What is Gothic Literature?

“Gothic” 

If we write this word on a blank sheet of paper, and freely list our responses, what does this word evoke?

This is actually a trick question………….

So, What is Gothic Literature? 

Confusingly, there isn’t a direct link with Gothic or Neo-Gothic Architecture, Modern Goths, The Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths.

Some literary genres are formulaic, or easily defined. For example a Haiku is a Japanese poem with a 5-7-5 syllabic structure. Or a Harlequin Romance is published by the publishing house Harlequin.

There is no official or easy definition of Gothic Literature, looking through books on criticism, there are many opinions on what constitutes a Gothic Novel, and why any particular novel may be defined thus. Chris Baldick’s compilation The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, includes writers of many nationalities. The Gothic genre includes pulp fiction, through to pieces considered high literary fiction, such as The Gospel According to Mark by Jorge Luis Borges or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which can both be read as philosophical pieces.

Historically, the genre dates back at least four hundred years, with some critics citing John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi, first performed in 1612, as the first piece of Gothic Literature. In understanding the roots of the genre it can be useful to look at Shakespeare’s Jacobean Tragedies, King Lear (circa1603) and MacBeth (circa1603), as they explore many of the themes found in the Gothic genre: murder, ghosts, power, aristocracy. And use the claustrophobic and isolated castle settings found in later Gothic novels. The Tempest (1611) is also useful, as it uses the dream-landscape which was later an important setting for Gothic tales.

Gothic Literature was popular in the Georgian era (1714-1830). Some famous titles from the period include Horace Warpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written around 1789, published posthumously in 1817), argued by some to be a spoof Gothic novel, features two young protagonists Catherine Moreland and Isabella Thorpe who are fans of Gothic literature. It was written following the popularity of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, and the film Becoming Jane includes a scene where Austen actually visits Mrs Radcliffe for advice on writing.

The Regency Era saw the publication of Gothic works by Romantic authors such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (Zastrozzi 1810), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein 1818), John Polidori (The Vampyre 1819). There is a fragment of a Gothic novel written by Lord Byron dated to 1816. And an early example of American Gothic fiction, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is set in a Dutch colony near New York, was published in 1820.

Gothic fiction was still popular in the Victorian era (1837-1901), with many famous works published in this period. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of The House of Usher (1839), works by the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens’ ghost stories, Wilkie Collins’ early detective fiction, Elizabeth Gaskell’s short stories, and Henry James’ dark novella The Turn of The Screw. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and bears striking similarities to an earlier vampire story, Carmilla published in 1872 by Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu.

Gothic Literature has influenced many sub-genres. Such as murder mystery, ghost stories, horror stories, weird tales, Southern Gothic in the US, and stories set in East Coast American settlements, such as Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch (1861). American Gothic often uses themes of religion, and isolation (think about the size of the continent and all the empty space!).

Some examples of 20th Century authors working in the Gothic genre are Mervyn Peake, and Angela Carter. And looking at recent publications, The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold, The Twilight novels by Stephanie Mayer or The Timetraveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, are influenced by the tradition of Gothic Literature.

As we can see here, the Gothic genre is quite broad, so some caution is required when giving a definition. In France, Gothic novels were know as “Roman Noir”, literally “Dark Novels”. This may be the most useful reference in defining the genre.

The neatest definition I can give is –

  • Dark 
  • From the European (including American) literary tradition 
  • Usually includes some historical references: costume, folk lore, names, architecture, religious heritage, social and cultural traditions, feudal values, whatever 


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