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

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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.

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

Jerrold E. Hogle
University of Arizona


1.        Ever since John Murphy in 1975 traced the persistence of “Gothic” figurations from P.B. Shelley’s earliest works through Prometheus Unbound, we have come to see, as Stephen Behrendt has said in his edition of Shelley’s Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811), “unmistakable foreshadowings” in those adolescent “romances” of his major achievements between 1818 and 1822 (Shelley 2002b, 12). A vital question remains, however: what is really most fundamentally Gothic — and what is most fundamentally symbolized because of that Gothicism — in what continues from those early efforts all the way to the unfinished Triumph of Life? Even the best explanations since Murphy of what lasts from this poet’s youthful recastings of Ann Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis, and Charlotte Dacre do not ultimately answer this question, though I think they have taken us part of the way. Behrendt himself rightly shows that, once Shelley gets past direct imitations of Lewis or Dacre (as in his poem on “The Wandering Jew”), his early romances point, as the Gothic always has, to a “world in which traditional beliefs and values have eroded” but also one where the pull of those past ideologies remains (Shelley 2002b, 20). The result in Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, Behrendt concludes, is “an unwillingness to fully ‘resolve’ the myriad contradictions” in the Gothic rendering of their major characters, who thus become precursors of the powerful complexity in the Beatrice of Shelley’s Gothic play The Cenci (1819; Shelley 2002b, 30-31). John Whatley essentially agrees by pointing out how these early novels “critique . . . religious symbolism through [the] progressive philosophy” expressed by the most villainous characters as they echo Enlightenment thinkers important to Shelley, albeit within the frame of a traditional Gothic moralizing (Whatley 1999, 202). The consequence is a “struggle between opposing views” acted out through conflicts between different kinds of signifiers, so much so that “Zastrozzi” and the “Matilda” he serves or “Wolfstein” as he is tempted towards selling his soul by the Rosicrucian “Ginotti” in St. Irvine “hover in a curious, irresolvable middle state between [the older] motivated symbol and [the newer] atheist sign” (Whatley 1999, 205 and 217).

2.        But is what Behrendt and Whatley reveal spawned by Shelley’s own struggles among attitudes as they fill the by-now extreme conventionality of the Gothic figures he adapts, or are such irresolutions (as these critics intimate, but only sketchily) bound up with the symbolic possibilities endemic to Gothic conventions? Peter Finch has neatly sidestepped this question by seeing the intercalated plots of St. Irvyne, the Wolfstein story in a German-Gothic mode reminiscent of Lewis and the Eliose story in a sentimental mode that recalls Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, as simply manifesting a “contesting pull of narratives” that Shelley will work to critique and then recombine in his later writing (Finch 36). Yet this argument begs the question of how much both sets of conventions are bound up together, not just in the works of Ann Radcliffe, but in the deliberate launching of the post-medieval Gothic in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto of 1764-65. The most provocative approach to Shelley’s Gothicism, though, has been offered by Tilottama Rajan. For her Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne put in “question the cultural stereotypes in which they remain caught” because of their Gothic predecessors, so much so that they both “write” and “withdraw a transgressive narrative” at the same time (Rajan 243). That is because they emphasize the “floating” nature of long-overused signifiers, including their Gothicized character-types, and use them, especially the Ginotti of the Wolfstein plot also called “Nempere” in the Eloise plot, to suggest a “semantic excess” of inconsistent references to incompatible texts, from the very old to the current, that exposes “the overdetermination of social and psychic texts in which” Shelley’s early Gothic form of “narrative has its genesis” (Rajan 243, 245, 246). Nevertheless, the question remains: are these semi-transgressions almost entirely Shelley’s, given how emptied-out the Gothic seemed by 1810-11, or are they really creative extensions of what the post-Walpolean Gothic most basically does in the conflicting tendencies endemic to its symbolic constitution?

