Gothicism in literature, or Gothic literature, is a style of writing characterized by gloomy settings, supernatural elements, and exoticism. The Gothic writers compose deliciously terrifying stories featuring dark and creepy settings, supernatural interferences, ancient family curses and a prevailing atmosphere of terror and mystery.
In a literal sense, Gothic Literature or Gothic fiction really abounds in frightening elements and dark themes. But do you know that this horror genre is so much more than a scary form of entertainment?
In this post, I’ll define Gothicism in literature (Gothic fiction or Gothic literature), origin and development of Gothic fiction, and then explore the classic elements of Gothic literature. Afterwards, I’ll analyze major characteristics of Gothic fiction, from the terror and dread it induces in its characters and audience to the literary devices its writers employ to create a sense of gruesome and macabre.
In order to fully appreciate Gothicism in literature, it’s mandatory to understand its place in history and society. Besides, it is equally necessary to explore the factors which led writers to adopt this particularly gruesome style of narration. It’s also essential that readers learn to recognize Gothic literature themes, motifs and conventions. Finally, I’ll discuss some famous Gothic writers and their major works. The discussion will end with exploring why Gothic fiction has retained its appeal even with today’s audiences.
So let’s dive right in!
1. Gothicism in Literature: Definition & Introduction
Gothicism in literature (Gothic fiction or Gothic literature) is a style of writing characterized by gloomy settings, grotesque action, supernatural elements, romance and exoticism. It basically emerged as the subgenre of Romanticism in 18th century’s England. Later, in the 19th century, it also became popular in the United States as the darkest form of ‘Dark Romanticism’, a genre that emerged from the ‘Transcendental Movement’ in America.
The Gothic writers mostly fabricate their narratives using elements like horror, mystery, suspense, romance, decay and degeneration. They use these Gothic elements to tackle serious issues that require much attention. For instance, social injustice, corruption, the class system, gender norms, racism, and more.
The famous Gothic stories or novels usually contain grotesque characters, sheer terror, graphic morbidity, supernatural and picturesque adventures to entertain the reader. Besides, they also draw on emotional extremes and dark themes. The classic Gothic novels usually take place in settings like old, gloomy castles, mansions, and monasteries; all isolated and ruined.
However, at the end of the19th century emerged a new mode of Gothic fiction—the ‘Modern Gothic’. The modern Gothic novels focus on the urban settings, complicated plots with various subplots, and highlight contemporary issues and concerns.
2. Origin of Gothicism in Literature
The term ‘Gothic’ actually traces its origin in the medieval architecture created by the Goths, a North Germanic tribe of the Middle ages. The Gothic architecture was dark, intricate, and dismal in its appearance. Aesthetically embellished and conceptually intricate, this medieval architecture became the inspiration for a new literary genre in Europe, namely, Gothicism or Gothic Literature.
Gothicism made its appearance in literature in the beginning of the Romantic Era (mid-18th Century). It was encouraged by the group of writers who were enchanted by the spell of medievalism. They wrote novels exhibiting the elements of terror, horror, suspense, superstition, mystery and romance; elements that eventually became the characteristics of Gothic novels.
How did Gothic literature emerge?
Gothic fiction actually emerged as a subgenre of Romanticism which was a reaction to the formal form of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement. The Romantics focused on the beauty of nature, subjectivity, individualism, and the sublime. Though Gothicism shared many features of Romanticism, it mainly focused on the darker side of humanity and its preoccupation with sin and evil.
As opposed to the Enlightenment that emphasized reason and science over superstition and blind faith, the Gothic writers intended to thrill feelings and emotions among the readers. They mainly focused on human fallibility, the psychological effects of guilt and sin, self-destruction, punishment, and judgement.
According to many critics, the Gothic novel in the beginning was a description of the fallen world. Early Gothic novels heavily focused on religion, morality, and philosophy, with the evil villains usually acting as metaphors for various human temptations the protagonist must overcome. Their endings were more often than not unhappy, and romance was never their focus. But in the centuries since, Gothic fiction not only developed, but also branched off into many popular subgenres, dealing with several themes.
The most famous Gothic writers of the era were Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, Charles Robert Maturin, Willian Beckford, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.
3. Development of Gothicism in Literature: The Gothic Fiction & Writers
3.1. The First Gothic Novel
The term ‘Gothic’ was first used in literature by Horace Walpole, an English author, art historian, and a Whig politician. He was the third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, and a pivotal figure in 18th century art, literature, society, and architecture. He used the term ‘Gothic’ in the subtitle of his novel “The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story” (1765). Walpole’s book resulted in a literary movement which has sired monsters, unleashed lightening and put damsels in distress for 250 years!
Horace Walpole actually borrowed the term ‘Gothic’ from medieval Gothic architecture and applied it in the context of horror. His novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is the first Gothic novel, and is solely responsible for originating an entire new literary genre that ultimately gave rise to the literature of terror—Gothic literature. Without this forerunner of the Gothic novel, there may never have been a horror genre. With its compelling blend of sinister portents, tempestuous passions and ghostly visitations, it spawned an entire literary tradition and influenced such writers as Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and others.
Therefore, Horace Walpole is truly considered the chief initiator of Gothicism in literature. He is known as the first Gothic writer as well as the founder of Gothic fiction.
3.2. ‘The Castle of Otranto’: A Pioneer of Gothic fiction
Walpole originally published The Castle of Otranto in 1964, calling it a translation from an old Italian manuscript. He did so because he thought that the style of the book would not be well received. But to his utter surprise, the public loved it and Walpole eventually confessed to its authorship in the second edition of the book published in 1765. According to him, the story of the book was inspired by a nightmare he experienced at his Gothic villa, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham, London.
