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...
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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...
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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 use specific examples from the text to support your claim.
Read about scientific, biological, psychological, and spiritual explanations for why humans dream. Sigmund Freud’s On Dreams might also provide you with useful information. Connecting your reading about dreams with the interior landscapes of Gothic fiction may help you understand the imagery and narrative present in many Gothic novels.
Through parody, writers reveal and mock standard conventions of a given genre. For example, the Airplane series of films renders the convention of the disaster film both visible and very funny. In her novel Northanger Abbey, eighteenth-century writer Jane Austen parodies the Gothic novels of her day....
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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 decides to put away his wife and take Isabella as his wife in order to continue his line. This is not something Isabella wants and thus begins the chase and imprisonment. In due time, readers find that the peasant Isabella encounters in the passageways is really the true heir of Otranto; the death of Conrad was in repayment for the sins of his father. It is impossible to overestimate the influence this novel has had on the course of Gothic writing. Walpole’s invention and imagination set the arc of the novel for years to come.
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous story was published in 1834, some years after the height of the Gothic movement. Nevertheless, the story is, as are many...
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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 and released in 1931, although this early version is very popular with viewers. Both are readily available on video.
An audio tape of an abridged version of The Castle of Otranto, produced by Naxos Audio Books in 1995, provides a brief introduction to the famous work that started the Gothic movement.
Professor Jack G. Voller maintains an impressive and comprehensive website at http://www .litgothic.com with research suggestions, a library of e-texts, extensive factual material, a large database, and critical articles. The site is easily navigable, reliable, and very useful for a student starting a study of the Gothic.
Professor Douglass H. Thomson of Southern Georgia University maintains a site at...
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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 Poe (2000). This book concentrates on the events and details of Poe’s life rather than offering a critical history of his works. As such, it is an important companion piece to studies of Poe’s works.
Evil Image: The Literary Art of Terror from Daniel Defoe to Stephen King (1981), edited and introduced by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, is a compilation of Gothic short fiction and poetry from the past two hundred years. The book is an excellent start for students who want to read a wide variety of Gothic literature in a short period of time.
Three Gothic Novels (1966), edited by E. F. Bleiler, contains the texts of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Vathek by William...
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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 Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho,” in The New Eighteenth Century, edited by Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum, Methuen, 1987.
Clemens, Valdine, The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from “The Castle of Otranto” to “Alien,” State University of New York Press, 1999.
Davenport-Hines, Richard, Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
Doody, Margaret Anne, “Desert Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel,” in Genre, Vol. 10, 1977, pp. 529–73.
Fowler, Alastair, A History of English Literature, Harvard University Press,...
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