Deep South v.1 n.2 (May, 1995)
In his work Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation (1989), the French critic Jacques Catteau refers to the novel as a "barbaric art"; he claims it is an art form that can readily assimilate both "civilised and elaborate genres." The novel, he argues, is always "open to new forms, without worrying about ranks and rules" (p. 52). Dostoevsky's central importance to the development of the novel, insists Catteau, lies in his instinctive recognition of the form's malleability. In his major novels, Dostoevsky is able to unify what the critic calls a vast "pluralism of forms" (p. 53). In the typical Dostoevskyan novel, there is no "single triumphant highway"; there is, rather, a "maze of paths, a network of disparate forms" (p. 53). Dostoevsky's creative achievement, Catteau urges, lies in his ability to synthesize divergent genres such as tragedy and burlesque, political writing and comedy, within single works. One has only to consider a novel like The Devils (1871), which unites revolutionary anarchist politics with a comedy of provincial society manners, to recognize the pertinency of Catteau's observations.
In the same connection, it is interesting to point to Peter Kemp's broad, yet detailed synopsis of Conrad's creative method. In a 1991 Times Literary Supplement review, Kemp defines Conrad's achievement in terms of his ability to weld divergent literary genres into an artistic whole. Many critics, Kemp argues, have found that Conrad's fiction is
riddled with heterogeneity, a strange composite of romance and scepticism, action yarn and metaphysical obstruseness. Some of Conrad's narratives seem fashioned, as he said of 'Youth', Out of the boy's adventure story'; others derive from sailors' talk heard in Far East harbour offices or amid the click of billiard-balls in waterfront saloons thick with the smoke of cheroots. Into such robust stuff, however, he infiltrates fine-spun strands of philosophical and pyschological speculation . . . Conrad's fiction characteristically oscillates between contraries. (Kemp, p. 4)
In his persuasive account of Conrad's fictional world, Kemp identifies a number of literary forms -- the adventure yarn, the romance story, the psychological and the metaphysical tale -- all of which have been recognized as independent genres in the history and development of the novel itself. Like Catteau's appraisal of Dostoevsky, Kemp suggests that Conrad's primary achievement is his genius in unifying such diverse elements.
Though the critical establishment has long since labelled both artists as psychological, even political novelists, Conrad and Dostoevsky are also authors of what is usually called 'popular' fiction. Under this broad, notoriously problematic heading, are included such independent genres as 'adventure, thriller and detective writing'; 'romance' literature; and Gothic fiction.' Each of these literary forms, I would argue, can be claimed to exist in Conrad and Dostoevsky's complex fictional worlds. It is the world of 'Gothic' fiction that I shall focus on.
Whilst Dostoevsky's novels are recognizably Gothic in character, terming Conrad a Gothic artist might at first seem unusual, even perverse. By scrutinizing his shorter fiction, however, I hope to show that Conrad is not only an expert practioner of the Gothic form, but that much of his work refines, even extends, the original tradition. Firstly, however, it is important to identify the characteristic features of Gothic art, before establishing its significant place and function in each novelist's world.
The Gothic novel had its genesis in English fiction in the later half of the 18th century. It is generally agreed that Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) represents the first Gothic text. Walpole's novel established the general pattern the form was to take for many decades to come. The sensational popularity of The Castle of Otranto (1764) gave rise to its group of imitators, and a literary movement that became known as the Gothic School. Foremost among the later Gothic writers were Ann Radcliffe, whose novels The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) are particularly important. It should be noted that both Conrad and Dostoevsky remained great admirers of Mrs. Radcliffe throughout their literary careers. Other notable examples of the Gothic novel are Matthew Lewis' outstanding The Monk (1798), William Beckford's Vathek (1786), and Mary Shelley's somewhat later Frankenstein (1818).
The early Gothic novel was an extraordinarily popular form. Writing in 1797, one observer comments that the "Otranto Ghosts have propagated their species with unequalled fecundity. The spawn is in every novel shop" (Napier, p. viii). Many leading literary figures of the day adopted a deeply disdainful attitude towards the new literary sensation. In Waverley (1814), Sir Walter Scott makes a barbed reference to the Radcliffe school of writers, with its debased taste for "bandits, caverns, dungeons, inquisitors, trap-doors, ruins, secret passages, soothsayers, and all the usual accoutrements" (p. 33) (my emphasis). Perhaps the single most scathing indictment of Gothic art, however, must remain Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818).
