The Gothic Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The gothic novel is a living tradition, a form that enjoys great popular appeal while provoking harsh critical judgments. It began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), then traveled through Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,Edgar Allan Poe,Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and many others into the twentieth century, where it surfaced, much altered and yet spiritually continuous, in the work of writers such as William Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, John Gardner (1933-1982), Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Lessing and in the popular genres of horror fiction and some women’s romances.

The externals of the gothic, especially early in its history, are characterized by sublime but terrifying mountain scenery; bandits and outlaws; ruined, ancient seats of power; morbid death imagery; and virgins and charismatic villains, as well as hyperbolic physical states of agitation and lurid images of physical degradation. Its spirit is characterized by a tone of high agitation and unresolved or almost-impossible-to-resolve anxiety, fear, unnatural elation, and desperation.

The first gothic novel is identifiable with a precision unusual in genre study. Walpole (1717-1797), the earl of Orford, began writing The Castle of Otranto in June, 1764,; he finished it in August and published it in an edition of five hundred copies in early 1765. Walpole was a historian and essayist whose vivid and massive personal correspondence remains essential reading for the eighteenth century background. Before writing The Castle of Otranto, his only connection with the gothic was his estate in Twickenham, which he called Strawberry Hill. It was built in the gothic style and set an architectural trend, as his novel would later set a literary trend.

Walpole did not dream of what he was about to initiate with The Castle of Otranto; he published his first edition anonymously, revealing his identity, only after the novel’s great success, in his second edition of April, 1765. At that point, he no longer feared mockery of his tale of a statue with a bleeding nose and mammoth, peregrinating armor, and an ancient castle complete with ancient family curse. With his second edition, he was obliged to add a preface explaining why he had hidden behind the guise of a preface proclaiming the book to be a “found manuscript,” printed originally “in Naples in the black letter in 1529.” The reader of the first edition was told that The Castle of Otranto was the long-lost history of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. The greater reading public loved it, and it was reprinted in many editions. By 1796, it had been translated into French and Spanish and had been repeatedly rendered into dramatic form. In 1848, the novel was still active as the basis for successful theatrical presentations, although the original gothic vogue had passed.

Close upon Walpole’s heels followed Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin. These three authors, of course, were not the only imitators ready to take advantage of the contemporary trend (there were literally hundreds of those), but they are among the few who are still read, for they made their own distinctive contributions to the genre’s evolution. Radcliffe (1764-1823) was born just as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was being published. She was reared in a middle-class milieu, acquainted with merchants and professionals; her husband was the editor of The English Chronicle and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She lived a quiet life, was likely asthmatic, and seems to have stayed close to her hearth. Although she never became a habitué of literary circles and in her lifetime only published a handful of works, she is considered the grande dame of the gothic novelists and enjoyed a stunning commercial success in her day; she is the only female novelist of the period whose work is still read.


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The Castle of Otranto

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Castle of Otranto, emphatically not historical gothic, takes place in a fantasy past. It is not of the school of terror either; although it resolves its dilemmas in a human fashion, it does not rationally explain the supernatural events it recounts. This earliest of the gothics trembles between horror and terror.

The story opens with Manfred, Prince of Otranto, ready to marry his sickly son, Conrad, to the beautiful Isabella. Manfred, the pattern for future gothic villains of towering egotism and pride, is startled when his son is killed in a bizarre fashion. The gigantic statuary helmet of a marble figure of Alphonse the Good has been mysteriously transported to Manfred’s castle, where it has fallen on and crushed Conrad.

Manfred precipitously reveals that he is tired of his virtuous wife, Hippolita, and, disdaining both her and their virtuous daughter, Mathilda, attempts to force himself on the exquisite, virginal Isabella, his erstwhile daughter-in-law elect. At the same time, he attempts to blame his son’s death on an individual named Theodore, who appears to be a virtuous peasant lad and bears an uncanny resemblance to the now helmetless statue of Alfonso the Good. Theodore is incarcerated in the palace but manages to escape. Theodore and Isabella, both traversing the mazelike halls of Otranto to escape Manfred, find each other, and Theodore manages to set Isabella free. She finds asylum in the Church of St. Nicholas,...

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The Mysteries of Udolpho

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho presents apparently unnatural behavior and events but ultimately explains them all. Not only will the sins of the past be nullified, but also human understanding will penetrate all the mysteries. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, the obligatory gothic virgin is Emily St. Aubert; she is complemented by a virginal male named Valancourt, whom Emily meets while still in the bosom of her family. When her parents die, she is left at the mercy of her uncle, the villainous Montoni, dark, compelling, and savage in pursuit of his own interests. Montoni whisks Emily away to Udolpho, his great house in the Apennines, where, desperate for money, he exerts himself on Emily in hopes of taking her patrimony while his more lustful, equally brutal friends scheme against her virtue. Emily resists, fainting and palpitating frequently. Emily’s propensity to swoon is very much entrenched in the character of the gothic heroine.