The Gothic Elements in ‘The Castle of Otranto’
Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto features many elements that definitely were innovative for the era and from which many authors drew inspiration. The book contains dark settings, supernatural elements, tyrants, mysteries and secrets—all known today as the traditional elements of Gothic literature. It has a medieval setting, with knights, vile and bullying usurpers, and pious and submissive girls.
The Castle of Otranto, therefore, can be seen as a draft of Gothic fiction. Walpole established a model for Gothic literature, later sophisticated by Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the greatest bestsellers of the time. Walpole’s book further went on to influence works such as Dracula, The Monk, and many more.
Thus, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto introduced many archetypes that have defined the genre. It was a true revival of medieval chivalry, but characterized by the union of romantic elements with that of the darkest and most disturbing ones. The backdrop of a medieval castle in a foreign country is the most obvious, paired with elements of the supernatural and the macabre. However, The Castle of Otranto is unique as it also includes humor and completely surrealistic additions that other well-known Gothic works which followed did not.
3.3. Why did Gothic fiction become so popular? And how did it flourish?
After Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story“, Gothic literature soon flourished successfully in Europe, America and some other countries including France. Its mysterious and adventurous stories set in dark and gloomy places, in fact, gained outstanding popularity in the 19th century.
Gothic fiction greatly appealed to the audience not only because it provided sensationalist entertainment but also because it portrayed stories of vulnerability and conflict with which the society could identify.
A New Identity for Gothicism in Literature
Gothicism in literature has undergone a significant change from its inception to date. After Horace Walpole there came many famous Gothic writers who successfully wrote novels of terror and mystery. They utilized Walpole’s Gothic tropes in their stories, but polished them with their own peculiar style. These famous Gothic writers include Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Their works helped in further development of the genre, introducing other elements, not necessarily supernatural, into the plot and building the character.
Ann Radcliffe, for instance, was the most popular of the writers of Gothic fiction during the Romantic age. Her Gothic novels masterfully combined the mechanism of ‘terror’ (as practiced by Walpole and his followers) with sentimental but effective description of scenery. The Mysteries of Udolpho and the Italian are her best-known works.
A later Gothic novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, brought a new turn in the Gothic genre. It portrayed an extra ordinary world where man attempts to be as powerful as God. Frankenstein is widely known as the first modern science fiction novel. It marked a new shift in Gothic literature by changing the typical Gothic villain from a supernatural being or an evil man into the physical embodiment of human folly, brought to life through scientific power.
3.4. What is American Gothic Fiction?
While Gothic literature was flourishing in England, American literature was in the midst of Transcendentalism, a literary movement that focused on science, nature and individualism. Then emerged Romanticism as a response against this “reason over feeling” or “head over heart” mentality. The Romantics believed in emotions, feelings, and the unseen world, rather than the cold facts of science.
As an offshoot of Romanticism emerged Dark Romanticism, also known as American Gothic. As compared to Romanticism, it was darker, had more emphasis on the supernatural, and a deep fascination with the grotesque, irrational, and demonic. Initially, the American audience discarded this new genre because they considered it unreliable. It was mainly due to the fact that Gothic had its roots in history, something that America lacked. To make it stand out of other Gothics, American writers established their own Gothic characteristics, featuring their own conceptions of horror.
3.5. What made American Gothic Fiction distinctive from its European counterpart?
The entire credit of this distinctiveness goes to Edgar Allan Poe. In the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe from America skillfully got hold of the Gothic genre. In his hands, Gothic fiction flourished to its extreme. The tragic events of Poe’s own lifetime helped him discover and write about the world’s worst evils. His writings explored the trauma taking place in the human mind, the evils of man, and emotional and mental disorders. It is his curiosity with the supernatural, the psychological trauma, and experience with mental illness that heightened a degree of horror in his works, an attribute that is still unparalleled.
All the works of Edgar Allan Poe are, indeed, well-known for their Gothicism. His famous story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), for instance, unfolds all the terrors of the human soul. Furthermore, he also wrote many detective, horror, romantic and comic stories. All these stories successfully explore Gothic themes and motifs of aristocratic decay, death and instability.
Thus, it was Edgar Allan Poe who, with his masterful grip on the stories of ‘terror’, raised the Gothic genre to the peak of fame. He is best known today as the master of gothic horror tales and also the father of American Gothic literature.
3.6. What are the Similarities and Differences between British Gothic and American Gothic literature?
In British Gothic fiction, the writers use certain techniques in order to confuse the reader, for instance, multiple narrators and plots. The main purpose behind this technique is to arouse readers’ curiosity and make what happens next all the more surprising. However, in American Gothic, the authors mainly utilize rhetorical devices such as imagery, personification, and symbolism for this purpose.
American Gothic writers focused on the psychological side of man, whereas Gothic writers from Britain focused on morality and faith. However, certain settings and strange events are a characteristic that is common in both English and American Gothic.
In British Gothic literature, terror is enhanced by the appearance of monsters, vampires, etc. While in American Gothic, the writers blend mystery and skepticism with strange events to enhance the feeling of terror.
Above all, the main difference between American and British Gothic fiction lies in their specific treatment of several Gothic themes and topics.
4. Some Common Trends in Gothic Fiction
Some common trends have been seen in Gothic fiction (British and American) since the beginning of the genre. These trends of Gothicism in literature are:
- Gloomy landscapes with ruined settings (old castles, ancient monasteries, graveyards etc.).
