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Characteristics of Gothic and Romantic Novels

Author:   Trudi Mullerworth  
Posted: 11/12/2002; 3:13:23 PM
Topic: Characteristics of Gothic and Romantic Novels
Msg #: 51 (top msg in thread)
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The gothic novel was invented almost single-handedly by Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) contains essentially all the elements that constitute the genre. Walpole's novel was imitated not only in the eighteenth century and not only in the novel form, but it has influenced writing, poetry, and even film making up to the present day.

Gothic elements include the following:

1. Setting in a castle. The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery.

2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. Elements 3, 4, and 5 below contribute to this atmosphere.

3. An ancient prophecy is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. "What could it mean?" In more watered down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: "It's said that the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls."

4. Omens, portents, visions. A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death.

5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.

6. High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common.

7. Women in distress. As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention.

8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime.

9. The metonymy of gloom and horror. Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). For example, the film industry likes to use metonymy as a quick shorthand, so we often notice that it is raining in funeral scenes. Note that the following metonymies for "doom and gloom" all suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural.

  • wind, especially howling
  • rain, especially blowing
  • doors grating on rusty hinges
  • sighs, moans, howls, eerie sounds
  • footsteps approaching
  • clanking chains
  • lights in abandoned rooms
  • gusts of wind blowing out lights
  • characters trapped in a room
  • doors suddenly slamming shut
  • ruins of buildings
  • baying of distant dogs (or wolves?)
  • thunder and lightning
  • crazed laughter

Elements of Romance

In addition to the standard gothic machinery above, many gothic novels contain elements of romance as well. Elements of romance include these:

1. Powerful love. Heart stirring, often sudden, emotions create a life or death commitment.

2. Uncertainty of reciprocation. What is the beloved thinking? Is the lover's love returned or not?

3. Unreturned love. Someone loves in vain (at least temporarily). Later, the love may be returned.

4. Tension between true love and father's control, disapproval, or choice. Most often, the father of the woman disapproves of the man she loves.

5. Lovers parted. Some obstacle arises and separates the lovers, geographically or in some other way.

6. Illicit love or lust threatens the virtuous one. The young woman becomes a target of some evil man's desires and schemes.

7. Rival lovers or multiple suitors. One of the lovers (or even both) can have more than one person vying for affection.

 Updated Tuesday, November 12, 2002 at 3:24:40 PM by Trudi Mullerworth - mullerworthtrudi@fhda.edu
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