MIMESIS, ROMANCE, NOVEL: REPRESENTATION OF MILIEU IN THE MONK AND NOSTROMO.
A Thesis submitted to the faculty of ry < San Francisco State University In partial fulfillment of the requirements for
^3^ thC Degree
Master of Arts
San Francisco, California
May 2018 Copyright by Sudarshan Ramani 2018 CERTIFICATION OF APPROVAL
I certify that I have read Mimesis, Romance, Novel: Representation of Milieu in The Monk and Nostromo by Sudarshan Ramani, and that in my opinion this work meets the criteria for approving a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree
Master of Arts in English: Literature at San Francisco State University. MIMESIS, ROMANCE, NOVEL: REPRESENTATION OF MILIEU IN THE MONK AND NOSTROMO
Sudarshan Ramani San Francisco, California 2018
ABSTRACT: The century that separates M. G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) is a century of historical and aesthetic revolution. Paired together, both novels reveal the continuity of the problem of representing reality. Both of these novels are original products of an international outlook that mixes high and low culture, the experimental and the popular, the folkloric and the avant-garde. When viewed in this context, it becomes possible to see the historical and the contemporary in a gothic novel like The Monk, and the gothic and the fantastic in a historical novel like Nostromo. Following the example of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, this thesis focuses on the presence of contingent and dynamic elements in the narrative style of these two novels so as to better explain their originality, and the ways in which both authors continue to challenge the static pillars of tradition and cultural inheritance. PREFACE AND/OR ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The completion of this thesis would not have been possible without the advice, guidance, and support of my professors, my fellow students, and my family and friends who have given me great advice on how to proceed with the project. I would like to thank my thesis committee, Professors William Christmas and Geoffrey Green for their invaluable guidance and support throughout the project. 1 also greatly depended on the advice, support, and inspiration of all my teachers: Professor Julie Paulson, Professor Wai-Leung
Kwok, Professor Summer Star, Professor Gitanjali Shahani. My family and friends have been a constant source of support for me throughout this grand adventure, my mother
Suchitra Ramani and my father T.V. Ramani; my brother Vikram, his wife Anjana, my nephew Avyan; my relatives - V. S. Kaushik, Chandreka Kaushik, and Arvind Kaushik, and Dr. Mala Pandurang. I especially wish to acknowledge the support given by Suresh and Patricia Chandrashekhar and their children Siddharth and Shantanu, as well as Laxmi
Parmeswar and her family; and in addition to this, Anuj Malhotra, Suraj Prasad Mahato,
Abdul Nurullah, Zoha Mahdi, Devdutt Trivedi, Suyash Barve, and Arjun Chauhan.
v TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: From Representation of Reality to Representation of Milieu...... 1
Chapter One: The Monk: Escaping the Castle...... 31
Chapter Two: Nostromo: History and Legend...... 59
Works Cited 89 1
From Representation of Reality to Representation of Milieu
Edward Said remarked that “a beginning” immediately establishes “relationships with works already existing, relationships of either continuity or antagonism or some mixture of both” (Said Beginnings 3). It is the point from which “the writer departs from all other works,” going on to identify it as, “the first step in the intentional production of meaning” (Said Beginnings 3-5). Knowing when and where to start is a crucial part to any extended critical inquiry especially when the title of the thesis is “Mimesis,
Romance, Novel: The Representation of Milieu in The Monk and Nostromo’’''', this selected trinity groups together broad literary concepts that evoke something totalizing and global, while the subtitle narrows the focus on two specific texts. Much of this thesis is dedicated to maintaining that balance while establishing relationships between the two halves; and through a newly formulated synthesis, it hopes to provide a framework by which both novels can be regarded in a new light, one which emphasizes and respects their unique nature even as they are attached to a global perspective. One should regard this thesis as an extended beginning, a considered first step in critical production that seeks to extend already existing traditions, continuities, and antagonisms, rather than resolve them entirely. The reasons for doing so is because the respective texts, products of different authors, genres, and centuries, are not connected to each other in any linear fashion, nor are they typical examples of their periods. Rather, both works should be identified as ruptures in existing traditions. Both novels are singular and original 2
responses to previously established genres and styles of writing, shaped and determined by the tensions of a shifting present. Understood and engaged with as original ruptures in existing traditions, and analyzed in tandem, they complicate many of our assumptions about the novel and the romance; about the categories of genre such as the gothic or historical novel, as well as conventional notions about realism. The original nature of these works necessitates a larger discussion about categorization, if only to put existing debates in a broader context.
This introduction will provide a broad outline for the central argument of this thesis, to better explain what can be understood by studying these two books in tandem, what critical questions can be raised in doing so, and the overall value of both posing the questions and the attempt to respond to them in this thesis. The introductory chapter will begin by explaining the importance and value of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. It will summarize many of its selected arguments from its overall thesis while carefully qualifying the original meaning in his text. This is done to explain how I intend to apply
Auerbach’s concepts as tools. It will then proceed by explaining how Auerbach’s ideas connect with existing debates on theories of the novel and the development of realism.
Works by Ian Watt, Lennard Davis, Gyorgy Lukacs, and Leslie Fiedler among others on this subject are specifically consulted. At stake here is the linear model of development from the prose romance to the realistic novel, and from the realistic novel to the genre of the gothic and historical novel, the genres to which The Monk and Nostromo can be said to belong. By synthesizing the multiple arguments made there on the formal 3
developments of prose, and linking them alongside Auerbach’s viewpoints, a provisional formulation can be developed for application to the texts at hand. The choice of the texts, the value of the application of this formulation, the historical context that provides a warrant for doing so will then be explained in detail, while providing brief summaries for the chapters that follow and how they extend this argument with regards to specific texts.
This thesis engages with The Monk and Nostromo in tandem rather than direct text-to-text author-to-author comparison. The intent is not to compare both works but to examine how they both confronted certain problems, and how their attempt to resolve those problems, whether successful or unsuccessful, sheds light on the issue of representing a dynamic reality against a static backdrop in the novel form. The method of doing so, the use of explication, how it is understood in Auerbach and Watt, and how it is useful for this thesis and valid on both a theoretical and practical level will be mentioned in the concluding part of this thesis.
Since its publication in German in 1946 and its translation in English in 1953,
Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis has become a seminal work of literary criticism. Writing in
2013, Arthur Krystal notes that the book represents “the apex of European humanist criticism,” and across the decades, it became “the book that students of comparative literature had to contend with” (Krystal “The Book of Books” 1). Edward Said in his
“Introduction to the Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition” identifies it as “by far the largest in scope and ambition out of all the other important critical works” of the second-half of the twentieth century (Said “Introduction to Mimesis'’’’ ix). Yet the achievement of this book, 4
the lucidity of its prose, and the wealth of its ideas are at odds with Said’s qualification that it is “not principally a book providing readers with usable ideas” committed as it is to a rigorous exploration of a text in all its details and individual particulars (Said
“Introduction to Mimesis” xvi). Mimesis is a book of twenty chapters, each one exploring in detail a selected excerpt from a chosen text, arranged chronologically from the ancient world (Homer, Old Testament) to the early twentieth century (Virginia W oolfs To the
Lighthouse). The choice of texts includes poetry, religious texts, historical accounts, dramatic works, romance, satire, and the novel. Each chapter in the book focuses on a text isolated in context but explored in the light of Auerbach’s distinct method, which gives Mimesis its overall unity. It is not a theoretical work with any grand totalizing idea or concept. In Literary Criticism & the Structures o f History, Geoffrey Green acknowledges the “difficulty in assessing Auerbach according to a functional context” by noting that Auerbach grounds his choice of method by highlighting the impossibility of a linear view of historical progress (12). Auerbach states that it is, “no longer possible to represent the history of our life style, that is the history of the last three thousand years, as a process governed by laws” (qtd. in Green 12). A whole picture, Auerbach avers, “can never be expressed in abstract or extra-historical terms, but only as a dialectic dramatic process” (qtd. in Green 12). Auerbach’s eschewal of theory was grounded in his acknowledgement of the dynamic nature of the present, of the fact that authors and critics are writing in a present with active historical forces, and as such the insight derived from
“the explication of specific texts must to be evaluated and appreciated in a relative 5
manner” a process designated as “radical historical relativism” (Green 12). The consistency with which Auerbach maintains his method continues to pose challenges and difficulties to literary critics and historians owing to his focus on intuition and “interior soul-searching” as a qualification to avoid making ahistorical and absolute statements
(Green 13). But seen from another angle, it suggests “an extreme reticence to propose analytical and descriptive truths” about humanity (Green 13). Hence the considerable difficulty in attempting to paraphrase Mimesis, in whole and in part, even if Auerbach repeatedly insists that his work should be accepted as “full-scale all-encompassing sociological depictions of the historical societies that provided the contexts for the specific literary texts that he was examining” (Green 13-14).
From this careful overview of Auerbach’s methodology and the difficulties in engaging with his work on a critical level, one can gather that his work allows significant scope for entry to other readers and critics of his own arguments. He insists on the reader’s role to privilege their own inner self and intuition and he opposes a view of history that is linear. Auerbach believes that in order “to be able to understand a humanistic text, one must try to do so as if one is the author of the text, living the author’s reality...by that combination of erudition and sympathy that is the hallmark of philological hermeneutics” (Said “Introduction to Mimesis” xiii). This leads to a blurring of lines between “actual events and the modifications of one’s own reflective mind” which is what is signified, according to Said, by the subtitle of the book, “the representation of reality” (Said “Introduction to Mimesis” xiii). For Auerbach, “the 6
representation of reality” connotes an “active dramatic presentation of how each author realizes, brings characters to life,” and by this presentation clarifies the true meaning of the world that he brings to life with language (Said “Introduction to Mimesis ” xx). For
Auerbach, the theory and practice of hermeneutics are interlinked. His method of explication allows him to interpret and imagine the historical reality behind the production of the text. By this process of interpretation, and by his choice of texts,
Auerbach can conjure a world-historical perspective spread across Mimesis, visible when read from end to end.
The effect of this approach is that Mimesis makes us appreciate and experience the development of realism, as we have come to understand it, as a process that takes place across centuries, determined by historical and social developments. Auerbach’s definition of realism is asserted in Chapter 18 of Mimesis, “In the Hotel de la Mole,” where he examines the development of the realist novel in France and goes on to define its features:
The serious treatment of everyday reality, the rise of more extensive and
socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for
problematic-existential representation, on the one hand; on the other, the
embedding of random persons and events in the general course of
contemporary history, the fluid historical background - these, we believe,
are the foundations of modern realism, and it is natural that the broad and 7
elastic form of the novel should increasingly impose itself for a rendering
comprising so many elements. (491)
Auerbach’s views on the development of the novel and specifically in the way the novel
allows for the mixture of styles is more clearly expressed in the second chapter of
“Fortunata” where after examining the scene of Trimalchio’s Banquet in Petronius’
Satyricon, he remarks that,
In modem literature the technique of imitation can evolve a serious,
problematic, and tragic conception of any character regardless of type and
social standing, of any occurrence regardless of whether it be legendary,
broadly political, or narrowly domestic; and in most cases it actually does
Auerbach’s observations on the development of realism were quite influential on Ian
Watt’s study The Rise o f the Novel. In a 1978 speech at the University of Alabama, Watt,
describing the biographical and academic context leading to the writing of the book,
notes that Gyorgy Lukacs, and Erich Auerbach “actually contributed much more to The
Rise o f the Novel than the few references in the text suggest” (The Literal Imagination
73). In Watt’s theoretical outline for the development of the modem novel, Auerbach is cited for his demonstration of “the connection between the Christian view of man and the
serious literary portrayal of ordinary people and of common life” (The Rise o f the Novel
79). Auerbach’s view is cited in an antinomian fashion as a justification for Watt’s argument that the development of the English novel is connected to the Protestant 8
Reformation and the Puritan temperament (The Rise o f the Novel 79-80). It is antinomian because the major lacuna of Mimesis, as noted by Said, is the way he “scants the
substantial English contribution” in outlining the influence of Romance literatures in
Europe, and likewise barely mentions the English contribution to the development of realism in the nineteenth century (Said “Introduction to Mimesis” xv-xxi).
Watt’s argument specifically identifies England’s religious divides from
Continental Europe as the historical conditions that led to its vaccination from the
“classicizing tendencies of the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation,” which led to neo-classicism, a more rigid establishment of the Homeric separation of styles, “to an extent that would certainly have surprised Aristotle” (The Rise o f the Novel 79). In France especially, “a fully established style noble,” was prescribed to an extent that, “the objects and events of everyday life were banished from the stage” (Watt The Rise o f the Novel
79). In England, the Protestant Reformation, especially in the works of Puritan writers led to a break from the separation of styles, as typified in the works of John Milton, Paul
Bunyan, and especially Daniel Defoe whose works represent, “the supreme illustration in the novel of the connection between the democratic individualism of Puritanism and the objective representation of the world of everyday reality and all those who inhabit it”
(Watt The Rise o f the Novel 80). The novel, he continues, is “the form of literature which most fully reflects this individualist and innovating reorientation” which allowed it to become the narrative form that came closer to the texture of daily experience than any 9
before (Watt The Rise o f the Novel 80). For Watt, realism in the novel is very much an achievement of the mixture of the two styles identified by Erich Auerbach:
If the novel were realistic merely because it saw life from the seamy side,
it would only be an inverted romance; but in fact it surely attempts to
portray all the varieties of human experience, and not merely those suited
to one particular literary perspective: the novel’s realism does not reside in
the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it (The Rise o f the
The notion of “inverted romance,” which Watt seizes on, highlights one of the main features of the novel as it evolved over the course of the eighteenth century. Watt insists that the realist novel is not an inverted romance and that it diverged greatly from all its predecessors. However, Lennard Davis points out that, “the romance seems a logical place to start if one is intent on finding liminal or originating moments” (Davis 25).
In Factual Fictions, Davis argues that the development of realism marks “a profound rupture” between the prose romance and the modem novel (25). One of the characteristics of this dichotomy is the quality of the early novel, as seen in the works of
Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, which was an extension of the flourishing print culture of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Writers, critics, and observers of this period share a common belief, “a nearly universal perception that a literary revolution was taking place” (Hunter 10). This perception is reflected in Samuel
Johnson’s claim for England being “a nation of readers” in 1781 (qtd. in The Rise o f the 10
Novel 37). The consciousness of a growing literary readership never quite matched the historical reality, which measured only a gradual improvement in male literacy from 10 per cent of the population in 1500 to 46 percent in 1714, plateauing at 60 percent in the mid-eighteenth century (Brewer 167). But nonetheless the great flourishing of print led to the birth of not only new readers, but new kinds of readers, and the readership of the early novel had a relationship to texts that was different from what came before and what followed. Readers of print in this time develop a new kind of relationship, borne of an emerging sense of time cultivated by “the regularly occurring serial newspaper” that allow for a narrative to provide a sense of recording events as and when they occurred
(Davis 73). One of the elements that differentiates the modern novel from the romance is the belief among its chief practitioners that they were writing “factual accounts rather than fictional ones” (Davis 8).
