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What Characterizes Gothic Fiction?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gothic fiction is characterized by the elements of fear, horror, the supernatural and darkness, as well as by characters such as vampires, demons, heroes, heroines and villains. Other elements that characterize this type of fiction might include mystery, romance, lust and dread. This genre is the forerunner of the modern horror genre, although the Gothic style continues to have many practitioners. Originating in the late 18th century, this type of fiction was a branch of the larger Romantic movement that sought to stimulate strong emotions in the reader — fear and apprehension, in this case. The name of the genre comes from medieval architecture, because it often harks back to the medieval era in spirit and subject matter, and it sometimes uses Gothic buildings as a setting.

Common Subject Matter

This style of fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere, using setting and diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader. Common subject matter includes the supernatural, family curses, mystery and madness. Gothic fiction might also feature a romantic plot or subplot, particularly in later incarnations from the Victorian era and the 20th century. Although the novel is often considered the best example of this genre, some poetry and short stories can also be characterized as Gothic, such as those written by the Graveyard Poets of late 18th century England or the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, which have influenced Gothic writers ever since they were published.

Times and Places

Gothic fiction often deals with past eras, sometimes romanticizing them and other times using them as symbols of excessive darkness and oppression. In its early days, the genre took the medieval period as a major inspiration. Early novels were characterized as romances, referencing a medieval narrative genre. These novels were often anti-Catholic and used a medieval setting to showcase what their authors believed to be abuses of Catholic power. Conversely, early Gothic fiction often romanticized the medieval period by adopting the style of its literature and returning to more emotional, fantastical subject matter instead of embracing the rationalism and order that had dominated Enlightenment thought.

Modern examples of this type of fiction have continued the tendency to look to past eras, often using such settings as colonial America, Victorian England or the pre-Civil War southern United States. Like the medieval period to many writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, these eras offer fodder for romanticization and moral criticism. Modern Gothic works set in the present day might take place in a 19th century mansion, much in the way that early works commonly used medieval castles as their settings.

Popular Authors

Gothic novels were among the most popularly read fiction of the late 18th century, with notable examples including Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764, Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and M. G. Lewis' The Monk in 1796. Although it was less popular during the Victorian era, 19th-century Gothic fiction was among the best-known and most-read literature of the late 20th century and early 21st century, including works by writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily and Anne Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde. The vampire, one of the favorite stock characters of this genre of fiction, appeared in several important works of this era, including John Polidori's The Vampyre, Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

In modern literature, the more intense and gory horror favored by writers such as Stephen King has largely taken the place of this genre. Gothic fiction, however, has continued to have a faithful following, and its influence can be noted in literature, film and music. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, as well as the books and stories on which they were based, could be considered Gothic. Writers such as William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Tennessee Williams applied the style to their treatment of the American South. Some contemporary authors, including Joyce Carol Oates and Patrick McGrath, have continued to write in the Gothic tradition or to update it to address their own concerns.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon305789 — On Nov 27, 2012

So, could I just throw "The Vampire Diaries" in the mix and ask for your opinion on whether or not it is considered "goth"?

Thing is, I'm doing a presentation and want to show elements of gothic in a rather "fun" way and since my audience is between 20-25, I thought everyone one might know the show. Good or bad idea?

It's dark, supernatural and there is death and horror and also women in distress. Should work, right?

By anon305606 — On Nov 26, 2012

Twilight? Um, no. There are certain elements that have to be in each of the genres of gothic literature: dark romance, romance, supernatural and horror. After studying it with three English teachers and an actual author (grey griffons, anyone?), no. Twilight only has romance and supernatural, and that alone does not gothic literature make.

By anon299948 — On Oct 27, 2012

I like the dark, mysterious style, but not corsets or SM! These two are out of my own Goth style!

By anon295535 — On Oct 06, 2012

I think "Twilight" can be considered gothic for the baby goths. It certainly doesn't appeal much to the more seasoned goth, but think about the setting: Dark, gloomy and cold.

The context is Gothic (vampires and werewolves), however it lacks depth and a sense of culture which saturates most Gothic literature. It breaks the tradition of burning in the sun and replaces it with something a little less intense because it wants you to fall in love with the vampire, making him paradoxically less delicate. (Because they can be in the sun without withering away meaning they are more hardy than vamps of the past, yet delicate in a different way because they actually sparkle like a little girl).

It's the type of literature and movie that I would present to my 11 year old child to give her baby steps into the culture Mommie is in without exposing her to a lot of death, meaning I wouldn't have to explain the meaning of evil and the meaning of death right away.

In other words it's a child's movie, not something we older fans of Gothic literature would consider Gothic.

By anon215528 — On Sep 18, 2011

So Twilight is, I guess, considered gothic fiction.

