French Revolution and the English Gothic Novel  

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The French Revolution is a major turning point in continental European history, from the age of monarchies to that of the bourgeoisie, and even of the masses, as the dominant political force. Richard Davenport-Hines has called Frankenstein gothic literature's most enduring parable of French revolutionary excess, see French Revolution and the English Gothic Novel.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The French Revolution influenced the English gothic novel.

The gothic novel combines elements of terror and romance, and the supernatural. English novelist Fanny Burney wrote at the time of the French Revolution that, "There is nothing in old history that I shall any longer think fabulous; the destruction of the most wonderful empires on record has nothing more wonderful, nor of more sounding improbability, than the demolition of this great nation, which rises up against itself for its own ruin-perhaps annihilation." A year later in 1790, English statesman Edmund Burke wrote that the French Revolution was, "the most astonishing that has hitherto happened to the world." The gothic novel was therefore a way for English writers to come to terms with what they considered to be wonderful and astounding events, perceiving what happened to their neighbors in France and with the consequences upon their own society.

Creating elements of terror and fantasy gave expression to their anxieties of what was to come, and gave voice to their incredulousness at the events taking place in France. Because of the French Revolution and France's proximity to England, English writers during that period were concerned with the concept of violent and inclusive change in the human condition. The gothic novel contains modes of nightmarish terror, violence, and sexual rapacity. These modes coincided with the mood and modes of violence brought forth during the French Revolution.

The upper echelon of English society mostly perceived the French Revolution as threatening to the status quo and stability of their accustomed lifestyle, and as a danger to their personal safety and social position within the hierarchy. It has been suggested that the gothic novel with its themes of terror and violence gave English writers a safe expression of their anxieties about disruption and chaos. They also worked to uphold the political normalcy and traditional morals of the time. Examples of this can be seen in Anne Radcliffe's female characters being submissive and incapable of making their own decisions, upholding traditional values of a patriarchal society.


The dissent that occurred during the French Revolution was not only violent, it also led to women questioning their role in society and to a debate on the nature of women. This debate can be seen in one of the most famous gothic novels, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In her novel she engages in a discussion of women's nature by having a man with the power to create new life instead of the woman, and its consequences. Jane Austen also engaged in this discussion in her gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland, the protagonist of the novel, has to confront the workings of the political and economic system that involves women as chess pieces in marriages and of power relationships, after her visions of romance are over. In this novel one can also see how the mind can take a truth by means other than texts, many times removed from actual events. This speaks to the perception that the English had of the French Revolution.

Caleb Williams

The gothic novel, Caleb Williams by William Godwin can be seen as an example of the influence the events of the French revolution had on the genre. The main character, Caleb Williams is of humble birth, an unusual circumstance for Godwin to write, since his usual characters are about people of wealth and title. A key component of the French Revolution was the underlying principal that the political institutions of France should be founded on the equality of all citizens regardless of birth. The preface and subtitle of Caleb Williams also give the reader need to recognize social theory as the main purpose of the novel. This novel is classified as one of the best examples of the "victim-of-society story. The main character of this novel is a morbid individualist seized with a ruling passion amounting to mania, which no reason can overcome. In this way, the protagonist of this story can be seen as a caricature of a French Revolutionary. Before Caleb Williams, William Godwin published Political Justice underlining the philosophical principals that were pushing the French Revolution. He faced fierce hostility upon its publishing. With his later publishing of Caleb Williams a critic wrote, "Fancy is a faculty which we should not have expected to find in the brain of a philosopher who had struck his hand upon his heart and felt it stone; yet fancy Mr. Godwin possesses in no common degree." Godwin's use of the fantastic in the form of the gothic novel again let him write about the philosophy of the French revolution without receiving the harsh backlash, because it was under the guise of the fantastic.

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