Gothic Fiction: Definition, Characteristics & Authors

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
James Greaver

Jim has a master's degree in secondary Education and has taught English from middle school level to college.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

In this lesson we will learn about 'Gothic fiction'. We discuss its characteristics and some of the authors involved in the genre. Afterwards, you will be asked to take a short quiz to test your comprehension.

Definition of Gothic Fiction

The term Gothic fiction refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.

This style of fiction began in the mid 1700s with a story titled, The Castle of Otranto (in 1764), by Horace Walpole. This story was about a doomed family and is filled with death, desire, and intrigue. This story is considered to be the first of the Gothic fiction tales, since it encompassed many of the characteristics of the genre. The term Gothic actually originated as a term belittling the architecture and art of the period, which was dark, decaying, and dismal.

A Gothic church
gothic church

Gothic artistic elements
gothic art

The settings were often old, dilapidated buildings or houses in gloomy, lifeless, fear-inducing landscapes (The Fall of the House of Usher, mentioned later, is a great example of the use of nature and setting as a fearful element). Much of the literature involved monsters, such as vampires, who brought suffering and death to the forefront. There were also stories that simply displayed these elements of fear and suffering in the settings themselves.

Authors

There were many authors who loved to write in the Gothic genre, such as Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe
photo of poe

  • 'The Tell-Tale Heart' - A tale of murder, guilt, and irony.
  • 'The Fall of the House of Usher' - A story about a man and his horrifying connection to his family dwelling.
  • 'The Raven' - A riveting poem about a man's descent into madness.

These tales all have those characteristics of darkness, suffering, and even death. While Poe is undoubtedly the best known of the Gothic authors, he is certainly not the only one. Here are a few of the more noted examples of Gothic authors and their famous works:

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Additional Activities

Gothic Fiction: Definition, Characteristics & Authors


Further Research

1. In the lesson, you read that Gothic fiction has connections to the Romantic movement in literature, which placed an emphasis on intense emotional experiences, often in wild and untamed settings. In many of the novels and short stories we categorize as Gothic, setting plays a key role in creating atmosphere. Explore the settings of several examples of Gothic fiction, either from the list provided in the lesson or those found online. How does the setting work in the story for the examples you researched?

2. Many Gothic novels have been adapted for film over the course of the 20th century. Read a Gothic novel like Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then watch a film version of your chosen novel. How are the book and film the same and how are they different? Try to explain the possible reasons for the changes in the film version.

3. Read a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Then read a bit about Poe's life experiences and personality. Authors generally reflect something of themselves in their fiction. What are some of the facts about Poe that you think may contribute to his deep interest in the Gothic style?

4. Read Bram Stoker's classic Gothic horror novel Dracula. Stoker's portrayal of the evil vampire Count Dracula provided popular culture with many of the now well-known characteristics of the vampire. Vampires in fiction and film have remained popular up through and including today. How are some of the modern conceptions of vampires different from Stoker's classic portrayal? In particular, think about Stephanie Meyer's young vampires or Anne Rice's LeStat character. Are zombies the same as vampires?


Creative Activities

1. Design a stage set for one of the short stories in the lesson or a scene from one of the novels. Consider how you might present a scene given the limitations of the traditional proscenium stage. Present your project as a series of drawings or a 3-dimensional model.

2. The unusual characters in a Gothic story are part of the strong appeal of this genre. Choose one of the "monsters" from a work of Gothic fiction and write a letter from that character to one of the key human characters in the narrative, reflecting how he or she feels about the actions of the humans in the tale.

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