- Rebellious Movement (a reaction against former literary forms).
- Focus on the dark side of human nature (psychological or moral).
- Emphasis on the corruption of the human mind.
- Contrasting weather (inner vs. outer weather).
- An Atmosphere of Mystery and Suspense.
- The battle between mankind and unnatural forces of evil.
- Women in trouble.
5. Key Elements of Gothicism in Literature: Gothic Novel Elements
So far we’ve come to know that Gothicism in literature or Gothic fiction is a genre that combines both horror and romance. Besides, it also entails so much outside of social commentary and dark aesthetic.
- Gothic Setting: Gloomy, decaying castles or manors
- Male Protagonists: Beastly & Burdened
- Female Protagonists: Damsel in distress
- Ghosts, Monsters & Vampires
- Romance: Tragic and Bittersweet
- Gothic Atmosphere: Full of Suspense and Mystery
- The Grotesque
- Terror and Horror
Let’s analyze these basic elements of Gothic fiction in detail.
5.1. Gothic Setting: Gloomy, Decaying Castles or Manors
Settings are an extremely important element in Gothic fiction. The most typical Gothic settings include cemeteries, old castles, crumbling mansions, haunted houses, underground crypts and tunnels, dungeons, swamps, and dark forests.
In fact, a perfect Gothic novel features a gloomy, decaying, or abandoned setting with an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.
Horace Walpole had a fascination in medieval history and Gothic architecture. He even built the imitation Gothic castle ‘Strawberry Hill House’ in 1749. Also, the setting of his first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto is an ancient castle located in Medieval Italy. This first Gothic novel is actually responsible for starting a trend of placing a story in a Gothic building and exciting feelings of awe, dread, and isolation.
Thus, Gothic architecture plays an important role in Gothic literature. The setting of many of the Gothic stories is either a castle or large manor. This castle or large manor is usually abandoned or at least run-down. Whereas, in some Gothic novels it is far removed from civilization (so that no one can hear you when you call for help). Other settings in Gothic fiction may include caves or wilderness locales. For instance, a moor or heath.
5.2. Male Protagonists: Beastly & Burdened
Gothic novels mostly feature beastly and burdened protagonists. The main characters initially appear as a nice, decent person, but must ultimately face a monster within them. A prime example of this is Henry Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
So, the typical Gothic protagonists face their own demons (the darkness ‘within’) while searching for peace among the living or the dead. Gothic fiction explores the madness within each human being as we often witness characters who represent the best and the worst versions of humanity.
In addition, the protagonists in Gothic literature are aristocratic, solitary, sophisticated, moody, cynical from outside, but nursing a guilty secret inside. This type of conflicted male figures exist everywhere in Gothic fiction. The best examples in this regard are Maxim from ‘Rebecca’ and Mr. Rochester from ‘Jane Eyre’. Both these protagonists are tormented by their guilty pasts. Another example of a beastly protagonist can be seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Thus, in Gothic literature, the past always haunts the present. Whether it’s some guilty secret, sin or memory, there is always some form of a past the character would rather forget.
5.3. Female Protagonists: Damsels in Distress
In Gothic novels, the female protagonists are often damsels in distress. That is, they are victims and need to be rescued. Throughout the Gothic story, they face events that leave them frightened, screaming, panting and fainting. Moreover, these female protagonists are also virtuous heroines who are either imprisoned in an abandoned castle or pursued by a beast or an aristocratic lord. Throughout the course of the story they are running, screaming, sobbing or terrifying.
Some examples of damsels in distress from early Gothic fiction are:
- ‘Matilda’ in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
- ‘Emily’ in The Mysteries of Udolpho Ann Radcliffe
Gothic fiction also presents female protagonists in a particular light that completely alters the reader’s interpretation and leaves a profound effect upon a text. For instance, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter and Dracula by Bram Stoker depict women as maternal figures, objects of desire, and supernatural beings. They are also defined by their biological roles. But the most interesting thing here is particularly the transition between these typecasts. It is the breaking of the female characters out of their stereotypes which provides Gothic writers to create obscurity and suspense within a plot.
Thus, in Gothic literature we see female characters in two main roles: either victim or the predator. The first one is fragile and vulnerable; while the latter is dangerous yet powerfully attractive.
5.4. Ghosts, Monsters & Vampires
The antagonists in Gothic fiction are mainly ghosts, monsters, demons, vampires, zombies, witches, werewolves etc. For instance, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein creates a monster using body parts from various corpses in an attempt to make a perfect human being (which turns out to be a hideous monster!).
Similarly, in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, we find the castle haunted by the restless ghosts of Alfonso and Ricardo. Moreover, the plot of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho revolves around understanding the disjointed stories of two primary ghosts: Marchioness de Villeroi and Signora Laurentini.
5.5. Romance: Tragic and Bittersweet
Romance in Gothic literature has always been a central element, but what that means exactly has shifted over time. Basically in Gothic fiction, romance is tragic or bittersweet. Also, general Romanticism levels are through the roof, almost nearing melodrama.
Literally, the earliest works of Gothic fiction were called “Romances”—referring to the popular Medieval genre of Chivalric Romance, featuring the adventures of a heroic knight-errant on various quests. This is because romantic love often played a significant role in these stories, particularly in the form of the hero either wooing a beautiful maiden or rescuing a damsel in distress. Thus, early Gothic novels were an imitation of these medieval elements.
