Gothic Literature: Basics of the Genre & Key Elements

Gothic literature is a popular genre that dominated Western literature throughout the 19th century and still endures today. From your high school reading list to your favorite horror films, everyone has experienced the Gothic genre in some form. Explore the elements and characteristics of Gothic literature, as well as classic and contemporary examples of this influential genre.

Whitby Abbey near sunset Whitby Abbey near sunset
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What Is Gothic Literature?

Gothic literature is a genre of literature that rose to prominence in the late 18th century. The term Gothic historically refers to a style of architecture popularized in the Medieval period. The term has since become applicable to any medium that displays particular aesthetic characteristics, such as dark settings and atmosphere and elements of the supernatural. All this and more can be found in Gothic novels.

Classic Gothic Literature Examples

Many Gothic stories that are read and retold today are now considered classics. Dive into the plots of a few Gothic novel greats.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)

The Castle of Otranto contained all the elements necessary to be dubbed the first true Gothic novel. So much so that the subtitle that appeared on the cover was “A Gothic Story.” This genre-defining tale has all the hallmarks of a good Gothic novel: prophecy, a crumbling castle, a madman, a murder, and intrigue.

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)

Ann Radcliffe paved the way for women in the Gothic genre with her groundbreaking and scandalous The Mysteries of Udolpho. This story features noblemen of dubious lineage, a tragic heroine, a brooding villain, seemingly supernatural occurrences, and a creepy countryside castle.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

Corruption and downfall take center stage in this Gothic novel with two interweaving plotlines. Readers of the day were riveted and repulsed by the downfall of the titular monk, Ambrosio, and his interactions with a demon, as well as enthralled by the romance between Raymond and Agnes. This Gothic classic features genre staples such as ghosts, demons, rituals, and prophecies.

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)

While Jane Austen is primarily known for her witty romances, Northanger Abbey stands out as an early and markedly different work. Here she parodies the popular Gothic novels of the day through her heroine, Catherine Morland, who is obsessed with the genre, particularly the works of Ann Radcliffe. When Catherine arrives in the titular Northanger Abbey, a dark structure that promises secrets and intrigue, she begins to conjure dark plots at every turn. But are there really dark forces at work, or is it all in her mind?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

At just nineteen, Mary Shelley revolutionized both the Gothic and Science Fiction genres with her classic novel Frankenstein. The novel depicts the anti-hero Victor Frankenstein, who is driven to near insanity by his thirst for knowledge, resulting in the creation of the iconic Frankenstein’s monster. The story has been retold countless times and endures as a staple of the genre and Western literature in general.

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Alan Poe (1839)

This celebrated story is an early example of the Gothic genre from an American writer. Poe endures as one of the most influential voices in the Gothic movement and penned countless chilling tales. The master of macabre depicts the downward spiral of his anonymous narrator after he arrives at the home of a friend who has recently passed. Although his friend is dead, the house may be very much alive.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Complete with an eerie castle, an intriguing anti-hero and sweeping, misty moors, Charlotte Bronte takes readers for a chilling journey into the world of Jane Eyre, an orphan girl turned governess in early Victorian England. When Jane goes to work for a mysterious man named Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall, strange things begin to happen, including curious noises and mysterious fires. Jane eventually falls for Rochester, who possesses a dark secret that threatens to turn Jane’s world upside down.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Surrounded by mystery, glamor, intrigue, and the perverse, Dracula is a classic character that has transcended time and popular culture. Introduced to the world through Bram Stoker’s writings, Dracula takes you for a wild ride into a fascinating nightmare, mixing terror, suspense and romance into a compelling page-turner for the ages.

