Many historians and scholars attribute the rise of the Gothic as a response to the prevailing mode of rational thought and reason. Indeed, eighteenthcentury thought was dominated by an intellectual movement called the enlightenment by later historians. Enlightenment philosophers and writers privileged reason and human understanding above emotions and feelings. Furthermore, the rise of experimental science during this period offered an empirical model for how one could arrive at truth.
A secular movement, the Enlightenment strove to demonstrate that knowledge could only be derived from science and natural philosophy, not from religion. Indeed, religion and spirituality, particularly Catholicism, were relegated to the realm of the “irrational.” Enlightenment philosophers steadfastly believed that only through attention to rationality, reason, and balance could humankind improve. The thinkers of the Enlightenment looked for their models to the classical period of Greece and Rome, rejecting what they saw as the “barbarism” of the medieval period.
As the eighteenth century waned, however, growing numbers of thinkers and writers began to rebel against the rationality of the Enlightenment and to produce works that privileged the irrational, emotional responses and feelings, and the uncanny. They argued that truth could not be derived from pure thought but rather could be approached through the senses. In particular, Gothic literature, art, and architecture revolted against the strict rationality of the Enlightenment. Gothic writers looked to the Middle Ages for their models. While some scholars see the rise of the Gothic as a response to the Enlightenment, there are others who argue that the Gothic is an essential part of the Enlightenment, with the Gothic providing the mirror image of the Enlightenment. In either regard, the two movements are inextricably linked in the study of the eighteenth century.
The Age of Revolutions
A second major influence on the rise of the Gothic was the military and political situation in North America and Europe. The late eighteenth century was a time of revolt and violence. In North America, the thirteen English colonies banded together and fought for independence from England. The first bloodshed of the war was at the battles of Concord and Lexington in April of 1775. In July 1776, the delegates of the First Continental...
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In Gothic literature, the setting may be the single most important device. Gothic writers generally set their novels in wild landscapes; in large, often ruined, castles; and/or in subterranean labyrinths. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the castle itself plays a major role in the novel. As Robert Kiely writes in The Romantic Novel in England, “If anything gives this novel unity and animation, it is the castle. The place itself seems sufficiently charged with emotion to require little assistance from the characters. In fact, external conditions play a larger part in determining the behavior of the characters than do their own internal motivations.” Thus, the setting itself provides as much suspense as does the plot or the characters.
In addition, Gothic writers as a rule set their novels in the distant, medieval past, in what they thought of as the “gothic period.” However, their descriptions have little to do with the medieval period as it was; rather, the settings in Gothic novels reveal much more about what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers believed about the Middle Ages than about the medieval past. For Gothic writers, the medieval past was a time of superstition and Catholicism, made exotic and eerie by monks, nuns, ghosts, and crumbling castles. Although most of the novels are set in some European landscape, others, most notably Beckford’s Vathek, have foreign locations, such as the Middle East. Again, removing the setting of the novel from contemporary locations and time periods allowed Gothic writers to infuse their works with the fear of the unknown, mysterious occurrences, and strange, unusual customs.
Diction is the choice of words and the order of words a writer chooses for his or her literary creation. Diction may be on the continuum from very informal, or low diction, to very formal, or high diction. In Gothic novels, writers opted to use somewhat archaic and formal language, particularly in dialogue. Although the word choices are not accurate representations of the speech patterns of medieval people, the diction of a Gothic novel is reminiscent of a medieval...
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Architecture and Art
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the impulse toward the Gothic affected not only literature but also architecture. William Kent (1686–1748) was perhaps the best-known landscape designer and architect of the time, and he helped rich landowners design and build elaborate buildings and landscaping. These designs included mock towers, castles, and abbeys constructed to look as if they had been built in the Middle Ages and had since fallen into ruin. David Stevens, in The Gothic Tradition, reports that Kent “even went so far as suggest ‘planting’ dead trees to present an appropriately ghoulish effect.”