A romance, in Davis’ formulation, announces its fictiveness whereas a novel like
Robinson Crusoe presents itself as factual while being fictive (21). A novel focuses on contemporary life and mimics as close as possible the living reality and, at times, mimics the form of journals, letters, and newspapers (Davis 39-40). A romance is “set in the distant, idealized past” modelling itself on the epic in its episodic structure and choice of neoclassical figures as protagonists, excluding the domain of everyday life prized by
Auerbach as a pre-condition of reality (Davis 40). This sense of a break between the romance and the novel is shared by many eighteenth-century authors including Clara
Reeve, who avers that “no writings are more different than the ancient romances and the 11
modern novel” (qtd. in Davis 41). Yet if the emergence of the novel constitutes such a sharp break from the prose romance, how does one explain the development of the gothic novel by the end of the eighteenth-century and the historical novel in the nineteenth- century, both of which share with the romance an eschewal of contemporary reality for exotic settings, works which for the most part insist on their Active nature rather than aspiring to factualness. These gothic and historical novels bear little resemblance to the novel as per Davis’ nine-point taxonomy on the differences between the novel and the romance in that their narrative patterns do not amount to the epic form in either length or episodic nature, nor are they restricted to depicting exclusively the world of the aristocrats (Davis 40).
The manner in which novels are an extension of the revolution in print led to a paradox where “the most powerful vicarious identification of readers with the feelings of fictional characters that literature had seen should have been produced by exploiting the qualities of print, the most impersonal, objective and public of the media of communication” (Watt The Rise o f the Novel 206). The development of the novel form over the course of the eighteenth century and the growth of its readership created a shift in society where “the private reading of novels in a sense displaced the taste for public discussion” (Hunter 175-176). Novels provide readers with the “most powerful vicarious identification... with the feelings of fictional characters,” which eventually “led to a way of life that was more secluded and less social than ever before, and, at the same time, helped to bring about a literary form which was less concerned with the public and more 12
with the private side of life than any previous one” (Watt 206). This process and change documented by Hunter, Davis, and Watt, bears the truth about Auerbach’s observation on the process of rigidification that occurs when a dynamic process and movement slowly becomes static, commodified, and institutionalized (Auerbach 119-120). The “process of rigidification” is identified by Auerbach as a symptom of the continuity of the aristocratic center-focus from antiquity to the medieval era (120). In “the clash of the very young and the age old,” the former was paralyzed, “until it managed to come to terms with the vestiges of tradition, until it had filled them with its own life,” thus allowing the old to preserve itself in the new order (Auerbach 120). The novel emerged in a dynamic historical epoch and its beginnings expressed that reality it derived from and it drew strength and vitality from its capacity to mimic that real world. Yet the success of the novel among its readership led to the book taking the place of that reality it reflected. So, in a concrete way, the existence of the novel and its success and impact exchanged that dynamic reality for a static reality, and since it was committed to mimesis and realism, it continued to reflect the more suburban and static world it created. Mimetic realism in the mode outlined by Watt and Davis - a factual world set in a real location, with language that is realistic and perceptible to its reader - led to a rigidification dealing with the truth that the author was no longer mimicking pre-existing reality. Instead authors were now imitating what novel readers came to understand as pre-existing reality, largely from their experience of reading other books of the same kind. This eventually led to authors such as Henry Fielding seeking to revive the novel by merging the prose form of the realistic 13
novel, as it came to be developed, with the epic and dramatic styles of earlier prose styles, leading to Tom Jones, a self-described “comic epic in prose” (Watt The Rise o f the
Novel 246-248). Fielding’s innovation is credited by Gyorgy Lukacs and Leslie Fiedler for paving the way for the historical novel, or historical romance as Fiedler describes it, and likewise Tom Jones led to the development of “the first Gothic mansion in the history of the novel” (Watt The Rise o f the Novel 27).
Auerbach opposes a rigid development of history and he provides us a method for understanding the place of the novel in the eighteenth century and its development in a non-linear fashion. We can see the way in which a radical innovation, upon solidifying its achievements, creates a situation that leads to a rupture, marking to a new break that opposes the current trends by reviving connections to the past. One of the problems of interpretation that comes from understanding the development of the novel after this period is the difficulty of sorting out categories, genres, and styles. For Gyorgy Lukacs, the development of the historical novel, formed after the French Revolution, marks a revival of the Enlightenment and its progressive mission in the reactionary Post-
Napoleonic period (Lukacs 27-30). For Fiedler they are emblems of a reactionary tendency that naturalized a static backdrop of history - for example the safe world of
“lost-causes” championed by Sir Walter Scott - from the comfort of a present that has no active fear or interest in the chosen period (Fiedler 164-165). However, both Lukacs and
Fiedler do agree on a single major point, the element of continuity and similarity between the gothic and the historical romance. 14
Horace Walpole’s The Castle o f Otranto is the first gothic novel, paving the way for “a whole new fictional mode [that] has been characteristic of the last two centuries,” subsequently influencing writers like Dickens, Ibsen, Emily Bronte, and William
Faulkner among others (The Literary Imagination 143-151). Fiedler identifies the gothic as the most influential, transformative, and dominant style in American literature (29-31).
Lukacs likewise identifies The Castle o f Otranto as the most famous historical novel of the eighteenth century, albeit regarding its depiction of the past as “mere costumery” bereft of the more individualized and detailed view of the past found in the works of Sir
Walter Scott, the founder of historical fiction (19). Scott himself was open about his fondness for the gothic genre and in his pre-literary career as a bookseller and critic, often tried to promote the works of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Reeve, “by placing [gothic novels] in the belles lettres of British prose fiction” (Gamer 524). The gothic novel, as per Watt, is an “oxymoron” since as Walpole states in the preface of the second edition of his book, gothic meant “very old,” whereas novel meant “new” and the latter was associated with contemporary subjects, and the gothic novel is, in literal terms, the “Old New” (Watt The
Literal Imagination 144). For Walpole, The Castle o f Otranto is an attempt “to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modem” (qtd. in Watt The Literal Imagination
The past in Walpole’s book, and in other Gothic fiction, has far more depth and meaning as compared to “the psychological present in which the characters live,” which only comes alive when the lives of the characters are deeply affected by “the power of a 15
long anterior past” (Watt The Literal Imagination 144). The importance attached to the past, signified by the word gothic, is both a literal expression of Walpole’s real-world antiquarian enthusiasm for medieval revival architecture, and an expression of the cultural nostalgia in Augustan England (Watt The Literal Imagination 145). Gothic fiction abounded in depicting, “a sublime and picturesque landscape” and in its focus on decaying castles, family secrets, and the importance of relics, it embodied a “cult of ruin” that came to signal in later times as “counter-enlightenment” (Hart 86). The element of nostalgia is complicated however considering the distinct theory of history identified by
Fiedler as central to the gothic tale (Fiedler 136). Samuel Richardson’s novel of contemporaneity chose the present for its subject, theme, and style, eschewing any judgment on the past and any historical worldview (Fiedler 136-137). The gothic novel, on the other hand, is an expression of “the pastness of the past” and in doing so it suggested in a more intuitive, poetical, and ahistorical method, a sense not of reliving the past, but on the contrary, “the sense of something lapsed or outlived or irremediably changed” (Fiedler 137). Authors of gothic fiction presented the past as “corrupt and detestable” albeit with a fascination bordering on the exploitative fascination with the grotesque (Fiedler 137). In this way, gothic fiction is a manifestation of the
Enlightenment, and Walpole was indeed a skeptic who described the Italianate Catholic milieu of the novel as taking place in “the darkest ages of Christianity” and as such his vision is secular, with his supernatural characters presented as, “essentially historical beings with rational human aims” (Watt The Literal Imagination 150). This was the 16
original manifestation of the gothic in late Augustan England where it expressed “the pastness of the past.” It was fundamentally an expression of eighteenth-century modernity no less than Defoe and Richardson. The gothic novel’s focus on love and terror allows it to become an “anti-bourgeois novel” transgressive in its heightened displacement of the domesticity of the suburban milieu of its readers to a dark gothic castle (Fiedler 127).
As such the emergence of the gothic and its derivations, of which the historical novel can be understood as one among many, shifts the modes of mimesis away from direct representation of reality, to representation itself. The representation of a milieu in the gothic style is not restricted to mimesis of the past since, as established above, the original gothic established a sense of the past without any direct historical research and verisimilitude. What matters in the milieu is an expression of the writer’s attitude to the setting, what defines the gothic is the attitude towards reality more than the nature of that reality, the attitude of the author towards its characters, their station, the supernatural, and history. Auerbach’s view of the development of the mixed style in history observes that patterns of realism develop intermittently in different periods before undergoing rigidification, noting that, “the profound and significant Henry Fielding, who touches upon so many moral, aesthetic, and social problems, keeps his presentation always within the satiric moralistic key,” leading him to eschew the tragic and existential seriousness that would return strongly in the nineteenth century before rigidifying in Flaubert’s 17
“objective seriousness” and the absence of fluidity in the political and historical background in the novels of Charles Dickens (481-492).
The gothic by contrast has proven to be the style that has remained consistently dynamic from its first arrival. The persistence of the gothic mode is perhaps a result of its unmistakable internationalism, and its ability to move across multiple cultures. Watt describes the novel as “the most translatable of the genres” allowing it to provide instant access to great writers across the world, some of whom, as in the case of Dostoevsky in
Russia, were bereft of a vast classical literary tradition in their chosen language, since
“the novel has less need of historical and literary commentary than other genres - its formal convention forces it to supply its own footnotes” (The Rise o f the Novel 30). The gothic novel proves to be the most translatable of all styles in the novel, originating as
English projections of characters in a Continental milieu, and gradually extending to become a style exported to American and Continental fiction, while open to endless mixture with other styles and genres in the novel and romance. In its original form, it inhabited and maintained continuity with the same milieu of Augustan England expressed in the works of Defoe and Richardson. By the end of the eighteenth century, it would reinvigorate itself by becoming the first international expression of Romanticism, which emerged in Germany, exemplified by Mathew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, which I will go into more detail in Chapter Two. In the nineteenth century the mode of the Gothic and the influence of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis, would inspire Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein and in Wuthering Heights, would achieve the “fuller psychological 18
characterization and the denser presentations of the environment of the Victorian novel,” inspiring the likes of Ibsen, Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and authors of the early and middle twentieth-century, including Thomas Pynchon and Kurt
Vonnegut (Watt The Literal Imagination 154-158). Watt, who planned a sequel to The
Rise o f the Novel dealing with the gothic and comic styles of the later novel tradition, admits that the persistence of the gothic is an indication of the ambivalence of modernity and is unlikely to wither, “as long as our political sky gets blacker daily with chickens coming home to roost...as long as we continue to experience boredom, night, sleep and fear.. .the past, alas will continue to haunt us, and see to it that we spend much of our lives on Gothic time” (Watt The Literal Imagination 158-159).
Fiedler notes that the development of the novel came about because of the mix of the two modes of “analytic and projective” with the analytic belonging to the realist tradition and the projective belonging, roughly to the gothic tradition (141). In the analytic tradition, interior psychological states are concealed beneath the exterior actions of the characters presented in a realistic milieu, whereas in the projective, symbolic, and gothic style, the exteriority of actions because of the abstract and artificial milieu, matter little in verisimilitude compared to its capacity to “symbolize in outward terms an inward reality” (Fiedler 141). The fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the works of Melville, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Balzac, and Faulkner, contains a mixture and mingling of the analytical and projective styles (Fiedler 141). 19
Frances Russel Hart, in analyzing the mixture of the symbolic with the realist highlights, on the other hand, the existence not of “two ambiguous traditions but an ambiguous one, oscillating between sociological mimesis on the one hand and psychological exploration on the other” (84). The focus on the background and milieu of gothic fiction has often come at the expense of the analysis of the experience of the characters. Watt avers that the gothic genre’s focus on milieu often results in “thin characterization” with the exception of the villain figures who often invite identification and attention from the readers (Watt The Literal Imagination 152-153). Hart argues that
“the dreadful, sublime shock to one’s complacently enlightened idea of human character and the reality to which it belongs...is the experience dramatized in Gothic fiction” (88).
The experience of the characters to the existence of the demonical element either in nature or themselves invites the readers to challenge their own sense of reality, and in the enlightened-romantic-historical context, of which the gothic is the meeting point, “the full and terrifying truth...is that he demonic is no myth, no superstition...but a reality in human character or relationship, a novelistic reality” and, as Hart concludes, “rather than representing a flight from novel to romance, the Gothic represents a naturalizing of myth and romance into the novel” (Hart 99-103).
This process of naturalization which begins in the gothic genre undoubtedly led to the creation of the historical novel, which shares with the gothic a focus on the past and a desire to revive the reader’s interest in it but differs in its eschewal of the psychological and subjective forces in favor of mimetic realization of the external features of the period 20
(Fiedler 162-163). In the historical novel, “hero and heroine flee not projections of their feared inner selves but real enemies, genuine conspiracies, external dangers. Action itself becomes the end, the evasion of ennui sought through a constant change of tempo and place” (Fiedler 163). For Fiedler, the historical novel is a retarding of the gothic tradition, offering “a myth of the past” that is “nostalgically conservative” as opposed to the gothic tale of terror which is “sentimentally radical” (Fiedler 164). In its origins, the historical novel under Scott amounted to a form of nostalgia for a safely distant past, that of the
Jacobite rebellions which had withered away by the time of the writing of the books into obsolete dead ends of no political consequence (Fiedler 164-165). Scott’s works, and the work of other historical writers, manifests no fear of the past, which the gothic writers nonetheless evoke as palpable and ever-present; in the former, history becomes mere pageantry, a resurgence of classicism after the challenge of the two great prototypes of tragedy in English prose - Clarissa and The Monk (Fiedler 165). Gyorgy Lukacs offers a contrary view by highlighting Scott’s unique synthesis of the epic and the romance in the historical genre. The epic tradition is evident in Scott’s identification of “those periods and those strata of society which embody the old epic self-activity of man, the old epic directness of social life, its public spontaneity... This truly epic character of Scott’s subject-matter and manner of portrayal is... intimately linked with the popular character of his art” (Lukacs 35). The major innovation over the old epic is the presence of
“mediocre heroes” rather than larger-than-life figures like Achilles and Odysseus (Lukacs
35-36). Rather than being central figures, they are average characters whose function 21
within the narrative is to bring into contact figures on the extremes and the margins into contact with each other (Lukacs 36). The “compositional importance of the mediocre hero” allows Scott to express the popular and historical nature of English social evolution, “the age-old steadfastness of English development amidst the most terrible crises” manifests in the trajectory of the mediocre hero’s shift between one faction and another (Lukacs 36-37). In this light we can see an evolution from Fielding’s “comic-epic in prose” and a fulfillment of the naturalism that the gothic style imbues any process of translation and adaptation. Scott’s influence on the development of the historical novel was immediate on Continental writers like Pushkin, Goethe Stendhal, Balzac, and
Tolstoy, typifying the international orientation of the gothic style in its derivative form
(Lukacs 31). The historical novel benefitted in addition from two separate parallel trends, the development of German Romanticism, and the French Revolution.
