Dickens and Wells

To what extent do you think these stories go beyond the simple portrayal of Gothic fear and dread?

During this essay, "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens (written in 1865 and published in 1866) and "The Red Room" by H.G. Wells (written and published in 1894) will be analysed by how they utilise the Gothic in their short stories and to what extent these stories go beyond the simple portrayal of Gothic fear and dread.

Gothic literature is a style of fiction which was established in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Gothic stories aim to keep the reader gripped throughout the entirety of the story. In pre-1914 prose, it was common in horror stories to use Gothic literature, which is in reference to a dark, cold and dismal atmosphere usually achieved by using gothic archetypes. Common Gothic archetypes are; candles, blood, mirrors, castles, shadows and supernatural manifestations. They are used to make the reader scared and nervous. Also in gothic novels the characters have overpowering and extreme emotions. As stated before, a supernatural manifestation, such as a ghost, demon or a spirit is also usually present in a typical Gothic novel and it makes the reader attracted to the unknown. A passion-driven, wilful villain and a curious, weak heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued are also present in most Gothic novels. The characters in a gothic novel create a mysterious atmosphere. Another feature of gothic literature is gothic sensibilities. Gothic sensibilities include the desire to shock, cynical and sarcastic dialogue, bizarre happenings and deliberate isolation of characters, such as the protagonist is isolated in the "Red Room". Gothic literature was very popular in the pre-1914 prose because it attracts the reader and it fascinated the reader with the unknown. For example, the reader is fascinated and curious about what the protagonist is going find in the Red Room, so it makes him read on. Another example is in The Signalman, because the reader is gripped to the story and wonders whether it is co-incidence that whenever something bad happens, the signalman sees a spectre.

"True nervous very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" recounts his murder of an old man. Since he tells the story in first-person, the reader cannot determine how much of what he says is true; thus, he is an unreliable narrator. Though he repeatedly states that he is sane, the reader suspects otherwise from his bizarre reasoning, behaviour, and speech. He speaks with fear from the famous first line of the story. The reader soon realizes through Poe's jolting description of the narrator's state of mind that the protagonist has in fact descended into madness.

The Signalman describes an eerie encounter between two men, an anonymous narrator and a railway signalman. The signalman confides to the narrator that he has seen some disturbing sights that he believes are ghostly apparitions. The story reflects the narrator's initial scepticism, which turns to horrified belief by the end. Dickens utilises Gothic sensibilities by having an isolated protagonist who is suffering a lot of mental torture and he continues to feel a vague sense of impending doom. He is trying to view whether humans believe in the supernatural and how they react to supernatural occurrences. He creates two conflicting protagonists who are also trying to work out what is happening and he wants the reader to think about the events and make a rational conclusion to explain the apparitions.

One method that Dickens uses to produce a Gothic atmosphere in this ghost story is by using Gothic archetypes:

"...the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air."

The language used to describe the tunnel situated at the signalman's post creates the image of a dark cavern, 'gloomier, entrance to a black tunnel'. The word 'gloomier' suggests that there was some sort of mist lurking around the tunnel to grab anyone or anything that was to wander in. The use of the simple word 'black' is very powerful because it suggests that the tunnel in not just dark, but a deep impenetrable blackness. It is a combination of these two words that creates the image that the tunnel is like the mouth of a beast whose breath is hanging around the air, watching and waiting. The air is 'forbidding', it is warning the narrator not to go down into the tunnel. The language used by Dickens gives the 'black tunnel' a mysterious, decaying and ruthless ambience. The surroundings both warn the narrator and scare the reader. Dickens has utilised Gothic archetypes very well and they build up tension and suspense. Also they make the reader wonder whether there is something supernatural in the tunnel.

Another way that Dickens utilises the Gothic in his short story is by using Gothic sensibilities:

"The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind. "

Dickens changes the tempo of the story and delays the climax to further build up tension and suspense. He changes the tempo by using commas and by causing the reader to think about what he has just read and getting into the character of the narrator to really experience the feelings of the narrator towards the signalman. This keeps the reader gripped to the story and also evokes emotion. Dickens portrays the signalman as an isolated man whose identity is unknown and the reader isn't sure whether the signalman is sane or not. The question of the signalman's sanity is unknown all through the story and the reader must answer the question using rational thinking. There are many points in the story where the signalman's sanity is questioned, such as when the narrator is down in his hut and the signalman claims that the bell rang twice but the narrator however did not hear it. Also the language in the quotation: 'monstrous thought' makes the reader think that doubt and paranoia are creeping into the seemingly rational mind of the narrator. The surroundings are overpowering his ability to think rationally and it is affecting him in the same way as the narrator. Dickens uses Gothic sensibilities to make the reader think differently and create other possible explanations for the events, he explores rational thinking.

