In Search of Terror and Horror in The Sublime

© Books from Fangorn

Have you ever wondered why when reading a gothic novel you constantly find the words terror and horror? But what do these words refer to? Believe it or not, these two concepts are also fundamental for understanding the role that nature has played in literature. Let’s take a walk in this mysterious path, in this entry we will cover Edmund Burke’s ideas on terror and horror.

𝐵𝑢𝑟𝑘𝑒: 𝑆𝑢𝑏𝑙𝑖𝑚𝑖𝑡𝑦 𝑜𝑓 𝑇𝑒𝑟𝑟𝑜𝑟 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝘩𝑜𝑟𝑟𝑜𝑟

One of the most remarkable authors discussing horror is Edmund Burke. He might be best known for his political views on the French Revolution, he was very conservative. Or even because he spoke and wrote openly against Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. (amazing woman, being one of the first feminists to speak openly about women’s rights. She was also Mary Shelley’s mother).

Edmund Burke wrote a work entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In that text, he mainly focuses on explaining two concepts: the sublime and the beautiful. He states that despite those concepts being usually related, they have a different meaning. Also, he presents his own definition of the Sublime by mentioning the sources that produced it.

First of all, he distinguishes two types of passions: the passions that belong to self-preservation and the passions referred to with their final cause, society. The first ones are those passions that are powerful and strong emotions such as pain and horror when they do not affect too nearly when they are seen in the distance as a delightful thing. While the latter one he mentions is related to love and lust.

Therefore, he defines the Sublime, as a delight that is not related to pleasure but based on pain which is perceived when passions are strong. These passions are caused by nature, as it’s the case with astonishment and terror, the latter being:

“a source of the sublime that produces the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”.

– Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. p. 5

Therefore, according to Burke, terror is the ruling principle of the sublime.

The other sources of the sublime are: obscurity, power, vastness, infinity, the magnitude of building and light are associated with terror.

Obscurity remarks terror, by making the writing dark, uncertain and confused. These characteristics allow creating stronger emotions by words:

“the proper manner of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another is by words”.

– Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. p. 8

Ideas in the narrative should be presented in an obscure and imperfect form. According to Burke, when landscape or palace are neatly described they are an imitation of reality producing no emotion. For this reason, light is only capable of producing sublime when it is contrasted with darkness.

Power is also related to horror, as the latter is a source of power. Burke mentions that this is evident in religion as God is represented as a terrible being who makes his divine presence in nature by allowing catastrophes.

Vastness, more than being understood as an extension on length or height, it is related to infinity:

“a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and the truest test of the sublime”

– Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. p. 13

Burke insists that it is necessary to maintain passions in a unified form to make them more powerful.

Finally, he defines beauty and distinguishes it from the sublime. To define beauty, he separates it from love, lust and desire, saying that the first one is the body qualities that cause passion. Love, according to him is: “that satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beauty, of whatsoever nature it may be” (17). In contrast, the sublime is something deeper than beauty. Lust is the necessity of possession of certain things, while desire is a violent passion.

Burke does not purpose that the sublime and beauty are not related, but he maintains that they are different concepts, sublime is vast, dark and gloomy, solid, massive and nature founded on pain. In contrast, beauty is mostly small, smooth, light and delicate, not dark and comes from the nature of pleasure.

Edmund Burke’s work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful has been fundamental for understanding gothic literature and it will be important for further ecological readings that I will be sharing with you.

But now, I am going to give you an example of how his ideas can be seen in one of the most popular gothic novels.

𝑊𝘩𝑒𝑟𝑒 𝑐𝑎𝑛 𝑤𝑒 𝑓𝑖𝑛𝑑 𝑡𝘩𝑜𝑠𝑒 𝑖𝑑𝑒𝑎𝑠?

Be aware spoilers from The Castle of Otranto are coming…

The Castle of Otranto in Books from Fangorn.

For example, in The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole, when Manfred is going to force Isabella to marry him, the atmosphere is described the following way:

“Manfred rose to pursue her; when the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow and rustling sound”

– Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto.

Different elements allow the experience of the sublime described by Burke. There is a sequence of actions that produce horror to readers and characters. First, Manfred tries to force Isabella to marry him, despite he is already married and was supposed to be Isabella’s father in law. But then, when he is going to pursue her, a supernatural action interrupts his desires.

We cannot forget the setting presented in that scene, which is obscure and not clearly described. Readers know that the moon arose, but so did the helmet with some hollow noises. Walpole does not give us a clear detail of how things are.

✶⋆ In which other scenes from The Castle of Otranto do you think we can find the sublime, according to Burke with its horror? Comment here or on Instagram if you have some thoughts you would like to share.

Work Cited
– Burke, Edmund. On the Sublime. “On the Sublime and Beautiful”. Web. July. 2020 <htps://>.

– Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Oxford University Press. 1994

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