The literary career of George MacDonald (1825–1905) was prolific and diverse. After his heterodox religious beliefs cost him his first and only pulpit, he turned his attention to writing and produced an oeuvre which includes poetry, literary essays, sermons, translations, an annotated edition of Shakespeare's Hamlet, several short stories, fantasy novels for children and adults, and over two dozen nonfantasy novels. His most prominent literary influences were the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge and the German Romantic Novalis (see wordsworth, william). However, he read widely, and his works demonstrate an interest in a variety of literary genres.
MacDonald's work as a minster influenced his writing. He sought to disseminate his beliefs as widely as possible, and they adorn every page he wrote. At the center of these beliefs is a loving Father-God, who is actively involved in his Creation, and who guides all events with the ultimate goal of bringing his children back into a right relationship with himself. MacDonald believed that absolute obedience to the will of God is a fundamental element of this right relationship, but he also believed in the possibility of redemption. He saw Hell as impermanent; it is a means through which God brings the most stubborn of his children to repentance and ultimate redemption.
Gothic offered MacDonald a wider vocabulary through which to explore these ideas. His fiction, both fantasy and nonfantasy, is full of Gothic motifs: remote castles, heroines in distress, evil villains, bizarre creatures, winding staircases, hidden rooms, secret passages, supernatural events, and so forth. Among his nonfantasies, one of the best examples from his extensive oeuvre can be found in Donal Grant (1883), which may represent MacDonald's most concentrated use of the Gothic. The plot revolves around an heiress being pressured by her uncle into an unwanted marriage. At the end, she is kidnapped, drugged, and chained in a hidden room in an attempt to gain her consent. She is rescued at the last possible moment by the novel's hero. Along the way, there are ghostly noises, somnambulism, strange encounters in dark staircases, the search for a secret room, the discovery of an ancient murder, and the revelation of numerous dark secrets. Among MacDonald's fantasies, Lilith (1895) includes vampirism, skeletal dances, human-to-animal transformations, and a variety of other terrifying images. Few of his works are as extreme as these examples, but most include some Gothic elements, which add excitement to the plots and contribute to creating an atmosphere of unreality.
MacDonald's novels are full of Gothic imagery, but he does not use Gothic merely for entertainment value or atmosphere. MacDonald sought to impress his beliefs on his readers. In his hands, the Gothic becomes a means of exploring theological possibilities. MacDonald sought to produce real changes in the lives of his readers, both internally by turning their minds and hearts toward God, and externally by producing observable changes in behavior. He thought one of the greatest obstacles to achieving this purpose was a strong sense of self-satisfaction and complacency that he saw among many of his contemporaries, and his novels illustrate this. He frequently presents characters possessing this sense of self-satisfaction and complacency, which MacDonald proceeds to dismantle.
The Gothic propensity to induce terror frequently plays a role in this (see terror). MacDonald subjects his characters to terrifying experiences that shake their self-satisfaction and complacency. Anodos, in Phantastes (1858) is very pleased with himself, until his encounter with the Alder Maiden:
I woke as a grey dawn stole into the cave. The damsel had disappeared; but in the shrubbery, at the mouth of the cave, stood a strange horrible object. It looked like an open coffin set up on one end; only that the part for the head and neck was defined from the shoulder-part. In fact, it was a rough representation of the human frame, only hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree. […] The thing turned round – it had for a face and front those of my enchantress, but now of a pale greenish hue in the light of the morning, and with dead lustreless eyes. (MacDonald 2000: 84)
This experience leaves Anodos thoroughly shaken and repentant. Throughout his oeuvre, both fantasy and nonfantasy, MacDonald uses terror, in various forms, to shatter his characters' complacency and start them on the path toward spiritual growth. At the same time, he provides a vicarious terror experience for his readers, shaking their own complacency and self-satisfaction.
In this, MacDonald's use of the Gothic is unusual. He uses the Gothic to provide an experience for his readers, while at the same time modifying the Gothic in a way that specifically explores his theological ideas. For MacDonald, no one, not even the most heinous of Gothic villains, was irredeemable. MacDonald's fiction includes many of the features of Gothicism, including the fact that his villains rarely finally win. However horrifying the situation becomes, good triumphs in the end. Still, his villains have hope. Their plans are utterly defeated, but the fate of their immortal soul remains undetermined. Even the child-murdering demoness Lilith is redeemed in the end. MacDonald draws on Gothic character types, plot elements, images, and tropes to magnify the darkness and the terror of his novels, deepening the abyss (see abyss, the) from which his characters are ultimately redeemed and emphasizing his redemptive message.
The Gothic provided MacDonald with one strategy among many. Few, if any, of his works could be classified as "Gothic novels;" they incorporate too many elements from other types of literature to be so considered. Nonetheless, the Gothic plays an important role in MacDonald's fiction and in his overall literary purposes.
SEE ALSO: Abyss, The; Terror; Wordsworth, William.
- George MacDonald and "ethicized Gothic." In (ed.), George MacDonald: Literary Heritage and Heirs. Wayne, PA: Zossima Press, pp. 183-200. (2008)
- Saving the monsters?: Images of redemption in the Gothic tales of George MacDonald. Christianity and Literature 55(2), 245-69. (2006)
- George MacDonald. Tring: Lion Publishing. (1987)
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