1. What is gothic?
1.1 Characteristics of gothic fiction
1.2 Transferring gothic characteristics to “The Mummy”
2. The Byronic hero
2.1 Imhotep as Byronic hero
2.2 Doomed love in “The Mummy”
Ancient Egypt and the Gothic go well together – or to be more precise, modern images of what most consider to be a magical and enchanted, rather exotic period in history appear to find their most touching expression in what is widely considered to be a typical gothic manner of representation. Both ancient Egypt and the gothic were and still are quite popular, be it in written or cinematic form (c.f. Holland a. Sherman 1977: 279 & Lant 1992: 89).
This paper deals with Stephen Sommers’s movie “The Mummy”, released in 1999 (c.f. International Movie Database, IMDb). It might be considered a Blockbuster, as it was able to not only regain but more than double its budget within the opening weekend alone (c.f. ibid.). What are the reasons for such a success? Two of them may already be found in the opening sentences of this introduction – “The Mummy” successfully unites both the audience’s visions of ancient Egypt and a typical – covert, but still tangible – gothic way of narration and style. However, another layer has been added that seems to have contributed to the movie’s success at international box-offices: the idea of an eternal love obviously doomed from its very beginning. It is this fatal love between a high priest and the Pharaoh’s mistress that represents the center of this paper’s argumentation. It will be examined whether this love can be called the “prima causa” (Conrad 1973: 17) of the catastrophe that follows it. Furthermore, it will be shown how well the love-story fits into the film’s general story and to its gothic appeal.
In preparation for this discussion, the paper enlists criteria of what is considered being a representative gothic novel and compares these criteria with characteristics of the movie. Additionally, the movie’s villainous couple and their love will be examined: Can he be seen as a typical gothic villain and is he “a se” (ibid: 18) evil or are the origins of his villainy to be sought in his environment? Does she truly love him or only see him as her possibility to oppose society and escape into a better future? In this context, the paper will also explore some current theories about the Byronic hero and heroine and their representation in literature. Again, the characteristics of this literary figure will be listed and compared to those of Imhotep and Anck Su Namun – it will then be examined whether the two of them can be read as such archetypes of literature.
Finally, it will be discussed whether the assumptions stated above can be regarded as a justified reading of the movie – a reading of “The Mummy” as a modern approach to gothic fiction and its realization, centered around a fatal and indeed doomed love set against the enchanting background of ancient Egypt.
1. What is gothic?
The (proto-) typical gothic novel consists of a rather fixed set of elements (c.f. Novak 1979, Holland a. Sherman 1977 & Conrad 1973). During the period of their first popularity, some authors commented on the novels’ defined form already, by creating an ironic set of basic rules:
First take a great deal of paper, pens and ink, and an English pocket dictionary. Next
compose a vast assortment of names, reserving the most romantic for your hero and
heroine; [...] Intersperse judiciously marcheses, marchesas, pavilions, monks, nuns,
caverns, towers, lakes and dells. […] See that your heroine is invariably of a fragile
form […] (Mangin 1808: 82).
Even today, there still are writers who share such views about what seems to be an often neglected genre: “When the word Gothic is applied to literature it merely evokes images of ghosts, demons, trapdoors, castles.” (Thompson quoted in Novak 1979: 51) However, there has to be something capturing about these ingredients – because even after the passing of two centuries between its appearance and today, the gothic genre is still very popular (c.f. Holland a. Sherman 1977: 279). But how is a work of gothic fiction composed – apart from the winking yet surprisingly fitting definitions mentioned above?
Holland and Sherman defined genre by identity – a specific set of characteristics formed around a “constant core [they] call […] an identity theme.” (ibid.: 280). This identity theme allows us to evaluate things according to their whole composition: Holland and Sherman give the example of daily statements like “’That’s not like Geoffrey at all!’” (ibid.). Like a person, a genre is not only made up of defined characteristics, but also feelings that readers and audiences connect with it – comparable to a reoccurring musical theme in a movie which plays the same recognizable set of tones in various forms (c.f. ibid.). This being stated, it can now be argued that a reader does not necessarily need all of the typical gothic aspects to regard a piece of fiction as gothic. This effect is rather achieved by creating a special mood than cramming said piece with “ghosts, demons, trapdoors, castles” (Thompson quoted in Novak 1979: 51). However, there are certain elements which are essential in regard to creating such a mood – be they overtly or covertly represented.
1.1 Characteristics of gothic fiction
a) An elegant and capable villain
Although gothic villains differ in some of their characteristics, there is one element that remains: their yearning for autocracy (c.f. Conrad 1973: 38). They usually come from a wealthy, even noble background and embody the certain kind of egoism people might expect from such a person (c.f. ibid.). In addition, they display shrewdness and radiate “’something super-human’” (ibid.). Interestingly, they often mirror their respective antagonist in a dark way (c.f. Hackenberg 2009: 63) and cause their female victims to feel “alternately attracted and repelled by the rakishly handsome […] villain” (Holland a. Sherman 1977: 279).
Furthermore, their past often contains an unutterable secret and its discovery offers a possible solution and supports the other characters’ hope for escape (c.f. Conrad 1973: 16, 21 & Holland a. Sherman 1977: 286). They are “mythic and timeless, [...] creature[s] of all ages” (Holland a. Sherman 1977: 285) and oppose the moral norms their victims comply to (c.f. ibid.).
b) A female victim
The villain’s female adversary is a pure and innocent young woman whose family and friends are either dead, nonexistent or not with her, thereby creating the motif of the “’helpless orphan’” (c.f. Conrad 1973: 20) in order to stress the imbalance of power between villain and victim. There is also a constant sexual tension between them – Conrad argued that it is indeed the victim who provokes persecution and potential rape in the first place (c.f. ibid.: 16). Holland and Sherman tend towards the same idea and argue that the victim’s constant flight is actually an “outward turn from threatened sexual penetration […]” (Holland a. Sherman 1977: 284). She usually teams up with a male protector (c.f. Conrad 1973: 18).
c) Constant struggle between villain and woman
Conrad argued that one of the most basic levels of gothic fiction is the “Wechselspiel von ‘escape’ und ‘capture’ zwischen dem ‘gothic villain’ und der ‘maiden in flight’ […]” (Conrad 1973: 16). This reoccurring theme also supports the fast pace in which gothic stories are usually told – like the reader, neither villain nor hero are granted the possibility of catching their breath (c.f. ibid.). It sometimes even remains unclear who is chased by whom, stressing another important element of gothic fiction, namely mirroring (c.f. ibid.). Due to the very stressful and unsettling situation of constant chase, the story appears to equally race from its initial point towards an unchangeable catastrophe – the characters do not form the story, but vice versa (c.f. ibid.: 16f).
d) A mysterious lair
Another important aspect in the creation of a gothic mood is the villain’s hideout which is usually a castle, as mentioned several times above (c.f. Conrad 1973: 21 & Holland a. Sherman 1977: 284). When brought down to its essential elements, however, it can be almost any place that comes with the following: mazy architecture, an enchanted and often brutal past, mysterious noises and a deep linkage with the villain (c.f. Conrad 1973: 21ff & Holland a. Sherman 1977: 284ff). This connection between the lair and its inhabitant(s) is a very intensive one and the respective building often even takes on an active role in the villain’s chase and capture of the victim(s) – it is usually destroyed with the villain’s defeat or seems to destroy itself when its malevolent owner dies (c.f. Conrad 1973: 23).
- Quote paper
- Lena Meyer (Author), 2013, Unwrapping “The Mummy“. A Modern Example of Doomed Love and the Gothic, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/299332