The Top 10 Elements of Gothic Literature

The term “Gothic” was first used in conjunction with a Medieval style of ornate and intricate architecture that originated in France around the 12th century. It wasn’t until the Romantic era in the late 18th century that the word was applied to literature. The first mention of Gothic literature appeared in English writer Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. Walpole applied the word in the subtitle, “A Gothic Story.” The use was intended to be a sophisticated joke to suggest that the story was an antique relic even though it was mere fiction.

Walpole used the word “Gothic” in the sense of “barbarous” or “deriving from Middle Ages,” and many were even fooled into believing his story actually held truth. His tale of love, death, and supernatural elements paved the way for a fictional genre that has been explored by prominent authors from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, the Brontë sisters, and many more. Although the books from these prolific writers were published centuries ago, today they provide a strong connection to the past and an important resource for both contemporary fiction writers and avid literary collectors alike.

Horace Walpole, Castle of Otranto. Sold for $50 via National Book Auctions (June 2012).

What is Gothic Literature?

Gothic literature is a genre that emerged as one of the eeriest forms of Dark Romanticism in the late 1700s, a literary genre that emerged as a part of the larger Romanticism movement. Dark Romanticism is characterized by expressions of terror, gruesome narratives, supernatural elements, and dark, picturesque scenery. This fictional genre encompasses many different elements, and has undergone a series of revivals since its inception.

Defining Elements of Gothic Literature

Many of the defining elements of Gothic literature parallel those of the Middle Ages, incorporating similar themes and settings. Readers’ fascination with terror paved the way for a thrilling new ideal that helped popularize the movement. There are many aspects of Gothic literature that make it compelling to audiences both then and now, which include mystery and suspense, atmosphere and setting, and omens and curses.

1. Mystery and Fear

One of the crucial components of a captivating Gothic story evokes feelings of suspense and fear. Anything that is beyond scientific understanding lends way to mystery, and Gothic atmospheres leverage this principle. Many Gothic works contain scenes, events and objects such as burials, flickering candles, evil potions, and other frightful concepts.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Sold for £1,240 via Dreweatts 1759 (April 2014).

We see this in Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. The story centers around Emily St. Aubert, an orphaned girl who was subjected to cruelties by guardians and imprisoned in castles. The work included strange, fearful events and a haunting atmosphere that came to define the genre in the years to come.

2. Omens and Curses

Foreshadowing, a literary device used to hint at events to come, occurs in the form of visions, omens, and curses throughout many narratives in Gothic literature. Often, tragedies are preceded by bad luck, intended to derail the lives of main characters. For example, an object might fall and break or a shadowy figure might be lurking in the dark. Edgar Allan Poe uses this element in his short story, “The Black Cat,” published in 1843. The superstitious nature of the title is ominous in itself, and Poe furthers the foreshadowing by naming one of the cats “Pluto,” a reference to the god of the dead in Roman mythology.

3. Atmosphere and Setting

Gothic novelists set the tone by carefully choosing the physical location of a scene, as the atmosphere and environment of a Gothic novel directly contributed to the feeling of fear and uneasiness. Authors often used settings like dark forests, unnerving mountain regions, ominous climatic conditions, and threatening storms. Castles, romanticized in the Medieval period, played a large role in early Gothic writings. For example, Gothic writer Mary Shelley set her scenes amid creepy locations such as graveyards, gloomy castles, and even developed the persona of a grotesque monster to emphasize the eerie plot of her 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Sold for £480 via Bloomsbury Auctions (October 2012).

Many early writers had a fascination with exoticism and foreign, unexplored territory. This was explored in William Beckford’s 1786 novel Vathek, an omniscient story about an Arabian caliph whose reign is marked by turbulence and unrest. It is set in the Middle East and helped spark interest in Arab and Asian culture.