To express a national-historical perspective acceptable to Scott’s readers, there needs to be a new sense of history and it was “the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon, which for the first time made history a mass experience, and moreover on a European scale” since between the Fall of the Bastille in
1789 and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, “each nation of Europe underwent more upheavals than they had previously experienced in centuries” (Lukacs 23). An effect of this rapid period of change is a new historical consciousness which brought to light the actual historical character of their nation, community, and society, which inculcate to people across multiple nations experiencing upheaval that, “there is such a thing as 22
history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual” (Lukacs 23). Before the Revolution, new approaches and attitudes towards history were expressed by the intellectuals of Germany, where the lack of national unity, and the multiple petty kingdoms that comprised German society created a situation where “art becomes historical earlier and more radically than in the economically and politically advanced nations,” of Western Europe, chiefly England, and
France (Lukacs 22-23). As Lukacs notes, England experienced its revolutions in the seventeenth century during the Civil War and the Cromwellian Protectorate, subsequently consolidated in the 1688 Glorious Revolution (Lukacs 20-21). This led to the beginning of a unique cultural and historical development recognized by “many foreign commentators and visitors to England,” a nation where “the rise of the arts in England was the triumph of a commercial and urban society, not the achievement of a royal court” creating unique conditions where “literature and performing arts that aimed for a public and were organized commercially rather than being confined to a few” (Brewer xxiv).
This also led many of its authors and intellectuals to focus exclusively on the present rather than on history, whereas in Germany the absence of political and social independence, led to a great inward turn that was especially interested in the representation of history, which led it to challenge French neo-classicism, the reigning style of the Continent, allowing them to highlight “the general contradictions underlying the whole ideology of the Enlightenment” (Lukacs 21-22). This results in Goethe’s historical dramas which focus not on classical and antique material, as in previous eras, 23
but on figures such as the mercenary Gotz von Berlichingen, which directly influenced
Scott’s attitude to history (Lukacs 22). This new approach to history, which originated in
Germany, is identified by Auerbach as historicism, or “Historism” (Auerbach Mimesis xxviii-xxix). “Mixing of styles,” writes Auerbach, “appears almost exclusively in subjects from history or the realm of poetic fantasy; when applied to the present, it remains within the narrowest, unpolitical sphere or, as idyll or irony, aims exclusively at the personal” (Auerbach Mimesis 443). Auerbach defined “Historism” in detail offering a thesis on his conception of historical representation:
Basically, the way in which we view human life and society is the same
whether we are concerned with things of the past or things of the present.
A change in our manner of viewing history will of necessity soon be
transferred to our manner of viewing current conditions. When people
realize that epochs and societies are not to be judged in terms of a pattern
concept...not only natural factors like climate and soil but also the
intellectual and historical factors...they come to develop a sense of
historical dynamics, of the incomparability of historical phenomena and of
their constant inner mobility.. .so that each epoch appears as a whole
whose character is reflected in each of its manifestations; when, finally,
they accept the conviction that the meaning of events cannot be grasped in
abstract and general forms of cognition and that the material needed to
understand it must not be sought exclusively in the upper strata of society 24
and in major political events but also in art, economy, material and
intellectual culture, in the depths of the workaday world and its men and
women ... then it is to be expected that those insights will also be
transferred to the present and that, in consequence, the present too will be
seen as incomparable and unique, as animated by inner forces and in a
constant state of development; in other words, as a piece of history whose
everyday depths and total inner structure lay claim to our interest both in
their origins and in the direction taken by their development (Auerbach
A close outline of the development of the novel from the romance, and the development of literary genre in the context of its origins reveals how little they conform to any linear outline of development of style. At every step, contingent factors shape the style of writing, the nature of its reception, and the reach of its influence. Nothing is more representative of this then the fact that the historical novel was an expression of nascent romantic nationalism despite being fundamentally shaped by multiple completing international and multicultural influences (Lukacs 22-23). When we regard literature from the standpoint of the present, it is an inescapable fact that the realist novel of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century, tied as it is to histories and vanished ephemeral epochs, seems highly remote from our present. The great act of imagination needed to enter the consciousness of writers in this time is a greater burden for the contemporary reader than it was for its early audience, and the burden will increase on 25
succeeding generations of readers as time passes. What is at stake is a challenge of hermeneutics, and one which thesis argues can be articulated when it engages with the stylistic representations that emerge from comparing two novels across a historical divide.
The two novels discussed in this thesis have weighty historical reputations.
Lewis’ The Monk: A Romance (1796) is widely recognized as the one of the best gothic novels, and one of the strangest and most transgressive popular works of the late eighteenth century. Chapter Two will discuss in detail its importance and the way it represents the crucial historical meeting point of the gothic, the historic, and the novel, as well as the range of social and historical interpretations formed around the text. Joseph
Conrad’s Nostromo; A Tale o f the Seaboard (1904) is regarded not only as a masterpiece of twentieth-century Modernism, but also as a “Thucydidean drama” that from a privileged vantage point looks back on the development of the historical novel from the time of Walter Scott to Flaubert and Tolstoy, putting a capstone on a period of literary history by means of an invented South American nation that is in fact “a little Europe with its history intact but its memories gone” (Smith 189-190).
The lack of direct ties in terms of genre, influence, and literary style between both books and both authors paradoxically highlights the potential of both works to provide, when placed in tandem, shifts and changes in the representation of milieu as a result of social and historical changes. Both works typify the non-linear development of the prose narrative and both signal the circular loop between the gothic and the historical styles. 26
The Monk is a gothic romance that is in fact a contemporary and personal reflection on the impact of the French Revolution while Nostromo, inspired by the historical novels that came in the wake of the French Revolution, and indeed taking political and social revolution as its major subject, revives the connection between the historical, the gothic, and the romance in its representation of the Western hegemony in a New World setting of its own invention. The very categories used to identify both works - “the gothic” and “the modernist” - are examples of the way history determines the production of both texts and shapes their reception. The “gothic” was a term, as understood and expressed in the eighteenth century, thus designated a forgotten, fading, and remote past. Keeping in mind
Auerbach’s sense of “historism” we would do well to remember that the concept of
Modernity in the arts would find its earliest definition by the poet Charles Baudelaire, who described it as representative of “that which is ephemeral, fugitive, contingent upon the occasion; it is half of art, whose other half is the eternal and unchangeable” and representative of the modem, urban, and consumerist culture of the Paris after the
Revolution of 1848 (Baudelaire 37). The meaning attached to these labels and conveyed by them present us with a range of critical options. Both “the gothic” and “the modernist” are aesthetic conceptions of the representation of reality. The Monk is gothic because it seems to be haunted and shaped by the past, Nostromo is modernist because it is focused and driven by the present, or so we say as far as we understand those terms. But of course, Watt as mentioned earlier, pointed out that the gothic novel was an oxymoron, an expression of the “Old New,” and indeed Leslie Fiedler traces the earliest use of the 27
phrase “modem novel” to author and revolutionary Marquise de Sade, who used it to
designate the gothic novel that came into being in the wake of The Castle o f Otranto
(Fiedler 126). In that light, we might understand that the modernist is merely another
conception of the gothic. The latter originated as an expression of “the pastness of the
past” in the late eighteenth century, a judgment on history in the changing present. The
former differs from the latter in that rather than being a judgment on the past, it is a judgment on the present, one that is informed by disillusionment of a better world rather
than the fear of returning to the past. Chronologically, The Monk and Nostromo are
divided by a span of 108 years, and the latter is divided from the present by 114 years,
and if Nostromo is a work of modernism then it is one that is more remote to us now than
it was to The Monk when it was composed. As time passes, the modern and the gothic, as
categories and labels, as well as many of their representative works, come to seem more
remote and less distinguishable from each other.
Owing to the personal, idiosyncratic, and highly synthesized nature of this
introduction - conducted in the style of argument by juxtaposition - the approach used in the following chapters will follow the example of the “essayistic style of criticism” that
begins with a quotation of a given text followed by an explication of the relationship
between the rhetorical style of the passage and the larger historical context (Said
“Introduction to Mimesis ix-x). In other words, it will attempt to mimic Auerbach’s
critical method of inquiry. Since the focus of this thesis is narrower and shorter however, the method outlined is considerably more focused in its scope. The intent is to isolate key 28
scenes and moments within the text, to treat the part as a microcosm of the whole. This approach is useful in explicating dense novels like The Monk and Nostromo since the large number of characters, multiple layers of narrative, and their diverse and diffuse styles make them dauting works to explore in total detail. Narrowing it down to parts allows for a more focused, considered, and scrupulous approach. In his essay, “The First
Paragraph of The Ambassadors'. An Explication” Ian Watt notes that the method of
“explication de texte” originating in French criticism reflects, “the rationalism of nineteenth-century Positive scholarship” which implies “a progressive unfolding of a series of literary implications, and thus partakes of our modern preference for multiplicity in method and meaning: explanation assumes an ultimate simplicity, explication assumes complexity” (Watt The Literal Imagination 194). This method of explication is very well suited towards analyzing prose albeit unsuited for the summative synthesis one expects from such a critical work (Watt The Literal Imagination 195-196).
In the case of the present work, the summative synthesis is presented here at the start, in this introduction. The theoretical-historical-critical synthesis that traces the transformation from “the representation of reality” to “the representation of milieu” the intricate links between the realist and the gothic style and the number of philosophical and historical influences that overlap between them have been outlined in this introduction. Yet, the contention of this thesis is that this is merely a method to analyze critical texts. The historical outline described so far constitutes a pre-history for the following chapters. The detailed outline of the development of the gothic and the range of 29
critical opinions it carries serves to establish how The Monk, as shown in Chapter Two, is largely a departure from the conventions of the gothic novel that came before, especially the way it matches the quotidian and the exotic to create a more modem and frightening sense of terror than its precursors. By contrast, Chapter Three, which explores Nostromo, will examine the way the novel engages with the historical novel, as identified in its classic form, and yet diverges sharply, namely in how the protagonist Nostromo resembles outwardly the mediocre hero found in Scott and deployed in the narrative as a mediating agent between competing factions, a process that Conrad portrays with irony, wit, and sarcasm. Nostromo, a novel written by a Polish exile who learnt English as his third language, represents the milieu of a continent and culture that he had no first-hand experience of; but created through secondary material. It deals with Watt’s notion of the novel as the “most translatable” of genres, and the internationalizing tendencies of the gothic and historical fiction.
At stake here in the thesis is the universality of literary culture and experience, exemplified in the mix of high and low styles, and local and global contexts. Not all attempts at creating a mixed style are successful, but the very attempt to do so is valuable in analyzing from a critical yet empathetic point of view. Daniel Defoe remarked that,
"Preaching of sermons is speaking to a few of mankind: printing of books is talking to the whole world" (qtd. in Watt 103). Regardless of whether a printed book indeed talked to a whole world in practical terms in the small limited frame of the early to middle Augustan period, it is a sentiment that grows truer over a longer period of history. Mary Beard, the 30
historian of Ancient Rome, points out that as limited as the contemporary audience for classical literature is, “Virgil’s great epic poem on the foundation of Rome, [The Aeneid], almost certainly found more readers in the twentieth century CE than it did in the first century CE” (Beard 1-4). Likewise, the audience of Defoe, Fielding, Richardson,
Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, Scott, Conrad, and of course, Erich Auerbach, in terms of the greater literacy, availability of information, and international spread, is empirically greater than the ones each of them knew in their lifetime. The non-linear view of the development of literary culture, as expressed by Auerbach, and as averred in this thesis, provides a perspective that illuminates the present to better preserve the future. 31
The Monk: Escaping the Castle
While I sat upon a broken ridge of the hill, the stillness of the scene
inspired me with melancholy ideas not altogether unpleasant. The castle,
which stood full in my sight, formed an object equally awful and
picturesque. Its ponderous walls, tinged by the moon with solemn
brightness; its old and partly ruined tower lifting themselves into the
clouds, and seeming to frown on the plains around them; its lofty
battlements, overgrown with ivy; and folding gates, expanding in honor of
the visionary inhabitant, made me sensible of a sad and reverential horror.
Yet did not these sentiments occupy me so fully as to prevent me from
witnessing with impatience the slow progress of time.
(Lewis pp. 151-152)
This paragraph comes from the nested story-within-a-story related by Raymond,
Marquis de las Cisternas, to Lorenzo de Medina. The location that is being described is the Castle of Lindenberg in Germany, where Raymond will meet his beloved Agnes who is passing her adolescence under the care of the domineering Donna Rodolpha, the sister of Lorenzo. The scene leading to this moment concerns a plot hatched by the young lovers to elope from the castle at night. As Raymond is waiting outside the castle for the exact signal, he takes a moment to reflect on the landscape he wishes to rescue Agnes 32
from. What is evident in this scene is Raymond’s paradoxical attitude to his situation, the fact that at the very moment he is plotting to escape the Castle of Lindenberg with his beloved who is trapped there, the grotesque splendor of the overgrown, poorly maintained, and decaying castle captivates him. The castle is described in the manner of a painting, and indeed the brief description is cliched in the most rudimentary gothic conventions, and Lewis snaps abruptly by having Raymond, the narrator of this incident, return to his present circumstance rather than continue on with the picturesque description of the ruin. Raymond presents the beautiful decay of the Castle of Lindenberg to Lorenzo de Medina as an aside to indicate the period in which he waited and how he passed his time. On both a narrative and formal level, the description of the castle is of no real importance in and of itself; it is entirely subordinate to the character’s interior state.
The most emblematic and recurring trope of gothic fiction is the castle that is at the center, and indeed the very titles, of Horace Walpole’s The Castle o f Otranto and Ann
Radcliffe’s The Mysteries ofUdolpho (Railo 2-6). The Monk does not feature a castle in its title nor do castles figure prominently in either the settings or action of the plot. The action of the novel features a variety of locations but within the narrative there are only two castles of real significance mentioned - the Castle of Murcia and the Castle of
Lindenberg. Of the two castles, only Lindenberg is described to the reader as a location containing significant events of narrative. The other castle, Murcia, is the childhood home of Donna Elvira Dalfa and her sister Leonella, while Lindenberg is of course the castle from which Raymond and Agnes seek to escape. 33
When one considers the overall plot of The Monk, the trajectory of its characters, and its relation to its influences, one can consider it a novel about escaping the castle and a novel about an attempt to escape the gothic genre itself. The Monk is a book that differs from the pre-established codes of the gothic novel. It achieves this originality by taking influences from the emerging movement of German Romanticism, which allowed Lewis to breathe new life into the familiar milieu of the gothic romance by opening up the static backdrop of the genre - an imagined British projection of Continental Europe steeped in medievalist nostalgia-to dynamic elements relating to sexual desire, to paranoid fixations, voyeurism, criminal psychology, and the supernatural.
