History of Gothic Literature

Grace Chalhoub, Staff Writer

During the 1700’s, the Enlightenment, a philosophical and literary movement emphasizing reason and science, took root in Europe, permanently altering European views on religion, art and philosophy. While the movement inspired social reforms and scientific and literary advancements, many artists found the Enlightenment stifling, placing too much value on rationalism, and disregarding passion and emotion. Beginning in the latter half of the 18th century, some artists started fighting back, especially in England and Germany, ushering in new literary movements: Romanticism, a movement that emphasized emotion, nature and individuality (as opposed to the social and political focuses of Enlightenment literature), and its related movement, Gothicism, which retained many of the tenets of Romanticism but with an extra emphasis on gloom, death and violence. Whether Gothicism is a subset of Romanticism or Gothicism served as a precursor to Romanticism is unclear, but their relationship is still very strong, and Romanticism gained popularity on Gothicism’s heels.

In 1764, novelist Horace Walpole published “The Castle of Otranto,” which is now generally regarded as the first Gothic novel. The book’s story involving a haunted castle, a mysterious prophecy and the fight between good and evil frightened readers across Europe, making the book an international success.

Several years after the publication of “The Castle of Otranto,” Romanticism gained momentum. In 1770, the English poet Thomas Chatterton began publishing his Romantic poetry at eleven years old, a feat that amazed readers and inspired writers across England. But one of the most enduring Romantic works was published in Germany in 1774: “The Sufferings of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, adhering to common romantic principles, embracing the beauty of nature and trials of passion and excessive emotion. Germany was heavily impacted by this early work of Romanticism–the novel inspired something of an 18th-century fandom, in which Werther-related products such as perfumes were marketed to fans and young men began dressing as Werther had in the book. The novel, in which the tortured Werther commits suicide at the end, also prompted what sociologists later dubbed the “Werther effect,” alternatively known as copycat suicide, as Germany saw a sudden, sharp increase in the suicides of young men. The cult-like adoration for the novel would change the course of Romantic literature and beyond.  

In the 1790’s, Ann Radcliffe, one of the most influential Gothic writers, benefited off the boost of Romanticism and published the bulk of her works, including the influential “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and “The Italian.” In the early 1800’s, few poets were more popular than the impetuous celebrity Lord Byron, a Romantic poet who worked alongside Gothic writer Mary Shelley and, due to his dangerous personality and sexual charm, served as an inspiration to John William Polidori’s vampire Lord Ruthven in his short story “The Vampyre,” forever changing the vampire myth in literature and pop culture.  

While Gothicism saw a decline at the beginning of the 19th century, some of the most enduring and socially impactful Gothic works were written during this period, including Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” warning against the hubris of man; Jane Austen’s Gothic parody “Northanger Abbey,” criticizing societal disdain towards novels; Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid short stories and poetry, disparaging European class structure; and “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which became one of the first mass produced books in American history.

In the late years of the 19th century, nearing the end of the Victorian period, Gothic works experienced an unexpected surge, as the Gothic novel attained new meanings in the face of Victorian social constraints and the rise of industrialization. Within the span of 13 years, some of the most famous Gothic novels known to modern audiences were published, including  “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, and “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. These Victorian writers used the Gothic novel as a platform to criticize the rampant hypocrisy of Victorian society. Some writers even got away with their criticisms, perhaps because they could hide what the Victorians would have viewed as inappropriate themes behind a seemingly trivial horror story (however, some writers were ruthlessly attacked by critics for their books’ content, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde). As well as social commentaries, the books were literary achievements. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is sometimes considered a precursor to magical realism, and “The Turn of the Screw” is deeply psychological, employing an unreliable narrator to deliver a “ghost” story, which at the time was a very uncommon literary device.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, the American South saw the rise of Southern Gothicism, with proponents including William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, all of which altered the European motifs of haunted castles and cathedrals to fit the characteristics of the American South, demonstrating Gothicism’s versatility. Throughout the 20th-century, film and franchises adopted Gothic motifs, whether in horror blockbusters, bestselling novels such as “Twilight,” and even in food brands, seasonally adopting Frankenstein-themed cereals and Dracula-inspired candies. Despite its origins over 250 years ago, Gothicism has served as an inspiration to and continues to inspire literature, art, film, fashion and pop culture.  

Works Cited

https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Sorrows-of-Young-Werther https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ron/1997-n5-ron417/005742ar/