Introduction | Revolution | Romantic Satire  | Censorship  | Irish Uprising of 1798 | The Storming of the Bastille  | The Reign of Terror

Gothic Revolution I: The Storming of the Bastille

Storming the BastilleThe Fall of the Bastille is marked as one of the pivotal events of the Revolution as a symbolic overthrow of tyranny and oppression.
Two key events in the course of the French Revolution are particularly important to the development of Romantic literature, particularly the Gothic: the fall of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror. The Storming of the Bastille took place on July 14, 1789 as Parisian citizens rioted after the firing of Louis XVI's financial minister, Jacques Nekker, a notable advocate of reform. Since the prison was only cursorily defended and housed only seven prisoners at the time, the primary victory of this attack on the Bastille is the symbolic overthrow of tyranny and governmental oppression, of which the Bastille was the main symbol. The Storming of the Bastille becomes a marker of the atrocities committed during the Revolution, since rioters punctuated their actions by executing several local officials, including the commander of the Bastille and the mayor of Paris, and then paraded their severed heads across the city on pikes. A similar depiction of mob mentality and rioting takes place in Robert Southey's early verse drama, Wat Tyler (1794), a radical play written at the height of Southey's pro-Revolution sentiments based on the story of the fourteenth-century leader of the Peasant's Revolt of the same name. Likewise, in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Eleanor Tilney's confuses the publication of a new gothic novel with a riot when Catherine Morland that there will be "something more horrible than we have ever met with yet" to come out of London in the near future. Eleanor's darkly comic confusion indicates the prominence of rioting and mob mentality in recent cultural memory.

The Fall of the Bastille is also credited as having greatly influenced Gothic literature through representations of prisons and imprisonment. As Jeffrey Cox argues in "English Gothic theatre", "The gothic predates the grand and terrible days of the Revolution era, and in a sense it provided in advance images and narratives that could be used to understand revolutionary events while the revolution itself provided new ideological charge to Gothic devices" (129). Therefore, the relationship between Gothic literature and the Revolution is a reciprocal one since revolutionary narratives often borrowed pre-existing Gothic tropes in their representations of tyranny, while Gothic authors of the 1790s and after often incorporated the philosophical framework and psychological repercussions of the Revolution into their texts. Images of dark brooding castles appeared in Gothic literature as early as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764); similarly, "When one reads accounts of the liberation of the Bastille...one enters a Gothic world of dungeons, torture, and miraculous liberation" (Cox 129). Yet in the 1790s, Gothic literature begins to show a decided favoritism toward representations of jails, dungeons, prisons and confinement. The plot of Ann Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest (1791) is driven by multiple instances of kidnapping and imprisonment of various forms, as the characters who are (significantly) fleeing from Paris, take shelter in what they think is an abandoned abbey, using the dungeon below it as a type of safe room to hide from their pursuers. Castles and imprisonment also feature prominently in Romantic-era works by Matthew "Monk" Lewis, the Marquis de Sade, and in particular, Lord Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon, a verse narrative inspired by the story of Francois Bonivard, a sixteenth-century Swiss monk imprisoned at the Chateau de Chillon for political activism.

Shannon Heath






Select Bibliography

Cox, Jeffrey N. "English Gothic theatre." The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature. Jerrold E. Hogle, Ed.
     Cambridge University Press, 2002. 125-144.

Popkin, Jeremy D. A Short History of the French Revolution. 4th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

Punter, David. A New Companion to the Gothic. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.