TEXTUAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GOTHIC  
     
 
The following list identifies some key characteristics of the gothic text. No text is likely to display all of these, and some of the qualities below tend towards the mutually exclusive; nevertheless the list should prompt some useful reflection:
a fascination for the past, particularly — but not exclusively — the medieval era
a liking for the strangely eccentric, the supernatural, the magical, and the sublime, sometimes subtly intermingled with the realistic
psychological insights, especially into sexuality, through (at best) fascinating and intricate characterisation, or (at worst) stereotypical caricatures
representation and stimulation of fear, horror, the macabre and the sinister, within the context of a general focus on the emotional rather than the rational
frequently exotic settings and locations, although this tendency may be contrasted to a more 'domestic' gothic tradition, especially found amongst American texts
plots within plots often multiple narrators, and other stylistic characteristics such as the use of 'tableaux' and overt symbolism.
As the gothic tendency in literature developed, so too did the range of structural and stylistic opportunities open to its practitioners. Gothic elements have found their way into a number of literary models and genres, suggesting that the gothic impulse is both fertile and eclectic. Some of the directions taken include:
the classic “gothic horror” tale (e.g. Frankenstein, Dracula)
the historical romance — the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), for example
the American tradition of domestic gothic fiction — some of Poe's tales, for instance, or the novels of William Faulkner (1897-1962) and some of Henry James's (1843-1916) fiction
fantasy fiction, as in the work of Mervyn Peake or Tolkien (1892-1973)
the psychological thriller — some of Susan Hill's fiction, for example
idiosyncratic gothic experiments, as demonstrated by writers like Angela Carter, Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie
some science fiction and science fantasy texts — H.G. Wells's (1866-1946) The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) or certain aspects of Isaac Asimov's (1920-1992) novels, for example.
 
     
 

Literature

Literature of the supernatural often uses recurring themes, images, and symbols to envision the human condition. Watch for the following motifs in the works we will study (especially the poems of Coleridge, Byron, and Keats and Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein . Consider the symbolic significance of interactions between the natural and supernatural worlds in these works. How do these works explore and define human nature through reference to the supernatural?

Supernatural motifs appear throughout literature but are most prominent in the literary genre labeled “Gothic,” which developed in the late eighteenth-century as a reaction to the central ideology of the Enlightenment that valorized human reason.

The Gothic genre dealt with tales of the irrational aspects of human existence. While Gothic horror stories became popular in German literature, the Gothic novel originated in England with the publication of Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto (1765), which Walpole called a “Gothic story”. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein belongs specifically to the Gothic genre, but Gothic or supernatural motifs also appear in the poetry of Coleridge, Byron, and Keats. Byron and Coleridge, in particular, were strongly influenced by Gothic literature—both writers were affected by the German stories in the genre, and Byron also enjoyed the English Gothic novels so popular in his time.

The picture above is an illustration from a popular 18th century Gothic novel, The Monk. The illustration, entitled “The Bleeding Nun,” depicts a nun whose face is covered by a veil, beneath which blood ominously drips. The man approaching her is about to remove the veil and reveal the horror beneath. Gothic literature often attempts to unmask the horrific aspects of human nature.

Gothic literature is devoted primarily to stories of horror, the fantastic, and the “darker” supernatural forces. These forces often represent the “dark side” of human nature—irrational or destructive desires. The painting opposite illustrates a scene from one of the most famous Gothic novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1898). It depicts Dracula seducing a young woman to drink her blood. Monsters such as vampires in Gothic works tend to externalize our own dangerous repressed desires. Consider Frankenstein's monster and the vampiric monster Geraldine in Coleridge's Christabel as examples.

Gothic literature derives its name from its similarities to the Gothic medieval cathedrals, which feature a majestic, unrestrained architectural style with often savage or grotesque ornamentation (the word “Gothic” derives from “Goth,” the name of one of the barbaric Germanic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire). The Gothic genre (in both literature and architecture) is therefore associated with savagery and barbarism. Below is pictured Notre Dame cathedral in France.

Architecture  

The vaulting arches and spires of Gothic cathedrals reach wildly to the sky as if the builders were trying to grasp the heavens , an ambition for the eternal that is likewise expressed in many works of Gothic literature (consider Manfred's quest for supernatural power in Byron's poem, or Frankenstein's quest to become godlike by creating life).

Vaulting windows in medieval cathedrals are adorned by ornate stained glass which sometimes contain images of the interaction between the supernatural and human worlds.

The tall spires of medieval cathedrals likewise expressed the human ambition to transcend the natural world and touch the supernatural realm.

     

Medieval cathedrals are also covered with a profusion of wild carvings depicting humanity in conflict with supernatural forces—demons, angels, gargoyles, and monsters. The architecture evokes the sense of humanity's division between a finite, physical identity and the often terrifying and bizarre forces of the infinite. The Gothic aesthetic also embodies an ambition to transcend earthly human limitations and reach the divine. The picture to the left isof a gargoyle from Notre Dame cathedral that is eating the head off a human victim.

