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Burke's Theory of Sublime and its relevance to Gothic Fiction

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Burke's Theory of Sublime and its relevance to Gothic Fiction



The concept of "the sublime" was already an important subject of study and discussion among the philologists, philosophers and artists of classical an­tiquity. The main treatise of the period on this subject was composed in the second century A.D 939e45j . and was for centuries attributed to a neoplatonic philosopher, Cassius Longinus.

The definition of sublimity given by Cassius concerns art and literature as well as ethics. He identifies sublimity with spiritual great­ness, and gives greatness to art and literature. His aim is to teach the ways through which the human soul can reach "the sublime through art", and the ethical qualities which an artist must possess to create something sublime. He unites the aes­thetic and the ethical aspects of the question.

The discussion was resumed in the nineteenth century by Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, (1790), distinguishing the beauti­ful from the sublime: "the beautiful" is what gives immediate aesthetic plea­sure and creates a harmonious unity; "The sublime" strikes us with greatness, spir­itual elevation, mystery: our senses cannot dominate sublimity.


Burke wrote his enquiry in 1759; he was not a philosopher, and did not go so deeply into the problem. He studied the causes and effects of the sub­lime and the beautiful, indicated the sources of the sublime in the as­pects of nature and followed the theory of the association of ideas; for him, the strongest sublime emotion are distress, ter­ror or astonishment. All that is great in dimension produces a sense of danger, but small crea­tures may also produce this effect: the main cause of fear is "the mysterious", or a superior dark power. Mystery is generally united with obscurity, insubstantiality, solitude and silence. Burke gave rise to the idea of "terrifying beauty". So, beauty may accompany the ideas of danger and mystery. These new ideas paved the way for the romantic sensibility and produced the Gothic novel of the sec­ond half of the eighteenth century; while their aim had been to edify or to amuse, the Gothic novel wanted to scare and to shock.

The beginning of the Gothic novel is usually traced to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. The novel met with great success because of its Gothic background: an imaginary past, a Gothic castle, gloomy stairways, supernatural events.

Other writers followed in this vein.

William Beckford wrote an oriental tale, Vathek. Beckford introduced the oriental background into Gothic fiction.

The greatest Gothic writer was Ann Radcliffe. Her masterpiece, The Mysteries of Udolpho, displays all her technique of terror, with a dark atmosphere.

Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote The Monk, a nightmare of sadism, eroticism, torture and witchcraft. Lewis's setting is the Spain of the Inquisition.

After some years of silence, Charles Robert Maturin wrote Melnioth the Wanderer, developing the theme of the wandering Jew.

The most popular novel was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Although containing Gothic elements, it's different from the other novels as it deals with ethical problems, pseudo-scientific theories and Rousseau's ideas.


Gothic fiction was the l8th-century embodiment of Burke's the­ory of the sublime which did not die with his age. It's still alive in our times, not only in literature, but also in films.


Matteo Capaccioli , Classe V E.







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