What are Gothic Tales Really About?

Whenever I read Gothic stories I can feel the fear that was experienced in a pre-industrial land. I imagine an early England, covered in forest, with obscure castles, some ruined, inhabited by evil barons. There are mad women, witches living in strange hovels, partly revered, partly detested by the people. Most of the population are commoners, bonded to the land and their local baron. Then there are outlaws. And pretty wenches, who might be slightly feisty and clever, or are rather meek and apt to get kidnapped by a baron/outlaw/sorcerer.

Fairy tales are very much stories for girls. The prince/hero is often fairly bland and interchangeable, but ticks all the right boxes; handsome, honest, kind, brave, noble. He is very inoffensive. This is possibly a little insulting to the dragon. What worse fate is there than to be killed by a nice bland prince? The Gothic tale is perhaps a fairy tale told by a modern author. There is more a focus on human depravity, rather than the supernatural, or the supernatural is used as a very thin metaphor for human evil. (For example in Bram Stoker’s Dracula).  Mary Shelley’s Transformation has a reckless anti-hero as a protagonist, which is a good example of the more three dimensional characters present in Gothic stories, rather than the archetypes who are used as characters in Fairy tales. Angela Carter uses an interesting symbol in The Lady of the House of Love; the heroine uses tarot cards showing basic characters and concepts to reveal her own story. The scenes in almost any fairy tale could be told through a tarot deck, whereas the Gothic tale brings more depth to these ideas.

The Gothic tales we read today tend to be 18th century onwards, so they are not actually written in mediaeval times, but are set in a romanticised version of mediaeval Europe.  The rise of Gothic stories seems to coincide with the growth of industrialisation. I find it interesting to note that Sir Bertrand by A L Aikin, a early Gothic Tale, was written around 1773, while Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. These tales were written at a time when social climbing and self-help were becoming possible, so it is interesting to look at the vilification of the aristocracy which often happens in Gothic tales and the dystopian nature of the feudal society often used as a backdrop. I am picturing a scene where a self-made factory owner purchases a book of Gothic stories as a gift for his newly middle-class daughter, the first girl in the family to learn to read and write to any decent level.

I think that many Gothic tales capture the fear and superstition that existed before the industrial age. The sense of ‘the unknown’. Imagine this land full of little-travelled, uneducated serfs, dreaming about what goes on outside of their city wall, or the small farmstead they inhabit, and there you have the beginnings of a Gothic tale.

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2 thoughts on “What are Gothic Tales Really About?

  1. I enjoyed reading this- wonderful observations.
    As to what a gothic tale is- I think that slightly twisting the world people think they know is my favorite type of gothic story.

    a.m.

  2. Pingback: Speculations « . . . Damien G. Walter . . .

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