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Critical Realism and Gothic Fantasy in Gee’s The Fire-Raiser

May 1, 2012

In her analysis of Maurice Gee’s The Fire-Raiser, Erin Mercer looks at the tensions between the realist and gothic elements of the narrative. She writes:

The parameters of the gothic are famously ill-defined and it is often considered a slippery or elusive genre. This is particularly true in the New Zealand literary context, which has no real starting-point from which to consider the gothic. While British gothic has a clear tradition beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and developing through novels such as Stoker’s Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and while the American tradition has Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, New Zealand literature displays little evidence of a gothic canon. New Zealand literature has long focussed on the championing of the local and the specific in order to create and reinforce ideas of a national identity and while a consequence of this stance was the critical neglect of particular literary genres such as the gothic and science fiction, Gee’s novel shows how genre motifs can be employed in literature adhering to more “acceptable” modes. The Fire-Raiser clearly adheres to nationalist notions of New Zealand literature by including local idioms and settler anxieties and by repudiating traditional value structures….” (34)

While certainly not a part of the “high” gothic tradition or a schlock-horror gothic in the pulp tradition of Stephen King, Gee’s novel utilizes gothic motifs as a kind of window-dressing, investing social critique with the titillating thrills of popular fantasy. The Fire-Raiser warns children of the threat contained in the outside world and the home environment, and reassures readers that by banding together and using rational skills and knowledge, such threats, no matter how fearsome, can be identified and conquered.” (35)

Mercer writes that: “While children’s literature has displayed an increasing gothicism in recent years, texts such as Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters and the hugely popular Harry Potter series utilize gothic motifs, because their subject-matter calls for it. Magic has always been a part of stories for children, but what are we to make of a novel with no supernatural element which nevertheless insists on spooky descriptions?/ If one understands realism as a practice that depicts a “truth”, what Mark Williams identifies as “critical realism” reveals a greater truth hidden beneath a lesser one.Texts employing the conventions of critical realism, a dominant mode in New Zealand writing, attempt to recreate and represent social reality while criticizing that reality, thus presenting a reality “more true” than the reader’s perception of the real. Gee’s critical realism depicts a specific social reality in order to skewer class pretensions and crude nationalist sentiments, establishing a paradigm in which the working- and middle-class characters are an antidote to upper-class pretension. The stance taken by critical realism is obviously anathema to that of the gothic, which relies for its effects on the inauthentic, the “camp” and the unreal. Yet, while the gothic might seem to sit uneasily alongside critical realism, these seemingly antagonistic strategies are used by Gee to support the same aim.” (24)

The Fire-Raiser is a sort of “gothic-lite” which dresses threat up in the funereal robes of the irrational, but which insists on the inability of the irrational to pose any real threat to Enlightenment values.” (25)

I particularly enjoyed Mercer’s analysis of the use of simile within the frame of realist/gothic tensions; Mercer writes: “When they discover him [Marwick] standing amidst the flames with his arms raised, fiery-headed, red and black, he “screeches like an owl” and is “like the devil”. His eyes are “like cat eyes in the night; they were tunnels deep into his head” (p. 69). Gee’s similes here are important; the fire-raiser is “like” an irrational threat but one that remains real and therefore manageable.” (29)

Ref: Erin Mercer (2010) ‘Monstrous Identities: Critical realism and Gothic Fantasy in Maurice Gee’s The Fire-Raiser’ The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 45: 23-35

 

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