the way that both the main character and the readers responded to that ambiguity. I actually wrote and won an award for a paper (I know no one will read the paper, but am I still going to link it? Yes.) on this feature and how it affected readers and, in a sense, activated their desire for the resolution of uncertainty and ambiguity, which the novella teases, but never delivers. The novella is infamous for provoking debates on whether the story includes supernatural ghosts, or whether it can be explained away by the protagonists insanity. I was struck by the way that our class seemed to themselves crave extremely certain and definitive interpretations of the text, as well as the way they seemed to seek out intensely black and white understandings of morality and demonized characters without actual evidence, simply because of the discomfort provoke by the text’s ambiguity.

At the time I thought that this reaction had so many real life implications that I could not help think about other recent examples of intense reactions to ambiguity, such the Laurel/ Yanny phenomenon, and #thedress, which both produced a strangeness akin to gothic novels, which in turn prompted a desire for resolution, and divided people into claims to know “the truth” about each phenomenon.

All of this is to say: while I do understand that The Gothic includes castles and abbeys, men with piercing eyes, supernatural beings, etc., what seems the most obvious to me is the use of ambiguity to evoke discomfort and desire for resolution in the reader. I don’t particularly like how I was so comforted by an understanding of the gothic that did not include this feature, which I feel is absolutely crucial. It made me wonder about what other ways this class is affecting my own understandings of the texts.

And so, when we talked in class about the context for Northanger Abby, how there was a debate about whether gothic novels made readers “crazy,” I felt like the more recent critique of gendered bias re: reason and emotion was important context, I couldn’t help but honestly kind of agree that these novels did pinpoint on a specific trigger–which is the need for certainty–and then indulged and worsened that need.

For me, this has always been a very big deal because I am so interested in how the actual world is itself so complex and ambiguous and, in my mind, so many of these ambiguities are not resolvable ones. If people are constantly and artificially trained through texts to be activated/ excited by ambiguous intensity, and to expect the resolution of that ambiguity, what will we expect to happen when they are confronted with that ambiguity in real life? As far as I can tell, it genuinely seems to create intense division and entrenched beliefs about their own certainty over things that are perhaps far more complex then they are represented to be.

In class I called gothic novels “clickbait novels” because I very intentionally associate this process in literature with the real life implications of clickbait and so called “fake news.” I think about even now, with the spread of the novel coronavirus, how clickbait draws on the uncertainty of the spreading and the ambiguity of symptoms being serious or “just a cold.” Of course, you could say that this is a definitive truth to whether you have coronovirus or not, but as far as I can tell, coronovirus is actually fairly complex, and not always fatal for everyone, yet it is constantly represented as horribly deadly and dangerous. I’m endlessly fascinated by the actual ambiguity even of medical conditions, and the reaction that people have to being aware of that ambiguity. I’m particularly interested in the reactions surrounding the issues of Lyme Disease, and especially how people react when even doctors do not have resolution to ambiguity/ uncertainty.

But honestly, coronovirus isn’t really the hill I want to die on, but it is one that seems recent/ relevant. Most of the time I am interested in the complexity of social issues–their causes and the ways to approach them–as well as the attribution not only of intensely malicious intent, but also of essentialist notions of “toxic” and “evil” and “trash,” which seem so prevalent among people who are otherwise invested in and believe in constructivism. It is this reduction of complexity that interests me–the function of it, the extend of it’s usefulness, and the need for moving beyond it.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m misguided in attacking gothic novels for indulging this (to me) harmful lack of tolerance for ambiguity–after all, isn’t most literature engaging in setting the reader up for expectations and then delivering on their resolution? But to be honest, I also actually kind of have issues with most literature, and it seems that I hardly like any texts that isn’t actively bringing to the front its own construction and making the reader constantly aware that its neatness of narrative is not in fact how reality works. I am so obviously a postmodernist, I guess, but can I really claim that my aesthetic preferences are actually deeply ethical? or is that too bold of a claim? WHO KNOWS, but maybe I’ll figure it out someday????


3 thoughts on “Context, Gothic Novels, and the Tolerance of Ambiguity

  1. No apologies for thinking and writing are ever necessary in this class, ever!

    I do want to respond to a couple of things you mentioned here, for the sake of clarity for everyone.

    First, that infographic is very much a tongue-in-cheek “definition” of what qualifies as a gothic novel. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear about that. Also, to be clear, this infographic is really only looking at gothic novels before 1900. Since then (and even before that), the things we might qualify as “gothic” might not contain many (or any) of those tropes.

