A Brief Introduction to Gothic Literature

Elements, Themes, and Examples from the Gothic Style

Boris Karloff as the monster sitting lakeside with little girl in a scene from the film 'Frankenstein', 1931.
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The term Gothic originates with the architecture created by the Germanic Goth tribes that was later expanded to include most medieval architecture. Ornate, intricate, and heavy-handed, this style of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary genre, one that concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition. While there are several notable precursors, the height of the Gothic period, which was closely aligned with Romanticism, is usually considered to have been the years 1764 to about 1840, however, its influence extends to 20th-century authors such as V.C. Andrews, Iain Banks, and Anne Rice.

Plot and Examples

Gothic plotlines typically involve an unsuspecting person (or persons)—usually an innocent, naive, somewhat helpless heroine—who becomes embroiled in complex and oftentimes evil paranormal scheme. An example of this trope is young Emily St. Aubert in Anne Radcliffe’s classic Gothic 1794 novel, "The Mysteries of Udolpho," which would later inspire a parody in form of Jane Austen’s 1817 "Northanger Abbey."

The benchmark for pure Gothic fiction is perhaps the first example of the genre, Horace Walpole’s "The Castle of Otranto" (1764). Although not a long tale in the telling, the dark, its oppressive setting combined with elements of terror and medievalism set the bar for an entirely new, thrilling form of literature.

Key Elements

Most Gothic literature contains certain key elements that include:

  • Atmosphere: The atmosphere in a Gothic novel is one characterized by mystery, suspense, and fear, which is usually heightened by elements of the unknown or unexplained.
  • Setting: The setting of a Gothic novel can often rightly be considered a character in its own right. As Gothic architecture plays an important role, many of the stories are set in a castle or large manor, which is typically abandoned or at least run-down, and far removed from civilization (so no one can hear you should you call for help). Other settings may include caves or wilderness locales, such as a moor or heath.
  • Clergy: Often, as in "The Monk" and "The Castle of Otranto," the clergy play important secondary roles in Gothic fare. These (mostly) men of the cloth are often portrayed as being weak and sometimes outrageously evil.
  • The paranormal: Gothic fiction almost always contains elements of the supernatural or paranormal, such as ghosts or vampires. In some works, these supernatural features are later explained in perfectly reasonable terms, however, in other instances, they remain completely beyond the realm of rational explanation.
  • Melodrama: Also called “high emotion,” melodrama is created through highly sentimental language and instances of overwrought emotion. The panic, terror, and other feelings characters experience is often expressed in a way that's overblown and exaggerated in order to make them seem out of control and at the mercy of the increasingly malevolent influences that surround them.
  • Omens: Typical of the genre, omens—or portents and visions—often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams, spiritual visitations, or tarot card readings.
  • Virgin 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 (think Dracula). This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader's sense of pathos, particularly as these heroines typically tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

Modern 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. 

Selected Bibliography

In addition to "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and "The Castle of Otranto," there are a number of classic novels that those interested in Gothic literature will want to pick up. Here's a list of 10 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
  • "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • "Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood" (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • "Dracula" (1897) by Bram Stoker