What are the characteristics of gothic fiction?

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The novelist Horace Walpole is essentially the founder of Gothic fiction. With his novel The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, came the infiltration of Gothic novels into everyday life. Jane Austen satirized Gothic fiction in her novel Northanger Abbey (1817). In it the heroine, Catherine Morland, entertains...

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The novelist Horace Walpole is essentially the founder of Gothic fiction. With his novel The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, came the infiltration of Gothic novels into everyday life. Jane Austen satirized Gothic fiction in her novel Northanger Abbey (1817). In it the heroine, Catherine Morland, entertains a deep obsession with Gothic novels of the time, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. As the novel progresses, Catherine's obsession distorts her view of reality to the point that she sees even her closest friends as victims of a Gothic type of corruption.

Northanger Abbey, while a satire of the Gothic persuasion of novels, is also informative as to the characteristics of such novels, characteristics that Catherine adores. These characteristics include the following:

  • a supernatural undertone, evident in elements such as ghosts, inexplicable occurrences, a sense of pervading evil, an ancestral curse, and so on
  • a castle, often in some state of ruin
  • a curious heroine who, despite her curiosity, is prone to swooning and needing rescue
  • dungeons, crypts, labyrinths, and other structures that evoke a feeling of claustrophobia
  • extreme landscapes in the form of treacherous mountains, isolated forests, unusual storms, and otherwise
  • a passionate and secretive hero/villain whose true motives cannot be discerned and whose true identity is not known until the end of the novel
  • darkness and shadows, lack of or inadequate light, and moonlight
  • omens of death or destruction
  • tragic romances, such as that of Conrad and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto
  • events that induce terror or horror in the lives of the characters

It should be noted that Gothic fiction and horror fiction occasionally contain some of the same elements but are essentially two different genres.

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Gothic fiction is a part of the genre of gothic literature that initiated in response to the socio-political, psychological and philosophical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Castle of Otranto written in 1765 by the English writer Horace Walpole is thought to be the first gothic novel. Some of the chief characteristics of the gothic fiction are as follows:

  • Gothic fiction is known for its preoccupation with themes of ruin, chaos, death, decay, destruction, terror, torture, etc. For example, Agnes of Lewis' The Monk is chained to a wall and tortured. In The Castle of Otranto by Walpole, Conrad dies terribly before his wedding. In The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Poe, Madeline is buried into a coffin.
  • The gothic tradition rejected reason, clarity and rational thinking, and focused heavily on imagination, emotion and extreme passion. In a way, it approximates the Romantic Movement in literature.
  • An air of supernaturalism, sublimity, mysteriousness, confusion, isolation and fogginess is seen in the depiction of the setting as well as in that of the characters. The setting could be old and abandoned castles, ruined mansions or dark and gloomy caves. The huge mansion in The Castle of Otranto by Walpole and haunted castle in The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe serve as examples for this.
  • The whole work was pervaded by the fear of unknown, bizarre events and suspense. Theme of confinement or entrapment was also popular in gothic fiction. Usually, the heroine would be trapped and victimised, and seen shouting for help. For example, in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily is trapped in her evil uncle's castle.
  • Often there is a presence of dangerous villains, monsters and grotesque creatures. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is a good example of this. 
  • The work is characterised by a somber tone and vocabulary that create horror and suspense.
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