Why study Gothic literature?
Before we consider how to study Gothic literature, it is worth considering why it is important. A quick look through the various GCSE, IGCSE, A level and IB English syllabuses reveals that the Gothic genre appears frequently. It is a popular choice for schools, with well-known classics like Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde often chosen for GCSE or IGCSE. There are also a range of interesting but possibly less well-known options at this level, such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Woman in Black.
On various A-level syllabuses appear Dracula, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Little Stranger and The Bloody Chamber. All these texts are either firmly in the Gothic genre or have powerful Gothic elements. This is far from a comprehensive list, but it is clear that Gothic prose features repeatedly on Literature papers.
I would argue that even if your teenager does not have a Gothic novel or story to study for their exams, it is definitely worth encouraging them to read some Gothic literature. This is because they will invariably be learning about setting, characterisation, themes and atmosphere whichever books they are studying. Gothic literature makes these essential GCSE, IGCSE, A level and IB requirements very easy to understand.
Generally speaking, aspects of setting, theme, character and atmosphere are glaringly obvious in Gothic literature, whilst they may be much subtler and trickier to define in other genres. Some of the choices are easier to read than others. For example, Dracula or Wuthering Heights will probably be a challenge for many teenagers, but Du Maurier’s Rebecca, or Waters’ The Little Stranger, are much easier.
Settings in gothic literature
The setting is always an important, if not crucial, element of a Gothic novel. The isolated house, the spooky castle, dense woods, a graveyard, or wild moorland have powerful associations with isolation, loneliness and being cut off from potential avenues of help and support. We, the readers, know that if something awful happens (and in Gothic novels we can be sure that something awful will happen), the characters will struggle to get help. Help, we know, will be slow in arriving or may not come at all. So the suspense and tension begin to build.
Pay attention to how the writer uses setting to create an atmosphere of trepidation, threat or decay. Consider the language they are using, see if they are employing metaphor or simile to make comparisons with horrible things. Here is an extract from The Little Stranger. This is towards the beginning of the book, before anything scary has happened. See how Waters uses language choices to warn us about the house within which the plot will play out.
‘What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.’
Waters, Sarah, The Little Stranger, Little, Brown Book Group.
Can you see how the writer’s choice of language e.g. ‘patchily died’, ‘cracked’ and ‘weeds’ sets the scene of decay? The use of the simile ‘hung like tangled rat’s tail hair’ makes an unpleasant comparison, evoking disturbing imagery and, without any other information at all, we already know that things have gone wrong at this house.
Setting and Personification
See if the writer is using personification to bring alive inanimate objects and make them threatening. A tree, for example, is not very threatening when it is just a tree, but if it suddenly has malevolent human characteristics, it suddenly becomes a threat.
This is an extract from Rebecca, when the narrator is describing the drive up to the house. Notice how the writer brings the plants alive to create a sense of menace.
‘…on either side of us was a wall of the colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me
for them. They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic. These were monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion, too beautiful I thought, too powerful; they were not plants at all.’
Du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, Little, Brown Book Group.
Can you see how the writer has used personification to bring the plants to life? Obviously, if they are just pretty red flowers they are in no way threatening to us personally, but here they have ‘faces’, they are ‘rearing’ and they form a ‘battalion’ i.e. they are soldiers. They are also ‘powerful’, ‘monsters’ ‘blood-red’ and ‘slaughterous’. Suddenly a drive through cheerful plants has become threatening to the narrator’s safety.
Themes in Gothic literature
It is quite tricky to define Gothic literature in some ways, because not all ghost stories or vampire stories are necessary Gothic. So how do we identify it? There are themes that are common (although not universal) in Gothic fiction:
Corruption of the innocent.
Frequently, there is the concept of corruption of an innocent party or parties. The obvious example here is Dracula, where innocent people are turned into bloodsucking vampires
As described above, Gothic narratives often centre on a single location, most frequently a house. Usually there is an evil element attached to the house, which often intends harm to the occupants.
The Gothic genre arose out of the Romantic movement, so it is unsurprising that a romantic element is present in many Gothic tales. Wuthering Heights is the perfect example, of course, as love, death and the supernatural are woven seamlessly together.
Links to the past
Often there is some sort of dark or sad history attached to the location. Frequently it is a death, or relates to death. The supernatural element occurs when the entity, for example a ghost or a vampire, continues to interact with the human world after death.
As I mentioned above, atmosphere is crucial in a Gothic narrative. The setting seems to be decaying; things will be physically falling apart, or not what they used to be. It doesn’t just have to be the setting that is decaying either – often it is the mental health of characters in the story. We can see this human decay in so many of the great Gothic novels.