Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic
horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines
fiction and horror, death, and at times romance or happiness. Its
origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764
Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) "A
Gothic Story". The effect of
Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort
of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were
relatively new at the time of Walpole's novel. It originated in
England in the second half of the 18th century where, following
Walpole, it was further developed by Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe,
William Thomas Beckford
William Thomas Beckford and Matthew Lewis. The genre had much success
in the 19th century, as witnessed by Mary Shelley's
the works of
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe as well as
Charles Dickens with his
novella, A Christmas Carol. Another well known novel in this genre,
dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker's Dracula. The name
Gothic refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic
architecture, in which many of these stories take place. This extreme
form of romanticism was very popular in England and Germany. The
English Gothic novel also led to new novel types such as the German
Schauerroman and the French Georgia.
1 Early Gothic romances
1.1 Clara Reeve
1.2 Ann Radcliffe
2 Developments in continental Europe and The Monk
4 Russian Empire
6 Victorian Gothic
7.1 Mysterious imagination
Macabre and morbid
7.4 Emotional aesthetic
7.5 Political influences
9 Post-Victorian legacy
9.2 New Gothic Romances
9.3 Southern Gothic
9.4 Other contemporary Gothic
9.5 Modern horror
9.6 In education
9.7 Other media
10 Elements of Gothic fiction
10.1 Role of architecture and setting in the Gothic novel
10.2 Female Gothic and the supernatural explained
11 See also
14 External links
Early Gothic romances
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto (1764) is regarded as the first Gothic novel.
The aesthetics of the book have shaped modern-day gothic books, films,
art, music and the goth subculture.
The novel usually regarded as the first Gothic novel is The
Otranto by English author Horace Walpole, which was first published in
1764. Walpole's declared aim was to combine elements of the
medieval romance, which he deemed too fanciful, and the modern novel,
which he considered to be too confined to strict realism. The basic
plot created many other staple Gothic generic traits, including a
threatening mystery and an ancestral curse, as well as countless
trappings such as hidden passages and oft-fainting heroines.
Walpole published the first edition disguised as a medieval romance
from Italy discovered and republished by a fictitious translator. When
Walpole admitted to his authorship in the second edition, its
originally favourable reception by literary reviewers changed into
rejection. The reviewers' rejection reflected a larger cultural bias:
the romance was usually held in contempt by the educated as a tawdry
and debased kind of writing; the genre had gained some respectability
only through the works of
Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. A
romance with superstitious elements, and moreover void of didactical
intention, was considered a setback and not acceptable. Walpole's
forgery, together with the blend of history and fiction, contravened
the principles of the Enlightenment and associated the Gothic novel
with fake documentation.
Clara Reeve, best known for her work
The Old English Baron
The Old English Baron (1778), set
out to take Walpole's plot and adapt it to the demands of the time by
balancing fantastic elements with 18th-century realism. In her
preface, Reeve wrote: "This Story is the literary offspring of The
Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite
the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient
Romance and modern Novel." The question now arose whether
supernatural events that were not as evidently absurd as Walpole's
would not lead the simpler minds to believe them possible.
Ann Radcliffe developed the technique of the explained supernatural in
which every seemingly supernatural intrusion is eventually traced back
to natural causes. Radcliffe has been called both “the Great
Enchantress” and “Mother Radcliffe” due to her influence on both
gothic literature and the female gothic. Radcliffe’s use of
visual elements and their effects constitutes an innovative strategy
for reading the world through “linguistic visual patterns” and
developing an “ethical gaze”, allowing for readers to visualize
the events through words, understand the situations, and feel the
terror which the characters themselves are experiencing.
Her success attracted many imitators. Among other elements, Ann
Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the Gothic villain (A
Sicilian Romance in 1790), a literary device that would come to be
defined as the Byronic hero. Radcliffe's novels, above all The
Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), were best-sellers. However, along with
most novels at the time, they were looked down upon by many
well-educated people as sensationalist nonsense.
Radcliffe also inspired the emerging idea of “gothic feminism”,
which she expressed through the ideology of ‘female power through
pretended and staged weakness’. The establishment of this idea began
the movement of the female gothic to be “challenging… the concept
of gender itself”.
Radcliffe also provided an aesthetic for the genre in an influential
article "On the
Supernatural in Poetry", examining the distinction
and correlation between horror and terror in Gothic fiction,
utilizing the uncertainties of terror in her works to produce a model
of the uncanny. Combining experiences of terror and wonder with
visual description was a technique that pleased readers and set
Radcliffe apart from other Gothic writers.
Developments in continental Europe and The Monk
Romantic literary movements developed in continental Europe concurrent
with the development of the Gothic novel. The roman noir ("black
novel") appeared in France, by such writers as François Guillaume
Ducray-Duminil, Baculard d'Arnaud and Madame de Genlis. In Germany,
the Schauerroman ("shudder novel") gained traction with writers as
Friedrich Schiller, with novels like
The Ghost-Seer (1789), and
Christian Heinrich Spiess, with novels like Das Petermännchen
(1791/92). These works were often more horrific and violent than the
English Gothic novel.
Matthew Lewis' lurid tale of monastic debauchery, black magic and
The Monk (1796) offered the first continental novel
to follow the conventions of the Gothic novel. Though Lewis's novel
could be read as a pastiche of the emerging genre, self-parody had
been a constituent part of the Gothic from the time of the genre's
inception with Walpole's Otranto. Lewis's portrayal of depraved monks,
sadistic inquisitors and spectral nuns—and his
scurrilous view of the Catholic Church—appalled some readers, but
The Monk was important in the genre's development.
The Monk also influenced
Ann Radcliffe in her last novel, The Italian
(1797). In this book, the hapless protagonists are ensnared in a web
of deceit by a malignant monk called Schedoni and eventually dragged
before the tribunals of the
Inquisition in Rome, leading one
contemporary to remark that if Radcliffe wished to transcend the
horror of these scenes, she would have to visit hell itself.
Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade used a subgothic framework for some of his
fiction, notably The Misfortunes of Virtue and Eugenie de Franval,
though the Marquis himself never thought of his like this. Sade
critiqued the genre in the preface of his Reflections on the novel
(1800) stating that the Gothic is "the inevitable product of the
revolutionary shock with which the whole of Europe resounded".
