“Unspeakable” Desires: Gothic Literature & Homosexuality

PLEASE NOTE: This page draws on resources highlighted by a Gothic Literature course at the University of Virginia.

Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk [free online] (1795)


“Ah father, how willingly would I unveil to you my heart! How willingly would I declare the secret which bows me down with its weight! But oh! I fear, I fear–”

“What, my son?”

“That you should abhor me for my weakness; that the reward of my confidence should be the loss of your esteem. . . . Father!” continued he, throwing himself at the Friar’s feet, and pressing his hand to his lips with eagerness, while agitation for a moment choaked his voice; “father!” continued he in faltering accents, “I am a woman!”

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Towards the Gothic: Terrorism and Homosexual Panic.”

From: Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)

It was part of the strange fate of the early Gothic that the genre as a whole, conflicted as it was, came in the nineteenth century to seem a crystallization of the aristocratic homosexual role, even as the aristocracy was losing its normative force in English society more generally. And by the turn of the twentieth century, after the trials of Oscar Wilde, the “aristocratic” role had become the dominant one available for homosexual men of both the upper and middle classes… The structural importance of this shift for the emergent middle-class homophobic culture of “male bonding,” as well as on women and the perception of owmen, was thorough and richly complicated.

One of the most distinctive of Gothic tropes, the “unspeakable,” had a symptomatic role in this series of shifts. Sexuality between men had, throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, been famous among those who knew about it at all precisely for having no name — “unspeakable,” “unmentionable,” “not to be named among Christian men,” are among the terms recorded by Louis Crompton. Of course, its very namelessness, its secrecy, was a form of social control. Many critics of the Gothic mention, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, the defining pervasiveness in Gothic novels of language about the unspeakable. In the paranoiac novel Melmoth, for example, when Melmoth the persecutor finally wears down his victims into something like receptiveness, he then tells them what he wants from them; but this information is never clearly communicated to the reader. The manuscripts crumble at this point or are “wholly illegible,” the speaker is strangled by the unutterable word, or the proposition is preterited as “one so full of horror and impiety, that, even to listen to it, is scarce less a crime than to comply with it!”

The trope of the unspeakable here seems to have a double function. Its more obvious referent is a Faustian pact, for Melmoth practices “that [nameless] art, which is held in just abomination by all who name the name of Christ.'” The other half of the double meaning — the sexual half — excluded the exoteric portion of Maturin’s audience (possibly including Maturin himself?). Certainly, however, it meant something to Maturin’s great-nephew, Oscar Wilde. Seventy years later, forced to leave England after his disgrace and imprisonment for homosexual offenses, Wilde was to change his name to Melmoth.

But although in the romantic period the Gothic unspeakable was a near-impenetrable shibboleth for a particular conjunction of class and male sexuality, its role had changed markedly by the turn of the twentieth century. Partly through Wilde’s own voluntary and involuntary influence (“I am the Love that dare not speak its name”), what had been a shibboleth became a byword. What had been the style of homosexuality attributed to the aristocracy, and to some degree its accompanying style of homophobia, now washed through the middle classes, with, as I have said, complicated political effects. The Gothic, too, changed: homosexual implications in Melmoth or Vathek had been esoteric; parts of Dorian Gray were, or were used as, a handbook of gay style and behavior.

George Haggerty, “Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, Lewis.”

From: Studies in the Novel (Winter 1986)

It is impossible to chronicle the suffering that went into the creation of the Gothic novel, but the very emergence of anti-homosexual feeling, so evident, for instance, in the case of Beckford, hints at the source of such misery. Jeffrey Weeks could have been speaking about the Gothic itself when he says: “A harmless pleasure can become the gateway to nameless hells when for whatever reason it begins to carry a significant symbolic meaning.” It is impossible to say whether what Foucault calls “the setting apart of the unnatural’ as a specific dimension in the field of sexuality” had achieved its final form in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the novels we are considering suggest the emergence of a “significant symbolic meaning” for both sexuality and the unnatural.

What we think of as the Victorian configuration of organized repression coupled with lurid “secret” lives — the fear of sexuality on the one hand and the struggle for sexual expression on the other — was nurtured and given its ghoulish strength in the crenellated castles and subterranean vaults which the Gothic novel popularized. Sexuality in the Gothic novel is harrowing in its “aberrant” nature and in its association with the perversion of power. The homosexual basis for such fantasy is surely no accident. If Sedgwick is correct in asserting that “the Gothic unspeakable was a near-impenetrable shibboleth for a particular conjunction of class and male sexuality,” we must remember too that what is spoken in these works constitutes the first whole-scale attempt to articulate the relation of self and society that any member of a sexual minority must experience. The novels of Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis… can be seen as an attempt to come to terms with the kinds of inner conflict that the emerging crisis of homosexuality made inevitable. The disjunction of public values and private meaning so basic to the Gothic novel becomes the final source of horror in these works: the beast and the monk remain isolated and mutually destructive. (343).

FREE from Delphi Classics is the anthology Masters of Gothic Horror, that includes key works by gay authors (The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and Dracula by Bram Stoker), LGBTQ-inflected novels (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, that in its unpublished form included a homoerotic Mr. Hyde), and a dozen other landmark Gothic novels and tales.

Begun 1997 / Revised September 28, 2020

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