Gothic Themes

Since its inception (generally agreed to be around 1764, with the publishing of The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole), Gothic literature and its derivatives (graphic novels, movies and film, etc…) have evolved over the centuries, as social norms and morays have evolved.  But there are generally some consistent themes that have survived the rigors of time. As testament to its influence over the ages, many of these themes have been subsumed into mainstream horror or thrillers and drama. 
Please keep in mind that what comes below are generalities.  But these themes occur regularly in many of the classics.  I will continue to update these  themes and eventually would like this to become a pretty comprehensive study in the themes of Gothic Literature.

“An anxiety with no possibility of escape is the main theme of the Gothic tales.” — Mario Praz

For a good starter list of traditional Gothic stories, visit the Ruined Library.

Concepts and Themes:

Decay and Ruin: Decay and Ruin are significant themes in much of The Gothic. Sometimes this is represented in the Setting (Place) or in some character, such as an old Matron.   Decay and Ruin represent a degenerate past to which the antagonist is generally trying to return and into which the hero will fall, if he or she fails.

Demons in Disguise: Representing the temptation of the degenerate.   The protagonist is usually beset by some powerful, charismatic figure that tempts him (or her).  The protagonist is drawn to this demon initially, and spends the story struggling to overcome the attraction.  (Mina’s and Jonathon’s struggle against Dracula’s mind control).

Man as Savior: The Gothic (at least Traditional Gothic) has as a common, recurring theme the idea that women are saved from their struggle by the virtuous man.  Whatever the case, the woman is never strong enough to truly defeat the enemy, though she may hold him off through her virtuous behavior.  This man is usually identified early by the heroin (think Jonathan and Mina in Dracula) (or, more contemporary—consider Michael and Selene in Underworld), who spends the story struggling against her unnatural feelings for the Man/Demon/Father figure.  It is usually this man that serves as savior character (Johnathon, Van Helsing, etc…) who is involved with dispatching the Demon (Dracula, or Kraven and Lucian).

Place (and Setting) as Character: Gothic Fiction is almost always set in some dark, overbearing castle or house from a bygone era. Often times they are pitted with catacombs, dungeons, tunnels and secret passages.  Common examples of Gothic Settings that we will all recognize are:

The place signifies the decay and ruin of some imaginary barbaric past, the difficulty and oppressive nature of the enemy and the risk of succumbing to that ruin.  The setting is designed to engender a feeling of terror and thus the Sublime.  The setting sets the tone to (1) heighten the antagonists power by evoking sensations of terror, (2) increase the risk to and stress on the protagonist by increasing sensations of terror and hopelessness, and (3) evoking the sensation of terror and suspense in the reader.

Sense (and sensibility): Sometimes referred to as Sensation, it concerns the controlling (or perhaps more accurately, influencing) nature of Sense—both emotional and physical. In The Gothic, it concerns the susceptibility to impulses and the natural inclination to react (and overreact) to sensation.  The Gothic plays on and magnifies those things experienced by the Senses in order to demonstrate and play out its core themes.  It is the character’s reactions to these sensations (her sensibility) that often times determine her fate in the story.

The Sublime: Central to almost all of The Gothic is the Sublime. Although there is much debate (or confusion) over what the Sublime actually is, it is generally regarded as feelings so strong that they subvert reason and cause us to consider our insignificance.  Often times these feelings of the Sublime are drawn from the awe-inspiring terror that can be derived from the Grandeur of nature.  To many Gothic authors Fear represented the doorway to feelings of the Sublime.  The idea is that fear (or ideas / language / perceptions that evoke terror) is the strongest sensation (stronger by far than beauty) and thus is the primary emotion that is productive of the Sublime.

Virtue vs. Promiscuity:  This is a central theme in much of Traditional and Gothic fiction.   It is more often referred to as the Virgin / Whore contrast or, in the male characters, the Priest / Demon dichotomy.  Often times (in the older more Traditional Gothic) this Virtue vs. Promiscuity concept goes deeper than the obvious sexual definition.  Virtue is the woman’s ability and composure in the face of Sensation, her reaction to the Dark feelings inherent in women, whether they manifest themselves in assertiveness, sexual activity, idleness, or any other non-virtuous activity.

Young women characters are almost always beautiful and pure at the inception of the story.  They are just beginning to feel the draw of their maturity (usually through symbolic sexual deviant desires), are challenged to subdue those feelings and act in a virtuous manner. This conflict plays out badly for those that stray from the path of virtue.  Like Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, those women that so much as entertain the idea of promiscuity (much less act on it) are almost always dealt with in the most violent and terrible of ways.  Lucy for instance is bitten by Dracula (in a symbolic exchange of fluids) and becomes a vampire that feeds on children (Tangential, but important to this discussion—she is also symbolically killed by the men that initially loved her—presumably to save her).

The ideas above represent only the tip of the iceberg and are not intended to be all inclusive of the main themes of the Gothic.  But, they are useful in evaluating how we live our contemporary lives.  How we act (for better or worse) on a day to day basis, and whate we beleive even in today’s American culture, may mirror many of the underlying themes of The Gothic—

I wonder what that says about us.

  3 comments for “Gothic Themes

  1. December 29, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    I am amazed at the fact that the roles just keep coming back to the same old same old. yes…Sookie is inevitably tied to a man, as are most Heroines in these Gothic titles. Some of this is tied to the concepts in Victorian and Gothic Romances as well. It will be interesting to see how things evolve even further–my guess is that the more we change, the more Contemporary Gothic appears to change, the more it really stays the same.

    I noticed that you have some Steampunk postings–I love it too!!!!!!!

  2. December 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    This is a great list of all things Gothic. I like that you included more modern literary gothic themes such as the woman needing to be saved by a man such as in Underworld. I have done a lot of research on women in the gothic and one more modern series I have read was the Sookie Stackhouse books (I did a whole class just on these books) and I thought it was interesting that even though Sookie tries to show she is a strong independent woman she is still more or less saved by a man (or vampire in her case)—so it’s ok for a woman to be a ass kicking heroine but she still needs to be ‘saved’ to some degree…..interesting don’t you think? We have come so far as a society but yet we still retain the same gothic principals 🙂 Great info, I’m going to link to my page!

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