Despite this sort of hostility, it cannot be denied that the Gothic novel was the truly popular form of its day. In her illuminating work The Failure of the Gothic (1987), Elizabeth Napier calculates that at least one-third of the novels published in Great Britain between 1796 and 1806 were Gothic in character. By 1805, the popular magazines devoted the greater part of their space to short or serialized Gothic fiction. This initial success has not proved to be a short-lived phenomenon. The form has remained immensely popular. The works of Stephen King amply testify to the reading public's continued, undiminished fascination with Gothic writing. Though still a distinct literary genre within twentieth century literature, the form has perhaps found a new and yet wider expression in the world of the cinema.
In attempting to define the essential nature of Gothic art, Elizabeth Napier argues that it is possible to dismantle, to deconstruct, the entire Gothic experience. "Gothicism", she writes, is "finally much less about evil . . . than it is a standardized, absolutely formulaic system of creating a certain kind of atmosphere in which a reader's sensibility towards fear and terror is exercised in predictable ways" (p. 29). According to Napier, a number of exact formulas, a number of characteristic elements, can be identified in all primary Gothic fiction.
The most important, single element of the Gothic novel is its overwhelming atmosphere of menace and brooding terror. This mood is usually evoked before the appearance of the central protagonists, and characteristically achieved by creating profoundly threatening landscapes. According to one critic, the early Gothic writers typically forged a landscape which became "a grotesque vision of hell" (Joslin, p. 87). Right up to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), Gothic novelists developed the initial sense of menace using an almost unvarying formula. Writers would traditionally invoke sublime mountainous landscapes; at the top of some wild, inaccessible pass, they would place a formidable half-ruined castle or crumbling abbey. By definition, creating these menacing landscapes meant locating the action in bizarre or alien settings. It was typical for the early Gothic novel to remove the reader from the everyday and ordinary, and place him or her in strange locations, normally the high wildernesses of Spain or Italy. In the eighteenth century, this was done to "capitalize upon the fear and superstitution" usually associated with the "strangely alien . . . Latin and Iberian temperaments" (Joslin, p. 13). Furthermore, it was vital to isolate, to insulate, the action from any possible interference from normal society.
In this specific context, it is perhaps surprising to find Conrad employing such traditional Gothic techniques to create an atmosphere of imminent terror. However, a short story like The Inn of the Two Witches' (1915) provides a clear revelation of Conrad's acquaintance with and understanding of Gothicism in its most basic form. In this tale, Conrad charts the story of Edgar Bryne and his search for a young seaman, Tom Corbin, who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Significantly setting his action in a remote region of early nineteenth century Spain, Conrad readily adopts a number of Gothic conventions aimed at creating a mood of initial terror. A sense of brooding oppression is achieved by Conrad's references to the "wild, gloomy sky" and the "rank", "stony", and "dreary" nature of the surrounding landscape (Within the Tides, p. 138). As Edgar Bryne's search intensifies, the Gothic atmosphere heightens correspondingly. Stumbling on a remote hamlet, Conrad's narrative notes that it is "hidden in a fold in the ground", in a spot which "seemed the most lonely corner of the earth and as if accursed in its uninhabited barrenness" (p. 139). In such passages Conrad's language, with its heavy adjectival stress, is ideally suited to the Gothic form, which by definition demands linguistic intensification or exaggeration.
Developing on these early narrative sequences, Conrad slowly evolves his fictional world into the realms of true Gothic nightmare. His Spanish landscape assumes an increasingly hostile, evil character. Alone in the wild, Byrne is said to toil "against wind and rain, on a barren dark upland, under a sky of ashes. Far away the harsh and desolate mountains raising their scarped and denuded ridges seemed to wait for him menacingly" (p. 145). In characteristic Gothic fashion, Conrad's landscape has become "a grotesque vision of hell" (Joslin, p. 87). When Byrne finally reaches his destination, it is significant to note the suggestion of supernatural terror implicit in Conrad's description of the Witches' Inn. The house, we are told, seems
as though it had risen from the ground or had come gliding to meet him, dumb and pallid, from some dark recess of the night. (Within The Tides, pp. 146-7)
Byrne's first sight of the eponymous Inn closes this clearly defined Gothic prelude. In all respects, Conrad's opening narrative sequence in The Inn of the Two Witches'(1915) follows well-established Gothic formulas designed to create a mood of initial terror. In a number of ways, I would argue, Byrne's progress towards the Inn recalls the narrator's sinister journey towards the Usher estate in Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839).