Within The Monk these disparate dynamic elements form a cohesive unity, representing different methods by which Lewis sought to animate the gothic backdrop to concerns that were contemporary to his audience. To properly assess Lewis’ originality and his attempt to escape the gothic castle, this chapter will focus only on special scenes and incidents within the general narrative rather than take a broad perspective on the total plot of the novel or follow the progression of specific characters. This approach closely mirrors the narrative outline of the where, despite the title, a great number of scenes and events do not concern Ambrosio the Monk. Lewis incorporates multiple tales-within-tales and interspersed poems, and in broad terms charts out two parallel narratives with two separate protagonists (Ambrosio, Lorenzo de Medina) which come together by the closure of the book, but which still feel separate rather than properly connected. This chapter seeks to consider the implications of this parallel construction and what it 34
suggests about the limits Lewis confronted in writing The Monk and ultimately failed to overcome.
The eighteenth century, within England, saw a turning away from Neoclassicism and Neoplatonism which, as noted by Ian Watt, “had always been strong in the romance”
(Watt The Rise o f the Novel 16). In the frontispiece for The Monk, Lewis subtitles his work “A Romance,” and as Lennard Davis notes in his Factual Fictions, the novel and the romance are both extended narratives in prose but differ in many essential respects
(40). The romance with its remote and exotic settings, its aristocratic milieu, its episodic structure, and its evocation of history without any historical fidelity sharply differed from the novel which is set in a contemporary milieu, located in the non-aristocratic world of the middle and lower classes and has a shorter and more focused plot and setting (Davis
40). Erich Auerbach identified two styles, the Homeric and the Biblical, as typifying two forms for “the literary representation of reality in European culture” (Auerbach 23). The debate between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, in Auerbach’s conception of the development of realism in Western literature, falls in line with the conflict between the
Homeric style which contains “fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connections...few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective” while the Biblical style was more specific in its illumination, featuring
“abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed...universal-historical claims...and preoccupation with the problematic” (Auerbach 23). The 1790s was the decade when
“the sun of classicism has definitely set” giving way to Romanticism which commenced 35
in Germany and would soon spread to England (Railo, 82). This was the decade of the
French Revolution which so affected British opinions that every conversation, from
Parliament to the provinces was, “soaked in this one event” (Parreaux, 20).
The fury of the Revolution was at its height in the years 1791-1795 when Lewis was travelling back and forth between England and the Continent (Peck 9-18). His career was arranged by his wealthy father, a former Deputy Secretary of War who entreated his son to learn German to better prepare for a diplomatic career in England’s foreign office.
Lewis mastered the language while residing at the Court of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where he undertook the translation of Oberon (1780) by Christoph Martin Wieland and familiarized himself with many works by German Romantic masters. In addition to this, as he remarked in a letter to his mother, he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself, who he identified as “the celebrated author of Werther'"’ (Peck 12). Between May-
December 1794, Lewis was stationed at the British Embassy at The Hague. During this time, he socialized with a circle of aristocratic exiles fleeing Revolutionary France and
Lewis even visited areas near the war zone where the French Revolutionary Army was engaged in battle against the great powers of Europe (Peck 16). At the age of nineteen, in
September 1794, Lewis wrote to his mother, that he had written “in the space of ten weeks” a romance, titled The Monk, of “three and four hundred pages octavo” (Peck 19).
Walter Scott noted that Lewis is the first to “introduce something like the German taste into English fictitious dramatic and poetical composition” (Parreaux 26). Within his lifetime, it was already commonplace to consider Lewis in a broader European tradition 36
rather than the local context of the English gothic (Conger 3-5). Lewis’ borrowings and influences from German Romanticism include Goethe’s Faust: Ein Fragment, a version of the First Part that was circulating in the court of Weimar where Lewis was stationed in
1792, and indeed The Monk can be understood as the “marriage of the gothic novel to the
Faust legend” (Conger 15). Other influences, including Friedrich Schiller’s Der
Geisterseher, Johann K. A. Musaus’ Die Entfiihrung, confirms that the author shared an affinity with the German Romanticists in their fascination with social outcasts, with misfits, and with criminal behavior (Conger 113-115). German writers and their tales shared this common interest despite their works being original, unique, and separate in terms of style and genre, and they provided Lewis a model “to incorporate ideas and images from one genre into another” to infuse the traditional English gothic novel with tendencies of outlaw romances, supernatural horror, and demonic morality tales (Conger
47-48). On the formal level, The Monk is shaped by two opposing literary approaches by
English authors towards continental Europe. The gothic genre in England proliferates with narratives written in English but set in imagined and constructed settings in Europe, usually revolving around castles with a historical lineage, haunted by a past crimes, and ultimately reducing the history of the Continent to “mere pretensions of historical coloring” (Railo 14). Unlike other gothic writers, Lewis, relying on first-hand knowledge and experience of the continent, borrowed from the emerging romantic movement to infuse a new playfulness whereby the order and hierarchy of society is parodied, inverted, mocked, but still left in place, albeit with cynical self-awareness. 37
We can see this reflected when we return to the scene of Raymond and Agnes’ attempt to escape Lindenberg. As part of their escape, Agnes proposed to dress as the figure of the castle ghost known as “the Bleeding Nun” whose story she had related to
Raymond in “a tone of burlesqued gravity” (Lewis 140). When Raymond finally gets the signal he expects, and sees Agnes dressed as the Bleeding Nun, he spirits away with her unthinkingly, only to realize in short order, that this is the real Bleeding Nun, an actual ghost who substitutes for her counterfeit. The Bleeding Nun escapes the castle with
Raymond until the coach they are riding on crashes bringing them to the village of
Ratisbon where Raymond convalesces only to find himself haunted by the ghost, until the appearance of another supernatural being, the Wandering Jew who rescues him from his predicament. By the end of Raymond’s narrative, he returns to Lindenberg with the ghost banished, Agnes gone, finding only the Baron who “was not a little pleased to find that his mansion would be no longer troubled with the phantom’s quinquennial visits” (Lewis
169). In the course of Raymond’s narrative, Lindenberg becomes the castle to escape from, but the castle’s ghost in turn abandons it during the confusion of the lovers’ plot.
By the end of the section, the ghost is laid to rest, but the castle remains standing, still in the possession of the baron, while Raymond remains troubled and unresolved.
The Monk is a novel that contrasts the gothic with the quotidian. In attempting to escape the gothic, the gothic travels alongside the characters in the form of the figure of the Bleeding Nun; the ghost moves from the castle, an ancient building steeped in tradition, rides alongside a modem coach, and haunts an emerging village. This mix of 38
styles ends up making the gothic elements, such as the supernatural, into ordinary and easily controlled problems, while it makes the quotidian, such as the anxiety of the present moment, the yearning for contact for another person, and the idea of escape, gothic. The gothic castle without a ghost becomes a property easier to manage for the
Baron, with the established order and hierarchy continuing undisturbed. The supernatural becomes somebody else’s problem but the castle remains its master’s domain. In this moment we can see Lewis anticipating the parody of the gothic style in Jane Austen’s
Northanger Abbey whose protagonist, Catherine Morland, is rather disappointed that the titular Abbey turns out to be mere property decorated to adhere to many of the newest fads. We can also perceive the presence of the counter-revolutionary tendency within The
Monk which coexists, not uneasily, with the author’s unmistakable fascination for the subversive, the hidden, the uncanny, and what Syndy Conger considers as Lewis’ interest in raising “unanswerable questions” about “impenetrable but ubiquitous evil in the world and in the human heart” (Conger 113-114).
Lewis’ style can be seen as striving towards the mix of styles favored by
Auerbach, an attempt to move from an elevated style catering and concerning characters of high birth, as seen in the narrative that begins with castle intrigues, towards a style focused on characters of low bearing allowing the character of the Marquis Raymond de las Cistemas to come into contact with village life, with highwaymen in the forests, the village of Ratisbon, and a world of sorcery that would not have impinged on him had his love story not been disrupted. The character of Theodore, the Marquis’s French servant, 39
is especially important in this section, and yet the relationship between him and his master directly expresses the cynicism of the book. Raymond de las Cisternas is a strange character in The Monk chiefly because one can easily mistake him to be a central character going by the fact that the first five chapters of the book, two of which are narrated by him, significantly digress away from the opening moments which revolve around the titular monk, Ambrosio. Ambrosio, Lorenzo, and Antonia are introduced in the same opening scene and while the fates of these three characters never entirely forms a complete triangle - there are scenes between Lorenzo and Antonia, and Antonia and
Ambrosio, but no confrontation or interaction between Lorenzo and Ambrosio - they comprise a single unified strand of narrative. Raymond and Theodore, on the other hand, comprise a parallel strand and their greatest connection to the central plot is a redundancy. Raymond’s plot concerns the rescue of Agnes who has become a captive of the Convent of St. Clare and becomes subject to horrific torture because of Ambrosio’s perfidy. But Agnes is also Lorenzo’s sister and it is Lorenzo who ultimately investigates her fate, seeks to unearth the crimes of the Church, and in doing so accidentally sparks the riot that ultimately brings him to his sister. In other words, Raymond never actually enacts his self-anointed role as Agnes’ savior and rescuer.
Raymond first encounters his servant when he stays at the cottage of his mother, is besieged by highway robbers, and hires him as an expression of gratitude to his hostess who aids him in escaping unharmed. Theodore ends up becoming a servant of significant utility to Raymond, who, praising his “fidelity, intelligence, and good temper,” notes that 40
it pleases him to consider himself Theodore’s “guardian genius” (Lewis 145). Yet this relationship becomes more complicated and far more one-sided when they interact face- to-face in Chapter Five where he comes upon his servant writing in a book completely engrossed to the extent that “he perceived not his lord’s approach” (Lewis 181).
Theodore is established before this scene as a boy of good sense and observation, and someone who on entering Raymond’s service, started to learn Spanish (Lewis 145). In this scene, we see Theodore as seen by his master and what is clear is the sense of voyeurism involved in the Marquis’ gaze about his servant inhabiting, thinking, and writing for himself. The theme of voyeurism recurs later in the narrative when Matilda, as a display of her magical power, provides Ambrosio a magic mirror that allows him to see
Antonia bathing privately (Lewis 239-240). A similar sense of violation is suggested when Raymond finally makes his presence felt to Theodore and asks him to show him his verse:
“Where are they, Theodore? I shall like to see your composition.”
Theodore’s cheeks glowed with still deeper crimson: he longed to shew
his poetry, but first chose to be pressed for it.
“Indeed, my lord, they are not worthy of your attention.”
“Not these verses, which you just now declared to be so charming? Come, 41
come, let me see whether our opinions are the same. I promise that you
shall find in me an indulgent critic” (Lewis 181).
When we encounter Raymond de las Cisternas, we face him from the perspective of
Lorenzo de Medina, and we learn of his adventures by means of extensive exposition over two long chapters at the end of which we have a sense of his character only as Lewis has allowed him to reveal to us. But it is only in this scene, after a hundred pages of
Raymond narrating his history to his aristocratic equal Lorenzo, that we truly see his character on the page for the reader to judge. Where Raymond described his bond with
Theodore in terms that were familiar, friendly, and even paternal, this encounter reveals their relationship to be purely of master and servant. Raymond is introduced as a voyeur perceiving Theodore at work, and when Theodore protests about showing him his work for approbation, his embarrassment at being exposed certainly conveys a lack of agency about his control of his work, and his lack of privacy. And yet, there is a surprising lack of empathy by the author for Theodore. The dialogue and context between master and servant suggests someone intrusive, voyeuristic, and exploitative, but the narration, after noting Theodore’s blush of embarrassment, to note that Theodore secretly wishes to show his verses. The narration of the novel usually separates Raymond’s personal observations from third-person description. In this scene, Theodore’s reaction is described externally in all its dimensions with very little room to interpret the scene as anything other than partial irony, which privileges the reader to bask in Raymond’s diabolical control where 42
at the end of the interview, the Marquis dismisses his servant while the narration relates to us:
The youth’s countenance immediately cleared up. He perceived not the
smile, half approving, half ironical, which accompanied the request, and
he promised the copy with great readiness. The marquis withdrew to his
chamber, much amused by the instantaneous effect produced upon
Theodore’s vanity by the conclusion of his criticism (Lewis 187).
The implications of such a moment, domestic and realistic in milieu, and certainly highlighting a social change - a servant finding time and inspiration to devote himself to verse - merely highlights the continuing presence of the gothic hierarchy. The ghosts depart from the Castle of Lindenberg much to the owner’s benefit, and the servant learns the master’s language only for the master to more insidiously control and manipulate him.
This sequence is strikingly similar to Auerbach’s explication of The Odyssey in his famous chapter of “Odysseus’ Scar” in Mimesis, where he notes that the description of Odysseus’ interactions with the serving lady who recognizes the scar from his youth is given to the reader in complete detail leaving no room to the reader to interpret an alternative point of view from the perspective of another character. This scene exemplifies Auerbach’s observation about the classical style where the elevated style ensures that aristocratic characters have complete access to the lower orders (Auerbach 43
3). The digressive adventures of Raymond which brings him into contact with individuals of low social orders ends with him entirely returned to the comforts of his rank without any self-awareness on his part, and without any recognition of this irony on either part or that of his servant Theodore, who is a far more impressive figure when we see him narrated second-hand by Raymond, then he is when we see him on-screen. We see here that the mix of a gothic romance with the genres of German Romanticism with its supernatural agents, with its acknowledgement of the greater function the literate lower social orders must play in contemporary society, does not entirely succeed in a completely mixed style as suggested by Auerbach. The servant who studies the master’s language, and learns to compose verse, and advances himself by means of hard work and diligence, ends up becoming a caricature and a tool for his master, with less sign of any individual existence apart from his master.
The introduction of contemporary elements within the gothic is most apparent in
The Monk's many allusions to the events of the French Revolution, albeit many of these allusions are indirect. Consider the scene where Raymond describes his French adventures:
“Paris was my first station. For some time I was enchanted with it, as
indeed must be every man who is young, rich, and fond of pleasure. Yet,
among all its gaieties, I felt that something was wanting to my heart: I
grew sick of dissipation: 1 discovered that the people among whom I lived,
and whose exterior was so polished and seducing, were at bottom 44
frivolous, unfeeling and insincere. I turned from the inhabitants of Paris
with disgust, and quitted that theatre of luxury without heaving one sigh of
regret” (Lewis 88).
This moment brings us to one of the major problems of The Monk: the year in which the novel takes place which is not mentioned directly in the book, yet the reader of 1796 could not help but place this incident as taking place before the outbreak of the French
Revolution. When we consider Lewis’ own life at the time in which this book was written and when we consider the series of events that had taken place by 1796, the year of publication, chiefly that England was at war with Revolutionary France, a mere sentence like the one above, a description of Paris redolent of the worst cliches of the Ancien
Regime - “a theater of luxury” - can no longer appear as anything other than a deliberate anachronism.
