When and why did Gothic Literature originate and what is gothic literature?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764) originated in a dream, according to its author, Horace Walpole. Indeed, the narrative does contain a certain dreamlike quality and free play of the imagination.

Gothic literature is characterized by elements that have always intrigued people. After all, there is always something about the darker side of man that arouses curiosity.

The setting is a castle
(Walpole explored and took notes on Gothic cathedrals and castles that he explored on summer tours.)
Sometimes the setting is an old mansion. These buildings are both a physical and a psychological presence. Architecture becomes an embodiment of fate.

An atmosphere of mystery and oppression
This atmosphere emphasizes the powerlessness of the characters as they are manipulated by forces that they are unable to fully comprehend. Images often appear and sounds are emitted. Winds blowing curtains mysteriously create visual effects of mystery.

Supernatural happenings or inexplicable events
Ghosts appear, and inanimate objects seem to move. In Poe's story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," for instance, the house makes sounds.

Women threatened by a tyrannical male
The main female character may be forced to do something that she does not want to do or marry someone she does not love.

The metonymy of horror and gloom
Often an object or condition that is related to something is used in its place. For example, doors creak and open, suggesting a ghost passing. Other examples are thunder and lightning, footsteps approaching, baying of dogs in the distance, clanging chains, and ominous weather, namely, rain, wind, and lightning.

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gothic literature, like romantic literature, was at least in part a reaction against neoclassicism.  In fact, Gothic literature is a form of Romanticism.  It was popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, just like Romanticism.  Gothic novels are usually set in castles, monastaries, spooky old mansions.  They also usually involve ghosts or some form of the supernatural.  They involve mystery and terror and the grotesque.  The world of the Gothic is usually warped in some way. 

The word was originally, at least as far as I know, applied to Medieval architecture.  According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, the word was therefore associated with superstition and became the term applied to novels we now call Gothic. 

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are classic examples from England, and Poe is an American Gothic writer.  Also, in America, Southern Gothic became popular in the 20th century.  Writers like Faulkner and Welty made it popular.  Though Southern Gothic writers no longer set their stories in castles, etc., the mystery and terror, and particularly the grotesque, connect this offshoot to the original.  

kc4u | Student

Why is a difficult question, but in English literature at least, Gothicism came as an offshoot of Romanticism in the early 19th century before the commencement of the Victorian era. Authors like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole began the trend with texts like Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto. M.G. Lewis's The Monk was another important text, that was more psychological than the more outward looking horror that we see in the other two.

Gothic literature took off from the mysteriously spaciously Gothic architectonics of remote and grand castles and the element of horror was inextricably related a place of such kind.

Later on authors like Edgar Poe used the genre in a purely psychological way and even in contemporary literature, we see the Gothic trope being used to connote existential horror. Beckett's late plays (like Footfalls) are an example.

As for the 'why', perhaps what Edmund Burke noted in his short text on the 'Sublime', the Gothic form had a curious appeal in terms of weaving a beauty of the unpleasant, the horrifying and even the grotesque. It had and still has a powerful impact on the human senses. Austen's Northanger Abbey remains a classic burlesque of the Gothic novel.