Though a significant example, 'The Inn of the Two Witches' (1915) is certainly not an isolated instance of Conrad's use of Gothic formulas. In many of his major texts, he exploits remote, hostile landscapes to create atmospheres of brooding terror. In fact, Conrad might be claimed to have extended the original boundaries of the form, taking the Gothic novel out of its traditional Italian or Spanish setting, and relocating it in Central Africa or the Tropics. For Conrad's contemporary audience, these exotic regions were as unknown as Southern Europe had been for the majority of eighteenth century English readers. By turning from the traditional landscapes of earlier Gothic fiction, Conrad in effect creates a new stage for the world of menace and terror. In 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), for example, one critic refers to the "powerful impact of the setting" with its "aura of nightmarish . . . gloom" (Joslin, p. 148), and adds significantly that its effect is as "startling as any created in a recognized Gothic novel" (p. 163). To produce an atmosphere of growing menace prior to the appearance of Kurtz, Conrad exposes Marlow to an African jungle that seems peculiarly Gothic in its sense of brooding malice. At the Central Station, Marlow first acknowledges the power of the wilderness that surrounds him. The forest, he relates
stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of the lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one's very heart -- its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life . . . The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver -- over the rank grass, over the mud, over the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly without a murmur. All this was great, expectant . . . I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity . . . were meant as an appeal or a menace. (p. 81)
Irrespective of the African location, Conrad's passage seems as essentially Gothic as any disquieting moonlit landscape we might encounter in Ann Radcliffe's writing. As Marlow journeys further, Conrad develops this frightening aspect of the interior, creating a profound sense of fear and uncertainty. Fighting his way upstream, Marlow becomes aware of the "implacable", "brooding face" of the wilderness. In Conrad's narrative the jungle is realized as a living entity with an "inscrutable", malicious "intention". The forest, Marlow says, "looked at you with a vengeful aspect" (p. 93). It is significant to note how it is said to close over the shabby Eldorado Exploring Expedition' "as the sea closes over a diver", leaving no trace (p. 92). A large number of references to the "towering multitude of trees", to the rioting vegetation, all intensify the sense of suffocating oppression and gloom (p. 101). Like many Gothic protagonists before him, Marlow comes to recognize his vulnerability, his human littleness, in the face of this immense, hostile, alien landscape.
In his so-called 'Eastern' novels and tales Conrad's tropical landscapes perform a similarly Gothic function. Like the dark woods of the traditional folk or fairy tale, Conrad's tropical forests represent a world of sinister menace. Though works such as Almayer's Folly (1895) and Lord Jim (1900) have long been admired for their detailed realizations of exotic landscapes, Conrad's lavish descriptions can never be claimed to be wholly realistic. Like his Africa, Conrad's Eastern Islands are typically characterized as places of profound darkness. Even the briefest survey of his own 'Congo Diary' proves that Africa -- like the Tropics -- is of course a region of intense, blazing light. Conrad consistently subverts reality to achieve atmospheric, often sinister effects. In the 'Eastern' novels and stories, he typically evokes a dark underworld of tormented and twisted vegetation. In a representative early tale such as 'The Lagoon' (1898), Conrad's narrator is exposed to a hostile, even phantasmagoriac world. Mooring his boat in a narrow creek, itself described as "tortuous, fabulously deep . . . [and] filled with gloom" (p. 188), the narrator details a scene of impressive menace:
Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated between the thick and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests. ('The Lagoon', Tales of Unrest, pp. 188-9)
Subject to this intimidating environment, Conrad's narrator can be claimed to have entered a recognizably Gothic world, a realm where nature and landscape become palpable foes. Indeed Conrad's stress on the reverberating darkness, the almost evil animation of the trees, is strikingly Gothic in its whole conception. Furthermore in this passage, it is significant to point to what Ian Watt calls Conrad's characteristic "inflation of language" (Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, p. 46). His lavish imagery -- so typical in his descriptions of Africa and the Tropics -- creates an immediate sense of apprehension, and plays a major role in evoking a mood of fear and terror. "Descriptive extravagance", as one critic puts it, is the "hallmark" of all Gothic writers (Joslin, p. 92).
