Study Guide

Gothic Literature

Gothic Literature Themes

Themes

Terror and Horror
Terror and horror are the project of the Gothic novelist. Drawing on the work of Edmund Burke, Ann Radcliffe distinguished between the two terms, suggesting that terror grows out of suspense while horror produces disgust. In other words, a character experiences terror in the anticipation of some dreaded event; she experiences horror when the event really happens. Thus, in Radcliffe’s novels, there is an emphasis on terror and the terrible, which she creates through her long descriptions of sublime landscapes and her intimations of the supernatural. Moreover, the agonizing suspense to which she subjects her characters produces terror in both the character and the reader. However, the eventual explanation of all things supernatural relieves her reader from the experience of horror. Lewis, on the other hand, chooses horror for his novels. His prose focuses on the details of the horrible, including torture and putrefaction. In Lewis’s work, he describes in disturbing detail the physically revolting and morally decadent.

Appearance and Reality
Gothic literature often explores the muddy ground between appearance and reality. For example, in Radcliffe’s works, events often appear to have supernatural causes. However, by the end of the book, Radcliffe offers realistic explanations. Thus, in the case of Radcliffe, it is possible for the reader to distinguish by the close of the novel what is real and what is apparent. On the other hand, writers such as Lewis do not always differentiate between appearance and reality. This ambiguity leads to a dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere in the novel. Readers recognize the state: for all intents and purposes, a dream appears to be real until awakening. It is in the foggy fugue state, however, where the dreamer is unsure of what is the dream and what is the reality. In addition, other writers play with appearance and reality through the use of different narrative structures and voices....

(The entire section is 810 words.)