The Gothic and the Fantastic

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

Sexual perversion

Sadism is the giving or receiving of pleasure from acts involving the receipt or infliction of pain or humiliation.

The Monk by Lewis focuses on a Spanish monk who rapes and kills the heroine and who is taken away by the devil.

A scandal arose when the book was published: it was written by a Protestant and British author and dealt with Catholicism in Spain: it was regarded as an anti-Catholic pamphlet.

Perversion of social relationships

In the Gothic, there is often a transgression of morality. The monk is supposed to be a protective figure of authority. The heroine is often mistreated by her family of relatives.

There is a feeling of oppression and the fear of sexuality. For example, Frankenstein is a monster born of a man while the story was written by a woman.

Feelings and sensibility

When reading a Gothic novel, we identify with the heroine/victim and we feel fear. Yet, at the same time, we are safe at home reading : we enjoy fear without feeling danger.

It is necessary for catharsis, or purgation, to get rid of strong feelings like fear and pity. It enables us to see them in peace through reflection and meditation. We overcome fear by living it by proxy through the characters.

The two major genres were the Gothic (fear) and the Romance (love). The Gothic is pre-romantic through passion and imagination.

Moral purpose and imagination

The moral purpose is close to imagination. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily was on the verge of madness : she must be able to make the difference between fiction and reality. Imitation is ritual, that is how children grow into adults.

You must pass the trials to become an adult, just like in primitive tribes. Emily is in a dark and lonely labyrinth : it is like a death and a re-birth. There is a new fortitude by telling reality with imagination.

The Monk has no moral purpose because of its voyeuristic account of sexual perversion and its strong anti-clericalism.

The Supernatural

The most important elements of the Gothic lay in animated pictures, premonitions, devils, miracles, ghosts, spirits. We are asked to believe in incredible events, in the supernatural.

Supernatural elements come from folk tales and ballads such as the German influence “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) or the influence of Shakespeare with devils and monsters. In The Monk, for example, there is “the Bleeding Nun”.

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) sets Ichabod Crane as the main character. The headless rider is a German legend transposed in the USA by Irving.

Rip Van Winkle, telling about a man sleeping for 30 years, is another German legend used by Irving.

All these legends show the mixture of folklore and written traditions.

II. The Gothic and the Fantastic : two interrelated genres

The Gothic and the Fantastic have got the same elements but there is a difference : it is not the same status of supernatural. The supernatural becomes fantastic if the reader hesitates between a natural and a supernatural explanation of a strange event.

1. Definition of the Fantastic

The fantastic can be seen in works where the reader has a sense of confusion about whether a work presents what Tzvetan Todorov calls “the uncanny,” wherein superficially supernatural phenomena turn out to have a rational explanation (such as in the Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe) or “the marvellous,” where the supernatural is accepted as real.

He also points out in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre that the ending always drives the hesitation towards one of two decisions :

The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions.

First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described.

Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work — in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.

Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations.

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre

The Fantastic can also represent dreams and wakefulness where the character or reader hesitates as to what is reality or what is a dream. Again the Fantastic is found in this hesitation – once it is decided the Fantastic ends.

If the strange events really happen, then it is supernatural. If not, then everything is in the character’s mind and he/she is crazy (natural explanation).

In The Monk, there is supernatural without the slightest doubt. It is a marvellous story, not a fantastic one. The Fantastic is the border line between the uncanny and the marvellous, it is the hesitation between the two.

Gothic and Fantastic inter-penetrate each other, even if they are different. The fantastic is a key element in gothic stories (you only know when you reach the end that it is not fantastic) and there are many gothic elements in fantastic stories.

Edgar Poe’s writing can be called fantastic or gothic, as in The Oval Portait. In Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, there’s a frame-story, a story within the story, and delirium is also used : we don’t really know whether it is real or not.

2. Common characteristics

Form and meaning are connected. In the fantastic and in the gothic, the main narrative base is suspense : the reader is wondering what is going to happen next.

There is a gradation in tension and suspense until reaching the climax (and anti-climax, the relief) if the narrative is chronological. Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition explains how he creates the tension of the plot.

Internal focalization is used to see through the character’s eyes. It increases identification with the character and emphasizes suspense.

With multiple narratives, we obtain what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief” through verisimilitude, suggesting that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person’s ignorance or lack of knowledge to promote suspension of disbelief.

