What Is Gothic Literature? 6 Examples

Let’s look at what is gothic literature, how supernatural elements can tie into gothic fiction, and explore the most famous examples of gothic literature.

From Frankenstein to Dracula, gothic literature is a mainstay of many college and high school English classrooms.

First introduced in the 1700s, gothic literature embodies supernatural, mystery, and horror themes. Since its inception, the genre has split into several sub-genres, including gothic romance. Authors and readers enjoy working to solve a mystery, especially when supernatural factors throw in an unexpected twist.

Some gothic authors are traditionally associated with gothic literature–such as Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley–while others are typically associated with other literary genres. Some books, such as Jane Eyre, blend the genres of romance, gothic literature, and self-discovery.

Here, we’ll explore how gothic literature is defined, and we’ll take a look at a few of the most famous gothic novels and novellas.

What Is Gothic Literature?

Gothic literature is a type of European fiction that started in the 1700s. The name Gothic wasn’t originally associated with horror and gore; instead, it was simply a style of medieval architecture. Many gothic novels were set in old castles and monasteries, and the word gothic eventually became associated with mystery and horror.

The general aesthetic of fear, haunting, and mystery is associated with gothic literature and often allows events from the past to haunt the present.

Often, old buildings are used in gothic literature settings to create a sense of the past, with authors creating a claustrophobic, dark environment that lends itself to nervousness and anxiety. Gothic literature protagonists can be either male or female and are often highly relatable, encouraging readers to root for the main character as they work through terrifying scenarios and try to get to the root of the story’s problem.

Common Themes And Characteristics Of Gothic Literature

Characteristics of gothic literature
Gothic literature often embodies the same themes as gothic buildings–dark, mysterious, morbid, and even criminal

While the word gothic itself refers to a type of architecture, gothic literature often embodies the same themes as gothic buildings–dark, mysterious, morbid, and even criminal. Supernatural themes tend to permeate gothic literature. Readers may have an uneasy or eerie feeling as the story unfolds, blending elements of real-life and supernatural fiction to make it hard to figure out what’s real and what should be attributed to the supernatural. 

Often, elements of witchcraft or wizardry are connected with gothic novels. While wizards and witches may not physically be present in gothic tales, spells and potions are often used to move gothic stories forward. Characters in gothic novels may have visions or dreams that predict the future or warn them of nefarious people who will enter their lives. 

Gothic literature settings vary widely. Many gothic novels and novellas are set in Europe, where countless old castles and mansions are old. In the 1900s, some gothic novels began to occur in the Southern United States. Many horror stories written in America today continue to occur in this area. 

Examples Of Gothic Literature

1. Frankenstein By Mary Shelley

What Is Gothic Literature? Frankenstein By Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me.”

Frankenstein’s monster has gone down in history as one of the most recognizable gothic literature figures. Mary Shelley expertly uses the monster’s story to explore themes of ambition, life, and humanity while creating the first science-fiction novel. Shelley’s addition of fantastical elements opened the door for other authors to include supernatural scientific elements in their stories, creating a new world for readers to explore.

2. Dracula By Bram Stoker

When all was ready, Van Helsing said:—

“Before we do anything, let me tell you this; it is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world; for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead becomes themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.”

Plaguing the nightmares of many for centuries, the story of Dracula was based on European folktales and Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century prince of Romania. He eventually took on the name Dracula. The prince was known for torturing his victims, often driving a wooden stake through their bodies. Like many gothic authors, Stoker took real-world inspiration and combined it with fantastical elements to strike horror into the hearts of his readers.

3. The Castle Of Otranto By Horace Walpole

“But alas! my Lord, what is blood! what is nobility! We are all reptiles, miserable, sinful creatures. It is piety alone that can distinguish us from the dust whence we sprung, and whither we must return.”

Regarded by many literary experts as the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764. The general scene set in the book has remained the backdrop for many horror stories to this day. The book tells the tale of a cursed royal family dealing with the consequences of an ancient prophecy. A nightmare inspired the author that he had in his own home, a Gothic Revival building in London.

4. Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte

“I have for the first time found what I can truly love – I have found you. You are my sympathy – my better self – my good angel – I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my center and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”

Known as a gothic romance, Jane Eyre includes themes of belonging, love, family, religion, and the role that a belief in the spiritual and supernatural can play in a person’s life. While the story of Jane Eyre does delve into many of the elements typically associated with gothic novels, the coming-of-age tale also grapples with the struggle between desperately wanting the love of someone else and learning to love oneself unconditionally.

5. The Mysteries Of Udolpho By Ann Radcliffe

“A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness. Store it with ideas, teach it the pleasure of thinking; and the temptations of the world without will be counteracted by the gratifications derived from the world within.”

One of the first gothic romances, The Mysteries of Udolpho, explores the life of Emily St. Aubert. As the protagonist works through her romantic life, she’s also faced with the death of her parents, moving across the country, and eventually having to live in a castle plagued with supernatural problems. In addition to both humorous and horrific takes on love and life, readers also enjoy seeing Emily eventually escape her difficult life in the arms of a secret lover.

6. The Fall Of The House Of Usher By Edgar Allan Poe

“It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down — but with a shudder even more thrilling than before — upon the re-modeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.”

Known for his haunting poems and short stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s name is synonymous with gothic literature. The narrator believes that his friend’s home has taken on evil energy in the short story. Poe expertly describes the home’s environment and the strange events that happen inside during his visit. Both mysterious illnesses and changing personalities are complex for the narrator to explain, allowing the reader to move back and forth between the real world and Poe’s fantastical imagination.

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