By anon184343 — On Jun 08, 2011


By anon175963 — On May 14, 2011

i appreciate that twilight is not true gothic literature but it's still a great book.

By anon171845 — On May 02, 2011

It's not just the Gothic elements such as setting and romance that makes a book Gothic. It's the use of language. Compare Dracula and Twilight. The language use is completely different. Twilight just doesn't have the fluent, "classic" tone that gives the Gothic books the heavy, anticipatory atmosphere.

By anon152182 — On Feb 13, 2011

I wouldn't even categorize 'Twilight' as literature.

By anon148561 — On Feb 02, 2011

As much as I hate Twilight, I am forced to admit that it does contain many of the features that would make up a gothic fiction. As far as having no castle involved in the storyline goes, I think it does not matter. The castle is just one of the elements that set the scene.

Twilight is set in the 21st century, while most other examples mentioned are set before or during the industrial revolution. You try and put a castle into a 21st century America setting. Despite the lack of castle, the story retains some of the elements of a true Gothic novel. It possesses a twisted and forbidden love, the mentally and physically (to a lesser degree) oppressed damsel, the byronic hero - Edward - although admittedly, the storyline may have turned out a more convincing Gothic fiction if written from his POV, and the gloomy setting.

Then again, the way vampires are portrayed in the novel Twilight is ridiculous. Sure, the idea of a vampire resisting the blood hunger is good, not new but well used, but going so far as to call them "vegetarians" and make them glittery is an abomination. This is perhaps the one feature that ruins the whole Gothic undertone.

There is none of the scary and monstrous, yet sensual, vampires that make the Gothic theme Gothic. To call Twilight a Gothic fiction would be a laughable idea. This [Twilight] is as post 25 correctly suggests, more magical realism than Gothic fiction.

By anon132367 — On Dec 06, 2010

Some "Lecturer" says it is Gothic, so it must be--poppycock. Twilight Saga is a poorly conserved modern day romance--not at all similar to True Romantic stylings--with a hint of some wishy-washy Gothic elements.

Injecting supernatural elements into the everyday is Magical Realism. Gothic stories deal with isolation, the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and similar settings/techniques and often have a "an innocent"--often a young unsuspecting woman--trapped (physically and/or mentally). The nonsenuality of the vampire embrace is a horror, not gothic or romantic, element.

Twilight is just common, page-turner, escapist fiction. (Not that there's anything wrong with that). Harry Potter--Pure Dark Fantasy and escapist fiction.

By anon125287 — On Nov 09, 2010

Gothic fiction is an extremely diverse genre, which means that there is no one size fits all template for which other works will fit.

Personally, I would suggest that Twilight is a romance with Gothic elements- such as those listed succinctly above in other posts so I won't even bother. One common element shared by virtually all Gothic works I've encountered is the desire to evoke terror in the reader.

Although I felt tension while reading T., I certainly wasn't gripped with fear. Parody is also an essential element of the genre and today's work must either riff on previous stories in a new way or exaggerate them to a new degree.

By anon121546 — On Oct 25, 2010

My lecturer says that The Twilight Saga is a gothic fiction literature, so I think I agree with her. People say "it's not a gothic novel!" - of course, it isn't! But it has all gothic fiction elements.

By anon117877 — On Oct 12, 2010

Also, the main thing about Gothic is that is is an elevating thing - it's meant to get our hearts racing. I would say that Twilight has achieved this, judging by the Twilight phenomenon (the hundreds of screaming female fans) that has arisen since the series first hit the best-seller list.

This is coming from a teenage girl herself, who attends an all-girl high school and college. So I am able to say that Twilight has achieved the ultimate aim of the Gothic novel.

By anon117876 — On Oct 12, 2010

Twilight most certainly is Gothic - it has all the conventions of the Gothic and Horror genre. If we analyze it a bit further and not simply dismiss it because of its popularity (in fact fairly ironic as Gothic literature has always received its fair share of scorn ever since its inception - it is tradition!).

So let's see - atmosphere - check, see Forks and the descriptions of darkness, (contrasted with the heat and sun of Phoenix), constant drizzle, fog etc. - leads to a gloomy, expectant atmosphere - the setting foreshadows the events.

The sheer isolation of the place, Bella's own isolation - her otherness, Edward our Byronic hero, the perspective of the audience manipulated, as our sympathy is with the killer (Bella, or Edward)- see Edgar Allen Poe.

The whole Renesmee thing, plus the mystery of Bella's shielding powers - revealed only in the last book - strikes a parallel with the quintessential Gothic novel, Frankenstein - or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus, the man who stole fire (knowledge from the Gods) with bare consideration for the consequences. These all play on universal human fears - fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable, or human potential - and the dark side of human life. Twilight is a Gothic and Horror text.

