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NICK LOLORDO Possessed by the Gothic: Stephen Crane's "The Monster" The time is perhaps ten years after the Civil War, the place a small town in New York State. A fire has broken out in the home of Dr. Trescott, the town's leading physician; trapped upstairs is his son. Henry Johnson, Trescott's coachman and former domestic servant, is first to the scene and unhesitatingly rushes inside in search of young Jimmie Trescott. In the course of saving the boy, Johnson's face will be horribly disfigured by an accident in the doctor's laboratory, rendering him "the monster" of the story's title. As Johnson enters the smokefilled house, Stephen Crane's narrative gaze coolly shifts: "In the hall a lick of flame had found the cord that supported 'Signing the Declaration .' The engraving slumped suddenly down at one end, and then dropped to the floor, where it burst with the sound of a bomb" (21). The historical picture is a recognizably Gothic piece of decor, evocative of a remote causality, the long arm of the past guiding events in the present. But how to understand the violent destruction of a representation which itself portrays the foundational American revolt against paternal tyranny? Is this fire a new revolution, a mysterious loosing of social energies that will disrupt the existing order? Or is it merely a parodie repetition, with its ironic echo of "bombs bursting in air," that suggests history repeating itself as farce, revolution in reverse? I argue that the event might better be read as an interpretive key to the story's governing aesthetic: the destroyed engraving, as its title indicates, is a classically realist work of art, implicated in a historical or journalistic attitude towards American history that this particular story refuses to assume. The allegorical marker is planted in the text only to remain Arizona Quarterly Volume 57, Number 2, Summer 2001 Copyright © 2001 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 34Nick LoLordo unacknowledged; Crane's mention of the Revolution must ultimately be understood as the destruction of the referent. Crane's realism, then, is a dehistoricized realism, in which the Gothic replaces history rather than interpreting it.1 This realism proves insufficiently capacious; the narrative as a whole is unable to acknowledge what it understands at the tell-tale level of style, and thus its realism, produced in part by a critique of popular or sentimental discourses, comes to seem an evasion, leaving a vacuum which Gothic figures rush to fill. Crane's fiction, and specific aspects of Crane's style which I will treat as significantly Gothic, have been considered under various generic categories: realism or, more often, its subsets naturalism or impressionism .2 In the teleology of prose fiction, these terms refer to developments which are taken to supersede the Gothic, without banishing its components .3 Hints of this teleological reading can be seen in the initial responses to "The Monster."4 Those who read it as a tale of horror were unimpressed: an anonymous reviewer in the Book Buyer found a conception "worthy of Poe" ruined by realism and "attention to irrelevant detail," while Julian Hawthorne saw the story as a failed reworking of the Frankenstein dilemma in a "realistic style" (qtd. in Weatherford 262, 259). Favorable early comments on "The Monster" simply reversed this judgment and saw its success within the terms of realism, arguing that the moral failure of the community in forcing Trescott to abandon the horribly disfigured Johnson was meant to be instructively contrasted with the doctor's acceptance of his duty toward the man who saved his son. Both positions distinguish between realistic social critique and lurid horror; they notice the story's two aspects, but fail to account for the relation between them, the peculiar network of misrecognitions and disavowals that makes "The Monster" so troubling. The Gothic motifs which disfigure Crane's narrative appear in the place which Eve Sedgwick, in her study of Gothic conventions, has designated as crucial to the genre: the descriptive surface. Observing that much criticism of the Gothic has been based on an implicitly Freudian model of depth psychology, Sedgwick argues that this governing metaphor...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 33-56
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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