Sarah Gray

Gothic Roots and Conventions

In the opening pages of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Manfred, whom readers will come to recognize as a definitive Gothic villain, sends a servant to fetch his son, Prince Conrad, who is to marry the Lady Isabella; however, the servant discovers Conrad crushed to death beneath an impossibly large, black-plumed helmet. Manfred, having only this one heir and a wife incapable of bearing additional children, immediately sets upon Isabella with the aim of taking her as his own wife. In the words of Robert Spector, the ensuing events, “provided all the machinery of the [Gothic] genre; its setting, theme, and subversive subject matter remained the stock material of the Gothic whatever changes it underwent” (9). Within the first chapter, readers encounter a prophecy, the supernatural, a beautiful virgin, a dutiful, abandoned wife, a persecuted maiden, ridiculous servants, a young, handsome peasant, and a ghost, all set within the labyrinthine corridors of the eponymous castle. Carol Margaret Davison builds on Spector’s theory, pointing out how “as the vast majority of Gothic works illustrate, the component parts of this untidy and undying monster have been variously, regularly and successfully reconfigured to promote vastly different political and aesthetic ends and to speak to a broad cross-section of audiences and eras” (57). For the next several decades, authors as varied as Ann Radcliffe, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen would utilize various aspects of the genre to different ends, each manipulating Gothic’s stock elements to fit his or her unique aim.


A black and white photo of the ancient Kenilworth Castle against a stormy sky filled with birds in flight evokes the gloomy aesthetic of early Gothic fiction.
The crumbling walls of Kenilworth Castle against the backdrop of a stormy sky filled with birds in flight evokes the gloomy aesthetic of early Gothic fiction (Tillibean).

Gothic literature arose at the end of the eighteenth century during a time of social, political, and economic unrest. Thus, it was and continues to be described as a reactionary genre devoted to returning repressed societal fears to our attention so we might expel them. The period typically associated with European Gothic fiction begins with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto published in 1764 and ends with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer published in 1820. Though this time span is still used to describe the rise and “fall” of Gothic literature, the genre experienced in the 1790s a period of such vogue that it is now referred to as “the effulgence of Gothic” after Robert Miles’ study of the same name. It was during this period that the most well-known Gothic authors, including Ann Radcliffe (discussed in “Female Gothic”) and Matthew Gregory Lewis, published most of their fiction and inspired a deluge of imitations, including William Beckford’s Vathek, which became known to Gothic scholars as “The Radcliffe School” of terror or the “Lewisite” horror story.

Though Gothic fiction is most easily recognized via the formulaic plot devices and stock characters briefly mentioned above, one of its most important and often overlooked characteristics is its reliance on anachronisms to highlight the clash between “modernity” and “antiquity.” Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall explain that the purpose of anachronism in Gothic fiction is to allow the “birth of modernity” through the anachronism’s defeat and removal (278). The earliest Gothic narratives established a formula that remained largely unchanged both in England and America throughout what American Gothic scholar Donald A. Ringe refers to as the genre’s “major phase,” which roughly coincided with Miles’ “effulgence” of Gothic in England (176). Indeed, the formula became so pervasive that Eve Sedgwick produced a book-length study dedicated to examining The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. In this cornerstone critical text, Sedgwick identifies many of Gothic literature’s important features:

“An oppressive ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society. You know about the trembling sensibility of the heroine and the impetuosity of her lover. You know about the tyrannical older man with the piercing glance who is going to imprison and try to rape or murder them” (9).

Having established our knowledge of these key points, Sedgwick identifies what Gothic scholars would eventually refer to as the “laundry list” of stock elements, at least a handful of which readers are likely to encounter in any Gothic tale:

These include the priesthood and monastic institutions; sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial; doubles; the discovery of obscured family ties; affinities between narrative and pictorial art; possibilities of incest; unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable; garrulous retainers; the poisonous effects of guilt and shame; nocturnal landscapes and dreams; apparitions from the past; Faust- and Wandering Jew-like figures; civil insurrections and fires; the charnel house and the madhouse. (9-10)

Several of the items in Sedgwick’s list have already been identified just in the first chapter of Walpole’s Otranto, and many appear in Lewis’ and Beckford’s most well-known works excerpted in this textbook.