Contemporary critics of the genre also noted the correlation between
the French revolutionary Terror and the "terrorist school" of writing
represented by Radcliffe and Lewis. Sade considered
The Monk to be
superior to the work of Ann Radcliffe.
German gothic fiction is usually described by the term Schauerroman
("shudder novel"). However, genres of Gespensterroman/Geisterroman
("ghost novel"), Räuberroman ("robber novel"), and Ritterroman
("chivalry novel") also frequently share plot and motifs with the
British "gothic novel". As its name suggests, the Räuberroman focuses
on the life and deeds of outlaws, influenced by Friedrich von
Schiller's drama The Robbers (1781). Heinrich Zschokke's Abällino,
der grosse Bandit (1793) was translated into English by
M.G. Lewis as
The Bravo of Venice in 1804. The Ritterroman focuses on the life and
deeds of the knights and soldiers, but features many elements found in
the gothic novel, such as magic, secret tribunals, and medieval
setting. Benedikte Naubert's novel Hermann of Unna (1788) is seen as
being very close to the Schauerroman genre.
While the term Schauerroman is sometimes equated with the term "Gothic
novel", this is only partially true. Both genres are based on the
terrifying side of the Middle Ages, and both frequently feature the
same elements (castles, ghost, monster, etc.). However, Schauerroman's
key elements are necromancy and secret societies and it is remarkably
more pessimistic than the British Gothic novel. All those elements are
the basis for Friedrich von Schiller's unfinished novel The Ghost-Seer
(1786–1789). The motive of secret societies is also present in the
Horrid Mysteries (1791–1794) and Christian August
Vulpius's Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Robber Captain (1797).
Other early authors and works included Christian Heinrich Spiess, with
his works Das Petermännchen (1793), Der alte Überall und Nirgends
(1792), Die Löwenritter (1794), and Hans Heiling, vierter und letzter
Regent der Erd- Luft- Feuer- und Wasser-Geister (1798); Heinrich von
Kleist's short story "Das Bettelweib von Locarno" (1797); and Ludwig
Tieck's Der blonde Eckbert (1797) and Der Runenberg (1804). Early
examples of female-authored Gothic include Sophie Albrecht's Das
höfliche Gespenst (1797) and Graumännchen oder die Burg Rabenbühl:
eine Geistergeschichte altteutschen Ursprungs (1799).
During the next two decades, the most famous author of Gothic
literature in Germany was polymath E. T. A. Hoffmann. His novel The
Devil's Elixirs (1815) was influenced by Lewis's novel The Monk, and
even mentions it during the book. The novel also explores the motive
of doppelgänger, the term coined by another German author (and
supporter of Hoffmann),
Jean Paul in his humorous novel Siebenkäs
(1796–1797). He also wrote an opera based on the Friedrich de la
Motte Fouqué's Gothic story Undine, with de la Motte Fouqué himself
writing the libretto. Aside from Hoffmann and de la Motte Fouqué,
three other important authors from the era were Joseph Freiherr von
Eichendorff (The Marble Statue, 1819),
Ludwig Achim von Arnim (Die
Majoratsherren, 1819), and
Adelbert von Chamisso
Adelbert von Chamisso (Peter Schlemihls
wundersame Geschichte, 1814).
Wilhelm Meinhold wrote
The Amber Witch
The Amber Witch (1838) and Sidonia
von Bork (1847). Also writing in the German language, Jeremias
The Black Spider
The Black Spider (1842), an allegorical work that used
Gothic themes. The last work from German writer Theodor Storm, The
Rider on the White Horse (1888), also uses Gothic motives and
themes. In the beginning of the 20th century, many German authors
wrote works influenced by Schauerroman, including Hanns Heinz
Russian Gothic was not, until recently, viewed as a critical label by
Russian critics. If used, the word "gothic" was used to describe
(mostly early) works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Most critics simply used
the tags such as "Romanticism" and "fantastique". Even in relatively
new story collection translated as Russian 19th-Century Gothic Tales
(from 1984), the editor used the name Фантастический
мир русской романтической повести (The
Fantastic World of Russian
Romanticism Short Story/Novella).
However, since the mid-1980s, Russian gothic fiction was discussed in
books like The Gothic-
Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century Russian
Literature, European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760–1960, The
Russian Gothic novel and its British antecedents and Goticheskiy roman
v Rossii (Gothic
Novel in Russia).
The first Russian author whose work can be described as gothic fiction
is considered to be Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin. Although many of
his works feature gothic elements, the first one which is considered
to belong purely in the "gothic fiction" label is Ostrov Borngolm
(Island of Bornholm) from 1793. The next important early Russian
author is Nikolay Ivanovich Gnedich with his novel Don Corrado de
Gerrera from 1803, which is set in Spain during the reign of Philip
The term "gothic" is sometimes also used to describe the ballads of
Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky
Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky (particularly "Ludmila" (1808) and
"Svetlana" (1813)). Also, the following poems are considered to belong
in the gothic genre: Meshchevskiy's "Lila", Katenin's "Olga",
Pushkhin's "The Bridegroom", Pletnev's "The Gravedigger" and
The other authors from the romanticism era include: Antony Pogorelsky
(penname of Alexey Alexeyevich Perovsky), Orest Somov, Oleksa
Storozhenko, Alexandr Pushkin, Nikolai Alekseevich Polevoy,
Mikhail Lermontov (his work Stuss) and Alexander
Bestuzhev-Marlinsky. Pushkin is particularly important, as his
short story "The Queen of Spades" (1833) was adapted into operas and
movies by both Russian and foreign artists. Some parts of Mikhail
Yuryevich Lermontov's "A
Hero of Our Time" (1840) are also considered
to belong in the gothic genre, but they lack the supernatural elements
of the other Russian gothic stories.
Viy, lord of the underworld, from the story of the same name by Gogol
The key author of the transition from romanticism to realism, Nikolai
Vasilievich Gogol, is also one of the most important authors of the
romanticism, and has produced a number of works which qualify as
gothic fiction. His works include three short story collections, of
which each one features a number of stories in the gothic genre, as
well as many stories with gothic elements. The collections are:
Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831–1832) with the stories "St
John's Eve" and "A Terrible Vengeance"; Arabesques (1835), with the
story "The Portrait"; and
Mirgorod (1835), with the story "Viy". The
last story is probably the most famous, having inspired at least eight
movie adaptations (two of which are now considered to be lost), one
animated movie, two documentaries, and a video game. Gogol's work is
very different from western European gothic fiction, as he is
influenced by Ukrainian folklore, Cossack lifestyle and, being a very
religious man, Orthodox Christianity.
