When writing about Gothic literature, it is helpful to have a mental list of pointers to keep track of some of the frequently-appearing elements employed by writers. This is not a checklist, and certainly should not appear as such in any exam essay, but it can be helpful in targeting revision of texts which you have studied.
The setting is always important; it might be an expanse of open heath (as in Wuthering Heights), a glacier (Frankenstein) or a building (The Fall of the House of Usher, The Bloody Chamber and innumerable other texts). The setting is often indicative of the psychological state of the narrator or main character, and is often accompanied by appropriate weather conditions – storms, thunder, lightning, wind. This is often an example of pathetic fallacy, where the external conditions mirror the internal psychology. There is also the question of temporal location; the medieval period is a favourite, as a distant time of part history, part legend, where religion was powerful and magic could happen.
Most Gothic texts explore the state of mind of the main character or the narrator (the two are often the same). The interest in the maintenance of the rational mind and the suppression of fears and instincts mean that Gothic texts often lend themselves to Freudian analysis. Note Kipps’ desperation to hang onto his rationality in The Woman in Black, and Frankenstein’s state of mind after his realisation of what he has created. Utterson, in Jekyll and Hyde, fails to find the answers because he is so governed by his rational mind. Dreams and visions are also important indicators of the subconscious mind.
Sexuality and Repression
Exploration of characters’ psychology in turn often focuses on the repression of instincts, particularly sexual. Again, this is a major field of Freudian analysis. You may note Victor Frankenstein’s fear of sexuality, while Angela Carter uses Gothic elements specifically to explore female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber, developing the ideas in this feminist text. Note that the central story at the heart of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is about a young woman who is rejected by her family and society for exploring her sexuality before marriage, resulting in an illegitimate child.
In older texts, women tend to be characterised in two ways: either the innocent sacrificial virgin or the evil witch. Note how both these roles are used by Coleridge in ‘Christabel’, though the witch is at first disguised as an innocent beauty. Look too at the very limited female roles in Jekyll and Hyde. Women are often the innocent victims of men, who hold the sexual, economic and society power. In more modern, particularly feminist texts, these roles are sometimes deliberately subverted (see Angela Carter’s short stories in The Bloody Chamber). There are a number of interesting exceptions to the general rules: note Elizabeth’s rational control compared with Frankenstein’s, for example, and the female’s power over men in Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.
This occurs in all kinds of ways, from the apparitions in The Woman in Black and The Turn of the Screw to scientific attempts to be above (super-) nature, in Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein. One can also interpret dream visions as psychological supernatural, as in Frankenstein’s mental torture in Chapter 5. One can also bring religion and the occult into this area of discussion.
Death of all kinds is found in Gothic texts — hideous death, tortured death, deserved death, violent death, even the occasional natural death. It can be used to create fear or to suggest a moral lesson and can be treated with sensationalism or sentimentality. Compare the varied deaths of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the violence of Hyde’s murder of Carew, the accidental and ‘accidental’ deaths in The Woman in Black and the skull in ‘Isabella’s Pot of Basil’ (Keats).
The Creation of Fear
This is an area for careful analysis of language and structure. Look at the techniques writers use to create fear, for both characters and readers. Look at how location (see above) is used to create or subvert expectations and at how suspense is created by hints and narrative delaying tactics. At other times, effects may rely on shock and surprise. What language do you find most effective in the creation of terror?
Narrators vary enormously in Gothic texts and have, of course, a very important part in controlling the narrative. Consider how important it is that The Woman in Black is narrated by the character who is most involved in the story, and the reasons for his narration – a kind of exorcism of his terror. Note his recreation, as an older man, of his younger self and that self’s desire to cling on to a rationalist’s view of the world until that very rational mind leads him to the acknowledgement of the irrational. Note also the importance of the first person narration in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, essential to convey the young girl’s ambiguous responses to her marriage and her new husband. Think also about the effects of shifting narrators in Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Wuthering Heights and The Monk. These create a constantly shifting perspective for the reader — each narrator has their own view and their own agenda.
It may be appropriate to consider the genre historically, in its development and its readership. As Jane Austen’s satire on the tradition, Northanger Abbey, indicates, in the 18th-19th centuries, Gothic novels were very popular with women, providing sensation and excitement in otherwise very ordered lives. Cheap editions ensured a wide readership. Since then, the genre has developed as a form and the readership has developed with it. It has also become an important genre in other media, such as film and rock music.
As the genre and its readership have developed, so have critical responses. As has been indicated elsewhere on this page, the favoured areas of exploration in Gothic literature have made it particularly suitable for Freudian and Feminist interpretation. A Marxist view of texts is also often rewarding. Each of these approaches will lead to a different reading of the text, and comparison between them can be fascinating. It is an awareness of these different approaches to reading and interpreting which will help you to address AO5.