3.        I want to argue for the second of these alternatives. Shelley, I believe, especially in the best work of his final year as it builds on the most Gothic features of his early fictions, exploits the symbolic possibilities, including the contradictions, most basic to the Gothic as a mixed and self-questioning mode. He does so to such an extent that it is those very dynamics that often make his final writings what they are, and it is the very nature of the Gothic as he first explored it that sets the stage for those late “triumphs” as they deal with the conflicting systems of belief that he kept attempting to bridge throughout his writing. Indeed, I think that Shelley develops a “Gothic complex” of interacting symbolic processes, based on elements he experiments with as early as Zastrozzi and the poems preceding it, that is carried out quite thoroughly as late as The Triumph of Life and consequently fulfills the potentials for suggestion most inherent in the Gothic features of his earliest work, ones that end up driving Shelley as much as he employs and transmogrifies them.

4.        Although Whatley has more recently seen such a dynamic (as I do too) in the movement of the “Shape all Light” recounted by Shelley’s re-creation of Rousseau (Whatley 2003, 80-89), this Gothic complex is manifested most fully in The Triumph of Life, as I read it (Shelley 2002a, 483-500), when its Narrator describes the victims of “Life’s” captivation of them by emphasizing how much their methods of self-definition sadly resemble the symbolic rendering of Life itself in its all-conquering chariot. That parallel is most visible in the passages from The Triumph I now cite here from the Narrator’s dream-vision, particularly when the “shadow” overarching each walker reappears in the “dusky hood” of Life’s shapeless “Shape”:

Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,

Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear,
Some flying from the thing they feared and some
Seeking the object of another’s fear,

And others as with steps toward the tomb
Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,
And others mournfully within the gloom

Of their own shadow walked, and called it death . . .
And some fled from it as if it were a ghost,
Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (ll. 52-61)

So came a chariot on the silent storm
Of its own rushing splendor, and a Shape
So sate within, as one whom years deform

Beneath a dusky hood and double cape
Crouched within the shadow of a tomb,
And o’er what seemed the head a cloud like crape

Was bent, a dun and faint ethereal gloom
Tempering the light; upon the chariot’s beam
A Janus-visaged Shadow did assume

The guidance of that wonder-winged team.
The shapes that drew it in thick lightnings
Were lost . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (ll. 86-97)
In addition, the importance of this whole pattern is underscored by the replaying of it later in the dream-within-the-main-dream recalled by the shade of Rousseau as he remembers his own first envisioning of the same parade. There he sees its profusion of “dim forms” as proceeding, on the one hand, from the draining of substance from the body that each shadow recalls and, on the other, from the “creative [or is it de-creative?] ray” of Life’s central “car” that really carries no solid or coherent occupant:
“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the grove

“Grew dense with shadows to its inmost covers,
The earth was grey with phantoms, and the air
Was peopled with dim forms, as when there hovers

“A flock of vampire-bats before the glare
Of the tropic sun, bringing ere evening
Strange night on some Indian isle, -- thus were

“Phantoms diffused around, and some did fling
Shadows of shadows, yet unlike themselves,
Behind them, some like eaglets on the wing

“Were lost in the white blaze . . . . . . . . . . (ll. 480-90)

“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the old anatomies
Sate hatching their base broods under the shade

“Of demon wings, and laughed from their dead eyes
To reassume the delegated power
Arrayed in which these worms did monarchize

“Who make the earth their charnel . . . . . . . . (ll. 500-05)

“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I became aware

“Of whence these forms proceeded which thus stained
The track in which we moved; after brief space
From every form the beauty slowly waned,

“From every firmest limb and fairest face
The strength and freshness fell like dust, and left
The action and the shape without the grace

“Of life; the marble brow of youth was cleft
With care, and in the eyes where once hope shone
Desire like a lioness bereft

“Of its last cub, glared ere it died; each one
Of that great crowd sent forth incessantly
These shadows, numerous as the dead leaves blown

“In Autumn evening from a poplar tree ---
Each, like himself and like each other were,
At first, but soon distorted seemed to be

“Obscure clouds molded by the casual air,
And of this stuff the car’s creative ray
Wrought all the busy phantoms that were there . . .” (ll. 518-34)
I find that Shelley’s “Gothic complex” is never more active than at these moments and that these manifestations collectively bring forth the cruxes of his earlier Gothicism, their deepest symbolic roots in the Walpolean Gothic, and the kinds of meanings that can best be located in this kind of fiction-making, which is indeed both highly regressive and radically progressive at the same time.