These stock elements of the Gothic combine to create a specific effect on readers. The ruined abbeys and mountainous landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, for example, exist specifically, according to S.L. Varnado, to create moments when the reader “becomes aware of an objective spiritual presence,” through “feelings of awe, mystery, and fascination” (15). This feeling, which Varnado, using Kant’s terms, calls “the numinous,” can oscillate between positive and negative aspects: awe and fear, fascination and repulsion, terror and horror. Jerrold Hogle describes the oscillation in Gothic fiction between terror and horror, stating that “the first of these holds characters and readers mostly in anxious suspense . . . while the latter confronts the principal characters with the gross violence of physical or psychological dissolution” (3). Edmund Burke’s theories of sublimity and beauty supply basic categories that critics have employed to analyze Gothic writers’ moral effects. These categories appear in discussions about the ability of terror or horror to educate readers morally in terms of much-contested claims about the moral effects of pleasurable and painful experience. Burke defines beauty as “that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it,” associating it with that which inspires love (83 and 103). He defines sublimity, on the other hand, as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,” and claims that “it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (36 and 103). Through sensations of pain and pleasure associated with experiencing the beautiful and the sublime in art and life, individuals exercise and develop their mental and spiritual capacities. Beauty, then, is associated with the pleasurable, the social, domestic, and feminine, while the sublime, with power, masculinity, danger, fear, and even delight if the danger does not threaten destruction. Thus, Burke’s ideas regarding masculine sublimity and feminine beauty underlie in part the “gendering” of the Gothic canon that occurred in twentieth-century literary criticism discussed in more depth in the next section.

Because of its presentation of “deteriorating castles, abbeys, and manor houses in foreign, usually Roman Catholic, countries” as sublime and beautiful, conservative elements of Protestant England saw Gothic fiction not only as too spectacular in its portrayal of disorder and decadence, but also too similar to Catholicism in its portrayal of superstitious and supernatural elements (Davison 93). On one hand, conservative elements denounced its involvement in a “promiscuous spread of knowledge” that would undermine social and individual safety and security by destabilizing authority and received traditions (Miles 16). The emotional content and effects of Gothic fiction and the sensational nature of its themes caused many, especially those in power, to deem the Gothic, and the arts in general, to be detrimental to society’s moral growth (Kilgour 33). On the other hand, progressive elements recognized its capacity for mounting political and cultural critiques precisely by representing the Catholic Church and divine-rights monarchy as source and symbol of all that was bad in English history.

Political and Religious Contexts

In Georgian England, the period that gave birth to Gothic literature was also the era that witnessed some of the most horrific atrocities and fantastic accomplishments in the country’s history. These events resulted in large part from the agitations arising from demands for increased individual liberty and autonomy. The American Revolution from 1765-83, the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, the Regency Crisis of 1788, the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French Revolution from 1789-99, and the Reign of Terror from 1793-94, and a rapidly advancing industrial and capitalist economy supplied crises with which the people of England dealt daily along with cultural upheavals that resulted in the categorical instability that Michael McKeon and, more recently, Ian Haywood, describe as characteristic of the preoccupations that informed eighteenth-century fiction (382-399, 139).

The period surrounding the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745, and with it the end of the threat of the re-emergence of an English Catholic monarchy, witnessed a surge in anti-Catholic sentiment which persisted in various forms. This sentiment reflected sincere identification with England’s Protestant past as well as Puritan values that ignited the Reformation and later spread to America. The widespread feeling involved distrust, among many other things, of theatricality, or any semblance of what many Protestants viewed as the Catholic Church’s idolatry of images and relics. Such fears also arose partly out of aristocratic fears that a return of Roman power would herald the loss of those establishments (abbeys and castles) which many Protestant English families had called their homes since Henry VIII’s disestablishment, as well as more widespread fears of a return to the autocratic forms of divine rights monarchy (Miles 16-17). Anti-Catholic sentiment revived and strengthened during the years of the revolutionary foreign wars, culminating, along with fears of invasion, in a pervasive conservative backlash to the events of the French Revolution. The emergence of Gothic fiction during this era is often seen as an expression of the massive dislocation and threats to security that characterized political and cultural experience during this time in the form of coded critiques of power and domination at a time when direct political critique was punished as treason.

The atmosphere in the American colonies was no less volatile as the First Continental Congress began calling for the liberation of America from England. Gothic novels and dramas from England appealed to American audiences because they provided sensationalist entertainment but also because they narrated stories of vulnerability and conflict with which the young nation could identify. Haywood notes that for immigrants and citizens, America was synonymous with “freedom and democracy which were still unobtainable in Britain” (139). However, noting the conflicts inherent in the young nation’s emergence, he also points out that American citizens “found it difficult to reconcile the image of America the pristine nation . . . with the violence of its history, the horrors of war . . . the continuing existence of chattel slavery . . . and the perilous fate of its indigenous peoples” (139-40). Instability and insecurity prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic as citizens of England and America experienced conditions of uncertainty and confusion that in themselves could only be described as Gothic.

