Elements of Gothic Fiction
This post provides brief notes on many of the main elements of Gothic fiction, as well outlining some of the more common tropes and vocabulary often found in it. See also Elements of Romance in Gothic Fiction for more on this topic.
Gothic fiction (sometimes referred to as Gothic horror) is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. As a genre, it is generally believed to have been invented by the English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto.
The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole’s novel. Melodrama and parody (including self-parody) were other long-standing features of the Gothic initiated by Walpole.
Gothic literature is intimately associated with the Gothic Revival architecture of the same era. In a way similar to the gothic revivalists’ rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere.
The ruins of Gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations—thus the urge to add fake ruins as eye-catchers in English landscape parks. English Gothic writers often associated medieval buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period, characterised by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, and superstitious rituals.
Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses. The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, monks, nuns, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, angels, fallen angels, ghosts, perambulating skeletons and the Devil himself.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) contains essentially all the elements that constitute the genre. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Hollow of the Three Hills are two short stories which are variously Gothic in nature. For free copies of these two short stories, please click on the title links.
Additional Elements of Gothic Fiction
- Setting in a castle. The action takes place in and around an old castle or vast, crumbling ruin of a mansion, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavour with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery. (Translated into modern literature and filmmaking, the setting might be in an old house or mansion–or even a new house–where unusual camera angles, sustained close ups during movement, and darkness or shadows create the same sense of claustrophobia and entrapment.)
- An atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. Elements 3, 4, and 5 below contribute to this atmosphere. (In modern filmmaking and literature, the inexplicable events are often murders.)
- An ancient prophecy is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing: “What could it mean?” In more watered down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: “It’s said that the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls.”
- Omens, portents, visions. A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death. In modern fiction, a character might see something (a shadowy figure stabbing another shadowy figure) and think that it was a dream. This might be thought of as an “imitation vision.”
- Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.
- High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. In the filmed gothic, screaming is common.
- Women in distress. As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times.
- Women are usually threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more of the male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime. Sometimes the innocent, vulnerable heroine is led astray by a male character with a murky past.
- 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. Note that the following metonymies for “doom and gloom” all suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural.
|wind, especially howling||rain, especially blowing|
|doors grating on rusty hinges||sighs, moans, howls, eerie sounds|
|footsteps approaching||clanking chains|
|lights in abandoned rooms||gusts of wind blowing out lights|
|characters trapped in a room||doors suddenly slamming shut|
|ruins of buildings||baying of distant dogs (or wolves?)|
|thunder and lightning||crazed laughter|
- The vocabulary of the gothic. The constant use of the appropriate vocabulary set creates the atmosphere of the gothic. Here, as an example, are some of the words (in several categories) that help make up the vocabulary of the gothic in The Castle of Otranto. You might like to add words of your own that you think would be useful in this genre:
|Mystery||diabolical, enchantment, ghost, goblins, haunted, infernal, magic, magician, miracle, necromancer, omens, ominous, portent, preternatural, prodigy, prophecy, secret, sorcerer, spectre, spirits, strangeness, talisman, vision|
|Fear, Terror, or Sorrow||afflicted, affliction, agony, anguish, apprehensions, apprehensive, commiseration, concern, despair, dismal, dismay, dread, dreaded, dreading, fearing, frantic, fright, frightened, grief, hopeless, horrid, horror, lamentable, melancholy, miserable, mournfully, panic, sadly, scared, shrieks, sorrow, sympathy, tears, terrible, terrified, terror, unhappy, wretched|
|Surprise||alarm, amazement, astonished, astonishment, shocking, staring, surprise, surprised, thunderstruck, wonder|
|Haste||anxious, breathless, flight, frantic, hastened, hastily, impatience, impatient, impatiently, impetuosity, precipitately, running, sudden, suddenly|
|Anger||anger, angrily, choler, enraged, furious, fury, incense, incensed, provoked, rage, raving, resentment, temper, wrath, wrathful, wrathfully|
|Largeness||enormous, gigantic, giant, large, tremendous, vast|