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Men, Monsters and Morality: Shaping Ethics through the Sublime and Uncanny

1 May 2014


Authors and philosophers in the long 19th century were heavily influenced by the concept of the sublime – especially the interpretations developed by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke in the 1700s – as an ethical transcendence and temporary bewilderment of the imagination triggered by an experience with the irresistible force of nature. As an aesthetic and ethical experience, sublime elements in art and literature were essential features meant to draw a strong emotional response from the observer. To emphasize the moral qualities attached to it, Gothic novels of the Romantic period often juxtaposed the sublime with monsters – frightening creatures both extraordinary and unnatural, often of vast or grotesque proportions. In Gothic literature, monsters are imbued with uncanny elements and serve to externalize repressed fears and desires lurking in the cultural unconscious. Using a framework of ethics, this thesis explores the relationship between monsters and the sublime within three 19th century novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Examining each text in these terms provides insight into how monsters in Gothic literature are used to reflect social disharmony and how such ethical struggles are tempered by the sublime.


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