Many cathedral carvings feature Biblical subjects that depict the relationship of the human and supernatural realms. The carving bottom right shows Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan in the form of the serpent.

Not all supernatural forces depicted in Gothic architecture are evil. Many are good (such as the Saints in the image to your bottom left) and are at war with the evil forces for the possession of human souls. Like Gothic architecture, Gothic literature focuses on humanity's fascination with the grotesque, the unknown, and the frightening, inexplicable aspects of the universe and the human soul. The Gothic “relates the individual to the infinite universe” (Varma, 16) and creates horror by portraying human individuals in confrontation with the overwhelming, mysterious, terrifying forces found in the cosmos and within themselves.

 

Motifs

A motif is a repeated theme, image, or literary device. Look for these common supernatural/Gothic motifs in the Romantic works we will read.

 

The Double or Doppelganger (German for “double-goer”)

The Doppleganger was defined by Federick S. Frank as “a second self or alternate identity, sometimes, but not always, a physical twin. The Doppelganger in demonic form can be a reciprocal or lower bestial self or a Mr. Hyde. Gothic doppelgangers often haunt and threaten the rational psyche of the victim to whom they become attached” ( The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987, 435). The double motif involves a comparison or contrast between two characters or sets of characters within a work to represent opposing forces in human nature. For example, Dr. Jekyll and his evil double Mr. Hyde are contrasted to represent the battle between the rational, intellectual self (Jekyll) and the irrational, bestial self (Hyde).

The double motif suggests that humans are burdened with a dual nature, a soul forever divided. Double characters are often paired in common relationships, such as twins, siblings, husband/wife, parent/child, hero/villain, creator/creature, etc. Consider Frankenstein and his creature as doubles. The picture on the left is from the novel Dracula and depicts the hero Jonathan Harker shaving in front of a mirror when he is confronted by the vampire Dracula. Jonathan's surprise causes him to cut himself, arousing Dracula's blood lust. The characters as they stand before the mirror suggest two sides of the human soul—the civilized and the savage animal.

   

Forbidden Knowledge or Power/ Faust Motif

This motif takes its name from the German gothic legend of Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil to obtain power and knowledge forbidden to ordinary humans. The drawing opposite is an illustration of Faustus making his demonic pact. Forbidden knowledge/power is often the Gothic protagonist's goal. The Gothic “hero” questions the universe's ambiguous nature and tries to comprehend and control those supernatural powers that mortals cannot understand. He tries to overcome human limitations and make himself into a “god”. This ambition usually leads to the hero's “fall” or destruction; however, Gothic tales of ambition sometimes paradoxically evoke our admiration because they picture individuals with the courage to defy fate and cosmic forces in an attempt to transcend the mundane to the eternal and sublime. Consider again Manfred's quest for supernatural power and Frankenstein quest for the secret of life.

 

Monster/Satanic Hero/Fallen Man

The courageous search for forbidden knowledge or power always leads the hero to a fall, a corruption, or destruction, such as Satan's or Adam's fall. Consequently, the hero in Gothic literature is often a “villain”. The hero is isolated from others by his fall and either becomes a monster or confronts a monster who is his double. He becomes a “Satanic hero” if, like Satan, he has courageously defied the rules of God's universe and has tried to transform himself into a god. Note: the mad scientist, who tries to transcend human limitations through science, is a type of Satanic hero that is popular in Gothic literature (examples include Dr. Jekyll and Frankenstein).

 

Beast Transformations

The protagonist's ambitious pursuit of forbidden powers often results in transformation into a beast/monster. Frequently, this transformation is depicted as a degradation of the protagonist and a loss of humanity (overreaching ambition has caused the protagonist to fall to the level of a beast). In some instances, however, (particularly in feminist literature and in supernatural literature of the Asian and Native American traditions), the protagonist's beast transformation is a liberating experience that results in an enlightening unity with the natural world. Sometimes the protagonist finds that being transformed to a beast liberates one from the artificial restraints of human civilization. In supernatural tales from the Chinese tradition, beast transformation often makes the protagonist aware of the interconnectedness of all living things and creates a peaceful sense of harmony with nature.

 

Demon Lovers/Femme Fatales/Vampires

The protagonist's fall is sometimes accomplished through a relationship with a “demon lover” who acts as the protagonist's double or alter-ego, leading the protagonist into experiences forbidden by societal norms. The demon lover is frequently female, a femme fatale (fatal or deadly woman) who seduces and entices the protagonist to destruction. While in some cases, the femme fatale seems indicative of the misogyny of patriarchal cultures, in others, the masterful and destroying female seems to enact a fantasy of female empowerment.

 

 

Demons/Devils/Witches/Spirits/Angels

Often symbolize conflicting forces within the human soul. The hero may be tempted by evil spirits or redeemed by good spirits that symbolize the hero's own potential for evil or good. The picture opposite is an illustration of the three witches from Shakespeare's play Macbeth . Their prophecies inflame Macbeth's ambition to become King of Scotland and inspire him to assassinate the current monarch.

