Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Brief Guide to Gothic Tropes - Character (1/3)




If you're thinking you've seen Gothic literature on this blog before, you'd be right. I mentioned it briefly back in May. Gothic is a genre of horror that originated in the 1700s. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually cited as the first Gothic novel, but Walpole himself admitted that he had been heavily influenced by Shakespearean tragedy. If you're ever sitting in an English class and cursing the bard, consider cursing the Gothic genre as well. It brought Shakespeare back in at a time when he all but forgotten. Many classic novels are either Gothic or use elements of the Gothic. Famous Gothic writers include Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, 1847), Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794), Rebecca Du Maurier (Rebecca, 1938), and Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1796). Jane Austen's novel Northhanger Abbey (1817) is a famous parody of the genre, and worth reading for the three page rant about novels being equal to other art forms alone. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the first science fiction novel, also incorporates Gothic elements. Many modern fantasy, sci-fi, and horror tropes have their roots in the Gothic genre.

Character Names

The following names are all ridiculously common in Gothic fiction.
  • Matilda
  • Isabella
  • Theodore
  • Catherine
The first three were used in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, which goes some way to explaining their popularity.

Female Characters

Sorry ladies, if you're starring in a Gothic novel, you really only have two roles to choose from. Three at a push. Now is probably a good time to point out that attitudes towards women have changed greatly since the first Gothic novels. Due to the time period, the following character archetypes are based heavily around whether or not a woman could wear white on her wedding day.

The Virginal Maiden is the archetypal Gothic heroine. She's beautiful, demure, innocent, and tends to faint a lot. If she's lucky, the hero will come along and rescue her, but more often then not she dies. Examples include Catherine Earnshaw, Cathy Linton (both Wuthering Heights), and Antonia (The Monk).

(Spoiler alert.)

Most of these books have been around for over a century. Besides, who says they're the ones who die?

The other archetypal Gothic woman is the Femme Fatale (fatal woman in French). She's as beautiful as the Virginal Maiden, but evil because she knows it and uses it to her advantage. Promiscuity is one of the most common traits of the femme fatale. More often than not, she's an unmarried woman. 

(Scandalous.)

I know! Georgian/Victorian society trembles as the ground breaks apart beneath its feet! 

Matilda from The Monk is the greatest example of this archetype that you will ever read.

The third character type is especially prominent in Victorian works. The Fallen Woman is traditionally a character who um...lay with a man outside of wedlock. Unlike the other two character types, the Fallen Woman was not defined by the Gothic genre. She was actually a figure in society. Depending on the writer, this character can be played sympathetically. Like the Virginal Maiden, the Fallen Woman is prone to dying.

Male Characters

Major male characters in Gothic fiction also fall into roughly two categories with a possible third. In more recent Gothic stories, some of these tropes may be gender-flipped. 

The Gothic Hero is like a male version of the Virginal Maiden, but with less fainting and more saving of innocent maidens. I always feel like this character hearkens back to heroes like Perseus, who saved Andromeda from a sea monster, and Saint George, who saved a princess from a dragon. He's a handsome guy with a good heart and usually gets a girl (not necessarily the girl) in the end. Examples include Lorenzo (The Monk), and Theodore (The Castle of Otranto).

The Byronic Hero is a horrible person.

(Personal opinion alert.)

Thank you, Ivy.

He's charismatic, cynical, moody, and you won't like him when he's angry. Depending on the novel, marrying him is either the dream or the nightmare. The trope is named after Lord Byron, who was considered to be "mad, bad and dangerous." For some exasperating reason, people love this character and they have done for centuries. Emily Brontë herself could never understand what people saw in the utterly irredeemable Heathcliff. 

Like the Fallen Woman, the Tragic Hero is not a character who originated in the Gothic. He's as old as time. A man who is blinded by his own fatal flaw, and dies as a result. Think Macbeth, Hamlet (though the jury's still out on what exactly his fatal flaw is), and Ambrosio (The Monk).

Other Characters

Monks, nuns, and ministers fall into two categories. Either they're hypocrites, or they're fundamentalists. There is no inbetween. The Monk is a prime example of this. 

Servants are mostly there for comic relief, and to set the scene. 

I was originally going to cover character, setting, and theme in one post, but this is already getting long, so I've decided to split it into three.

Do you have a favourite Gothic character? I have two, Isabella from Wuthering Heights, and Matilda from The Monk.