Study Guide

Gothic Literature Characteristics

  • Mystery

    People have been salivating over mysteries even before the Sphinx offered her first riddle. What is it about a good who-done-it that engrosses audiences? Some like the chase. Some like the thrill of the unknown. Some like seeing how the clues fit. Some live for the moment that they find out their guess was right on the money.

    Most, though? Most love the surprise.

    And that surprise is part of both the success and potential downfall of Gothic novels. You may associate mysteries more with the methodical stories of Sherlock Holmes and their various adaptations in film and television. You might think of formulaic crime dramas or grocery store copy-cat texts. But that's part of the problem.

    What was once new, eye-opening, and thought-provoking has been replicated so much that you now know from the first shot that the random person introduced in the opening scene just happens to be the culprit. Here's the thing though: Gothic novels, at least the very early ones, were doing their own thing—and their plots were huge surprises.

    Readers of Gothic novels were enthralled. They needed to know what exactly was behind that shimmering veil, who put out the candles, and where exactly that wailing was coming from. Gothic novels didn't start out with a formula, and their mysterious elements contributed more to the overall atmosphere of the story rather than taking center stage.

    And, of course, inspired centuries of mystery writing to come.

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    You've heard of Sherlock and his trusty Dr. Watson, but how about taking a look a detective story that subverts the role of the traditional investigator? The Moonstone does a lot for the mystery genre, but more importantly for our purposes, its development of setting and atmosphere owes a great debt to the Gothic tradition.

    Ever wonder how a mystery without clear-cut answers plays out? American novelist, Henry James, is kind of in a league of his own; but in The Turn of the Screw, he blends the best of Gothicism with his own brand of literary realism. Is it a ghost story? Is it a psychological portrait? Is it both?

  • Setting as Character

    Drafty monasteries, windy moors, subterranean passageways, rotting mansions, dark castles at the top of the hill with lightning streaking across the sky: it's just your friendly Gothic neighborhood. And often, that setting is main player in the story—and more than often, its title: The Castle of Otranto, Wuthering Heights, Northanger Abbey, you get the idea.

    Why give such credence to old buildings and creepy wilderness?

    Think about it. You're in England—the veritable birthplace of Gothic literature—in the 18th century. You're in full-swing of the Enlightenment, and a part of you is getting tired of reason and practically. You're surrounded largely by three things: the country (mostly farmland); the city (offices, theatres, and inns); and rocky, woodsy wilderness. In both the city and the country, you've got these monumental estates left over from a few centuries ago.

    What catches your attention specifically? Medieval churches, monasteries, castles, and fortresses. You feel that these relics have a certain emotional energy that totally jibes with your burgeoning Romantic sensibilities.

    These emotionally-charged buildings have a life of their own. They've lived a long time, and now they want…revenge? While many Gothic novels may not have more going on than a strange curse, more often, the strange elements within these buildings play a significant but more subtle role in the plot.

    Trick bookshelves, flickering candles, dusty curtains, locked windows—they're all meaningful. The age, the history, and the over-all creep factor of these places change the way the characters think and behave. Atmosphere has a huge role in the plot and often mirrors the feelings and actions of the (other) characters.

    All that in a setting? You bet.

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    After the early Gothic novels, Wuthering Heights probably offers the most readily identifiable example of a living landscape. Take a look at how the moors impact the people living nearby, and how two neighboring mansions can produce such totally different (both completely dysfunctional) families.

    What happens when the walls around you become your only companions? What happens when the room to which you're confined starts making you a little batty? The Yellow Wallpaper is a 19th-century short story that exposes a serious contemporary problem for women, the "rest cure," while blurring genre lines and reshaping some good ol' fashioned Gothic tropes.

  • Melodrama and Sensationalism

    We don't know about you, but when we hear melodrama, we think reality TV.

    But melodrama was a thing way before the Real Housewives came around. Melodramatic plays took off in the 18th century and gave us a whole boatload of shared cultural images: that hand fluttering to the heart when shocked; the exaggerated lip-bite when confused; the wringing of the hands when worried. It's all melodrama. This type of over-the-top emotional gesturing was a trend people actually paid to go see—live.

