Inspired by my past few entries on Gothicism and Minimalism, I’ve decided to take a closer look at what lies at the heart of the Gothic. I tend to immediately and unconsciously label things as “Gothic” based on little more than a subjective “feel” or “mood” that I pick up on. But I think it is important to establish some kind of objective ground rules for what constitutes the Gothic. What exact characteristics am I picking up on when I recognize a text or piece of art as Gothic?
Let’s take a look back for a second.
Gothic Literature was very easy to recognize in the decades that followed Horace Walpole’s Publication of the seminal Castle of Otranto. It was marked by tropes so consistent and formulaic that critics of the genre would write “recipes” for a Gothic novel:
“Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous
A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.
Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.
As many skeletons, in chests and presses.
An old woman hanging by the neck; with her throat cut.
Assassins and desperadoes, ‘quant. suff.’
Noises, whispers, and groans, threescore at least.
Mix them together in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering places before going to bed.”
— Walker’s Hibernian Magazine for January 1798
But in the last centuries, these superficial conventions have slowly been peeled away from the Gothic.
We have stripped it of its nostalgia by taking the Gothic out of the middle ages and bringing it into the present; removed its exoticism by taking it out of the craggy Scottish countryside or wild Mediterranean and into the cities we live in. We’ve replaced the labyrinths of castles and forests with the labyrinths of the human psyche; we’ve taken the physical deformity away from the villains and often replaced it with an unnerving normalcy.
An illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) showing the exotic location and bygone era; An illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844), showing contemporary, very real horrors of the city.
We have been slowly bringing the Gothic closer to us, making it increasingly familiar. Domesticating it. That strangeness that seemed characteristic of the Gothic—bygone era, exotic location, physically monstrous villains, and supernatural horrors—can indeed be taken away.
So what are we left with? What is the real recipe for the Gothic, a list of essential qualities which must be fulfilled in order for something to be Gothic, and if any of the qualities were to be removed, would cease to be Gothic? (Think of it as an “if and only if” requirement). There are probably some textbooks that cover this very topic, but here’s what I’m thinking based on my observations of Gothic texts (plus some classroom lectures still floating around in my brain):
-A confrontation with physical corruption, decay, and/or death.
-A sense of the sublime: that which is bigger than one’s self or beyond comprehension.
-An exploration of human capacity for “evil.”
-A transgression or blurring of boundaries: life/death, sacred/profane, human/animal, civilization/wilderness (or civilized/savage), sanity/insanity, sometimes even a transgression of male/female.
-Often a sense of isolation and an individualistic journey (this I’m not totally convinced is essential).
Now, as fellow consumers of Gothic texts, what do you think are the common threads that bind everything Gothic together? I’d love to hear your feedback.
And if you want another perspective, check out this Guardian post “How to tell if you’re reading a gothic novel – in pictures“. The graphs, charts, and venn diagrams that map different aspects of 18th and 19th Gothic novels are hilarious and accurate.