Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Brief Guide to Gothic Tropes - Theme (3/3)

On Saturday, we discussed Gothic characters. 
On Thursday, we discussed Gothic settings.
Today, we're discussing Gothic themes

Obviously, different books use use different themes, but there are a number that pop up repeatedly in Gothic fiction. For example...

The Supernatural

If there aren't any ghosts, it isn't a Gothic novel. Okay, so that's not really a rule, but ghosts do appear a lot in Gothic fiction. Also, demons, the devil, and the dark arts. This is the part you can't explain, the part that makes you wonder if there's more to the story that what we're told. It's Catherine at Lockwood's window in Wuthering Heights. It's the lingering question of who or what Matilda really was when you finish reading The Monk. It's what makes Gothic fiction so intoxicating.

The Other

Gothic literature was written during a period of great social change. Migration was increasing. Within the country, people were beginning to flock from the country to the town. There was the industrial revolution, and then, in the late 1800s, women began to fight for their rights. The Other plays on our fear of the unknown. In Wuthering Heights, it's Heathcliff, a person who comes from outside the thin strip of moorland where the other characters were born. We never find out where exactly he's from, but it doesn't matter. The important thing is that he's an outsider. Nowadays, this theme is the definition of unfortunate implications. 


If we go back fifty years, men were expected to be dominant and women were expected to be submissive. On Saturday, we saw how female characters who conformed to the rules of society were written as saintly heroines -

(Who died)

- and how women who did not were evil seductresses -

(Who died.)

Whenever gender roles are reversed in Gothic fiction, the woman is playing the role of the other. And she's almost always leading the man astray. 

(And she's probably going to die.)

Love, Lust, and Revenge

Name me a Gothic novel where none of these show up as motivations. Go on, I'll wait.

4 hours later

(Okay. Fine. I-I give up!)

About time! It's impossible. In Gothic fiction, the byronic heroes go mad with lust, whilst the Gothic heroes are driven by the pure love they feel for the innocent, soon to be dead, maiden, and everybody has been slighted by everybody else. 

Proportion does not exist in Gothic novels. You are not merely in love. You are your lover. You'll do anything for them? I hope that includes dying tragically and leaving them to marry your clone who popped up at the last second. For added awfulness, there is a good chance that the handsome hero/beautiful maiden is your long lost sibling. Oh, and remember that adoptive sibling you were an absolute monster to as a child? The one who left? Yeah...he's going to come back, take everything from you, and systematically destroy everything you know and love tolerate. 

(And he's doing it for love too.)

Gothic fiction. So romantic. 


In the end, it's all about dominance. In The Monk, Ambrosio and Matilda are constantly wrestling for the power to decide what happens next. What will Ambrosio do? In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff wants the power that Hindley denied him as a child (though not quite as much as he wants Catherine). In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester attempts to control Jane by buying her fancy clothes and trying to turn her into somebody she's not. Remember, this is a time of great social change, a time when balances of power that haven't moved for centuries are starting to shift. 

Sometimes, power is exerted through words - this is especially true of power exerted by Gothic women - but more often, violence is used to intimidate others into doing as the character says.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does cover a number of the most common themes in Gothic literature.  
Can you name a Gothic novel in which there isn't a single character motivated by love, lust, or revenge?