Gothic literature first appeared in the late 18th century, and became one of the first literary genres to inspire broad popular enthusiasm. Though the first examples were fiction, poets also incorporated gothic elements, and the genre remained prevalent throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. For those who wish to study gothic literature -- or try their hand at composing it -- 10 elements appear as hallmarks of the form.
Fascination With the Past
Gothic writers romanticized the past, particularly the medieval era. Castles often feature prominently, as in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto.” This gothic fascination with the past also manifested in historical settings, such as the early 18th century Scotland of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels.
Supernatural elements also feature prominently in gothic literature. M.R. James' gothic ghost stories, published in the early 20th century, can be seen as a reaction against the rise of technology and science. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with its ghostly ship, showcases the supernatural in gothic poetry.
Emphasis on Sexuality
In the chaste Victorian era, Gothic literature provided an outlet for the exploration of sexuality. This appears in the trope of the doomed romance, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” or in the appearance of a demonic lover figure, such as the bloodthirsty vampire in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
Many of gothic literature’s most influential works make heavy use of horror elements. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” with its graveyards, gloomy castle and iconic monster, became a bestseller upon its first single-volume publication. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” also provide examples of gothic horror.
Themes of madness and emotional distress characterize the psychological emphasis of gothic literature. As the genre matured into the 20th century, writers began to portray the internal horror of psychosis, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” which examines the psychology of guilt, stands as an earlier example of this tendency.
Exotic settings featured in some of the earliest gothic works, and remained a key element throughout the genre’s history. William Bedford’s “Vathek,” set in the Middle East, helped popularize Orientalism, a 19th century fascination with Arabic and Asian cultures.
The development of gothic literature paralleled that of the novel as art, and reached its apogee in the first half of the 20th century. Gothic literature contains experimental techniques such as shifting narrators and literary tableaux. Shifting narrators -- such as those in William Faulkner’s Southern gothic “As I Lay Dying" -- give different perspectives on the plot. A literary tableaux -- a description of a static scene -- can establish mood or convey symbolism.
The Gothic Hero
Gothic literature popularized the notion of the anti-hero, a flawed protagonist who incorporates dark or monstrous elements. Lord Byron featured gothic heroes in many of his works, including “Childe Harold” and “Manfred.” Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” contains a prominent gothic hero in Heathcliff.
Repeated Use of Motifs
Many examples of gothic literature contain similar motifs, or devices that convey a thematic impact. The motif of the doppelganger, characters that reflect the duality of human nature, appears notably in Stevenson’s "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The dream motif, in which dream sequences can convey the subconscious, also features in gothic literature. “Frankenstein” contains a notable example in Victor’s dream of his lover, Elizabeth.
Since its first appearance in the late 18th century, gothic literature made heavy use of symbolism to explore themes of human experience. Often, the supernatural elements, such as the veiled and bloody nun in Matthew Lewis’ 1796 “The Monk,” convey the hidden terrors contained in human nature. Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray,” published a century later, accomplishes this same feat with the symbolism of the namesake painting.