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Gothic Novels: Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Gothic Novels:…
  • 1:13 Characteristics of the…
  • 2:06 The Supernatural
  • 3:28 Madness
  • 4:46 Romance
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

In this lesson, we'll look at the rise of the Gothic novel and its popularity, identify some of the major characteristics and themes of the gothic, and discuss a few examples from classic literature.

Gothic Novels: Background and Origin

'It was a dark and stormy night…' We all love a good ghost story or horror film, and these forms of entertainment share some characteristics with the Gothic literature genre, like ghosts, ghouls, and headless spirits that may haunt the main characters.

Gothic literature has a long history dating back to the 18th century. Credited as the first Gothic novel and considered one of the founding texts of the genre is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. It tells the story of Lord Manfred and the family curse that seems to arise when a stone helmet falls on his son and kills him on the day he is to be married. The event seems to awaken a mysterious trend of curses and mishaps that send the characters in the novel into complete disarray.

Other famous examples of Gothic literature include The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula. Since the Gothic novel has branched off into numerous sub-genres, this lesson will look primarily at the origin of the Gothic in English literature and overview some of the classic texts that created the building blocks for what we know as Gothic today.

Characteristics of the Gothic Novel

The term Gothic novel broadly refers to stories that combine elements from horror and romanticism. The Gothic novel often deals with supernatural events, or events occurring in nature that cannot be easily explained or over which man has no control, and it typically follows a plot of suspense and mystery.

Here is a list of some common elements found in Gothic novels:

  • Gloomy, decaying setting (haunted houses or castles with secret passages, trapdoors, and other mysterious architecture)
  • Supernatural beings or monsters (ghosts, vampires, zombies, giants)
  • Curses or prophecies
  • Damsels in distress
  • Heroes
  • Romance
  • Intense emotions

We'll look at a few characteristics - the supernatural, madness, and romance - in more detail in the following paragraphs, along with classic examples.

The Supernatural

The Gothic novel arose in part out of the fact that for the English, the late 18th and 19th centuries were a time of great discovery and exploration in the fields of science, religion, and industry; people both revered and questioned the existence of God or a higher power. Gothic novels allowed writers and readers to explore these ideas through the medium of storytelling. Ghosts, death and decay, madness, curses, and so-called 'things that go bump in the night' provided ways to explore fear of the unknown and what control we have as humans over the unknown.

Mary Shelley's classic tale Frankenstein, first published in 1818, offers a powerful example of this desire to explore the unknown even as we fear it. Frankenstein's monster is a man-made creation that eerily merges life and death; Frankenstein constructs his creation from human body parts and imbues him with life, which at once gives him great power and a great fear of that power because he realizes that he's created a being that he cannot entirely control. His fear of his own creation emerges from his recognition that he cannot ever fully understand or control the forces of life and death, despite all of his scientific knowledge.

Madness

The Gothic can also refer to stories involving strange and troubling events that, while they have logical, natural explanations, seem to originate from unexpected forces. Charlotte Bronte employs this element of the Gothic in Jane Eyre, published in 1847. While living in Thornfield Hall as a governess, Jane frequently hears strange noises and laughter coming from the third story of the mansion that no one will explain, and odd things keep happening in the dead of night, such as her master Mr. Rochester's bed catching fire and an attack on a guest. Eventually Jane discovers that all of this is the work of Mr. Rochester's insane wife, who he's hiding in an attic in the third story and who sneaks out at night to cause mayhem.

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