Gothic Novel | Definition, Characteristics, History, Essay, Examples in Literature

Gothic Novel: Definition, Characteristics, History, Essay, Examples in Literature

Gothic Novel in Literature


Gothic Novel Definition

Gothic Novel is a “genre of fiction characterized by mystery and supernatural horror, often set in a dark castle or other medieval setting.” Such novel is pseudo-medieval fiction with a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror. Gothic novel is sometimes referred to as Gothic horror. It is a genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance.

Gothicism‘s origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled “A Gothic Story“. The Gothic novel was a branch of the larger Romantic movement that sought to stimulate strong emotions in the reader – fear and apprehension in this case.’ Such novel takes its name from medieval architecture, as it often hearkens back to the medieval era in spirit and subject matter and often uses Gothic buildings as a setting. The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror. It is an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole’s novel. Melodrama and parody (including self-parody) are other long-standing features of the Gothic initiated by Walpole.

Historical Background of Gothic

The Goths were one of the many Germanic tribes. They fought numerous battles with the Roman Empire for centuries. According to their own myths, as narrated by Jordanes, a Gothic historian from the mid 6th century, the Goths originated in what is now southern Sweden, but their king Berig led them to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. Later Goths separated into twongroups, the Visigoths (the West Goths) and Ostrogoths (the East Goths). They were named so because of the place where they finally settled.

They reached the height of their utmost power around 5th century A.D., when they sacked Rome and captured Spain, but their history finally subsumed under that of the countries they conquered (“Goths”). During the Renaissance, Europeans rediscovered Greco-Roman culture. They began to regard a particular type of architecture, mainly those built during the middle Ages, as “gothic.” It was not because of any connection to the Goths, but because the ‘Uomo Universale’ considered these buildings “barbaric” and definitely not in that Classical style. Centuries more passed before “gothic” came to describe a certain type of novels. This was named so because all these novels seem to take place in Gothic-styled architecture which was mainly castles, mansions, and abbeys.

Gothic Novel Characteristics

Setting in a castle or Mansions

An atmosphere of mystery and suspense pervaded by threatening feeling

An ancient and obscure prophecy may be connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present).

Character may have Omens, portents, visions.

Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable and dramatic events may occur.

Characters may have high, even overwrought emotion resulting in crying and emotional speeches.

Female characters are often in distress and are oppressed in order to gain sympathy of the readers.

Women are threatened by a powerful and tyrannical male.

The metonymy of gloom and horror. Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). For example, the film industry likes to use metonymy as a quick shorthand, so we often notice that it is raining in funeral scenes.

A peculiar glossary of the gothic novels for mystery, fear, terror, surprise, haste anger or largeness for creating the atmosphere.

Gothic Novel Examples

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is often regarded as the first true Gothic romance. Walpole was obsessed with medieval Gothic architecture, and built his own house, Strawberry Hill, in that form, sparking a fashion for Gothic revival. A few good examples of Gothic fiction are Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796) was the book that introduced more horrific elements into the English gothic. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) are fine examples of gothic novels.

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Gothic Novel: An Essay

The Gothic fiction, however, enjoyed its heyday from 1762 to 1820 and influenced and inspired the sensational writers of the late nineteenth century. Certain merits of the Gothic fiction have been recognised by the Freudian psychologists. Herbert Read in his book Surrealism remarks: “It is possible that Monk Lewis, Maturin and Mrs. Radcliffe should relatively to Scott, Dickens and Hardy occupy a much higher rank.” He had defended the Gothic fiction against the objections that the plots of these novels are fictitious, that the characters are unreal and the sentiments that excite are morbid,

“All these judgements merely reflect our prejudices. It is proper for a work of imagination to be fictitious, and for characters to be typical rather than realistic.”

Dr. D. P. Varma in his book “The Gothic Flame” observes : “The Gothic novel is a conception as vast and complex as a Gothic Cathedral. One finds in it the same sinister overtone and the same solemn grandeur.” According to Montague Summers (The Gothic Quest), Gothic was the essence of romanticism, and romanticism was the literary expression of supernaturalism. As a matter of fact, the Gothic fiction was a profound reaction against the long domination of reason and authority. The Gothic novelists enlarged the sense of reality and its impact on human beings. It acknowledged the nonrational in the world of things and events, occasionally in the realm of transcendental, ultimately and most persistently in the depth of the human being. The application of Freudian psychology to literature has altered our attitude to the Gothic romances. The suppressed neurotic and erotic of educated society are reflected in the Gothic romances.

“The scenes of no in the Gothic fiction may have been the harmless release of that innate sp of cruelty which is present in each of us, an impulse mysterious inextricable connected with the very forces of life and death”

(Prof. Varma)

The Gothic fiction has a resemblance to the Gothic Architecture. The weird and eerie atmosphere of Gothic fiction was derived from the Gothic architecture which evoked feelings of horror, wildness, suspense and gloom. The stimulation of fear and the probing of the mysterious provided the raison d’etre of the Gothic novelists who took an important part in liberating the emotional energies that had been so long restrained by common sense and good form.

A number of influences contributed to the growth of the Gothic novel in the eighteenth century. It developed against the spirit of the Age of Reason and the stern warning of Dr. Johnson. The Gothic novel owes particularly to the picturesque antiquarianism, ruins and graveyard sentiment. Kenneth Clark in The Gothic Revival says : The Gothic novelists were the natural successors to the Graveyard poets. In the 18th century, the ghost stories were wide in circulation and people showed interest in questions of life, death, the occult, magic and astrology. The popularity of Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton intensified people’s belief in the supernatural. The Gothic novelists were inspired by the examples of Italy, France and Germany and by the oriental allegory or moral apologue of the east. Addison’s The Vision of Mirza (1711) and Johnson’s Rasselas (1759) gave some colour to Gothic romance.

