What Happened To Dread in the Nineteenth Century?

By Samantha Ellen Morse

Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.     

The Castle of Otranto opens with speculations by the peasants regarding “the Prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced, That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.1 Various body parts and accoutrements of a gigantic statue proceed to plague Manfred and his castle for the rest of the novella. Importantly, “dread” is the affect repeatedly attributed to Manfred as a result of this prophecy and its spectral manifestations. For instance, in the opening scene Manfred searches for his missing son Conrad and enters the court “dreading he knew not what” to find servants struggling to raise an enormous helmet from his macerated heir.2 There is thus an immediate correlation between the affect of dread and the presence of the giant statue, whose presence symbolizes illegitimacy and prophecies the demise of Manfred’s lordship of Otranto.

To dread is not simply to fear, but rather, “to look forward to with terror or anxiety.”3 Dread is therefore a state of fear that only arises when one’s thoughts are oriented towards the future. It is not the future event itself that evokes fear, however. Recall how Manfred enters the court “dreading he knew not what.” He is not yet aware that there exists a giant statue that has squashed his son, and that he will soon lose the castle of Otranto. Manfred experiences anxiety simply by contemplating an unknown future: Where is his son? What has happened to him? The acuity of Manfred’s dread sharpens as the future becomes clearer. The appearance of the prophesied statue guarantees a future in which he loses the lordship of Otranto. It is apprehension of this future loss, the affect of dread, that makes Manfred a brutal despot, for the narrator mentions early on, “Manfred was not one of those savage tyrants who wanton in cruelty unprovoked. The circumstances of his fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane…”4 In short, dread provokes Manfred’s cruelty toward the other characters, and his acts of despotism comprise the bulk of the plot. Thus, the affect of dread is not only crucial to the atmosphere of the story, but motivates its narrative.

Thus far I have defined dread as a state of fear felt in contemplation of a concrete (prophesied) or abstract (ambiguously contemplated) future. What I’ve been hinting at, and would now like to make clear, is that this future, regardless of how concrete or abstract it is, must be perceived as an inevitable one by the affected subject in order to elicit dread. For this reason, Otranto opens with a prophecy and ends with its fulfillment, which occurs in spite of Manfred’s frenzied attempts to resist it.

Similarly, an initial scene in The Monk presents a dramatic prophecy-like curse. When Ambrosio denies the pregnant nun Agnes mercy, she anathematizes: “But the day of trial will arrive. Oh! then, when you yield to impetuous passions; when you feel that man is weak, and born to err; when, shuddering, you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, oh! –in that fearful moment, think upon me! Think upon your cruelty! Think upon Agnes–and despair of pardon!”5 Thus far, Ambrosio has demonstrated remarkable piety and is revered by religious and common folk alike. It is after Agnes’s curse that the monk falls progressively deeper into depravity: admitting his attraction to the novice Rosario, indulging in carnal delights with the novice when he proves to be a woman named Matilda, slighting Matilda when he becomes attracted to the innocent Antonia, and ultimately planning the abduction and rape of Antonia that results in his murdering her mother. I do not mean to suggest that there is a causal relationship between Agnes’s malediction and Ambrosio’s iniquity, for she is no sorceress. Rather, the importance of her curse is that it establishes a future-orientation from the outset of the novel. Agnes alerts Ambrosio and the assumed Christian reader to the inevitability of Judgement Day, and evokes dread of God’s reckoning.

The Monk thus participates in what Paul Megna identifies as a “Judeo-­Christian tradition of dread­-based asceticism” that is “built around the ethical goal of living better through dread.”6 Megna references a long history of Middle English sermons, confession manuals, allegorical poems, dramas, and polemics to demonstrate the ubiquity of dread-­based emo­tional communities in medieval England. In these texts, dread frequently aligns with spiritual ideals like obedience and wisdom and serves to initiate salvation. Megna traces this tradition of dread-based devotion from the Middle Ages to the existential theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (1844), which was originally translated as The Concept of Dread. Kierkegaard distinguishes fear from anxiety based on the definiteness of the object. Fear has a definite object; for example, when standing on the edge of a cliff, a person is afraid of falling and dying painfully. Anxiety, on the other hand, “is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”7 Simply put, anxiety, or dread, results when a person realizes her future can change depending on how she exerts her free will.

