The Gothic novel came into vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, beginning with Horace Walpole's novel "The Castle of Otranto," which was published in 1764. Perhaps the most famous of all original Gothic novels is Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho." Today, the word Gothic has come largely to represent something that is sensational, dark and related to the supernatural. Many things that were exciting and new in the first Gothic novels have now become stereotypes.
Emphasis on the Supernatural
Gothic novels are pervaded with a sense of mystery. There are often prophecies, omens, ancestral curses and visions. Sometimes ghosts appear or inanimate objects move. In some novels these events are eventually explained, but in others they remain truly supernatural. There is also an inclination to the bizarre and sensational. Plots may include incest or devil worship. Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is an example of a supernaturally-inspired Gothic novel.
Most characters in Gothic novels appear to be under the sway of very strong emotions. Terror, shock and grief are common, along with long, emotional speeches. The female characters especially may faint, cry or scream on a regular basis. Love scenes are written with equal sentimentalism and strong language. In Gothic literature the weather is often used to convey emotion or a sense of foreboding. For instance, in the novel "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, a lightning bolt strikes a tree as a symbol of divine wrath against potential bigamy.
There are certain elements of plot that are common among Gothic writers. Most Gothic stories are set in a castle or at the least a large and rather frightening house, preferably with a dungeon or secret passages. Outside, extreme and rugged terrain emphasize the sense of wildness and loneliness. Another common plot device is a woman in distress and menaced by powerful and immoral men. The women of Gothic literature are rarely strong minded and spunky; rather, they are virtuous, curious, sensitive and always alone in the world.
Examples of Gothic Literature
Although the true Gothic novels have long died out, they left a lasting impression on writers for decades and centuries to come. Writing in the late 18th century, Jane Austen wrote her novel "Northanger Abbey" as a way of spoofing the Gothic novels popular at that time. Examples of mainstream literature influenced by the Gothic include the writings of Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" and other books. Romantic poets like Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron and John Keats wrote narrative poems that are Gothic in style. Even more modern writers like William Faulkner and Truman Capote are thought to be influenced by the Gothic.