Study Guide

Gothic Literature

Gothic Literature Summary

Introduction

Gothic literature, a movement that focused on ruin, decay, death, terror, and chaos, and privileged irrationality and passion over rationality and reason, grew in response to the historical, sociological, psychological, and political contexts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although Horace Walpole is credited with producing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, his work was built on a foundation of several elements. First, Walpole tapped a growing fascination with all things medieval; and medieval romance provided a generic framework for his novel. In addition, Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, offered a philosophical foundation. Finally, the Graveyard School of poetry, so called because of the attention poets gave to ruins, graveyards, death, and human mortality, flourished in the mid-eighteenth century and provided a thematic and literary context for the Gothic.

Walpole’s novel was wildly popular, and his novel introduced most of the stock conventions of the genre: an intricate plot; stock characters; subterranean labyrinths; ruined castles; and supernatural occurrences. The Castle of Otranto was soon followed by William Beckford’s Vathek (1786); Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797); Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796); Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1797); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

While it may be comparatively easy to date the beginning of the Gothic movement, it is much harder to identify its close, if indeed the movement did come to a close at all. There are those such as David Punter in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day and Fred Botting in Gothic who follow the transitions and transformations of the Gothic through the twentieth century. Certainly, any close examination of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the nineteenth century demonstrates both the transformation and the influence of the Gothic. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the ongoing fascination with horror, terror, the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night evidences the power the Gothic continues to exert.

In its attention to the dark side of human nature and the chaos of irrationality, the Gothic provides for contemporary readers some insight into the social and intellectual climate of the time in which the literature was produced. A time of revolution and reason, madness and sanity, the 1750s through the 1850s provided the stuff that both dreams and nightmares were made of.

Gothic Literature Representative Authors

William Beckford (1760–1844)
William Beckford, known as both the richest and most eccentric man of his time, was born September 29, 1760, in London, England. By all accounts, Beckford was brilliant, musically gifted, and highly artistic. He was also scandalous and hedonistic. He had no desire to follow in his father’s political or business footprints, much to his father’s dismay. Rather, young Beckford preferred to travel, write, spend money, and collect art. Because of improper relationships with his cousin’s wife, Louisa, and a young man named William “Kitty” Courtenay, Beckford was sent by his mother to the Continent to give the scandal time to die down. Indeed, young Beckford’s life followed this pattern repeatedly. He would remain in England until the scandals mounted and then would retreat to the Continent for a cooling-off period. He married in 1783 in a movement to save whatever was left of his reputation; however, his wife died in childbirth in 1785. During this time, Beckford built and rebuilt Fonthill Abbey, considered either the most amazing building or the greatest folly in England at the close of the eighteenth century. Like Horace Walpole, only much, much wealthier, Beckford indulged his passion for the Gothic and for collecting art with his domicile. Another important trait of Beckford’s was his fascination with Oriental mysticism. At an early age, he read and reread The Arabian Nights. This passion led directly to his composition of Vathek in 1786. Beckford died on May 2, 1844, at Lansdowne Crescent, after battling fever and influenza.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)
The first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 17, 1771. Although he began his education with the intent to become a lawyer, the law soon lost its appeal for him. Apparently, the task of the lawyer to defend a client whether the client was innocent or guilty bothered Brown’s sense of morality. This sense of morality often led Brown to take socially radical stances. In this, he seems deeply connected to and influenced by William Godwin. For example, Brown’s novel Alcuin (1798) explores the ambiguities of marriage and the rights of women. It is for Wieland (1798), however, that Brown earned his reputation as a Gothic writer. Considered Brown’s best novel, Wieland explores the roles of religion and rationality. Clearly, Brown’s insistence on a moral stance separates him from some of the earlier Gothic writers such as Beckford and Lewis. Nevertheless, Brown’s intense fascination with the inner workings of a character’s mind deeply influenced later writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brown died in Philadelphia on February 19, 1810, from what was believed to be tuberculosis.

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818)
Born in London on July 9, 1775, M. G. Lewis attended school in Westminster and Oxford. He traveled to Germany in 1792, where he learned to speak German. While there, he became well-acquainted with German Gothic fiction. He stated to his mother that the reading of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho inspired him to write his most famous work, The Monk, published in 1796. Tradition has it that he completed the work in ten weeks and that it instantly made him a literary star at the age of twenty. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Lewis was referred to by his contemporaries as Monk Lewis. Lewis introduced graphic horror into the Gothic genre, describing in great detail physical torture and putrefaction, as well as steamy sexual encounters. Whereas Radcliffe relied on suspense, or the fear of violence, to motivate her readers, Lewis abandons the fear of violence for the violence itself. Unlike Radcliffe, Lewis used supernatural devices without feeling compelled to offer rational explanations for uncanny events. It was through such techniques that Lewis incorporated German popular literature into the mainstream of English literature. Lewis died of yellow fever on May 16, 1818, on the...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)