A final way that Dickens exploits the Gothic is through imagery:

"So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world."

The setting of the story has a significant impact on the reader's mind. The description of the tunnel creates an image of darkness, gloom and isolation. The use of varying sentence clauses builds up tension and suspense. It's like the narrator is spiralling down into the unknown and he is trying to work out exactly where he is. Then in the last clause he realises that he is has left the "natural world". Dickens describes the tunnel as having "an earthly, deadly smell" these adjectives are very strong because of the effect they give when read. They give an effect of gloominess of horror and of the place being lifeless. The reader can imagine the eerieness of silence and this frightens the reader. Also Dickens uses personification when describing "the cold wind" to make the narrator feel uneasy and make him wonder whether there is something supernatural about this place. Dickens' use of imagery provokes fear and tension in the mind of the reader and builds suspense and dread.

Dickens wrote this story to delve deeper into the Gothic genre and look at the psychological side. He wants to explore how humans feel about the supernatural. He wants the reader to decide what happens in the story; this means that everyone will have different views on what Dickens has described. He utilises the Gothic by keeping the reader engaged and building tension and suspense by using a first person narrative, gothic archetypes, gothic sensibilities and descriptive, gothic imagery. They all work together to provoke fear and tension in the reader, and end in a memorable gothic story

The Red Room is about the internal human conflict between rationality and the irrational fear of the unknown. It's much less about ghosts than about human psychology. Wells himself had a pronounced scepticism about anything "supernatural." In many ways, he was like the narrator of this story and to some extent; you might even read The Red Room as a satire on the genre. Wells uses the impact of fear to show that it can overwhelm human reason and self-control, no matter how resolute it might be. This is what happens to the protagonist as he turns from a well-educated, articulate young man who has great confidence in the powers of his rational thought, to an insane and irrational wreck. Also Wells portrays parody in the story through the characters.

One method that Wells uses to produce a Gothic atmosphere in this story is by using Gothic archetypes:

"My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness that failed to pierce the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of mystery and suggestion beyond its island of light."

The whole house, and particularly the red room, is dark. This darkness threatens the narrator, because he doesn't know what might be lurking in it. It suggests dangers to him that aren't really there. In the dark, the narrator first thinks the statue of Ganymede and the Eagle in the hallway is "someone crouching to waylay" him and then of course there are the shadows, which have "that undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking, living thing". Wells uses alliteration and slow sounds, 'lurking, living thing', to slow down the tempo of the story and add to the suspense. The narrator's own internal struggle against his fear is mirrored in his physical struggle with the darkness of the room. By filling the red room with candlelight and illuminating its dark recesses (particularly the alcove), the narrator gives himself a sense of security and keeps his fear at bay. When the candles begin to go out, the narrator engages in a literal fight against darkness as he tries to keep the room lit. As he becomes overwhelmed by darkness, the narrator grows increasingly frightened and loses his self-control. When the light is completely gone, so too are "the last vestiges of reason". Wells personifies the darkness, this lets us more directly into the narrator's nervous state of mind: his fear makes him see threatening figures in the darkness and leads him to feel that there is some dark power actively attacking him.

Another way that Wells utilises the Gothic in his short story is by using Gothic sensibilities:

"If," said I, "you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will make myself comfortable there.

The two opposing and paradoxical words, 'haunted' and 'comfortable', work to portray the protagonist's character at the beginning. They show the protagonist being an arrogant, young man who comes to Lorraine Castle to prove the legends wrong and will do anything to stay a night in the Red Room, despite the warnings of the old people. He has become obsessed with its legends and he feels that he must prove them wrong and the old people's warnings may actually have enhanced his obsession further. Wells uses the protagonist's thrill-seeking, obsession with the room to create tension and suspense. It also adds mystery and evokes the reader to think about the protagonist's attitude and what he is going to find in the Red Room?

