A Brief Introduction to Gothic Literature

Elements, Themes, and Examples from the Gothic Style

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what is gothic literature

  • Ph.D., English Language and Literature, Northern Illinois University
  • M.A., English, California State University–Long Beach
  • B.A., English, Northern Illinois University

The term Gothic originates with the architecture created by the Germanic Goth tribes that was later expanded to include most medieval architecture. Ornate, intricate, and heavy-handed, this style of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary genre, one that concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition. While there are several notable precursors, the height of the Gothic period, which was closely aligned with Romanticism , is usually considered to have been the years 1764 to about 1840, however, its influence extends to 20th-century authors such as V.C. Andrews, Iain Banks, and Anne Rice.

Plot and Examples

Gothic plotlines typically involve an unsuspecting person (or persons)—usually an innocent, naive, somewhat helpless heroine—who becomes embroiled in complex and oftentimes evil paranormal scheme. An example of this trope is young Emily St. Aubert in Anne Radcliffe’s classic Gothic 1794 novel, "The Mysteries of Udolpho," which would later inspire a parody in form of Jane Austen ’s 1817 "Northanger Abbey."

The benchmark for pure Gothic fiction is perhaps the first example of the genre, Horace Walpole’s "The Castle of Otranto" (1764). Although not a long tale in the telling, the dark, its oppressive setting combined with elements of terror and medievalism set the bar for an entirely new, thrilling form of literature.

Key Elements

Most Gothic literature contains certain key elements that include:

  • Atmosphere : The atmosphere in a Gothic novel is one characterized by mystery, suspense, and fear, which is usually heightened by elements of the unknown or unexplained.
  • Setting : The setting of a Gothic novel can often rightly be considered a character in its own right. As Gothic architecture plays an important role, many of the stories are set in a castle or large manor, which is typically abandoned or at least run-down, and far removed from civilization (so no one can hear you should you call for help). Other settings may include caves or wilderness locales, such as a moor or heath.
  • Clergy: Often, as in "The Monk" and "The Castle of Otranto," the clergy play important secondary roles in Gothic fare. These (mostly) men of the cloth are often portrayed as being weak and sometimes outrageously evil.
  • The paranormal : Gothic fiction almost always contains elements of the supernatural or paranormal, such as ghosts or vampires. In some works, these supernatural features are later explained in perfectly reasonable terms, however, in other instances, they remain completely beyond the realm of rational explanation.
  • Melodrama : Also called “high emotion,” melodrama is created through highly sentimental language and instances of overwrought emotion. The panic, terror, and other feelings characters experience is often expressed in a way that's overblown and exaggerated in order to make them seem out of control and at the mercy of the increasingly malevolent influences that surround them.
  • Omens : Typical of the genre, omens—or portents and visions—often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams, spiritual visitations, or tarot card readings.
  • Virgin in distress : With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women (think Dracula). This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader's sense of pathos, particularly as these heroines typically tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

Modern Critiques

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of Gothic literature as referring to any story that uses an elaborate setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent protagonist. The contemporary understanding is similar but has widened to include a variety of genres, such as paranormal and horror. 

Selected Bibliography

In addition to "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and "The Castle of Otranto," there are a number of classic novels that those interested in Gothic literature will want to pick up. Here's a list of 10 titles that are not to be missed:

  • "The History of the Caliph Vathek" (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • "The Monk" (1796) by Mathew Lewis
  • "Frankenstein" (1818) by Mary Shelley
  • "Melmoth the Wanderer" (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • "Salathiel the Immortal" (1828) by George Croly
  • " The Hunchback of Notre-Dame " (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • "Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood" (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • " Dracula " (1897) by Bram Stoker
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Gothic Literature — Definition, Elements, and Examples

Daniel Bal

What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature focuses on the darker aspects of humanity paired with intense contrasting emotions such as pleasure and pain or love and death. A classic example of a Gothic novel is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

what is gothic literature

Gothic literature is often set around dilapidated castles, secluded estates, and unfamiliar environments.

Gothic works often includes characteristics like omens, the supernatural, and romance.

Gothic literature tends to incorporate revenge, family secrets, prophecies, psychological struggles, and "damsels in distress."

What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature emerged in Europe during the 18th century and was inspired by Gothic architecture from the Middle Ages.

