I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Refined Reader (7) Origins of Gothic Literature

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

I'm planning to delve into the origins of all the different book genres eventually for The Refined Reader, and decided to start off with what is probably my favorite - the Gothic genre.

So what makes a book Gothic literature?  There are several plot elements that when combined make up a classic Gothic story.  Usually they contain an innocent, virginal heroine, a menacing older man, supernatural elements like ghosts, a sinister mystery, and a forbidding setting (like an old house which may be a reason why the genre is called Gothic, since the stories are often set in houses with Gothic architecture).  The story may revolve around madness, secrets, darkness and death because it's a combination of horror, romance and suspense.

The very first Gothic work is believed to be the 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, who wanted to meld medieval romance (which he thought too fanciful) with the modern novel of the 1700s (which he thought was too realistic).  The genre progressed with such prominent works as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley to later interpretations by Edgar Allan Poe, the Brontës, and Bram Stoker.

The Gothic genre was pretty melodramatic at first, and relied heavily on shocking, provocative scenarios that often were morality lessons at it's heart.  I love the older Gothic stories because they are so dramatic and unbelievable, and I just find them so entertaining.  As the genre developed more, I think the fear and human weakness that is the root of the drama in these stories was made more effective because the focus became more on what psychologically caused the fear and our human frailties as opposed to just the action.

Gothic novels walk a line between fantasy and reality, and delve into the darker parts of human nature while still maintaining a certain amount of hope - promoting good overcoming evil.  They can be compelling and captivating - especially for a dark and stormy night.

Do you have a favorite Gothic novel or story?  

UC Davis

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  1. Gothic novels are like my guilty pleasures. No matter how horrible they are, I still usually enjoy the atmosphere they create. I haven't read any of the older ones, though, but I'll try them sometime! :)

  2. Oh yes, I love me some Gothic stories. I don't have A Favorite, but just read Carmilla a few weeks ago and LOVED it :)

  3. Same for me! It's just fun to imagine yourself in such a forbidding setting sometimes. And Gothic novels aren't as scary and nightmare-inducing as horror stories. I really like Ann Radcliffe if you need a recommendation! :)

  4. Carmilla is a great read! I have been meaning to read more Le Fanu because of it, but haven't gotten around to it yet sadly. You just pushed me to try to fit it in sooner! :D

  5. I have to admit that Gothic isn't my favorite genre. But this is a great look closer at it and the specific elements. I like seeing the genre from your point of view - the strengths it has and what makes it interesting :)

  6. Oh I understand - the fact that it can be so outlandish sometimes could be a turn-off! But I'm glad to have helped you understand my appreciation of it! Your comment made me very happy! :)

  7. I love Gothic too... I just wish I knew of more books to read with that theme. If you have one you want to read let me know! We could read it together.

  8. I cant say gothic novels have been a favorite of mine. The ones I think might apply that I have read include Dracula, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. I enjoyed them, but they weren't favorites. I appreciate this post a lot though, and you sure make me excited to try Gothic novels again. I can't wait to see what other topics you will cover!

  9. Oh awesome! That would be fun! Maybe The Italian by Ann Radcliffe? My first thought was The Haunting of Hill House but I checked on Goodreads and I saw you already read that one! :) I need to read that soon!

  10. Oh two of those are favorites for me. :) Jane Eyre and Dracula (I mean I liked Wuthering Heights, but it's a difficult book to really love!) I'm glad that you enjoyed the post though - maybe some later Gothic stuff like Poe would appeal more to you?

  11. I really love Dracula in particular. I've studied it at school a few times over the years and I never get bored of going over it. Turn of the Screw is another really great text.

    I love the darker tones you find in gothic lit. Also, the scenarios in gothic lit can sometimes be so over the top that you can't help but smile despite the horror elements. Which is good because otherwise the deep issues they deal with could become overwhelmingly bleak, It helps that good more often than not wins out in the end. I always love how Oscar Wilde writes that 'there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book' and yet The Picture of Dorian Gray has such strong moral messages in it.

  12. Oh yes, Dracula is an awesome book! I really love the atmosphereic tension of Turn of the Screw though I was disappointed by the ending.

    All great points! Hmm, and yes Dorian Gray does have alot of morality to it - it seems like Gothic lit puts a strong emphasis on morality oftentimes - I wonder if Wilde added that to conform to the norm - both in Gothic lit and to society of the time. But I think the story of Dorian Gray is better for it - at least I would not be as invested in the character if there wasn't a redemptive side to it.

  13. Kristine Rosiana Faith RochestMay 24, 2014 at 12:52 AM

    I really, really (x1000) love the Brontë interpretation of Gothic literature :D (Though one could reasonably argue that Brontë novels don't quite fit into one genre....The Professor and Agnes Grey, for example, show little of the conventions of the gothic novel)
    However, for earlier pillars of the Gothic genre, I am much more ambivalent. But I had far too much fun reading books like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho to truly hate them. Kind of like Twilight. I actually think of Ann Radcliffe as the 19th century version of Stephanie Meyer, though at least Bella doesn't faint every 10 pages. ;)
    And now that I read your post, I've realized I've never actually read Frankenstein or anything by Edgar Allan Poe, so I'll be adding those to my to read list. And maybe reread Dracula too :)

  14. I'm sure you know I feel the same as you on the Brontë interpretation! I don't love all Gothic literature, but I usually really enjoy reading all of them, so I think that is why it is my favorite genre. I already know they will be good reads for me.

    Interesting point about Stephenie Meyer! That might be the main reason why I love the Twilight books then - they have some of the same conventions as Gothic lit. This is kind of a big breakthrough for me! :D Totally could have used that argument when I was explaining to a friend why I like the series!

    Frankenstein was ok, but I love Poe, so yes you should read him - his short stories are so good! :)

  15. I just got so excited when I saw the title of this post! I LOVE Gothic novels! They're just so much fun. I read The Castle of Otranto for a British lit class and actually laughed out loud when I read that Walpole thought the romances were too fanciful. I love it, but that book is pretty bizarre. I mean, a giant helmet falls out of the sky and squishes a guy! I also love love love Northanger Abbey, though, because it takes the tropes of the Gothic and turns them on their heads and makes fun of them--though I really want to read The Mysteries of Udolpho because of it!

    Such a great post Charlene!! :D

  16. More proof you have awesome taste! I didn't know you were such a fan of Gothic novels! :) The Castle of Otranto is really fun (and weird) - and it's so interesting that this one guy started a whole new genre. Northanger Abbey is fun too (but of course you understand my love of the adaptation -probably more than the book.) I really enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho too - so I hope you read it soon and then you can pretend to be Catherine Morland. :D I need to go and read more Ann Radcliffe!