There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness. —– Edgar Allan Poe
Gothic novels were popular in Europe during the 18th century. They were written by authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Shelley. “The Castle of Otranto”, published in 1764 was the first novel categorized as Gothic. Its author was Horace Walpole. In literature, the word “Gothic” was taken from this type of architecture that began in the 12th century in France. It was characterized by buildings that expanded toward the sky, like castles and churches, with long and narrow stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings, ornate decorations and statues like demons and angels or gargoyles that guarded the building on the top of it. This important and majestic architecture inspired authors to write about castles set in remote places where strange things happened and where the protagonists had to face their dark realities.
Gothic Literature is also called Dark Romanticism.
What are the characteristics of Gothic Novels?
The characteristics of Gothic novels are:
- The Hero/Villain
- Anti-Villain (Byronic Hero and Satanic Hero)
- A Female Protagonist in Distress (the Victim)
- Gloomy Weather and Isolated Locations
- Supernatural Elements
- Mystery Plots
- Sexuality/ Homosexuality/Eroticism
“This Man Belongs to me!”—- Dracula
In Gothic novels, the villain acts like a hero in the beginning to turn into evil when the story develops and more details of his dark nature come to the surface. A charismatic, charming character, he will deceive the reader and the other characters into believing that he’s a good guy. Examples are Frankenstein — subtitled The Modern Prometheus — Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Count Dracula and so on.
The Anti-Villain (Byronic hero and Satanic Hero)
The anti-villain is like the villain with the exception that this character feels lost, adrift and sunk in his doomed fate because of his limited nature, where only darkness prevails. It’s important to notice that despite the very dark nature of this character, the reader is seduced, attracted by the anti-villain nature, and finally sympathizes with him. The reader sees the anti-villain as someone who tries to do what feels right when life’s circumstances turn against him. In literature, examples of anti-hero are Manfred by Lord Byron, Lucifer/Satan in Paradise Lost by Milton, Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, Dorian Gray in the Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and many more.
“Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”
― George Gordon Byron, Manfred“This horror will grow milde, this darkness light.” John Milton Paradise Lost.
A Female Protagonist in Distress
Gothic novels often include a female protagonist in distress. This representation reflects the sociocultural position of Victorian women. They had no voice; they were properties, and they could not provide for themselves without a man because they could not easily find a job. In the Victorian era, many young ladies, abandoned by their families, chose to become prostitutes. Gothic novels represent the female character as a powerless woman who had no choice and had her fate in the hands of a man, who most of the time was the villain.
Gloomy Weather and Isolated Locations
Gloomy weather and isolated locations set the right mood for Gothic novels. Many times, the protagonists live in castles and haunted houses in remote areas, where they feel mentally, existentially, and/or sometimes physically trapped. Tortured by the unlucky events, they live in despair, and they might go insane. Examples can be found in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and The Castle of Otranto.
“I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” The Black Cat —- Poe
Gothic novels would not be Gothic if they didn’t have the Supernatural Elements. Ghosts that haunt houses, animated objects, vampires that terrorize the nights, mummies, werewolves, demons, and witches exist in these novels, either symbolically or literally.
Mystery plots are the cobweb that weaves threads of suspense, terror and mystery. The web that keeps the reader glued to the novel till the end with fear and curiosity. Complicated plots that include twists and turns, making the end unpredictable.
Gothic writers use dreams and nightmares to communicate the protagonists’ subconscious fears and hidden nature. In dreams, unconscious truths that relate to the psyche are revealed. The Supernatural might appear in these scenarios, where messages or prophecies are delivered to the character. An example of dreams in Gothic novels is in Frankenstein when he kisses Elizabeth and this kiss turns her into his mother’s corpse, Caroline.
Omens, signs, and prophecies are used in association to the character’s internal conflict. A thunderstorm might emphasize the turmoil that oppresses the character; obsessive thoughts while thunders crack the sky. A crow perching near a house might signal a fatal event is approaching. In The Castle of Otranto, Conrad is killed by superior forces on his wedding day, revealing the existence of an ancient prophecy that states that only the real descendant of the royal family can rule over Otranto. A passage from the book: “should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
In Gothic romance, there is usually a love triangle between the main characters. This means that one of them will fall in love with two different people. Usually, the hero falls in love with the heroine first, then the heroine falls in love with the hero. However, sometimes the order is reversed. After the hero and heroine have fallen in love, they must overcome obstacles to be together. These obstacles might include family opposition, misunderstandings, or even death. Once the couple has been separated, they will eventually meet again. At the end of the novel, the couple will either be married or engaged.
Since Gothic novels became popular during the Victorian era, there’s a reflection of the beliefs and taboos that characterized the period. Any non-heterosexual behavior, not only was seen as a dysfunction, but was also condemned by law. This taboo caused writers to express their sexuality through their novels. In a Puritan society, Gothic novels, through their mysterious, dark, and obsessive narrative, perfectly encase the non-accepted sexual orientation. There’s an obvious expression of homoeroticism in Dracula when the count keeps Jonathan hostage in his castle. When Jonathan is in a dangerous situation with the three vampiresses, Dracula intervenes and says: “This man belongs to me!”. It’s a clear manifestation of possession and homosexuality. Bram Stoker was, as a matter of fact, gay.
Besides these characteristics, there are also some common themes found in Gothic novels. These include:
• Sense of isolation and loneliness
• Atmosphere of mystery and suspense
• Feeling of foreboding
Now that you have read about 10 characteristics of Gothic novels, I invite you to read my Gothic short story, ATHANASIA!