For over two centuries, Gothic literature has been exploring these questions. As a genre, Gothic investigates the darker side of human nature, evolves in response to contemporary anxieties, and often raises controversy along the way. Writers who employ the Gothic characterize everyday conflicts in grotesque fantasies and acknowledge that we are not free: of social roles, death, or even ourselves.
The Gothic mode in a very general sense has always existed. Since humanity’s earliest days, it seems that darkness is an undeniable fact of our nature. Readers can find Gothic elements in the story of Cain and Abel, Beowulf, the ‘Danse Macabre,’ and the dark folklore of vampires and spirits from various cultures throughout the ages. However, Gothic as a genre has a formal history in literature. The term originally derived from Germanic tribes, the Goths, who played a key role “in the fall of the Roman Empire.” Little factual records of them remains, but they are historically associated with intense, barbarian, primitive ways. It is not their actual history that is so significant but the cultural myths that they inspired. According to Punter and Byron, “‘Gothic’ became a highly mobile term, remaining constant only in the way it functioned to establish a set of polarities revolving primarily around the concepts of the primitive and the civilized.” During the Renaissance era, Gothic referred to the ornate, extreme architecture of the late Middle Ages, particularly evident in cathedrals. This soaring architecture of pointed arches, pinnacles, and flying buttresses was meant to inspire awe, thoughts of the afterlife, the divine, and even apocalyptic fear in those who saw it. A prominent example would be the extreme height, massiveness, severe, sharp angles, and intricate decoration of such Gothic cathedrals as France’s Reims or Rouen. Frightening, monstrous creations such as gargoyles and apocalyptic bas-relief sculptures in niches were hallmarks of this style, and their grotesque but captivating nature mirrors the nature of the Gothic as well.
Aesthetically, this style was directly opposed to the more restrained Greco-Roman and later Neoclassical styles, which relied upon rational order, naturalism, and simpler lines. This contrast also holds true for Neoclassical and Gothic literature. Gothic literature was originally conceived in the eighteenth-century as a reaction to the prevailing thought of the “Age of Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. The premise of Enlightenment thought and literature relies upon humanity’s capacity of reason to bring order, light, and improvement to the world (“Enlightenment”). Because of its Greco-Roman influences on thought and taste, it was also known as the Neoclassical era, which spanned over a century, from 1660-1798. The Romantic rebelled against those ideas and focused on the individual and lone self, imagination, and emotion. While Romanticism was “the product of a sensibility that glorifies the self in isolation from society, the Gothic explores the darker side of the Romantic vision,” writes Karen F. Stein. Gothic also drew from the distant past, specifically the medieval times of Gothic architecture. Horatio Walpole’s novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), actually subtitled ‘A Gothic Romance,’ has deliberately sinister elements and a haunted castle as the main setting. It is generally considered the “founding text of Gothic fiction” that set the standard for the genre.
The legacy of the Goths is “pagan vigour, profusion, and embellishment” which Gothic authors embrace in their writing as an alternative to “staid” neoclassical paradigms. Gothic literature was critically dismissed in the neoclassical era as “crude, barbaric, unfettered, disorderly, and licentious.” While rationalist thought sought to quarantine them, the Gothic genre tackled and vividly explored these undesirable sides of human nature. The Gothic literature demonstrates that the chaos and darkness of the world cannot be ordered, contained, nor denied, and even that our very reason is not always used for the best purposes if it is used at all. While the Enlightenment worldview sees potential in improving our world, the Gothic world is already doomed.
Writers of the Gothic genre use their own unique vocabulary to create a dark, disturbing world with an ornate and unfettered nature that exudes dynamic energy. From the mysterious world of its medieval origins springs forth the evocative possibilities of strangeness, chaos and passion. The Gothic world is one of mystery, magic, tension, illusion, fear, sometimes even perversity. Authors do not avoid death and decay; their crumbling, antiquated settings are central to the eerie events that unfold in their fiction.
As the Gothic genre gained momentum in Europe following the late eighteenth-century publication of Horatio Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto,’ it became significant in American literature also. Since the first major efforts in American literature coincided the era of the European Gothic, “American fiction began in the Gothic mode.” An early example of this is the Gothic eighteenth-century novel ‘Wieland’ (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown. By the mid-nineteenth century, the work of Edgar Allan Poe possessed distinct and masterful Gothic form. However, the new world of America had a different context than Europe. Instead of remnants of feudal times such as castles and abbeys, there was entirely new unknown and uncharted territory. “How uncanny, how mysterious, how unknowable and infinitely beyond their control must have seemed the vast wilderness of the New World, to the seventeenth–century Puritan settlers!” writes Joyce Carol Oates of the inception of American Gothic. As America grew as a nation and its wilderness was cultivated and civilization established in its place, its older homes, especially its mansions, became the new “castles.” Later in the modern era, the contemporary Gothic used the most subtle and ordinary of settings to reveal fearful elements implicit in our lives.
In order to inspire fear, terror, or horror, Gothic writers employ a variety of themes. Common plots often include imprisonment, entrapment, pursuit, violence, and escape. Evil characters include male villains, and their counterparts, femme fatales. Protagonists range from female victims, naifs, and outside narrators.
Ghosts, doppelgangers, and sometimes vampires, witches, or monsters are fantastic and symbolic characters. Perceptions can include paranoia, feelings of persecution, unsettled psyches or even madness. There are flourishes of the grotesque, the uncanny, and exploration of taboos.
Physical space is not the sole source of confinement in Gothic literature. It could be mental or emotional as well. As the modern science of psychology originated in the Victorian era, Gothic possessed more sophisticated possibilities. Such focus on the mind demonstrates that the reader does not have to go so far to be in the realm of the Gothic. The greater turmoil or confinement could occur in a character’s mind. A haunted house is a standard icon of Gothic literature. So too is a haunted mind, one troubled or even mad. Sometimes both elements intersect, and it can be very hard to discern the reality of the situation. The enigmatic nature of the Gothic often lies in its power to provoke mystery by unsettling our accepted notions of reality. Illusion is a “core motif” of Gothic fiction that serves to illustrate human frailties, especially those of perception.
The Gothic genre is highly “malleable” and varied, often difficult to pinpoint in immutable terms. While a work such as ‘The Castle of Otranto’ or Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ could easily be considered distinctly Gothic, the modern forms of Gothicism has evolved into broader and subtler varieties. Each era brings with it a new set of anxieties that find their way into Gothicism. The deeper significance of the Gothic is the creative possibilities for the writer in the stage it sets: it gives language to the unspeakable. Thus, the Gothic can be an excellent vehicle for the most challenging of subtexts. Concerning the sweeping variety of Gothic that exists today, Gothic is more suitably considered a vision rather than solely a genre; there is “richness and magnitude of the gothic-grotesque vision and the inadequacy of genre labels if by genre is meant mere formula,” writes Joyce Carol Oates.