5.         To begin with, the “shadows” of themselves projected by, yet finally controlling, Life’s prisoners are indeed allusions to the material simulacra given off by objects and people in Book IV of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (ca. 55 BC), also a critique of imperial Rome (Turner 281-82). But they recall just as much what Terry Castle has so perceptively seen in Radcliffe’s Gothic of the mid-1790s: the tendency in her (as well as Shelley’s) Lockean sense of perception to “spectralize” whatever impressions it receives, given that all perceptions are not objects but traces on the tabula rasa of our sensorium. This vision of “all things existing only as perceived,” an axiom used in both Shelley’s essay “On Life” (1819) and his Defence of Poetry (1821; Shelley 2002a, 506 and 533), results in a Radcliffean world-view, as Castle puts it, based on an “absorbing faith in the fantastic” whereby every ghost-like trace — each overlaid by a mental interpretation of it formed out of “ideas” developed from memories of other such traces — turns every other person or object or landscape into a phantom, including externalizations interpreted (as so many are) to be mirrors of the self (Castle 246). Such an empirical-but-also-Gothic understanding, Shelley comes to see under Radcliffe’s influence among others, produces “a kind of thinking dominated by nostalgic mental images” whereby “phatasmic objects” seem “even more real at times than the material world” (Castle 247). As a result, the perceivers of such phantasms as self-images, for example the slaves of Life in Shelley’s Triumph, submit their thinking to spectral figures of themselves based on a past that is taken to be more real and permanent than it really is or was. Their self-images thus become in their eyes fixed definitions of their “selves” to which they believe they must submit, even though those “dim forms” are actually ghosts of what is dead (made explicit by the skeletal “old anatomies” in The Triumph). Indeed, that extension of spectralization, as Rousseau’s dream presents it, means that such self-images can operate like “vampire-bats,” less a figure from Radcliffe and more of a nod to the gradual Gothicizing of the vampire-figure in the eighteen-teens by Byron and Coleridge, then Mary Shelley, then John Polodori’s The Vamypre (1819; see Hogle 2004). Shelley’s 1822 bloodsuckers, each being a version of thought’s empire over itself, psychologically drain the life out of every perceiver who believes himself subject to them as permanent points of reference and so keeps obeying his former sense of his own nature. In that way, they enact the Death-in-Life that captivates those who have accepted the control of a master construct (“Life”) also “de-form[ed]” vampirically by its own “dusky hood,” the “shadow of a tomb” or “old anatomy” to which It, itself an antiquated perception of existence, keeps submitting over and over.

6.        After all, this Gothic retrospection also harkens back to Walpole’s Otranto, beyond its own echoes of Locke, to the way the three different ghosts there are far more shades of shades than they are specters of bodies. As I have noted on other occasions (as in Hogle 2012), one Otranto specter is an enlarged fragment of an effigy over a grave (almost literally the “shadow of a tomb”), another is an image that walks out of a full-length portrait, and the third, the ghost of the Hermit of Joppa who intones warnings from the mouth of his fleshless skull (anticipating Shelley’s “old anatomies”), is a blatant re-presentation of a dance macabre skeleton from medieval painting. All of these are thoroughly floating signifiers, “shadows of shadows” in Rousseau’s words from Shelley’s Triumph, not surprising, it turns out, for a Protestant author (Horace Walpole) whose equally famous letters celebrate his own antiquarianism as a playing with old icons that “cannot disappoint” because there is no longer any “reason to quarrel with their emptiness” (Walpole 1937-83, 10: 192). In the Preface to his first edition of Otranto, we should remember, where he pretends to be the translator of a post-Reformation manuscript that once kept alive a Catholicism that for him should be fading, Walpole sets up all the Catholic specters and machinery in his tale to be viewed as symbols “exploded now even from romances” and thus emptied of their old grounds of belief even as they continue to play those out for audiences of a later time (Walpole 1996, 6). Consequently, readers of what Walpole himself labeled the first new kind of “Gothic Story” in his Second Edition of Otranto (1996, 3) face tormented characters, often debating within themselves, whose beliefs make them subject to “phantoms” that are actually “dim forms,” yet forms which they take to be indicators of unchangeable reference-points in the past haunting them by drawing them back towards those supposed grounds, however outdated. Walpole’s own critique of the medieval Gothic materials in his neo-Gothic, we find, right along with his and Radliffe’s Lockean sense of perception, is clearly among the fundamental pretexts for Shelley’s critique of the way so many of us enslave ourselves to a fixed sense of life by accepting old symbolic orders, especially in the ways we mirror ourselves to ourselves in what are really the “base broods” (or symbolic constructs) of “old anatomies.”

