Despite being afraid of ghosts and haunted houses we still want to read about them. The stories of horror, mystery and suspense terribly excite us all. This is something that has encouraged the Gothic writers to write the stories of thrill and fright. So they write and we enjoy it! In this article, I’ll probe into the key elements of Gothic literature.
Before probing into what makes the Gothic genre actually Gothic, let’s briefly overview the history of Gothic literature. Gothicism or Gothic literature is a genre that emerged in the 18th century when Horace Walpole wrote ‘The Castle of Otranto’. The novel had all the elements that constitute Gothic literature. By narrating the story characterized by horror, suspense and mystery, Walpole’s novel paved the way for a new, thrilling form of genre in literature.
Here are some key elements of Gothic literature that exist in all novels or stories that fall under the category of this genre.
A Desolate, Haunted Setting
A desolate, barren, and haunted setting is one of the major key elements in Gothic literature. A Gothic novel always opens in old castles, desolate mansions, haunted and abandoned houses, enchanted monasteries and ruined buildings – all displaying the aesthetics of Gothic architecture. The desolation and scariness of the place have a tendency to invoke fear and terror in the character as well as the reader.
In some novels, we see the protagonist being trapped in such places, either by some supernatural being or a callous villain, and hardly finds a way to go out. The architectural features of the buildings such as pointed towers, trapdoors, mysterious corridors, rusty hinges, and secret tunnels, all serve to entrap their helpless victims. There are in fact the key elements for developing a gothic atmosphere.
Sometimes the action takes place in or near graveyards, dark forests, and wilderness. The forests and wilderness in Gothic novels are symbolic of evil, sin, and immortality. These eerie locations also contribute to the feeling of fear and threat. In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, most of the scenes open in desolate and haunted locations such as graveyards, gloomy old castles. ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ also reveal Gothic settings.
Dark and Mysterious Atmosphere
The atmosphere of darkness, mystery, and suspense always prevail over Gothic literature. The night is the key motif in Gothic novels. The darkness of night restrains the ability to see clearly and creates an atmosphere of uncertainty — a condition in which a character doesn’t know what lies ahead.
The plot of Gothic novels also consists of a lot of mysterious happenings. The characters or even the inanimate objects have the tendency to disappear. The door opens and closes itself yet no one appears in sight. The candle extinguishes on its own. All these elements contribute to the mysterious atmosphere of the story. Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman In White’ are good examples of dark and mysterious atmospheres.
Affiliation With Supernatural Forces
Another key element of Gothic literature is its affiliation with supernatural forces such as ghosts, vampires, giants, monsters, demons and zombies. In Gothic novels, we see ghosts or monsters pursuing the protagonist and dead people coming to life and scaring people. We also find inanimate objects coming to life such as the armor suit suddenly starts walking like a man or the painting of a dead person starts speaking.
Some novels of Gothic literature demonstrate the supernatural elements as a result of some natural phenomenon, while others show them as truly paranormal. The Gothic writers utilized these paranormal forces as a means of exploring the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable. Bram Stoker‘s ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole reveal the existence of supernatural elements.
The Gothic novels and stories are melodramatic. The characters are screaming, sobbing, frightening, raging, and swooning in the story. The fear of the unknown and inexplicable intensifies their emotions. They are always in panic and sometimes suffering from the inner torments. The events like murder, abduction, and tragic insanity arouse a deep sense of emotional burst in the characters.
The language of Gothic novels is also highly emotional. The emotional extremes of characters are quite visible in Ann Radcliffe’s ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ , M.G, Lewis’s ‘Monk’, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’
The Protagonist As Anti-Hero
Another key element of Gothic fiction is to display the protagonist, mostly a male character, as an anti-hero. He is the main focus of the story, yet at same time we see the monstrous elements of his personality. He is an isolated and outcast person. Sometimes, we see the protagonist carrying the burden of guilt and suffering from inner torments. He is doomed and gradually moving towards his ultimate decay.
The character of Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s ‘The Wuthering Heights’ and Manfred from Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ give perfect examples of the protagonist as an anti-hero.
Women As Victims
In Gothic fiction, we see that the female protagonist is always in trouble which is, no doubt, another one of the major elements of Gothic literature. They are either captivated in an isolated castle or pursued by some paranormal being or a cruel aristocrat. The fear and threat of the powerful and, in many cases, of the unknown and inexplicable make them scream, sob, and swoon. Sometimes their suffering also results from some sort of ailment or guilt or their helplessness at the expense of the powerful male.
