'The face at the window': Gothic thematics in 'Frankenstein', 'Wuthering Heights', and 'The Turn of the Screw'


  • Heather Neilson


David Punter has suggested that the defining fundamentals of a Gothic narrative are the concepts of paranoia, the barbaric, and the taboo. Gothic fiction invariably involves a theme of persecution, often ambiguously rendered, with the victim of persecution being transformed into a persecutor, or vice versa. An undercurrent of insanity is a staple of any Gothic plot, with ambition or vengeance driving at least one character to the brink of madness. The barbaric, in the broadest sense, is that which is not conformable with generally accepted ethical and behavioural codes, that which is disorderly and chaotic, challenging by its very existence what is assumed to constitute the civilized. The preoccupation of Gothic writers with the barbaric, metonymically represented in the image of a monstrous face peering in at a window, manifests itself as a symptom of class anxiety, the various narrators of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, and The Tum of the Screw interpreting the phantoms which they encounter as a threat to the status quo. Whereas early Gothic novels demonstrate an anachronistic fascination with the aristocracy, in Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, and The Tum of the Screw, the social order is threatened from below. This threat is associated with taboos suggestively transgressed. The aura of sexual taboo which surrounds the outcasts of these novels involves the necrophilic, the incestuous, and in the case of The Tum of the Screw, the paedophilic. The other aspect of the 'taboo' broached in these texts, in the double meaning ofthe word as 'unclean' and 'sacred', is the hubristic tampering with the occult in which Frankenstein, Heathcliff and James's governess all engage.