    Part of the addictive allure of Gothic novels is their ability to meld two distinct stylistic elements: melodrama from theater and sensationalism from contemporary novels. Both elements were harshly ridiculed by critics at the time who considered novels in general to be low brow, but Gothic novels that offered you excessive emotion (melodrama) and made your heart pound (sensationalism) sold like hotcakes.

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    What happens when you get a full-fledged Romantic poet trying his hand at a little Gothic literature? You get possibly one of the creepiest poems about guilt and shame ever. Creepiness aside, we see a little melodrama happening every time Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mariner meets somebody new.

    Check out the first lines of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", and let us know how they don't fall pretty close to melodrama. With a title about a merciless (and supernatural) lady, our other friendly neighborhood Romantic poet, John Keats, serves up plenty of Gothicism. He's even using a Medieval source text, and you know how much those Gothic writers love them some Medievalism.

  • The Supernatural and the Sublime

    Vampires, ghosts, demons, (oh my!)—those dudes and other monsters got their big break in Gothic novels…and the world never looked back. In fact, absolutely no true Gothic tale would be complete without the supernatural.

    Some are traditionalists like Horace Walpole and Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote about actual physical monsters…UNDER YOUR BED. (Oh, calm down, we're kidding.) Others pushed the boundaries and introduced more psychological terrors that just suggested otherworldly threats. Ann Radcliffe was fond of offering "natural" explanations for things that go bump in the night.

    Others preferred to blend the two. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is usually billed as a ghost story, but it could also be read as the main character's mental breakdown. We never get any real answers, and there's definitely a host of people on both sides ready to paint the two unnerving young children-of-the-corn wannabes as either innocent victims or demonic servants of evil…muahahaha.

    Beyond the fun of playing with the paranormal, Gothic texts went all supernatural in order to reach an emotional pinnacle they considered the sublime—an indescribable feeling of terror (and sometimes joy). Needless to say, developing mood through tone was pretty important to these writers.

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    The undisputed king of tone is none other than our very own Edgar Allan Poe. Check out how his "Tell Tale Heart" blurs our sense of the supernatural and the psychological. We dare you to read it without it raising your own heart rate just a little.

    What happens when the scratches are sometimes tree branches and at other times—spoiler alert!—the ghost of one your main characters? Take a look at the supernatural in Wuthering Heights to find out.

  • The Fallen Hero

    We know the seemingly pitch-perfect Mr. Darcy is all the rage, but even he has a little bit of a brooding side—and you can definitely thank Gothic novels and their descendants for the bad-boy-as-good-guy hero. Lord Byron, a soldier and Romantic author, pushed the bounds of the antihero and allowed for the creation of such prickly yet irresistible characters as Charlotte Brontë's Mr. Rochester and Emily Brontë's Heathcliff.

    In keeping with most of the Gothic aesthetic, the appeal of the fallen hero was that he played by his own rules—a rebel-with-his-own-cause. It's not just that he's unpredictable; it's that his decisions have an internal logic dependent on the character's own moral code. Pretty hot stuff to throw in the face of Enlightenment thinkers who were all about laws that would hold true in all cases, at all times.

    Chew on This

    Robert Luis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers you a protagonist-antagonist two-for-one special. Check out what it's like to be your own worst enemy.

    By the time Oscar Wilde was writing, Gothicism was undergoing a transformation. As a standalone genre, it was seen as old hat; but as a warehouse of super-cool literary elements, it was a writer's playground. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde appropriates the movement's traditions and turn towards the macabre in the creation of his decidedly not-nice-guy protagonist.

  • Isolation

    Both parts of the damsel-in-distress/hero equations are part of the isolation game. The antihero is inherently misunderstood and the stock damsel-in-distress rarely has family or friends who care about her. Often, the lady in question would escape from one danger only to find in their source of escape a new threat. Oops.

    Why were the Gothics so focused on isolation? Well, you'll remember that the Romantics (who the Gothics grew out of) were all about the individual—and individuals…are isolated. Add to that the increasing sense of change and the nostalgia for a Gothic version of the Medieval period that they dreamed up, these folks felt quite adrift in their own world.

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    What's lonelier than a sensitive Romantic poet? This doctor and monster duo that the wife of a Romantic poet dreamed up. Check out how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein deals with two kinds of isolation: man alone even within society and man's creation without society. Frankenstein is often considered Gothic-Romantic—makes sense to us.