7.        At the same time, though, the Gothic, even for Walpole, is not that simple, so neither is Shelley’s “Gothic complex” in The Triumph and elsewhere. As much as Walpolean Gothic figures can be exposed as “floating signifiers” separable from their older grounds and thus able to signify newer ones, there is an insistent antiquity in them, much as there is in Shelley’s reenactment of Dantean and Petrarchan dream-visions and terza-rima verse-forms along with echoes of the eighteenth-century Gothic in his new Trionf. Such a paradox at the very core of the Gothic indicates (in David Punter’s words), yes, a “fear of the violence of the past and its power over the present,” hence The Triumph’s vision of Life as echoing ancient Rome’s paradings of its captives, but also a “longing for many of the qualities” and secure grounds of belief “which that past possessed” or at least seemed to in retrospect (Punter 418). As Karl Marx has shown, the rise of new ideologies and modes of production struggles against the still-powerful draw of older beliefs and systems of exchange, and the Gothic is the most flagrant symbolic manifestation of that cultural contestation in the history of English fiction-making. The pull of “ancient romance” elements, “exploded” as they are, is just as strong in the neo-Gothic as the pull of the more “modern” ones akin to the rising middle-class novel, according to Walpole’s definition of “Gothic Story” in his Preface to Otranto’s Second Edition (Walpole 1996, 9-11). That looking-backwards-and-forwards simultaneously, like the “Janus-faced Shadow” that actually drives Life’s chariot for Shelley, coincides with Walpole’s preference, which he expressed in the 1750s, for keeping at least a “shadow of monarchy” on an otherwise “empty chair of state,” like the “ghost of Banquo” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Walpole 1847, 377), rather than facing the uncertainties of total revolution that eventually made England (and even Shelley) fearful of the violence in France. It is for these reasons that E.J. Clery has so correctly viewed the first “Gothic Story” as setting a pattern by both articulating and disguising a profound “contradiction” in the culture of Walpole’s time, in his case “between the traditional claims of [aristocratic] landed property and the new claims for the [bourgeois] private family” (Clery 77). With its Janus-faced symbols, style, and focus on characters so internally conflicted, the Gothic has consequently become in the post-Renaissance West the fictive place where the deepest and thus most feared irresolutions in the culture between ideologies and world-views are sequestered and distanced, as the fear of death and dissolution are in Edmund Burke’s terror-based “Sublime” also basic to the Gothic tradition, yet where those unresolved quandaries are hyperbolically reenacted and played out in the guise of concurrently retrograde and experimental fiction able to be conservative and progressive all at once.