For example, in Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, the book is presented as fragments of several characters’ diaries. The first of these journals is by Jonathan Harker, who went to Transylvania. The second character is Mina Harker, Jonathan’s wife, with whom Dracula fell in love. Then, there is Lucy, a friend and vampire, and Dr Van Helsing, who kills vampires.

When you see the story through different angles, you suspend your disbelief and take distanciation. On the other hand, it makes the story more real and true because it is reinforced by different witnesses and different points of view.

According to Todorov, the best strategy is the first-person narrative (using the personal pronoun “I”) as it is the best way to present a fantastic story for we identify with the character. There is an interrogation of the reader when the character is not sure whether something happened or not, and how to interpret it.

In third-person narratives, we perceive what the character perceives, as well as his thoughts (internal focalization). If the narrator is omniscient, there is no suspense and no fantastic because there is no room for doubt. External focalization is when the action is seen from outside, it is not used in fantastic.

For example in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), there is an introduction, a frame-story that introduces the main story : a governess in Victorian England has to take care of Miles and Flora.

She has visions and tells Mrs Grouse, the housekeeper, who says that she’s had visions about the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, said to have had an affair. They think the ghosts want to trap the children and tell them about it. As a consequence, the boy dies of heart failure and the girl gets sick. Is it because of the ghosts or because of the puritanical upbringing of the governess?

What is real and what is not ? If ghosts exist, our conception of reality is limited. If they don’t, imagination is also part of reality. How do we know what is real or not ?

Realism is a technique of writing in the 19th century used by Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert or Henry James. The 19th century was full of scientific and technological progress, as well as stories questioning reality.

3. Themes of the “I” and themes of the “You”

They help us see the basic function of the gothic and fantastic through the distortion and disruption of reality : our relations with the outside world (I), and relations with other people (You).

Relations between the self and the outside reality

There is what Todorov calls “pan-predeterminism” : there is no chance, no coincidence, everything is determined by supernatural wills (ghosts or fate : prophecy, astrology).

The relations between the self and the outside reality are disrupted because there is a transgression between spirit and matter. Supernatural beings determine all that is happening.

The universe is one in which everything is related to everything else through correspondences: there is a hidden sense in everything.

The idea of multiplication of personality is the theme of the double, the “doppelgänger”. For example in The Story of William Wilson by Poe, the character has no conscience.

Every time he is close to success, a double makes him fail in a strange fantastic event. It is a projection ? Besides, in the name William Wilson, both words start with a “double U”.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde, an exchange of qualities takes place between the portrait and the man : the portrait is a double.

In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mr Hyde is the expression of the repressed bad guy everyone has got inside themselves. The double personality can be explained by the use of drugs or during a moment of psychosis (schizophrenia).

Relations between self and others

Sexuality becomes the essential part of life and is seen as a temptation (e.g : The Monk). It is a projection of repressed desires. Stories often deal with homosexuality, sadism or necrophilia. Extreme sexuality leads to death.

Gothic and fantastic express unconscious desires and conflicts that we don’t want to acknowledge in our moral lives. Todorov argues that fantastic was very important in the 19th century but much less important in the 20th. As psychoanalysis exposed how gothic and fantastic worked, it was not “funny” anymore.

Yet, there was a survival of gothic and fantastic until now. It is also based on the questioning of reality (“what if…”) and realism too (mode of writing based on the idea we know reality scientifically).

The 19th century is a scientific age with scientific and technological progress, the emergence of the genre of the detective story (Poe, Balzac) and realistic literature.

The difference between the gothic and the fantastic is the play with mystery and imagination (assert a claim, vindicate) and supernatural things through mesmerism (form of hypnosis), spiritism, or the occult.


Popular literature can be interesting as well, both literary and historically. In gothic and fantastic stories, certain themes imply certain narrative strategies (internal focalization, first-person narrative).

Genres are recognizable entities but sometimes their boundaries can be fluid and they can inter-penetrate each other : a mystery can be explainable and not explainable at the same time. The gothic and the fantastic are the two main genres of the 19th century.

Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

Articles en rapport:

1 pensée sur “The Gothic and the Fantastic”

  1. Hello, i have question. Do you know a character of ghost called “Casper”?
    He is a ghost but he acts “Protagonist”. Then, can i call it as Marvellous genre of Horror?
    Thank you very much ;)


Ajouter une pensée