Other authors of Gogol's era included Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky
(The Living Corpse, written 1838, published 1844; The Ghost; The
Sylphide; and other stories), Count Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy
(The Family of the Vourdalak, 1839, and The Vampire, 1841), Mikhail
Zagoskin (Unexpected Guests), Józef Sękowski/Osip Senkovsky (Antar),
Yevgeny Baratynsky (The Ring).
After Gogol, the Russian literature saw the rise of the realism, but
many authors wrote stories belonging to the gothic fiction territory.
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, one of the world's most celebrated
realists, wrote Faust (1856), Phantoms (1864), Song of the Triumphant
Love (1881), and Clara Milich (1883). Another Russian realist classic,
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, incorporated gothic elements in many
of his works, although none of his novels are seen as purely
gothic. Grigory Petrovich Danilevsky, who wrote historical and
early science fiction novels and stories, wrote Mertvec-ubiytsa (Dead
Murderer) in 1879. Also, Grigori Alexandrovich Machtet wrote the story
During the last years of the Russian Empire, in the early 20th
century, many authors continued to write in the gothic fiction genre.
These include historian and historical fiction writer Alexander
Valentinovich Amfiteatrov; Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev, who developed
psychological characterization; symbolist Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov;
Alexander Grin; Anton Pavlovich Chekhov; and Aleksandr Ivanovich
Kuprin. Nobel Prize winner
Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin
Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin wrote Dry
Valley (1912), which is considered to be influenced by gothic
literature. In her monograph on the subject, Muireann Maguire
writes, "The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is
almost impossible to exaggerate, and certainly exceptional in the
context of world literature."
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) has come
Gothic fiction in the Romantic period. Frontispiece to 1831
Further contributions to the Gothic genre were seen in the work of the
Romantic poets. Prominent examples include Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel as well as John Keats'
La Belle Dame sans Merci
La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819) and Isabella, or the Pot of Basil
(1820) which feature mysteriously fey ladies. In the latter poem
the names of the characters, the dream visions and the macabre
physical details are influenced by the novels of premiere Gothicist
Ann Radcliffe. Percy Bysshe Shelley's first published work was the
Zastrozzi (1810), about an outlaw obsessed with revenge
against his father and half-brother. Shelley published a second Gothic
novel in 1811, St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, about an alchemist who
seeks to impart the secret of immortality.
The poetry, romantic adventures, and character of Lord
Byron—characterised by his spurned lover
Lady Caroline Lamb
Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad,
bad and dangerous to know"—were another inspiration for the Gothic,
providing the archetype of the Byronic hero. Byron features, under the
codename of "Lord Ruthven", in Lady Caroline's own Gothic novel:
Byron was also the host of the celebrated ghost-story competition
involving himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John
William Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the banks of
Lake Geneva in
the summer of 1816. This occasion was productive of both Mary
Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori's
The Vampyre (1819). This
latter story revives Lamb's Byronic "Lord Ruthven", but this time as a
The Vampyre has been accounted by cultural critic Christopher
Frayling as one of the most influential works of fiction ever written
and spawned a craze for vampire fiction and theatre (and latterly
film) which has not ceased to this day. Mary Shelley's novel,
though clearly influenced by the Gothic tradition, is often considered
the first science fiction novel, despite the omission in the novel of
any scientific explanation of the monster's animation and the focus
instead on the moral issues and consequences of such a creation.
A late example of traditional Gothic is
Melmoth the Wanderer
Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by
Charles Maturin, which combines themes of anti-Catholicism with an
outcast Byronic hero.
Cover of a
Varney the Vampire
Varney the Vampire publication (1845)
By the Victorian era, Gothic had ceased to be the dominant genre, and
was dismissed by most critics. (Indeed, the form's popularity as an
established genre had already begun to erode with the success of the
historical romance popularised by Sir Walter Scott.) However, in many
ways, it was now entering its most creative phase. Recently readers
and critics have begun to reconsider a number of previously overlooked
Penny Blood or "penny dreadful" serial fictions by such authors as
G.W.M. Reynolds who wrote a trilogy of Gothic horror novels: Faust
(1846), Wagner the Wehr-wolf (1847) and The Necromancer (1857).
Reynolds was also responsible for
The Mysteries of London
The Mysteries of London which has
been accorded an important place in the development of the urban as a
particularly Victorian Gothic setting, an area within which
interesting links can be made with established readings of the work of
Dickens and others. Another famous penny dreadful of this era was the
Varney the Vampire
Varney the Vampire (1847). Varney is the tale of
the vampire Sir Francis Varney, and introduced many of the tropes
present in vampire fiction recognizable to modern audiences — it was
the first story to refer to sharpened teeth for a vampire. The
formal relationship between these fictions, serialised for
predominantly working class audiences, and the roughly contemporaneous
sensation fictions serialised in middle class periodicals is also an
area worthy of inquiry.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an important reinterpreter of Gothic fiction.
An important and innovative reinterpreter of the Gothic in this period
was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe focused less on the traditional elements of
gothic stories and more on the psychology of his characters as they
often descended into madness. Poe's critics complained about his
"German" tales, to which he replied, 'that terror is not of Germany,
but of the soul'. Poe, a critic himself, believed that terror was a
legitimate literary subject. His story "The Fall of the House of
Usher" (1839) explores these 'terrors of the soul' while revisiting
classic Gothic tropes of aristocratic decay, death, and madness.
The legendary villainy of the Spanish Inquisition, previously explored
by Gothicists Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin, is based on a true
account of a survivor in "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842). The
Ann Radcliffe is also detectable in Poe's "The Oval
Portrait" (1842), including an honorary mention of her name in the
text of the story.
The influence of Byronic
Romanticism evident in Poe is also apparent
in the work of the Brontë sisters. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights
(1847) transports the Gothic to the forbidding Yorkshire Moors and
features ghostly apparitions and a
Byronic hero in the person of the
demonic Heathcliff. The Brontës' fiction is seen by some feminist
critics as prime examples of Female Gothic, exploring woman's
entrapment within domestic space and subjection to patriarchal
authority and the transgressive and dangerous attempts to subvert and
escape such restriction. Emily's Cathy and Charlotte Brontë's Jane
Eyre are both examples of female protagonists in such a role.
