Before you read the key features of gothic literature, it’s vital that we understand what gothic fiction is. It’s not really a genre, but more of a style that presents itself in speculation, mystery and the unknown. Because of that, a definition of the gothic may limit our understanding of it. In reality, fiction from a variety of genres can be ‘gothic.’ However, we can understand that the gothic style of fiction started in the late 1700s, and still continues today.
In this post, some films and books are called gothic, even though others may disagree with them. By taking a wide scope interpretation of gothic literature, we can better understand how the gothic manifests in storytelling.
Note: Gothic fiction does not require all of these features to fit into the ‘gothic’ label.
To understand the key features of gothic literature, we must look well beyond the nineteenth century to the present. By analysing the middle ages, we can see the crucial features of gothic literature. For one, consider the setting of many gothic tales. It’s usually an old castle that may be inspired by Gothic Architecture. Yet in gothic fiction, castles and monasteries are not mere backdrops, but are active participants in the story that unfolds.
Look at Hogwarts in Harry Potter, which isn’t just a magical school, but is enchanted by moving staircases. That’s a key feature of gothic medievalism: man interacting with their environment.
Medievalism also pertains to storytelling. In fantasy fiction, the ‘grimdark’ movement brings together gothic ideas with medieval ones. Authors such as George R. R Martin is a great example of this. Although I often disagree with ASOIAF being called ‘grimdark’, he certainly does combine medieval Tolkienism with modern Gothic aesthetics. Think of Arya Stark in the House of Black And White, a place of both mystery and death. But also think of Sansa Stark, Arya’s sister, and her beliefs in chivalry and romance. Both Arya and Sansa are great takes on the ‘girl in the horror movie’ trope.
A longstanding criticism of gothic literature is that it’s ‘escapist’ and not as ‘serious’ as more naturalist fiction. You even see this in Northanger Abbey, which offers light mockery of the gothic. Yet this is an unsatisfactory interpretation, as one of the features of gothic literature is that it reveals long-standing fears and desires. In the height of Romanticism, there was a glorification of the Middle Ages.
It should also be argued that escapism is not always a bad thing, and nor does it result in ‘less serious’ literature.
A Melancholic Feel
Gothic literature is often gloomy, which explains the melancholy. Look at Tim Burton’s films, mainly Edward Scissorhands. The main character feels out of place with his ‘new’ environment, although he does find happiness with a certain blonde. Melancholy is found in dramas such as Jane Eyre and Frankenstein. Because of that, melancholy is a tool that engages the reader deep with the emotional turmoil of the characters. Melancholic storytelling can improve reader investment in fiction.
There are many ways melancholy is present in fiction, and they include:
- Imagery of death
- Sentimental music or words
- Declarations of strong emotion
- Wanting the reader or viewer to have deep reflection about certain characters or themes
However, a swelling musical score or a character crying should never replace actual characterisation or storytelling. A great example of characterisation and storytelling in gothic literature is Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Although Dickens’ characters are often seen as caricatures, they suit Dickens aptitude for drama. In the grunge streets of London, Oliver’s life is already melancholic and sad. But what makes Dickens stand above the rest is that he can make the reader laugh and cry, which adds more texture to his literature.
Emphasis On Mystery
The reason why gothic fiction lends well to the detective and crime genre is because of mystery. This is the ability of writers to withhold crucial information from the reader and to keep them guessing. Not only does this heighten the emotional experience for the reader, (and make them experience ‘wonder’ and ‘terror’, two emotions emphasized by the gothic), but mystery makes the story more engaging and thrilling.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we are not told everything at the start. Neither are we in Dauphine du Maurier’s Rebecca. This creates more interest, and when the horror unravels like a nesting doll, the reader experiences both horror and satisfaction.
Shirley Jackson is also acclaimed for this ability, from her short stories to her novels. Yet the greatest example of mystery in gothic literature comes from The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Some may disagree with the gothic label being applied to the Italian medievalist, but it’s fitting because it contains (although subverts) many gothic ideas.
In cinema, films such as the grisly Se7en use mystery to great effect. One has to mention Alfred Hitchcock, and how he uses mystery to create an engaging story (Psycho, The Birds). However, mystery can be overdone, and often seem silly. That’s a problem with American Horror Story, which seemed superfluous and lacking in dramatic weight, despite the gothic aesthetics.