This illustration of a young girl being threatened by a skeletal monk recalls the Gothic's preoccupation with sinister religious figures and superstition.
This illustration of a young girl being threatened by a skeletal monk recalls the Gothic’s preoccupation with sinister religious figures and superstition.

Gothic fiction and drama, then, arose within the context of profound cultural turmoil. Critics have argued a number of angles from which the Gothic may be considered, citing the influence of a steadily rising middle class in England and America as well as a need for relatively safe forms of transgression as a method of questioning laws and morality that were seen by many as oppressive and an outcome of the conservative backlash that attended the revolutions and other less violent but nonetheless turbulent changes. As Maggie Kilgour notes, “the gothic is part of the reaction against the political, social, scientific, industrial, epistemological revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which enabled the rise of the middle class” (10-11). However, Gothic fiction did more than just react to these revolutions, it also projected ideal forms of citizenship and social relations that would result in a stable society that fostered well-being. Paula Backscheider states that “to become mass art, literature must appeal enough to become popular; to do this, it must speak to the hopes and fears of its audience at a particular moment in their history even as it does what popular art always does: entertain” (166). The Gothic did precisely that, critiquing the forces that destabilized society while presenting characters who could morally uplift the world. Though novels and drama enjoyed success in the decades preceding the eighteenth century, a single genre had never before garnered so much attention in itself. From 1760 to the early nineteenth century, the Gothic novel and drama enjoyed such success that Gothic can be considered, as Backscheider does, the Western world’s first popular culture phenomenon (166).

Essential to the Gothic’s ability to obtain and sustain its audience’s attention is its involvement in defining and arguing the boundaries between morality and transgression, and conformity and subversion regarding cultural categories and individual identities. Fred Botting argues that “from the eighteenth century onwards, Gothic texts have been involved in constructing and contesting distinctions between civilization and barbarism, reason and desire, self and other” (20). One of the ways that the Gothic could safely and effectively comment on contested aspects of English society, such as politics, education, religion, gender, and class in this era of instability was to position its critiques in terms of historically and geographically distant events and locations. Openly suggesting King George III was an insane autocrat would have been treason; however, commenting on the misdeeds of a foreign government or ruler from Italy or France two centuries earlier was perfectly acceptable. The Gothic, with its seemingly stock characters and recycled scenes, is actually situated and dynamic, reflecting specific fears and uncertainties that characterize the cultural milieu from which the work arises. Davison asserts:

“Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literary history is only truly rendered comprehensible when the Gothic, a middle class and often feminized form, is positioned in its legitimate place, examined as an aesthetic development in its own right, and recognized for its exceptional and enduring contributions to literary history” (14).

Gothic fiction not only contested patriarchal gender ideals, but it also threatened patriarchal control over those ideals through its immense success as a genre. The rapidly growing female reading public, Botting suggests, starved for representations of female experiences, forced the control of literary production “away from the guardians of taste . . . much to the chagrin of those interested in maintaining an exclusive set of literary values” (47). In other words, men—especially clergymen—began to lose influence regarding the production and consumption of literary texts due to women’s increasing demand for romances. Botting points out that increased availability of all kinds of texts as a result of cheaper printing processes and the rise of circulating libraries meant that the “reading public included larger numbers of readers from the middle class, especially women,” and reflected England’s shift in cultural power from “an aristocratic and landed minority” to the middle classes (46). Despite cautionary warnings of the dangerous effects of fiction and romance by the clergy and other concerned with moral degeneration in turbulent times, the increasing ease with which women were able to obtain and read romances made it impossible to diminish what E.J. Clery describes as “the threat of female consumption of passion,” which she suggests “could only be nullified by a change in attitudes” (18). She points out that only gradually “through the early years of the nineteenth century” did romances come to be considered as “harmless escapism, unlikely to be confused with reality” (18).


A Gothic Education

An additional form of support for the Gothic arose from then-current moral theories that sought to ally art to the cause of perfectibility, an important issue during the early years of the modern liberal project that involved rationalizing power and authority after regicide and abdication, particularly by way of supporting claims to individual autonomy. Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), a judge in the supreme courts of Scotland and a prominent writer, disagreed with those who saw in fine art, including literature, threats to moral and social order. He outlined an aesthetic theory in 1761 that involved a dynamic that he called “ideal presence,” intended to impress upon the newly crowned King George III the importance of patronizing the arts, especially modern literature, for the moral and political betterment of England. Building on moral sense theories regarding sympathy and benevolence, Kames defines ideal presence as a mode of being that occurs when one experiences sublimity and beauty and thus becomes susceptible to moral improvement. He argued that “the power of fiction to generate passion is an admirable contrivance, subservient to excellent purposes” (88). Kames credits ideal presence with the power to solidify social bonds:

In appearance at least, what can be more slight than ideal presence? and yet from it is derived that extensive influence which language hath over the heart; and influence, which, more than any other means, strengthens the bond of society, and attracts individuals from their private system to perform acts of generosity and benevolence . . .  For when events are related in a lively manner, and every circumstance appears as passing before us, we suffer not patiently the truth of the facts to be questioned” (100).

