Conventions of the Gothic Part One: Themes



Used in a number of ways and forms, some of these being:

  • Mist: This convention in Gothic Literature is often used to obscure objects (this can be related to the sublime) by reducing visibility or to prelude the insertion of a terrifying person or thing.
  • Storm: These frequently accompany important events. Flashes of lightening accompany revelation; thunder and downpours prefigure the appearance of a character or the beginning of a significant event.
  • Sunlight: Represents goodness and pleasure; it also has the power to bestow these upon characters.
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The Sublime

The definition of this key term has long been a contested term, but the idea of the sublime is essential to an understanding of Gothic poetics and, espiecially, the attempt to defend or justify the literature of terror. Put basically, the Sublime is an overpowering sense of the greatness and power of nature, which can be uplifting, awe - inspiring and terrifying, caused by experience or beauty, vastness or grandeur. Sublime moments lead us to consider the place of humanity in the universe and the power exhibited in the world. We see an example of Gothic usurpation of a Romantically sublime space in the monster's interruption of Victor's Alpine reveries in Frankenstein.

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Perhaps the most famous Gothic example occurs in Shelley's Frankenstein after Frankenstein 'awakes' his creature: he falls into a dream state that begins with his kissing Elizabeth, his love. However, this kiss changes her in the most drastic way as she transforms into the rotting corpse of Caroline, Victor's dead mother. Upon awakening from this horrifying dream, Victor finds himself staring into the face of the monster he has created. Interpretations of this dream lead to explorations of Frankenstein's psyche, relational ability and sexuality. Sex, incidentally, is a significant feature of the Gothic as it is linked to the Forbidden. Lust is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

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Sense of Mystery and Dread

These serve to captivate the reader and encourage further reading. They may also be seen acting upon protagonists in texts, influencing them by exciting their curiosity or fear. Frankenstein himself is occupied with penetrating the mystery that surrounds life, but this leads for him to months of dread. The reader (and Walton) are intrigued by the mystery of Frankenstein's methods.

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The Supernatural

This is generally in the form of some kind of supernatural being or object, such as a vampire or ghost, which is frightening due to its refusal to adhere to the laws of nature, God or man. This is often called breaking away from the establishment. In Frankenstein, it could be argued that there is no element of the supernatural, or alternatively that the creature is supernatural by virtue of its being a composition of dead parts then re - animated by 'ungodly' means.

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Darkness as Intrinsic* to Humanity

Generally speaking, gothic literature delves into the macabre nature of humanity in its quest to satiate mankind's intrinsic desire to plumb the depths of terror


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Ambiguity and Ambivalence

These are found in characters, their motivations and lives. Duality and antithesis* are also found.

*a rhetorical device in which two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrastin effect (definition from

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The Gothic often shows that "the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation". What this form of resolution implies, guaranteeing as it does that justice will be done despite the degree to which the original crime has been obscured and forgotten, is that the power of social stability is stronger than any individual's attempt to transgress it.

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Revenge is characterized as the act of repaying someone for a harm that the person has caused; the idea also points back generically to one of the key influences upon Gothic literature: the revenge tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Revenge may be enacted upon a loved one, a family member, a friend, an object or even an area. Within Gothic Literature, revenge is notably prominent and can be enacted by or upon mortals as well as spirits. Revenge can take many forms, such as harm to body, harm to loved ones and harm to family. The most Gothic version of revenge in Gothic Literature is the idea that it can be a guiding force in the reverance of the dead.

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Marriage as Resolution

The importance of marriage in this schema cannot be overstated. Not only does movement toward matrimony in the Gothic's present trigger the appearace of the buried past, but that buried past itself always contains information tied to the institutions of matrimony or family interest.

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Strong Moral Closure

If de Sade is to be believed, the Gothic genre arose as a response to the brutality and bloodiness of Romantic society, and it is part of this response that Gothic fiction usually contains a strong moral message. In Frankenstein, there are a number of moral messages which can be drawn; some more explicit than others. This is, however, complicated by the fact that Frankenstein does not seem to learn a great deal from his experience and exhorts Walton to two conflicting courses of action near the end of the novel.

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