A final way that Wells utilises the Gothic is through imagery:

"A monstrous shadow of him crouched upon the wall and mocked his action as he poured and drank."

Dickens uses rich description to increase tension as well as paint a picture in the reader's mind. This regularly creates a feeling of mystery. During the first part of the story, where the narrator converses with the caretakers, description is used to convey them as strange and frightening. They are deemed as 'grotesque' and 'monstrous', making the possibility of a supernatural or ghostly occurrence seem perfectly plausible. This use of language seems to form questions for the reader, as they do not know what, if anything has caused the caretakers to be in such a state; their unfriendliness is evident. The reader might think that perhaps they have acquired their appearance from going into the Red Room. They seem almost surreal, as if there is more to them than there seems, a disconcerting effect. Also the quotation portrays the 'monstrous shadow' coming alive and just as the young protagonist is mocking the old custodians; the whole castle seems to be mocking the characters by subjecting them to the shadows. The shadows are almost preying on the characters. Wells utilised the Gothic imagery to make the reader evoke emotions and stay engaged in the story.

One way that Wells furthers the feeling of Gothic is by using gothic sensibilities when describing typical gothic characters:

It is interesting to note that the characters in H.G. Wells' short story do not have any names, but instead they are identified with a strange or thought provoking description. 'The man with the withered arm', 'The man with the shade' and 'The old woman'. All of the characters are mysterious and add to the suspense. It is not clear what type of relationships these characters have with each other since they don't seem to interact. Wells goes further by giving "The man with the shade" a truly grotesque description and he is the main character out of all the custodians. He comes into the custodians' quarters later (after the beginning of the story), which gives the narrator plenty of time to study him. We get the narrator's observations:

"He supported himself by a single crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade, and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth."

When 'The man with the shade' enters the room the hinges of the door creaks emphasizing the oldness of the building. This is parallel to his aging body which the narrator describes as 'more bent' and 'more wrinkled' supported by a stick. The fact that his eyes are often covered suggests that he has something to hide. He is also said to have red eyes, a rather demonic and terrifying feature. In the beginning of the story, the man with the withered arm doesn't say much, although he does cough and splutter a lot. At the very end, he's the one who speaks up and finishes the story with his pronouncement about "fear" and "this house of sin". Unlike the other two custodians, he appears to have suspected it was fear that haunted the room, and not a ghost. Unlike the narrator at the beginning, however, he appears to have understood just how serious a force Fear is. Wells uses him to go beyond the simple portrayal of fear and dread by showing that experience and old age gives a person a wealth of knowledge and although 'The man with the shade' looked really frightening and upsetting he was also very wise.

Another way that Wells furthers the feeling of Gothic is by having a psychological ending to his short story:

"There is Fear in that room of hers - black Fear, and there will be - so long as this house of sin endures"

There's quite a suspenseful build up to the ending until the narrator announces what it is that really haunts the red room. We still never know what actually happened to the narrator up there. Was it all in his mind, or was there actually a ghost? When he tells the others that the room is "haunted," it sounds as if he's going to concede, and admit against what he said at the beginning - that there really is a ghost, but he doesn't. The room is haunted by 'Fear'. Fear is far more terrifying than anything we could imagine. It's dangerous. Fear killed the young duke, (who apparently fell down the stairs), and almost killed the narrator by making him lose his senses, and he couldn't do anything to control it. And what's more, in spite of his initial boasting, the narrator lost the battle with fear. He couldn't beat it. It's just his luck that he didn't fall down the stairs or otherwise mortally injure himself, like the duke did. Also based on the dire pronouncement the man with the shades makes at the end that the red room will remain haunted by Fear until the house is gone. This suggests something else about fear. Fear isn't just in one's head; we should actually take that language of it haunting a place seriously. The eerie atmosphere and the dreadful history of the red room combine to make it a place that will scare whoever visits it, even if they "know" it's not really haunted. What happened to the narrator will happen to anyone else who tries. Each additional person's defeat by fear in the red room will only increase its frightful reputation. Finally: it's interesting to note that both the narrator and the man with the shades personify fear (in addition to putting it in capital letters). Fear "followed" the narrator, and "fought" against him in the room, while the man with the shades speaks of it "lurking" and "creeping." That adds extra effect to the idea we've just developed. Rather than being "merely psychological," it might be more accurate to think of fear as an actively hostile force, which terrorizes individual people, not that different from a ghost after all. Therefore by having a psychological ending, "The Red Room" goes beyond the simple portrayal of Gothic fear and dread.

