Gothic, Gothic literature

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Gothic, Gothic literature

Gothic, Gothic literature: The term Gothic, which originally referred to a Germanic tribe, the Goths, is often used more generally today to mean Germanic, medieval, or barbarous, as well as to refer more specifically to a style of architecture that originated in France and flourished during the Medieval Period, particularly during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Gothic architecture, which features dramatic elements such as flying buttresses, stained glass windows, prominent verticality, and grotesque carvings, can seem flamboyant, mysterious, or even frightening.

When applied to literature, Gothic has been used both positively and pejoratively to refer to a genre characterized by a general mood of decay, suspense, and terror; action that is dramatic and generally violent or otherwise disturbing; loves that are destructively passionate; and landscapes that are grandiose, if gloomy or bleak. To eighteenth-century neoclassicists, who valued simplicity and unity, the appellation Gothic signified the barbaric or crude. For them, “Gothic” writing was untutored, unrestrained, and ridiculously extravagant. Romantics, however, found in the Gothic a freedom of spirit, variety, mystery, and instinctual authenticity (as opposed to reasoned and therefore artificial discourse) that meshed well with their own emphasis on individuality, imagination, and the sublime.

Gothic literature arose in England in the 1760s with the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764), a seminal work that inaugurated a tradition of Gothic novels, short stories, poems, and plays that peaked around 1820. The Gothic novel, the most prominent manifestation of Gothic literature, is a romance typically written as a long prose narrative pervaded by a sense of doom and gloom and featuring horror and mystery, chivalry and villainy. Dark medieval castles full of secret passageways and (apparently) supernatural phenomena are common elements used to thrill the reader. Gothic heroes and heroines tend to be equally mysterious, with dark histories and secrets of their own. The Gothic hero is typically a man characterized more by power and charisma than personal goodness; the Gothic heroine’s challenge is to win the hero’s love without being destroyed in the process. Exaggeration and emotional language are frequently employed by Gothic writers, who typically emphasize plot and setting over character and characterization.

Gothic literature, especially the Gothic novel, which rose to literary eminence with Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), has had tremendous impact both on the development of other genres and on individual authors. Genres influenced by Gothic literature, which was itself influenced by the Graveyard School of Poetry, include the ghost story, horror, mystery fiction, and suspense fiction; Gothic drama, including dramatized versions of Gothic novels, is also said to have influenced the development of melodrama. Gothic novels have had particular influence on the works of many late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers. Novelists ranging from Mary Shelley to the Brontë sisters to Henry James to Daphne du Maurier are so indebted to the Gothic novel that some critics have even applied the term Gothic to their own works, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). Even today, Gothic elements are common in literature (especially but not exclusively in the popular historical romances sometimes referred to as “bodice rippers”) and in other art forms such as film, music, and television. The number of contemporary works falling into the “Gothic” category is even larger if we follow the current trend of using the term to refer to any work that evokes a brooding, ominous atmosphere.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland (1798), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem Christabel (1816), Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839); Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897). Matthew (“Monk”) Lewis authored several Gothic works, including The Monk (1796), a novel he wrote as a teenager; “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine,” a poem from The Monk featuring the “spectre bridegroom” motif; The Castle Spectre (1796), a play; and “The Anaconda,” a short story published in his collection Romantic Tales (1808). E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales, perhaps the most famous of which is “The Sand-man” (1817), are also often described as Gothic. Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (1818) gently parodies the Gothic tradition. Twentieth-century examples of Gothic literature include the Gothic romances of Victoria Holt (Mistress of Mellyn [1960]) and Phyllis A. Whitney (Thunder Heights [1960]); Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian novel The Mists of Avalon (1983); much of Stephen King’s fiction (The Shining [1977], It [1986]); the novels of Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire [1976], The Witching Hour [1990]); and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (2011), which blends Gothic and fantasy fiction.

Popular culture continues to feature the Gothic and Gothic horror. Ken Russell’s Gothic (1987) luridly retold the episode in the lives of Mary Shelley; Percy Bysshe Shelley; and George Gordon, Lord Byron that inspired Mary’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818). Indeed, Frankenstein has been the source of numerous retellings, adaptations, and continuations, including the movies Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Frankenstein (2004), and I, Frankenstein (2014). The WB series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997—2003) and Charmed (1998—2006) also drew on the Gothic tradition. In music, “Goth Rock” enjoyed a vogue in the 1980s, when groups such as the Cure forged a series of majestic, foreboding rock albums awash with morbid sounds and themes. An extreme version of Goth Rock with a particularly provocative, even blasphemous, edge was purveyed by Marilyn Manson.