Like Romanticism, the Gothic style arose as a response to the Enlightenment. Gothic writers rebelled against the Enlightenment notion of understanding the world purely through logic. Romantics believed in individualism, idealism, and emotional passion, which they felt were positive ways to live.

Gothics agreed with the same ideas, yet they suggested the outcomes of following those ideas could have darker implications. As such, Gothic literature is often also identified as Dark Romanticism.

Gothic elements

Gothic literature in English typically contains characteristics like omens, the supernatural, romance, and anti-heroes.

Gothic literature characteristics

The physical location of the setting within Gothic literature mimics or influences characters’ emotions. Since most Gothic stories are set in gloomy and foreboding places (old castles, cemeteries, dark forests, etc.) with ominous weather conditions (foggy, thunderstorms, etc.), the characters’ surroundings negatively impact them.

Writers often used omens to foreshadow future events that would disrupt the characters’ lives. These predictions came in the form of curses, nightmares, and/or visions and mostly forecast tragedy.

Plots often include supernatural elements like resurrection, spirits/ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc. Some authors attempted to explain the existence of the supernatural, while others classified it as entirely paranormal. Regardless, the supernatural entities/events provide commentary on some aspect of the human condition.

Supernatural elements in Gothic literature

Many Gothic novels incorporate a romantic relationship between the protagonist and another character. However, these relationships are often destined for doom and tragedy, highlighting the negative implications of lost love.

Villains often take the form of male characters in some position of power. Authors may present these characters as sympathetic to hide their deceptive nature.

Through exaggerated and hyperbolic emotional expressions , authors present their characters in a state of intense fear, anxiety, stress, etc. The characters often experience great emotional distress, madness, or psychosis.

The protagonist is often developed as an anti-hero . These characters drive the plot, but they often lack conventional heroic qualities. These characters were often seen as much more realistic than the typical hero/heroine.

The anti-villain is the reverse of the anti-hero. While these characters are considered villains, they often blur the line between good and evil.


Gothic authors often use a hero-villain as the antagonist. These characters are so complex that it becomes difficult to determine whether they are good or bad.

Distressed female characters tend to be characterized as the victims; their suffering from being alone or abandoned often becomes the central focus of the plot. As such, female characters become controlled by male characters who have power due to their authority or social position.

Characters experience psychological struggles that can lead to hallucinations, anxiety, and/or psychosis.

Gothic literature examples

Some of the most notable writers who incorporated Gothic elements in their works include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker:

Literary genres

what is gothic literature

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Gothic literature

What do you know.

Which famous Gothic novel was first written as an entry for a ghost story writing competition?

A. Dracula B. The Woman in Black C. Frankenstein

The answer is C. Frankenstein .

Mary Shelley was stuck inside due to bad weather whilst staying in Geneva with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori. They decided to pass the time by writing and telling ghost stories and Frankenstein was created!

Introduction to Gothic literature

Key learning points.

In order to fully understand Gothic literature, it is important to know where it came from and why it became such a popular fiction genre .

When analysing gothic texts it's important to understand the context and conventions of Gothic literature so you can apply them to the text you're reading.

Video about gothic literature

Gothic literature evokes an atmosphere of mystery, fear or terror.

The gothic genre was really popular during the 1800s with Frankenstein , Wuthering Heights and Dracula . But there were stories with Gothic elements before and there have been plenty since. So could you survive the dark world of a gothic novel?

First up, you’ll need to wrap up warm. There aren’t many tropical beaches in gothic fiction. Expect wind, rain and thunderstorms and things that go bump in the night. Night time settings appeal to reader’s instinctive fear of the dark - and under the cover of darkness things often aren’t quite as they seem.

Writers typically set their stories in abandoned or isolated locations like crumbling castles, windswept moors, places of decay and death. Places with seemingly no escape. But where there are also plenty of secrets with underground passages and hidden doors. This all adds to the sense of mystery and danger.

Typical gothic themes are the supernatural, science, revenge, religion, breaking societal norms and the battle between good and evil. These themes and impending bad fortune are often hinted at in the gothic novels through ominous warnings or symbolic omens, such as a full moon or a raven.

Gothic literature often contrasts different types of characters: victims and predators, good and evil. They are full of strange and often supernatural characters like ghosts, vampires and werewolves. Or sometimes it’s humans that seem to have something different about them, they might have special senses or abilities.

These settings, themes and characters combine to create creepy worlds and nasty narratives that send a shiver down the reader’s spine.

