Monnet, Agnieszka Soltysik. The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic

Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic (Farnham: Ashgate 2010) 174 pp. £95.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781409400561

The cover art for Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s study elucidates her topic with striking precision. Grant Wood’s American Gothic is an starting point for Monnet’s discussion of the American gothic literary tradition. Much of the introduction maps the seemingly divergent relationship between ‘American and ‘gothic,’ using Wood’s painting to suggest how the combined term, ‘American gothic’ came to refer to more than ‘a nineteenth-century architectural fad’ (1), partly in response to the development of national identity but also as a challenge to political and social issues.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Monnet’s overall thesis is her denial that American Gothic is primarily concerned with the provocation of fear. As her title suggests, building on the work of other critics such as Angela Carter, Monnet argues that gothic literature, in fact, has literary, political, social, and cultural implications well beyond the relatively narrow frame it is usually afforded. Sketching a brief cultural and literary history of Gothic, drawing on texts from the English and European traditions, Monnet expands Carter’s argument that gothic literature encourages the reader to feel ‘unease,’ presenting ‘problems of judgment’ (21) that demand consideration.

Monnet posits that the major function of American Gothic is to compel readers to address these ‘problems of judgments,’ and she connects this idea to the presentation of unsettling situations with what she terms ‘scandalous poetics’ (9). Her argument then builds on the idea that gothic narrative form often depends upon an apparently unreliable voice, ‘a character whose voice carries no weight’ but whose voice is nonetheless framed against ‘a larger social and cultural context that would tend to disenfranchise it’ (11). Referring back to Wood’s painting, Monnet argues that there are at least two main readings of the portrait the Iowan farmer and the woman standing beside him, with some people, for instance, assuming that the woman is his daughter, others inferring that she is his wife. Relatively speaking, the viewer can interpret the painting as indicative of a couple proud of their position as farmers, engaged in rigorous but rewarding work. Alternatively, Monnet suggests, they can infer that the couple are, on the contrary, engaged in a rather sinister and stifling moral life of its subjects, implying perhaps that life in American farming communities is stifling or unsavory. In either case, though, the viewer must consider how to interpret the ‘physical attributes’ (11) and this issue of interpretation is dependent upon a ‘moral light’ (11). Through this example, Monnet challenges the notion that Gothic is a performative rather than an objective genre; she suggests it is objective because of the way it allows the reader to be subjective.

Framing her argument in the introduction, which provides an extended analysis of Gothic genre theory, Monnet then proceeds to interrogate the issue of unreliable narrators, concentrating on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and identifying both irony and conscience as key aspects of his narrative.

Looking Poe’s use of ‘unnatural sensations’ (31), Monnet argues that Poe deliberately unsettles his readers by presenting them with dubious narrative perspectives and forcing them to relate to them. A key aspect of her argument here relates back to her analysis of Gothic judgment in the introduction. The core of her argument in this chapter, however, is that Poe, representative of many other American Gothic writers, employed unreliable narrators so that he could require his reader to ‘complete the hermeneutic circle by making important connections for him or herself’ (36). The narrative form, then, Monnet suggests, is designed to provide the reader with an incentive to draw their own conclusions about particular characters or events within a narrative, fully engaged with the idea that they will not provide a clear moral perspective, in something of a departure, perhaps, perhaps, from the style of realist Victorian novels of the nineteenth century.

Monnet devotes each of her three remaining chapter to an aspect of race or gender. Chapter Two considers the representation of slavery, particularly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, arguing, too, that it is a most compelling text of historical and ethical debate. Looking at aspects of what she labels, ‘Gothic Historiography,’ Monnet argues that the novel is ‘a complex meditation’ on slavery and one that operates with ‘just enough ambivalence about its own obvious evasions to create [an] impasse of judgment’ (56). Although Monnet acknowledges the evidence of Hawthorne’s ambivalence about slavery, she argues that the narrative form of The Marble Faun, in particular, suggests an overt rejection of slavery through the novel’s facilitation of the reader’s judgment. Monnet’s initial description of the novel as ‘a long and puzzling meditation on the moral ambiguities of guilt’ (56) concisely frames her principal argument.

Chapter Three considers Herman Melville’s Pierre and situates it as the most skeptical of Melville’s novels as well as the most gothic. Monnet’s analysis, however, emphasizes its nature as ‘iconoclastic with regard to religion, sexual norms, and literary conventions’ (79), arguing that it is the gothic quality of this novel that makes it both iconoclastic and overtly sceptical, operating through the ‘queer knowledge’ that Monnet alludes to in her title.

Chapter Four builds on the discussion of queerness to consider ‘queer gothic’ in the writings of Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, drawing on the analysis of the previous chapters to show how, more generally, the conventions of American Gothic function by destabilizing the conventions of identity, gender, and the religious, sexual, and literary norms challenged by Melville, as argued in Chapter Three. In this chapter, Monnet draws together the several stands of her argument to provide an engaging and effective interpretation of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and James’s The Turn of the Screw.

The progression of Monnet’s argument from the introduction through the four chapters offers a clear demonstration of how American Gothic literature destabilizes conventions. The engagement of gothic writers with contemporary political and social issues is also effectively argued, and it is the elucidation of this point particularly that makes Monnet’s study essential to current critical discussions about the function and significance of gothic literature and art.

Charlotte Fiehn, University of Cambridge