4. Supernatural and Paranormal Activity

Much of Gothic literature’s allure comes from the genre’s suggestion of supernatural or inexplicable events, such as inanimate objects coming to life, ghosts, spirits, and vampires like that of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic fantasy, Dracula.

A more contemporary, and less conventional, example is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which was published in 1987 and is widely considered to be a modern take on the traditional Gothic novel. The story centers around a former slave named Sethe, and her daughter, whose home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant believed to the ghost of Sethe’s eldest daughter. It follows the convention of fear and horror, calling upon supernatural elements like that of the ghost to drive the plot.

5. Romance

As it’s widely believed Gothic literature stemmed from Romantic literature, the two genres share overlapping characteristics. Many Gothic novels are plagued by a passionate romance that often leads to sorrow and tragedy. The works of Charles Dickens centered on a Romantic-style love affair, but also featured horrific villains and Gothic settings. In the Victorian era, Gothic novels even provided an outlet for exploration of sexuality, as seen in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, “Annabel Lee.”

6. Villain

Much like that of various literary genres, villains play a pivotal role in Gothic literature. In traditional Gothic novels, villains took the form of autocratic, male characters, often in authoritative positions like that of priests or kings. They’re complex, and initially sympathetic as to fool the reader of their deceptive nature. Villains like Dracula and Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are examples of complex, villainous characters.

Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Sold for $800 via Brunk Auctions (September 2014).

7. Emotional Distress

Often, Gothic writers use melodrama or “high emotion” to convey a thought. This exaggerated, impassioned language helps convey the panic and terror inherent in many characters. Themes of madness and emotional distress were seen in many of the 20th century Gothic novels that depicted the condition of psychosis. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is written from the perspective of a woman suffering from postpartum depression.

8. Nightmares

Nightmares serve as a particularly important omen within Gothic literature. Nightmares have an ancient association with the act of foretelling and were used to exacerbate the haunting aspects of a novel’s plot. The dreams allow authors to better demonstrate the emotions of their characters in a more immediate and frightening state. Stephen King’s Bag of Bones depicts that of Mike Noonan, a character plagued by nightmares of frightening visions including the death of his wife.

9. Anti-hero

More often than not, the protagonist takes the form of the anti-hero, a flawed protagonist with monstrous elements popularized by this genre of writing. Originally, protagonists were males as well, but as the feminist movement emerged, English novelists like Clara Reeve began introducing female protagonists into their works.

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. Sold for €1,739.71 via Artcurial (December 2009).

Protagonists tend to hold a high social rank and strong physical presence. Their doom is foreshadowed, and they are burdened by sorrow or a horrific tragedy. Often, they’re easily influenced, driven much by passion. Classic protagonist examples include Cathy and Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

10. Damsel in Distress

Gothic works often include a woman who suffers at the expense of a villain. They carry feelings of sadness, oppression, and loneliness, and many were depicted as virginal in early Gothic pieces. The damsel’s character is often held captive in a castle, terrorized by a nobleman, and rendered powerless. This brooding woman appealed to the readers’ pathos, particularly with the example of Horace Walpole’s character Matilda, whose unwavering loyalty to her father ultimately makes her weak and powerless.

Tips for Writing Gothic Fiction

Incorporating key Gothic elements into your novel is paramount to capturing the essence of this hauntingly dark genre. Reading the works of iconic Gothic writers like Shelley, Stoker, and more can provide inspiration to help your story develop. Below, explore elements and examples to help lay the groundwork for the perfect Gothic novel.

Since Horace Walpole’s introduction of Gothic writing into the literary scene in 1764, the genre has taken on many different interpretations. Contemporary Gothic literature encompasses a wide range of stories, from ghost and horror stories to suspense and thrillers. Many are loose adaptations of authentic Gothic fiction that dominated the 19th century. Nonetheless, avid Gothic readers can find a collection of books from Gothic writers of both historical and modern writings.

Sources: ThoughtCo. | American Literature | Pen & the Pad | Penlighten