An Introduction to Gothic Literature

By Horace Walpole (author) / Johann Willhelm Meil (illustrator) / Johann Friedrich Bolt (engraver) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths.  It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.

The height of the Gothic period, which was closely aligned with Romanticism, is usually considered to have been the years 1764-1840, but its influence extends to the present day in authors such as V. C. Andrews.

Plot and Examples

The plot of Gothic literature novels typically involves people who become involved in complex and oftentimes evil paranormal schemes, usually against an innocent and helpless heroine. One such example is the young Emily St. Aubert in Anne Radcliffe’s classic Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). This novel would later become an inspiration for parody in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817).

The most famous example of pure Gothic fiction is perhaps the first example of the genre, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Although rather short, the setting certainly fits the description given above, and the combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre.

Selected Bibliography

In addition to The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto, there are a number of classic novels which those interested in gothic literature will want to pick up. Here is a list of ten titles that are not to be missed:

  • The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker

Key Elements

In most of the examples above, one will find certain key elements ascribed to Gothic fiction.  Some of the major elements that are recognizable throughout the genre include:

Atmosphere: In the Gothic novel, the atmosphere will be one of mystery, suspense, and fear, the mood of which is only enhanced by elements of the unknown or unexplained.

Clergy: Often, as in The Monk and The Castle of Otranto, the clergy play important secondary roles. They are often weak and sometimes outrageously evil.

The Paranormal: Oftentimes Gothic fiction will contain elements of the supernatural or paranormal, such as ghosts and vampires. In some instances, these supernatural features are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works, they remain completely inexplicable.

Melodrama: Also called “high emotion,” melodrama is created through highly sentimental language and overly emotional characters. The panic, terror and other emotions can seem overwrought in order to make the characters and setting seem wild and out of control.

Omens: Typical of the genre, omens – or portents, visions, etc.—often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.

Setting: The setting of a Gothic novel is typically a character in its own right. Gothic architecture plays an important role, so the stories are often set in a castle or large manor, which is typically abandoned. Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.

Virginal Maiden in Distress: With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women.

This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader's pathos, particularly as these heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

Mondern Critiques

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as referring to any story that uses an elaborate setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent protagonist. The contemporary understanding is similar, but has widened to include a variety of genres, such as “paranormal” and “horror.”