Gothic Literature: Basics of the Genre & Key Elements

Gothic literature was a genre born of Dark Romanticism. It's a genre that took on a mind of its own throughout the 19th century. Explore what gothic literature is along with the elements and characteristics found in gothic literature. Get classic and modern examples of gothic literature.

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What Is Gothic Literature?

Did you ever wonder where the classic line, “it was a dark and stormy night …” came from? Well, it probably found its roots in gothic literature. Gothic literature is a darkly romantic drama filled with mystery, fear and intrigue. To understand more about the basics of gothic literature, take a look at the elements and characteristics.

Gothic Literature Elements

When it comes to gothic literature, several elements make a work fall into this category. The most common theme elements of gothic literature include:

  • suspense - plot lines around suspenseful events, disappearances, unexplainable events, and frightening objects
  • terror and fear - doors suddenly closing, baying of dogs, footsteps, moans, and eerie sounds
  • paranormal activity - ghosts, giants and shadowy figures
  • omens and prophecies - typically distressing dreams, visions or prophecy connected to the setting
  • emotion - melodrama, inner turmoil, kidnappings, murders, and insanity
  • romance - passionate relationships leading to tragedy

Characteristics of Gothic Literature

There is a reason the word gothic makes you think of trap doors, castles, monasteries, and more. This is because gothic literature has specific characteristics like:

  • creepy types of settings - castles, haunted houses, graveyards, and dark forests
  • dark atmosphere - rainy, storms, chill in the air, and howling wind
  • strong character traits - distressed women, tyrannical male characters (villains) and anti-heroes

History of Gothic Literature

The reason gothic literature typically includes tragic romance is because it finds its roots in Romanticism. Gothic literature is a subgenre that emerged from Dark Romanticism with the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1765 by Horace Walpole.

A classic story full of prophecy, a crumbling castle, a madman, a murder, and intrigue, The Castle of Otranto contained all the elements to be dubbed the first true gothic novel. While Warpole was the first, he was far from the last, with writers like Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden and Sir Walter Scott following suit.

Gothic Literature Examples

Gothic literature is considered a classic novel genre; therefore, many classic examples of gothic literature can be found. Dive into the plot of a few of the gothic novel greats.

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The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

Corruption and downfall take center stage in this gothic novel with two main plotlines. Not only are readers riveted by the downfall of the monk, Ambrosio, and his interactions with a demon, but the romance between Raymond and Agnes captures attention. Ghosts, demons, rituals, and prophecy can be found in this gothic classic.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Are you looking for the perfect anti-hero, look no further than Victor Frankenstein. Pushed to near insanity by his thirst for knowledge, Frankenstein created the iconic Frankenstein's monster. Mary Shelley’s creative and imaginative writing makes the perfect mix of terrifying and melancholy.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Complete with an eerie castle, an intriguing anti-hero and all the bumps in the night, Charlotte Bronte takes readers for a chilling ride into the world of Mr. Rochester. Sucked into his world, Jane falls for the mysterious Rochester. But her world is turned upside down when his secret is revealed.

Dracula by Bram Stroker (1897)

Surrounded in mystery, glamor, intrigue, and the perverse, Dracula is a classic character that has transcended time. 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.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Take a psychological thrill ride with Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Complete with an actual ghost, Rebecca weaves a classic tale of a widower and his new wife. However, his previous wife manipulates the scene from beyond the grave with a bit of help from a sinister housekeeper.

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Modern Gothic Literature

Classic literature gave birth to modern ghost stories and horror; however, you can still find a few modern tales falling into the gothic literature genre. These tales replaced the castles with urban settings and contemporary characters, but you still see the essential elements of gothic literature. Check out a few examples of modern gothic literature.

The Caretakers by Eliza Maxwell

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

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

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Handing

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. Get caught up as they recount their retelling of their lead singer’s disappearance that famous summer.

Gothic Writing Style

Gothic literature feeds off the fears and anxieties of the human experience to create a thrilling, imaginative journey. Keep your journey into literature going by exploring different genre types like ghost and monster stories.