For instance, the very first Gothic novel written by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, depicts Theodore, a young man, who after his first sweeping romance with Manfred’s daughter, Matilda, ends in tragedy. He has to marry another girl and mourn the loss of his true love for years.
Furthermore, in Frankenstein, Victor’s love story with Elizabeth Lavenza also ends up tragically. Similarly, Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, A Sicilian Romance (1790) and Romance of the Forest (1791) also feature traditional romance plots.
5.6. Gothic Atmosphere: Full of Suspense and Mystery
The atmosphere in Gothic fiction is characterized by suspense, mystery and terror. It is further heightened by the unknown, unexplained or uncanny elements. The Gothic writers sometimes build their plot around a mystery: for instance, unknown parentage, someone’s disappearance, or many other inexplicable events.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein abounds in mysterious events and aptly features the gloomy atmosphere. Besides, there are a lot of mysterious happenings in The Castle of Otranto that arouse suspense among the readers. For instance, the appearance of a giant helmet, the giant sword, the skeletal hermit, and the giants.
Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White presents another example of Gothic atmosphere. The book contains several mysterious and ghostly elements as well as unanswerable questions that heighten suspense.
5.7. Gothic Melodrama
Gothic fiction is highly melodramatic since emotions run high in Gothicism, reflecting a heightened sense of drama. We often find women swooning in Gothic novels and men raging due to some unseen inner torments. Gothic novels also feature murders, kidnappings, people going mad, and women holding knives. They are stories of conflicts that are heightened with music.
The Castle of Otranto is a medieval tale of terror, incest, and murder mixed with a fair amount of melodrama and humor. Besides, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre are also examples of Gothic melodrama.
Among other things, Gothic melodrama is still widely popular in today’s movies.
5.8. The Grotesque in Gothic Fiction
Another key element of Gothicism in literature is the grotesque. Almost similar to the uncanny, the grotesque in Gothic fiction results from the striking combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or more likely the distorted familiar. It means that a character has a lack of knowledge about an unknown disturbing issue, but he/she simultaneously anticipates that some evil explanation is lurking behind it. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an obvious example in this regard.
Moreover, the characters in Gothic novels are also considered grotesque if they induce both disgust and empathy. On the contrary, a character who inspires merely disgust is simply a villain or a monster.
Among the examples of the grotesque characters include: physically distorted and mentally deficient characters, with cringe-worthy social traits. For instance, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the unusual characters depicted in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
Weather conditions like storms, fog, rain, wind, full moons, and clouds also play an important role in arousing the sense of the grotesque.
Exoticism is the quality of seeming unusual or interesting, usually because of associations with a distant country. Since Gothic fiction flourished during the height of British imperialism, both fear of and fascination with foreign cultures seeped into the genre. The writers of the era heavily entrenched Orientalism in all genres of English literature, but the significance of ‘the Other’ especially appealed to the Gothic writers.
The most important example of the interplay between Gothicism and Orientalism is William Beckford’s Vathek (1782), subtitled “An Arabian Tale.” Besides, Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian is a prime example of exoticism in Gothic literature. Moreover, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poems Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be also seen as examples of Exoticism and supernatural, but they are not typically Gothic.
5.10. Terror and Horror
Both terror and horror are key elements of Gothicism in literature. However there is an obvious distinction between them: horror evokes physical emotion i.e. sensationalism; whereas terror is more psychological i.e. dealing with subtle and sublime.
Terror in Gothicism results from dreadful suspense and veils a ghastly unknown. Whereas, horror stems out of generating revulsion. Terror persuades the reader to advance cautiously and with anticipation. While horror yearns for the sudden, crude, blatantly comic, and for the grotesque.
The most famous Gothic novels that evoke both terror and horror are The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliff, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and others.
6. Major Characteristics of Gothicism in Literature
There is a difference between the characteristics and elements of Gothic literature. While explaining Gothic literature, when we talk about the elements of Gothic novels, we specifically mean the basic things that need to be understood before anything else can be taught. Whereas, the characteristics of Gothic fiction means how these elements are incorporated and dealt with in the Gothic novels.
Gothic Literature or Gothic fiction contains four major elements:
- The story is set in decaying, gloomy or remote places.
- The plot involves macabre, grotesque or violent incidents.
- Characters are suffering from physical and/or psychological torment.
- The presence of paranormal or otherworldly elements.
From these major characteristics branch-off many other Gothic features. Some of the most prominent characteristics of Gothic literature are discussed below:
6.1. Mysterious Happenings and Suspense
The plot of the Gothic novel or story consists of mysterious happenings and suspense. For example, the disappearance of characters or things is a very common feature of Gothicism in literature. Besides, the unknown parentage of the protagonist, the hidden secrets and unexplained manifestations in the Gothic fiction are utilized to invoke suspense among the readers.
6.2. Existence of Supernatural Elements
The existence of supernatural elements such as ghosts, vampires, zombies, giants, and monsters is another key characteristic of Gothic fiction. For instance, in Gothic novels, we see the walking giants and inanimate objects such as an armor suit or a statue or portrait coming to life . These supernatural elements, on the whole, excite readers’ emotions and they begin enjoying the story.
6.3. The Gothic Buildings
The presence of enchanted houses, haunted mansions, gloomy old castles, isolated monasteries and ruined ancient buildings displaying the intricate Gothic architecture is another key feature of Gothicism in literature. These buildings also contain secret passages or hidden staircases. All these elements, undoubtedly, give the story a mysterious and horror touch.