By anon112541 — On Sep 20, 2010

I have actually read the Twilight Saga several times and no, it is not a gothic novel. If it were from Edward's point of view, maybe it would be a Gothic genre because his thoughts are very depressing and he is most of the time a pessimist. He doesn't want to love Bella because he knows the consequences of it all. For example, changing her into the monster Edward finds himself to be would only mean stealing Bella's soul.

By anon101610 — On Aug 04, 2010

I would not classify Twilight as Gothic Literature but neither is it an out and out Romance novel. The argument about their being no grotesque is debatable though. There is no grotesque in the Cullens perhaps, but one cannot argue that there is not at least an element of the grotesque in the manner (if not the aesthetics) of the Volturi? Or indeed James, Victoria etc.

Furthermore, unlike the majority of vampire books, there is nothing sexual in the nature of the vampire bite. Meyer depicts it as extremely gory, painful, etc. There is no suggestion of it being pleasurable at all, indeed she suggests quite the opposite.

I would advocate that the Twilight Saga sits on a boundary between Gothic and romance.

Finally, I'll add that I found the books fun, easy reads but earned more respect for Meyer on reading 'the shorter second life of bree tanner' in which I think she reveals an interesting new perspective to her some what soupy love story, and certainly ventures deeper into the more gruesome and unpleasant traits of the vampire.

By anon86441 — On May 25, 2010

Surely, then, Harry Potter cannot be classed as having elements of the Gothic - hmmm...think Castle Dracula and compare it to Hogwarts. Think about how Dracula is described and compare it to how Dumbledore is described. Dracula also has supernatural elements (as the Count greets Harker at the castle, he holds a lantern - the flame of which burns without a chimney or globe).

Gothic has evolved. Those of you who understand Gothic will know that its conventions include the supernatural, darkness, psychological torment, the troubled and intellectual protagonist, open and rugged landscapes (hell, even Wuthering Heights has Gothic elements). Even the purists amongst you should have realized this by now.

By anon80605 — On Apr 28, 2010

Twilight is *not* Gothic; it is missing several crucial elements. Such as: "the grotesque" where the writer makes the characteristics of the protagonist, antagonist or both have physical representations... (think Igor in Dracula- sort of).

Also, wrong setting. True Gothic has castles and countryside. No real damsel-in-distress -- or tyrannical man pining for her affections.

Also the emotions the emotions needed to be turned up to "soap opera" style. All in all, not enough evidence to support that Twilight would be considered Gothic literature, so I vote- no.

By anon77815 — On Apr 15, 2010

Twilight is not gothic fiction. Compare it to Dracula and Frankenstein. It's a fantasy novel. There isn't a "dark" and gloomy feel to Twilight, is there? It represents the love that most people want to have. Gothic novels aren't centered on romance, anyway. It's just a side thing.

By anon73059 — On Mar 25, 2010

I think it could be considered Gothic sort of because you have a gloomy type setting, the whole damsel in distress thing in Bella, Edward is the courageous and totally in love hero, who happens to be a Vampire. But him being a vampire is the whole reason why Bella is a damsel in distress. He saves her, yadda, yadda. sounds pretty stereotypical gothic to me. I don't know.

By anon71045 — On Mar 17, 2010

Twilight is just a cheap romance. I'm reading it now (finally- this is the 5th time I've started it, the first i haven't thrown it away) and there's nothing gothic about it.

By anon70827 — On Mar 16, 2010

No, Twilight is definitely not gothic. For starters, rather than having a romantic subplot, romance is the plot. Also, it has a contemporary setting. Finally, it simply doesn't have the elevated style necessary to be a piece of gothic literature. It is young adult fiction, just a generic poppy series of novels.

By anon69092 — On Mar 06, 2010

wonderful thanks to all of you.

By anon55189 — On Dec 05, 2009

Why isn't twilight gothic fiction? It has the whole star crossed lovers kind of thing, and then the fact that Edward is a vampire. I'm not a fan of the Twilight Saga, but I do find all these people saying it's just pop fiction just because it has a young and current audience.

I'm sure in the future it will be known as gothic fiction or a similar genre, just now, people who aren't a fan tend to turn their noses up at it.

By foster — On Nov 17, 2009

I haven't read Twilight, but I'm going to say no. Not everything with a supernatural theme is Gothic, just like a book doesn't need supernatural elements to be Gothic. Atmosphere, sensibility and language are all extremely important.

By cary — On Nov 16, 2009

It's interesting to look at the changes in the role of vampires in fiction - what was once a Gothic trope even as recently as the 1970s and 1980s seems much less so now. To me, anyway, the act of integrating vampires and other supernatural entities into the everyday takes away that Goth element. But maybe I'm wrong ... Is "Twilight" Gothic?

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
Learn more
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