Two Tales of Gothic Guilt: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Novel The Marble Faun and Adalbert Stifter’s Story Das alte Siegel
Pamela S. Saur (Lamar University, Texas) [Bio]
The term “Gothic literature” is used primarily in the American and British traditions. A notable exception is the German Romantic writer, E. T. A. Hoffman, whose “horror” or “Schauer”tales were analyzed by Sigmund Freud in his essay on the “unheimlich” or “uncanny.”(1) Gothic fiction, “a literature of nightmare,”(2) evokes terror or horror, using secrets, mysteries, and haunting legacies of the past, through stories of crime or evil, sometimes human, sometimes supernatural. Specific conventions of Gothic literature include threatening, fateful landscapes and buildings, especially castles and churches, mad or mysterious figures, objects such as mirrors, animated portraits or statues, old keepsakes, and mysterious missives.
The “Gothic” would not usually be associated with the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter,
Although chaos and disaster often break through, the focus of his fiction is on virtue, ideals, enlightenment and harmony, rather than the dark realm of nightmare. Gothic elements, however, are prominent in his story, “Das alte Siegel,”(1844), which shows some influence of Hoffman’s tales(3). In addition, the story has much in common with a well-known American Gothic novel of 1860, The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne.(4)
Hawthorne’s novel is much longer, and so it includes more events and descriptions. Neither work contains overt supernatural forces, but both feature mystery, secrets, and eerie moods. Prominent in both are love stories involving beautiful women with dark secrets, the use of Catholicism as a realm of the literary Gothic,(5) fateful objects, and Gothic experiences in which individuals are led into mysterious, threatening realms. In both works, the horror of these Gothic experiences turns out to be more internal, namely involvement in guilt, than external peril.
The Marble Faun centers on Donatello, an Italian Count rumored to have a half-human faun in his ancestry, and an American artist Miriam. Miriam encounters a strange man in the Roman catacombs. He follows her everywhere, destroying her peace of mind and ruining her art, until Donatello, seeing the desperate look in her eye, pushes him over a precipice to his death. Later they learn that the apparent madman was a Capuchin monk. Stifter’s story involves Hugo, a young man who is led by a mysterious letter brought by a seemingly mad old man to meet a veiled woman in church. He falls in love with the mysterious woman, Cöleste. In addition to the eerie church scenes, a particularly Gothic experience has him go to the house where he met his beloved and find it unoccupied; its furnishings had been staged for him. After years apart the two meet again. Cöleste tells Hugo that she had been compelled to marry an abusive man against her will. She had vowed the humble worship he witnessed as supplication in asking God for a child..
Both Hawthorne’s and Stifter’s couples are in love, but their guilt makes happy unions impossible. Donatello and Miriam are told by a wise friend, “ .. .your bond is twined with such black threads, that you must never look upon it as identical with the ties that unite other living souls;” (322) they agree that their bond of guilt can never bring “earthly happiness.” The union of Hugo and Cöleste is not founded on murder, but adultery. Although her husband has since died, Hugo renounces his beloved when he learns that she was married at the time of their trysts. He is influenced by the “old seal” his father gave him, inscribed with a Latin motto that “honor” must always be preserved. The seal, which helps Hugo resist Gothic temptation, goes against the reader’s expectation that an inherited object from the past would contain guilty secrets. Hugo’s decision to embrace solitude, however, is not wholly virtuous, for it entails rejecting his own daughter by Cöleste. In neither tale does love offer escape from the realm of nightmare.
1 See Deborah Griggs, “The Uncanny,” The Literary Encyclopedia, 24 October 2005.
2 Elizabeth MacAndrew, The Gothic Tradition in Fiction (New York: Columbia UP, 1979), p.3.
3 According to Eugen Thurnher in the Introduction (Einführung) Adalbert Stifter. Das alte Siegel. Urfassung und Studienfassung, “Im Ganzen von Adalbert Stifters Werk bekommt der Novelle ‘Das alte Siegel’ eine gewisse Sonderstellung zu. Nirgends sonstwo steht der Dichter so tief in der Nachfolge der Romantik.” (p. 5) In addition to the unusually Romantic atmosphere and subjectivity for Stifter, says Thurnher, the story has some specific details in common with “Das Gelübde” and “Das öde Haus” by Hoffmann.
4 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun: or the Romance of Monte Beni. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1968.
5 A detailed analysis is found in Catholicism in Gothic Fiction by Mary M. Tarr (Washington: Catholic University of American Press, 1946, New York: Garland, 1979).