6.4. Bleak and Deadly Atmosphere
The atmosphere of bleakness, thrill, death, and decay has a key role in Gothic fiction. The dark and dismal themes are aptly utilized by the Gothic writers to enhance the bleak atmosphere. In addition, the characters in the story are constantly facing terror of the unknown. We find them, for instance, struggling to evade their death at the hands of some supernatural being or a barbarous aristocrat. This key feature, in fact, has a tendency to invoke thrill among the readers.
6.5. Hereditary Curses and Prophecies
Another key characteristic of the Gothic novels is hereditary curses and prophecies. We find the protagonist of the story struggling with an ancient hereditary curse or suffering as a result of an old prophecy. Furthermore, the prophecies, omens and visions in the Gothic novel serve the purpose of foreshadowing technique. That is, they tell the reader what is going to happen next in the story.
6.6. Psychological Trauma and Mental Disorder
The characters in Gothic novels mostly suffer from psychological trauma and mental disorders. For instance, in the Gothic novels we find conflicted male figures with guilty secrets and past. Besides, they are having nightmares or frightening visions which foreshadow upcoming tragedy.
Furthermore, the character’s mental illness, sometimes, stems out of the guilt of his past sins or crimes. While, in many cases, its causes are different. The character’s psychological trauma finally leads to his split personality and he becomes a threat for the surrounding people.
6.7. The Awful Weather and Frightening tone
Another key element of Gothicism in literature is awful weather and frightening tone. Such as, the stormy night, harsh weather, lightning and thunder—all contribute to the Gothic nature of the story. Moreover, the creaking sound of the door, the monstrous laughter of the unknown, and the sound of footsteps make the tone of the story even more frightening.
The tone of Gothic fiction involves highly emotional states: dread, terror, anger, obsession, vengeance, anxiety, etc. However, the mood of Gothic literature is foreboding, melancholy, and an atmosphere of terror, suspense, and mystery.
7. Major Themes in Gothic Fiction
Themes refer to ideas that are recurrent or pervade a work of literature or art. They are the underlying meaning of a story. Themes give us an idea of what the writer is trying to convey through the story.
Some major themes used by the writers of Gothicism in literature are:
- Appearance and reality
- Terror and horror
- Justice vs. injustice
- Fear and anxiety
- Intimidating hero
- Troubled heroine
- Duality of man
- Isolation and seclusion
- Religion and faith
- Power and corruption
8. Some Important Motifs and Conventions in Gothic Fiction
Motifs are a literary technique in which writers repeatedly use such elements or ideas that have a symbolic significance to a literary work. A motif may be a recurring image, a repeated word, a color, a phrase, or a topic expressed in language.
Some motifs that are characteristic of the Gothicism in literature are:
- Dreams, nightmares, visions
- Forbidden knowledge or power
- Omens, curses, prophecies, signs
- Psychiatric and medical conditions
- Light/Darkness, Lights/Shadows,
- Twins and doubles
- Mistaken identity
Literary Conventions refer to the features of a literary work that define its genre. These may include tropes, recurring images, specific colors, arcs, clichés, symbols, and or certain devices that help distinguish how the audience will classify a particular literary text. Moreover, these literary conventions can be aspects of:
- prosody (rhyme and sound)
- content (humor in a comedy)
- structure (acts in a play)
Some literary conventions that are characteristics of Gothicism in literature are:
- Imprisoned Characters
- Flickering candles
- Electrical failure
- Strange glowing
- Eerie sounds
- Slamming doors
- Firelight and shadows
- Crazed laughter
- Abandoned areas
- Howling of wolves and dogs
- Sighs, moans, and clanking
- Footsteps and Staircases
9. The Gothic Novel: A Truth in Fancy Dress
Gothicism in literature has never been truly about pure, distilled horror—there is always a submerged meaning, something actually lurking below the subtext (but not a monster in the fantastical sense). Similar to historical fiction, the Gothic distances readers from their current cultural context. If the past is a foreign country, the Gothic is an alien planet. For centuries, Gothicism in literature has been employed to explore social, cultural and political issues deemed taboo, uncomfortable, or too radical for their historical moment.
For example, although Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is about love lost and obsession during the Holy Inquisition, it surreptitiously offers commentary on the French Revolution. It actually interrogates the aristocracy, the perils of religious fervor and concepts of nationality from a safe, allegorical distance.
Similarly, while John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) may seem to be a far-fetched tale about a blood-sucking immortal, it may also be read as a subversive exploration of male same-sex desire in both historically and geographically Orientalized literary space.
Although ridiculed, and associated with female hysteria or female writers in its heyday, Gothicism in literature is a highly seditious vehicle for the interrogation and dissemination of un-conventional ideologies, non-conformist criticisms of society, and alternative ways of existing.
Through its sublime landscapes, romantic architecture, preternatural monsters, and many, many damsels in distress, Gothicism in literature exposes the truly horrifying things.
Look for the truth in fancy dress!
10. A List of Famous Gothic Novels of All Time
Some famous Gothic novels and their writers are listed below:
- The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole
- The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
- The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis
- Wieland (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown
- Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
- The Vampyre (1819) by William Polidori
- Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
- The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
- Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
- Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
- The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan le Fanu
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde
- Dracula (1897) written by Bram Stoker
- The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
- Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.
- Psycho (1959) by Robert Bloch
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968) by Ira Levin
11. Famous Gothic Writers: Representatives of Gothicism in literature
Gothic writers usually focus on the darker side of humanity, the evils in man’s nature and the psychological effects of guilt and sin on man. Revenge, guilt, madness, superstition, prophecies, omens and supernatural elements such as ghosts and spirits are common motifs used by the writers of Gothicism in literature.