    There's precious little lonelier than sailing the high seas with no one to talk to but your dead crew members. Here's a double whammy: how do you think the supernatural mingled with the setting impact the sense of isolation in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?

  • Catholicism vs. Anglicanism

    Lots of Gothic lit is intensely anti-Catholic. Like, angry peasants with pitchforks anti-Catholic. Speaking of which, it's the long history of peasants with pitchforks, witches burned at the stake, and tortuous inquisitions that Gothic writers were tapping into when they craft their grisly tales. Part of the appeal is that England's past is sort of a repository of various faiths including pagan traditions that allowed for a continued interest in the supernatural.

    But the dominant religion in England during the time most Gothic novels were produced was Anglicanism: a rejection of Catholicism established by (then Catholic) King Henry VIII in 1534 after he wanted to divorce his wife and remarry (the Pope said no, so Henry created his own church).

    Anglicanism was no longer new by the time Castle of Otranto was written, so Gothic texts, then, were able to capitalize on a faith that now felt both foreign and ancestral, old and exotic. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of vilifying an entire faith with the literary fixtures like rapacious monks and superstitious villagers…

    But it made for some really good stories.

    Chew on This

    In the Gothic tradition, it's not a stretch to go from eroticizing Catholicism to seeing England itself as wholly apart from "the other." What do you think? Jane Eyre has a lot of religious issues from missionaries to bigamy and everything else in between.

    Part of the allure of Catholicism for the Gothic audience was what they saw as the lush theatricality of the Catholic Church. Saints, banners, music, incense—all were seen by them as an incredible spectacle. Check out how Wilde merges the ethical issues in The Picture of Dorian Gray with the sensory overload sprung from this tradition.

  • Gothic Architecture

    Makes sense that architecture is a big deal for a literary movement in which the setting acts as a main character, right? In fact, if it weren't for Gothic architecture, a darker component of Romanticism may not have manifested at all. Luckily for us, good ole Harry Walpole, like many of his English contemporaries in the 18th century, had an abundance of crumbling buildings populating their landscapes.

    People often made a holiday of touring old homes and castles, and what struck Walpole was a sense of the profound. Walpole was so enamored of them that he rebuilt his own home, Stanberry Hill, in their image (hey, it pays to be the Prime Minister's son).

    During the Medieval period (particularly from the 12th to the 15th centuries), when many of these cathedrals, abbeys, and estates were just making their entrance, people wanted to create massive spaces that reached up into the heavens. They were ornately designed and featured architectural innovations like vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses on the outside to support ever-taller ceilings. They sported gargoyles and saints and stained glass windows and took several centuries to build (some are still incomplete).

    These buildings are impossible to miss, but by the 16th century (we're in the Renaissance now—don't get lost) some people, like Giorgio Vasari, wished he had missed them. An art critic during the Renaissance, Vasari wasn't so into what the Medievalists had thrown down…er, built up? He saw these buildings as a big, ugly mar on his visual plane. He was so grossed out by them that he's the one that first called them "Gothic" buildings.

    But where did the name even come from?

    Goths (the original Goths, that is) were nomadic German tribes that invaded Rome and settled in much of Europe starting in about the 4th century (way, way before there was even a whiff of Romanticism). Considering Rome is…in Italy, an Italian art critic during the Renaissance (ahem, Vasari) would have a less than favorable opinion about the people who sacked it (even if it was like 10 centuries earlier). In fact, Goth was a pejorative term people used to indicate the barbarous, uncivilized, unsettled, or unrefined. When Vasari used it to describe these buildings though, the term stuck and morphed.

    By the time Walpole fell in love with these buildings, the word Gothic not only described this type of architecture; it encapsulated how the 18th century viewed the entire Medieval period. To them, it was remote, dark, gruesome, violent, emotionally charged, superstitious, and untamed. In contrast to Enlightenment values, the Romantics, well, romanticized this period and tried to replicate these elements in fiction. In a way, Walpole was writing the first fan fiction, but his inspiration, and leading lady, was a castle.

    Chew on This

    One of our own favorite literary ladies, Jane Austen, put together a pretty entertaining parody of Gothic novels with Northanger Abbey. Check out just how much this place shakes up little Catherine Morland.

    Want to get acquainted with your standard Gothic castle? Scale its walls like one Jonathan Harker does in Dracula. Check it out and see what just what makes the forbidden corridors so threatening.

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