Study Guide

Gothic Literature Introduction

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Gothic Literature Introduction

Let's play a word association. We're going to say a word, and you're going to tell us what it makes you think of. Ready? Go.


[We'll wait.]

We're guessing your list looks something like this:

  • Studded cuffs
  • Black clothes and makeup
  • Leather
  • Underground music
  • Spikes

But get this: behind the derivative black-and-spikey look is a movement that started in 1764. Yep, that dyed hair has a centuries-old tradition behind it.

The 18th century nourished two opposing trends:

(1) The Enlightenment. Proponents of this movement valued objectivity, reason, and a light sherry. Enlightenment thinkers had a lot of influence in the birth of America, and the U.S. founding fathers tried to imbue the constitution with these values.

(2) Romanticism. The Romantics were pretty sick of the Enlightenment and what they saw as its insistence on cool, detached interaction with the wider world. Romantics wanted to feel things. They demanded that emotions be valued, and they sought to reclaim Imagination-with-a-capital-I. Fuggedabout development and industry; wilderness and the unknown is where it's at for them. Romantics were also super focused on the individual. Why get lost in a crowd when you could shine alone?

Why are we yammering on about all this? Well, Gothicism was kind of the nightmarish kid sibling of Romanticism. It took up all of these values and gave them…well…a shadier spin. Almost sinister. In 1764, Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, and in it, he planted the seeds for every Gothic novel to follow:

  • a creepy locale inspired by Medieval buildings
  • a crazy-evil villain with no apparent redeemable qualities
  • a damsel-in-distress
  • a not-your-average-hero hero
  • a few otherworldly (usually from Hell) creatures
  • and a lot—we mean a lot of suspenseful and even offensive emotional appeals.

Now that's Gothic.

What is Gothic Literature About and Why Should I Care?

Ghost stories, horror movies, spooky tales told around the campfire—they do more than keep us up at night. From Silence of the Lambs to the Saw series, Gothic inspired tales reveal to us a dark and disturbing view of…ourselves.

Gothic villains seem to resemble the darkest parts of us and of our society, and the heroes are no better: they're just as flawed and seemingly vulnerable as the rest of us.

Bottom line: Gothic literature serves a mirror. A warbled, dusty, cracked mirror, yes—but a mirror nonetheless. The reason why the monsters seem unstoppable? Why they're always one step ahead? Why they tap right into our nightmares?

It's because they're basically just an extension of ourselves.

Uplifting, right?

Gothic Literature Resources


Sublime Anxiety: The Gothic Family and the Outsider
What do students at the University of Virginia have to say about the Gothic? Check out their virtual exhibit to find out.

Norton: Romantic Period
Need a quick tour around the Gothic? Norton's your guide.

A Gothic Literary Timeline
Lots of good information on what was happening when in a quick-glance format.

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