Moreover, the Gothic writers invent a host of characters in their writings, most of whom struggle to participate “normally” in a respectable society. They represent an entanglement of reality and fantasy with elements of mystery, terror, and supernatural. The list below features the most famous gothic writes that are truly representative of the Gothic genre.
Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the 4th earl of Oxford, was a famous antiquarian, art historian, politician, and author. He was the third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister. Educated at King’s College and Eton College, Cambridge, he was a multipotential man with a slew of influential friends. Over his lifetime Walpole was an avid reader and writer. He also founded Strawberry Hill House, the Gothic Revival villa in London.
Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) after being inspired by a nightmare he experienced at Strawberry Hill House. The book became immediate success and soon initiated an entire new genre in literature i.e. Gothic fiction. Walpole’s novel is solely responsible for the huge burst of interest in medievalism and ‘terror’ fiction that still endures to this day.
William Thomas Beckford
William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) was an English novelist, art critic, politician and traveler. Despite being rich and renowned in the family, he failed to make a political career due to the homosexual scandals he was starring in. Just to avoid being incriminated, he travelled long across Europe, developing a long Grand Tour and accumulating literary experiences. He was an eccentric collector of artworks and tried his best to accurately dissipate his heritage until the day he died.
Beckford’s best-known Gothic work is Vathek, written in French in just three days and two nights and then published in English later. The novel, although not Gothic in the strict sense, explores many elements of it and was considered an important link between Enlightenment literature and the first pre-Romantic experiences. In addition to being, of course, appreciated by Lord Byron.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), the mother of Gothic fiction, was one of the most influential writers of her time. She had a striking impact on the Gothic genre and was among the first generation pioneers of gothic literature. Radcliffe wrote six novels of suspense and terror that made her one of the highest paid novelists of her time. She was regarded by contemporary critics as ‘the mighty enchantress’ and also the ‘Shakespeare of romance-writers’.
Radcliffe’s Gothic writings are universally admired and still widely read today. Her works influenced many later and better known writers such as Austen, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Poe, and probably most of the modern Gothic favorites like Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Donna Tartt.
Radcliffe’s most well known work is The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), one of the earliest examples of the Gothic romance genre. The book features large, ancient, imposing structures in desolate landscapes and heroines left to fend for themselves against sinister forces.
Her stories were some of the first to have compelling female characters who find themselves alone in threatening circumstances and must use their wits and sensibilities to overcome powerful male villains who often seek to imprison or psychologically dominate them.
Radcliffe became known for several innovations, including her poetic descriptions of the landscapes and her insistence on explaining the supernatural at the end of the books—a characteristic later criticized by Lovecraft. Although this technique was disapproved, Radcliffe kept it because she believed that the real Gothic fiction should make the reader dive not only into the fear of the supernatural, but also more concrete and immediate psychological terror.
Ann Radcliffe’s other famous Gothic novels are The Italian, A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, and others.
Do You Know? An interesting rumor about Anne Radcliffe was that before bed, she ate pork to weigh her stomach and thus increase the chances of having a nightmare. This way she was inspired to write her Gothic tales.
Matthew Gregory Lewis
Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) was an English writer and dramatist, well-known for his Gothic novels. His most famous Gothic work is The Monk. The novel attained sensational popularity with it’s violence and eroticism, and its overall focus on horror rather than romance. He was frequently referred to as ‘Monk’ Lewis after that.
The Monk brought Lewis immediate literary success, condemnation due to some of its immoral content, and accolades from Lord Byron and Marquis de Sade.
Influenced by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and contemporary German Gothic works, The Monk was followed by a popular musical drama in the same vein, The Castle Spectre (1798).
Charles Brockden Brown
Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was a writer, editor and historian, interested in both the literature that emerged slowly in the Old World and in the subjects of its current day. He was the first American to make his primary living as a novelist. He wrote in multiple genres and is generally regarded by critics and scholars as one of the most important American novelists.
Charles Brockden Brown is also known as the “father of the American novel.” Most of his novels also aptly fit in the genre of Gothic fiction. Brown’s gothic romances in American settings became widely popular. They were later adapted by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two of the greatest early American Gothic writers.
Brown published Wieland, or, the Transformation in 1798, which is now considered the first American Gothic novel. The novel is filled with suspense and mystery, and discusses subjects as religious fanaticism, belief in supernatural, and psychological manipulation.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) is one of the world’s most renowned Gothic writers. She was the daughter of radical philosopher, William Godwin, and writer as well as women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley was born in London and her mother died less than a month after her birth. Her father, the political philosopher, raised her, giving her an informal but advanced education.
Aged 16, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley, an older and married poet at the cemetery, where her mother was buried. She started a romance with him and, after her father disapproved of the relationship, the couple eloped to France. Her life was full of tragedies and surprising deaths.
In her life, Shelley broke the casts then expected for a woman in the period. She believed that sympathy and cooperation (especially that of women) was the path to reforming society, which made her a political radical at her time.
Mary Shelley is most famous for her Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein which some argue as being one of the first works of science fiction. Her book is a deep reflection on human existence as well as an analysis of the boundaries between morals and scientific creation. Her lesser known works include Mathilda, Valperga, and The Last Man.
