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6 Key Elements of Gothic Literature: Romance With Horror

Author and creative writing tutor, Beth loves helping her students improve their technique.

A bolt of lightning or a thunderstorm in the text symbolizes terror.

A bolt of lightning or a thunderstorm in the text symbolizes terror.

6 Key Elements That Define the Gothic Novel

  1. A sensitive, vulnerable hero or anti-hero (usually female)
  2. A restricted, innocent background or upbringing
  3. An evil villain (often male, but not always)
  4. Capture and imprisonment
  5. Physical and social isolation
  6. Supernatural forces

What is Gothic Literature?

The word Gothic originally meant relating to the Middle Ages or of German (Goth) origin. Today the meaning has broadened to include macabre or dark, or something with satanic undertones. Thus, a novel in the Gothic genre is one that contains fear, suspense, and unconventional religious practice. The hero has to overcome a seemingly impossible situation, and enlist the power of others to escape.

A Gothic novel is not only a genre piece of fiction, but should also be a ripping yarn that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very end of the story. The best of these novels are true page-turners and continue to remain popular.

When Was the First Gothic Novel Written?

The first novel written in this genre was published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). The author used the descriptor Gothic in his title, and his book included many of the elements that are now considered essential to Gothic fiction.

The castle in which the action takes place (Otranto) provides a towering backdrop to a melodramatic story-line. Many of the descriptions in a Gothic novel have their roots in the uncertainties and unfairness of life for women in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Victorians were avid readers of romance fiction and Gothic romance stories were especially popular. It was during the Victorian period that many of the classic Gothic novels such as Dracula and Wuthering Heights were written.

A dark and mysterious castle is often used as the setting in a Gothic tale.

A dark and mysterious castle is often used as the setting in a Gothic tale.

1. The Gothic Hero or Heroine

The first key element of a Gothic novel is a sensitive, naive hero. She is usually female, like Cinderella, but could also be a male protagonist, as in the fable of the Babes in the Wood. The hero in Gothic tales is often from a noble and gentile family, but now through straitened circumstances, they are at the mercy of greedy relatives.

It is important that the reader identifies with the hero throughout the story, and sympathizes with their situation. The plot tension is built upon the premise of the hero’s vulnerability and the critical nature of their plight.

2. The Setting or Background of the Story

The physical location and social setting of the tale is another crucial part of the genre. The main protagonist must be isolated in some way. This could be physically through imprisonment, for example, or by them living in a remote location far from other people. They could be cut-off from society through being denied their rightful inheritance, or by being estranged from their spouse or other relatives. The key to the story is that the hero is unable through circumstance to easily get assistance.

An underlying theme in the Gothic novel is the position of women in a male-dominated society. Women were second-class citizens when many of these early novels were written. They had limited inheritance and property rights. This made them more likely to have to endure forced marriage, rape, or physical and mental abuse. The Gothic novel was a way of bringing some of these issues to wider attention.

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3. An Evil Villain

To counter the innocence of our hero, this type of romance story has a baddie as the love interest. He (and it is usually a male who takes this role) is calculating, devious, and often in league with the devil. The heroine may at first succumb to his desires, but with the help of a kinder, anti-hero, can overcome and escape the clutches of the villain. The Victorians often used these novels as morality tales in which good triumphs over evil, a belief in God overcoming the temptations of Satan.

Painting of Satan. The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel 1847.

Painting of Satan. The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel 1847.

4. Capture and Imprisonment

A key element of the gothic story is menace and imprisonment. This can be the physical capture and isolation of the protagonist. Or it could be psychological torture and alienation from society due to difficult circumstances. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1818-1848) is an example of an anti-hero alienated from those around him, and in a mental prison.

The hero may become the subject of blackmail because they have stepped outside commonly accepted customs and behavior. Or they could be bound by a social debt, and be forced to maintain an unhappy and abusive relationship.

5. Physical and Social Isolation

The action of the Gothic novel almost always takes place at some distance from other properties. Strange noises can be heard at night, and sometimes a ghost visits. Semi-derelict castles and cavernous Victorian rectories are an ideal location for this genre. High ceilings, echoing chambers, mysterious lights are all useful aids to the Gothic storyteller.

Social inequality is another isolating factor highlighted in this genre. The “wrong” marriage could condemn a woman to social rejection, and impoverishment. The “right” marriage may provide her with financial security, but entail rape and abuse out-of-sight of her family and friends. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1847-1912) explores the Victorians’ repressive views on sexuality and religion. It touches on issues of mental health and identity.

6. Supernatural Forces and the Black Arts

The final common element in the Gothic novel is the inclusion of supernatural forces or black magic in the narrative. This is often brought to bear on the hero through a religious figure such as a monk. One of the earliest romance novels in this genre is The Monk: A Romance by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818). It is a tale of lust, adultery, forced marriage, and forbidden love. The eponymous monk of the book’s title has turned to the dark arts to capture the object of his desires.

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft (1797-1851) tells the story of a scientist who attempts to be God-like by creating a living creature. The story is about the misuse of power and the tussle between good and evil, life and death.

In these stories of horror and subjugation, the weather mirrors the protagonist’s mood as the plot twists and turns. In other words, when Satan is in control, there are lightning strikes, thunderstorms, and gale-force winds. Conversely, when good triumphs over evil, calm, balmy days ensue.

Features of Gothic Literature

Modern writers of the genre continue to read early Gothic masters like Walpole, Lewis, and Edgar Allan Poe to find inspiration. The Gothic novel contains elements of emotion and fantasy, and the darker side of the human psyche is revealed. In these stories, manipulating male relatives get their come-uppance as the vulnerable heroine somehow finds a way to escape from a dire situation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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