To what extent is Gothic literature characterized by a fascination with death?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question considering that everything considered "Goth" under the modern perspective is equated to death, to the dark, creepy, and supernatural. Those elements are certainly included in the overall definition of what Gothic literature encompasses, but it is certainly much more than just a fascination with death.

Historically attributed to Walpole's 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, the beginnings of Gothic literature constitutes a series of nested literary events in the 18th century where poets and writers everywhere were returning to medieval romance roots. With it, came many other manifestations of medieval romanticism that were officially listed in Burke's treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. This treatise contributed even further to the establishment and strength of the genre. The part of Gothic Literature that has to do with the obsession with death is mainly attributed to the Graveyard School of poetry. These were poets that did have a fixation with the inevitability of death, with darkness, isolation, and the human condition. Among these poets the most known include William Collins, Thomas Gray, Thomas Parnell, and David MacBeth Moir, among others.

However, even when a novel does not talk specifically about death as its central theme, it can still be deemed as "Gothic" if it reunites the following elements:

  • isolation- Think Wuthering Heights by Bronte.
  • nostalgia and longing for the past (this stems from the return to medieval romance roots in the 18th century by the first Gothics)
  • atmospheric anomalies: too much rain, too much snow. Think The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, or even "The Raven" by Poe.
  • insanity, desperation, and the inevitability of death. Think The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe.
  • the application of the supernaturalin otherwise normal situations. Think The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • the wonder of the origin of man and the human condition. Think Frankenstein¬† and¬†Dracula.¬†

Therefore, it depends on the central theme of the novel whether death will play a big part or not. It is not a necessary element, but it often colors Gothic works with a uniquely dark tone. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is no "ghostly presence", nor is anyone doomed to die. In fact, aside from the touch of the supernatural, it could have passed as a novel of fashion and homo-eroticism.

Yet, when Wilde adds the isolation of Dorian's soul, his sick, wild, erotic desires (human condition), the secret life that he leads in opium dens in the underbelly of East London, and the supernatural changes that the picture that was once painted of him begins to endure mysteriously, the novel officially has enough Gothic traits to be catalogued within this genre.