Sincerity’s Gothic Turn

Michelle Sizemore

University of Kentucky

I taught Sincerity in an upper-level course for English majors on the American Gothic in the long nineteenth-century. The reason for this unusual placement was to get students to think more deliberately about the parameters of the gothic and questions of genre more broadly. My more targeted plan for teaching Rowson’s novel on this syllabus was to examine the relationship between sentimental and gothic literature.

Our initial discussion focused on extreme suffering as an established point of connection between the sentimental and the gothic. Students immediately seized on comparisons between Sarah’s first-person narration and that of the Governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Black Cat,” and Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” While I anticipated the connection between Rowson and Gilman, whose story we read in the same unit only the week before, the connections to James and Poe, whom we studied at the beginning of the semester, came as a welcome surprise. This gothic trio, after all, has much more in common than a distressed first-person narrator; each narrator contends with an obtrusive and inexorable superegotistical judge that she or he projects outward: onto a master, a cat, a woman in the wallpaper. These persecutory doubles aid in the destruction or disintegration of the self. While we similarly positioned Anne, Sarah’s correspondent in this epistolary novel, as a figure of externalized conscience, we were more equivocal about Anne’s role in Sarah’s self-formation.

In another discussion, our investigation was guided by Eric Savoy’s insights in “The Face of the Tenant: A Theory of the American Gothic,” an essay that establishes how the gothic must be understood as “fluid tendency rather than a discrete literary ‘mode,’” as an impulse rather than a literary artifact.[i] Through this assertion about the gothic, Savoy underscores motion and incipience rather than a static set of properties or conventions, a tendency he names “the turn.” His concept of “the turn” likewise changes, accruing multiple meanings over the course of the essay. For our purposes, the turn referred to the “change in course or direction” of the sentimental toward the gothic, and further, to the colloquial usage, the “momentary shock caused by sudden alarm, fright, or the like.”[ii] Pulling these two definitions together, we perceived that the unexpected turn from one set of generic expectations to another, from the sentimental to the gothic, had the effect of startling the reader. We noted, moreover, that this disturbance or unsettling also occurred at the level of uncanny resemblance. Both sentimental and gothic narratives take up the issue of domestic discord; but if the former “imagines the happy home as the acme of human bliss,” as Nina Baym puts it, the latter rejects any hope of domestic fulfillment.[iii] The sentimental veers toward the gothic when the unhappy home becomes the unhomely home, when the field of social affiliation becomes the field of the asocial or antisocial. Such moments occur throughout the novel, perhaps most evidently in the section where the Marquis imprisons Sarah, she escapes, wanders on the open road, and someone mistakes her for a ghost.

I thought Sincerity worked really well for exploring the intersections between the sentimental and the gothic and for creating a reflexive structure that allowed us examine how genres often confront their own limits. I would certainly consider including the novel (or even certain sections) on an American Gothic syllabus again, the next time taking up questions of transatlanticism and circulation more explicitly.[iv]

 

[i] Eric Savoy, “The Face of the Tenant,” American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, eds. Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1998), 6.

 

[ii] “turn, n.”. OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.uky.edu/view/Entry/207668?rskey=YhRuUo&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed January 15, 2016).

 

[iii] Nina Baym, Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993), 27.

 

[iv] See Siân Silyn Roberts’ Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individuals in American Fiction, 1790-1861 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

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