A final way that Wells goes further than the simple portrayal of Gothic fear and dread is by making "The Red Room" a satire to the Gothic genre:

"A power of darkness. To put such a curse upon a woman! It lurks there always. You can feel it even in the daytime, even of a bright summer's day, in the hangings, in the curtains, keeping behind you however you face about. In the dusk it creeps along the corridor and follows you, so that you dare not turn."

"The Red Room" has all the basics of a work of horror: a plot revolving around the supernatural, an atmosphere of looming threat, a terror-filled narrator (whose change in behaviour and attitude is carried over to the reader), sharp contrasts between feeble light and ever-present darkness, "its germinating darkness. My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness". But that's not all. The story seems almost deliberately designed to include some attributes of 19th century Gothic fiction. You might recognize some of these characteristics, such as: an old, abandoned mansion said to be haunted; the tragic history which is only barely hinted at; Ominous, old custodians with fire-lit faces who say things like "This night of all nights!", long moonlit hallways with weird statues that cast suggestive shadows; candles that blow out at exactly the wrong moment, etc. Where Wells goes beyond the genre is in the psychological aspect of his work. The struggle of the hero and the "powers of darkness" are turned inward; the story becomes a conflict between the narrator's reason, and a terror that threatens to overwhelm his intellect. You might even say Wells turns the Gothic genre on its head. Although Gothic stories deal often enough with the psychology of fear, the focus is usually on what causes the fear. More often than not, this turns out to be a supernatural element, which may or may not be real. If it is not real, then we can heave a sigh of relief: there's no reason to have been afraid after all. Wells's story implies that fear itself is what matters. If there is only fear, then there can be no relief; fear itself is an active, evil power that threatens to destroy human beings. It's something we can't control but must fight. From the experience of the narrator in the red room, we see that this fight is easily lost. Using a whole slew of the genre's own classic images, Wells suggests that Gothic fiction may have missed the point and, overlooked the real "power of darkness," and the scariest thing of all, Fear and that is how he goes further than the simple portrayal of Gothic fear and dread.

In conclusion, I think that "The Red Room" is not entirely typical of a Victorian ghost story. There are many elements and conventions that are used in the Red Room which are common in stories of this genre, such as the structure and pace. These are typical of Victorian ghost stories, i.e. the mystery of the Red Room is not solved until the epilogue. However The Red Room strays from these in some respects. The fact that by the end of the story, there has not been a spectral presence at all is rather unconventional of Gothic stories. There is generally a supernatural event of experience by the end of the novel, and yet the only frightening thing the narrator encounters is 'Fear'. It is possible that Fear could be a character in itself of a fearful sort, as it had certainly terrified the caretakers, judging by their dialogue and actions at the end of the story, and the narrator himself. If so, it would be even more terrible than conventional ghosts, as it is said to be there 'even in the daytime', and not just at night, when most ghosts exist. This being true, the ending of The Red Room seems to mock conventional gothic novels by teaching the characters and the reader about Fear, almost as a warning, as well as concluding the story properly. In its context, 'The Red Room' is a ghost story reminiscent of Gothic novels, in with the author has effectively used tension to sustain an audience. In the time it was written, it would have been seen by Victorians as an entertaining short story that was much in line with many other Victorian ghost stories of the time.

In conclusion Gothic is a style of literature which is utilised by many authors such as Wells and Dickens. Although they both have different styles of writing, they both use Gothic archetypes, sensibilities and imagery to create fear. These three things define a Gothic horror story from other forms of literature. Wells and Dickens have both written great stories and this clearly shows when you read The Red Room and The Signalman. They both delve deeper into their stories and their stories have deeper meanings inside them which the reader has to work out. In The Signalman Dickens explores how humans feel about the supernatural and how they react to co-incidences. On the other hand in The Red Room Wells portrays subtle parody through the characters and also being a skeptic, has created a paradoxical ending which some may argue is a satire on the Gothic genre. To finish, Gothic is a tool used by many authors past and present to fill the reader with a pleasing sense of fear that makes them gripped to every page.

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