“To a warm imagination, the dubious forms that float half-veiled in darkness, afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery that the sun can shown”.
– Ann Radcliffe. The Mysteries of Udolpho. 1794
What is gothic? Is it a literary genre? A style? An intellectual movement? There are so many questions and maybe we can just find a few answers…
The Gothic has certainly allowed men and women alike to develop, transform and adapt that literary style.
Horace Walpole is known as the father of the Gothic with his novel The Castle of Otranto, which is recognised as the first gothic novel. It was first published on a 24th of December 1764. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole maintains that his novel aimed to entertain:
“Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That is not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Beliefs in every kind of prodigy were so established in those dark ages, that an author would be not faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them”.
– Horace Walpole. “Preface to the First Edition”. The Castle Of Otranto. 1764
As the preface goes on, Walpole continues defending his work.
We must remember that during the times when Walpole wrote his novel, the ideas of the Illustration and reason over imagination were starting to flourish, for this reason, the author feels the necessity of defending his work about supernatural events that occur on a castle. Later on, between 1787 and 1799 the first climax of the French Revolution was going to take place.
The Castle of Otranto was not forgotten despite the constant insistence on the rationality in literature.
It was a woman who gave shape and form to the gothic, Ann Radcliffe who will be referred as the mother of the Gothic. She published her first two novels anonymously, The Castle of Athilin (1789) and A Sicilian Romance (1790). One of her most well-known novels The Mysteries of Udolpho (1974) is also revolutionary because it included poetry and narrative. Radcliffe did not only write six gothic novels but also wrote theoretical essays which gave form to this literary genre. At the beginning of this little article, I have already quoted Ann Radcliffe referring to the importance of imagination, a crucial element in the gothic novel.
As we know, a passionated intellectual period came as a response to the French Revolution ideals of promoting reason over sentiments. I am referring to the Romanticism which took place in the eighteen century.
The gothic started to bloom with the romanticism like a red flower after a snowy day. Many romantic authors, poets and even painters created works that are considered gothic.
In time, the gothic become a complex genre with each author contributing in their own way. It continues evolving but always maintaining its characteristical spirit.
“Macabre and melodramatic, set in haunted castles or fantastic landscapes, Gothic tales became fashionable in the late eighteen century… Being extreme and sensational but powerful and psychological stories of isolation and monomania”.
– Four Gothic Novels. Oxford University Press. 1994
The gothic usually presents supernatural elements, such as fantastic characters as monsters, witches, ghosts and even vampires and werewolves.
Now, it is important to mention that not necessarily those creatures are sources of horror or terror, but sometimes they can be presented as the victims of society. This is one of the characteristics that make gothic very complex. Think of the so-called monster in Frankenstein, a novel written by Mary Shelley, first published in 1818.
The characters might not be the only supernatural element found in the gothic. It is likely that the actions narrated take place in old mysterious settings, which are usually associated with supernatural characters already mentioned. Or at least, an ordinary character might believe that supernatural events occur in places as old castles, ruined houses, forests, to name some.
The gothic is also related to the sublime, a literary term that has been trying to be defined for years. The most accepted definitions regarding the sublime in the gothic were given by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which he published on 1757; and especially the conception has been given by Ann Radcliffe in her “On Supernatural in Poetry”, written in 1826. The sublime is constantly presented in Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho when nature is described.
Additionally, in the Gothic, the sublime is associated with horror and terror. Burke and Radcliffe also discussed those terms on their already mentioned works. But it wasAnn Radcliffe, mother of the gothic, who established a distinction between those concepts.
The gothic might also include the uncanny, which, according to Sigmund Freud is something that had been long familiar becomes unknown. The uncanny, for example, can be seen in some gothic novels were the character’s psyche is explored, as in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House.
Nowadays, the Gothic does not only includes novels and poetry, but it labels a wide group of works in different formats:
“Gothic and its variations can be found ranging across creative/artistic forms of high and popular culture: poetry, drama, novels, paintings, films, television, graphic novels and video games”.
– Yang, Sharon Rose & Healey, Kathleen. “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes and Fearful Spaces – Expanding Views on the Geography of the Gothic”. Gothic Landscapes. 2016
The Gothic continues expanding its wings across different mediums, it can be present even in music. But it maintains its main characteristics.