I seem to spend increasing amounts of time discussing what is Gothic, and what isn’t. I thought I would try to collect some of these discussions into a blog post. You don’t have to agree with me, though: my conclusion is that Gothic is a lot of things, often not all of them at once, and is remarkably difficult to define. However, let me try to clear up some of the misconceptions about Gothic literature. When I was writing my PhD thesis, my supervisor suggested to me that ‘Gothic’ is a virtually meaningless term now, and it would be great if I could come up with a new word for it. She was right, but I haven’t managed to rename it! However, I did spend a lot of time thinking about how Gothic developed and where it came from, as well as where it is going to.
Gothic, then, is an assortment of literary tropes, symbols and aesthetics, mixed up with a lot of history, psychology and religion. It comes from many places: Gothic literature isn’t a monolithic literary creature which was born, fully formed, and continued to exist in the same form. Instead, like Frankenstein’s monster, it was cobbled together from bits and pieces in a desire to create something new. Scholars generally say that the first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, though there are other contenders around the same time. Walpole had travelled widely in Europe, and was fascinated by the art and architecture of the Renaissance, which was the original ‘Gothic’ (to read more about this, have a look here). But Walpole was very much an Englishman, and wanted to create something that was British as well as Gothic, and so he bought a small house in Strawberry Hill and turned it into a castle. If you want to know more about how Gothic literature came into existence, a good start is to learn more about Walpole by visiting Strawberry Hill and having one of their excellent guided tours. So Gothic is rooted in aesthetics, in historical architecture, and also in church architecture and thus in ecclesiology, but it is also linked to earlier writing, such as the gloomy musings of the Graveyard poets.
One night in his castle, Walpole had a dream about a giant hand and helmet. From this dream he wrote his novel. I’ve written about this novel as a metaphor for Gothic itself: like the supernatural giant knight who can only be glimpsed in parts around Otranto, Gothic is so vast and sprawling that we can never see it all at once. Instead, we tend to focus on bits of it – the castle, or the supernatural, or the heroines, or the family, etc. These tropes of Gothic are very important, and together make up what we understand to be Gothic, though one of the difficulties of discussing the genre is that a novel may feature a castle, or a ghost, or a dysfunctional family, for example, without being Gothic.
What Walpole did was to spawn a monster which took over novels of the period. From terror Gothic – the popular novels of Ann Radcliffe, for example – to horror Gothic, such as the genuinely shocking The Monk, these books were everywhere, and were parodied in Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey. Gothic novels were considered to be bad for readers, especially young readers, since they were thrilling, shocking and romantic, and led young girls to aspire to be Gothic heroines. Yet romantic love is not usually a feature of the Gothic novel, which tends instead to depict the family as the source of both safety and terror: in Gothic, evil comes from within – inside the walls of your home, inside your family, and inside yourself. The Gothic form accepts that we are fascinated with the wicked, the evil, or just the dank and gloomy, and plays on that. Readers like to be thrilled, scared, shocked and entertained, and the Gothic does all of these things. In particular, the Gothic ‘atmosphere’ is created by the aesthetics of the genre. This is ‘shopping-list Gothic’: graveyards, churches, castles, candles, fog, arched windows, and so on. However, these aren’t just décor; critics agree that the aesthetics of Gothic point to ‘meaning’, if such a thing can be defined, such as the preoccupation with death, the significance of religion, etc. The terror and horror are cathartic, and raise the reader’s sensibilities, and the atmosphere in which this can happen is created by the appearance of Gothic.
The Gothic novel has had a huge influence on writers since. In the nineteenth century it appears as an influence on novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, it gave birth to the genre of sensation fiction, it manifested itself in poetry and short stories, and, towards the end of the century, became increasingly supernatural. Throughout the twentieth century it continued to evolve, with a growing preoccupation with vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures, though I think that many books and films etc which draw on these ideas are closer to the fantastic than the Gothic. The Daily Mail described me as a ‘purist’ when it comes to Gothic: actually, I think it is that I am more concerned with early Gothic than its current manifestations, fascinating as they are. We can’t understand where modern Gothic comes from without understanding its historical roots, and why it is important as a genre.
Why is it important as a genre? Well, early Gothic literature has many of the same preoccupations as recent books and films in a similar vein: Gothic offers a narrative strategy for bringing to light secrets (especially old family secrets), and thus act as a way of expressing hidden fears and desires. Incest and family murders are often subtexts, if not subjects, of the Gothic, and death, or fear of it, is almost always prominent. What the Gothic novel does, though, is raise questions, draw our deepest fears and desires to the surface, and then more or less resolve them in the context of the book, but leaving the reader with things to think about, for while the heroine may be safe from the villain at the end of the novel, for example, the reader is still in the world and under threat. Gothic may also express politically subversive ideas, religious doubt, mistrust of certain types of people, and a preoccupation with reaching for the sublime – something which can only be done by contemplating the terrible. Gothic is always very much of its time, reflecting current cultural anxieties, but always looking over its shoulder to the far-reaching shadows of the past. It often combines with other genres, such as science fiction or the fantastic, the sensation novel or even children’s literature, and it shifts from generation to generation, changing shape as it does so. The Gothic may be difficult to define or pin down, huge and amorphous, but it is so flexible, so adaptable and also so appealing, that it isn’t going to go away.
If you want more, have a look at The Literary Gothic, and The Gothic Novel. What I have written here is just a brief introduction: there are many excellent books on Gothic, from the general to the specific. Most of all, read the novels!
I like it that your articles are so easy to read yet contain so much information. We use Gothic all the time in a loose way, and it’s interesting to have the origins and history of the label explained so that we understand the term better.
Thank you! Yes, I think that ‘Gothic’ is overused as a descriptor without any real thought about what it means, which is why I wanted to write this. Glad you enjoyed it.
Serena, this is interesting, and i think you are right to go back to the roots of Gothic, if only to show its development/evolution. Having taught Gothic to undergraduates, i maintain there are specific elements to think about – the uncanny and the sublime, thresholds, transgression, and slightly more problematic, an absence of closure. This last concept suggests a nver-ending cycle, but is also related to ideas of family/blood lines, and in
more recent incarnations, genes.
Thanks Kenneth, I agree with you. There are specific aspects which often overlap, although they don’t always occur together. The ones you have mentioned are particularly important – the uncanny is more significant than the supernatural, I think, and transgression and thresholds are important too. I keep thinking of things to add to this post but don’t want to make it too long!
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