Ghosts

Ghosts are spirits that can represent some aspect of the protagonist's experience that “will not die,” that cannot be repressed or escaped. For instance, in Shakespeare's play Macbeth , the ghost of Banquo (whom Macbeth has had murdered) returns to haunt Macbeth, suggesting Macbeth's stricken conscience and his guilt over destroying his innocent friend. The painting above depicts the Japanese ghost ( yurei ) of Okiku, a character of Japanese legend who was murdered by her master. Okiku worked as a serving maid in the home of a Samurai (Japanese warrior). When she refused her master's sexual advances, he killed her and threw her body down a well. Every night after her death, Okiku's ghost would rise from the well and weep loudly throughout the night. Hearing the continuous weeping eventually drove Okiku's murderer mad. Thus, Okiku's ghost embodied the murderer's own undying guilt that eventually led to his insanity.

 

Dreams/Visions

Terrible truths are often revealed to characters through dreams or visions. The hidden knowledge of the universe and of human nature emerges through dreams because, when the person sleeps, reason sleeps, and the supernatural, unreasonable world can break through. Dreams in Gothic literature express the dark, unconscious depths of the psyche that are repressed by reason—truths that are too terrible to be comprehended by the conscious mind. The picture above depicts the vampire visiting his victim in her sleep, a visitation that many scholar of Gothic literature see as the release of repressed sexual desires. Consider the dreams in Frankenstein and the fact that the novel was inspired in part by a dream (see Mary Shelley's introduction to the novel).

 

 

Magic Talismans/ Cursed or Blessed Objects/Holy Relics

Magic talismans may represent supernatural forces or forces within the hero's personality (e.g., the crucifix wielded by vampire hunters against the vampire symbolizes the goodness and self-sacrifice of those who fight the vampire). Cursed and blessed objects can also act as symbols of human duality.

 

 

Graveyards/Churches/Ruins

such settings suggest human confrontation with infinite forces (death, spirits, time, etc.).

 

 

Haunted Castle/House

The protagonist's castle or home can reflect the protagonist's psychological character. Hidden chambers, subterranean vaults, twisting corridors, and secret passages can symbolize the hidden depths of the mind, unknown aspects of the psyche that are beyond rational control. Consider Manfred's castle in the Alps where he practices black magic in a forbidden tower, or Frankenstein's secret laboratory at the top of his house.

 

Multiple Narrative/Spiral Narrative Method

The story is frequently told through a series of secret manuscripts or multiple tales, each revealing a deeper secret, so the narrative gradually spirals inward toward the hidden truth. The narrator is often a first-person narrator compelled to tell the story to a fascinated or captive listener (representing the captivating power of forbidden knowledge). By revealing to us their own souls' secrets, these narrators reveal the secrets of humankind's soul. The picture opposite depicts the Ancient Mariner from Coleridge's poem compelling the young wedding guest to listen to his horrific tale of his crime at sea. The tale, as bizarre and other-worldly as it is, reveals vital truths about the wedding guest's own potential for sin.

 
Madness/Madmen/Characters Who Question Their Own Sanity

Madness suggests humanity's encounter with the fantastic side of existence that defies human reason. Because mad characters are in touch with a deeper reality beyond rational comprehension, they often speak the truths that normal characters wish to deny. Madmen face universal or psychic forces that rational men fear to acknowledge. In the picture at left, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner stops passersby to tell his tale; but while he appears to be a madman, the Mariner knows the truth about the evil of which humans are capable. When mad characters speak, listen to them! Their “madness” often reveals a darker reality.

 

Blood

A prominent symbol in Gothic works often intimating the paradox of the human condition; blood can represent both life and death, or both guilt (e.g., murder) and innocence (e.g., redemptive blood). The picture at right depicts vampire hunters from Dracula thwarting the attack of a female vampire—her innocence and beauty are contaminated by the blood dripping down the front of her gown, evidence of her cruel animal nature. Consider references to blood in Byron's Manfred and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein .

Other motifs  
Other motifs to watch for: murder, innocence victimized by evil, incest, sexual perversion, reversal of values, the Wanderer, the Outcast, mistaken or secret identities, dichotomies (attraction/repulsion, life/death, innocence/evil, nobility/corruption, etc.); the femme fatale (“fatal woman” who leads men to their doom).
 

Summation

Gothic literature pictures the human condition as an ambiguous mixture of good and evil powers that cannot be understood completely by human reason. Thus, the Gothic perspective conceives of the human condition as a paradox, a dilemma of duality — humans are divided in the conflict between opposing forces in the world and in themselves.

The Gothic themes of human nature's depravity, the struggle between good and evil in the human soul, and the existence of unexplainable elements in humanity and the cosmos, are prominent themes in many of the works we will study.