Saturday, October 14, 2017

Religion in Gothic Literature

By Wendy Fall, Marquette University

Christianity and the idea of religion in general is explored in the Gothic through its presences and absences. Sometimes in the Gothic, religion is evaluated in terms of its relative deviation from rationality, which was a valued attribute for the new definitions of the proper English person. Methodists, for example, who were too passionate and exhibited too much fervor in their religious ecstasies, therefore Methodism wasn't good for the proper English person. The Gothic also explored religion in terms of history, critiquing the reasoning for the crusades, inflating the horrors of the inquisition in service of anti-Catholic rhetoric, comparing the strength of Christian piety to demonic temptation, and questioning the role of religion in education.

The obvious early example of a Gothic novel investigating religion is Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796). The setting of most of the story is the Church of the Capuchins and its associated monastery, which is separated from a convent by a garden and cemetery. Crypts beneath the church allow the most despicable acts to occur beneath the feet of the faithful. While God seems to be absent, Lucifer himself shows up at the end to take credit for most of the wickedness in the novel. Members of the clergy are powerless due to their distance (the Pope), evil due to their vindictive cruelty (the Abbess), complicit in widespread terrorism (the inquisitors) or violent in their sexual depravities (Ambrosio). Practices of the clergy in The Monk sometimes seem to border on paganism and idolatry, in that they focus overmuch on physical and expensive representations of religious icons, such as Ambrosio's painting of the Madonna, and portray the saints similarly to the pagan gods. An example of this is the strange processional in Volume III, Chapter III:

"[The girl dressed as St. Lucia] held a golden bason in which were two eyes: Her own were covered by a velvet bandage, and She was conducted by another Nun habited as an Angel. She was followed by St. Catherine, a palm-branch in one hand, a flaming Sword in the other: She was robed in white, and her brow was ornamented with a sparkling Diadem. After her appeared St. Genevieve, surrounded by a number of Imps, who putting themselves into grotesque attitudes, drawing her by the robe, and sporting round her with antic gestures, endeavoured to distract her attention from the Book, on which her eyes were constantly fixed. These merry Devils greatly entertained the Spectators, who testified their pleasure by repeated bursts of Laughter. The Prioress had been careful to select a Nun whose disposition was naturally solemn and saturnine."

By portraying the members of the church in this manner (and making an oblique reference to Saturnalia), Lewis evokes the pagan rites of the past, questioning the practice of religion itself as it was increasingly asked to compete for followers with other forms of truth-seeking, such as science. At the same time, he critiques their fascination with reliquaries and objects of faith that are too often also ostentatious displays of wealth. Many of Lewis' future imitators would also set their fictions against a religious backdrop, since it was fertile territory for the Gothic exploration of the supernatural and unknown, as well as its anti-Catholic project.

As the Gothic evolved, religion became more and more striking in its presence and absence in Gothic literature. In Dracula, religion features prominently in the fight against the vampire – Van Helsing, Harker and Mina frequently invoke the name of God for supernatural and divine aid against the power of Dracula. Yet, there is also a disturbing sense that God is strangely absent, or at best, distant, within the novel. God’s power seems limited – captured and contained within material shapes and symbols such as the Host, Indulgences, and the Crucifix. The men who hunt down Dracula are dependent on the trappings of religion without true substance. Religion thus becomes reduced to transferable property. In this, Stoker is similar to Lewis in his critique of religion.

God is also sidelined in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While Biblical allusions to God as Creator abound in the novel, it is always in juxtaposition to the transgression of Victor Frankenstein as the mad scientist. God is invoked only when an immediate threat is identified, as Victor laments and appeals to God to grant him the strength to defeat and destroy his monster. Christianity as the dominant religion in nineteenth century England was thoroughly interrogated and questioned, its beliefs in an Almighty God challenged as science and technology assumed prominence. Gothic authors, themselves questioning the relevance of religion, foregrounded these issues by presenting Christianity in a dubious light – present, but altogether powerless, shallow, possibly corrupt, and certainly insufficient to explain the mysteries of modern times.


Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Fong Minghui, National University of Singapore class: EN 4223 - Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The Gothic and After.

Killeen, Jarlath. Gothic Ireland: Horror and the Irish Anglican Imagination in the Long Eighteenth Century. Dublin; Portland, OR: Four Courts, 2005.