Emily soon escapes and, sequestered in a convent, makes the acquaintance of a dying nun, whose past is revealed to contain a murder inspired by lust and greed. Her past also contains Montoni, who acquired Udolpho through her evil deeds. Now repenting, the nun (née Laurentini de Udolpho) reveals all. The innocent victim of Laurentini’s stratagems was Emily’s long-lost, virtuous aunt, and Udolpho should have been hers. Ultimately, it will belong to Emily and Valancourt.

This novel...

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The Monk

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Lewis’s The Monk concerns a Capuchin friar named Ambrosio, famed throughout Madrid for his beauty and virtue. He is fervent in his devotion to his calling and is wholly enchanted by a picture of the Virgin, to which he prays. A young novice of the order named Rosario becomes Ambrosio’s favorite. Rosario is a beautiful, virtuous youth, as Ambrosio thinks, but one night Ambrosio perceives that Rosario has a female breast, and that “he” is in fact “she”: Mathilda, a daughter of a noble house, so enthralled by Ambrosio that she has disguised herself to be near him.

Mathilda is the very image of the picture of the Virgin to which Ambrosio is so devoted, and, through her virginal beauty, seduces Ambrosio into a degrading sexual entanglement that is fully described. As Mathilda grows more obsessed with Ambrosio, his ardor cools. To secure him to her, she offers help in seducing Antonia, another virginal beauty, Ambrosio’s newest passion. Mathilda, the madonna-faced enchantress, now reveals that she is actually a female demon. She puts her supernatural powers at Ambrosio’s disposal, and together they successfully abduct Antonia, although only after killing Antonia’s mother. Ambrosio then rapes Antonia in the foul, suffocating stench of a charnel house in the cathedral catacombs. In this scene of heavy breathing and sadism, the monk is incited to his deed by the virginal Antonia’s softness and her pleas for her virtue. Each tear excites him further into a frenzy, which he climaxes by strangling the girl.

Ambrosio’s deeds are discovered, and he is tried by an inquisitorial panel. Mathilda reveals his union with Satan through her. The novel ends with Satan’s liberation of Ambrosio from the dungeon into which the inquisitors have thrown him. Satan mangles Ambrosio’s body by throwing him into an abyss but does not let him die for seven days (the de-creation of the world?). During this time, Ambrosio must suffer the physical and psychological torments of his situation, and the reader along with him. The devil triumphs at the end of this novel. All means of redressing virtue are abandoned, and the reader is left in the abyss with Ambrosio.

Melmoth the Wanderer

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The same may be said of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a tale of agony and the failure of redemption. The book may be called a novel only if one employs the concept of the picaresque in its broadest sense. It is a collection of short stories, each centering on Melmoth, a damned, Faust-like character. Each tale concerns Melmoth’s attempt to find someone to change places with him, a trade he would gladly make, as he has sold his soul to the devil and now wishes to be released.

The book rubs the reader’s nerves raw with obsessive suffering, detailing scenes from the Spanish Inquisition that include the popping of bones and the melting of eyeballs. The book also minutely details the degradation of a beautiful, virginal island maiden named Immalee, who is utterly destroyed by the idolatrous love of Melmoth. The last scene of the book ticks the seconds of the clock as Melmoth, unable to find a surrogate, awaits his fall into Satan’s clutches. The denouement is an almost unbearable agony that the reader is forced to endure with the protagonist. Again the horror is eternal. There will never be any quietus for either Ambrosio or Melmoth, or for the reader haunted by them. These are the molds for the gothic of damnation.

The modernization of the gothic

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The reading public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was avid for both horror and terror, as well as for supernatural history. Such works were gobbled greedily as they rolled off the presses. Indeed, the readers of the gothic may have begun the mass marketing of literature by ensuring the fortunes of the private lending libraries that opened in response to the gothic binge. Although the libraries continued after the gothic wave had crested, it was this craze that gave the libraries their impetus. Such private lending libraries purchased numerous copies of long lists of gothic works and furnished subscribers with a list from which they might choose. Like contemporary book clubs, the libraries vied for the most...

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The gothic in the twentieth century and later

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Significantly, in the contemporary gothic, reason never achieves the triumph it briefly found through the terror school. Twentieth and twenty-first century gothic tends toward the Schauer-Romantik school of horror. Either it pessimistically portrays an inescapable, mind-forged squirrel cage, or it optimistically envisions an apocalyptic release through faith, instinct, or imagination, the nonrational human faculties. For examples of both twentieth century gothic trends, it may be instructive to consider briefly William Faulkner (1897-1962), whose works are frequently listed at the head of what is called the southern gothic tradition, and Doris Lessing (born 1919), whose later works took a turn that brought them into the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Brown, Marshall. The Gothic Text. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. Scholarly examination of what it means to designate a literary work as “gothic.” Brown explicates the antecedents of and ideologies that were contemporary to the birth of gothic literature. Brown also examines definitive gothic authors and works.

Ellis, Markman. The History of Gothic Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Historical survey of the gothic novel, with analyses of the female gothic, revolution and libertinism, science and conspiracy, vampires and credulity, and zombies and the occultation of slavery.


(The entire section is 541 words.)