My point is that the gothic should never be an excuse for shallow storytelling.
Gothic fiction is violent and sometimes features gore. This is particularly true in the horror genre, where filmmakers and writers are unafraid to feature the bloody outcomes of gothic situations. Yet a situation isn’t violent because you can see blood or someone cutting off a body part. That’s a very superficial interpretation of violence in gothic literature.
Violence in gothic literature is the result of fear, terror or disturbance. It’s the natural aftermath that occurs because of heightened emotions and situations. Note that not all gothic fiction will feature terror, but there is always some disturbance. I don’t find Guillermo Del Toro’s films scary in the same way I found It by Stephen King. But I find them chilling and disturbing.
It’s tempting for writers and scholars to claim that a work of fiction is terrifying or disturbing because there is violence. But often, the horror lies in why the violence is occuring. That’s a wonderful aspect of gothic literature. It’s psychological, and is often twisting the reader’s notions of goodness in man.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, we get in the head of the deeply unlikeable protagonist. When he commits violence, the reader may feel that they too, are being violent. This is highly effective, and a great immersive trait of gothic literature.
Vampires. Demons. Ghosts. The supernatural belongs on any list regarding key features of gothic literature. It’s one of the most recognisable aspects of gothic literature, and it’s for a good reason. This is because the supernatural is highly symbolic, and often represents a profound character fear or desire.
Remember: the key features of gothic literature include symbolism and the imagination. A ghost is never in a story for no reason. No, the ghost serves an underlying function in the themes and ideas of the gothic novel. Same is for vampires and any other demon.
In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the incredible novel by Susanna Clarke, statues come to life and mysterious magic changes history. Yet there’s an underlying theme of how history is important and can shape the present. The uncertainty of how ‘true’ our memories are is embodied in talking busts and whimsical fairies.
Although Clarke provides footnotes, she is clever enough to not reveal all her magical secrets within the novel, and leaves plenty for the reader to speculate.
However, the supernatural does not always have to be completely serious. Ann Rice in Interview With A Vampire has fun with the dynamic Lestat, and speaks to the gothic’s tendency for exaggeration and melodrama.
Distortion Of Theology
Not all gothic fiction is religious. Most of it is not, yet we can’t ignore the influence of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (mainly Inferno) on gothic literature. Themes such as the afterlife, punishment, redemption and God feature significantly in gothic fiction. A good example of this is Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. Often considered a text that’s critical of Catholicism, Lewis uses theological imagery to portray his gothic nightmare.
Many gothic writers use theology as inspiration for their stories. The spin-off to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, uses themes of divinity, prophecy, love, salvation and evil to form its story and characters. The show is neither pro nor anti Christianity, but is deeply concerned with some Christian themes and ideas.
Yet gothic fiction doesn’t need to be opposed to the Catholic Church, or various forms of Christianity. When I say ‘distortion’ I do not necessarily mean a misuse of theology. What I mean is that gothic literature may have a unique interpretation of theological ideas and history.
This is shown in H.P Lovecraft’s work, which often features fictitious religions and dangerous cults. However, Lovecraft is not saying religion is evil, he is merely displaying the fascinating intersection between the gothic, fiction and religion.
Motif Of Death
Expect plenty of death in gothic literature, and this is because gothic writers were, and still are, focused on the final stage of human life. Yet gothic writers aren’t merely content with characters dying. A sophisticated work of gothic literature will use symbolism or complex metaphors to depict the sorrow of death.
A fantastic example of this is in Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Askaban. Think of the tea leaf readings in Divination. Harry’s cup has an omen, that represents death. Not only does this predict the appearance of Sirius Black and the execution of Buckbeak, but also future events in the series.
The film adaption has brilliant gothic imagery, such as candlelight, frost, supernatural demons (Dementors!) and a dark colour palette.
The end result is a remarkable film that bridges medieval and gothic ideas with modernity. It’s also fun, and a highlight of Harry Potter in cinema. Although gothic fiction may feature death and other serious themes, it can also have comedic moments.
A great example of this is in Discworld by Terry Pratchett. Mort is a scene-stealing character that speaks to how humans interpret death through both comedy and drama.
