The Gothic and the Fantastic are two literary genres both related and different.
A genre can characterize many types of literature such as poetry, drama, or the novel. It is a specific type of writing, obeying a number of rules, or recognizable through a number of themes or structural elements like suspense, plot, or characters.
I. Definitions of the Gothic
The Gothic is the ancestor of the modern horror stories. It is based on the bizarre, the macabre and the supernatural, and it very often deals with aberrant psychological states (terror, fear, anxiety). The setting could typically be a dark castle or church at night…
1. The Sublime
The Sublime is the concept developed by Edmund Burke in On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) which is based on two principles :
- Beauty is small, smooth, not angular but curved, clear, light and delicate, with harmony in proportions. It is something rather feminine, with human proportions, based on pleasure.
- the Sublime is great, rugged, straight and angular, dark and massive. It is rather masculine, inhuman because too vast, excessive and powerful for man, based on pain.
There is a dialectic like Eros (love and pleasure) and Thanatos (pain and death) : these two elements, both opposed and complementary, structured the mentalities and the mental productions of the 19th century.
It is also related to primitivism as neoclassicism expressed harmony in proportions (beauty) while the revival of the Gothic was in relation with the sublime, based on pre-christian religions, legends and superstitions and the Middle Ages.
2. Major Gothic Works
Horace Walpole, nephew of a former MP and himself a rich and noble MP, was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays (especially monsters) and wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764). His book is divided into five chapters, like the five acts of a play. It can be considered the first Gothic novel.
William Beckford published Vathek in 1782. It was first written in French and inspired by The Arabian Nights.
Gothic novels met a real success as it was a very feminine genre : women were writing, reading and had access to culture.
Other major Gothic novels include :
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
- The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis
- Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
- Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
- The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg
3. A better definition
According to Marilyn Butler:
- there is a contrast between the sublime and the beautiful,
- the frail, young and fragile heroine usually falls in love with a nice guy,
- gloomy and large elements belong to the sublime,
- the dominant emotion is fear,
- there is a chiaroscuro : a contrast between light and darkness.
For example, The Mysteries of Udolpho is a novel set in 1584 in southern France and northern Italy which focuses on the plight of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman who is orphaned after the death of her father. Emily suffers imprisonment in the castle Udolpho at the hands of Signor Montoni, an Italian brigand who has married her aunt and guardian Madame Cheron. Emily’s romance with the dashing Valancourt is frustrated by Montoni and others. Emily also investigates the mysterious relationship between her father and the Marchioness de Villeroi, and its connection to the castle at Udolpho. Emily conceives strange things : she can hear voices such as her dead father’s, see moving paintings, or see a man appear from nowhere in her room. They are trying to make her mad to get her heritage.
It is a Gothic novel removed from the world (sublime) and very down-to-earth. There are no supernatural elements (no ghosts and all) but a nightmarish atmosphere full of fear and shadows.