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What is Gothic Literature

Gothic literature, which is sometimes referred to as Gothic horror, is a genre that links horror and romance into one tale of ‘transgressing the boundaries’. Gothicism was unheard of until the late 1700’s, this movement into a new genre of literature. This was pioneered by the English author Horace Walpole, in his famous fictional book ‘The Castle of Otranto’, or as Walpole alternatively titled it ‘a Gothic story’.

Horace Walpole himself had transgressed the boundaries slightly; by introducing this new style of writing he had added a whole new genre into literature.

Walpole’s style of writing was unique and captivated the readers mind and imagination to let he or she share the act of transgression, or as Robert Kidd, a renowned critic put it, “The Gothic has somehow seduced the reader so that he or she is complicit in engaging in whatever he or she might encounter”. This is what kept Gothicism alive, the author’s ability to intrigue the reader and give them a thirst to read more gothic literature.

The term Gothic has been viewed as very different things over time. Gothicism came about at a very tumultuous time, after the fall of the Roman Empire, a time of raw and uncontrolled exercise of physical power. The Goths were a barbaric tribe of murderers, rapists and thieves, later the term was known as ‘Medieval’. Nowadays the term Gothic is viewed very differently by modern society, when thought about now, one thinks of it as horror. It is in rock bands, the theatre, but mainly in the modern film industry.

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Gothicism has become somewhat of an obsession to modern film producers and leading film companies in recent years. This acceleration of Gothic themed films started in 1922 with the film ‘Nosferatu’; this was then followed by ‘Rebecca’ in 1940.

And the list continues, Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007), and one of the more modern examples, the newer version of The Woman in Black (2012). This just highlights the extent of interest in modern society about modern Gothicism. The standard thought of somebody, when they are posed with the question ‘What do you understand about the term Gothic?’ would most likely be fairly predictable. The scene would be set in the heart of a dark, wet forest away from any normal civilisation.

The building would be a dark and rundown old mansion in a large empty clearing with large empty rooms and halls. Gargoyles would be clinging to the exterior of the building, and a decrepit, collapsed roof leaking and dripping in the driving rain. When the innocent traveller knocks on the door hoping to gain refuge and shelter from the storm, he is greeted by an emaciated, gangly butler who invites them in, as they fail to notice the menacing grin as they enter the dark, badly lit and claustrophobic corridor. The scene created is one of fear and horror which is typical of Gothicism. All these features are motifs in Gothic literature. These tools are what all authors of Gothic literature use without exception. This is for the simple reason that these tools are what keep the genre of Gothic literature alive.

The author uses the reader’s natural, urge for adrenalin boost and thrill, through suspense and mystery to make the book successful. In almost every Gothic text, the reader is in a position of dramatic irony where he or she can see everything happening and unfolding, without the ability to stop it. Another one of the main reasons, as to why Gothic Literature is such a success is because; Gothic texts allow the reader to think the unthinkable, and to sublimate their innermost desires, psyche and their wildest imaginations. The reader is able to satisfy his or hers innermost desires through the pages of the book.

The reader finds refuge through Gothic text. This is no exception with the authors. The author also wants to satisfy their imagination by creatively and articulately channelling their thoughts into a work of art. Robert Kidd writes in his ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ article, “The power and passion of Gothic Literature seemed eminently suited to the iconoclasts who wished to challenge the status quo”. There were many famous writers like this, for example, Horace Walpole, Lewis, Godwin and of course Mary Shelley. The authors and readers of Gothic Literature share a very special connection. Both sides gain from books and share the same feelings as one writes and one reads the book, with both satisfying their imaginations.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘The Modern Prometheus’ is a known as a Gothic text. Although Frankenstein is indeed a gothic text, it does not include every element of Gothic text. However it is impossible to read the book without realising that there are a lot of Gothic techniques within. A major part of Gothic literature is mystery, and this is present from the very beginning of the book. We experience mystery firstly in the letters on pp. 15-31. The reader at this stage does not know who is writing the letters (He is soon revealed as Robert Walton) and who the Mrs Saville he is writing to is.

This is the first mystery; the next is why Robert Walton is writing in such a serious tone, “Rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied”. Already the reader is feeling a sense of danger and mysteriousness in the book. This is an exact example of the reader being driven to read further to satisfy their curiosity. Gothic Literature is not only about horror; romance also plays a very large part in it. And this is also present from the very beginning of the book. In the letters mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as the mystery and danger sensed by the reader (“Rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied”.), the reader also senses the love between Robert Walton and his sister, Mrs Saville. There are of love and affection in every single letter without exception, for instance “Farewell, my dear, excellent Margaret.”

And the list can continue with numerous examples. The various examples above that contribute to a Gothic text are not lone samples. These various themes and motifs continue throughout the text. Gothic text also has a reputation for not immediately beginning with horror and dark mystery; rather it begins with peace and harmony that gradually changes throughout the text, and again ‘Frankenstein’ is a testimony to this.

When Victor completes his pride, his experiment, his son, his reaction is one of ecstasy, “Beautiful. Beautiful!” which quickly changes to one of disgust and abhorrence, with his words “the beauty of the dream vanished, and a breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” This emotion of love changing to disgust is verification of Shelley’s efforts make ‘Frankenstein’ a Gothic text, as many texts do. Mary Shelley, in the book ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘The Modern Prometheus’, went to great lengths to make the book a Gothic text, and indeed it went on to become one of the most famous Gothic texts in history.

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What is Gothic Literature. (2016, May 27). Retrieved from

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