The Monk, published in 1796 but representing an imagined medieval Spain, exists at a transitional moment in Megna’s history of dread-based asceticism, bridging medieval religious doctrines and modern existentialism. Ambrosio’s dread amphibiously dips into both paradigms, while failing to correspond entirely to either, thus resulting in his demise. Megna elucidates how medieval preachers did not simply frighten the laity with fire and brimstone, but rather proscribed elaborate programs to distinguish between and transcend lower forms of dread (like dread of suffering) to the highest form of morally perfect dread: child-like dread of God out of reverent love. The point of experiencing dread in any case is to cultivate a moral life free from sin. The effectiveness of dread in thwarting sin is apparent in The Monk, when Ambrosio “no longer reflected with shame upon his incontinence, or dreaded the vengeance of offended heaven. His only fear was lest Death should rob him of enjoyments, for which his long Fast had only given a keener edge to his appetite.”8 Consequently, he “rioted in delights till then unknown to him: Swift fled the night, and the Morning blushed to behold him still clasped in the embraces of Matilda.”9 Suddenly devoid of dread, the once chaste monk is transformed into a nymphomaniac. However, at the end of the novel when he is in the dungeons of the Inquisition, Ambrosio’s dread returns in full force. He “believed himself doomed to perdition,” and thus signs his soul over to Satan, for he is convinced “by refusing the demon’s succor, He only hastened tortures which He never could escape.”10 In his final moments of reflection before signing the fatal contract, “With affright did he bend his mind’s eye on the space beyond the grave; nor could hide from himself how justly he ought to dread Heaven’s vengeance.”11 Ultimately, then, in a dramatic reversal of medieval religious doctrine, Ambrosio’s extreme dread of God’s judgment does not lead to reform and salvation, but the selling of his soul and damnation.

Although Ambrosio perceives his future perdition as unavoidable, the novel ends with the proposition that another future was possible: “Had you resisted me one minute longer,” says Satan, “you had saved your body and soul. The guards whom you heard at your prison-door came to signify your pardon.”12 Lewis, ever the master of irony, thus playfully invites the reader to imagine an alternative ending moments before having his wretched villain pulverized in a gorge and sent to eternal damnation. This moment of imagination prefigures Kierkegaard’s existential crisis as expressed in Concepts. Ambrosio was not, in fact, “doomed to perdition” as he believed. Agnes’s curse was not a binding supernatural malediction; it did not eliminate his free will. Ambrosio could have chosen to not sign the contract. However, because he perceived his future damnation as inevitable, his dread mounted to such a pitch that he could not imagine an alternative future where he was saved. The result is a twofold religious and existential tragedy: Ambrosio fails to transcend from dread to love of God (thus having faith in God’s forgiveness and salvation) and simultaneously fails to recognize his power of free will. Ambrosio is in fact devoid of anxiety as Kierkegaard sees it, for he fails to see “the possibility of possibility.”13 Ambrosio’s failure, I argue, is the product of a Gothically perceived future; that is, a future that is fixed and inevitable. The distinctly Gothic future, I would like to propose, is one that cannot be altered by free will.

These readings are a long way of getting to the question that motivated this article: What happened to dread in the nineteenth century? From the Middle Ages to the Romantic period, dread was a solemn affective posture of profound significance in theology, philosophy, and literature.

But, dread does not retain its serious, ecclesiastical denotation in nineteenth century literature. On the contrary, it becomes a frivolous and popular term, as indicated by the “penny dreadful” phenomenon. These cheap magazines with famously lurid covers and illustrations were purchased primarily by working class boys and related melodramatic crime stories like The String of Pearls; Or, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet-Street (1847-49). At best, Victorian critics deemed the stories “exceedingly foolish and frivolous,”14 which prompted readers “to escape from thought.”15 At worst, penny dreadfuls were supposed to precipitate crime: “Find me the boy who murders his mother or steals his father’s watch, and I will find you the Penny Dreadful.”16 The dreadfulness of these tales, therefore, was historically attributed to their inferior prose style and their unethical utility.

Simultaneously, a number of comics appearing in Judy, Or the London Serio-Comic Journal depicted supposedly dreadful, but actually ridiculous, scenarios. For example, an 1872 cartoon titled “A Dreadful Thing to Happen” amusingly portrays a betrothed couple swimming in the sea at the same time, the man mistaking another man for his fiancée in the water, then both man and woman exiting the sea in such a rush that they enter each others’ bathing-machines and don each others’ clothes, after which they are both arrested by the police. This is, apparently, “a dreadful thing to happen.”

I am in earnest to explain this drastic evacuation of dread’s solemn significance! The Romantic period seems to be the tipping point, so I’m calling on my NASSR fellows for assistance:

What Romantic text (or image) best depicts dread?

Do you know any examples of silly dread in the Romantic period?

Sarah Kareem at UCLA has pointed out to me that awe/awful undergoes a similar transformation. Can you think of any similar examples?   

Other thoughts about this emptying of dread are very much appreciated! 

[1] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford UP, 1996), 17.

[2] Walpole, 19.

[3] “dread, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/57584. Accessed 8 December 2017.

[4] Walpole, 33.

[5] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford UP, 2016), 39.

[6] Paul Megna, “Better Living through Dread: Medieval Ascetics, Modern Philosophers, and the Long History of Existential Anxiety,” PMLA 2015, 130.5, 1286.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Alastair Hannah (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 42.

[8] Lewis, 173.

[9] Lewis, 173.

[10] Lewis, 333.

[11] Lewis, 326.

[12] Lewis, 338.

[13] Kierkegaard, 42.

[14] Francis Hitchman, “The Penny Press,” Macmillan’s Magazine, March 1881, 398.

[15] Hitchman, 385.

[16] Anonymous, “A Penny-Dreadful Scare,” The National Observer, 28 September 1895, 546.