John William Polidori (1796-1821) was an English doctor and writer, whose life was marked by his relationship with Lord Byron, the famous poet of Romanticism. He was Byron’s personal physician who accompanied him on his travels around Europe and had been charged with documenting the experience.
According to some, it was Polidori who created the first aristocratic literary vampire, Lord Ruthven, modelling him on his employer and based on a piece written by Lord Byron. His literary vampire combines evil with the quality of a lovely aristocrat of women.
John Polidori is most famous for his Gothic story The Vampyre (1819), the first vampiresque English-speaking prose narrative. The novel came to birth in 1816, the year without summer. At the Villa Diodati, a place rented by Byron at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, both met Mary Shelley, her husband, P. B. Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister.
One night in June, after reading aloud the ‘Tales of the Dead’, a collection of horror tales, Byron suggested that each write a ghost story. P.B. Shelley wrote ‘A Fragment of a Ghost Story’ and five more ghost stories. Mary Shelley wrote a short story that later evolved into Frankenstein. Byron wrote (and quickly abandoned) a fragment of a story, ‘Fragment of a Novel’, about the main character, Augustus Darvell, which according to critics Polidori later used as the basis for his own short story, The Vampyre.
Charles Maturin (1780-1824) was an Irish playwright, novelist, and a Protestant clergyman. He was well-known for his Gothic plays and novels. However, the 19th century critics generally appraised Charled Maturin as a talented but incautious writer. According to them, his novels and plays were marred by excesses of horror.
Maturin is most famous for his Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). This novel, through a series of stories, tells of the Wanderer’s effort to seek redemption for selling his soul for 150 extra years of life. When talking about the development of Gothic fiction, it’s impossible not to mention Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. This was one of those titles that helped to shape Gothic fiction itself.
Moreover, along with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Lewis’s The Monk and the works of Ann Radcliffe, Melmoth the Wanderer is absolutely essential to understand the literary horror aesthetic of the turn of the century in the European context. This Victorian era classic novel also influenced Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of the greatest Gothic writers of all time. He was a poet and short story writer, well-known for his gruesome take on things. He is, undoubtedly, the master of Gothic style and horror stories. No one has yet reached him in his obsession with the subjects of death and its personification. His Gothic stories and poems have terrified and fascinate readers of all generations.
Moreover, Edgar Allan Poe has influenced a wide range of important writers of the genre such as Charles Baudelaire, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. He is the master of mystery and macabre and stands out because of his individuality. His stories and poems are of highly imaginative kind with elaborate portraiture. He is a true genius, magnificent with his works and his expressions.
Poe’s dark and melancholic life had delivered a shadow on his works and filled his pages with darkness and sorrow. He wrote horror, but not that disgusting horror with flesh and blood, but horror that haunts one’s mind and soul. It’s a horror mixed with sorrow that creates a world with black and sad atmosphere. His short stories are unlike any common short story and leaves a deep effect of melancholy and terror.
Edgar Allan Poe’s famous works include The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat and others.
Bram Stoker, in full Abraham Stoker, (1847-1912) was a famous Irish novelist, newspaper editor, theatre critic, and close associate of the actor Henry Irving. He is the creator of one of the greatest literary legends, Dracula. After a brilliant university career in Dublin, Stoker successfully began a career in journalism.
In 1878, Bram Stoker became the private secretary and collaborator of British actor Henry Irving, of whom he wrote a long and exciting biography. He was a man of enormous physical stature as well as a man of enormous and powerful genius and imagination.
Author of several popular novels, Bram Stoker remains known for one of the greatest Gothic novels of all time, Dracula (1897). This classic became a milestone in the early stages of Gothicism in literature. His character, Count Dracula, is no doubt based on Vlad Dracula III, known as Vlad Tepes (The Impaler) who ruled over Wallachia (Transylvania) in the 1400s.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been talked about a lot and thousands of versions and adaptations have been released, both in film and literature. But the original can’t compare to any.
The Brontë Sisters
The Brontë sisters—Charlotte Brontë(1816-1855), Emily Brontë(1818-1848) and Anne Brontë(1820-1849)—were the world’s “greatest literary sisters.” They are best known as novelists and poets, particularly writing Gothic Romances. Brontë sisters originally published their works under male pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. They wrote from an early age, initially stories that took place in the mythical land of Angria, as well as poems.
Charlotte Brontë, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters, is famous for her book Jane Eyre, a Gothic Romance novel. It combines elements of supernatural horror with romance. Emily Brontë is famous for her Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights. Her novel takes place in dark, and sometimes exotic, settings and focuses on the mysterious or supernatural. Anne Brontë is well-known for her novel Agnes Grey which is not very gothic at all, unlike its literary cousins Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The Brontë sisters with their writings broke out of traditionally perceived social roles destined for a woman, hence using male nicknames. Originally their fascination with English literature was not very enthusiastically accepted, it was rather men who were seen as writers: sensitive and with a rich imagination. The novels of the Brontë sisters feature very complicate protagonists, with unusual traits and weaknesses. However, their female characters are self-reliant, emancipated, and self-conscious. All sisters died young, most likely from tuberculosis.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, known as Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was an Irish writer, dramatist and poet. He was one of the most prominent playwrights of the Victorian era, famous for his usual wit and social sarcasm. Wilde was also a great driver of the Dandi Movement, which defended the cult of beauty as an antidote to the horrors of the industrial era. Due to his great and sharp ingenuity, he also became a celebrity of the time.
