Gothic Literature – Now to Then

A brief overview of the history of this popular genre

I’m fairly certain that most of us have watched one of the Twilight films, or read the series of novels the films are based on by Stephanie Meyer. Though I find the intense and cliché relationship between Edward and Bella somewhat hard to stomach due to its contradiction of traditionally Gothic heterosexual relations, I do believe it is the most prevalent modern Gothic novel due to the obviously gloomy setting, supernatural creatures and psychological extremes endured by Bella. These are key Gothic motifs that I am pleased to see continued into the 21st century, though the Gothic’s roots are in the archaic and distant. So, in order to truly understand the modern day teen favourites such as Twilight, Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries, lets delve into what the Gothic truly is and what it means to all of us who enjoy these perverse ‘love’ stories (a description used lightly due to the Gothic being an extension of Romanticism!)

The term ‘Gothic’ originally described a grotesque and crude style of art and architecture that was widespread in medieval Europe, being viewed as a primitive attempt to incorporate the power of wild nature into the structures of civilization. This association with wild and dangerous nature is seen within nearly all Gothic novels, such as in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847), where the wildness of the Yorkshire Moore’s symbolise the chaotic and dangerous love between Cathy and Heathcliffe. The conventions of the genre then began to develop from medieval art through later works of drama, such as in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (1606), that largely utilized supernatural apparitions and events that reflected human fears and torments. The supernatural within the Gothic is key because it takes the characters into terrifyingly unfamiliar and eerie places that reach the most extreme heights when the scenes play on the biggest human fear: fear of the unknown. This is a fact about the human psyche few modern day psychologists will dispute as it is reflected in many modern day anxieties, and is essentially embodied in the supernatural creatures constructed by human imagination: vampires, ghosts, werewolves… Freudian theory certainly views myths as an expression of repressed thought, and goes so far as to explain the fairy tale werewolf as a symbol of the danger of repressed sexuality.

‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole (1764) is regarded as the first English Gothic novel, that established the genres key conventions that were later rediscovered by authors such as Ann Radcliffe, author of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), and Matthew Lewis, author of ‘The Monk’ (1796). Perverse and dangerous kinds of sexuality are at the heart of many Gothic novels, as clearly seen in the Prince of Otranto’s obsessive and unnerving passion for the beautiful young heroine, Isabella, who remains rather feeble throughout the novel as she flees him through the gloomy medieval castle. Gothic characters are often quite one-dimensional like this, with their primary purpose to be exposed to psychological extremes that render the character in a torturous state, but importantly thrill the reader – this interpretation can be made of the character of Bella in ‘Twilight’ (2005), who in my opinion became so infatuated with Edward that there was little other purpose for her, other than to be the eyes through which the reader could fall in love with the mysterious and handsome male vampire.

I believe that the Gothics importance in the grand scheme of literature lies within how it brings together radically different times to explore contemporary issues, thus shocking the reader out of the limits of their every day life. For example, one of the most famous Gothic novels, ‘Dracula’ (1897) by Bram Stoker, is most infamous for its brilliant exploration of masculine anxieties during the Victorian fin-de-siècle: as the male characters become absorbed into pursuing the mysterious and evil Count Dracula, who covertly threatens to take away their women, patriarchy and male rivalry becomes apparent, as does once again the fear of the unknown, in the form of nationalist anxieties as the characters agonize over the threat of the powerful creature from a foreign land. Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886) focuses on male Victorian worries, but most significantly made use of the newly established Gothic motif in the 19th century, the ‘double’. The ‘double’ was a character’s sense of encountering a double of themselves, essentially an alter-ego, as Dr. Jekyll does as he transforms from a respectable gentleman into a brutal and evil half-form, Mr. Hyde. Once again, Freudian theory is useful in understanding this Gothic component by applying Freud’s concept of the uncanny, a term first coined in 1919. Its definition as the making of strange of what should be familiar (i.e. encountering something new that feels oddly familiar) is disturbing and fascinating, and thus so coherent with the Gothic.

There are countless other novels that could be discussed in relation to this genre, but I feel that to do so is to limit the fun we may find in analysing texts ourselves for thrilling Gothic conventions. So many modern day stories, films and productions contain Gothic elements that are not hard to locate if we are to seek out the effect the Gothic intends to have on us – that of provoking doubt, uncertainty, thrills and even fear. I hope that this slight insight into my favourite genre has been interesting and useful!

Thank you for reading,

Fran

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