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What Is Gothic Literature?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gothic literature is a branch of fiction that first became popular during the late 1700s in Europe. The stories generally present a combination of horror, mystery and romantic elements, with many stylized features and a particular focus on setting. Most of the stories take place inside of castles, and they normally either contain significant supernatural elements or they hint at potential supernatural occurrences that are later explained. The basic formula for the Gothic novel has evolved a lot over time, and many traditional elements, such as castles, aren’t always present in more recent examples.

Breaking the Gothic novel down into a set formula isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it might seem. The genre is known for being somewhat formulaic, but that formula has changed significantly since the first Gothic works in the 1700s. Most — but not all — Gothic literature tends to focus on female protagonists and often there is some sort of family curse or a terrible history associated with a particular place. The main character may find herself feeling threatened and eventually try to solve a mystery in order to save herself and prevent a disaster.

Often there is a male love interest who might also be mysterious or even seem dangerous until later in the story where he will most likely be exonerated. There are many other traditional character roles that fit like puzzle pieces into basic story templates, and they changed a lot as the genre evolved. Many of the changes in the genre were based on shifts in audience taste and the particular kinds of audiences reading the stories.

Many of the early examples of Gothic literature were heavily focused on supernatural elements, and some of them might fall comfortably into the modern horror genre. Over time, the focus shifted so that Gothic works usually provided a natural explanation for most of the supernatural things that happened in the story. The characters may believe that ghosts are involved or something similar, but usually they discover that it was actually something mundane. This is not always true, however, and in many cases, there may be a fair number of mysteries left unresolved at the conclusion.

Traditionally, the castle setting of Gothic literature was key because the stories usually relied heavily on a dark, frightening atmosphere. This has continued to remain basically true, but often, more contemporary settings are used. For example, the story may take place in an old mansion instead of a castle, and the main character could be someone who inherited an estate from rich family members she didn’t know about. The events that take place may rely heavily on features of modern society, which can make them different from traditional Gothic stories, but they will also often mirror the traditional format in many ways.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000396 — On Sep 16, 2018

The Woman in Black is also a novel based on Gothic literature.

By Laotionne — On Nov 14, 2014

Are all of the recent vampire movies considered Gothic fiction? These types of movies have been really popular over the last several years. What is it about vampires that attracts people anyway?

By Lostnfound — On Nov 14, 2014

@Grivusangel -- I liked "Jane Eyre," too. Hated "Wuthering Heights" by her sister, though. Never could get into it.

I think my favorite of the Gothic novels has to be "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. It reads much easier than "Frankenstein" and it's clear Stoker wanted a really convincing read. He wanted the reader to start looking around for vampires.

The movie version by Francis Ford Coppola is the best one, even though it strays a little from the book. To me, it really captures the tension and horror of the novel. The other movies are just a little too clean and sanitized -- even the Bela Lugosi version.

By Grivusangel — On Nov 13, 2014

I guess my favorite Gothic novel is "Jane Eyre." Charlotte Bronte really hooked me into that one. I think it's so well written, and the characters are so interesting. They're not typical heroes and/or heroines. Jane is a strong, independent young woman who takes her own paths, even when her destiny seems to be laid out and is unalterable.

Jane, in fact, is one of my favorite characters in literature. I really like her. She grows and changes throughout the book, and when she and Mr. Rochester finally get together, you know it's because they truly love each other. You've got most of the classic Gothic elements, but really, the novel is about a young woman who becomes independent and self-sufficient in a time when it was a rarity.

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