Moreover, Oscar Wilde lived an extravagant life and, after being convicted of indecency, was imprisoned in 1895 for two years. His sentence of two years in prison included forced labor. Wilde’s versatile and complex personality is still being discussed and inspected.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most important works of English literature. It is a superb example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction with Fausto’s myth and hedonism as central axes and with much criticism of Victorian society.
Wilde has created beautiful, complex characters who are dark and disturbing, yet enjoyable. He talks about both the crafts of art and writing in an absolutely meaningful way. However, he was also severely criticized for the novel’s corrupting influence and unashamed immoral ideology of the protagonist.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and a great traveler. His most famous classic Gothic novella is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The book is arguably most popular even today due to its representations of evil and themes such as morality, hypocrisy and duality of human nature.
Robert Louis Stevenson other famous works are Treasure Island (1883) and a narrative Journey with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). He also wrote several collections of poetry including A Child’s Garden of Verse which was well received among all ages and includes popular poems such as ‘My Shadow’ and ‘The Lamplighter’.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant”—Robert Louis Stevenson
Sheridan Le Fanu
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was an Irish writer famous for his tales of mystery and Gothic horror. He is one of the masters of Gothic literature and also of the precursors of the modern genre of terror. Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous Gothic novels are Uncle Silas, Carmilla, and The House by the Churchyard, In A Glass Darkly and others.
Le Fanu’s Gothic stories represent one of the first examples of the genre of terror in its modern form, in which, as in his story Schalken the Painter, does not always succeed virtue or offer a simple explanation of supernatural phenomena. His Gothic stories are highly intense and full of intrigue. His specialty consisted of recreation of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘effects’ rather than mere fright, often within a mystery format.
Le Fanu most famous Gothic novels are Uncle Silas and Carmilla. In fact, his vampire novel Carmilla is undoubtedly the epitome of 19th century Gothic and predates Dracula by 26 years. The book was an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and a slew of films such as Hammer Horror’s The Karnstein Trilogy.
Daphne du Maurier
A list of famous Gothic writers would not be complete without mentioning the phenomenal Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989). She was a British writer who reinvigorated the Gothic genre.
Daphne du Maurier is most famous for Gothic novels such as Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951), both taken to the movies. She also wrote some famous Gothic short stories such as The Birds and Don’t Look Now, both made into classic films.
She is most famous for her classic Gothic novel, Rebecca. It’s one of her great literary accomplishments and reflects her brilliant narrative. The story of the book ricochets through the streets of Los Angeles, a dangerous marriage to an exotic stranger, and the mind of a young woman whose past may not release her.
Daphne du Maurier is the queen of sinister ambiguity and a mistress of calculated irresolution. She devises her stories in a way that never puts her readers’ mind at ease. Her mysterious riddles persists and her novels continue to haunt the reader beyond their endings.
12. Difference between Romanticism and Gothicism in Literature
Gothicism in Literature is considered to have originated from Romanticism; it is a subgenre of the English Romantic Movement. Both Romanticism and Gothicism were parallel movements. Romanticism focused on the realization of nature’s beauty, imagination, intuition, idealism, inspiration, and individuality in literature and other arts. While Gothicism dealt with the darker and more tragic themes than the Romantic works.
Since Gothicism is characterized by some critics as a subgenre of Romanticism, both share many similarities as well. For instance, both genres deal with the existence of sublime and transcendent, reason and rationality, and the medieval references.
13. Why is Gothicism in Literature Still Popular Today?
Originating in England, the Gothic style of writing has never gone outdated. In fact, it’s gaining more and more popularity with the passage of time. Mystery, suspense and horror—these elements when added to the story—have a tendency to excite everyone. This is something that has encouraged the Gothic writers to produce more works of horror and mystery.
Now, today’s Gothic literature has evolved into a more psychological horror, featuring the atmosphere as much a character as the acting characters themselves. This feature provides the reader an opportunity to indulge in the horror of the mind. What someone conjures up when alone in the dark is often far more terrifying than reality.
Gothicism in literature is still popular today because it conveys deeper meanings and its elements appeal to the readers emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Today’s Gothic fiction includes stories of vampires, demons, supernatural beings, castles, dark and stormy nights and an abundance of darker themes. Some famous modern and contemporary Gothic fiction writers are: Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Kate Morton, Diane Satterfield, Stephen King and others.
Moreover, Gothicism in literature has significantly influenced today’s life. It now has a great impact on how people dress, speak and act. Over the years, Gothic fiction has developed in many ways, but the most drastic change came when the genre moved to America. Since its birth (two-and-a-half centuries ago) Gothic fiction has never really left Western culture. Its stories have started to delve more deep into disorder and darkness.
In addition, Gothicism has become a major source of inspiration for today’s blockbuster horror movies, TV series, and graphic horror novels. All these means of entertainment, indeed, forever appeal to the reader!
Read on Readers!
Can’t get enough of the Gothic? Check out our articles on Elements of Gothic literature and Southern Gothic literature. And if you’re looking for more dark must-reads to keep you up at night, Check out the posts below!
- Interesting Gothic Literature Facts
- Classic Gothic Novels You Must Read
- Modern Gothic Novels To Read in 2021
- An Ultimate Guide to Halloween Books
- Best Gothic Accessories For Your Study Room
Sources of this article:
- Andrew, Smith: Gothic Literature. 2008
- Eagleton, Terry: Literary Theory, An Introduction. 2013
- Fred, Botting: Gothic (A New Critical Idiom). 2013
- Miles, Robert: The Gothic (The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature). 2006
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen: Gothic Literature ( Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature). 2005
- Stevens, David: The Gothic Tradition. 2000