What Is Gothic Literature? Definition, Characteristics & Authors

What comes to mind when you think of Gothic literature? Dark and mysterious settings, haunted houses, and supernatural occurrences? Gothic literature has a rich history and unique characteristics that set it apart from other genres.

Gothic literature emerged in the late 18th century and has continued to captivate readers ever since. Authors like Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker have made significant contributions to the genre, creating memorable works that explore the darker aspects of human nature.

In this article, we will delve into the world of Gothic literature, exploring its definition, key characteristics, and highlighting some of the most notable authors in the genre. Whether you are a fan of horror and mystery or simply curious about this fascinating literary tradition, this post will provide you with a comprehensive overview of what makes Gothic literature so enthralling.

What Is Gothic Literature?

Gothic literature is a genre of writing that is characterized by the inclusion of dark, supernatural elements, both in terms of occurrences and the setting of the piece. It utilizes a multitude of literary techniques, such as setting, characters, and themes, to create an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.

The name of gothic literature is a reference to the gothic architecture that was prominent in the European Middle Ages, as these tend to be common settings in this genre.

Gothic literature developed during the Romantic period in Britain. The first mention of “Gothic,” as about literature, was in the subtitle of Horace Walpole’s 1765 story “The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story” which was supposed to have been meant by the author as a subtle joke—”When he used the word it meant something like ‘barbarous,’ as well as ‘deriving from the Middle Ages.” In the book, it’s purported that the story was an ancient one, then recently discovered. But that’s just part of the tale.

READ ALSO: When To Use Single Quotation Marks: When and Why to Use Them

Features of Gothic Literature

These are a few of the distinctive features of Gothic fiction:

1. Complex heroes

In Gothic stories, the protagonist is portrayed as an anti-hero, having a complicated personality that exposes both good and bad aspects. As an outcast of society, the protagonist typically displays repetitious features, either physically or emotionally. For example, the hero may experience uncontrollable fury. Thus, the tortured and doomed anti-hero is a Gothic motif that has permeated the literary canon.

2. Damsel in distress

A damsel in distress—typically an innocent young woman—is a classic Gothic trope that appears in numerous novels. Often, a supernatural being has kidnapped the helpless woman and imprisoned her in a secluded tower or castle. In Gothic romance, the damsel in distress frequently falls in love with the anti-hero, who combines a seductive and charming demeanor with a darker side, such as a violent temper.

You may want to check out the 7 Best Websites to Hire Freelancers for Interactive Writing in Africa

3. Existential themes

Gothic fiction also explores existential themes to dramatize the plot. Gothic writers examine and question morality, reality, religion, and philosophy to match the ominous setting.

4. Extreme emotions

The idea of emotional extremes is another creative tool used in Gothic fiction to dramatize the story. Characters experience an internal torment that can assume a variety of different forms. Tragic and ominous plot points, such as the death of a loved one or an unsolved murder mystery, often send the protagonist into a spiral or raging catharsis.

Related Post: 7 Best Websites To Hire Freelancers For Mystery Writing In Africa

5. Ominous setting

An eerie and spooky setting is a pillar of the Gothic novel, invoking suspense into the narrative. Common locations in Gothic fiction include Medieval ruins, haunted houses, and dilapidated monasteries. These types of ominous spaces often have secret hallways, trapdoors, and mysterious rooms that conjure fear and curiosity in the reader.

6. Supernatural elements

Supernatural elements—such as the use of ghosts, vampires, monsters, and demons—are another defining feature of Gothic fiction. Gothic writers employ these spooky elements to explore paranormal activity, embed terror into the plotline, and evoke fear within the reader.

7. Burdened Male Protagonist

The men in classic gothic literature are usually wealthy, entitled, and hold a lot of power. Or they may be burdened by a mad wife they need to hide away, or required to marry somebody they don’t love. They represent the best and worst of society and often must face the demon within them in their search for peace.

A perfect example of the burdened male protagonist is Maxim from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

8. Melodrama

Gothic fiction is dramatic because the stakes are high. Characters are usually troubled, with bad things happening to them and around them. Expect much swooning, fainting, and screaming. They often, also, have troubled minds. 

READ ALSO: 120 Romance Writing Prompts & Love Story Ideas

Key Tropes In Gothic Fiction

Gothic fiction has a set of devices used in every novel that the reader will recognize instantly. These tropes are recognizable and peculiar to this kind of writing.

Here are some of the main tropes to take note of:  


The flickering of lights points to something otherworldly in control. Or a light in an abandoned place tells you something is there that shouldn’t be.  


A good thunderstorm foreshadows imminent doom, while powerful winds confuse our characters and imply divine intervention. Classic English gothic books are typically set on windswept, barren, and solitary moors, whereas Southern Gothic sub-genre novels are set in heat-sweltered southern US states, employing dusty, dry landscapes to convey isolation in a new way. These are difficult places to endure.

READ ALSO: 7 Best Websites to Hire Freelancers for Mirror Writing in Africa


Things that go bump in the night. There is always a noise that might draw your character from their bed in the dead of night to investigate. And, of course, you know that is the last thing they should be doing.  


There is nothing spookier than hearing a youngster laugh from deep within the heart of a dark, abandoned house. It is a clear indication that something awful has occurred, and you should probably flee the other way.


Savage nature- crows, ravens, and wolves have all been vilified in gothic fiction and used as symbols to impress the coming darkness. 

Imprisoned Characters

Every gothic literature has an imprisoned character. Think of Mr Rochester’s wife locked away in the attic in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, or of Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery held captive by a crazed fan. 

