The Gothic Elements in Literature

Gothic fiction is a genre of literature, which combines horror and romance, ugly and beautiful. The goal of the gothic literature is to terrify the reader, to make him experience more feelings.

William Faulkner is considered to be one of the most famous writers, who used in his novels southern gothic style. In his novel ‘A Rose for Emily’ (1931) he tells the story of well-to-do women, who went crazy, because she was overwhelmed with loneliness and complete misunderstanding.

The most important feature of the southern gothic tradition is the depiction of macabre events, somber and full of mystery. Through the eyes of the entire town – the narration is led from the first person plural – the author shows us the whole life of a woman, Emily Gierson. She is quite a tragic character – she is the last descendent of the formerly rich and mighty family. Her father left her only an old house, in which she lives like in a castle and no one is allowed to shatter her peace. The house itself used to be ‘white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies’, but now it is dark and dull, with disgusting smell everywhere. Leather, heavy furniture occupies all the space, making the rooms cramped and unpleasant.

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The use of this gothic image is closely connected with the inner world of miss Emily. The author describes her like a corpse ‘submerged in motionless water’. Here is a strong parallelism between Emily and her house – they both are abandoned and half-dead.

Another typical southern gothic style feature is the usage of archetypes. Emily Gierson is an archetype of the solitary spinster from South America, who lives in a creepy house and has only one servant. Here is another parallel – Emily is a white woman and her servant is a Negro, whom the author did not even give a name, but in this way he refers to the slave-holding tradition of the old South. Author is rather ironic at this point. He judges the division of the society to the upper and lower classes. Emily is a relic of a once great family, but now she is just an old woman, who commits a terrible crime and then loses her mind. Irony is an element of the southern gothic novel, and Faulkner uses it to criticize the class system existing in the south in that period of time.

Another element of the gothic novel is the atmosphere of terror and distress. Throughout the history the reader is given only some pieces of the whole picture, but it is not complete until the very last line. Every detail of the interior, every look and every word creates a strange experience of anxiety and stress. Only in the end the reader is allowed to find out that an old spinster killed her lover and kept his body in the room for the last thirty years. She was so afraid of loneliness and so scared that he would leave her that she found her own, rather perverse way to be always with him. Here are revealed some other elements of gothic literature: an unrequited love, a young woman in distress and some unexplainable events. Why did she kill him? Why did she keep his body? These are the questions no one can answer.

Another splendid example of the gothic tradition in poetry is a poem by Robert Browning ‘My Last Duchess’. Browning was one of the first poets, who used the form of monologue, in which the speaker is revealed to the audience thorough his own words. Looking back onto the historical background of the poem, a reader can see that a protagonist in it is an Italian Duke of Ferrera, Alfonso, who lived in the 16th century. He stands in front of the portrait of a beautiful girl, who used to be his wife, and discusses it with the count’s envoy, who is a guest in his house. He claims that his wife was a thankless and mean person, who flirted with everybody and did not even appreciate his gift – nine-hundred-years-old name. As he continues speaking, the reader realizes that it is he, who killed this beautiful woman.

The decoration of the poem serves 16th century castle, which is one of the most distinctive elements of the gothic style.

As it is known, the action in gothic literature often happens in some exotic place or country. The events in the poem take place in Italy. For Robert Browning, who was born in England, Italy was, without doubts, an exotic country.

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In ‘My Last Duchess’ a reader sees a young person, a woman, who is threatened by a tyrannical husband. Alfonso thinks that he is allowed to treat her like a thing without feelings. Even her politeness with the other men is accepted as her cheating by the husband. As the way of punishment, he decides to kill her in order to prove everybody and himself that only he has the right for her. Again, why does he kill her? It cannot be explained by a normal, ordinary logic, which is inherent to the majority of people. Perhaps, he loved her too much to see that the other men look at her. Maybe, it was his own perversion of love. Even if there are no supernatural beings in the poem, Alfonso himself can be viewed as a cold-blooded monster, who butchered his own wife. The most of the Duke’s suspects were born in his mind; he saw sins hiding in every corner.

The poem puts a reader on a psychological level of reading. While reading, all we can see are the thoughts of the Duke, so we must create the whole picture out of the pieces to understand what happened. And in such a way we become involved in the poem, we are its participants.

‘My Last Duchess’ is a wonderful example of the gothic poem, which is equally full of the horror and beauty.

Joyce Oates wrote his story ‘Where Are You Going? Where have you been?’ inspired by the reading of an article in Life magazine about an insane young man, who killed several girls in Arizona at the beginning of 1960s.

The main character of this story is a girl Connie, who is fifteen years old. She lives together with her family and she is tired of her mother, who is constantly nagging her and always compares Connie to her older sister June. Her mother wants her to be like June, because the older sister is more responsible and has a nice job. So, here is the first element of the gothic style – a protagonist is a young woman, who is distressed and then placed in terrible circumstances. She creates her image as an adult person due to all the clothes and make-up, but she is only a little silly girl, who confuses her wish to attract boy’s attention with the real consequences of her behavior. She does not realize that the romantic relationships, which she dreams of while listening to her favorite music, differ greatly from the real adult sexuality. However, this is her claim to be independent from her family and a weak try to prove to herself that she is an adult now. The price she pays for that is more than high.

Arnold Friend is another symbolic figure in this story. He is a strong despotic man, who wishes Connie so much that he is really mad in his desire. Actually, the author uses the device of irony, which is so popular in gothic style, in creating his image. Arnold’s last name is Friend, but he is not a friend, he is an enemy. Connie is too immature to realize this life’s sarcasm. She sees him, she observes that he behaves in a strange way, but she is too scared to protect herself – her hands are shaking and she cannot even dial a police number. When he said that he would do something terrible to her family, she has no other choice, than to obey his will and go with him. The author does not tell the reader what happened after that and in this way he keeps them under the tension even after the end of the story.

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The novel is highly saturated with emotions. The heroine is overcome with surprise, anger, sorrow, but her main emotion, is, of course, horror. She is in panic, she screams, but she knows that nobody will help her. This creates the general atmosphere of deadlock and despair. At first she feels a slight fear, which then becomes more and more vivid, till its culmination.

Arnold says that he loves her, but what is his love? It is just another form of slavery, because he would never release her, he would make her his personal perfect girlfriend. He is so obsessed with her, that it seems to the reader he has already created her image and he doesn’t want to see anything that is not according to it – Connie’s eyes are brown, but he says something about her blue eyes.

Oates makes his reader live together with his characters, because they are also terrified and scared. Even nowadays this tragic drama continues to resonate throughout our society. 

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