In essential respects, Conrad can be seen to manipulate his exotic landscapes to promote moods of dread and oppression. Yet the innate Gothicism of Conrad's writing is not limited to these sinister evocations of the Tropics and of Africa. 'Conrad's Sea' becomes as strangely mysterious and as powerfully moving as the awesome castles and the sublime mountains of the conventional terror novel. In Conrad's novels, the sea is never depicted as merely an inanimate body of water; from complete calm, it can rapidly assume the qualities of a raging beast, or become a brooding, malevolent foe. In The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) for example, Conrad's lurid description of the novel's central storm is peculiarly Gothic both in its extravagance, and its evil animation of the sea:
A fierce squall seemed to burst asunder the thick mass of sooty vapours; and above the wrack of torn clouds glimpses could be caught of the high moon rushing backwards with frightful speed over the sky, right into the wind's eye. Many [seamen] hung their heads, muttering that it 'turned their innards out' to look at it. Soon the clouds closed up and the world became a raging, blind darkness that howled, flinging at the lonely ship salt sprays and sleet. About half-past seven the pitchy obscurity round us turned a ghastly grey, and we knew that the sun had risen. This unnatural and threatening daylight, in which we could see one another's wild eyes and drawn faces, was only an added tax on our endurance. The horizon seemed to have come on all sides within arm's length of the ship. Into that narrowed circle furious seas leaped in, struck, and leaped out. A rain of salt heavy drops flew aslant like a mist. (pp. 55-6)
As in many of his novels, Conrad's tempests become hellish, even apocalyptic visions. But it is significant to note how Conrad's core imagery in this passage is almost entirely derived. The "howling" gales, the sickly "ghastly grey" sunrise, the enclosing horizon, are all well-established Gothic formulas. With only a few alterations, we might easily transplant Conrad's storm from its original context, and have it harrowing the inmates of some mouldering, medieval monastery. The extraordinary seastorms of Conrad's fiction -- so central to works like The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) and 'Typhoon' (1903) -- are, I believe, essentially Gothic in their language and their dramatic effect.
It is notable that even Conrad's tranquil seascapes can assume distinct Gothic identities. In The Shadow Line (1917), Conrad's young Captain comes to regard the Gulf of Siam as a wily and malevolent force. Effectively imprisoned by its placid waters, he becomes increasingly aware that an evil adversary is blocking his ship's onward progress. "Mysterious currents", he muses,
drifted us here and there, with a stealthy power made manifest by the changing vistas of the islands fringing the east shore of the Gulf. And there were winds too, fitful and deceitful. They raised hopes only to dash them into the bitterest disappointment, promises of advance ending in lost ground, expiring in sighs, dying into dumb stillness in which currents had it all their own way -- their own inimical way. (pp. 83-4)
The Gulf becomes an ideal Gothic location for Conrad's ship, haunted, according to the character Burns, by the dying curse of its former captain. The Gulf becomes an animate agent of evil; it is a sinister region as oppressive and frightening as any haunted graveyard.
This brief survey of Conrad's fiction tends, I feel, to overturn a number of basic critical preconceptions regarding the novelist's innovatory artistic methods. Whilst Conrad certainly remains a modernist writer, he can clearly be seen to employ a number of eighteenth century Gothic formulas in his fiction, summoning sinister land or sea scapes to create atmospheres of fear and uncertainty.
