Gothic Novel – Definition & Meaning

Horace Walpole is the founder of gothic school of novelists. Gothic novel was a novel of mystery and imagination. The term “Gothic” is primarily an architectural one denoting that kind of European building which flourished in the Middle Ages and showed the influence of neither the Greeks nor the Romans. Gothic architecture began to come back to England in the middle of the eighteenth century. Walpole himself built a “little Gothic castle” at Strawberry Hill. This kind of building suggested mystery, romance, wildness and revolt against classical order through its associations with such a building medieval ruins, ivy-covered, haunted by owls and washed by moon-light. It is shadowy and mysterious. “The Castle of Otranto” is the unique achievement of Walpole in the field of Gothic novels. This novel has been described to be a melodramatic curiosity. The inspiration of the story of this book came in a dream. Walpole was after the marriage of the supernatural with the natural. His use of supernatural machinery is ludicrous and far too frequent. “The Castle of Otranto” strikes as an almost purely intellectual construction, a monstrous mechanism built to the specifications of a carefully thought out blueprint.

William Beckford was another gentleman of fashion and wealth who built a Gothic edifice called “Fonthill Abbey” and wrote a romance of mystery. As Fonthill was more extravagant than Strawberry Hill, so is “Vathek” a more bizarre composition than “The Castle of Otranto”. Walpole, though the day- dreamed, had a sound sense of the material world. But Beckford seemed to live in a territory of fantasy. “Vathek” is an oriented story of a Caliph who pursues his complex cruelties and intricate passions aided by his mother and supported by an evil genius. There is a true romanticism in this novel. Although it was partly inspired by the exotic romances of Voltaire, yet “Vathek” is distinguished from them by the terrible grandeur of its conclusion. Beckford himself with his misanthropy, his despair, his Inability to procure satisfaction for himself with his immense fortune, his vain search for happiness, is the most striking proto type of many a Byronic character. This novel presents the most curious mixture of the grotesque and the terrible, of satire and impassioned imagination. The style preserves the artistic rhetoric of the eighteenth century enriched with a picture sequence which foretells the new era.

Of the later practitioners of the “terror tale”, the most able and popular was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. The almost stock examples of Gothic novels are her “The Mysteries of “Udolpho” and “The Italian”. She accepted the mechanism of the “terror tale” but combined it with sentiment and with sentimental but effective descriptions of scenery. In this way, she brought the “terror tale” into contact with the interest in nature present in eighteenth century poetry. “The Mysteries of Udolpho” gives the formula of her work in its most unadulterated form. It presents an innocent and sensitive girl in the hands of a powerful and sadistic villain named Montoni, who owns a grim and isolated Castle, where mystery and horror stalk in the lonely corridors and haunted chambers. But before the end of the story, Radcliffe presents a rational explanation of her horrors. The ordinary theme of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels is the trials and persecutions inflicted on the heroine by a mysterious traitor or atheist in some wild place or ancient castle full of strange passages and terrifying dungeons. The mysteries are presented with real art and with a feeling for wild nature, which implies a very pronounced romantic taste. These half poetic romances heralded the less intellectual part of the literature which followed them. In Radcliffe’s work, the characters are wholly sub- ordinate to the environment. She communicates a real sense of mystery and her management of suspense is admirable.

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M. G. Lewis, who had real Goethe and the German romanticists, employed all the worst of his reading in “The Monk”. M. G. Lewis had neither the moral scruple of Mrs. Radcliffe nor her are in elucidating the mystery. Influenced by German romances, he went to the almost extremes of horror and murder in his “The Monk”. In this novel, he indulges in the most licentious pictures. In this novel, he used a modification of the “Faust” theme for such a portrayal of sensuality that contemporary taste was offended. Lewis followed this notorious success with “Tales of Terror” and “Tales of Wonder”.

Charles Robert Maturin had a wide influence in France. His most remarkable book is “Melmoth, The Wanderer”. One of the most competent of the “terror tales” was “Frankenstein” written by Mrs. Shelley. It is the novel of a mechanical monster. Of all the novels of this type, it is the only that has a steady public even today. It has become well-known among even the near illiterate because its subject rises from humble fiction to universal myth.



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