Louisa May Alcott's Gothic potboiler,
A Long Fatal Love Chase
A Long Fatal Love Chase (written
in 1866, but published in 1995) is also an interesting specimen of
Elizabeth Gaskell's tales "The Doom of the Griffiths" (1858) "Lois the
Witch", and "The Grey Woman" all employ one of the most common themes
of Gothic fiction, the power of ancestral sins to curse future
generations, or the fear that they will.
Bram Stoker, author of Dracula
The gloomy villain, forbidding mansion, and persecuted heroine of
Sheridan Le Fanu's
Uncle Silas (1864) shows the direct influence of
both Walpole's Otranto and Radcliffe's Udolpho. Le Fanu's short story
In a Glass Darkly
In a Glass Darkly (1872) includes the superlative vampire
tale Carmilla, which provided fresh blood for that particular strand
of the Gothic and influenced Bram Stoker's vampire novel Dracula
(1897). According to literary critic Terry Eagleton, Le Fanu, together
with his predecessor Maturin and his successor Stoker, form a subgenre
of Irish Gothic, whose stories, featuring castles set in a barren
landscape, with a cast of remote aristocrats dominating an atavistic
peasantry, represent in allegorical form the political plight of
colonial Ireland subjected to the Protestant Ascendancy.
The genre was also a heavy influence on more mainstream writers, such
as Charles Dickens, who read Gothic novels as a teenager and
incorporated their gloomy atmosphere and melodrama into his own works,
shifting them to a more modern period and an urban setting, including
Oliver Twist (1837–8),
Bleak House (1854) (Mighall 2003) and Great
Expectations (1860–61). These pointed to the juxtaposition of
wealthy, ordered and affluent civilisation next to the disorder and
barbarity of the poor within the same metropolis.
Bleak House in
particular is credited with seeing the introduction of urban fog to
the novel, which would become a frequent characteristic of urban
Gothic literature and film (Mighall 2007). His most explicitly Gothic
work is his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he did not
live to complete and which was published in unfinished state upon his
death in 1870. The mood and themes of the Gothic novel held a
particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession
with mourning rituals, mementos, and mortality in general.
Robert Louis Stevenson's
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
was a classic Gothic work of the 1880s, seeing many stage adaptations.
The 1880s saw the revival of the Gothic as a powerful literary form
allied to fin de siecle, which fictionalized contemporary fears like
ethical degeneration and questioned the social structures of the time.
Classic works of this
Urban Gothic include Robert Louis Stevenson's
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The
Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier's Trilby (1894),
Richard Marsh's The Beetle: A Mystery (1897), Henry James' The Turn of
the Screw (1898), and the stories of Arthur Machen. Some of the works
of Canadian writer Gilbert Parker also fall into the genre, including
the stories in The Lane that Had No Turning (1900).
The most famous Gothic villain ever, Count Dracula, was created by
Bram Stoker in his novel
Dracula (1897). Stoker's book also
established Transylvania and Eastern Europe as the locus classicus of
the Gothic. Gaston Leroux's serialized novel The Phantom of the
Opera (1909–1910) is another well-known example of gothic fiction
from the early 20th century.
In America, two notable writers of the end of the 19th century, in the
Gothic tradition, were
Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. Bierce's
short stories were in the horrific and pessimistic tradition of Poe.
Chambers, though, indulged in the decadent style of Wilde and Machen,
even to the extent of his inclusion of a character named 'Wilde' in
his The King in Yellow.
The conventions of Gothic literature did not spring from nowhere into
the mind of Horace Walpole. The components that would eventually
combine into Gothic literature had a rich history by the time Walpole
perpetrated his literary hoax in 1764.
Gothic literature is often described with words such as "wonder" and
"terror." This sense of wonder and terror, which provides the
suspension of disbelief so important to the Gothic—which, except for
when it is parodied, even for all its occasional melodrama, is
typically played straight, in a self-serious manner—requires the
imagination of the reader to be willing to accept the idea that there
might be something "beyond that which is immediately in front of us."
The mysterious imagination necessary for Gothic literature to have
gained any traction had been growing for some time before the advent
of the Gothic. The necessity for this came as the known world was
beginning to become more explored, reducing the inherent geographical
mysteries of the world. The edges of the map were being filled in, and
no one was finding any dragons. The human mind required a
replacement. Clive Bloom theorizes that this void in the
collective imagination was critical in the development of the cultural
possibility for the rise of the Gothic tradition.
The setting of most early Gothic works was a medieval one, but this
had been a common theme long before Walpole. In Britain especially,
there was a desire to reclaim a shared past. This obsession frequently
led to extravagant architectural displays, and sometimes mock
tournaments were held. It was not merely in literature that a medieval
revival made itself felt, and this too contributed to a culture ready
to accept a perceived medieval work in 1764.
Macabre and morbid
The Gothic often uses scenery of decay, death, and morbidity to
achieve its effects (especially in the Italian Horror school of
Gothic). However, Gothic literature was not the origin of this
tradition; indeed it was far older. The corpses, skeletons, and
churchyards so commonly associated with the early Gothic were
popularized by the Graveyard Poets, and were also present in novels
such as Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, which contains
comical scenes of plague carts and piles of plague corpses. Even
earlier, poets like
Edmund Spenser evoked a dreary and sorrowful mood
in such poems as Epithalamion.
All of the aspects of pre-Gothic literature mentioned above occur to
some degree in the Gothic, but even taken together, they still fall
short of true Gothic. What was lacking was an aesthetic, which
would serve to tie the elements together. Bloom notes that this
aesthetic must take the form of a theoretical or philosophical core,
which is necessary to "sav[e] the best tales from becoming mere
anecdote or incoherent sensationalism." In this particular case,
the aesthetic needed to be an emotional one, which was finally
provided by Edmund Burke's 1757 work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the
Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which "finally
codif[ied] the gothic emotional experience." Specifically, Burke's
thoughts on the Sublime, Terror, and Obscurity were most applicable.
These sections can be summarized thus: the Sublime is that which is or
produces the "strongest emotion which the mind is capable of
feeling,"; the Sublime is most often evoked by Terror; and to cause
Terror we need some amount of Obscurity—we can't know everything
about that which is inducing Terror—or else "a great deal of the
apprehension vanishes"; Obscurity is necessary in order to experience
the Terror of the unknown. Bloom asserts that Burke's descriptive
vocabulary was essential to the Romantic works that eventually
informed the Gothic.