In this scene we find evidence of Leslie Fiedler’s claim that “the gothic felt for the first time the pastness of the past” (Fiedler 137). The gothic is a genre that pronounced judgment on history; its writers saw the past and its legacy as “corrupt and detestable” and their evocations of an antiquarian Catholic Europe evinced no nostalgia or sentiment for the good old days (Fiedler 137). In having a character describe what is identifiably a bygone France, Lewis’ judgment is most assuredly shaped by revolutionary upheaval. The Monk however goes further in extending its judgment not only on the past but on the present, especially when we consider the clear allusions to revolutionary 45
violence in the riot scene of Chapter Ten, with its images of the mob attacking the clergy and ransacking the Church, images from the Reign of Terror that had shocked the world.
Joseph Drury writes in “Twilight of the Virgin Idols: Iconoclash in The Monk” that Lewis’s novel and the gothic tradition are suspended between “credulity and superstition on the one hand and skepticism and enlightenment on the other” (217). In
The Monk rationalism, represented by Don Lorenzo, clashes against the active presence of the supernatural. Key to Drury’s argument is the concept of “Iconoclash” which he borrows from the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Iconoclash refers to the
“interpretative uncertainty that so often surrounds the breaking of images and icons...Is it merely destructive or does it serve some constructive purpose as well?...we call an action iconoclasm...when we think we know why the image is being smashed; an iconoclash, on the other hand, refers to a situation when, for whatever reason, we don’t know the answers” (Drury, 219). We see this reflected most clearly in the denouement of the riot scene, which begins with Lorenzo de Medina castigating the superstitious ceremony of the religious festival and with the author describing his thoughts - “He blushed to see his countrymen the dupes of deceptions so ridiculous, and only wished for an opportunity to free them from their monkish fetters” (Lewis 294). And yet when the riot breaks out and is later contained, we see Lorenzo fighting alongside the Inquisition in quelling the violence and finally collaborating with the Inquisition in restoring order over the mob.
Lewis does not provide us any propaganda in service for the Inquisition and indeed the final moment of The Monk has them submitting Ambrosio to vicious torture that leaves 46
little doubt that the reader’s sympathies should lie with the wretched, lecherous, evil, but all too human monk rather than the inhuman Inquisition. But there is no judgment pronounced on Lorenzo for the fact that he fights alongside the very clerical forces he criticized and castigated throughout the novel, nor is there much room for an ironic or sardonic parody on the part of the author on the fact that the hero ends up serving the very order that he expressed dislike for. Lorenzo, according to Drury, experienced the sense of Iconoclash by first mocking the belief of the nuns in the Convent of St. Clare and the corruption of the church that has tortured his sister Agnes and killed his beloved
Antonia. In doing so, Don Lorenzo has destroyed that object. Yet the events that follow have Don Lorenzo defending the same nuns whose superstitions he despises from an anticlerical mob risen to burn the convent. The finale of the novel sees no displacement of the church but rather a restitution of its authority with Lorenzo adjusting himself as an aristocrat invested in upholding the same order that he had previously criticized. As noted by Drury, iconoclash is an action tinged with ambiguity; and in destroying an object, the person who performs the act of destruction either feels guilty or performs a kind of atonement, and that “the story of the iconoclastic gesture, therefore, is necessarily also to tell the story of how indignant modem critique always gives way to a disconcerting ambivalence” (Drury, 221).
In that light one can judge that the ambivalence expressed within The Monk is an expression of Lewis’s inability to entirely achieve his ambitions for originality, but we can also judge that the same inability and ambivalence gives the book an unresolved 47
irony that in and of itself represents a mixing of styles. For in attempting to escape the gothic castle and all that it entails, and in borrowing from the emerging European avant- garde of German Romanticism, in representing the events of the revolution in an exoticized genre, Lewis attacks the very ground on which he stands. It is Lewis who is affected by “iconoclash,” by the ambivalence and chaos his own story contains, drawn to it by his own youthful daring and yet repressed by the aristocratic circumstances that enabled, nurtured, and ultimately pacified the same. This is most apparent when we consider the scene where Lewis’ attempt to mix the two styles outlined by Auerbach is achieved with the most acute clarity: his approach to the supernatural. The traditional gothic tale generally eschewed the supernatural. Ann Radcliffe’s works such as, The
Mysteries ofUdolpho, featured the threat and fear of supernatural events that were finally revealed to be hoaxes (Railo 57-59). In The Monk the supernatural is always shown directly and never hidden away, which leads to several contradictory moments within the narrative without any full explanation given.
For instance, when we return to the scene of Raymond’s history of his adventures which he relates to Lorenzo, the latter interjects his friend’s narrative twice, and both occasions concern Raymond describing his seduction of Lorenzo’s sister. These comical interruptions revolves around the notion of Lorenzo’s honor as a nobleman and brother, but when we consider Lorenzo’s rationalism, as evidenced by his dislike for the superstitions of the church and its hypocrisy, his silence in the face of Raymond’s narration of the incident of the Bleeding Nun is a curious lacuna. This incident is not 48
mentioned again after Raymond finishes his narrative, in either his interactions with
Lorenzo or Theodore. Another instance of the supernatural concern Ambrosio and
Matilda where, the latter playing Mephistopheles to the former’s Faust, tempts him with the promise of the demonic forces that she seemingly controls. She offers him the means by which he can ensnare Antonia and bring her to his clutches, noting that his hope is
“for supernatural aid, by invoking the daemons yourself, and accepting the conditions of their service” (Lewis 245).
But the most mysterious of supernatural incidents in the narrative is the scene concerning Antonia’s encounter with the ghost of her mother Elvira. Donna Elvira Dalfa is killed by Ambrosio when the monk pays a visit to her house in Chapter Eight with the intent to sexually assault Antonia. Elvira dies trying to protect her daughter, driving
Ambrosio to run and hide in panic. In Chapter Nine, Antonia is grieving for the loss of her mother and adjusting to her grief:
In truth Antonia's situation was sufficiently embarrassing and unpleasant.
She was alone in the midst of a dissipated and expensive City; She was ill
provided with money, and worse with Friends. Her aunt Leonella was still
at Cordova, and She knew not her direction. (Lewis 268)
An important point to emphasize about this sequence is that this is perhaps the only moment in the entire narrative where Antonia is truly alone without chaperon or suitor.
When we first see her, she is with her Aunt Leonella attending the Abbey of the 49
Capuchins to hear Ambrosio’s sermons. Then we see her from the gaze and viewpoint of her suitor Lorenzo de Medina and as the object of Ambrosio’s perverse fixations. We also see her depicted from the viewpoint of her mother Elvira who grieves about her daughter’s naivete nurtured by her overprotectiveness. After this scene, Antonia will be poisoned again by Ambrosio and taken into a tomb from which she will be discovered and rescued far too late in the wake of the riot scene of Chapter Ten, where she will die after meeting Lorenzo de Medina one last time. In this one scene of loneliness, independent from the gaze of other characters, we get a true sense of Antonia’s character.
Lewis emphasizes, in rather modem language, her loneliness, her isolation, her economic realities. Indeed this paragraph could conceivably exist in a realist novel, and indeed in the phrase “she knew not her direction” Lewis carelessly leaves open a suggestion that
Antonia’s path is not entirely conditioned into nunnery and marriage, the only two options available for women in the book.
The female characters of name and prominence in the narrative are defined by their spousal rank (engaged, married, widowed, spinster) including Donna Elvira,
Marguerite, Leonella, Donna Rodolpha, Agnes, or they are nuns such as Mother St.
Ursula, the good nun of St. Clare, or the domina, the evil nun who oversees Agnes’s torture. The phrase “knew not her direction” is an indication of possible freedom for the most confined and secluded character in the novel. Across The Monk we have characters constantly straining at their lack of privacy fully aware that they are being watched by someone or other. Ambrosio is under the gaze of Matilda, Agnes is a captive of Donna 50
Rodolpha and later the Convent of St. Clare. This scene is unique in the novel for its sense of privacy, allowing the character who is the most watched, observed, and studied by others, some measure to think for herself. Lewis dramatizes this internal moment with keen insight:
Antonia listened anxiously to the Carriages, as they rolled along the Street.
None of them stopped, and it grew late without Leonella's appearing. Still,
Antonia resolved to sit up till her Aunt's arrival...The hours passed on
slow and tediously. Lorenzo's departure from Madrid had put a stop to the
nightly Serenades: She hoped in vain to hear the usual sound of
Guitars.. .She took up her own, and struck a few chords: But Music that
evening had lost its charms for her, and she soon replaced the Instrument
in its case. She seated herself at her embroidery frame, but nothing went
right: The silks were missing, the thread snapped every moment, and the
needles were so expert at falling that they seemed to be animated. At
length a flake of wax fell from the Taper which stood near her upon a
favorite wreath of Violets: This completely discomposed her; she threw
down her needle, and quitted the frame. It was decreed that for that night
nothing should have the power of amusing her. She was the prey of ennui,
and employed herself in making fruitless wishes for the arrival of her Aunt
(Lewis 270). 51
Antonia then walks into the library to peruse a book only to find herself awakened to her mother’s loss by the “total silence” of the library, “the few dying Plants in the window which, since Elvira's loss, had been neglected” and “the gloom of night” which inspires Antonia with “a melancholy awe” bringing her to grief (Lewis 270-271). To distract herself from this grief, Antonia takes to reading one of her favorite stories from the books, the ballad “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene,” which allows Lewis to intervene with another one of his poems, a burlesque and grotesque medieval romance about a knight Alonzo who returns from the dead as a skeleton to claim his former beloved Imogene who is being married to another man (Lewis 294-299). What follows is an extended paragraph describing the arrival of a ghost in a manner that is a perfect pastiche of the gothic style as developed by Clara Reeve, who Eino Railo credits to be the first writer to make “deliberate use of an empty suite of rooms supposed to be haunted”
It’s important to describe the milieu of this scene in more detail because of its unusual nature. We have noted that gothic novels are fixated on the castle and have discussed the novel’s attitude to the traditional gothic castle of Lindenberg. Lewis throughout The Monk sets the action in a diverse array of locations. A good deal of the action takes place in the Abbey of Capuchins and the Convent of St. Clare but there is very little description of its architecture, and this lack of description leaves it without any special determining characteristics. Ambrosio is associated with interior spaces such as the private cell in the abbey, the grotto where Matilda reveals to him her true nature, and 52
the necropolis beneath the convent where he later kidnaps and hides Antonia. The villainous monk’s final scenes take place in his cell as he awaits judgment from the
Inquisition. Within this litany of locations, Antonia’s home stands out for a number of reasons. Namely that it is a location with a precise address and direction. Ambrosio obtains it for his schemes, “Donna Elvira Dalfa, strada di San Iago, four doors from the palace d’Abbornos” (Lewis 217). As Lennard Davis and Ian Watt observe in their studies of the development of the novel in the eighteenth century, the novel differed from the romance in its more contemporary attention to milieu, place, and setting. Where gothic fiction resembles romance in its remote and exotic settings, its aristocratic milieu, its episodic structure, and its evocation of history, a novel is set in a locale known to the author, in a contemporary milieu, located in the non-aristocratic world of the middle and lower classes (Davis 40). Watt describes the novel as “the inverted romance” which took inspiration from the “individualist” spirit of Locke and Descartes to bring a greater realism to the setting and time of the narrative (Watt 11-14). Romances abound in strange places filled with the foreign, the archaic and the exclusion of contemporary life (Watt
19). Throughout The Monk in a variety of episodes we see Lewis open up his narrative to contemporary events and happenings in Europe, with the many allusions to the events of the French Revolution and German Romanticist movement. The single most gothic scene in the novel does not take place in a castle steeped in history, but in the relatively middle- class dwelling of Donna Elvira Dalfa. Lewis makes the domestic and the mundane gothic and he does so by ensuring the milieu and setting he chooses for it is a comfortable 53
domain familiar to both Antonia and the readers. Watt notes that the novel creates the impression of “life by time” in its accumulation of details, names, places, description of objects and items to create a sense of realism (22). In the scene of the arrival of Elvira’s ghost, we see the creation of the gothic by time, resulting in a moment of genuine horror and dread. We see the transformation of a home by death, by time, and memory, into a gothic space, and we see the transformation of a mother into a ghost, and the result is the most purely uncanny and horrific moment in The Monk when the door of the library opens, and Antonia perceives a “a tall thin Figure, wrapped in a white shroud which covered it from head to foot” who then announces that they will meet in three days
(Lewis 275). Antonia collapses in shock at seeing the identity of the ghost, crying out,
“Almighty God! My Mother!” before collapsing (Lewis 275). This is the end of
Antonia’s brief spell of independence, freedom, self-regard, and personal solitude. And the end of that freedom comes from the ghost of her beloved mother.
There is something deeply horrific and troubling about this scene. It differs from
Raymond’s encounter with the Bleeding Nun where the supernatural is described with what Agnes herself suggests as “a tone of burlesqued gravity” and the occurrence of the nun provokes no remark or reflection or later comment from the other characters aside from the Baron who is pleased that the ghost is laid to rest. In this sequence, Antonia confronts a ghost, recognizes it, and faints. The scene is striking because the gothic arises from the quotidian and works as an extemalization to a very interior state of loneliness, confusion, and ennui. The fact that the ghost arrives in the comforts of a home and 54
without external prompting, e.g. the machinations of Ambrosio and Matilda, makes it especially invasive since even the comforts of home are not to be trusted. The realism is further heightened when we reflect that the ghost, in this instance, is an ordinary crime victim living in a house in the city rather than a remote figure from history. But what is truly horrific is what the scene suggests about the supernatural.
As Syndy Conger notes, Lewis borrowed the trope of the woman’s ghost from
Der Geisterbanner, or as it was known in English, The Necromancer, by Ludwig
Flammenburg, a novel that was sufficiently popular to be referred to by Jane Austen in
Northanger Abbey, alongside The Monk and other works by Horace Walpole and Ann
Radcliffe (Conger 76). In that story the ghost was located in a cavern in the Black Forest rather than in the domestic dwelling of a single mother, and there the ghost haunted the villains who tormented it. A ghost was also featured in Horace Walpole’s The Castle o f
Otranto but there he’s a benevolent ghost who aids the hero. Where earlier ghosts served as agents of a moral authority, tormenting the evil and aiding the good, in The Monk, the ghost torments the most innocent, virtuous, and naive character in the novel, and indeed horrifies her into a shock, putting her into the clutches of Ambrosio from which she will never escape till her death. Lewis’ introduction of the supernatural which he infuses into a realist setting leads, as per Conger, into a scene with “an ambiguous nightmare quality” departing from his previous sources in suggesting “a more complex moral worldview” about the absence of a rational moral order in society (79-82). It’s very clear that Elvira does not haunt her murderer Ambrosio. Right after Antonia’s fainting spell, when her 55
servants Jacintha and Flora run to the Abbey for help, Ambrosio, on learning of the situation, reflects on his opportunity:
The cause of Elvira's death remaining unknown, he was convinced that
crimes were not so swiftly followed by punishment...as till then he had
himself believed. This persuasion made him resolve upon Antonia's ruin,
for the enjoyment of whose person dangers and difficulties only seemed to
have increased his passion (Lewis 276).
