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Gothic Revolution II: The Reign of Terror

Reign of TerrorThis image by George Cruikshank (17 92-1878) called “The Radical’s Arms” depicts the famous weapon of the Revolution, the Guillotine and the chaotic ways in which it was employed during the Reign of Terror to exemplify the extremes of the revolution.
The Gothic subset of Romantic literature is greatly influenced by the terrifying events in the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. During this period, French officials enacted dictatorial measures in an effort to ensure the continued progress of the Revolution. Troops scoured the countryside burning villages in an effort to expose conspirators, while government officials frequently executed any persons suspected of being “an enemy of the Revolution,” concentrating the highest percentage of executions during the revolution to one ten-month period known as The Terror. In the literary world, The Terror became subsumed into Gothic literature as critics of the rising genre referred to Gothic novels as “the terrorist system of writing,” an insulting pun which referenced authors’ use of terror and the sublime as a plot device.

While contemporary critics maligned the use of terror in the Gothic, more recent scholars have noted “the bloody horrors of the revolution pushed novelists to new extremes of imaginary violence as they strove to compete with the shocking reality” (Miles 43). These new extremes often included images of physical violence against various figures in the works as Gothic motifs were transformed into representations of freedom gone wrong or justice out of control. According to Ronald Paulson, the horrific acts committed by protagonists such as Matthew Lewis’s Ambrosio in The Monk (1796) are motivated by an “insane, uncontrolled rush into freedom and, incidentally, of its consequences, which include repression of other people's liberty for the end of self-gratification” (535). Ambrosio’s revenge on his family (the murder of his mother and rape of his sister) and the mob’s murder of the entire convent are characteristic of “justification followed by horrible excess” since Ambrosio’s actions lead him into total moral degeneration while the mob, in an effort to punish the evil prioress, “not only destroys the prioress but (recalling the massacres of September 1792) the whole community and the convent itself” (534-535). The terror in these depictions is fueled by the violence done to physical bodies, which is emphasized by the helplessness of the victims and the indiscriminate violence committed against the convent community as a whole.

Shannon Heath

Select Bibliography

Miles, Robert. “The 1790s: the effulgence of Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature. Jerrold E.
     Hogle, Ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 41-62.

Paulson, Ronald. “Gothic Fiction and the French Revolution.” ELH. Vol 48, No. 3. Autumn 1981. 532-554.

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