Gothic Literature: A Definition and List of Gothic Fiction Elements
What Is Gothic Literature?
Gothic literature is a deliciously terrifying blend of fiction and horror with a little romance thrown in. The Gothic novel has a long history, and although it has changed since 1765 when it began with Walpole's Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, it has maintained certain classic Gothic romantic elements, through Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818 and Stoker's infamous Dracula of 1897, until today, with authors like Stephen King.
"Gothic Fiction" Is Often Called "Gothic Horror"
Elements and Conventions of Gothic Literature
Dark, Abandoned, Decaying Settings. “Gothic” also alludes to a style of grand, ornate architecture in France in the 12th century. In Gothic lit, you see lots of haunted houses, cobwebbed castles, derelict churches, and other once-glorious architecture that has fallen into disrepair. You also see dark, cramped, and claustrophobic interiors with hidden doors and secret passageways, settings with hidden skeletons. The outside world in Gothic literature is usually portrayed as being a dark, wild, and treacherous place full of wrathful weather, malevolent forests, and ghostly graveyards.
- Romanticized Past. In line with its settings, Gothic lit often romanticizes and revisits the past.
- Plot conventions. Common Gothic plots include revenge, familial secrets, prophecies, and curses. The past is somehow still living, breathing, and controlling the drama.
- Horror. Gothic lit often elicits intense, suspenseful feelings of fear, shock, dread, or disgust in the reader.
- Supernatural Beings. Monsters, demons, witches, ghosts, banshees, vampires, and other supernatural creatures often play parts in Gothic fiction.
Explorations of Romance and Sexuality. During uptight Victorian times, Gothic lit gave authors and readers an opportunity to explore romance and sexuality, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses, although usually in fairly heteronormative ways. Gothic sexuality is usually somewhat repressed—women are expected to be pure and somewhat helpless while men are expected to be quietly predatory. It's also patriarchal, with men making moves and women reacting to them.
Anti-Heroes. The Gothic protagonist is often portrayed as a flawed, lonesome, isolated, or outcast figure who has to overcome obstacles in order to rejoin society.
- Heavy Reliance on Symbolism. Characters, settings, and objects are weighted heavily with symbolic meaning in Gothic literature.
- Common Devices, Themes, and Motifs: Curses, prophecies, hauntings, insanity, psychological flips and twists, damsels in distress, women as victims, doppelgängers, fallen societies. . . you see these often in Gothic lit.
Characteristics of the Gothic Villain or Antagonist
- The Villain Is Dark and Alluring. The Gothic villain—usually male—is often extremely handsome, intelligent, successful, talented, and/or charming, although there is usually some telltale warning sign to warn us that his looks are deceiving. Gothic villains often pose as innocents or victims. (Think Lord Dracula, Heathcliff, and Dorian Gray.)
- Anti-Villain. Just as the hero or protagonist is typically flawed in Gothic lit, the villain often has extremely attractive qualities. Gothic lit likes to flirt with the boundary between good and evil and keep us guessing which is which. So the good guy might look like a monster when the bad guy is a total heart- breaker. Sometimes, you'll see a villain whose complex, conflicting psychology makes him the most interesting and likable character in the story. (See Byronic hero and Satanic hero.)
- Hero-Villain. A Gothic bad guy oftentimes has such such a sympathetic psychology and past that readers stop thinking in simple terms of black and white. He becomes a hybrid between bad and good.
What Is American Southern Gothic Literature?
Southern Gothic is a sub-genre of American Gothic fiction set in the South that uses ironic and macabre characters and scenes to highlight the South's implicit values and beliefs. So the purpose of Southern Gothic literature is to address the underlying social and cultural issues of the South, and this makes it slightly more political than American Gothic literature in general.
Themes of Southern Gothic Literature
Southern Gothic lit often examines falls from former glory into decay, despair, and madness, the lasting effects of slavery and racism, the trials of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy, xenophobia, and class.
Southern Gothic Settings
You'll see many rural or antique Southern settings, plantations, grand antebellum houses, and old churches.
