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Conventions of the Gothic Genre






There are a number of techniques, devices and conventions common to a great deal of Gothic literature:



  • WEATHER: used in a number of ways and forms, some of these being: Mist - This convention in Gothic Literature is often used to obscure objects (this can be related to the sublime) by reducing visibility or to prelude the insertion of a terrifying person or thing; Storms - These frequently accompany important events. Flashes of lightening accompany revelation; thunder and downpours prefigure the appearance of a character or the beginning of a significant event; Sunlight - represents goodness and pleasure; it also has the power to bestow these upon characters.

  • THE SUBLIME: The definition of this key term has long been a contested term, but the idea of the sublime is essential to an understanding of Gothic poetics and, especially, the attempt to defend or justify the literature of terror.
    Put basically (and this really is basic - a fuller understanding of the Sublime would be useful to students of Wordsworth or any Gothic Literature), the Sublime is an overpowering sense of the greatness and power of nature, which can be uplifting, awe-inspiring and terrifying, caused by experience of beauty, vastness or grandeur. Sublime moments lead us to consider the place of humanity in the universe, and the power exhibited in the world.
    We see an example of Gothic usurpation of a Romantically sublime space in the monster's interruption of Victor's Alpine reveries in Frankenstein.

  • DREAMS: Perhaps the most famous Gothic example occurs in Shelley's Frankenstein after Frankenstein 'awakes' his creature: he falls into a dream state that begins with his kissing of Elizabeth, his love. However, this kiss changes her in the most drastic way as she transforms into the rotting corpse of Caroline, Victor's dead mother. Upon awakening from this horrifying dream, Victor finds himself staring into the face of the monster he has created. Interpretations of this dream lead to explorations of Frankenstein's psyche, relational ability and sexuality.

  • SENSE OF MYSTERY AND DREAD: These serve to captivate the reader and encourage further reading. They may also be seen acting upon the protagonists in texts, influencing them by exciting their curiosity or fear. Frankenstein himself is occupied with penetrating the mystery that surrounds life, but this leads for him to months of dread. The reader (and Walton) are intrigued by the mystery of Frankenstein's methods.

  • THE SUPERNATURAL: This is generally in the form of some kind of supernatural being or object, such as a vampire or ghost, which is frightening due to its refusal to adhere to the laws of nature, God or man. In Frankenstein, it could be argued that there is no element of the supernatural, or alternatively that the creature is supernatural by virtue of its being a composition of dead parts then re-animated by 'ungodly' means.

  • DARKNESS AS INTRINSIC TO HUMANITY: Generally speaking, gothic literature delves into the macabre nature of humanity in its quest to satiate mankind's intrinsic desire to plumb the depths of terror.

  • AMBIGUITY AND AMBIVALENCE: These are found in characters, their motivations and lives. Duality and antithesis are also found.

  • JUSTICE: The Gothic often shows that that "the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and forth [sic] generation". What this form of resolution implies, guaranteeing as it does that justice will be done despite the degree to which the original crime has been obscured and forgotten, is that the power of social stability is stronger than any individual's attempt to transgress it.

  • REVENGE: Revenge is characterized as the act of repaying someone for a harm that the person has caused; the idea also points back generically to one of the key influences upon Gothic literature: the revenge tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Revenge may be enacted upon a loved one, a family member, a friend, an object or even an area. Within Gothic Literature, revenge is notably prominent and can be enacted by or upon mortals as well as spirits. Revenge can take many forms, such as harm to body, harm to loved ones, and harm to family. The most Gothic version of revenge in Gothic Literature is the idea that it can be a guiding force in the revenance of the dead.

  • UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: A narrator tells a story and determines the story's point of view. An unreliable narrator, however, does not understand the importance of a particular situation or makes an incorrect conclusion or assumption about an event that he/she witnesses.

  • VILLAIN-HERO (Satanic, Promethean, Byronic Hero): The villain of a story who either 1) poses as a hero at the beginning of the story or 2) simply possesses enough heroic characteristics (charisma, sympathetic past, etc) so that either the reader or the other characters see the villain-hero as more than a simple charlatan or bad guy. Three closely related types exist:
    Satanic Hero: a Villain-Hero whose nefarious deeds and justifications of them make him a more interesting character than the rather bland good hero. Example: The origin of this prototype comes from Romantic misreadings of Milton's Paradise Lost, whose Satan poets like Blake and Shelley regarded as a far more compelling figure than the moralistic God of Book III of the epic. Gothic examples: ?Frankenstein's creature?; just about any vampire.
    Promethean Hero: a Villain-Hero who has done good but only by performing an overreaching or rebellious act. Prometheus from ancient Greek mythology saved mankind but only after stealing fire and ignoring Zeus' order that mankind should be kept in a state of subjugation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is tellingly subtitled the "Modern Prometheus", suggesting that Frankenstein is this kind of hero.
    Byronic Hero: a later variation of the "antithetically mixed" Villain-Hero. Aristocratic, suave, moody, handsome, solitary, secretive, brilliant, cynical, sexually intriguing, and nursing a secret wound, he is renowned because of his fatal attraction for female characters and readers and continues to occasion debate about gender issues. This darkly attractive and very conflicted male figure surfaces everywhere in the 19th and 20th century gothic. (NB - Byron was described as "mad, bad and dangerous to know")