Do you know you can get hired by high-paying clients on WritersGig as a professional freelance writer? Get started as a writer.

Popular Themes In Gothic Literature

The concepts explored in gothic fiction are my favorite aspect of the genre. A ghost story is never just a ghost story, and a story about madness is never just a depiction of insane behavior. Gothic writers strive to express their message through the story’s underlying meaning, or theme. And the themes of gothic literature highlight humanity’s darkest side.

Here are some of the main themes of Gothicism: 

  • Appearance vs Reality 
  • Doppelganger/Duality of humanity 
  • Isolation and seclusion 
  • Challenging gender roles 
  • Imbalance of power 
  • Corruption of innocence 
  • Place 
  • Romance 
  • Injustice 
  • Searching for the truth 

The most notable Gothic fiction authors published their works during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  • Ann Radcliffe: Ann Radcliffe was a prominent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writer who significantly influenced the Gothic genre. Known for her ability to create realistic explanations for supernatural occurrences, Radcliffe’s stories captured the attention of a broad audience. Some of her most well-known works include The ItalianThe Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, which influenced Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
  • The Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë lived in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and became well-known poets and writers during the nineteenth century. At first, the sisters published their work under pseudonyms to avoid additional criticism and backlash as women writers. However, today, Jane Eyre by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Brontë, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë are all notable works of Gothic literature.
  • Mary Shelley: Known for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s Gothic writings influenced new genres, including science fiction and monster-themed horror. After writing Frankenstein, Shelley continued to write numerous works within the Gothic genre, such as the short story “Mathilda” and the novels Valperga and The Last Man.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: A nineteenth-century writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe used his writing to explore Gothic themes and the macabre. Some of his most famous works were “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He is also considered the father of the detective fiction genre and a significant influence on the science fiction genre.
  • Horace Walpole: Considered the father of the Gothic genre, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto used a Medieval castle as the setting for its terrifying story of death, love, and prophecy. By blending realism with the supernatural, Walpole created the first horror novel that fused fantasy and reality. In 1749, Walpole began the construction of his own Gothic revival–style home, known as Strawberry Hill, an estate in Twickenham, London.

SEE ALSO: How to Start eCommerce Content Writing & Become an eCommerce Writer  

Notable Gothic Fiction Books

The Gothic genre led to a wide range of imaginative and suspenseful stories that helped shape modern-day horror and thriller novels.

  • The Castle of Otranto (1764): The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, takes place in a haunted castle and follows Manfred, a father affected by the sudden and tragic death of his son. Manfred becomes consumed with the idea of marrying a young bride to produce heirs and continue his line.
  • Dracula (1897): Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel that combines folklore legend and Gothic fiction to tell the tragic story of Count Dracula, a vampire who lives in a castle in Transylvania. This famous Gothic work has inspired many theatrical and cinematic adaptations, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)The Mysteries of Udolpho is a famous Gothic book written by Ann Radcliffe. Filled with crumbling castles, psychological terror, and secret admirers, Radcliffe’s novel is an archetypal Gothic romance that influenced many literary works. For example, Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait” both reference The Mysteries of Udolpho.
  • Frankenstein (1818): Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most well-known works of Gothic fiction. In this classic Gothic novel, Shelley explores the ramifications of science, as protagonist Victor Frankenstein attempts to create life from a corpse. Shelley’s image of a monster sewn together from human body parts has become a famous symbol associated with Gothic literature and horror.
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)Melmoth the Wanderer is a Gothic novel by Charles Maturin that explores themes of madness, religion, and diabolism. After its publication, the novel received praise and recognition from other significant writers, including Honoré de Balzac and Oscar Wilde.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886): By combining fantastical elements with the pursuit of science, Robert Louis Stevenson explores the duality of humans. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells the story of two opposite personalities: one good and one evil.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Gothic horror story that uses a portrait as a base for entering the supernatural world. Wilde examines morality in the text, as the protagonist chooses to sell his soul in the pursuit of sin.
  • The Woman in White (1860): Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is a Gothic mystery set in a dark, foggy London town that uses multiple narrative points of view to unravel the villain’s secret. Collins’s work is often considered Gothic with a twist, as he chooses to explore realistic dangers instead of supernatural threats. Due to the protagonist’s investigation techniques, the novel is also an early work of detective fiction and sensation writing.
  • The Monk (1796): Matthew Lewis’s The Monk portrays the Catholic Church in a scandalous light by depicting the lives of corrupt monks. While Lewis explores the supernatural in this Gothic tale, he delves deeper into the theme of morality by portraying the triumph of evil.

FAQs On What Is Gothic Literature

What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature is a genre that combines elements of horror, death, and romance. It typically features dark, gloomy settings such as old castles, monasteries, or mansions. The genre often explores themes of the supernatural, madness, and the grotesque.

When did Gothic literature originate?

Gothic literature originated in the mid-18th century. The genre began with the publication of Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764, which is considered the first Gothic novel.

How does Gothic literature differ from horror?

While both genres aim to evoke fear, Gothic literature often combines horror with romantic elements, emphasizing the emotional and psychological states of characters. Gothic stories often have a more intricate and poetic style compared to the often straightforward and visceral approach of modern horror.

Can Gothic literature be humorous?

While Gothic literature is generally associated with dark and serious themes, some works incorporate elements of dark humor or satire. An example is Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” which parodies the conventions of Gothic novels.


Gothic literature remains relevant due to its exploration of universal themes such as fear, the unknown, and the human condition. Its rich imagery, complex characters, and emotional depth continue to captivate readers and inspire writers.


We Also Recommend