Likewise, a number of artists of this time, including Spanish artist Francisco de Goya and English poet and engraver William Blake, produced works that visually represent the Gothic. In particular, Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” drawn in 1799, has been called by Richard Davenport-Hines in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin “perhaps the most important single image for the historian of the gothic.”
In addition to the eighteenth-century Gothic writer Brown and nineteenth-century writer Poe, American writers have embraced the Gothic in a variety of forms. Hawthorne’s “family romances” that include The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables demonstrate that writer’s...
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Compare and Contrast
1770–1820: Revolutions in North America and France cause changes in systems of government.
Today: Breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 continues to cause widespread shifts and changes in government structures in Europe.
1770–1820: The French Revolution produces the Reign of Terror, a period of great violence, bloodshed, and uncertainty.
Today: Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, cause great loss of life, destruction, and uncertainty.
1770–1820: Growing interest in the supernatural, the irrational, and the terrifying is evidenced by novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, and Frankenstein.
Today: Growing interest in the supernatural, the irrational, and the terrifying is evidenced by the popularity of writers such as Stephen King, television programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X–Files and suspense films such as The Sixth Sense.
• 1770–1820: Romantic writers and philosophers privilege feelings and emotions as legitimate ways of knowing; they also locate truth in beauty.
Today: Postmodernist writers and philosophers suggest that all reality is no more than language and that ultimate truth is impossible to locate.
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Topics for Further Study
Many critics suggest that the Gothic continues to influence contemporary art and literature, primarily through the media of film and video. Consider Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, various film adaptations of Frankenstein, and a selection of films based on Stephen King’s books. How do these works reflect the basic characteristics of Gothic literature? How do twentiethand twenty-first-century representations transform the idea of the Gothic prevalent in earlier centuries?
Read selections from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, and then connect Burke’s ideas to one Gothic novel. How do Burke’s ideas find expression in the novel you select? Be sure to...
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The Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, published in December 1764, is universally regarded as the first Gothic novel. Set in some undefined medieval past, the novel draws on heroic romance as well as legends and folklore. In this one novel, Walpole established virtually every convention of Gothic literature. These include the Gothic castle, a presence so real as to nearly be a character in and of itself. He also uses gloomy weather, clanking chains, midnight bells, and subterranean passageways. The story is a strange one: Manfred, Prince of Otranto, has one son, Conrad. On the eve of Conrad’s marriage to the lovely Isabella, a huge antique helmet falls on Conrad and crushes him. Manfred...
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The Best of Gothic Horror is a collection of abridged novels and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mary Shelley recorded on audio tape by Countertop Audio and released in June 2000.
A film of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was produced in 1928 and directed by Jean Epstein. A second film adaptation of the story starred Vincent Price and was directed by Roger Corman in 1960. Both versions are available on videotape.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, was released in 1994. The film claims to be a much closer rendition of Shelley’s novel than the earlier film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale...
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What Do I Read Next?
The Days of the French Revolution (1999) by Christopher Hibbert offers an excellent and readable introduction to the important historical event. Hibbert often uses vignettes of people’s lives and events to bring to life the historical detail.
David Blayney Brown’s Romanticism (2001) in the Art and Ideas series focuses on European artists during the years 1775–1830, connecting radical new ideas about art to the larger social and political scene of the day. An important consideration for any student is how the Gothic fits within the larger scope of the Romantic movement in art, literature, and music.
A readable and thorough biography of Edgar Allan Poe is Jeffrey Meyer’s Edgar Allan...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beckford, William, Vathek: An Arabian Tale, in Three Gothic Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Dover Publications, 1966, pp. 109–253.
Bernstein, Stephen, “Form and Ideology in the Gothic Novel,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 18, 1991, pp. 151–65.
Birkhead, Edith, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance, Russell & Russell, 1963.
Botting, Fred, The Gothic, Routledge, 1996.
Brooks, Peter, “Virtue and Terror: The Monk,” in English Language History, Vol. 40, 1973, pp. 249–63.
Brown, David Blayney, Romanticism, Art and Ideas series, Phaidon Press, 2001.
Castle, Terry, “The...
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