The Gothic Novel: What is Gothic Literature?

Updated on January 21, 2018

What is Gothic Literature?

Gothic literature is a deliciously terrifying blend of horror and romance. From Walpole's Castle of Otranto to Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's infamous Dracula, the Gothic novel has been around for centuries, and, despite a few major changes, has maintained some of the basic elements of classic Gothic romance since its very origins.

What is Gothic Imagery? Gothic Literature is full of  houses, ghosts, and other supernatural imagery
What is Gothic Imagery? Gothic Literature is full of houses, ghosts, and other supernatural imagery | Source

Gothic and Romantic Literature

The Gothic novel took shape in England around 1790-1830, although its roots can be found much earlier in writing dating back to the Middle Ages. It's still popular today with current authors such as Stephen King and is considered a category within Romantic literature.

Gothic Literature, Formal Realism, and Ian Watt

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 first before defining Gothic literature. Formal realism is about creating a reality through the experience of one single character. Its focus lies in the internal drama of the individual rather than the external and explores 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 a servant girl, Pamela, who finds herself in the service of a gentleman who attempts to seduce her. In the end, she is 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 Literature strives to work in almost the complete opposite direction of formal realism in the way each novel conveys its story and that Gothic Literature is a response to formal realism. When looking at what defines a Gothic novel, 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.

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.”

Elements of a Gothic Novel

When anyone is asked to describe Gothic Literature, they think of dark and/or supernatural imagery, which are key devices used against the confines of realism. Where formal realism uses simple diction, Gothic novels go elaborate, 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. 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 seem too ridiculous to take seriously.

According to Watt's quote above, a Gothic novel is something of an inverted romance, as it tends to see things from the seamy side. 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.

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?

Top Ten Gothic Novels

This is my list of the top ten novels in Gothic Literature. Which do you think is number one?

See results

Characteristics of Gothic Literature

There are a few elements of the Gothic novel that are standard for almost every novel within the Gothic Literature genre. Here are a few of them:

  1. Decaying or ruined scenery
  2. The use of the supernatural within the text (perhaps the Devil tries to make a deal or a portrait moves on its own)
  3. An isolated (whether voluntary or involuntary) protagonist
  4. An antagonist that is the epitome of evil (usually a man and usually due to a fall from grace)
  5. Protagonist falls from grace due to temptation from antagonist
  6. The protagonist is only saved once they are reunited with their loved one
  7. The underlying theme of the novel also applies to the real world
  8. Real life fears (death, murder, destruction) are the same as in real life but at a much higher rate

Features of Gothic Literature

© 2012 Lisa


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    • profile image

      IT 3 weeks ago

      Really helpful

    • profile image

      Denise M. Baran-Unland 5 weeks ago

      Great post, extremely spot-on. This is my favorite genre to read (and write) when the story is written well. I have shared this post with my followers and the writer's group I co-lead.

    • DominiqueCM profile image

      DominiqueCM 3 years ago from Montreal, Canada

      Thank for sharing. It was well written, and very informative.

    • uNicQue profile image

      Nicole Quaste 4 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      This is a really great hub. You write so clearly, and I really enjoyed reading it. Gothic literature is one of, if not my favorite, genre. Your point about Gothic literature being a blend of the real and imaginary is a good one and I always saw this the most in Wuthering Heights. The love in the novel is so real. The jealousy, revenge, and passion are true human realities, yet there are the grotesque fantastical elements as well.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      good job on this. thank you

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 5 years ago from WA

      Thanks :) I think I would've tried becoming a teacher but I'm so shy I'm not sure I'd be very successful communicating in person like I can on paper.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Well done and well written, Lisa! You are very knowledgeable in the area of literature. In fact, you would make a great literature teacher on the high school or university level. I don't know if that is of any interest to you, but students would be interested in you and your approach to literature. I enjoyed this article very much!