Eek! Good luck.

What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature is a genre of fiction which first became popular during the 18th century.

Although many of the most famous Gothic novels were written during the Victorian times, conventions of the Gothic genre are still featured in popular culture today.

The term ‘Gothic’ originates from the name of an ancient Germanic tribe (The Goths) who are thought to have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. They had a reputation for being barbaric and later a form of architecture was named after them as sort of insult.

The term Gothic first became linked to literature with Horace Walpole's 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto , later subtitled A Gothic Story . This term was probably given because of the book's medieval Gothic architecture and setting.

Gothic literature timeline

An image of a castle in dark lighting.

1764 - The Castle of Otranto: The first Gothic novel

Horace Walpole created what is considered to be the first Gothic novel. The Castle of Otranto introduced Gothic themes, locations and characters such as supernatural beings, an unfamiliar location, a dark and isolated castle and an innocent young woman fleeing from an evil man.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

1794 - The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe introduced ‘the explained supernatural’, a technique by which terrifying, apparently supernatural incidents have a logical explanation. An innocent woman goes to live with her aunt, who marries a suspicious nobleman. They are taken to live in his remote castle whilst the husband and his friend plot to gain control of the women’s wealth.

Three men stood around a metal medical bed in a laboratory, with a man with huge feet laying on the bed with his arms folded.

1818 - Frankenstein: Raising the dead

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein features many Gothic elements, including raising the dead. Due to the fact that a creature is brought to life, it is also considered to be in the science fiction genre. The use of electricity and playing with death means that it could be interpreted as a warning about the dangers of science.

An image of an overweight, smartly dressed man in dark clothes, standing over the bed where a woman in a white dress lies unconscious.

1860 - The Woman in White

This novel by Wilkie Collins includes the themes of mistaken identity, apparent insanity and that things are not always as they seem. It plays on the fear of women being locked in asylums if they were ‘in the way’ – a commonplace occurrence in the 1800s. The characters include a broken hero, an innocent female and an evil villain.

A well dressed man points excitedly and another well dress man listens, whilst a deformed hunched over man in bedraggled clothes appears from the second well dressed man.

1886 - Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson explored the nature of good and evil. The novella has the Gothic theme of the double: the contrast between good and evil in people or places. It tells the story of the ‘good’ Doctor Jekyll and the ‘evil’ Mr Hyde and the mystery of a strange transformation.

A man with dark hair and a black and white suit with a black cape leans over a woman asleep in bed.

1897 - Dracula: The iconic vampire

Bram Stoker’s famous vampire is introduced. The tale of the Transylvanian count transferred well to screen and was made into many different films, dominating our idea of how vampires look and behave. This Gothic novel includes a remote castle, supernatural beings, innocent victims and the theme of good v evil.

A man and a woman stand in an enormous room with a large fire place surrounded by a large number of unsmiling house staff.

1938 - Rebecca

The novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is told by an unnamed narrator who is the new wife of a wealthy widower. Rebecca is the name of his first wife and it becomes clear that she was loved by the staff in the house, so much so, that they try to belittle and push the narrator away. Gothic motifs include an innocent woman, an isolated mansion and dark hidden truths.

A photograph of a woman dressed in black, sat in a room surrounded by dolls

1976 - Interview with the Vampire

Writer Anne Rice (pictured) establishes the idea of the ‘sympathetic vampire'. The guilt-ridden vampire narrator Louis doesn’t like killing humans and initially only feeds on animals. The charismatic anti-hero Lestat is scared of being alone and turns a young girl into a vampire for company. Louis tells his sad tale of loneliness and immortality to a reporter who misses the point and decides that it sounds like a great lifestyle which angers Louis.

A woman from the back in a clack flowing dress and black veil.

1983 - The Woman in Black

This novel by Susan Hill is narrated by a solicitor who was sent to a secluded house to settle the will of an elderly lady. At high tide, the house is cut off from the mainland and the man experiences strange sightings of a woman dressed in black and searches for the truth behind these appearances. It features the unknown, the supernatural, a haunting, an innocent victim and is based in an isolated setting.

A picture of a man and a woman staring blankly towards the camera

2005 - The Twilight Saga

The Twilight Saga is a series of novels and one novella by the author Stephenie Meyer. This series covers many of the traditional Gothic elements together with a love story, supernatural beings, such as shapeshifters and vampires, and the theme of good v evil.

