In Gothic literature the importance of setting and place is greatly influential. This investigation compares two gothic narratives, “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) by Horace Walpole and “Dracula” (1897) by Bram Stoker. This research essay considers how setting and place are established, how they are applicable to the gothic genre and how they contribute to the progression of both gothic narratives. It further analyses, how through the use of descriptive language and gothic elements, the role of setting and place is incorporated to create a subliminal atmosphere and evoke emotional response onto the readers.
John Agnew’s defines ‘place’ as combined elements of nature – elemental forces; social relations –class and gender; and meaning – the mind, ideas and symbols (as cited in Easterlin, 2012, p. 111). Finally, with a particular focus on the medieval architecture and physical setting and place, this essay considers how this depiction directly reflects the decayed and deteriorated psychological existence to showcase how, the gothic elements progress the narrative and create a subliminal atmosphere.
The nature of the physical environment within both gothic narratives directly establishes the setting and place through the correlation of ‘unknown psychical prophecy, disappearance, or inexplicable subliminal elements,’ creating an atmosphere of decay and evoking emotions of terror and dread within the mind of the reader (Sigurðsson, 2009). In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole describes the castle as “hollowed into several intricate cloisters and [the] blasts of wind that shook the doors… grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through [the] long labyrinth of darkness… and an awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions” (Walpole, p. 15).
Walpole also makes reference to the mountain of sable plumes that bury Conrad under the enchanted and enormous helmet and the eerie lamentable sounds of a brazen trumpet and trampling horses (pp. 8-41). The neo-classical and medieval castle and the strangely enormous objects within the gothic novel paints a clear picture of the vast and expansive materials, shapes and sizes of the architectural place and setting. Loiseau (2011) supports this argument and states that “despite the fact that Walpole uses rather unusual terms to describe the castle, the minute details provided by the author stress the importance of the castle and its gigantic size (p. 8). These elements support the progression of the narrative because the atmosphere that is created impresses the reader with a sense of shock and annihilation.
Similarly, the depiction of the setting and place in “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, establishes the physical environment in the gothic narrative through creating atmosphere and mood that evokes sensations of excitement, fear, surprise, horror and dread (Alvarado, 2017). Diamond states that, “the best way to achieve this effect is not to pile up external ‘sensations’ but to use them selectively within an everyday setting so that the reader recognise[s] and identifies them” (p. 39).
In Dracula, Stoker evokes these ‘external sensations’ through the description of ‘place’ as Harker approaches the “courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light […] and the air became heavy as the oppressive and dark rolling clouds were overhead […] It seemed as though the mountain range had separated into two atmospheres, and that now we had got into the thunderous one” (as cited in Baker, Green & Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska, 2017 p. __). The language in this quote talks about the atmosphere being separated into two, highlighting how the “familiar” and urban setting of London is contrasted with the “unfamiliar” urban setting of Transylvania (Agin-Donmez, 2020).
Stoker also establishes setting by saying “there were dark, rolling clouds overhead, and in the air the heavy, oppressive sense of thunder. It seemed as though the mountain range had separated into two atmospheres, and that now we had got into the thunderous one (Stoker, 18__, p. 18 or Agin-Donmez, p.20). This juxtaposition of the familiar and unfamiliar evokes emotions of anxiety, fear and terror as the readers are presented with the unknown (p. 19).
To summarise the relevant arguments, Clery (as cited in Sigurðsson, 2009) supports this distinction of the importance of physical environment and states that, the castle dominates the narrative as both a physical and psychological presence [because] all of the action takes place either in or near the castle […] but more importantly than physical immediacy, is the atmosphere of oppression created by the place, and the way it emphasizes the powerlessness of the characters, manipulated by the forces they only dimly comprehend. Architecture becomes the embodiment of fate (p. 15).
This leads to the next argument which discusses the importance of the psychological aspects presented within both novels and showcases how they contribute to the progression of both narratives. In both Dracula and The Castle of Otranto setting and place is utilised to explore psychological aspects through the characters minds. Johann Goethe (as cited in Maunder, 2010) states that there are many gothic elements that become familiar to the readers including the nightmare visions of the home; the feeling of mystery and suspense; the emphasis on madness and the disordered state of mind; and the omens, portents, visions, and supernatural elements work to threaten the reader’s sense of what is normal (p. 156).
Therefore, language serves as a paradoxical function that helps to illuminate the psychological aspects of each narrative (Easterlin, 2012). Horace Walpole builds this atmosphere of horror and dread through the his purposeful decision to form the narrative as a dreamlike alteration of the psychological mind. For example, the description of the subterranean tunnels within the castle serve as a representational doorway into the internal and psycholgoical state of Isabella’s mind. Walpole uses place to reflect on the internal state of being Isabella is experiencing and describes this as,
near the mouth of the subterraneous cavern, she approached the door that had been opened; but a sudden gust of wind that met her at the door extinguished her lamp, and left her in total darkness […] Alone in so dismal a place, her mind imprinted with all the terrible events of the day, [and] for a considerable time she remained in an agony of despair (p. 16).
The language provokes a heightened urgency for making the place familiar, strange and uncanny and through inducing disorientation, confusion and fear. Walpole uses the tunnel to create disorientation because the language capitalises on people’s negative psychological and emotional reactions and deprives the senses (Flotte, 2015) Manfred’s command to secure the gates signifies the abusive patriarchal power that imprisons Isabelle and leaves her “no choice but to go into the subterranean passageway (Walpole, p.24).
The depiction of the physical environment and Isabella’s journey in the tunnel gives the readers an understanding of the castle as a place of imprisonment which “arouse emotions of dread and creeping horror” (Freud, 1999, p. 1). Easterlin argues that “isolated and vulnerable characters typically suffer placelessness perceived or real threats from a potentially inimical environment that are the counterpart to psychic vulnerability” (p.137). Overall, this works to enhance the narrative progression through the portrayal of place as decayed and deteriorated.
Similarly, Bram Stoker evokes these sensations within his narrative through the descriptive language he uses to describe the decayed and deteriorated setting of the castle. Hildebrandt agrees and states that “a dream looks upon the world in a light of strange idealism and often enhances the effects of what it sees by its deep understanding of their essential nature showing us our everyday fears in the ghastliest shape of indescribable pungency (as cited in Farrell, 1996, p. 140).).