Ambrosio finally does meet his fate and comeuppance, but that incident has no connection to any supernatural or religious sense of order and morality, or any direct correlation to his crimes. His exposure happens by accident, by confusion, and chaos brought out by the riot triggered accidentally by Lorenzo de Medina, an incident that unleashes anti-clerical violence which eventually horrifies the hero. The events leading to
Antonia’s doom, the unmotivated malevolent intervention of a demonic aspect of her loving mother, is the main charge against the neoclassical rigidification that otherwise handicaps The Monk and its connections to the gothic and the romantic. In this one moment, Lewis is able to go further than both, albeit in an act of “iconoclash” as identified by Drury, which leads him to restore order in a manner that is cynical and nihilistic. Here we see him moving from the Homeric to the Biblical style highlighted by
Auerbach where in opposition to a style that “externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground” we have the “externalization of only so much of the 56
phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity” left for interpretation to sort out the “thoughts and feelings” which “remain unexpressed” and suggested leaving a sense of the mysterious (Auerbach 11-12).
Throughout The Monk, we see Lewis animate his characters and settings with a mix of styles borrowed from the emerging currents of his era. This attempt to mix these styles, to balance the elevated with the low, does not lead to an Auerbachian “mixed style;” rather it leads to a work where the static form of the gothic matches the mobile form of the novel leading to a series of collisions resulting in a divided work. Peter
Brooks, in his 1973 essay “Virtue and Terror: The Monk,” remarks that the novel is “not only the aberrant masterpiece of the Gothic novel” but a work of literature that demonstrates “a remarkable understanding” of its historical conditions and “the epistemological moment” to which it belongs (249). He locates The Monk as a novel published at the pivot point between “revolution and reaction...at the dead end of the Age of Reason” where “the Sacred has reasserted its claim to attention, but in the most primitive possible manifestations as taboo and interdiction” (Brooks, 249). A contemporary observer shared a similar view. The Marquis de Sade writes in his “An
Essay on Novels” in 1799 that the “only merit” of the gothic novel “consists of their reliance on witchcraft and phantasmagoria,” identifying The Monk as being “the best of them” (De Sade 13). Sade identified the gothic novel as “the necessary offspring of the revolutionary upheaval which affected the whole of Europe” and that to the observers and participants in the events of that epoch, “novels became as difficult to write as they were 57
tedious to read” (De Sade 14). He further notes that individuals of that generation
“experience more adversity in four or five years than the most famous novelist in all literature could have invented in a hundred. Writers therefore had to look to hell for help in composing their alluring novels” (De Sade, Page 14). This situation undoubtedly created challenges in representation, and narrative resolution that “the author of The
Monk was no more successful in overcoming them than Mrs. Radcliffe” and the unavoidable choice made by the author “to develop the supernatural and risk forfeiting the reader’s credulity, or to explain nothing and fall into the most ludicrous implausibility” leads to irresolution (De Sade, Page 14). In Representations of
Revolution, Ronald Paulson notes that the gothic genre which originated in a pre revolutionary era attained the height of its popularity and success during the revolutionary decade of the 1790s because, “it was precisely [the] inability to make out events on a day-to-day basis, but with the suspicion of personal skullduggery beneath each new changing-hands of property, that made the gothic novel a roughly equivalent narrative form” (225). The gothic novel, especially The Monk, became the mode and genre that gave voice to the uncertainty, confusion, and paranoia bom from “a new sense of history” that transitioned from a structure centered around Kings to a whole multitude of people (Paulson 225).
The Monk is a romance animated by an emerging historical consciousness that manifests itself in the form of digressions, redundancies, and ruptures. Lewis’s attempts to mix styles, the English gothic and the German Romantic, the static and the dynamic, the 58
Homeric and the Biblical, does not entirely create a work that breaks away the rigid categories of form, genre, and style that subdivide the novel and other prose forms.
Rather it results in a divided, ambivalent, and strange book animated with a sense of society driven by the random, the strange, the chaotic, and the surreal in the original sense of the word, that is, the super-real. The Monk was indeed a beloved novel of the
French surrealists leading Andre Breton to remark in The Surrealist Manifesto, that, “The breath of the marvelous gives it life throughout” (Hoog 17). The surreal quality of the book remains undiminished by its inability to fully resolve the balance between the two styles, and the problem of mixing the elevated with the low. Indeed, the lack of resolution is the source for the efficacy of the novel, aided greatly by the playfulness, self- awareness, and pastiche which allows Lewis to complicate and confound many of the established notions of the boundaries between the romance and the novel, both in his time, and in the continuing present. 59
Nostromoj History and Legend
The story goes also that within men’s memory two wandering sailors -
Americanos, perhaps, but gringos of some sort for certain - talked over a
gambling, good-for-nothing mozo, and the three stole a donkey...Thus
accompanied, and with revolvers at their belts, they had started to chop
their way with machetes through the thorny scrub on the neck of the
peninsula. On the second evening an upright spiral of smoke (it could only
have been from their camp-fire) was seen for the first time.. .The impious
adventurers gave no other sign...the two gringos, spectral and alive, are
believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks... They are now rich
and hungry and thirsty - a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts
suffering in their starved and parched flesh of distant heretics, where a
Christian would have renounced and been released. (Conrad 6-7).
This is the legend of the hidden treasure in the Azuera islands, which is first related by the narrator in the opening chapter of Nostromo. It recurs throughout the novel, cited by the title character when, on his departure for the dangerous mission with Martin
Decoud aboard the cargo-lighter, he bids farewell to the Viola family but leaves behind his effects in their custody to be given to his girlfriend after his death. Nostromo wryly admits that they might adorn another lover should he die, noting that no rival suitor need 60
worry that he would “linger on earth after I am dead, like those gringos that haunt the
Azuera” (Conrad 204). This reference to the legend of the gringos by Nostromo, the
Capataz de Cargadores (Foreman of the Stevedores), is mocking, ironic, and playful. His citation of the same legend later in the novel is far more desperate, serious, and fevered.
There he mentions the legend to Dr. Monygham after coming across the body of Senor
Hirsch, a Jewish fur-trader tortured and murdered by Colonel Sotillo, after the failure of the same desperate mission. Nostromo tells Monygham that, “There is something in a treasure that fastens upon a man’s mind.. .He will never forget it till he is dead - and even then - Doctor, did you ever hear of the miserable gringos on Azuera, that cannot die? Ha! ha! Sailors like myself. There is no getting away from a treasure that once fastens upon a mind” (Conrad 364).
This short excerpt from Nostromo concerning one of its many recurring motifs
illustrates the density of plot, story, action, and events that take place within the novel.
The legend itself is a parable of greed suggestive of Chaucer’s “Pardoner Tale” but what matters is that it provides material for the character of Nostromo to interpret in light of a changing present. When first invoked by Nostromo, he is at his most powerful, secure, and content. He is certain of his place in the city of Sulaco as the Capataz de Cargadores; he avers no fear or regret for early death and no yearning for an afterlife. In the second instance, Nostromo has become desperate, lost, and disillusioned, afraid for his survival amid the Civil War that has broken out in Sulaco. Here he believes in a universal 61
obsession extending beyond death, losing any comfort in the present, any certainty of identity, and projecting his grief and suffering to a cosmic level.
In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach notes that, “it is easy to separate the historical from the legendary in general” (19). The structure of legend differs from history in that “the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous... It runs far too smoothly” (Auerbach 19). Legends eschew the casual, secondary, unresolved, digressive, and chaotic elements of real life that complicate the “the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors,” in stark contrast to the “historical event which we witness or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it” (Auerbach 19).
In Nostromo, we see the title character cling to the simplicity of the legend of the treasure haunted by “tenacious gringo ghosts” even amid a chaotic present in which he is at various moments - actor, agent, witness.
One can make a provisional argument that the main quality that separates
Nostromo from other characters of the novel, is that his attitude is shaped by legend, where other characters are consciously shaped by history. From this, one can extend this argument to claim that Nostromo is about the relationship of a man with a legendary consciousness to a historical milieu, with its multiple voices, forces, systems, and institutions. This is of course paradoxical since Nostromo, published in 1904, is a book that, despite its mimesis of the historical novel in its outward action and surface texture, relates the events of a fictional South American nation called Costaguana. Most of the action transpires in the fictional city of Sulaco. The history related in the novel is 62
fundamentally as real as the legend of the gringos of the Azuera. The intermixture of the legendary and the historical allows Nostromo to subvert several of the common conventions inherent in the genre of the historical novel, or to use Leslie Fiedler’s term, the “historical romance,” allowing the book to pronounce judgment on a teleological view of history.
This chapter will discuss selected scenes from the action of the text rather than discuss the novel in all its parts. The focus in this chapter will be on the character of
Nostromo himself and the dichotomy between his placement in the narrative, and his largely marginal and de-centered relation to the action of the events of the narrative. To that end, the thesis takes an equally de-centered relation to the plot and overall situation of the background, restricting itself to the foreground of the character of Nostromo and the ways in which his place in the text is empathetic and modem precisely because of his decentralization, marginalization, and limited agency. The focus is mainly on Nostromo himself to the exclusion of many of the most widely written about characters in the book, such as Charles Gould, Giorgio Viola, Antonia, and Emilia Gould. The intense focus on a single character provides the best method to gauge the representation of history and legend within the pages of the text. This thesis will examine Nostromo through the informed critical views of many Conrad scholars chiefly Albert Guerard, Cedric Watts,
Ian Watt, Aaron Fogel, Peter Smith, and Edward Said.
Critics have long observed what Kiernan Ryan identifies as the “radically contradictory dynamic pulsing at the core of all Conrad’s major fiction” (Ryan 43). 63
Citing Arnold Kettle, Ryan identifies within the pages of Nostromo, clear social criticism directed at the corruption and dehumanization of imperialism resting side-by-side with the existence of, “a certain mistiness...buried deep in the language and symbolism of the book” that expresses a cosmic judgment on the events and characters (qtd. in Ryan 43).
The intermixture of history and metaphysics has led to divergent schools of critical thought regarding Nostromo. The straightforward realist readings of Nostromo “are compelled to evade...the novel’s rebarbative strategies of narrative disorientation, its sabotaging of conventional fictional expectations” while the modernist readings reduce the text by shriveling “its mimetic range and depth to a mere reflexive writhing, dismissing the massive, objective concretion of the social reality it deliberately constructs” (Ryan 45). Albert Guerard also discusses this dichotomy in Conrad the
Novelist, observing that Nostromo’’s experimental style of narrative, which involves serial disruptions of chronology and anachronic presentation of action, is suggestive of the “art novel” yet the breadth of its canvas and the nature of its preoccupation make it resemble
“the nineteenth-century realistic novel [and] the Edwardian double-decker study of society” (176). For Guerard, this intermixture is a weakness of the book, as he judges it to be “one of the most uneven of the great English novels,” noting that the experimentalism of Parts I and II gives way in Part III, “to a relaxed method and a much more popular story” (Guerard 216). In Public and Private Value, Peter Smith identifies Nostromo as the culmination of the development of the historical novel first developed by Walter
Scott, noting that it shares a “family resemblance” to War and Peace, Sentimental 64
Education, Little Dorrit, The Princess Casamassima (1-2). He praises Conrad’s
Nostromo for looking back at the nineteenth century from the vantage point of the early twentieth century and observes that “the only constant has been the relentless and accelerating pace of change” (Smith 14). Others likewise argue that the distance between the book and a work like Middlemarch “is not absolute,” and it provides a focal point for the transformation of Victorian realism to modernism (Levine 40).
As noted in the Introduction of this thesis, the modernist resembles the gothic in that it is an aesthetic judgment on reality. Leslie Fiedler regards the gothic as the modernizing tendency of the late eighteenth century that evoked the historical from the vantage point of the eighteenth century (Fiedler 163). He categorizes the historical novel as “historical romance” in that it evokes the past without judgment, without perspective, and offers the illusion of characters inhabiting a past like the present, as opposed to the gothic, which expresses fear and terror for the past and its influence on the present (162-
163). Where Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper evoke the past, they do so with no active terror or fear of the past, and this lack of fear, in Fiedler’s judgment, makes the historical genre comfortable and safe (Fiedler 167). Whether modernist or tradition- minded, critical perspectives on Nostromo are united in finding within it a terror and fear of the past, a terror that does not dissipate but appears to continue until the end of the novel, grounded as it is in the confusion, uncertainty, and obscurity of modem life. The same legend of the gringos of the Azuera remains unaltered upon its presentation at the beginning of the novel, but what is transformed and altered is Nostromo’s understanding 65
of the meaning of that legend. Nostromo goes from a disbelief in the persistence of the ghosts to a belief in the power of treasure and greed to extend itself eternally beyond death. In Nostromo, “Life (as form, color, movement) repeatedly reaches us before any coherent understanding of it. The reader must collaborate not only in the writing of a novel, now, but also in the writing of a country’s history” (Guerard 175).
Keeping Ryan in mind, we can identify the dichotomy of the critical judgment on
Nostromo as one that divides the form and the content, leading to a picking of sides between the modernist, the experimental, and the present-oriented, while relegating the historical, the popular, and the backwards-gazing elements on the other side. To go further, one can argue that one side looks at Nostromo as pointing ahead to the present while another side looks at Nostromo as gazing back to the past. In his extended discussion on the novel in Beginnings: Intention and Method, Edward Said identifies this divide as existing because of “Conrad’s habit of viewing his life as an uneasy compromise between two conflicting modes of existence” on account of his “radical uncertainty about himself’ (106). The two modes, according to Said, are to “experience reality as an unfolding process, an action-being made,” and, “to feel reality as a hard quantity” (Said Beginnings 106). Said states that the former mode is “that of the actor” and the latter mode is “that of the author” (Said Beginnings 106). To assert one’s control over life, over one’s present, requires an understanding of both modes which can only take place when “the retrospective view modifies, and even contradicts, the richly complex dynamics of a specific action,” which in Nostromo takes the form of a conflict 66
between “immersion in action and the retrospective definition (record) of that action”
(Said Beginnings 106).
When we return to the legend of the gringos and Nostromo’s two successive chronological references to the action, we can state that when Nostromo first playfully alludes in a mocking way to the legend, he is using it to relate to his present, and he exists in the mode of the actor; in the second instance, when he is projecting a universalizing view through that legend, he is becoming an author. The trajectory of Nostromo the character then, his central divide both within himself and in the overall narrative, is the period when he is an actor and participant in the drama of society, and the second period where he attempts to become an author. The first period is in most objective senses
Nostromo’s great social success, while the second period, which we will discuss later, is the most elusive and pessimistic period of his life. Captain Mitchell acknowledges this divide at the end of Part I when he sets up and announces Nostromo’s great part in the secession of Sulaco from Costaguana:
“It was history - history, sir! And that fellow of mine, Nostromo, you
know, was right in it. Absolutely making history, sir.”