Examples of Southern Gothic:
Dorothy Allison: Bastard Out of Carolina
- Truman Capote: Other Voices, Other Rooms
- Harry Crews: The Gospel Singer
- William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury
- Charlaine Harris: Sookie Stackhouse True Blood series
- Cormac McCarthy: Child of God, Blood Meridian
- Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
- Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye
- Edgar Allan Poe: short stories like "Fall of the House of Usher"
- Anne Rice: The Vampire Chronicles series
- Eudora Welty: her novels and short stories
Where Did Gothic Literature Come From?
In many ways, the Gothic novel is a direct response to eighteenth century ideals of formal realism, which is why it is essential to understand formal realism in order to understand Gothic literature.
Formal realism is about creating a reality through the experience of one single character. It explores an individual's internal (rather than the external) drama and individual consciousness and perception. Furthermore, formal realism uses diction that is less elaborate and ornate than the literature of the past in order to reflect everyday life. Its overall goal is to educate the reader on both how to read and how to behave.
In Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel, he claims that Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Daniel Defoe are the authors of works that were the very beginnings of formal realism and the rise of the novel in eighteenth century England. He highlights how Richardson and Fielding in particular viewed themselves as the originators of a new form of writing as they turned away from the old romances. Furthermore, Watt says that
"if the novel were realistic merely because it saw life from the seamy side, it would only be an inverted romance; but in fact it surely attempts to portray all the varieties of human experience, and not merely those suited to one particular literary perspective: the novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents but in the way it presents it."
Richardson's infamous novel, Pamela, and Fielding's Joseph Andrews are both clear examples of formal realism and how it portrays reality through they way the story is presented more than in the story itself.
Pamela is about the titular servant girl who finds herself in the service of a gentleman who attempts to seduce her. In the end, she gets married and becomes nobility, which is highly unrealistic for the times. However, it is presented in a series of letters with censored information (her lord is only ever called Mr. B), which seemed so real to audiences at the time that they actually believed Pamela Andrews existed.
Joseph Andrews is a response to Pamela in the form of a parody of sorts. Joseph is Pamela's brother and undergoes the same challenges in preserving his chastity as she does. In the end, he discovers he is actually of noble birth and marries a poor woman who is just as virtuous as he is. Unlike Pamela, this novel is in the form of a story told directly to the reader by the author. The use of a direct voice for the storyteller and references to the amount of research it took to find this story helps to make it seem like a real life story rather than fiction.
In the end, we must remember that Gothic lit is a response to formal realism and it strives to work in almost the complete opposite direction that formal realism did. The very basic aspect of Gothic fiction is that it does not strive to reflect everyday life, like the works of Fielding and Richardson. This is why, while reading a Gothic novel, you can expect to find ghosts and other supernatural features absent from the works of formal realism.
Elements of a Gothic Novel
- Supernatural imagery. If asked to describe Gothic Literature, you might first think of dark and/or supernatural imagery, which are key devices used against the confines of realism.
- Elaborate diction. Where formal realism uses simple diction, Gothic novels go elaborate.
- External drama. Where formal realism focuses on the inner workings of the individual, Gothic novels home in on the environment and how all the character's actions come into play.
- Romance. A Gothic novel is something of an inverted romance, as it tends to see things from the seamy side.
- Blend of Fantasy and Realism. However, what makes Gothic Literature unique is not in the type of life it sees and represents but in how it blends the real with the imaginary. This blend produces terror because of the suspense and unpredictability associated with the paranormal and unknown and also makes the characters within Gothic Literature even more realistic than those in novels from other genres.
- Real People in Unreal Situations. No matter how fantastical and insane the situation is, a Gothic novel's characters always react in ways that are truer to everyday responses to these circumstances than the circumstances themselves, even providing natural explanations for what the reader knows is supernatural. This is a key element in Gothic Literature. Its blend of realism and fantasy means that the characters are developed as true to what they would be in the real world while they are place in situations that are completely unreal. To put it simply, Gothic Literature is about how real people react in unreal situations. For example, if a monk is offered a deal with the Devil he can't refuse, will he take it or just walk away?
In the end, it's pretty safe to say that the works of Gothic literature do everything formal realism would not even touch, which can either delight those readers who hate formal realism or disgust them with stories that seem too ridiculous to take seriously.
Top Ten Gothic Novels
This is my list of the top ten Gothic novels. Which do you think is number one?
What Is a Gothic Novel?
Robert D. Hume claims that a Gothic novel “can be seen as one symptom of a widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination.”
Features of Gothic Literature
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Lisa