With the rise of the gothic genre in the 1700’s, philosopher Edmund Burke established a theory and analysis on different elements in gothic texts that drive the plot to sublimity. One of his elements he dives into is the use of lightness and darkness and its impact on readers. In literature, writers often play with different colors to enhance character identity. The color choices are fueled by the standard meanings and associations of colors. For example, red is often associated with adultery, sex, or blood; white is typically associated with purity, innocence, or cleanliness; black is usually associated with strangeness, dirtiness, evil, uniqueness, or simply something terrible. These colors and their standards often appear in literature to give the reader insight and clues of a character’s identity. The exterior-hair, eyes, complexion, clothes, et al-and the colors that encompass the character’s exterior is used to unravel their interiors and true identity. In A Sicilian Romance, Ann Radcliffe uses color to contrast and paint her characters’ identities. In addition, after using color to establish identity, the author uses Burke’s theory of colors by zooming in on the darkly-painted sister, Julia, to exude sublimity.
The character closely followed in Radcliffe’s novel is Julia. Julia is described as a “dark” character in her appearance, which leads readers to believe there is more darkness than what meets the eye. Darkness in the novel does not solely function as evil, in Julia’s identity the darkness of her figure functions to exemplify her uniqueness. She is painted as a unique woman by the author. Julia is given dark features to enhance her actions and motives. Radcliffe describes Julia as “light and graceful… Her mien animated, and her smile enchanting. Her eyes were dark and full of fire, but tempered with modest sweetness… The dark auburn hair, which curled in beautiful profusion in her neck, gave her a finishing charm to her appearance” (6). Radcliffe draws her character with dark hair and eyes to show that her identity is rooted in something larger than just being a beautiful daughter. Julia lives up to the colors of her identity when she decides to run away and avoid marriage. This is unconventional of the time period they lived in, for women were birthed to marry, have kids, and be submissive servants to their husbands. But Julia had different ideas, and because she had such a complex mind and a brave, masculine, demeanor, Radcliffe gave her dark traits to exemplify her non-traditional and unique life.
To even further contrast the different colors and their functions in novels, Julia is given a sister who is “light” in appearance and who ultimately functions as an opposite or foil to Julia in their color-driven appearances and in their personalities. Julia’s sister Emilia is described as “finely proportioned. Her complexion was fair, her hair flaxen, and her dark blue eyes were full of sweet expression. Her manners were dignified and elegant, and in her air was a feminine softness, a tender timidity which irresistibly attracted the heart of the beholder” (6). As one can see from Emilia’s description, she is defined as the opposite of her sister Julia. Radcliffe uses words like “sweet”, “timid”, “light”, “feminine”, “elegant”, and “fair” to paint Emilia and to paint her as a beautiful, sweet, and quiet woman, which is what the typical woman was during this time period. Emilia follows rules and maintains her reputation and place in society as a woman, which is why she is painted as the light character, because she is the typical maiden or damsel in distress. Blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes is common in painting the innocent characters in gothic novels. These colors depict innocence, ideals, beauty, and piety.
Yet, even though characters with innocent appearances are often ideal and suitable main characters, Radcliffe decides to follow the “dark” sister on her journey. This is because according to Burke, “lightness” in a character, a small medium, is incapable of producing sublimity. The philosopher says, “mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime,” He even goes on to say lightness “deadens the whole taste of the sublime” (Sex. XIV. Light. 120). Emilia’s character cannot create sublime for the readers because she is so common. Like every other woman in novels during the time, she is the perfect lady. This is no longer interesting or a shock to readers, for it has become a common theme in the gothic novels of the time period. Julia is not traditional in any way. She does not conform to the society or her womanly duties posed upon her. This is something new, so it makes a strong impression on the readers. Because she is such a brave and individualistic woman of the novel and its time period, readers are able to sympathize, be shocked, read something new, and experience the sublime.