He suggests, then, that art has a distinct role in producing moral effects. Robert Miles describes Kames’ concept of ideal presence as a process by which, in “our repeated surrendering to pleasurable reverie” through reading or the enjoyment of the arts, “we rehearse moral scenes: impressions are re-iterated, warmth infused, and the lesson imprinted” (15). In short, we are morally and spiritually improved through the repeated arousal of the senses that occurs when we engage with art.

Kames’s description of the effects of art, however, points out one of the main reasons that many took issue with the Gothic and with Lewis’ The Monk in particular. Their opinion was, according to Botting, that Gothic’s “style seduces readers, leads them astray and leaves them unable to distinguish between virtue and vice and thereby expel the latter” (83). At issue was whether Gothic was teaching the “right” things. Gothic novels and dramas of the eighteenth century often feature women protagonists who experience terror at the thought of being married to a villain, kidnapped, imprisoned, or even murdered. The finer distinctions regarding the moral effects of Gothic fear thus provide another important focus for scholars of the Gothic. Botting, for example, elaborates on Kames’, Radcliffe’s, and others’ ideas about terror and horror, arguing that though the terms “are often used synonymously, distinctions can be made between them as countervailing aspects of Gothic emotional ambivalence. If terror leads to an imaginative expansion of one’s sense of self, horror describes the movement of contraction and recoil” (10). Botting’s observations suggest that not only are the types of emotions that Gothic represents and elicits critical to its effects, but that it is equally important that the characters’ actions match the emotion being elicited. In other words, Gothic novels aimed at moral improvement avoid featuring a virtuous action taking place during a moment of horror, which would result in a reader’s recoil rather than imaginative expansion. Such was and is the issue with Lewis’ tale, a romance that, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale” (188).

In addition to excerpts from Lewis’ The Monk, the other novels excerpted in this section—Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Beckford’s Vathek—represent not only the evolution of Gothic literature during this period of immense popularity but also the variety authors of the genre were able to achieve while still remaining within the otherwise strict confines of a largely formulaic genre. Walpole provides in The Castle of Otranto the first complete example of a Gothic novel from which later authors, took their cues. Beckford illustrates the malleability of the genre and its ability to be employed even as a mode or aspect within a larger piece of fiction since Vathek, as Thomas Keymer describes in “poised enigmatically between multiple possibilities—from oriental fantasy to punitive fable, from arch comedy to gothic sublime” (xxix).  Finally, Lewis offers a view both of what makes Gothic literature so intriguing and so possibly dangerous while Coleridge’s review of the novel helps illustrate the fear people felt at the widespread popularity of The Monk and other Gothic tales. However diverse, in these texts, we find just a few of the seeds that would ultimately grow into the works of today’s writers of horror and psychological thrillers in both text and film.

Works Cited

Backscheider, Paula. Spectacular Politics. Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Baldick, Chris, and Robert Mighall. “Gothic Criticism.” The New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 267-87.

Botting, Fred. Gothic: The New Critical Idiom. Routledge, 1996.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Edited by Adam Phillips, Oxford UP, 2008.

Clery, E.J. Women’s Gothic: from Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley. 2nd ed., Northcote House, 2004.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Review of The Monk (1797).” Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook, 1700-1820, edited by E.J. Clery and Robert Miles, Manchester UP, 2000, pp. 185-89.

Davison, Carol Margaret. Gothic Literature, 1764-1824. U of Wales P, 2009.

Haywood, Ian. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Introduction: The Gothic in Western Culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 1-20.

Home, Henry, Lord Kames. Elements of Criticism. 6th ed., Garland, 1972.

Keymer, Thomas. Introduction. Vathek, by William Beckford. Oxford UP, 201, pp. ix-xxix.

Kilgour, Maggie. The Rise of the Gothic Novel. Routledge, 1995.

McKeon, Michael. “Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, edited by Michael McKeon, Johns Hopkins UP, 2000, pp. 382-99.

Miles, Robert. Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy. Manchester UP, 2002.

Ringe, Donald. American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. UP of Kentucky, 1982.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. Methuen, 1980.

Spector, Robert. The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley. Greenwood, 1984.

Varnado, S.L. Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. U of Alabama P, 1987.


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A Guide to the Gothic Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Gray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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