The “Gothic Complex” in Shelley: From Zastrozzi to The Triumph of Life

The persistent use of Gothic motifs by Shelley from his early Gothic novels (1810-11) all the way to The Triumph of Life (1822) has only been partly explained up until now.  This essay argues that Shelley develops, across his career in ways especially visible in The Triumph, a "Gothic complex" of connected features that look all the way back to how the "Gothic Story" began in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764).  By developing these features as he does, Shelley is able to reveal with great power the underlying conflicts at his (and our) time between retrograde belief-systems that people still accept as dominant and true, on the one hand, and, on the other, progressive re-castings of those old shapes that can make them point to revolutionary ideologies that can change the world as his characters and readers perceive it.

November 2015


The Gothic Matrix: Shelley Between the Symbolic and Romantic

This paper begins with the Gothic, exemplified in Shelley’s early Gothic novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, as an overdetermined and unprocessed moment that interrupts aesthetic ideology, and that is problematically entwined with the Romantic in ways that help to illuminate the deconstructive role that the Gothic has come to play in Romantic Studies. More particularly, I approach this interimbrication through Hegel’s distinction between “Symbolic” and Romantic art in his Aesthetics, which distinguishes three modes based on art’s (in)ability fully to configure the “Idea.” In Symbolic art the “Idea” is still "indeterminate"; it achieves “adequate embodiment” in Classicism; but in the Romantic, form and content are again separated, because of an inadequacy in external forms that repeats and reverses the problems of the Symbolic. Curiously placing Classical beauty and unity in the middle of his dialectic, as an abandoned synthesis, Hegel oscillates between two forms of inadequacy that are both similar and different. For the Romantic beautiful soul withdraws from existing discourses, while the imagination of the Symbolic artist is deformed by what it cannot form. But the Romanticist thereby risks a bad infinity, while the Symbolic artist works on content in the here and now, even at the cost of trapping his work in what Hegel calls a “bad and untrue determinacy.” Given Hegel’s association of the Symbolic with the fantastic and monstrous but also the sublime (which I read here through ðiñek), we can use his category to think through Shelley’s use of the Gothic as a mode whose very disfigurations—and sometimes its conscious badness—form part of a creative negativity. The Gothic, as a stalled and blocked form, has been seen as a “complex.” But this makes it a vanishing mediator in the transition from residual to emergent societal modes. I suggest, instead, that it is a “matrix” for an irresolvable contention and ferment in the work of culture: one to which Shelley comes back again and again. In conclusion, I touch briefly on three of these Shelleyan returns. In Prometheus Unbound Demogorgon’s clumsy overthrow of Jove is merely a parenthesis. Concessive clause. More complex is Alastor, as Shelley’s autonarration of his unsettled relation to a poetry he conceives Romantically but Gothically dis-figures. Finally, in The Triumph of Life the Shape in the Car seems to punish the Idealism of the Shape all Light. But their inter-folding reconfigures the relation of Gothic and Romantic, as Shelley can no longer immunize “the splendour of unfaded beauty” against “the secrets of anatomy and corruption,” nor protect literature from a cultural and political debasement that, by “eat[ing] out the poetry” from history, actually releases a disastrous creativity.

November 2015


Percy Shelley and the Delimitation of the Gothic

This volume of five essays focus on how the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley uses and modifies Gothic conventions across his whole writing career so as, on the one hand, to extend the limits of the Gothic, shading it into a wider Romanticism, and, on the other, to press the limits of the Gothic down to their most basic foundations, releasing new potentials. These essays all argue in different way that, by the end of his career, Shelley has proposed an answer to the question: what does Gothic writing most basically assume in its mixtures of previous genres, and how do these assumptions both establish its limits and set the stage for transgressing them?

Date published: 

November, 2015


David Sigler - Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835. Review by Jim Rovira

David Sigler, Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). 279 pp. (Cloth, $100.00 CAD; Paperback $34.95 CAD; ISBN 978-0-7735-4510-6).

Jim Rovira
Tiffin University

The Monthly Review, April 1818

April, 1818

The Monthly Review, N.S., 85 (April 1818): 439.

An uncouth story, in the taste of the German novelists, trenching in some degree on delicacy, setting probability at defiance, and leading to no conclusion either moral or philosophical. In some passages, the writer appears to favour the doctrines of materialism: but a serious examination is scarcely necessary for so excentric a vagary of the imagination as this tale presents



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