The birth of the Gothic was also probably influenced by political
upheaval beginning with the English Civil War and culminating in a
Jacobite rebellion (1745) more recent to the first Gothic novel
(1764). A collective political memory and any deep cultural fears
associated with it likely contributed to early Gothic villain
characters as literary representatives of defeated
Tory barons or
Royalists "rising" from their political graves in the pages of the
early Gothic to terrorize the bourgeois reader of late
The excesses, stereotypes, and frequent absurdities of the traditional
Gothic made it rich territory for satire. The most famous parody
of the Gothic is Jane Austen's novel
Northanger Abbey (1818) in which
the naive protagonist, after reading too much Gothic fiction,
conceives herself a heroine of a Radcliffian romance and imagines
murder and villainy on every side, though the truth turns out to be
much more prosaic. Jane Austen's novel is valuable for including a
list of early Gothic works since known as the Northanger Horrid
Novels. These books, with their lurid titles, were once thought to be
the creations of Jane Austen's imagination, though later research by
Michael Sadleir and
Montague Summers confirmed that they did actually
exist and stimulated renewed interest in the Gothic. They are
currently all being reprinted.
Another example of Gothic parody in a similar vein is The Heroine by
Eaton Stannard Barrett (1813). Cherry Wilkinson, a fatuous female
protagonist with a history of novel-reading, fancies herself as the
heroine of a Gothic romance. She perceives and models reality
according to the stereotypes and typical plot structures of the Gothic
novel, leading to a series of absurd events culminating in
catastrophe. After her downfall, her affectations and excessive
imaginations become eventually subdued by the voice of reason in the
form of Stuart, a paternal figure, under whose guidance the
protagonist receives a sound education and correction of her misguided
Pulp magazines such as
Weird Tales reprinted and popularized Gothic
horror from the prior century.
See also: Pulp magazine
Notable English 20th-century writers in the Gothic tradition include
Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, M. R. James, Hugh Walpole,
and Marjorie Bowen. In America pulp magazines such as Weird Tales
reprinted classic Gothic horror tales from the previous century, by
such authors as Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton and
printed new stories by modern authors featuring both traditional and
new horrors. The most significant of these was
H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft who
also wrote an excellent conspectus of the Gothic and supernatural
horror tradition in his
Supernatural Horror in Literature
Supernatural Horror in Literature (1936) as
well as developing a Mythos that would influence Gothic and
contemporary horror well into the 21st century. Lovecraft's protégé,
Robert Bloch, contributed to
Weird Tales and penned Psycho (1959),
which drew on the classic interests of the genre. From these, the
Gothic genre per se gave way to modern horror fiction, regarded by
some literary critics as a branch of the Gothic although others
use the term to cover the entire genre.
New Gothic Romances
Gothic Romances of this description became popular during the 1950s,
1960s, and 1970s, with authors such as Phyllis A. Whitney, Joan Aiken,
Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, Mary Stewart, and Jill
Tattersall. Many featured covers depicting a terror-stricken woman in
diaphanous attire in front of a gloomy castle, often with a single lit
window. Many were published under the
Paperback Library Gothic imprint
and were marketed to a female audience. Though the authors were mostly
women, some men wrote Gothic romances under female pseudonyms. For
instance the prolific Clarissa Ross and Marilyn Ross were pseudonyms
for the male writer Dan Ross, and
Frank Belknap Long
Frank Belknap Long published Gothics
under his wife's name, Lyda Belknap Long. Another example is British
writer Peter O'Donnell, who wrote under the pseudonym Madeleine Brent.
Outside of companies like Lovespell, who carry Colleen Shannon, very
few books seem to be published using the term today.
Main article: Southern Gothic
The genre also influenced American writing to create the Southern
Gothic genre, which combines some Gothic sensibilities (such as the
grotesque) with the setting and style of the Southern United States.
Examples include William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote,
Flannery O'Connor, Davis Grubb,
Anne Rice and Harper Lee.
Other contemporary Gothic
Contemporary American writers in this tradition include Joyce Carol
Oates, in such novels as
Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance and short
story collections such as Night-Side (Skarda 1986b) and Raymond
Kennedy in his novel Lulu Incognito.
Southern Ontario Gothic applies a similar sensibility to a
Canadian cultural context. Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Barbara
Timothy Findley and
Margaret Atwood have all produced works
that are notable exemplars of this form.
Another writer in this tradition was Henry Farrell, whose best-known
work was the 1960
Hollywood horror novel What Ever Happened To Baby
Jane? Farrell's novels spawned a subgenre of "Grande Dame Guignol" in
the cinema, represented by such films as the 1962 film based on
Farrell's novel, which starred
Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford; this
subgenre of films was dubbed the "psycho-biddy" genre.
Many modern writers of horror (or indeed other types of fiction)
exhibit considerable Gothic sensibilities—examples include the works
of Anne Rice, Stella Coulson, Susan Hill,
Poppy Z. Brite
Poppy Z. Brite and Neil
Gaiman as well as some of the sensationalist works of Stephen
King Thomas M. Disch's novel The Priest (1994) was subtitled A
Gothic Romance, and was partly modelled on Matthew Lewis' The
Monk. Many of these writers, such as Poppy Z. Brite, Stephen King
and particularly Clive Barker have focused on the surface of the body
and the visuality of blood. The Romantic strand of Gothic was
taken up in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) which is considered by
some to be influenced by Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Other
books by du Maurier, such as Jamaica Inn (1936), also display Gothic
tendencies. Du Maurier's work inspired a substantial body of "female
Gothics", concerning heroines alternately swooning over or being
terrified by scowling Byronic men in possession of acres of prime real
estate and the appertaining droit du seigneur.
For modern horror associated with the goth scene, see Goth subculture
§ Books and magazines.
Educators in literary, cultural, and architectural studies appreciate
the Gothic as an area that facilitates the investigation of the
beginnings of scientific certainty. As
Carol Senf has stated, "the
Gothic was (...) a counterbalance produced by writers and thinkers who
felt limited by such a confident worldview and recognized that the
power of the past, the irrational, and the violent continue to hold
sway in the world." As such, the Gothic helps students better
understand their own doubts about the self-assurance of today's
scientists. Scotland is the location of what was probably the world´s
first postgraduate program to exclusively consider the genre: the
MLitt in the Gothic Imagination at the University of Stirling, which
first recruited in 1996.