8.        Shelley’s continuation of the Gothic in his Triumph, therefore, is willingly pulled towards the kind of enslavements to patterns of sin allegorized by Petrarch and Dante, yet it remains determined to show that their very Catholic patterns of God-centered allegory are based on the projections of mere thoughts into externalized “shadows” that have come to be interpreted as absolute truths and thus as tyrannizing sources of “fear” enforcing submission – all of which is a use of allegorical figures to attack the premises of old allegory itself, without leaving them behind altogether, alongside resurrections of Walpolean and Burkean “old anatomies” to show how such emptied-out figures can still have the psychological force they do. Ultimately Shelley realizes in his rendering of The Triumph of Life that he, his poem, and his audience cannot entirely escape from the systems of belief he wants to explode in it, one reason for the persistence of the construction of Life that drives this poem’s throngs while Life itself turns out to be no more than a “Shape” continuously being un-shaped and re-shaped again. Even the shade of Rousseau, in serving as a Virgilian truth-teller to Shelley’s Dantean Narrator, is unable to overcome a lingering contradiction of ideologies in his own beliefs only somewhat revised from those of the author of whom he is a sympathetic critique. As much as he blames himself for striving to arrest and confine the movement of the “Shape all light” in his dream-within-the-Narrator’s-dream, even as it keeps transfiguring itself from state to state, “forever sought, forever lost” (l. 431), that Shape is itself a retrospective Beatricean as well as a revolutionary “Asia” or “Witch of Atlas” figure from Shelley’s earlier poetry. Rousseau in Shelley’s Triumph thus remains undecided as to how much his own submission to “Life” is his willful fault in the face of her transference across traces of perception or how much that failing results from the necessary influence of the environment in which he was placed while he lived: “if the spark with which heaven lit my spirit / Earth had with purer nutriment supplied,” he wonders in a passage not cited above that echoes the Wordsworth “Immortality” Ode about which Shelley was always conflicted, would “Corruption . . . not now thus much inherit / Of what was once Rousseau” and now both is and is not him simultaneously (ll. 201-04)? The struggle Shelley famously had with William Godwin’s view of Necessity within his early “Gothic sensibility” (as Donald Reiman called it in 1981) – how much is behavior determined by choice or by environment? — is manifestly unresolved in his final unfinished poem, and we now see it is the persistence of the Gothic in that very Triumph that most conceals and reveals that irresolution, and many other quandaries of Shelley’s era, even as he was about to set sail into the Gulf of Spezia.

9.        In any case, speaking of echoes, this whole Gothic process conjoined with others is, in its “complex” of disparate yet interconnected elements, remarkably, if not completely, similar to what we often see in Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, published 11-12 years earlier. Consider this passage taken from Zastrozzi, a moment so typical of the overwrought characterizations in this tale’s constant echoing of The Monk and Zofloya that it could have come from almost any chapter, though is here excerpted from near the end:

For a time Matilda stood immovable. At last she looked on Verezzi; she gazed downwards [since he had cast himself at her feet] upon his majestic and youthful figure; she looked upon his soul-illumined countenance, and tenfold love assailed her softened soul. She raised him – in an oblivious delirium of sudden fondness she clasped him to her bosom and, in wild and hurried expressions, asserted her right to his love.

Her breast palpitated with fierce emotions; she pressed her burning lips to his; most fervent, most voluptuous sensations of ecstacy reveled through her bosom.

Verezzi caught the infection; in an instant of oblivion, every fidelity which he had sworn to another, like a baseless cloud, dissolved away; a Lethean torpor crept over his senses; he forgot Julia, or remembered her only as an uncertain vision, which floated before his fancy more as an ideal being of another world, which he might thereafter adore there, than as an enchanting and congenial female, to whom his oaths of eternal fidelity had been given. (Shelley 2002b, 139)

While it does repeat the spectralized images of other beings projected and then obsessed upon by the characters of both Lewis and Dacre, with Radcliffe hovering in the background, this moment has the confused Verezzi, not knowing he is Zastrozzi’s hated half-brother, envision his long-time projection of the remembered “Julia” as separating from her now “uncertain” form in the past and receding behind the Matilda who has relentlessly pursued him, yet explicitly without Julia disappearing as his ultimate ideal. This complex recalls the ending of Walpole’s Otranto where Theodore, finally revealed as the Castle’s true heir, accepts marriage to the Isabella once pursued by the usurping Manfred but keeps thinking of the dead “Matilda” (here the daughter of Manfred) whom he loved devotedly before she died, as Verezzi thinks Julia has at this point in Zastrozzi. Shelley’s early Gothic thereby replays the figural pattern of Otranto’s final sentence, in which Theodore decides “he could know no happiness but in the society of one [Isabella] with whom he could forever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul” because of Matilda’s irreversible absence and yet her constant looming in a remembered past that remains an absolute point of reference (Walpole 1996, 115), like the primal crimes revealed as the causes of all the specters of specters in the first neo-“Gothic Story.”