Horace Walpole was the pioneer in Gothic fiction. Walpole’s sensitive imagination and dreaming mind absorbed the spirit of romanticism. His antiquarian interests caught the Gothic spirit–the romantic setting the continuous spell of horror, the colour of melancholy, awe and superstition which blossomed in The Castle of Otranto (1764). The Gothic romance is a horror novel in which we have walking skeletons, pictures that move out of their frames and their blood-curdling incidents. The ghostly machinery is often cumbrous but as a return to the romantic elements of mystery and fear, the book is noteworthy. Diana Neill, however, dismisses the book as amusing rather than frightening. Virginia Woolf in an article stated, “Walpole had imagination, taste, style in addition to a passion for the romantic past.” Miss Clara Reeve wrote many Gothic romances, the chief of them being

‘The Old English Baron’. She was the first Gothic novelist to make use of dreams. Miss Clara Reeve, however, lacked vivid imagination. Montague Summers condemns The Old English Baron as a “dull and didactic narrative told in a style of chilling mediocrity.”

Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, the wife of an Oxford graduate has been called “the Shakespeare of Romance writers”. Montague Summers refers to the sombre and sublime genius of Ann Radcliffe. Her romantic temperament, her passion for music and wild scenery, her love of solitude, her interest in the mysterious, her ability to arouse wonder and fear helped her in writing masterpiece in Gothic fiction. During the years 1789-1797, she wrote five romances Castles of Athlian and Dubayne, A Cicelian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian Coleridge called The Mystery of Udolpho “the most interesting novel in the English language”. Its noble outline, its majestic and beautiful images harmonizing with the scenes exert an irresistible fascination. It gradually rises from the gentlest beauty towards the terrific and the sublime. Unlike other terror novelists, Mrs. Radcliffe rationalised the supernatural. We hear mysterious voices in the chamber of Udolpho, but we are told that they were the wanton tricks of a prisoner. She employed scenery for their own sake in the novel. Moreover, by her insight into the workings of fear, she contributed to the development of the psychological novel. She adopted the dramatic structure of the novel which influenced the Victorian novelists. Thus her influence percolated through Scott on the 19th century novel in its various aspects-psychological, romantic and structural.

Matthew Gregory Lewis made a spine-chilling and blood-curdling use of magic and necromancy and pointed the grim and ghastly themes in lurid colours. His The Monk absorbed the ghastly and crude supernaturalism of the German Romantic movement in English fiction. It is melodrama epitomised. He indulges in crude supernaturalism rising to a grotesque climax borrowed from Dr. Faustus, when a demon rescues the villain-hero from execution only to fly high in the air with him and drop him to his death cm jagged rocks.

Beckford’s Vathek is wholly a fantasy. Its air of mystery arises from supposedly unnatural causes, while a sense of horror is heightened for artistic effect. Its gorgeous style and stately descriptions, its exaltation of both poetic and moral justice relate it to the Gothic romance,

Charles Robert Maturin wrote a number of nicely constructed Gothic romances : The Fatal Revenge (1807), The Wild Irish Boy (1808). The Mebsian Chief (1872), Melmoth, The Wanderer (1820). Maturin dispensed with the spine-chilling paraphernalia of the Terror School and concentrated his attention on the suggestive and psychological handling of the stories. His acute insight into character, vivid descriptive faculty and sensitive style of writing are in the tradition of Mrs. Radcliffe; but by his unabashed of the supernatural he treads in the footsteps of Lewis. He introduces horror in the novel by the clever Radcliffian device of reticence and suggestion. His Melmoth the Wanderer may be called the swan song of Gothic fiction. After it the fashion gradually died away. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a remarkable Gothic novel. She employed the pseudo-scientific technique in depicting horrors in the novel. William Godwin wrote two horror novels Caleb Williams and St. Leon. He neither imitates the suggestive method of Mrs. Radcliffe, nor the gruesome horrors of Gregory Lewis, but he creates physical realistic horrors in his novels.

Gothic Literature in the Romantic Period

In both Gothic and romantic creeds there is a tendency to slip imperceptivity from the real into the other world, to demolish barriers between the physical and the psychic or supernatural. Wordsworth’s Guilt and Sorrow, Peter Bell, Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, Shelley’s The Witch of Atlas are some Gothic poems influenced by the technique and devices of the Gothic fiction.

Gothic Literature in the Victorian Period

The Gothic romances have great influence on the Victorian and modern fiction. The sensational novels of Bulwar Lytton, Wilkie Collins in their emphasis on mystery and terror are a direct descent from the Gothic novels. The Bronte sisters luxuriously used the suggestive method of Radcliffe for creating the Gothic atmosphere in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Walter de la Mare’s Poem The Listeners is full of gothic setting.

Gothic Literature in the Modern Period

In modern times, the fantasy of H. G. Wells, and C. S. Lewis, J . K Rowling, Edgar Allan Poe shows us worlds unknown, monstrous and horrible. The modern detective novels of Edgar Wallace and Peter Cheney are influenced by the Gothic romances. They provided a pattern and also inspired the sensational writers of to-day with the incentive that set them on the sinister paths of crime fiction.

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