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Gothic and Literature

The meaning of Gothic
"Gothic" has come to mean a number of things by this day and age:

What it originally meant is "of, relating to, or resembling the Goths, their
civilization, or their language",
"medieval" or "uncouth" - in the terms of Dr Johnsons Dictionary of 1775, as
one not civilised, one deficient in general knowledge, a barbarian, and the
medieval or Gothic age as a cultural wasteland, primitive and superstitious.
a particular style of art (literature, paintings, or architecture),
a certain type of music and its fans.

The Goths
One of the many Germanic tribes, who settled in much of Europe from the 3 rd to
the 5th centuries.
The Goths originated in what is now southern Sweden.
They separated into two groups, named according to the places that they
eventually settled:
- the Visigoths (the West Goths),
- the Ostrogoths (the East Goths).
Initially, because the Goths left no literature or art of their own, they came to be
remembered only as the invaders and destroyers of the great Roman civilization.
Centuries passed before the word "gothic" meant anything else again.

17th and 18th c

A shift in the meanings and connotations of the word Gothic.
Gothic broadened out to become descriptive of anything medieval in fact, of all things
preceding about the middle of the 17th century.
Gothic meant to do with what was perceived as barbaric and to do with the medieval
world, it could be seen to follow that it was a term which could be used in structural
opposition to classical:

Gothic vs.
ornate and convoluted/complex
excess and exaggeration

simple and pure
world of clear rules and limits

wild and uncivilized

more oppositions

Gothic stood for the:

old English barons
often for the English and provincial
vernacular (characteristic of everyday lg.)
archaic, pagan,
which was prior to/ opposed to /
or resisted

as opposed to the:
cosmopolitan gentry
European or Frenchified
imposed culture
the establishment of
civilized values and
a well-regulated society

During the Renaissance, Europeans rediscovered Greco-Roman culture and

began to regard a particular type of architecture, mainly those built during the Middle
Ages, as "gothic"
- not because of any connection to the Goths,
- because the 'Uomo Universale' considered these buildings barbaric and
definitely not in that Classical style they so admired.

Gothic also meant anything obsolete, old-fashioned, or outlandish.

Therefore, we can say that
Gothic fiction is hardly Gothic at all.
it is a post-medieval and even post-Renaissance phenomenon.

(for the full list see Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature)

Gothic novel

European Romantic, pseudomedieval fiction having a prevailing atmosphere of

mystery and terror. Its heyday was the 1790s, but it underwent frequent revivals in
subsequent centuries.
The term Gothic novel is an invention coined as a literary term by analogy with
the Gothic Revival in architecture that began in mid-18 th century.
In the 1790s the works written in this mode were simply and universally referred
to as romances.

The birth of Gothic literature

There was a number of writers and authors claiming that there had been whole
areas of English cultural history which had been ignored in conventional reconstructions
of the past, and that the way to breathe life into the culture was by re-establishing
relations with the forgotten, so-called Gothic history often related to barbarism.
An important text on this subject was written by Bishop Hurd Letters on Chivalry
and Romance (1762).
The arts of our forefathers and the folk traditions on which they drew, may have
been ill formed and may indeed not have conformed to rules which we have
since come to regard as constitutive of aesthetic success, but perhaps this very
rudeness and wildness can be construed as itself a source of power a power
that Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton saw.
1. ancient British heritage
2. a revival of interest in ballads
3. English medieval poetry Chaucer,
4. the major works of Spenser and of the Elizabethans

Ideas of freedom and Opposition to classicism

Gothicism liberated period literature from the neoclassic drive toward simplicity
and restraint of fancy.
The emerging Gothic genre relieved the boredom aroused by neoclassicisms
lack of heroism and danger, the hallmarks of the Crusades.
The 18th century in both England and Germany saw a strong reaction against
the rationalistic canons of French classicism.