But this event, creditable to Nostromo, was to lead immediately to
another, which could not be classed either as “history” or as “a mistake” in
Captain Mitchell’s phraseology. He had another word for it. 67
“Sir,” he used to say afterwards, “that was no mistake. It was a fatality. A
misfortune, pure and simple, sir” (Conrad 105).
Nostromo as an actor participates in history. Nostromo as author experiences a fatality and misfortune but not because of any mistake, at least according to Mitchell.
This judgment highlights the divide between Nostromo’s legendary view whereby the same event of the gringos of the Azuera is interpreted and reinterpreted as time passes, culminating in the Capataz’s obsession with treasure while Mitchell perceives events and actions in relative terms, distinguishing between the two periods of Nostromo’s success and failure. Nostromo thinks in terms of legend, a clear story without contradictions, rather than history, a chaotic process of events that demands human judgment and participation.
For most of the novel, Nostromo is marginal to the events of Costaguana and
Sulaco and the various factions and interests that gravitate in the background, all of which lead to the outbreak of revolution and civil war in Sulaco. Part 1, with its celebrated fragmenting of chronology non-linearly relates multiple layers of the history of Costaguana, introduces Nostromo on four different occasions. Each introduction is discontinuous; we get little sense of progression of character from one scene to another.
Mitchell first mentions him when he describes his action in suppressing a riot, calling him “Nostromo - invaluable fellow” and later “Nostromo, a fellow in a thousand” and
“This Nostromo, sir, a man absolutely above reproach” (Conrad 11-12). We are introduced to Nostromo again later on, but this time from the perspective of Giorgio and 68
Teresa Viola, fellow Italian immigrants in Costaguana. Teresa, who is famously and bitterly mocking of her adopted son, laments how the fame and verbose praise bestowed to him by Mitchell is what Nostromo cares most about, mocking him above all for his nickname, declaring “What a name! What is that? Nostromo? He would take a name that is properly no word from them” (Conrad 20). After this Nostromo disappears for another fifty-six pages before he is mentioned again, this time in his legendary aspect, “at the height of his prestige” when, in one incident of a dock strike, “the appearance of a phantom-like horseman mounted on a silver-grey mare solved the problem of labor without fail” (Conrad 76).
The fourth and final introduction is when Nostromo engages in a carnival fiesta basking in his popularity, flirting with a Morenita who seductively cuts off his silver buttons (100-104). This final introduction is described by Said as “the most splendidly theatrical moment in all of Conrad’s fiction” anticipating the exotic celebration of matadors in the work of Hemingway, one of Conrad’s many disciples (Said Beginnings
126). It is also the only truly celebratory portrayal of community in the novel. As Daphna
Erdinast-Vulcan notes, the real theme of Nostromo is the “absence of an identifiable collective subject or community” (Erdinast-Vulcan 140). Nostromo’s stature as the hero, a “Man of the People” is undercut because he does not belong to an identifiable community, being an agent of “material interests” of the Gould Mining Concession, a tool to suppress strikes and dissent, actions which he carries out without any self reflection. Nostromo, which we learn by the end of the novel is the nickname of the 69
Genoese sailor Giovanni Batista Fidanza, is the Italian phrase for boatswain, a literal contraction of “Nostra Uomo,” which means “our man” (Said Beginnings 126). Taken together, the four introductions of Nostromo give us a gallery of the various ways
Nostromo is seen by the community, and highlight that his personal and social identity are defined by how others perceive him. He is seen as loyal servant by Senor Mitchell, wayward son by Teresa Viola, mythical legend by the striking dockworkers he is suppressing, and by the people as a folk hero, an operatic figure who is one of them to the extent that he can sustain that illusion. Together they add up to the composite portrait of
Nostromo the actor, in Edward Said’s formulation. This self-regard, what the narrator repeatedly identifies as Nostromo’s vanity, is tested, and cracked by the event that the narrator calls, “the most desperate affair of his life” (Conrad 396). This is the mission assigned by Gould to carry a shipment of silver ingots aboard a cargo lighter to escape the militarist junta led by General Montero and Colonel Sotillo, a mission which fails through no real fault of Nostromo’s. Nostromo has no inkling or understanding of the true purpose of this mission, which ultimately amounts to be of no actual significance in the grand events of the civil war. The mission proves to be “pettily grand” in that it is simultaneously a small sliver of action within the larger civil war yet given greater focus and intensity than any of the big scenes and events that surround the world-historical conflict (Fogel 104). In historical terms, Nostromo’s great heroic moment is the scene after he discovers the corpse of Senor Hirsch, where he undertakes a daring ride to Cayta to bring a rebel army to save the Gould Mining Concession and the oligarchs of Sulaco 70
from the rebels. But this incident, titled by Senor Mitchell as Nostromo’s “famous ride to
Cayta,” is teased as promising a “most exciting book” but it is also, as Kieran Ryan notes,
“precisely the kind of book Conrad’s integrity cannot permit Nostromo to be” (Ryan 48-
As an actor Nostromo is pompous, vain, naive, and lacking in self-awareness about his place in the world. There is no community on behalf of whom Nostromo can truly be a hero despite being most suited to the task and occasion because in Sulaco everyone uses each other (Smith 192). This transactional existence is exemplified by “the holy alliance,” to use a Marxist phrase of Charles Gould, the chief oligarch of Sulaco and
Nostromo’s ultimate patron, with the bandit clan led by Hernandez, who become mercenaries and soldiers in Gould’s faction, and finally in the new regime become ministers with portfolio. The priest Father Corbelan works as a go-between between the capitalist and bandit factions in the service of capitalism or “material interests” (Conrad
379). The milieu of Costaguana and Sulaco which seems exotic and peopled with Anglo-
Italian-Hispanic names and characters, “are mostly empty, lacking in appropriateness, in property” because they are not “Romantic but contractual, deliberately hollow, and often oxymoronic” (Fogel 117). Nostromo, the absurd name taken from his Anglo masters, is after all “our man,” the man of the Gould Mining Concession and the Sulaco oligarchs, and his great heroic service to his employers is becoming comically under-rewarded compared to the enrichment of the bandits because the latter cement their service in 71
Sulaco’s hour of need as equal partners, a position that Nostromo only belatedly realizes is beyond his humble reach.
In the rough outline of the movement of Nostromo from contented puppet to discarded tool condescended by his superiors, one can glimpse the radical undercutting of the traditional historical romance and its milieu. As noted in the Introduction, Gyorgy
Lukacs identified the great advance made by Walter Scott in the historical novel is his placement of the “mediocre hero” at the center of his action as opposed to the epic hero
(Lukacs 34-36). The “mediocre hero” was the average person who was best positioned to engage with multiple factions and interests, serving simultaneously as a channel for the reader to engage with a historical worldview, and as an expression of England’s national self-image as the moderate voice of stability amid a world of chaos (Lukacs 36-37).
Nostromo in many ways fulfills this position as Stephen K. Land observes in his essay,
“Four Views of the Hero”:
Nostromo keeps his options open by cultivating both the good opinion of
his employers and popularity among the working classes...Balanced
between two worlds he occupies a unique position, on account of which he
exercises considerable powers; his following among the people makes him
an effective leader of the harbor work force, which in turn, as long as he
steers clear of involvement in politics, makes him a valuable employee to
Mitchell. Nostromo is thus the linchpin upon which the cohesion of local
economy depends...Yet he can only function in this way only as long as 72
he avoids open espousal of either popular or patrician values, and as long
as he holds aloof from both wealth and domestic obscurity (95).
Nostromo provides on the surface the archetypal role of the protagonist of a historical romance. Yet by circumstance, milieu, and style of narrative, he can never truly perform that function of embodying the teleological historical perspective through his own experience as a character. As Captain Mitchell states above, this is not because of any mistake on his part but the result of misfortune and circumstances.
For after all, despite being marginal to the events of the novel, and decentralized from the narrative of actual world-historical agency, Nostromo as a character is in Harold
Bloom’s words, “the only persuasive instance of the natural sublime in a twentieth- century hero of fiction” and indeed is a “Homeric throwback” like Tolstoy’s Hadji
Murad (Bloom 4-5). Nostromo as a man of action, lacking in psychological awareness, is Adamic in his innocence and naivete but “the world he lives is not the Adamic world...rather, a frontier world, where a sleepy pastoral Campo has been invaded by industrialism, bringing with it all the complex energies, confusion of racial histories and attitudes, and moral anxieties” (Van Ghent 28).
The novel’s litany of anti-climaxes soft-pedals the great historical pageants it promises to deliver, and this undercuts Nostromo’s capacity as both actor and author. The unfairness of this failure is even more acute because of the unique nature of the stage on which Nostromo is presented. The invented milieu of Costaguana and Sulaco constitutes 73
“Conrad’s greatest creative achievement” according to Albert Guerard in Conrad the
Novelist (178). It is an invented milieu of a continent that Conrad only briefly visited in his years as a merchant sailor, created entirely out of historical research and imagination, and yet it is more fully realized and developed, Guerard avers, than the Malaysian jungles and towns in Lord Jim, based on Conrad’s years of service in the Malay Archipelago
(Guerard 178-179). Its mimesis is in a large sense independent of the characters (Guerard
178). The impressive realization of the South American milieu can however be mistaken for the real thing. One can read Nostromo as an actual historical novel about South
American history and society. Such a reading is by no means invalid but it is problematic, as Frederic Jameson warns us when he observes that the novel’s Anglocentrism and restriction in scope to the perspective of white settlers, registers as “offensive and caricatural” from a post-colonial perspective (Jameson 116). The European projection of a South American setting is “more complex than simple racism” however in that
Conrad’s prose invests with “considerable fantasy-attraction and provides material for the practice of the idyll...at the same time it accredits the good opinion the industrial West has of itself’ (Jameson 116). Indeed, to see the South American milieu with its considerable surface realism and verisimilitude as mimetic and realistic is to fall into the trap that Auerbach aimed to escape with “Historism,” a method of radical relativism that recognizes the “incomparability of historical phenomena and their constant inner mobility” (Auerbach 444). 74
In his chapter “Nostromo: A Tale of Europe” in Public and Private Value, Peter
Smith regards Costaguana and Sulaco as a projection of Europe, as “a place of virtually impenetrable unity” transferred to “a sort of Lilliput” where the great inheritances of
Europe’s political and cultural legacy are extended in laboratory conditions to see how they develop in an abstract South American tapestry without the baggage of the totalizing legacies of cultural nationalism impinging on them (189-190). Costaguana is, then, “a little Europe with its history intact but its memories gone” (Smith 190). In other words,
Nostromo's main subject is not a European projection of South America as it appears on the surface, nor should it be confused with an allegory of European experience. Rather, it is about the internationalization of Europe as a hegemonic idea, a sardonic elegy of
Europe’s conquest and subjugation of the world in its colonial projects and its frighteningly effective social engineering (Smith 194-195). Edward Said insists that
Nostromo is “most assuredly not the product of a great established literature;” rather, it is a singular vision of a Polish emigre educated in France and writing in English, his third- language, which ultimately becomes a novel that resembles no tradition of European literature, meriting comparisons with the “more insecure, individualistic, and nervous
American tradition” of Moby-Dick (Said Beginnings 110).
This deracination of tradition and culture completely renders ironic the attempts of Nostromo to be the hero of a community, and hampers his ability to fulfill the role of the Lukacsian “mediocre hero,” the observer-agent of history. The historical novel in the course of the nineteenth century, as Lukacs pointed out, became a mode to express 75
Romantic nationalism in the wake of the events of the French Revolution, where the need for mass participation led to the rise of propaganda that summarized political, social, and economical realities in a common consensus shared by multiple classes, leading to the creation of a national tradition necessarily connected “with memories of the past”
(Lukacs 25). The historical novel, originally manifested in the gothic novel, provides a means for articulating a grand narrative view of society and culture. Mikhail Bakhtin, as
Aaron Fogel observes, famously applied the concept of polyphony to the works of
Fielding, Dickens, and Dostoevsky, noting that it provides a pluralistic portrayal of multiple dialects, multiple classes, nationalities, and professions (Fogel 118). Yet this polyphonic portrayal of society is in danger of the process of rigidification, becoming contrary to its aim of celebrating diversity in text, “an encomium on expansive nationalism” (Fogel 118). Erich Auerbach noted this rigidification in the works of
Dickens and Thackeray when, in the former, “strong social feeling” and “suggestive density of his milieu” coexist with a general absence of the “fluidity of the political and historical background,” and in the latter, a carefully detailed historical setting and carefully researched background, such as Europe pre-and-post Waterloo in Vanity Fair,
“preserves the moralistic, half-satirical, half-sentimental viewpoint...as it was handed down by the eighteenth century” (Auerbach 492).
What is at stake in the classical historical novel is the assumption of a progressive view of history, a linear advance of progress, with unbroken continuity with the past.
Such a view makes history abstract and impersonal, rather than human and contingent. 76
The challenge for Conrad in Nostromo is not merely to refute and correct this tendency.
His aim is to undermine the illusions and self-deceptions inherent in accepting a world view of this sort, to remove any sense of triumph from the realization and construction of these illusions. He achieves this primarily in what Fogel identifies as “an oxymoron of scale” noting that Nostromo is neither “a great national novel or even a great ironic provincial novel” (Fogel 103-104). Conrad eschews the polyphonic national rhythm of
Tolstoy and Dickens by insisting “on an a priori confusion about scale itself, paying attention to a large community that is at the same time small, half inside and half outside a ‘great world’ that is somehow trivial” (Fogel 103-104). This confusion of scale reflects
Conrad’s great international perspective as a Pole writing in English, conscious of his origin as a citizen of a subjugated small state to a large Russian empire, influenced and shaped in turn by the competing traditions of France and England, providing him with an authentically Auerbachian “radical relativism.”
The great historical plot of Nostromo that encases and intersects randomly with
Nostromo himself concerns the secession of Sulaco from Costaguana to become an independent city-state oligarchy built on national principles. This plot, with its affections for independence, self-determination, and nineteenth-century republicanism, would be heroic and presented uncritically in a conventional historical novel where actual historical personages express such sentiments. But in Nostromo, they are first articulated by a cynical Frenchmen named Martin Decoud, described sardonically as a Costaguanero who was “Frenchified” but possessing a “most un-French - cosmopolitanism” (Conrad 120). 77
Decoud is a journalist, pamphleteer, and intellectual. His plan for the independence of
Sulaco from Costaguana to better protect itself from the populist uprising of Montero and
Sotillo begins with a draft of proclamation and two-hour-long speeches of action, conveying the impression of “a new State evolved...out of the head of a scoffing young man fleeing for his life, with a proclamation in his pocket...It sounds like a comic fairy tale - but behold it may come off; because it is true to the very spirit of the country”
(Conrad 248). And indeed it does come off, albeit Decoud, Nostromo’s companion on his doomed mission, commits suicide before the consummation of his vision.