The themes of the literary Gothic have been translated into other
media. The early 1970s saw a Gothic Romance comic book mini-trend with
such titles as DC Comics'
The Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love
The Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love and The
Sinister House of Secret Love, Charlton Comics' Haunted Love, Curtis
Magazines' Gothic Tales of Love, and Atlas/Seaboard Comics' one-shot
magazine Gothic Romances.
There was a notable revival in 20th-century Gothic horror films such
Universal monsters films of the 1930s, Hammer Horror
films, and Roger Corman's Poe cycle. In Hindi cinema, the Gothic
tradition was combined with aspects of Indian culture, particularly
reincarnation, to give rise to an "Indian Gothic" genre, beginning
with the films Mahal (1949) and
Madhumati (1958). Modern Gothic
horror films include Sleepy Hollow, Interview with the Vampire,
Underworld, The Wolfman, From Hell, Dorian Gray, Let The Right One In,
The Woman in Black, and Crimson Peak.
The 1960s Gothic television series
Dark Shadows borrowed liberally
from the Gothic tradition and featured elements such as haunted
mansions, vampires, witches, doomed romances, werewolves, obsession,
The Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful brings many classic gothic
characters together in a psychological thriller that takes place in
the dark corners of Victorian London (2014 debut).
20th-century rock music also had its Gothic side. Black Sabbath's 1969
debut album created a dark sound different from other bands at the
time and has been called the first ever "Goth-rock" record. Themes
from Gothic writers such as
H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft were also used among
gothic rock and heavy metal bands, especially in black metal, thrash
metal (Metallica's The Call of Ktulu), death metal, and gothic metal.
For example, heavy metal musician
King Diamond delights in telling
stories full of horror, theatricality, satanism and anti-Catholicism
in his compositions.
Various video games feature Gothic horror themes and plots. For
Castlevania series typically involves a hero of the
Belmont lineage exploring a dark, old castle, fighting vampires,
werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, and other Gothic monster staples,
culminating in a battle against
Dracula himself. Others, such as
Ghosts'n Goblins feature a campier parody of Gothic fiction.
In role-playing games, the pioneering 1983 Dungeons & Dragons
Ravenloft instructs the players to defeat the vampire Strahd
von Zarovich, who pines for his dead lover. It has been acclaimed as
one of the best role-playing adventures of all time, and even inspired
an entire fictional world of the same name.
Elements of Gothic fiction
Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous
and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is
later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto – She is determined to give up
Theodore, the love of her life, for her cousin's sake. Matilda always
puts others first before herself, and always believes the best in
The Romance of the Forest – "Her wicked Marquis, having
secretly immured Number One (his first wife), has now a new and
beautiful wife, whose character, alas! Does not bear inspection."
As this review states, the virginal maiden character is above
inspection because her personality is flawless. Hers is a virtuous
character whose piety and unflinching optimism cause all to fall in
love with her.
Older, foolish woman
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto – Hippolita is depicted as the
obedient wife of her tyrant husband who "would not only acquiesce with
patience to divorce, but would obey, if it was his pleasure, in
endeavouring to persuade Isabelle to give him her hand". This
shows how weak women are portrayed as they are completely submissive,
and in Hippolita's case, even support polygamy at the expense of her
Madame LaMotte in
The Romance of the Forest – naively assumes that
her husband is having an affair with Adeline. Instead of addressing
the situation directly, she foolishly lets her ignorance turn into
pettiness and mistreatment of Adeline.
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto – he is witty, and successfully
challenges the tyrant, saves the virginal maid without expectations
The Romance of the Forest – saves Adeline multiple
times, is virtuous, courageous and brave, self-sacrificial
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto – unjustly accuses Theodore of
murdering Conrad. Tries to put his blame onto others. Lies about his
motives for attempting to divorce his wife and marry his late son's
The Marquis in
The Romance of the Forest – attempts to get with
Adeline even though he is already married, attempts to rape Adeline,
blackmails Monsieur LaMotte.
Vathek – Ninth Caliph of the Abassides, who ascended to the throne
at an early age. His figure was pleasing and majestic, but when angry,
his eyes became so terrible that "the wretch on whom it was fixed
instantly fell backwards and sometimes expired". He was addicted to
women and pleasures of the flesh, so he ordered five palaces to be
built: the five palaces of the senses. Although he was an eccentric
man, learned in the ways of science, physics, and astrology, he loved
his people. His main greed, however, was thirst for knowledge. He
wanted to know everything. This is what led him on the road to
They appear in several Gothic novels including The Romance of the
Forest in which they kidnap Adeline from her father.
Clergy – always weak, usually evil
Father Jerome in
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto – Jerome, though not evil, is
certainly weak as he gives up his son when he is born and leaves his
The Monk – Evil and weak, this character stoops to the
lowest levels of corruption including rape and incest.
Mother Superior in
The Romance of the Forest – Adeline fled from
this convent because the sisters weren't allowed to see sunlight.
Highly oppressive environment.
The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some
other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this
building has secrets of its own. This gloomy and frightening scenery
sets the scene for what the audience has already come to expect. The
importance of setting is noted in a London review of the
Otranto, "He describes the country towards Otranto as desolate and
bare, extensive downs covered with thyme, with occasionally the dwarf
holly, the rosa marina, and lavender, stretch around like wild
moorlands (...) Mr. Williams describes the celebrated
Otranto as 'an imposing object of considerable size (...) has a
dignified and chivalric air' (...) A fitter scene for his romance he
probably could not have chosen." Similarly, De Vore states, "The
setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes
the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the
deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that
at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle,
or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that
lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling." Thus,
without the decrepit backdrop to initiate the events, the Gothic novel
would not exist.
Elements found especially in American
Gothic fiction include:
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature.
They can occur in almost any setting, but in
American literature are
more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is
devoid of people.
Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially
American Gothic. Depending on either the setting or the period from
which the work came, the evil characters could be Native Americans,
trappers, gold miners etc.
American Gothic novels also tend to deal with a "madness" in one or
more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In
his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden
Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more
deranged as the novel progresses.
Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in
which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some
feat that should have led to their demise.
In American Gothic novels it is also typical that one or more of the
characters will have some sort of supernatural powers. In Brown's
Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, the main character, Huntly,
is able to face and kill not one, but two panthers.
