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“The grin of the skull beneath the skin:” Reassessing the Power of Comic Characters in Gothic Literature

Amanda D Drake, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Neither representative of aesthetic flaws or mere comic relief, comic characters within Gothic narratives challenge and redefine the genre in ways that open up, rather than confuse, critical avenues. Comic characters in the Gothic texts of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Clara Reeve establish the comic as a serious and legitimate part of the Gothic aesthetic. Comic characters continue to appear in all forms of the Gothic, including its parodies, well into the nineteenth-century, suggesting that these characters endure as necessary and vital elements within the evolving Gothic genre. As the genre evolves, the characters evolve as well, progressing from fool to humorist and then wit. This evolution reflects a shift in comic agency and the changing theories of humor between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The comic character's creation of humor, in a literary genre whose sole claim to fame often seems to be the development of terror, creates an axis which reveals much about the Gothic author's aesthetic concerns. In the context of insightful cultural readings delineated by recent Gothic scholars, I demonstrate how a formal reading of Gothic convention can establish not just cultural legitimacy for the genre, but also aesthetic legitimacy by reassessing the ways in which comic characters' humorous wordplay deliberately disrupts readers' expectations about the emotionally charged tenor of the conventional Gothic narrative.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Drake, Amanda D, "“The grin of the skull beneath the skin:” Reassessing the Power of Comic Characters in Gothic Literature" (2011). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3487044.