Though Gothicism plays an important role in Dostoevsky's fictional world, it is not initially evoked through narrative accounts of bizarre or exotic locations. Landscape, in the traditional sense, plays virtually no part in Dostoevsky's fiction. Descriptions of the natural world are noticeably absent in his writing. When they do occur -- as in the passages describing Stephan Verkhovensky's final flight in The Devils (1871) -- they exist solely to mirror deeper psychological states within Dostoevsky's protagonists. In essence, Dostoevsky is a writer of the city; his landscapes are predominantly urban and human. Like Dickens' London, Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg can assume a fantastic, sometimes diabolical identity. His vast tenements with their twisting, unlit stairwells, cast a profoundly disturbing shadow over characters and events in novels like Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Idiot (1869). "'There are few places'", Svidrigailov comments in the former work, "'where you'll find so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of man as in Petersburg'" (trans. Magarshack, p. 439). In many senses, Svidrigailov's remark highlights the essentially Gothic identity of Dostoevsky's often nightmarish city. As Donald Fanger has noted, the St. Petersburg of Crime and Punishment (1866) is the ideal Gothic backdrop for Raskolnikov's horrific axemurders of the old pawnbroker and her sister (p. 207).
The St. Petersburg of The Idiot (1869) similarly highlights the Gothic aspects of Dostoevsky's art. The opening paragraph of the novel suggests that Prince Myshkin, Rogozhin and Lebedev are all entering a recognizably Gothic world:
At about nine o'clock in the morning at the end of November, during a thaw, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed. It was so damp and foggy that it was a long time before it grew light, and even then it was difficult to distinguish out of the carriage windows anything a few yards to the right and left of the railway track. (trans. Magarshack, p. 31)
Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg is not merely fogbound; it is blurred, unresolved. Though it is early morning, night still effectively shrouds the scene. This unnatural detail immediately defines a mood of uncertainty and oppression. Furthermore, it is significant to note that Dostoevsky employs a traditional Gothic formula towards the end of this opening sequence. "Everyone's face", the narrative notes, is "pale and yellow, the colour of the fog" (p. 31). The spectral associations conjured by this image are obvious. In choosing to open The Idiot (1869) in this particular way, it seems that Dostoevsky's aim is to establish St. Petersburg as a place of fear and dread. And later in the novel the city does assume a profoundly nightmarish quality. As Prince Myshkin wanders through the streets of St. Petersburg in Part Two, he is not merely followed; he is haunted by Rogozhin.
In addition to this atmosphere of terror, it is possible to distinguish a number of peculiarly Gothic landmarks within Dostoevsky's urban landscape. The interior of Rogozhin's house, for example, closely resembles the interior of the archetypal castle or monastery of Gothic fiction, despite the city location. Following established Gothic traditions, the house is a veritable maze of chambers and twisting corridors. Prince Myshkin, we are told, is led through a "number of tiny rooms, turning again and again round corners, going up two or three steps and going down as many" (p. 242). Myshkin's immediate disorientation within the confines of the house produces a mood of intense apprehension, a mood not dispelled by the discovery of Rogozhin's gloomy quarters. Rogozhin's room, the narrative stresses, is particularly "dark and grimy", cluttered with heavy ledgers and imposing furniture. That most familiar of Gothic stageprops, the oil painting of the family elder, occupies a suitably prominent position. The canvas of Rogozhin's father, Myshkin notes, depicts an austere and menacing man, a man with a "yellow wrinkled face, and a pair of suspicious, mournful eyes" (p. 244). In most Gothic novels, the gloomy, often dilapidated condition of the hero-villain's estate is itself an accurate reflection of the protagonist's tormented psychological state. In The Idiot (1869) this same Gothic association between house and character is clearly intended. Myshkin is quick to draw a parallel between the gloomy house and Rogozhin's brooding nature. "'Your house', the Prince reflects,'has the appearance of the whole of your family and the whole of your Rogozhin way of life . . . Its so dark here . . . you dwell in darkness'. (p. 244)
And Myshkin is not the only character to draw attention to the Gothic aspect of Rogozhin's house. Writing to Aglaya, Nastasya makes a melodramatic reference to its sinister nature. It is, she comments,'sinister and gloomy, and there is a secret in it . . . All the time I was in their house I could not help thinking that somewhere under the floor-boards there was a dead man hidden'. (p. 502)
With horrible irony, Ippolit also draws a similar association, terming Rogozhin's house a "'graveyard'" (p. 453). In essential respects, Dostoevsky creates an archetypal Gothic location for Nastasya's murder, right in the heart of his contemporary St. Petersburg.