An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic
literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is
generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can
also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the
novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit
heinous crimes. In the case of Brown's character Edgar Huntly, he
experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an
uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat. The element of fear in
female gothic is commonly portrayed through terror and supernatural
fears, while the male gothic uses horror and physical fear and gore to
create feelings of fear in the reader.
Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how
characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like
the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a
character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the
maze that their minds represented.
Role of architecture and setting in the Gothic novel
Strawberry Hill, an English villa in the "Gothic revival" style, built
by Gothic writer Horace Walpole
Gothic literature is intimately associated with the Gothic Revival
architecture of the same era. In a way similar to the Gothic
revivalists' rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the
neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, the literary
Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the
thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest
The ruins of Gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by
representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human
creations—thus the urge to add fake ruins as eyecatchers in English
landscape parks. English Gothic writers often associated medieval
buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period,
characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious,
fantastic, and superstitious rituals. In literature such
Anti-Catholicism had a European dimension featuring Roman Catholic
institutions such as the
Inquisition (in southern European countries
such as Italy and Spain).
Just as elements of
Gothic architecture were borrowed during the
Gothic Revival period in architecture, ideas about the Gothic period
and Gothic period architecture were often used by Gothic novelists.
Architecture itself played a role in the naming of Gothic novels, with
many titles referring to castles or other common Gothic buildings.
This naming was followed up with many Gothic novels often set in
Gothic buildings, with the action taking place in castles, abbeys,
convents and monasteries, many of them in ruins, evoking "feelings of
fear, surprise, confinement". This setting of the novel, a castle or
religious building, often one fallen into disrepair, was an essential
element of the Gothic novel. Placing a story in a Gothic building
served several purposes. It drew on feelings of awe, it implied the
story was set in the past, it gave an impression of isolation or being
cut off from the rest of the world and it drew on the religious
associations of the Gothic style. This trend of using Gothic
architecture began with
The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto and was to become a
major element of the genre from that point forward.
Gothic architecture as a setting, with the aim of
eliciting certain associations from the reader, there was an equally
close association between the use of setting and the storylines of
Gothic novels, with the architecture often serving as a mirror for the
characters and the plot lines of the story. The buildings in the
Castle of Otranto, for example, are riddled with underground tunnels,
which the characters use to move back and forth in secret. This secret
movement mirrors one of the plots of the story, specifically the
secrets surrounding Manfred's possession of the castle and how it came
into his family. The setting of the novel in a Gothic castle was
meant to imply not only a story set in the past but one shrouded in
In William Thomas Beckford's The History of the Caliph Vathek,
architecture was used to both illustrate certain elements of Vathek's
character and also warn about the dangers of over-reaching. Vathek's
hedonism and devotion to the pursuit of pleasure are reflected in the
pleasure wings he adds on to his castle, each with the express purpose
of satisfying a different sense. He also builds a tall tower in order
to further his quest for knowledge. This tower represents Vathek's
pride and his desire for a power that is beyond the reach of humans.
He is later warned that he must destroy the tower and return to Islam
or else risk dire consequences. Vathek's pride wins out and, in the
end, his quest for power and knowledge ends with him confined to
Castle of Wolfenbach the castle that Matilda seeks refuge at
while on the run is believed to be haunted. Matilda discovers it is
not ghosts but the Countess of Wolfenbach who lives on the upper
floors and who has been forced into hiding by her husband, the Count.
Matilda's discovery of the Countess and her subsequent informing
others of the Countess's presence destroys the Count's secret. Shortly
after Matilda meets the Countess the
Castle of Wolfenbach itself is
destroyed in a fire, mirroring the destruction of the Count's attempts
to keep his wife a secret and how his plots throughout the story
eventually lead to his own destruction.
The picturesque and evocative ruin is a common theme in Gothic
literature. This image shows the ruins of Kenilworth Castle.
The major part of the action in the
Romance of the Forest is set in an
abandoned and ruined abbey and the building itself served as a moral
lesson, as well as a major setting for and mirror of the action in the
novel. The setting of the action in a ruined abbey, drawing on Burke's
aesthetic theory of the sublime and the beautiful established the
location as a place of terror and of safety. Burke argued the sublime
was a source of awe or fear brought about by strong emotions such as
terror or mental pain. On the other end of the spectrum was the
beautiful, which were those things that brought pleasure and safety.
Burke argued that the sublime was the more preferred to the two.
Related to the concepts of the sublime and the beautiful is the idea
of the picturesque, introduced by William Gilpin, which was thought to
exist between the two other extremes. The picturesque was that which
continued elements of both the sublime and the beautiful and can be
thought of as a natural or uncultivated beauty, such as a beautiful
ruin or a partially overgrown building. In Romance of the Forest
Adeline and the La Mottes live in constant fear of discovery by either
the police or Adeline's father and, at times, certain characters
believe the castle to be haunted. On the other hand, the abbey also
serves as a comfort, as it provides shelter and safety to the
characters. Finally, it is picturesque, in that it was a ruin and
serves as a combination of both the natural and the human. By setting
the story in the ruined abbey, Radcliffe was able to use architecture
to draw on the aesthetic theories of the time and set the tone of the
story in the minds of the reader. As with many of the buildings in
Gothic novels, the abbey also has a series of tunnels. These tunnels
serve as both a hiding place for the characters and as a place of
secrets. This was mirrored later in the novel with Adeline hiding from
the Marquis de Montalt and the secrets of the Marquis, which would
eventually lead to his downfall and Adeline's salvation.
Architecture served as an additional character in many Gothic novels,
bringing with it associations to the past and to secrets and, in many
cases, moving the action along and foretelling future events in the
Female Gothic and the supernatural explained
Characterized by its castles, dungeons, gloomy forests and hidden
passages, from the Gothic novel genre emerged the Female Gothic.
Guided by the works of authors such as Ann Radcliffe,
Mary Shelley and
Charlotte Brontë, the Female Gothic permitted the introduction of
feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts.
Female gothic differs from the male gothic through differences in
narrative technique, plot, assumptions of the supernatural, and the
use of terror and horror. Female Gothic narratives focus on topics of
the persecuted heroine in flight from a villainous father and in
search of an absent mother, while male writers tended towards a plot
of masculine transgression of social taboos. The emergence of the
ghost story gave female writers something to write about besides the
common marriage plot, allowing them to offer a more radical critique
of male power, violence and predatory sexuality.