Modern Gothic Literature Examples

Classic Gothic novels gave birth to modern ghost stories and horror. While these works continue to be adapted for modern audiences, new tales are being told all the time. Often these tales replace the castles with urban settings and archetypal figures with contemporary characters, but you still see the essential elements of Gothic literature.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (1938)

Take a psychological thrill ride with Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Rebecca weaves a classic tale of a wealthy widower and his new, young wife, whose name is never revealed. However, the ghost of his previous wife, the eponymous Rebecca, hangs over their marriage, and the new wife begins to spiral with a bit of help from a sinister housekeeper.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Shirley Jackson is a name synonymous with modern horror, and her final novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no exception. The story depicts the coming of age of its young narrator, a family mystery, an old remote setting, and a sense of unease on every page.

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

The master of horror himself has also taken inspiration from the Gothic greats. While many of King’s works fit the bill, Carrie has many classic elements: a distressed but complex heroine, a coming of age story, supernatural forces, and of course blood.

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Handing (2015)

In true Gothic style, you’ll get caught up in the haunting secrets and strange happenings taking place in Wylding Hall. Follow this haunting tale as a relaxing escape becomes a terrifying thrill ride for a folk-rock band recounting the disappearance of their lead singer.

The Caretakers by Eliza Maxwell (2020)

Escaping to a crumbling and abandoned estate, Tessa gets pulled into a world of terror, mystery and dark secrets. The Caretakers takes a chilling modern twist on classic Gothic literature themes.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)

Set in 1950s Mexico, the New York Times Bestseller Mexican Gothic provides a provocative mix of thriller, fantasy and horror elements by following the protagonist, Noemi. Set in a remote country estate, High Place is full of sinister family secrets and hushed whispers that unravel with each new page.

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History of Gothic Literature

Gothic literature can trace its roots to Romanticism, a movement that swept through Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Gothic literature stems from Dark Romanticism, a more macabre subgenre of Romanticism. This literary movement was particularly prevalent in English and German literature and ultimately dominated the market. Notably, many female authors rose to prominence writing Gothic literature, including Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeves, Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters, and even Jane Austen.

Subgenres of Gothic Literature

Some subgenres of Gothic literature include Gothic romance and Gothic horror. A popular example of Gothic romance is Jane Eyre, while the term Gothic horror might apply to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. A popular subgenre that has emerged in modern times is Southern Gothic, with notable works such as Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and the works of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy.

Characteristics of Gothic Literature

There is a reason the word “gothic” brings to mind trap doors, castles, monasteries, and more. This is because Gothic literature has specific characteristics like:

  • creepy settings - In Gothic fiction, the setting is a character in its own right. Some common types of settings include castles, haunted houses, graveyards, and dark forests.

  • natural imagery - A hallmark of both Romanticism and Gothic literature is imagery, particularly pertaining to nature.

  • dark atmosphere - No Gothic story is complete without atmosphere, including complementary weather conditions. Examples include rain, storms, a chill in the air or howling wind.

  • archetypal character traits - Gothic literature typically has particular types of characters: a distressed heroine, tyrannical male characters (usually villains) and anti-heroes, also known as Byronic heroes after Romantic poet Lord Byron.

  • suspense - Gothic plot lines typically revolve around suspenseful events, familial mysteries, disappearances, unexplainable events, and frightening objects.

  • terror - The protagonist is haunted by supernatural or seemingly supernatural events such as doors suddenly closing, baying of dogs, footsteps, moans, and eerie sounds in the night.

  • paranormal activity - Gothic novels are famous for featuring ghosts, vampires, monsters, and other shadowy figures. Sometimes these supernatural figures are literal, and other times they are symbolic or have a natural explanation.

  • omens and prophecies - The protagonist or a supporting character will often typically have distressing dreams, visions or prophecies connected to the setting or events of the story.

  • agony and ecstasy - Gothic stories are often characterized by melodrama, inner turmoil, intrigue, and insanity as well as sweeping romance, grandiose passions and enchanting prose.

  • macabre and morbid - No Gothic tale is complete without a little death and destruction. This can be in the form of a murder or other such macabre themes laced throughout the text.

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Gothic Writing Style

Gothic literature feeds off the fears and curiosities of the human experience to weave thrilling, imaginative tales. Keep your journey into literature going by exploring different literary genres, including ghost and monster stories.