It is also worth pointing to the unnamed hotel Myshkin stays at on his return to St. Petersburg in Part Two of the novel. As the scene for Rogozhin's attempted murder of the Prince, it functions as an important dramatic backdrop within Dostoevsky's narrative. Like Rogozhin's house, the hotel is characterized as a place of darkness; it is a building that Myshkin finds entirely loathsome. Significantly, the hotel harbours that most characteristic of Gothic locations, the winding ill-lit staircase. The staircase hiding a murderous adversary had long been recognized as an established Gothic formula, a veritable cliche of terror fiction, by the time Dostoevsky had completed his novel in 1869. Irrespective of this, the writer employs this stock item of Gothic mansionery to significant effect, substantially heightening the mood of terror. "As in all old houses", the sequence begins, "the staircase was of stone. Dark and narrow, it twisted round a thick . . . column" (p. 271). As Myshkin emerges from the storm outside and proceeds up the darkened stairwell, the scene -- despite its urban setting -- strongly recalls a similar passage in The Castle of Otranto (1764). In true Gothic style, Rogozhin hides in "something like a niche" in the stairwell, a cavity "not more than a yard wide and about eighteen inches deep" (p. 271). One has only to consider the similar function darkened staircases perform in Crime and Punishment (1866) -- they figure in all Raskolnikov's entrances and exits from the flat of the vile, old pawnbroker -- to realize that Dostoevsky's inner city has a significant Gothic identity.
As well as the architecture of the Gothic novel, the Gothic storm features in Dostoevsky's urban world. The storm has long been regarded as a generic characteristic of the Gothic novel. As I have already noted, Conrad's sea storms have a descriptive extravagance that recalls Mrs. Radcliffe's pioneering method in novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Although Dostoevsky does not make extensive use of the storm, his urban tempests do assume a distinct Gothic identity. The storm which forms the background to Rogozhin's attempted murder of Myshkin in The Idiot (1869) achieves a familiar, apocalyptic quality. "The storm-cloud", Dostoevsky's narrative recounts, "covered the whole sky and blotted out the evening light." In traditional Gothic fashion, the storm breaks the precise moment the Prince approaches, "the rain coming down in torrents" (p. 270). Rather than a realistic detail, Dostoevsky's storm functions more as a dramatic decoration to the action, significantly heightening the mood or fear and terror. In Crime and Punishment (1866) Dostoevsky follows a similar Gothic strategy in detailing Svidrigailov's suicide, a St. Petersburg storm acting as the backdrop to Svidrigailov's nightmares and final hours at the end of the novel. But the influence of the Gothic school on Dostoevsky's creative method is not the only consideration here; there is also the more immediate impact of Dickens to consider. The urban storm plays an important role in many of Dickens' novels, heralding, for instance, Magwitch's dramatic return to London in Great Expectations (1861). Though the subject falls outside the boundaries of my current discussion, it is important to acknowledge that Dostoevsky's vision of the city owes much to Dickens' significant use of Gothic formulas.
Though I have concentrated on Dostoevsky's Gothicization of the city, I want to comment briefly on Conrad's celebrated vision of London in The Secret Agent (1907). In his Author's Note' to the novel, Conrad uses a number of traditional Gothic formulas to detail his fictionalized city. As with Dostoevsky, the influence of Dickens is much in evidence. In typical Gothic fashion, Conrad's landscape assumes a hostile, partly evil identity. London is seen as an "enormous . . . monstrous town", a "cruel devourer of the world's light." At the close of the passage, Conrad employs what is clearly a sepulchral image. His fictionalized city becomes effectively an immense urban graveyard, a place where there is "darkness enough to bury five millions of lives" (p. xii). The adjectival extravagance of Conrad's vision seems almost enough to assure it an independent Gothic identity, irrespective of content.
