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Failed Rites of Passage in Early Gothic Fiction

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Markus Oppolzer

This study applies Victor Turner’s theory of liminality to an examination of early British Gothic fiction and its cultural context. Contrary to the widespread belief that the Gothic is escapist in nature, a close reading of novels such as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) reveals that they actively engage with socio-political and educational debates of the time. Using the licence of fantastic literature, the Gothic sets up social experiments in which young, inexperienced protagonists have to face a variety of institutions. Under what circumstances are they willing to submit to these social orders? Why are rites of passage often bound to fail? These are questions consistently raised in this genre and explored in this study with reference to a wide range of political, legal, and educational treatises of the eighteenth century.
Contents: Anthropology – Arnold van Gennep – Victor Turner – Rites of passage – Social puberty – Coming of age – Early Gothic fiction – Liminality – Liminal sphere – Eighteenth century – Enlightenment – Total institutions – Institutional criticism – Education – Family – The Law – The Church – Carnivalesque – Mikhail Bakhtin.