  • THE PURSUED PROTAGONIST: Refers to the idea of a pursuing force that relentlessly acts in a severely negative manner on a character. This persecution often implies the notion of some sort of a curse or other form of terminal and utterly unavoidable damnation, a notion that usually suggests a return to ,or "hangover" of, traditional religious ideology to chastise the character for some real or imagined wrong against the moral order.

  • THE OUTSIDER: The one theme that cuts through virtually all Gothic is that of the "outsider," embodied in wanderers like Frankenstein's creature. The outsider, like Cain, moves along the edges of society, in caves, on lonely seacoasts, or in monasteries and convents. While the society at large always appears bourgeois in its culture and morality, the Gothic outsider is a counterforce driven by strange longings and destructive needs. While everyone else appears sane, he is insane; while everyone else appears bound by legalities, he is trying to snap the pitiless constrictions of the law; while everyone else seems to lack any peculiarities of taste or behaviour, he feels only estrangement, sick longings, terrible surges of power and devastation. He is truly countercultural, an alternate force, almost mythical in his embodiment of the burdens and sins of society.
    Gothic fiction, as we have observed, is concerned with the outsider, whether the stationary figure who represses his difference, or the wandering figure who seeks for some kind of salvation, or else the individual who for whatever reason- moves entirely outside the norm. In any event, he is beyond the moderating impulses in society, and he must be punished for his transgression.
    Frankenstein's monster obviously straddles these categories. He wanders through mountain areas of the far North, lurks in caves and caverns, in places no one else dare go. He seeks a mate, a complement to his own loneliness. He is gloomy and melancholy, full of self-pity and self-hatred. Like Cain, he is the perpetual outsider, marked by his appearance, doomed to wander the four corners of the earth, alone and reviled.
    It may be argued that Frankenstein himself becomes an outsider as he grows more and more like his creation.

  • THE DISTRESSED HEROINE: Although Frankenstein is a text without a heroine, it dies contain a number of important female characters, all of whom are in some way and at some time greatly distressed. They do not, however, as in other texts they could, overcome their distress with the help (or despite the hindrance) of the hero.

  • MARRIAGE AS RESOLUTION: The importance of marriage in this schema cannot be overstated. Not only does movement toward matrimony in the Gothic's present trigger the appearance of the buried past, but that buried past itself always contains information tied to the institutions of matrimony or family interest.

  • STRONG MORAL CLOSURE: If de Sade is to be believed, the Gothic genre arose as a response to the brutality and bloodiness of Romantic society, and it as part of this response that Gothic fiction usually contains a strong moral. In Frankenstein, there are a number of moral messages which can be drawn; some more explicit that others. This is, however, complicated by the fact that Frankenstein does not seem to learn a great deal from his experience and exhorts Walton to two conflicting courses of action near the end of the novel.


This of course is a selection of only a few elements of a novel, and no text is this predictable. It is worth considering aspects of Frankenstein in light of these ideas, though.

Some further ideas on what the Gothic is or is trying to achieve are:


  • A set of analysable displacements about what it means to be a human being and gendered.
  • A journey into the 'darker' side of life; a world of pain and destruction, fear and anxiety which shadows the daylight world of love and ethereality.
  • A case history of one of many types of insanity.
  • An exploration of (and perhaps therefore a delineation of) the limits of mortality/immortality; morality/immorality; reason/emotion; order/disorder; mind/body; masculine/feminine.
  • Revisiting of the 'landscapes of childhood': narcissism, incest, violence, vampirism, androgyny, sexual anarchy, the oedipal triangulation, the family romance. Projective identification (I am the Other) and splitting are the two dominant psychological defences.
  • A view of interruptions in the maturation process; they are tales of recuperation or reparation; resistance to loss.
  • An assertion of the values of silence, rectitude, balance (mind of a man and heart of a woman), restrained emotions, strength of character: the century's idealisation of the Virgin Mary.
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