Radcliffe chooses to follow Julia on her journey because the darkness in Julia functions as the sublime in the text. Although darkness often invokes terror and melancholy, Burke claims darkness steers readers to the sublime. He says, “darkness is more productive of sublime ideas than light.” (Sec XIV: Light. 121). Darkness is often associated solely with terror, but it can also be categorized as surprising or new, like Julia’s personality in the novel. These two elements, surprise and new-ness, is what makes darkness sublime because the readers have not experienced it before it sparks strong reactions to it. Julia is a woman of the 18th century that readers most likely not have come across in other texts they were reading. If one looks at The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and its women, one can assume that other texts of the time depicted women the same way-as innocent, quiet, naïve, submissive damsels in distress. Julia was not this type of woman which is what made her dark, or surprising.
Burke also argues, “among colors, such as are soft or, cheerful, are unfit to produce grand images. An immense mountain covered with a shining green turf, is nothing in respect to one dark and gloomy; the cloud sky is more grand than the blue; and night more sublime and solemn than day” (Sec XVI. Color considered as productive of the sublime. 122). What burke is arguing in this quote is the same idea about how sublimity is reached through an uncommon image. For example, people see a blue sky all the time, but a cloudy one only when it rains. Common ideas and images are stitched into people’s minds and become ineligible to shock or spark emotion since people get used to them. However, with ideas and images that are rare, they ignite emotion and reaction. If its cloudy or rainy, people go out and dance in the rain, or take pictures of the rain and the clouds, dress differently for the rain, or have activities for the rare weather. But when it’s just a normal blue day, it’s nothing special and creates no action or emotion.
However, Ann Radcliffe did not create contrasting color-driven characters just to show different personalities that colors are associated with. The lightness and darkness possess another function in the novel. Although Emilia did not function as a form of sublime of the novel on her own, as an opposite to her sister, she can become half of another form of sublimity. By opposing lightness and darkness in the two sisters, Radcliffe is extracting more sublimity. Burke says, “after looking for some time at the sun, two black spots seem to dance before our eyes. Thus are two ideas as opposite as can be imagined reconciled in the extremes of both; and both in spite of their opposite nature brought to concur in producing the sublime… Opposite extremes operate equally in favor of the sublime” (Sec XIV. 121).
What the theory is claiming is that because lightness and darkness are such opposites, when they are put together they produce the sublime. Darkness can stand alone, yet lightness cannot. But, when the two are put together, they are able to produce strong reaction and emotion in readers. This is because this is also a form of rarity-the two opposites existing together at the same time. Radcliffe did not only put lightness and darkness in the text together, she made them sisters. She made them as close as she possibly could to help readers visualize the two contrasting colors meshed together becoming one image. When the two are together, reactions arise because they are so different from one another and function so differently for the text. For example, it won’t rain and be a sunny, blue, sky in the same place at the same time. It can rain in one place and be sunny in another, but they don’t exist together just like lightness and darkness don’t exist together. Yet, Julia and her sister Emilia do, and they exist in the society so differently. Since this rarity exists together and sparks reaction from those viewing the collision, the joining of the light and dark- of Julia and Emilia-is sublime.
Radcliffe successfully seeps colors and their associations into her sisters Julia and Emelia in the novel, ultimately enhancing their contrasting “light” and “dark” identities and producing sublimity in the novel. The author also decides to stray away from the traditional gothic woman in her novel by painting Julia as this darker, non-conforming, character. She follows this sister on her journey as she runs away because she is the sublimity of the novel. Her darkness and her uniqueness both serve as the driver to sublimity for the readers. In this text, darkness is something that is new instead of solely something that is encompassed with terror. Because Julia is something new, she is able to spark a reaction in the readers who have not come across a female character like her before. Emilia is the cliché woman of the 18th century who is the innocent damsel in distress that readers have grown accustomed to, and therefore resistant, so she is not appealing to the readers. However, when working as an opposite to her sister, Emilia becomes half of a form of sublimity.
Ann Radcliffe effectively creates the sublime in various ways with color in her gothic novel. She creates sublime through the use of the darkness as color and then through the use of lightness and darkness as opposites. Not only is she able to enhance her characters’ identities through the use of colors, she is also able to produce sublimity. Through Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, one is able to validate Radcliffe’s methods and to examine how her method with color functions in the text. From looking at Radcliffe’s novel, one can see that color is not random. Color provokes reaction and color and its associations also function as a scalpel that allows literary surgeons to dissect a character’s body and mind.