Joseph Addison (1672 -1719) acknowledged that traditional tales of ghosts and
fairies arouse
- a pleasing kind of Horrour in the Mind of the Reader and are an excellent
resource for a poet. He cited Shakespeare in evidence,
- but warned that it is impossible for a Poet to succeed in it, who has not a
particular Cast of Fancy, and an Imagination naturally fruitful and

Graveyard school
As if in answer to Addisons challenge

the poem A Night Piece on Death (1721) by Thomas Parnell launched the
so-called Graveyard school,
had its heyday in the1740s with Edward Youngs The Complaint: or Night
Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (174245).

Defence of romance and Gothic

Early apologists
Identifying the principles of composition for a text like The Faerie Queene by Edmund
They often reached for an analogy with Gothic architecture, especially cathedrals.
1. Richard Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762).
2. Thomas Warton Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser (1754;
enlarged edition 1762).
Both stressed that medieval romances should be seen as:
the product of their times
both took a particular interest in the customs of chivalry as a foundation for
both interpreted supernatural elements in romance as allegories of social
3. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, ne Aikin

Pamphleteer and essayist (17431825) one of the first female writers to produce
Gothic fiction, contributed to an understanding of the psychological response to early
Gothic novels.
On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror, with Sir Bertrand (1773), a
landmark in Gothic criticism that legitimizes the reading of terror literature as a form of
intellectual stimulus.

She comments on pleasure produced by the painful sensation immediately

arising from a scene of misery.
She concludes that the positive response to pain makes readers want to [be]
witnesses to such scenes, instead of flying from them with disgust and

She singles out William Shakespeares use of the ghost of King Hamlet in
Hamlet, and witchcraft in Macbeth, dark elements in Horace Walpoles The Castle of
Otranto models of pleasurable Gothic fiction.
Like Walpole she sets aside the issue of moral justification.
To demonstrate the effect, a short fragment Sir Bertrand (also 1773) was
included in the Aikin volume. It consists of a series of astonishing and horrific
occurrences undergone by a lone knight, with no moral or didactic message.

Opposition to romance, the rise of the novel

A decisive factor in the dismissal of ancient romance was the association with
Catholic superstition.
The disenchanted novel was felt to be the appropriate fictional mode for an
enlightened Protestant culture.

The rise of the novel.

Samuel Richardsons Pamela (174041) and Clarissa (174748),
Henry Fieldings Tom Jones (1749),
Laurence Sternes Tristram Shandy (175967),
o huge publishing successes,
o media events
o launched numerous spinoffs such as journalistic responses, spoofs, theatrical
adaptations, print engravings, and sermons, as well as a host of imitators.

But by the 1770s the lack of new and original contenders was sending the novel
into what appeared to be a terminal decline.

The reading public were beginning to tire of these, and publishers and
booksellers were becoming discouraged.

Fallow period
The 1780s have been almost universally misrecognized as a fallow period before
the boom of the1790s.
The romance wars of the 1780s took place both at the level of theory and
practice, and there was considerable interchange between the two.

The new trend that Walpole started was not often imitated within the next few decades,
until 1790, when it started spreading
in the British Isles,
on the continent (Europe)
even to America,
particularly for a female readership,
it remained popular throughout the Romantic period (1790s to 1830s).
Gothic convention flourished as a subset of romanticism.
From 1765 and Horace Walpoles Otranto, until 1806, one-third of Britains published
novels were Gothic in style.

Victorian Era

In literature Victorian novels, short stories and fantastic tales, sensation

novels for women, poetry in 19th century,
in other forms of art (painting, operas, plays).
Often satirized and ridiculed for its excesses.
However, Gothic conventions also marked serious literature, notably:
Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (1847),
Emily Bronts Wuthering Heights(1847),
Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House
(1853), and Great Expectations (1861).

