The genealogy of guilt in American Gothic literature



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I argue that despite being present in the Gothic since its inception, the concept of subconscious guilt as its main motivational force has been largely ignored by scholars. By exploring works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles W. Chesnutt, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy I examine how American Gothic literature addresses silenced guilt in regard to historical epochs such as early settlement, slavery, post-Reconstruction, and westward expansion, while offering atonement on both an individual and national level.

The works covered in this dissertation start with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, both of which explore the Puritan beginnings of US settlement and raise, though rather covertly, questions that McCarthy continues in his novels Blood Meridian and The Road in regard to westward expansion, mythologized versions of national history, and the detrimental effects of a continual silencing of guilt. I address questions of national guilt we accrued with slavery by looking at Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Similar to The Road, though not futuristic in setting, Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition delineates how the unacknowledged guilt of the past has detrimental effects on the present; in his novel, set in the era of post-Reconstruction, Chesnutt exemplifies direct results of that guilt evident in racism, Jim Crow laws, and the practice of lynchings. 

I conclude that silenced guilt is comparable to the psychological phenomenon of shame and results in outward projection of personality flaws, aggression, and other behavior detrimental to a psychologically healthy personality. People, and by extension nations, who are capable of acknowledging their guilt, however, exhibit the psychologically distinct phenomenon of guilt; most importantly, they are able to address their culpability to eventually overcome it. 

Finally, I argue that works of American Gothic literature are fissures in the national consciousness that would prefer to silence its historical guilt. By writing and reading these Gothic works, though, the nation actually does work against this silencing and toward redemption and retribution.



American Gothic literature, Cormac McCarthy, Charles W. Chesnutt, Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Guilt, African American literature