Gothic literature was a literary movement that focused on death, decay and both physical and psychological terror. Gothic style also suggests a belief in the supernatural and thus many gothic texts contain an air of mystery and intrigue. The genre was originally thought to be a response to the Age of Reason, which was a radical notion held by Thomas Paine that criticised religion and challenged the legitimacy of the bible. Another key aspect in any gothic text is ‘evil’. Such inclusion of these evil figures consequently helped to make visible the political view of the text. During the emergence of the gothic literary movement, it is perhaps unsurprising that the period was characterised by widespread terror; namely from the French Revolution. Subsequently, the genre became very popular amongst writers as it enabled them to express their sympathy and concern over such political movements.
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The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764, is widely considered to be the first gothic romance. Walpole’s intention was to combine aspects of the Medieval romance and the modern novel. Indeed, Walpole noted that it was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success…”. The novel gained widespread acclaim and popularity and hence became a trendsetter for many authors who followed Walpole’s gothic style. Thus, Walpole is essentially the forerunner to renowned authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe and Charles Dickens- amongst many others.
Frankenstein, written in 1816, by Mary Shelley, is one of the most well known examples of romantic literature and Gothic novels. The literary movement of romanticism, which had a profound influence on the novel, emerged from the Industrial Revolution that took place from the late eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution spurred a period of concern amongst many with the destruction of nature and the quality of living in cities. Before romanticism, emphasis was placed on law and religion; now the emphasis was on the sublime and evoking strong emotions. Indeed, the influence of nature is evident throughout Frankenstein, with the emergence of spring making the monsters’ mood lighten after a bleak winter. This concept is also illuminated by the way that the “winds whispered in soothing accents, and maternal Nature bade me weep no more”.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short tales are another prominent example of gothic fiction. Poe’s short stories often contained aspects of horror, murder, insanity and the supernatural; key characteristics of gothic literature. The Tell Tale Heart, first published in 1843, is one of Poe’s most renowned pieces of work and intrinsically focuses on paranoia and mental deterioration. The story opens with the narrator addressing the reader and assuring them that he nervous, although not mad; “TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?”. Ironically, however, this has the opposite effect of the narrators’ intention, which is to convince the reader that they are not mad. Poe’s economy of expression aid the narrative of the story and this association with form and content may perhaps be an attempt on the Poe’s behalf to illustrate the narrator’s insanity. Poe’s use of repetition serves to emphasise the thought process of the narrator, which also indicates the “acuteness of his senses”, that is, his sensitivity to everything that goes on around him. Similarly, the frequent use of hyphens and italics illustrate the anxiety and frustration of the narrator .The narrators’ delusions of grandeur however are short lived as he/she becomes fixated on “the beating of (the) hideous heart”.
The timing and location of gothic stories are of key importance in creating an element of suspense and horror. For instance, in The Tell Heart, a sinister aspect is created by the way in which it was “as black as pitch, with thick darkness”. Nighttime or the ‘witching hour’ is often perceived to be the scariest time and thus adds to the increasing element of suspense, which is apparent throughout. Likewise, The Wasp Factory is characteristically dark with the protagonist’s house being set on an island. This immediately introduces an air of isolation and containment, which is once again, a key attribute of gothic fiction.
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The notion of the supernatural is often a recurring theme in many gothic fiction works and often focuses on satirising religion or, as evident in Frankenstein, being a warning against humans playing the role of God. Indeed, the role of Frankenstein continues to play a leading role in scientific debates. According to Betty Bennett, a literary consultant, “In our modern era, we have major issues of responsibility and those issues are not only issues of cloning, but issues of government… So Frankenstein has come to be understood and respected from those points of view”. Supernatural aspects are also apparent in The Tell Heart, with the narrator essentially ascribing himself the role of God. This notion is exemplified by the way he describes his supremacy: “the extent of my powers- of my sagacity”. This conception of grandeur that the narrator assigns to himself is closely linked to the reader’s perception of his insanity, which ultimately creates a feeling of both intrigue and suspense.
In essence, the literary of the gothic can be described as any “novel in which supernatural horrors and an atmosphere of unknown horror pervades the action”.
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