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ICR Panel: Romantic Terror and Trauma. Reviewed by Christopher Stampone

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 21:02

Panel: Romantic Terror and Trauma

Moderator: Christopher Stampone

Panelists and Paper Titles:

  • Karalyne Lowery (United States Air Force Academy), “‘That Is Also My Victim!’: Victimization and Repression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818”
  • Cassandra Falke (University of Tromsø, Norway), “Reading Terror through the Romantic Sublime”
  • Katherine Montwieler (University of North Carolina, Wilmington), “Neglect and Childhood Trauma in Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights: Writing the Domestic (Abuse) Novel”

“‘I Ought to Be Thy Adam, but I Am Rather the Fallen Angel’: Romantic Authors on Violence”

by Christopher Stampone (Southern Methodist University)

The specter of terrible violence hung around Romantic artists’ necks like an albatross, darkening their perspectives and shading their works. “Terror” and “horror” were not only competing aesthetics within the Gothic mode but also real feelings that many consistently experienced during what scholars have termed “The Age of Revolution.” The “Romantic Terror and Trauma” panel analyzed some of the ways in which authors dealt with violence and the feelings of trauma that real and imagined violent acts bred. Karalyne Lowery (@KaseySLowery) and Katherine Montwieler both discussed the unbounded violence found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Lowery compared Victor’s self-identification as a victim to the feelings and actions of those who become victims of violence because of their poor choices; Montwieler paired Frankenstein with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to discuss forms of childhood trauma in what she termed the “Domestic (Abuse) Novel.” Cassandra Falke analyzed Lord Byron’s Cain and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem that Anne K. Mellor has argued was an influence on Shelley’s novel, to theorize a “negative sublime” that helps make sense of present-day terrorism and terrorist attacks. Together, the panel traced moments of trauma to make sense of chaotic violence that infected Romantic texts and, as Falke showed, continues to corrupt society.

Because Victor and the creature are central figures—and foes—in Frankenstein, scholars sometimes overlook their victims, despite the fact that, as Lowery noted, “human suffering and misery at the hands of oppressors is rampant in the novel.” Lowery opened her talk by historicizing the definition of “victim” and then applying it to the 1818 edition of Shelley’s gothic tale. In particular, Lowery contrasted Justine’s suffering to that of Victor. Justine is perhaps the most subaltern figure in the text: having suffered severe emotional abuse while under the tyrannical care of her mother, Justine joins the Frankenstein family as a caretaker whose “tenuous” position in the text is always on display. Lowery argued that Justine becomes a victim of feelings of “survivor’s guilt” that she developed because her mother mistreated her and because she survived while whose around her often died. According to Lowery, “survivor’s guilt” prevented Justine from making potentially exculpatory statements at her own trail and helps explain why she submitted to her death sentence. Victor might bemoan his status as victim throughout the text, but figures such as Justine illustrate the real effects of long-term trauma and suffering. She is but one of many characters who are victims of Victor’s and the creature’s violence.

Montwieler paired Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights to argue that the text’s monsters—the creature and Heathcliff, respectively—are products of domestic abuse who become violent primarily because they are mistreated while children. Frankenstein abandons his creature at the moment of its creation, leaving it orphaned and alone in the world. Each of the creature’s subsequent encounters with people—including those with children, who ostensibly are innocent—cause him great torment and suffering. Even the De Laceys, whom he thought genuinely human, reviled and attacked him at first sight. Heathcliff might not have had the same monstrous visage as the creature, but, Montwieler observed, he shared similar mistreatment as a child: “both men are . . . undoubtedly orphans; they enter the novels, homes, and world’s stage, unwanted and unloved.” The subsequent violent acts that both monstrous figures commit are not a result of innate evil but of conditioning; both works thus serve as cautionary tales that suggest “denying children respect, humanity, and love, in committing crimes against the most vulnerable, humanity runs the risk of creating monsters who grow up to traumatize others.” Montweiler contended that Wuthering Heights differed from Frankenstein in critical ways—but the crucial similarities between the works that she elucidated shined through.

Falke noted that much of the violence—or threats of violence—in Romantic works functioned to elicit feelings of Kantian sublime. In the Kantian paradigm, sublime violence elicits overwhelming feelings of fear in readers who later, upon rationalizing their experience, recognize that fear as pleasurable. Falke argued, however, that Byron’s Cain and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” overwhelm readers with an excess of violence that refuses to translate to an easily consumable—and safe—experience of the sublime; the texts do not provide readers with feelings of pleasurable fear. As Falke put it, “the balance of an act of violence with an act of love or empathetic listening at the end [of each work] can be appreciated rationally, but the object of rational thought is the narrative, not the violence itself, which remains both rationally unaccounted for and disturbingly close to the ideal reader’s self-knowledge.” Instead, both works provide readers with an experience of the “negative sublime,” a term Falke borrowed from Arnold Berleant, who used the term to describe modern acts of terrorism. Falke employed “negative sublime” to highlight the irrationality of human violence—both as it appears in Byron’s and Coleridge’s work and in contemporary terrorist attacks.   

Each panelist offered critical approaches that invite further inquiry. Lowery’s paper invites scholars to reframe classic approaches to Romantic texts by foregrounding the suffering of often overlooked and forgotten victims. How might a victim-centered approach alter the way we read “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a text that Falke states refuses the label of sublime? Montwieler’s analysis lends itself to an ethical analysis and raises the issue of parental culpability. Should Victor have been jailed simply because his poor parenting caused the creature to become a monster? The question has real-life implications, as many modern “monsters” are, like figures in Romantic texts, the product of bad upbringing. Falke’s “negative sublime” offers scholars an entirely new way of thinking about excess violence in Romantic texts. Which other Romantic works employ the “negative sublime?” And perhaps more important, how does refiguring excess violence “terrorism” transform our understanding of Romantic texts? With stories of gratuitous crime filling newspapers and Facebook feeds on a daily basis, critical approaches to violence and trauma remain as salient as ever.