Narrative justice: The gothic and the law in Anglo -America, 1790–1860
In nineteenth-century Britain and America, the form of the gothic novel, popularly known for its use of supernatural horror, elaborate framing narratives, and stereotypical villain-versus-maiden characters and plots, frequently wrestled with ethical dilemmas arising from uncertainty about the nature of justice. Gothic novels engage with legal issues and forms in both their plots and formal structures, revealing trans-Atlantic nineteenth-century social anxiety about the nature of justice. Gothic novels feature repeated incidents of innocents who are wrongfully imprisoned, punished, and otherwise victimized by the villain through the power of a callous, incompetent, or sham court, revealing authors' and audiences' concerns about the legitimacy and status of the justice system. In their elaborate meta-textual form, often involving confessions, legal documents, testimonies, and items put forward as “evidence” directly for the reader, gothic novels set up a forum with a possibility for a new kind of justice. Far from being merely the realm of the supernatural, or a masochistic fantasy, the gothic provides an imaginary world where authors and audiences experience the horrors of injustice from a safe distance and contemplate a more perfect means to justice. The only source of true justice in these novels is not the legal judiciary system, but the narrative (or poetic) justice provided by the author and/or reader through the narrative's frame.
British and American gothic novels, as well as American slave narratives that rely on gothic conventions, engage our interest in fictional, terrorizing, horrifying stories in part to bring us to a consideration of more important, non-fictional situations in the real world, particularly around issues of social justice. The novels included in this study—William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799), and Hannah Crafts' The Bondwoman's Narrative (c.a. 1855–1861)—engage with the flaws of the legal system, portraying the real horrors of contemporary institutional injustices. The gothic's focus on the dark aspects of the human experience allowed an imaginary space for readers and writers to contemplate the possibility for justice in the real world.
British and Irish literature;
0593: British and Irish literature