    Some contemporary examples of works that might be considered “gothic” are Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Us, The Handmaid’s Tale (the Atwood novel but also, and more so, to me, the television series, because of its aesthetics), the Australian films Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Babadook, the first season of HBO’s True Detective (I haven’t watched the other seasons), the film Fargo, and most of Shirley Jackson’s stories and novels. William Faulkner’s novels, Dorothy Allison’s memoir Bastard out of Carolina, and Charlaine Harris’s True Blood series are wildly different, but all might be considered “Southern Gothic.” I could go on…

    Once you dig down past the tropes, I think there is something else that binds these works together, and maybe ambiguity is that thing. Ambiguity seems to be at the heart of Robinson’s “The Haunted Beach,” certainly. I sometimes also see the gothic as a response to trauma, or an expression of trauma. Maybe that trauma, sometimes, is in not knowing. (As I mentioned in class, I find Freud’s uncanny [un-heimlich, un-homelike] a very useful lens for thinking about the gothic.) I certainly think that most/many of the works I noted above actively resist understanding/wrestle with ambiguity.

    As far as our approach to these works (considering historical and biographical context), I can understand why you, Jess, are resistant to this framing. And I’m not going to try to change your mind or justify why we’re doing things this way, but, by way of explanation, I can tell you that the choice was deliberate: We’re using a framework of New Historicism because that’s what has been done with this class in the past, because it’s a framework I think will prepare y’all for some of the things you’ll be doing in the future, and because it’s a framework that I enjoyed as an undergrad. Again, I’m saying all of this by way of explanation, and I don’t think knowing any of this will change your mind about the approach. I love learning about the history and the culture around these literary figures and their works, but I know this isn’t what has drawn you to the study of literature, Jess. And that’s fine! I think that having a quiver full of different approaches to (and experiences with) the study of literature will ultimately serve you well. (And I apologize for wildly oversimplifying literally everything in this response—I’m just pretty crunched for time.)

    Finally, I want to thank you for this incredibly thoughtful post.


  2. Hey Kristin! I do recognize the approach as a specific approach (New Historicism), and I obviously recognize the benefits, and to be honest, I actually LIKE the context and find so much of it fascinating! Even to the point that I find myself searching for MORE context ON MY OWN, and kind of using it as a crutch? if that makes sense? It’s not that I don’t think it’s a valid way of reading, but I do notice myself becoming sort of less active in my readings? Which is not actually a criticism of New Historicism at all, but a literal attempt to notice the shift in my own behavior when classes are shaped in this way, and to examine how I feel about that shift, in terms of my own relationship to reading and to my work. Like, I swear to god, I find myself seeking out context, even when I don’t particularly want the context yet, as if some kind of habit I can’t break, that makes me not have to think as hard. This is a personal problem, and I’m sorry if it seemed like I was saying otherwise! This week I ended up reading the contexts for the authors AFTER reading their works, just to experiment. I genuinely believe I’ll need to find a way to navigate this issue in future classes, so this is really just me trying to build a system that works for me, and feeling that out here. Perhaps this space was the best place to do it, though. And I of course recognize that The Gothic is so much more than the info graphic, but again, I’ve noticed myself reaching for unambiguous and pin-pointable understandings this semester (which is wildly ironic, and kind of the point, somehow???). I just wanted to notice the parallel in myself, I think, and then go further and question my motives. And then actively change them by writing this post and thinking outside of the box I’ve made for myself? I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but I probably should have made it more clear!


  3. Also, in a sense, I think I *am* to some degree comparing this desire for unambiguous understanding (re: the info graphic and re: people who read gothic novels, the expectations those novels set up) to, like…. issues of education and epistemology. In every paper I’ve written on the subject of (not) tolerating ambiguity, I associate my analysis with people’s desire for AND entitlement to concrete and definable explanations, which I then critique as problematic.

    I spend a lot of time trying to analyze what things form, develop, indulge that desire and entitlement to certainty and unambiguous “facts.” Indeed, I consider the uncanny to be, actually, more related to the general blurriness of boundaries, and the breakdown in those boundaries.

    [My favorite definition of the uncanny is from The Routlege Dictionary of Literary Terms: “Precariously located in the liminal space of the in-between, it calls into question established norms and boundaries, especially those between the familiar and unfamiliar, imagination and reality, inside and outside (psychical and material realms) and self and other” (p 245). !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Honestly, I could talk about this definition for a century and find it infinitely more important and interesting than Freud’s definition].

    One really simple thing that started my thinking about this is folks’ thinking about gender–specifically trans and non-binary people–and how the blurring of gender is itself uncanny, and how people are generally desirous or and entitled to a “clear” understanding of a person’s “real gender” and actually, just our general resistance/ inability to consider the sheer complexity of biological sex alone (not even gender), which is extremely complex, but which we have a hard time not sorting into binaries. So, like….. in a sense….. my mentioning of finding relief in the infographic is actually a kind of…. critique of myself???? And my desire for certainty? Which I think is…… not unrelated to pedagogy and the desire to soothe myself about the course and how I’m doing???? ALL OF MY THOUGHTS ARE INTERCONNECTED, I’M SORRY, omg. I am going to go think about this elsewhere now, BYE. But thank you so much for engaging with me, I appreciate it so much!!

    ( ) (I actually love this book, it’s so helpful. I was just looking at The Gothic in there the other day.)


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