10.        The quintessentially Janus-faced nature of Walpole’s prototypical Gothic figure has undeniably been transferred from The Castle of Otranto to Zastrozzi, even to its ending where the title character who rejects all religious traditions also confesses the root of his vengeance to be the dying words of his mother (Shelley 2002b, 155). To much the same extent, we can now see, too, the floating signifier of Julia’s image for Verezzi, reinforced by Matilda’s obsession with his surface “countenance” since the start of Shelley’s novel, Gothically anticipates the “shadows of shadows” in the same author’s late Triumph as they drift from their past referents while being held fixedly by their projector-observers to those very receding grounds, dead though they already are or, like Verezzi and Julia, are about to be. Shelley could not have conceived of what is really the “moment of truth” in The Triumph, the choice between accepting the drift of signifiers towards future redefinitions and the re-anchoring of them to dead “anatomies” from the past, unless there had been the tug-of-war in the Walpolean Gothic figure that he had thoroughly played with in his more youthful writings. He also would not have had as apt a symbolic mode for half-concealing and half- revealing The Triumph of Life’s hesitations between free-willed choice and the pressure of one’s historical conditions if he had not worked with and continued to employ a Gothic mode designed by its nature to be a repository for unresolved conflicts among contending beliefs. In the Zastrozzi passage above, we have to admit, the text hesitates, just as The Triumph will, between condemning the characters for their essentially selfish choices and suggesting that such choices are already made for them. After all, the same characters keep making the same errors again and again within the pervasive atmosphere of their Gothic environment. These are stances toward which they are driven, like the victims of Shelley’s “Life,” by what Godwin invokes in the original main title of his quite Gothic Caleb Williams (1794): the necessary consequences of “Things As They Are.”

11.        Now we can see the fully Gothic basis of what previous interpreters have begun to find in Shelley’s early romances, as well as the essentials of the “Gothic complex” that are transferred almost intact from Walpole through the Gothic of the 1790s to the early Shelley and to The Triumph of Life. Myriad contradictions of character cannot be resolved in Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, as Behrendt has said, because their very construction is rooted in the Gothic’s at least two-directional tug of war between older and newer conceptions of human psychology as well as waning and developing economies. The equally “irresolvable middle state between the motivated symbol and the atheist sign” found by Whatley in Shelley’s Gothic novels stems from their Walpolean mix of retrogression and rebellion that makes characters and images both potentially floating signifiers and entities attractively anchored in past realities, causes, and beliefs even when those are truly dead and gone. Finch’s sense of the conflict between the tragically fated Gothic and the assumptions of sentimentalism in the plots of St. Irvyne, meanwhile, actually stems from that novel’s acceptance of a Gothic mode that has, since its beginnings and not just in Radcliffe, internally combined freely-chosen states of feeling with fated hauntings from older assumptions, as in the ending of Otranto where Theodore willfully accepts a woman because she can help him indulge his “melancholy” over his lost true love but also because he cannot help himself as the destined resolver of an age-old usurpation guided, perhaps from heaven, towards a marriage that reunites the two families with the most sanctioned claims to the castle of Otranto. The quite similar depiction of unresolved tensions between external and internal causalities in Zastrozzi, St. Irvine, and The Triumph of Life is made possible, after all, by the Walpolean Gothic providing unique verbal means specifically for configuring ideological conflicts and their nagging irresolution. Finally, too, what we have learned from Professor Rajan’s 1990s take on Shelley’s use of Gothic (apart from what she has added in this very collection) depends entirely on the Gothic itself being inherently a mode dominated by the uprooted, though also backward-looking, signifier that can refer in its incessant mobility to many different texts and ideologies of its own and former times – and thereby to the conflicting ideologies in its many pre-texts that always (in Rajan’s words) “overdetermine” it and make its symbols refer to a “semantic excess” of “indeterminate” cultural debates. This dynamic is part of the disunified “essence” of the Gothic in which, as Rajan has said, “reality has been replaced by hyperreality, and mimesis by the simulacrum” (Rajan 243). I contend that Shelley’s critiques of his own culture from Zastrozzi to The Triumph of Life employ the Gothic as powerfully as they do precisely by bringing forward these deep tensions at the core of it. This is the “Gothic complex” he develops across his career so as to help his audiences realize the crossroads of choices they face, unless they chose to ignore them, between the most retrospective and destructive and the most progressive and liberating options for the ways we can construct Life for ourselves then, now, and in the future.

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Published @ RC

November 2015