In Nostromo, people make history independent of any pre-existing tradition, and any quality of greatness, relying on their sense of survival and yearning for wealth. In the case of Sulaco, its independence is achieved by the tactical alliance between the Gould
Mining Concession and the American Bank of Holroyd based in San Francisco,
California. This reality is an expression of Fogel’s view of the novel as anti-secessionist, since the nationalistic romantic pretensions of independent Sulaco is undercut with the irony of it trading its actual national identity, Costaguana, in favor of vassalage to a global capitalist hegemony (Fogel 104). This depiction of history suggests a Marxist view of history (Watts 71). Or at the very least the outward form of the process of dialectical materialism bereft of the totalizing summation of its ideology, or indeed that of any other.
Edward Said insists that the notion of history created by men, as engaged by Conrad, conveys a “prolonged revelation of horror” (Said Beginnings 118). This horror is grounded in “man’s overambitious intention to author his own world because the world 78
as he finds it is somehow intolerable...The horror occurs in the gradual, prolonged discovery that the world created by one man is just as intolerable as the world he has superseded” (Said Beginnings 118). Peter Smith observes that in Costaguana, “The worst motive and the best become homogenized to a common, gray, mindless pragmatism” to which no alternative is proffered or entertained by the characters, and by most critics, who generally prefer the society of Sulaco at the end as an improvement to the chaotic revolution-laden instability of Costaguana at the start (Smith 193-194).
To return then once again to the plot of the novel, when we last left Nostromo after extensive introductions in Part 1, he was engaged in Part 2 to participate in a desperate mission with Martin Decoud to transport silver ingots from the Gould Mine to a safe place away from the clutches of the approaching occupying army. He and Decoud transport the cargo of silver by night on a cargo-lighter sailing vessel. On their journey, they discover a stowaway, Senor Hirsch, who seeks to escape as quickly as possible. The commotion caused by the discovery leads to Colonel Sotillo intercepting the lighter and its silver shipment by crashing into it, which leads to chaos, forcing Nostromo to escape to a small island with Decoud and the shipment in tow. Nostromo then separates from
Decoud and arrives back to Sulaco after a considerable period, during which he and
Decoud are presumed dead, and the silver is declared lost. Nostromo will ultimately discover that the mission of the silver was fruitless and inconsequential, and the risk he made of his life and name was all for naught. At the beginning of Part 111, we witness
Nostromo’s rebirth, where he transforms from myth into history, waking from, “fourteen 79
hours’ sleep...full length from his lair in the long grass. He stood knee deep amongst the whispering undulations of the green blades with the lost air of a man just born into the world” (Conrad 323). This is the scene of Nostromo’s rebirth; but if it is, then we must also identify it as the death of his old self, the naive and innocent Capataz de Cargadores
(Erdinast-Vulcan 139). Nostromo’s self-mythical representation has faced a defeat it can never recover from. The experience of misery, suffering, and wasted effort leads him to question his former pride in his name albeit with the same vanity and legendary view of life. Formerly proud of his reputation, Nostromo will now express bitterness at being made use of, forcing him to finally act for himself rather than enforcing the will of others
It is in this moment that a remarkable incident happens in the novel. We get a
Costaguanero trying to imagine and relive his memories of Europe. We discover that
Nostromo was a Genoese sailor who emigrated to Costaguana as a young man:
Since everything seemed lost in Sulaco (and that was the feeling of his
waking), the idea of leaving the country altogether had presented itself to
Nostromo... At that thought he had seen, like the beginning of another
dream, a vision of steep and tideless shores, with dark pines on the heights
and white houses low down near a very blue sea...He remembered those
sights not without some filial emotion, though he had been habitually
severely beaten as a boy on those feluccas by his uncle, a short-necked
shaven Genoese, with a deliberate and distrustful manner...But it is 80
mercifully decreed that the evils of the past should appear but faintly in
retrospect. Under the sense of loneliness, abandonment and failure, the
idea of return to these things appeared tolerable. But, what? Return? With
bare feet and head, with one check shirt and a pair of cotton calzoneras for
all worldly possessions? (Conrad 328-329)
In this scene we get a representation of exile that is original in its conception. Nostromo, in a moment of crisis, transforms, as Said argues, from an actor living in the present, to an author who retrospectively reconfigures his past to better chart out his future course of action. The mode that Conrad chooses to illustrate that is an immigrant’s longing for an old world but only partially, imperfectly, and vainly. The past from which Nostromo fled in Italy is something even he can’t fully believe in. Italy is merely a suite of landscapes glimpsed from the decks of a ship, and its landscapes are inseparable from the effect of the abusive childhood that he fled.
This attempt to gaze back at the past is paradoxically the triumphal modern expression of the internationalism of Nostromo. Conrad wrote as a European, albeit one marked by exile and multiple identities, yet in this scene he expresses a self-deracination
- a vision of exile thoroughly externalized from his cultural milieu. It is a projection by a
European author, of an immigrant so detached and removed from Europe that he cannot truly imagine the Old World, except in the most artificial words of description. Europe as remembered, or authored, by Nostromo, as Said would argue, is a series of static landscapes, the milieu of Nostromo’s past, for whom a return would mark a final disgrace 81
and defeat beyond his present circumstances. As an author, Nostromo is creating for himself a new origin and beginning, “a new record” to use Said’s phrase, but one grounded not in the grand struggles and politics of Costaguana and the secession of
Sulaco, and not in his avowed superstition in the legend of the silver of the Azueras, but one rooted in his own past, his own experiences, and his own personal history (Said 100-
102). To put it succinctly, we get to see Nostromo create and form his own identity by first pronouncing judgment on his own origins and ties to Europe. Nostromo’s ties to
Europe coincide with Smith’s views of Costaguana as a place where “the history of
Europe is intact, but the memories are gone” (Smith 190). Nostromo has thoroughly assimilated into his new land, and for him a return to Europe would be a return to a childhood he hates, which not even his present despair can transform into a false nostalgic image. Within Nostromo, the bourgeoisie of Sulaco - Martin Decoud, Charles
Gould, Emilia Gould, Giorgio Viola — express themselves primarily in historical terms, whereas Nostromo, the only character of prominence from the working-class - albeit the white settler and immigrant class rather than the natives - conceives his reality in terms of legend. This is the provisional thesis on which this chapter began. For Nostromo, the legend of the gringos of the Azuera is one of the many legends that haunts him, the chief legend being of course that of his own reputation and renown. As Erdinast-Vulcan argued above, the Nostromo in this passage is one who has been reborn, and the Capataz de
Cargadores has died. So with a new birth and new identity, Nostromo has license to shift his perspective from legend to history. He can now move himself away from being the 82
“natural man” to becoming a Costaguanero marked, shaped, and defined by history, who
- like the Goulds and the Hernandez bandits, Senor Mitchell, and other figures - can interpret, exploit, and develop their present by means of historical engagement.
Instead, Nostromo enters himself into a new legend with a new origin and identity. The rear-gaze towards Europe is his final farewell to his old-self. The new origins for the Capataz are indeed the loss of the silver shipment from the cargo-lighter, and the belated discovery of the missing cache on the island where Decoud is stranded, with two missing silver bars that, unknown to Nostromo, were used as weights by the
Frenchmen to drown his corpse after shooting himself on a floating dinghy. We learn of
Decoud’s suicide from a brief flashback within the events of the text. We are told his final fate where he mutters in his thoughts, “I wonder how that Capataz died” (Conrad
396). Then we see one of the most explicit authorial interjections within the action of the text:
A victim of the disillusioned weariness which is the retribution meted out
to intellectual audacity, the brilliant Don Martin Decoud, weighted by the
bars of San Tome silver, disappeared without a trace, swallowed up in the
immense indifference of things...and for a while the spirits of good and
evil that hover near every concealed treasure of the earth might have
thought that this one had been forgotten by all mankind. Then, after a few
days, another form appeared.. .And the spirits of good and evil that hover 83
about a forbidden treasure understood well that the silver of San Tome
was provided now with a faithful and lifelong slave (Conrad 396).
For most of Nostromo, Conrad maintains the dichotomy of dense realistic historical description with a highly symbolic metaphysical subtext, interfusing both at various moments. In this scene, however, Conrad’s authorial voice espouses a legendary tenor.
The phrase “the spirits of good and evil” replaces the earlier refrain of “material interests” shared by Charles and Emilia Gould and their coterie. We know that this is the moment that the Capataz de Cargadores selects to become a thief who will “grow rich very slowly” (Conrad 397). Yet this is also the moment where he chooses to go by his real historical name of Giovanni Batista Fidanza. The closing moment of the novel, its epilogue which takes place after a significant passage of time, follows the activities of the rich Captain Fidanza, a merchant sailor and political activist who participates in party gatherings of socialists in the post-revolutionary independent state of Sulaco, while secretly stealing small ingots of silver from the cache on which he builds his fortune without suspicion or reproach (Conrad 403-404).
At the precise moment when Fidanza claims his historical identity, Nostromo after maintaining a strong divide between the historical and the legendary throughout the book, leans towards the legendary in its narrative as if it was unable to see its central figure any other way, as if it could not accept the corruption of the Capataz to “material interests.”
The final end of Fidanza is tawdry, involving as it does the disguise of criminal activity of embezzling and money laundering. This swindle is followed by the scandal of a love 84
triangle with Viola’s daughters leading to his accidental death at the hands of Giorgio
Viola, who had mistaken him for another of his daughter’s suitors. The vanity of the old
Capataz returns in one final scene where he attempts a deathbed confession of his theft of the silver to Emilia Gould who, on hearing of his confession, keeps his secret shame hidden as a final mercy.
Among the most lucid thoughts voiced by Nostromo in his final moments is his belief that, he died betrayed but he is unable to articulate who his betrayer was (Conrad
441). Harold Bloom identifies the traitor as Nostromo himself (3). Nostromo betrayed himself in service to others, and then himself in service to his own need for a legend, a new one to replace the old one. This new legend is nothing less than a desire to supplant the folk tradition of Costaguana with the gringos of the Azuera, with “the genius of the magnificent Capataz de Cargadores” which dominated “the dark gulf containing his conquests of treasure and love” (Conrad 447). When Nostromo dies the first time, he is reborn as Captain Fidanza, and when Captain Fidanza dies, he is reborn as the legend of the Capataz de Cargadores, and as such the finale of the novel is nothing less than “the sublime vindication of his life as a mythical hero” (Erdinast-Vulcan 141-142).
This reinstatement of myth at the end of Nostromo poses a major problem for critics in its attempt to resolve the novel. If Nostromo is a historical or philosophical novel, then the accession of Nostromo to “the role of principal hero, for instance, is very disconcerting to strictly political interpretations...With its political course charted anew,
Sulaco ought to retain stage center instead of playing a supporting role in a semi- 85
conventional story of covert passion and mistaken death” (Said Beginnings 134). For
Guerard, the real Nostromo, “the book one remembers, and the book critics talk about, has largely been achieved by the beginning of Part III” (Guerard 204). He regards the character of Nostromo as the book’s “lost subject” (Guerard 204). Peter Smith considers
Nostromo a man of action whose outward actions and interior thoughts are one and the same, and regards him, like Bloom, as a Homeric figure, with his obsession for fame and renown as a laborer similar to the soldiers and warriors of The Iliad. This default to classicism is seen by Smith as a way for Conrad to eschew any definite progressive view on the development of class and race relations (Smith 212-213).
This judgment that favors the grand narrative of Sulaco over that of Nostromo broaches the real divides and issues expressed and contained within the book. For Said,
Nostromo’s death leaves behind “a silent world of immense, empty spaces across which floats an incoherent cry symbolizing mankind’s inarticulate sadness for itself’
(Beginnings 136). Nostromo’s death, coming as it does not in a heroic moment at the height of revolution and adventure, but rather in the accidental and indifferent world of peace in which the novel ends, becomes then a way for Conrad to pronounce judgment on the new liberated Sulaco and the peace that is the consummation of decades of revolution, corruption, and ill-gotten gains. This judgment is ironic, skeptical, and unresolved. Conrad, as noted by Ian Watt, is perhaps not a progressive writer but he is an
“improving” writer who recognizes “the historical scene’s dedication to change, and the 86
permanent and somehow triumphant immobility of the natyral scene” (Watt Joseph
Conrad, Nostromo 79-80).
Nostromo’s true tragedy and pathos is precisely in his realization of the alienation, exploitation, and exile that increases with his greater material success that progresses throughout the narrative, “allowing him to be aware of his existence beyond that of conventional society” and that “He must bear the burden of slavery to the silver that also belongs to Sulaco, although he alone is selected to feel this burden” (Said
Beginnings 134-135). 87
The century that separates The Monk (1796) and Nostromo (1904) is a century of historical and aesthetic revolution. Yet one can observe the continuity of the same problems in representing reality. This continuity becomes most apparent when one considers it from the standpoint of two original works, products of exile and a world- historical imagination. Both these original works are products of an international outlook that mixes the traditions of high and low culture, the experimental and the popular, the folkloric and the avant-garde.
Placed in tandem, it becomes possible to see the historical and the contemporary in a gothic novel like The Monk, and the gothic and the fantastic in Nostromo. The principle discovery of this thesis, as a result of the research undertaken in earnest to cover both texts, is the relative nature of categories, whereby the gothic, far from the remote, provincial, fad of the late eighteenth century, is revealed to have essential continuities with the historical novel. The gothic then resurfaces through the historical novel, albeit repressed within the traditions of Romantic nationalism by means of the process of rigidification of style identified by Auerbach. After this repression of the originally democratizing tendency identified by Auerbach, it then resurfaces within twentieth- century modernism. Nostromo, with its legends of buried treasure which haunts the title character even as historical events transforms the world around him, is a more serious realization of the burlesqued supernatural of the legend of the Bleeding Nun in The
Both books likewise pay tribute to the original nature of the novel form, and its great humanist contribution to the democratization of literature across languages, boundaries, and borders. The novel, that “most translatable of genres” in works like The
Monk and especially Nostromo, is able to articulate a dense and multicultural worldview that engenders the development of constant originality, accommodating a number of variations and styles, accessible to the amateur (like the young twenty-one-year-old
“Monk” Lewis) and the late-bloomer (Joseph Conrad).
This thesis likewise calls attention to the broader view of representation in prose fiction that existed well before the development and outline of more rigid groupings of authors, books, genres, and periods. By the method of parallel contrast, explication of text, and close readings in dialogue with existing critical commentary, it becomes possible to enrich the pre-existing tradition by means of dialogue with a larger worldview. The debates of the eighteenth century and the development of the novel can in the correct context illuminate problems of fiction of the early twentieth century, and possibly any other era. Like Auerbach, like Conrad and Lewis, it rejects a single linear development of history and culture and tradition, believing that the process of development rests in the contingent, personal, and accidental dimensions of human experience rather than the static pillars of existing tradition and cultural inheritance. 89
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