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STOCKHOLMS ESTETISKA GYMNASIUM

American Gothic
Fiction
The uncanny aspects
Jacob Hartman
2010-11-30
The uncanny aspects of American gothic fiction

If I were to define the term “American gothic fiction”, my short answer would probably be

that it is a branch-off from the British gothic fiction, like the British gothic fiction very dark,

and very extreme in its way of depicting conflict; it is usual for conflicts to contain extreme

polarities, for example light and darkness, black and white ascriptions of evil and virtue,

which in an American context became more adapted to the ethical questions of the American

society, for example racial assumptions and identifications.1

But is it really that easy? What is it really in the American gothic fiction that made such a

mark in modern history? The two literary works I primarily will be using in my attempt to

answer this question is the two novels “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and “The yellow

wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman. We will begin by looking at the novels separately.

“The yellow wallpaper” (Charlotte P. Gillman), is a short story about a woman who due to

mental illness is forced to move away from the city and her life to a big roomy house, all

because of ordinations from her husband who happens to be a doctor. Her husband is

convinced that her condition is something physical that can be cured with some fresh air and

rest, while the woman herself is convinced that there is something more to her condition. As

time goes by, the woman starts noticing something strange about the house, especially the

yellow wallpaper in her room…2

This story describes the female main characters decline into madness, and the way that she

experiences it. It was also meant to point critique towards the treatment of women
1
American Gothic Fiction: an introduction p.6
2
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gillman
suffering from anxiety at the time, which basically depraved the mentally ill women from

their lives.3 So basically we have a Sub-theme in this story which is the female role in

psychological treatment, and the lack of understanding towards women’s need for freedom.

But how does Charlotte Perkins Gillman get this through her plot? How does she alert the

reader to such a level that he/she starts to read between the lines? Surely it must be something

that distances itself from the usual depiction of people and their lives. This question many

tries to answer by saying that it is simply the sexist suppression of the female main character

that the author uses to get her point through. Though I believe this is a far too shallow

perspective. After all, this story is about a woman who through her own extremely bizarre

way of looking at her surroundings, in a combination with her own madness starts seeing

living things inside the wallpaper. I do not really think “sexism” quite covers that spectrum. I

do not say that the feministic aspect is irrelevant (after all, Charlotte P. Gillman was one of

the main female authors at the time, and one of the best known female rights-activists of her

era). I am rather questioning whether it is the part of the story that really makes the reader

react. After all, the degrading view of the woman was considered relatively normal for this

time. I would rather say that it is the most bizarre parts in the female characters behavior and

her surroundings that triggers the reader. These all border on the uncanny. The term

“uncanny” is often used in the terms of supernatural things/beings (for example “The

Uncanny X-men”), but it can also be used to describe relations, situations or states of mind

that stray away from what is considered normal/natural. And naturally, what we react to

beyond what is considered fairly usual and normal, is the opposite, the uncanny.

“The Lottery” (Shirley Jackson) is a short story about a small village somewhere in New

England. In this village, there is like in so many other villages an annual lottery, and this short

story tells us about one of these lotteries. What at first seems like a harmless tradition turns

out to be an ancient sacrificial rite, where the so called winner of the lottery ends up being
3
Why i wrote the yellow wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gillman
4
The lottery, Shirley Jackson
stoned

to death.4 The author herself says that “the underlying goal was to shock the reader with a

graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”5

There are also others who have analyzed the text, who have found underlying critique towards

the capitalistic society from a Marxist point of view. Once again, there is something that

triggers the readers to go deeper into the plot than the plot itself. Once again, I believe that it

is the uncanny aspects, this time lying in the cannibalistic behavior of the villagers that

triggers the reader. It is a behavior we, especially during this time of industrialization and

realization, believe ourselves to have exceeded. Therefore, I believe that being mentally

ambushed in the middle of the plot by this decay into animalistic behavior is what triggers the

reader to going deeper into the plot. Of course, there is some aspects of feminism and sexism

in this story, but they are very well woven into the plot, and once again not outraging in the

same way as they are today.

I believe that the thing that identifies American Gothic Fiction the most would be the

Uncanny. But why? What is it that drives the need to use aspects

and situations beyond our reality in Gothic fiction? Perhaps it could be explained by an

increasingly industrialized and realized society. Naturalism and Realism are known to decline

the uncanny, in their strife towards creating a culture and literary perspective as close to

reality as possible. Gothic fiction would then become a sort of protest, a romantic grasp for air

in a realistic society. From some perspectives, you could describe Gothic literature as very

conservative, not only in the mood settings or environments, but in the permeating romantic

distance from the realistic, scientific world. This does not mean that Gothic literature denies

the development of science, but it definitely tries to merge the perspective of modern science

with the uncanny in such situations as life after death (“Frankenstein”, By Mary A. Shelley)
4

5
A Reading of Shirley Jacksons ”The Lottery”
or monstrosities (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson). These examples are

both based on experiments gone wrong, ergo, uncanny situations originating from scientific

experiments.

If I were to sum up some sort of conclusion on this question which is the uncanny aspects of

American gothic literature and it´s meaning to the genre as a whole, it would probably be

that of the sublime. By using themes and plots co-existing very close to our own reality, and

yet so far away, it creates a feeling of a big gap, which we instinctively tries to fill in.

mentally upset about the contrast between the plots reality and our own, we start to thinking

about what were wrong or right in the plot, and tries to compare it to our own. That is why I

believe that the uncanny has the biggest effect on the reader of American gothic fiction.

List of sources
Why I wrote the yellow wallpaper(Charlotte Perkins Gillman)

“The yellow wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gillman)

“The Lottery” (Shirley Jackson)

American gothic fiction: an introduction ( Allan Lloyd-Smith)