It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are
based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute "features of
the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female
sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values
of a male-dominated culture".
Significantly, with the development of the Female Gothic came the
literary technique of explaining the supernatural. The Supernatural
Explained – as this technique was aptly named – is a recurring
plot device in Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest. The novel,
published in 1791, is among Radcliffe's earlier works. The novel sets
up suspense for horrific events, which all have natural explanations.
However, the omission of any possible explanation based in reality is
what instills a feeling of anxiety and terror in both character and
An 18th-century response to the novel from the
Monthly Review reads:
"We must hear no more of enchanted forests and castles, giants,
dragons, walls of fire and other 'monstrous and prodigious
things;'—yet still forests and castles remain, and it is still
within the province of fiction, without overstepping the limits of
nature, to make use of them for the purpose of creating surprise."
Radcliffe's use of
Supernatural Explained is characteristic of the
Gothic author. The female protagonists pursued in these texts are
often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering
higher degrees of terror. The end result, however, is the explained
supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or
incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles. The female gothic
also discusses women’s dissatisfactions with patriarchal society,
addressing the problematic and dissatisfying maternal position and
role within that society. Women's fears of entrapment within such
elements as the domestic, the female body, marriage, childbirth, and
domestic abuse are commonly portrayed through the female gothic. The
female gothic formula is said to be "a plot that resists an unhappy or
ambiguous closure and explains the supernatural".
In Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest, one may follow the female
protagonist, Adeline, through the forest, hidden passages and abbey
dungeons, "without exclaiming, 'How these antique towers and vacant
courts/ chill the suspended soul, till expectation wears the cast of
The decision of Female Gothic writers to supplement true supernatural
horrors with explained cause and effect transforms romantic plots and
Gothic tales into common life and writing. Rather than establish the
romantic plot in impossible events Radcliffe strays away from writing
"merely fables, which no stretch of fancy could realize."
English scholar Chloe Chard's published introduction to The Romance of
the Forest refers to the "promised effect of terror". The outcome,
however, "may prove less horrific than the novel has originally
suggested". Radcliffe sets up suspense throughout the course of the
novel, insinuating a supernatural or superstitious cause to the
mysterious and horrific occurrences of the plot. However, the suspense
is relieved with the
For example, Adeline is reading the illegible manuscripts she found in
her bedchamber's secret passage in the abbey when she hears a chilling
noise from beyond her doorway. She goes to sleep unsettled, only to
awake and learn that what she assumed to be haunting spirits were
actually the domestic voices of the servant, Peter. La Motte, her
caretaker in the abbey, recognizes the heights to which her
imagination reached after reading the autobiographical manuscripts of
a past murdered man in the abbey.
"'I do not wonder, that after you had suffered its terrors to impress
your imagination, you fancied you saw specters, and heard wondrous
noises.' La Motte said.
'God bless you! Ma'amselle,' said Peter.
'I'm sorry I frightened you so last night.'
'Frightened me,' said Adeline; 'how was you concerned in that?'
He then informed her, that when he thought Monsieur and Madame La
Motte were asleep, he had stolen to her chamber door (...) that he had
called several times as loudly as he dared, but receiving no answer,
he believed she was asleep (...) This account of the voice she had
heard relieved Adeline's spirits; she was even surprised she did not
know it, till remembering the perturbation of her mind for some time
preceding, this surprise disappeared."
While Adeline is alone in her characteristically Gothic chamber, she
detects something supernatural, or mysterious about the setting.
However, the "actual sounds that she hears are accounted for by the
efforts of the faithful servant to communicate with her, there is
still a hint of supernatural in her dream, inspired, it would be seem,
by the fact that she is on the spot of her father's murder and that
his unburied skeleton is concealed in the room next hers".
The supernatural here is indefinitely explained, but what remains is
the "tendency in the human mind to reach out beyond the tangible and
the visible; and it is in depicting this mood of vague and
half-defined emotion that Mrs. Radcliffe excels".
Transmuting the Gothic novel into a comprehensible tale for the
imaginative 18th-century woman was useful for the Female Gothic
writers of the time. Novels were an experience for these women who had
no outlet for a thrilling excursion. Sexual encounters and
superstitious fantasies were idle elements of the imagination.
However, the use of Female Gothic and
Supernatural Explained, are a
"good example of how the formula [Gothic novel] changes to suit the
interests and needs of its current readers".
In many respects, the novel's "current reader" of the time was the
woman who, even as she enjoyed such novels, would feel that she had to
"[lay] down her book with affected indifference, or momentary
shame," according to Jane Austen, author of Northanger Abbey. The
Gothic novel shaped its form for female readers to "turn to Gothic
romances to find support for their own mixed feelings".
Following the characteristic Gothic Bildungsroman-like plot sequence,
the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from "adolescence to
maturity," in the face of the realized impossibilities of the
supernatural. As female protagonists in novels like Adeline in The
Romance of the Forest learn that their superstitious fantasies and
terrors are replaced with natural cause and reasonable doubt, the
reader may understand the true position of the heroine in the novel:
"The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives
strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore,
prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the
disability of being female."
Another text in which the heroine of the Gothic novel encounters the
Supernatural Explained is The
Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) by Gothic
author Eliza Parsons. This Female Gothic text by Parsons is listed as
one of Catherine Morland's Gothic texts in Austen's Northanger Abbey.
The heroine in The
Castle of Wolfenbach, Matilda, seeks refuge after
overhearing a conversation in which her Uncle Weimar speaks of plans
to rape her. Matilda finds asylum in the
Castle of Wolfenbach: a
castle inhabited by old married caretakers who claim that the second
floor is haunted. Matilda, being the courageous heroine, decides to
explore the mysterious wing of the Castle.
Bertha, wife of Joseph, (caretakers of the castle) tells Matilda of
the "other wing": "Now for goodness sake, dear madam, don't go no
farther, for as sure as you are alive, here the ghosts live, for
Joseph says he often sees lights and hears strange things."
However, as Matilda ventures through the castle, she finds that the
wing is not haunted by ghosts and rattling chains, but rather, the
Countess of Wolfenbach. The supernatural is explained, in this case,
ten pages into the novel, and the natural cause of the superstitious
noises is a Countess in distress. Characteristic of the Female Gothic,
the natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female
disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening
control of the male antagonist.
List of gothic fiction works
^ a b c d "The
Castle of Otranto: The creepy tale that launched gothic
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