Matilda’s character from Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ aptly portrays a female protagonist in trouble. Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ is another example in this regard. Here an orphan girl named Emily St. Aubert suffers from paranormal terror while being imprisoned in a gloomy castle.
Curses and Portents
Portents, curses and prophecies play a major role in Gothic literature. They are deliberately embedded in the plot to foreshadow what is going to happen next in the story. Mostly the ominous implications precede tragic events in the story. For instance, if the painting or statue of a person suddenly falls or breaks, it foreshadows the impending death of that person.
The past of the characters is always haunting their present. The son has to pay for the sins of his father. The protagonist of the Gothic story suffers either from a familial curse or an old prophecy. In ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole, we see prophecy lies at the center of the novel. ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne also features the Gothic element of prophecy and curse.
Visions and Nightmares
The Gothic literature has a tendency to speak directly to the subconscious. The nightmares, visions and drug-induced hallucinations demonstrate the characters’ deep-rooted fears and guilt of past sins. The repressed past of the characters reappears in the form of visions and nightmares. These nightmares and visions also reveal to the reader the characters’ hidden fears.
Moreover, the characters’ dreams and visions also foretell their future to the reader. For example, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ effectively employs the Gothic element of nightmare when Victor Frankenstein falls into a terrifying dream that symbolizes impending tragedy.
The dark, frightening, and foreboding tone, usually very suspenseful, is another key element of Gothic literature. It contributes to the feeling of fear and uneasiness.
Let us consider the creaking sound of the door, the monstrous laughter of the unknown, the mysterious sound of footsteps, and the clinking chains. All these sounds make the tone of the story frightening. These sounds also create an atmosphere of eeriness, suspense, and mystery in the Gothic story.
Hostility of Weather
The weather in Gothic literature echoes the mood of the characters. The storm outside actually signifies the inner storms of the character. It mirrors and magnifies the feeling of the characters. However, the awful weather and fog in Gothic stories enhance the atmosphere of suspense and terror. The fog particularly signifies the obscurity of objects. It has a tendency to reduce visibility and hide the outward appearances of truth.
Thunderstorms and lightning, however, symbolize evil, tragedy and paranormal. For instance, the moors in ‘Wuthering Heights’ or the storms in ‘Frankenstein’ can be discussed in this regard. Moreover, in ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ the plot reveals stormy, gloomy, and awful weather.
In Gothic literature, Christianity and the idea of religion is also explored. The Gothic writers interrogate religion as well as the religious authorities. Gothic novels evince the monastery, the convent, religious life, confessions, nuns, and monks. They envision human beings as sinful and emphasize their untrustworthiness in transmitting information.
The religious institution of the church has lost its supremacy. The monks and priests are represented as the perpetrators of violence. As faith has retreated in gothic fiction, horrors and fears have taken its place. The Gothic writers manifest this fear with the entrance of the paranormal and horrific. No supreme power is there to save the victims of Gothic horror. The Gothic world reveals the fallen world. It envisions a fallen man living in fear and alienation. Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ aptly investigate religious concerns.
The inner fears and psychological instability of the self is another key element of Gothic fiction. The characters’ guilt of past sins or preoccupation with the realms of the unknown render them either psychologically unstable or mentally ill. Their inner fears and unforgivable transgressions constantly haunt them. Finally, the characters’ psychological trauma ultimately leads to their split personality and they become a threat for the surrounding people.
Sometimes the character’s mental instability stems from his failure to achieve his love or being rejected by the society. This is evident in the case of Heathcliff who from a passionate lover transformed into a brutal, insane person.
Good Versus Evil
The Gothic writers also deal with the concepts of good and evil in their stories. Initially we find the protagonist as the embodiment of evils but gradually his suppressed goodness overcomes the apparent evil side of his character. In some works we see that the character is torn between the good and evil and ultimately ends up being grey; neither completely good or evil.
The Touch of Romance
Besides horror, mystery, death, decay and the supernatural, the Gothic literature also contains romantic elements. The protagonist’s passionate love is torn between his desire to achieve the beloved and the family’s disapproval, control, and choice. The Gothic literature also tells the tales of love in vain. The lovers are parted due to the conspiracies of the person opposing their being together. In some novels one of the lovers is exiled, arrested, and captivated while the other one is misguided by the lover’s rivals.
The Gothic novels also evince the theme of Illicit love or lust threatens the virtuous one. The female protagonist often becomes a target of some evil man’s desires and conspiracies. Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and many others fall under the category of Gothic romances.