I hope to have shown that Conrad and Dostoevsky utilize Gothic models and archetypes to create oppressive or sinister effects in their fiction. As I have said, one can draw significant parallels between Conrad's exotic African and Eastern landscapes, and the European landscapes of the early Gothic writers. But Conrad effectively extends the geographical boundaries of the Gothic form beyond its traditional Iberian or Italian location. In the same way, his extravagant seastorms recall the narrative hyperbole of the Gothic novel's Alpine or mountain storm. In Dostoevsky's fictional world, the architectural landscapes of the genre -- its gloomy buildings, its darkened staircases and tortuous passageways -- are much in evidence, only relocated to a modern urban setting.
Yet despite its paramount importance, landscape and setting could be regarded as essentially a cosmetic, even decorative aspect of Gothic fiction. The most central characteristic of the genre must be the Gothic hero-villain himself. The critic Michael Joslin claims that it is possible to identify a number of characterizing features in the archetypal Gothic villain. "Power, both of purpose and mind", he writes, is the "basic trait" of all Gothic protagonists. This positive characteristic has, however, been invariably perverted to evil ends. The true Gothic villain, Joslin argues,has the capacity to benefit mankind greatly but because of his desires or because of some blighting check given to his moral development, he exerts his might only to achieve his selfish ambitions. (p. 17)
The critic cites Bram Stoker's Dracula as a classic example of one such character. The vampire hunter Van Helsing makes particular reference to the Count's illustrious past. Dracula, Van Helsing reflects, was once the cleverest as well as the bravest of men, a noble individual with a mighty brain and an iron resolution. It is this wilful perversion of extraordinary personal ability that is instrumental in creating the terror and awe associated with both the Gothic villain, and the genre itself.
By applying this critical interpretation, it is possible to draw a number of significant parallels between Joslin's archetypal Gothic villain, and leading protagonists in both Conrad and Dostoevsky's fiction. In 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), Conrad's Kurtz might easily be defined as a major Gothic character. Like Stoker's Dracula, he possesses extraordinary personal abilities, abilities that might be directed towards entirely philanthropic ends. Conrad's narrative consistently alludes to Kurtz's genius; he is a gifted painter, an inspired musician, a formidable writer. A natural leader, Kurtz possesses enormous oratorical skills; his unusual eloquence can, and does, convert others to his ideas and beliefs. In characterisitic Gothic fashion, however, Kurtz abuses his profound natural abilities to perpetrate the most appalling crimes.
A similarly powerful, yet distorted intellect can be observed in Dostoevsky's Stavrogin. As the critic Michael Katz comments,many characters spout ideological convictions expounded by Stavrogin at some previous stage in his life. The landscape [of The Devils (1871)] is strewn with disciples . . . clinging to the vestiges of his thought. (p. Xi)
Shatov, Kirillov, and Verkhovensky all claim that Stavrogin has exerted a profound, shaping influence on their fundamental values and beliefs. Shatov's Slavophilism, Kirillov's Nietzschean individualism, Verkhovensky's pseudo-anarchist ideology, are all said to originate in heated debates with Stavrogin; he has, so each man claims, converted them to their respective causes long before the novel begins. Though Stavrogin's intellect easily embraces such diverse ethical systems, he cannot, and does not adopt them. Like the archetypal Gothic villain, he toys with philosophies, as if they are amusing playthings, finally distorting or subverting them to evil ends. Stavrogin abuses, for example, the sacred rite of Orthodox Confession, when he uses it as a platform to celebrate his sexual depravity at his meeting with Father Tikhon. Like Kurtz, his formidable natural abilities are perverted to entirely negative and destructive purposes.