Fin de sicle - 1880-1890

A century after the 1790s, the 1890s (known as fin de sicle) saw resurgence of
Gothic fiction, particularly in prose narrative, now regarded as classic Gothic works of
Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray (189091),
Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper (1892),
Bram Stokers Dracula (1897), and
Henry Jamess serialized novella The Turn of the Screw (1898)

1900s - onwards
A shift from the castle settings and medieval trappings of formulaic Gothicism
preceded a focus on mystery, eeriness, surreality, subconscious impulses, and terror.
Expansion of the Gothic into other forms of art
ghost stories,
womens romance novels,
TV and cinema,
musical plays, music,
computer games,
late 20th century the academic study of Gothic fiction at universities.

2. Gothic Themes and Motifs

Unlike the self-controlled, intellectual neo-classics, Gothic writers plunge into:

intuition, exuberance, variety, improbability,
rough behaviours, and morbid fantasies.
They were often focused on:
torment, control and/or murder of an innocent female character.
The early Gothic works are permeated with:
characters peering through the mist from massy battlements, stalkers,
monsters, stormy nights,
a variety of sinister paraphernalia: the hidden passageways, sliding
panels, and trapdoors that allowed villains access to hapless maidens, or
maidens to escape from them.
Some Gothic stereotypes
virgin fleeing a lustful predator, rabid monster, or madman.
Recurrent motifs of Gothic fiction consist of archetypal essentials of psychological
vulnerable female naf,
heartless villains,
physical and emotional confinement and liberation,
sexual awakenings, and
an expansive play of light on dark.
In 1765, British author Horace Walpole established the basics of Gothic
convention with The Castle of Otranto.

Gothic Conventions
Gothic conventions emerged through a long and complex literary and
philosophical evolution.
The ornate elements typical of Gothic literature:
- chivalry,
- vendettas,
- piety,
- medieval magic,
- mystery,
- grotesque,

- illusion,
- terror,
- repression,

- sensationalism,
- dissipation,
- perversity

The early Gothic strain thrived for three decades on a murky, terror-ridden
atmosphere, ominous tone and mood, and vague geographical settings among Gothic
structures and ruins, particularly caves, abbeys, towers, castles, crypts.
Serving as a foreshadowing device atmospheric hints:
heighten readers expectation of romance,
foreboding/ anticipation, mystery, or terror and
prepare them for disaster.
One of the masters of atmosphere was Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote (1842
Grahams Magazine) about the importance of a single effect,
a phrase that defines the psychological impact of his poems and stories.
H. P. Lovecraft (20th c), who creates the tension with the unknown horrors that
are indirectly described but almost never fully revealed to the reader.

Legends, art, and architecture - influenced the formation of gothic conventions.

stories of chivalry and pageantry,

settings in castles and abbeys,
old documents and wills,
Catholic ritual and mysticism, diabolism,
archaic diction, and
the skewed vision of women as either hags or idealized damsels to be
protected from harm and rescued from monsters and villains.

mannered elegance
religious faith
all elements of Horace Walpoles

dark cells, and
terror of sudden violence,
The Castle of Otranto.

A psychological dread of confinement - a recurrent motif in Gothic literature

dungeons and prisons,
insane asylums,
premature burial,
patriarchal marriage,
emotional repression.
A scenario developed in Greek myth with the heroics of Theseus, who conquered
the Minotaur, a monster concealed in a labyrinth on the island of Crete.
In female gothic, claustrophobic elements reflect the circumscribed world of

Disguise motif
Present from the fairy tales (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast).

Gothic characters obtain both good and bad ends.

enhances the romance and a tingling feeling of excitement, which
beguiles readers through the blurring of character traits, places, and motives.

Mad scientist - a decline in medical standards, unwise experimentation, dissection of
living tissue, and meddling with nature, by using the character of a mad scientist.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelleys Frankenstein (1818),
Robert Louis Stevensons Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Villain - a variety of incarnations:
the larger-than-life lying baron,
foreign banditto,
lustful monk or brutal abbess/nun,
sadistic inquisitor,
callous relative,
the looming outsider.
Two subclasses of villains illustrate the complexities of Gothic characterization:
the Promethean hero-villain earns reader sympathy by rebelling against a
power structure or overextending his strength (Frankenstein).

the Byronic hero, is an ambiguous, quasi-demonic male figure, secretive,

cynical, physically attractive, mystic.

