What are the characteristics of gothic fiction?

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.