Features of the Gothic genre

Gothic literature can be recognised by its use of particular features, settings and characters.

Common conventions of the Gothic genre include the following:

Unlike horror stories, Gothic stories tend to create an atmosphere of tension and suspense for the reader using psychological techniques as opposed to relying on gore and violence to scare the reader.

For example, the novel The Castle of Otranto is set in a castle with mysterious, supernatural events and an innocent female victim.

More recently, The Twilight Saga novels have Gothic conventions like romance and supernatural creatures.

In Gothic literature, all these features and conventions can be used as symbols to suggest deeper ideas to a reader. Find out more about understanding symbolism .

Gothic settings

Many Gothic stories have similar settings.

Isolated settings

  • For example, many key scenes in Frankenstein are set in the Arctic and The Woman in Black is set in a house which is cut off from the mainland by the high tide.
  • Isolated settings might be used because it is harder to escape when supernatural things begin happening.
  • Particularly ruined castles.

For example, Count Dracula’s castle is one of the key settings in Dracula and The Castle of Otranto is (unsurprisingly) set in a castle.

  • Darkness allows for things to be hidden, which is another common feature of Gothic stories.

Most people sleep when it is dark, this links night time settings to the Gothic theme of isolation.

  • Forests can be very dark if the trees are dense.
  • It is also quite easy to get lost in a forest.
  • This is another way that characters can become isolated or trapped in Gothic stories.
  • Some stories use castles or houses with lots of corridors for a similar reason.

Gothic characters

Characters in Gothic stories often fit a particular type.

Creepy aristocrat

  • This character is often rich, usually old and almost always isolated.
  • They might be mysterious and misunderstood or evil and dangerous.

One is example is Count Dracula from the novel Dracula .

A supernatural figure

  • This character might be evil and is definitely scary.

Examples include the creature in Frankenstein and the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline .

An innocent victim

  • In early Gothic stories, this character was often a young girl, like Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho .
  • Later Gothic stories included young men in this role also.

This character might be protected by their innocence, though they will probably be in great danger.

The antihero

  • Some Gothic stories include a main character who does some things that the reader knows are wrong or bad.
  • They can’t be considered the hero of the story because of this, but they are still the main character. Therefore they become the antihero.
  • For example Dr Jekyll in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
  • These characters can be very interesting, as the reader isn’t sure whether they are good or bad.

Gothic motifs

There are some common motifs which are used in many Gothic stories.

Strange places

Just like many Gothic stories are set in isolated locations, the motif of strange places puts characters somewhere strange and mysterious.

Transition or change

  • Gothic stories often explore the consequences of change.

To help them explore this, Gothic writers use motifs of change, like changing between the past and the modern day in Celia Rees’ Blood Sinister .

Power and powerlessness

  • Many Gothic stories are about what happens when those with power misuse their power, or when those who are powerless try to fight back.

This links to the characters of the aristocrat and the innocent victim and can be shown through characters being physically or metaphorically trapped.


  • Gothic novels tend to create a feeling of uncertainty, by making the characters and the reader question what they believe and what is real.
  • This can be done through the use of isolated settings and the supernatural, but writers can also create this motif through the use of unreliable narrators, such as in The Tell-Tale Heart .

Techniques used in Gothic literature

  • An allegory is when a novel has a deeper meaning, beyond the simple events in the story.
  • Some writers use Gothic stories as allegories for developments in society at the time.
  • Through presenting Dracula as a mysterious character from Transylvania , who preys upon innocent people, it could be that Bram Stoker was commenting on the fear Western people had of Eastern cultures after the expansion of the British Empire.


  • A juxtaposition is when two different ideas are presented side by side, emphasising their contrast.
  • For example day and night or hot and cold.
  • In Frankenstein , Mary Shelley presents a juxtaposition of science and religion.
  • When Victor Frankenstein uses science to create ‘life’ he inadvertently creates a monster. His inevitable loss of control over this monster can be seen as a warning against humans turning their back on traditional religious beliefs.
  • A parody is an imitation of something using exaggeration for comedic effect.
  • As Gothic literature became more popular, parodies of the genre began to emerge.
  • One of the most well-known examples of Gothic parody is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey .
  • Austen, who is usually associated with romantic novels, decided to mock traditional Gothic conventions by exaggerating the features in her novel.

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what is gothic literature


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