Supernatural creatures

Gothic monsters can be regarded as a creative rebellion of romanticism

against the regularity and predictability of 18th-century neoclassic
Monsters disturb universal harmony by appearing gnarled, deformed, and
oversized or out of proportion.
An allegorical facet of phobias present in folk lore as boogeymen,
banshees, werewolves, lamias, vampires, and dragons.

Victor Frankensteins experimental man in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelleys

Frankenstein, as well as Stokers Dracula.
archetypal elements in fiction present from myths, to modern literature.
Others supernatural creatures: ghosts, spectres, etc.
A standard character
Possesses an element that makes him different from the environment and the
reader: a strange face, different nationality or race, often the bearer of OTHERNESS
(Dracula, shape-shifting, lycanthropy) that causes the characters to lose their humanity.
Excluded by the majority - The gypsy boy Heathcliff in Emily Bronts Wuthering
Heights (1847)
Character decline
and/or criminal and sexual urges,
loss of self-control that leads to cruelty and murder,

Christopher Marlowes Dr. Faustus

Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol (1843).
Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
Steerpike in the Gormenghast trilogy of Mervyn Peake.

A mirroring or duality of a characters persona, the concept of the doppelgnger
refers to the twin, shadow double, demon double, and split personality, all common
characterizations in world folklore.
- derives from the German double goer or double walker,
- a complex characterization that novelist Jean Paul Richter coined in
Siebenks (1796), a novel depicting a bisected persona.
The doppelgnger motif typically depicts
- a double who is both duplicate and antithesis of the original
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelleys Victor Frankenstein
- Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
- Frodo and Gollum in Tolkiens LoTR.

Dreams and nightmares

Nighttime phantasms are realistic landscapes on which the psyche combats
terrifying threats.
In two forms
1. Numerous Gothic writings were supposedly prompted by dreams Horace
Walpoles The Castle of Otranto, Samuel Taylor Coleridges Kubla Khan
(1816) Robert Louis Stevensons Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
2. a body of writings in which dreams influence character action.

Flight motif
Vulnerable characters who find themselves in the clutches of monsters or
menaced by psychopaths escape in search for haven.
Isabelle in Walpoles Otranto
A royal court retreats to a rural abbey to elude an epidemic in Edgar Allan
Poes The Masque of the Red Death.
Victor Frankenstein Mary Wollstonecraft Shelleys Frankenstein (1818).


sad longing


Horace Walpole, originator of the Gothic novel, identified sorrow as a proof of true love
in the conclusion of The Castle of Otranto.

Insanity as a state of mind haunted
the characters in Gothic fiction,
the authors.

The creator of the first Gothic setting was Horace Walpole, who placed The Castle of
Otranto in a medieval castle equipped with
rusted hinges, a trapdoor, a walking portrait, lamps that flicker out at tense
moments in the action.
Gothic setting
medieval buildings and ruins,
castles or monasteries equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements,
hidden panels, and trapdoors.

The Gothic has spread across numerous forms of art and genres, Nevertheless,
in spite of numerous changes and variations throughout history, its main features are
relatively constant.
1. a Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or
seemingly antiquated space:
- a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a
graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre,
- an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory,
public building,
- some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing
cabinets, an overworked spaceship, or a computer memory.

2. Within this space (or a combination of such spaces), there are some secrets from
the past, hidden.
3. Such secrets haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise.
Forms of haunting:
- ghosts, spectres, or monsters
- mixed features from different realms of being, often life and death
- tendency to resolve conflicts that can no longer remain hidden
4. Crossed boundaries between the worlds
conventional reality
the boundaries between these may have been crossed, at least
psychologically but also physically or both.

Further reading:
- Jerrold E. Hogle (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge University
Press 2002
- Catherine Spooner, Emma McEvvoy, The Routledge Companion to Gothic, Routledge,
London and New York, 2007
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature, New York: Facts on File, 2005.
- H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature.