Gothic literature

Background notes

The social context
The historical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is important to the Gothic form. This was a time very aware of upheaval and change. Important factors include:

  • the French Revolution, and its effect on notions of class and identity;
  • Darwinism and his threat to the established parameters of religious thought;
  • the Industrial Revolution, with its ambivalence towards technology as both exciting and dangerous, and its profound effect on social class with the possibility for acquired rather than inherited wealth;
  • Colonialism, and the British Empire’s expanding wealth and influence;
  • the influence of Romanticism as a unified intellectual movement.

Gothic literature and Romanticism
Gothic literature can be related to the Romantic reaction against social order and rationality exemplified by the Neo-Classicism of the eighteenth century. Gothicism could be seen as an extreme fringe version of Romanticism’s celebration of the emotional – it deals with terror as the most extreme form of emotion.
Themes common to Gothic and Romantic texts include Nature, the emotions, the exotic, medieval nostalgia, and in rather different senses the exploration and celebration of the self.

The cult of the Gothic novel
The Gothic novel functions as a cult literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is a popular, romance form; its stories are stylised, non-realistic, idealised or emblematic, and often presented in an adventure format. (Please note that by “romance” here we do not mean the love story, but the romance quest narratives of the medieval era, as exemplified by tales of King Arthur).
In operating as mostly a pulp genre, Gothic literature offers the equivalent of the modern horror movie, exploring the pleasures and titillations of terror, shock and the perverse. Jane Austen’s parody in Northanger Abbey speaks directly and comically to the titillation of the “horrid”, and reflects the low status of the genre and the extent to which it was seen as both frivolous and unhealthy.
It is also important to note that its readership was largely female, which contributed to its low status, but which also allowed symbolic expressions of female experience which were not possible in more mainstream literature.
Gothic could be seen, once again, as an extreme form of romance – its sense of the symbolic, the quest of discovery, the magical represents the power of imagination not just celebrated, but run wild.

Some characteristics of Gothic
MELODRAMA – stereotype, moral polarisation, one-dimensionality, excess.
EXOTICISM – wild/remote locations, other cultures such as the Oriental.
TRANSGRESSION – fear of barbarism, of unleashing human passion beyond social constraints. Gothic’s operation as a literature of the unconscious, of transgressive desires.
ALIENATION – the genre’s interest in identity and subjectivity, but of an alienated self, set apart from society.

A Bibliography of Gothic Literature

This is a brief contextualisation of the Gothic genre, from its origins to the modern-day, to give you a sense of some of its better-known features. If you’re interested in doing further reading, many of these works are available in the library.

NB many of these authors have produced several Gothic works; I’ve listed only the best-known. Feel free to dig up others.

1765 Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto.
Giant suits of armour, lost heirs, evil Counts, ghosts, knights, castles, seduced damsels.
1777 Clara Reeve, The Old English Baron.
Ghosts, lost heirs, vengeance, trial by combat, a sentimental love story.
1786 William Beckford, “Vathek”.
Novella-length: demon-worshipping evil Caliph, with suitably exotic, orientalist decadence.
1794 Anne Radcliff, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Slighly repetitive; innocent damsel repeatedly pursued by bandit villain through crumbling Alpine castles. Corpses, monasteries, evil relations, orphans, rather irritating hero.
1796 Matthew Lewis, The Monk.
The schlock gothic novel: corrupt monks, female demons in drag, sex with demons, incest, matricide, murder, elopement and the ghost of a bleeding nun.
1818 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
Obsessed scientists, forbidden knowledge, monsters, corpses, mountains, the polar ice-cap, wedding-night murder.
1819 John Polidori, “The Vampyre”.
The story which established the classic Victorian vampire as a dissolute but rather sexy nobleman.
1820 Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer.
Rather tremendous novel following the strange career of the Wandering Jew.
1839 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
Incestuously intense siblings, a crumbling house by a sinister tarn, madness, obsession and burying your sister alive.
1847 James Rymer, “Varney the Vampire”.
More upper-class Victorian vampires.
1872 Sheridan Lefanu, “Carmilla”
Central European lesbian vampire noblewoman, complete with coffin scene, seduction and giant cat.
1885 Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Scientist as monster, and the extremes of civilisation and savagery.
1897 Bram Stoker, Dracula.
The famous Transylvanian count, incarcerating innocent lawyers and corrupting innocent women until destroyed by noble vampire hunters.
1931 H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness.
The classic Gothic edifice refigured as nightmare alien city amid the eternal snows.
1946 Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan.
Gormenghast, the ultimate Gothic castle, with its share of repression, ritual and nightmare colour.
1979 Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber.
Luscious Gothic settings to well-known fairy tales from Perrault, with a feminist twist.

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