But prior to the full emergence of this evil identity, the Gothic hero-villain is usually characterized as a profoundly enigmatic figure. The Gothic novelist traditionally feeds the reader with tantalizing bits of information designed to invest his villain with a sinister, darkly charismatic identity. Van Helsing's references to Dracula's enigmatic history are, for example, particularly instumental in making Stoker's vampire a fascinating character 'per se'. This enigmatizing process, so central to the Gothic idiom, is clearly evident in Conrad and Dostoevsky's realizations of Kurtz and Stavrogin. In Heart of Darkness' (1899), an intense aura of mystery surrounds the character and motives of Kurtz. The central station is full of strange, often disturbing rumours regarding this "remarkable person" (p. 19). As Paul O'Prey notes, a "fog of insistent vagueness" circumscribes Conrad's antagonist (p. 20). For Marlow, the name of Kurtz begins to exert a sinister fascination, a fascination that is communicated to the reader. In The Devils (1871), strange, often contradictory rumours reach Varvara Petrovna regarding her son's bizarre lifestyle in St. Petersburg. Just prior to his return home, Stavrogin's unusual character becomes the topic of fevered speculation in Skvoreshniki high society. "The whole town", Dostoevsky's narrator tells us, is possessed by "the idea that his [Stavrogin's] soul might harbour a fatal secret"; some people, Govorov adds, "positively relished the notion that he was a murderer" (trans. Katz, p. 43). As with Conrad's Kurtz, Dostoevsky constructs a complex web of intrigue around his central antagonist, long before he appears in the novel. And Stavrogin's actual arrival in Skvoreshniki merely intensifies the enigma. When he drags the elderly Gaganov round the room by his nose, the petty outrage seems far more than a mere prank; Stavrogin's inexplicable behaviour carries its own sinister resonance. With this action, Dostoevsky's narrator warns, "the wild beast" had "suddenly unsheathed its claws" (p. 45). In many ways, Dostoevsky's realization of Stavrogin follows a well-established Gothic pattern. Like Conrad's Kurtz, Dostoevsky's character progresses from fascinating enigma to evil genius.
In his survey of the Gothic genre, Michael Joslin identifies a further important characteristic of the form. The achetypal Gothic protagonist, Joslin claims, typically has his familiar', a grotesque, often comic foil who idolizes the hero-villain (p. 139). In Stoker's Dracula (1897), the Count has his slavish adherent in the lunatic Renfield. Stoker's madman insists that he is Dracula's servant. This devil-disciple' relationship', so characteristic of the Gothic idiom, can also be identified in Conrad and Dostoevsky's writing. Stavrogin and Kurtz both have their respective familiars. In an important passage in The Devils (1871) Peter Verkhovensky insists that Stavrogin is his "'idol'". "'You're my leader, you're my sun, and I'm your worm'", he informs Dostoevsky's antagonist in Part Two of the novel (trans. Magarshack, p. 420). Though Verkhovensky is undoubtedly an accomplished manipulator, it does seem possible to interpret many of his actions as attempts to impress or gratify Stavrogin. Verkhovensky is like an eager dog keen to please his master.
Though Rogozhin cannot be regarded as a genuine Gothic hero-villain, it is worth noting that Dostoevsky's brutal, sensual protagonist has his clownish familiar. Particularly in Part One of The Idiot (1869), the civil servent Lebedev proves slavishly faithful, offering to "'walk upside down'" for Rogozhin (p. 36). "'Thrash me and you shall have me'", he tells Semyon Parfyonovich. "'By thrashing me, you shall put your seal on me . . . " (p. 41). Rogozhin readily accepts the attention of this avaricious buffoon, and contemptuously terms Lebedev his "'leech'" (p. 38).
In 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), it is the aptly named Harlequin who acts as Kurtz's familiar. Like the archetypal Gothic villain, Conrad's antagonist treats his disciple with complete contempt, threatening to shoot him should he so desire. As Marlow notes, the Harlequin idolizes Kurtz. In Marlow's opinion, "the man [Kurtz] filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions" (Penguin ed. p. 95). Conrad's comic figure is as devoted to Kurtz as the lakeside savages who regard him as their deity.
In this essay, I have endeavoured to show how one distinct, perhaps surprising, literary genre proves to be a common and significant factor in both Conrad and Dostoevsky's fiction. Though I have concentrated on the specific issue of Gothicism, many recent critics have shown that other literary forms are common to both writers' worlds. The genres of 'adventure', 'thriller', 'romance', and 'detective' fiction are prominent and readily evident features in each author's novels. This innovative ability to successfully weld such disparate forms into their writing is, I believe, an indication of the significant bond existing between Conrad and Dostoevsky's fundamental creative processes.
WORKS CITEDAll references to Conrad's works are taken from the Dent Collected Edition (1946 - 1955), unless otherwise indicated.
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Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965).
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_____, trans. D. Magarshack. The Devils. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953)
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_____. The Italian. (Oxford: O.U.P., 1968).
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