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Gothic Literature

Austin Valenzuela, James Greaver, Ginna Wilkerson
  • Author
    Austin Valenzuela

    Austin Valenzuela earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Grand Canyon University and has written about psychology for over four years. He is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy. His published novel Unholy: A Gothic Fantasy and short story in the anthology Beneath the Twin Suns are available everywhere. He is a member of the Florida Writers Association and National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

  • 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.

Learn the definition, background, and characteristics of Gothic fiction. Explore popular Gothic authors and their works. Updated: 12/07/2021

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What is Gothic Literature?

Literature, or written works with artistic merit, can take many different forms. One of such forms is Gothic literature, which emphasizes the darker aspects of humanity: horror, death, and sometimes even romance. This form of literature embraces these aspects of humanity as inevitable, working through the issues rather than casting them away until they once again rear their ugly head.

At first, one would use the term "gothic" to belittle art and architecture, and the question of what is Gothic literature? would be met with a laugh. The reason for this is that the topics of horror and death were taboo, and anyone who dared write about them was an outcast. The first Gothic work was initially considered a joke, described as "gothic about barbaric actions." In a sense, the Gothic style came to embrace this reference and use it as fuel to address the darker aspects of humanity. The Gothic novel definition encompasses the side of humanity that was denounced at the time but which individuals came to see as necessary enough topics to write.

Gothic Fiction

In the 1700s, Gothic literature rose to popularity as a revival of a focus on the supernatural. It was a response to the rise of enlightenment reason and everything it seemed to dispose of quickly. The dark aspects of human nature will always stick around, says the Gothic viewpoint, and as a result, one's art must mimic the truth of the world. Death, horror, and romance drive this form of literature because of their real influence over the world despite human emotion.

The Gothic fiction definition came to embrace humans' animal, naturalistic side, having massive influence throughout the 18th-century by embracing old ideas in a new way. Gothic fiction found a way to confront natural elements in an age with a stern view on morality. By embracing the aspects that were shunned by this morality, appealing to a taste that individuals saw as a sort of guilty pleasure at first, eventually evolving to take on such colossal subjects as death and the supernatural.

Background of Gothic Literature

Since the first joke novel was written in Gothic fiction, many writers have taken the genre to great lengths, allowing others to create different subgenres. For instance, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole allowed the genre to branch off a sophisticated, comical representation of what was depicted by the author as an antique relic. This book contains the key to this type of fiction in that it confronts old concepts such as death and the supernatural in a manner that searches for truth, a worthy response to enlightenment ideology at the time.

However, the enlightenment movement was not the only inspiration for the Gothic literary critique of the era; this form of literature also drew off of architecture reminiscent of medieval times, embracing aspects of old, ruined castles and haunted manors that evoke feelings of fear and terror in the reader. Another significant influence and the cornerstone of Gothic literature is Romanticism.

One of the best writers to do this effectively was Edgar Allen Poe, who began his work at the beginning of the Gothic literary movement. Poe embodied the movement with aspects of the macabre told through literary techniques known today as detective or mystery stories, representing the Gothic movement in his literary themes and his darkly poetic prose.


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Inspiration for Gothic literature, this castle would be horrifying in the dark with rogue supernatural elements.

Image of gothic cathedral that inspired gothic writing

Characteristics of Gothic Literature

The Gothic writing style can be identified by specific characteristics common across Gothic literature. As mentioned above, these elements are influenced by the romantic emphasis on nature, emotion, individualism, and the revival of medieval architecture. These themes include Gothic representations of setting, character, supernatural and paranormal elements, psychological trauma, and a deliberate amalgamation of history and fiction.

Setting

Gothic settings involve places that evoke a sense of fear and a frightful atmosphere. The landscapes of Gothic literature are typically dangerous and dark, including things that can harm humans, animals, or in general, the supernatural. There is a sense of mystery inherent to the setting.

When reading Gothic fiction, one will confront natural elements such as the decay of an old castle or the loneliness of a high mountain. These places are hidden, austere, and a reader would likely not want to visit if they had the chance.

Characters

The hero of Gothic literature is often witty enough to deal with the harsh landscape that they confront. They are isolated and forced to confront the macabre aspects of their nature. The hero will inevitably challenge the villain, supernatural, natural, or human, and overcome the critical challenges through self-sacrifice. On occasion, Gothic literature embraces the fact that there is no happy ending, wherein the supposed protagonist falls prey to a real downfall due to either circumstance or choice.

Gothic villains are some of the most eccentric characters in fiction, embracing the epitome of evil through arguments of sound reason. These arguments are representative of the enlightenment movement, justifying malevolence through an argument that is well-formulated and clear. Other archetypes exist in Gothic literature, such as the following:

  • The clown villain who takes on representation as an evil force
  • The stupid servant who accidentally suggests clues to the mystery; a technique adopted later by the mystery/thriller genre
  • The lonely wanderer, often exiled from their original home

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  • Activities
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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.

When did Gothic fiction emerge?

Gothic fiction emerged at the beginning of the 18th century. This is mainly a result of a rejection of rationalist ideals at the time, and a preference for the macabre and supernatural.

What are examples of Gothic literature?

Examples of Gothic literature exist in the past and today. A past example is Mary Shelley and her work on the human condition, and modern examples include It by Stephen King.

What are the main elements of gothic literature?

The main elements in Gothic literature are dark and romantic. Characters are often placed in a scary setting, and forced to face an unknown force.

What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature is a form of literature with a preference for the horrific and macabre. It focuses on aspects of the human condition that are often unpreventable.

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