Drama & Angst
Gothic fiction heavily uses dramatic situations for tension and melodramatic effect. A strength of the gothic has always been exaggeration, and how typically ordinary events are magnified.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is a terrific example of melodrama in gothic literature. The characters, Kathy and Heathcliff, are in constant emotional turmoil and even pain. When they exchange dialogue, the speech is heavily attention-grabbing and detailed.
A long-standing theory of mine is that melodrama in gothic literature is the result of Shakespeare’s tragedies like Macbeth. Although the bard lived centuries before gothic literature entered Britain, there are many ways that Shakespeare is responsible for Gothic drama.
Of course, he’s not the only early modern writer to associate with the Gothic: you have John Milton and Charles Perrault, whose fairytales later inspired the German Grimm Brothers. Although the early modern period is not the main source of inspiration for gothic literature, it is crucial to understanding why gothic fiction became popular.
I highly recommend studying various witch trials, or the influence of the Reformation, on England to better understand gothic fiction.
Use of Romanticism
Without romanticism, it is harder to understand gothic literature. Although gothic literature was popularised because of romanticism, gothic literature became its own movement. Yet many motifs of romanticism remain. For example, here are some elements associated with romanticism:
- The importance of childhood
- Speculation (Use of fantasy, science fiction and horror elements)
- A negative approach to industrialization and modernity
As you can see, there is significant crossover between gothic and romantic literature. A brilliant use of romanticism is in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Not only is it set in the late medieval period in Paris, but Hugo uses both romantic and gothic imagery.
This is shown in the character Esmeralda, the young, kind woman who holds many romantic ideals. Yet she’s not the only one: so does Frollo (although he distorts many of them) and Quasimodo.
In my recent blog post about Western Art History, I discussed the misconception many have of romanticism, that it is naive and ignorant of reality. I believe Victor Hugo subverts beliefs people have of romanticism, even if only one of his works is really gothic. In French literature, The Phantom Of The Opera is an enriching gothic tale that’s moody and memorable.
Although romantic and gothic literature is driven by archetypes, exaggeration and tropes, it is incredibly individualistic. You have characters who do not fit in with society or any collective, such as Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Personally, I like this. Not because I’m an individualist, (which I am), but because fiction is great at highlighting the struggles that people face, often alone.
Reinterpreting The Role Of Women, Youth & Children
Both women and children have interesting roles in gothic literature. For one, children are peculiar metaphors for ghosts and death. This is seen in The Woman In Black, but also in horror films such as The Orphanage and The Others. I believe that children partially represent the fear of getting older for the protagonist.
In The Picture Of Dorian Gray, the protagonist focuses heavily on his youth and charm, and fears old age, but also losing his self-worth. Often in gothic fiction, childhood and youth are metaphors for character anxieties and fears.
If anything, gothic literature shows us why society glorifies youth and innocence. It’s because we were once children, until adulthood transformed us into the person we are today. Children are often victims in gothic fiction, which adds to the tragedy of the story.
As for women, plenty of gothic fiction builds on Arthurian legends and chivalric romances. A big misconception many have of medieval literature is that women are always damsels or weak-willed. That’s certainly not true for Morgan Le Fey, or the somewhat dirty fabliau of France. In other, less comedic medieval literature, female characters such as Iseult have tragic fates, yet so does the male protagonist.
However, gothic literature exaggerates these tropes, often to the point of melodrama or mockery. The Castle of Otranto plays around with the ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘virginal women’ trope, much to the horror of the reader. This is later subverted in shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where the titular character uses her powers and strength to fight demons. Yet she’s also the stereotypical ‘girl in the horror movie’ in many ways.
In the 21st century, shows such as Supernatural or books like Gone Girl aren’t afraid to portray women as horrifying or evil. Characters such as the demon Ruby and Amy Dunne take great joy in the misery of their victims. They are also fuelled by anger. Many interpret this as the result of the patriarchy, yet it’s also embelic of vice and temptation.
A more restrained and positive version of women is in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland is both intelligent and naive, and the reader will appreciate her personal integrity.
The wonderful features of gothic literature prove that it’s a dynamic style that suits a variety of stories. Not only is gothic fiction imaginative and wonderful, but it’s also challenging, and at times, terrifying.
In the comments below, share some of your favourite works of gothic fiction. It’s absolutely fascinating, and deserves our attention.