Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations.
Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full.
Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt?
Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon.
In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5).
Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts.
In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors.
When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter.
In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care.
Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories.
Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.
MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars
View all my reviews