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Dare to Scare: The Origins of Gothic Literature

Updated on April 12, 2017
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In 1764, Horace Walpole introduced to the world a new genre of literature known as Gothic fiction. He employed elements of the supernatural as well as the everyday in a manner to strike fear into the reader. Though this was not the first time in literature that the supernatural was used in writing to a frightful effect; Shakespeare, for example, used King Hamlet’s Ghost in Hamlet and the three witches in Macbeth. This was the first time they were used for the purpose of terrifying its audience.

In his story The Castle of Otranto, Walpole introduced the literary device of the Gothic Machine. Simply put, it is a device used in the story to cause fear in the reader. It is most commonly through of as the supernatural or unexplained, but can be something as real and tangible as the antagonist. Whether it is intangible object given unnatural life, mysterious voices, specters, gloomy prophecies or a villainous scoundrel, these devices were intended to keep the audience on edge.

During the time period in England known as the Victorian age, a group of artists started the artist movement known as Romanticism. This movement influenced the philosophy, art, architectural, music and literature of that period. It was a movement that focused on the emotional, not just love as we have come to mind when there is a reference to romance. From this was born the Gothic Romances of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley and many others. It can be theorized that the Gothic Romance was born in this period as a reaction to the sterility of the Victorian Age: of its strict moral code, of its science and reason, and of its politics.

Lord Byron was not only a writer of Romantic literature; he became the model for what is known as the Byronic Hero. Unlike the previous heroes that wee paragons of virtue, the Byronic Hero was flawed, sensitive, and was known to buck authority. Byron himself was the direct model for the characters of Lord Ruthven in Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre: charming, part of high society, and yet was, in Lamb’s own words, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Lord Byron was a rock star of the literary world. He was adored and admired. People wanted to know and be known by him. He had a title, money, dabbled in politics, and was a literary star, yet he was also a hard partier, had affairs with married women and his half-sister, and was bisexual. Eventually, these qualities could not be overlooked by polite British society, and Byron left England in self exile. He was constantly moving about the continent, and died while fighting for Greece.

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His “Fragment of a Novel”, Byron writes of Augustus Darvell, a gentleman of high society who is traveling on his way to die in a foreign land. This is a concept that is further explored by Polidori in The Vampyre with the identical character of Lord Ruthven/ Earl of Marsden. These men were charming, and well respected. The narrators spoke fondly of knowing them. As we find out later in The Vampyre, this was just a persona to disguise who they really are, a monster who preys on innocent women. This was the way the authors knew Byron was viewed in the social and political circles of Britain.

Though it was not the first of the vampire novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become the model for all future vampire tales. Stoker’s Count Dracula was based in part on the real life figure of Vlad II of Wallachia, or Vlad Dracul. Unlike the previous Gothic literature where our antagonist, who were British and became vampires abroad , Count Dracula was a foreigner coming to London to prey on its people, particularly the young women. He is aided in doing so by securing the purchase of property with the help of a British law firm in “precise locations all around London,” as noted by Jonathan Harker. (Dracula)

In all of these vampire stories, the vampirism menace is foreign in nature. This adds an element of world politics to these tales. It is a fear of the influences of the “heathen” Eastern European cultures into the strict, proper, pious British culture at play.

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Robert Louis Stevenson journeyed into the world of Gothic literature with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As done previously with Byron, Polidori and Stoker, we are relayed the tale, not through the subject of the story but person close to them. This time it is in the person of Gabriel John Utterson, Dr. Henry Jekyll’s lawyer and friend. We are introduced to the character as he is having a conversation with his relative, Mr. Enfield while walking the streets of London. We are made aware of his worry for his friend Dr. Jekyll and the cause for this, Mr. Edward Hyde. Stevenson writes that Mr. Enfield describes Hyde as having a “black, sneering coolness” about him. (8) It is after the strange behavior and withdrawal of Jekyll, the many crimes and death of Hyde we learn the truth. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were the same person; the result of an experiment to divide the good and evil nature of men.

Stevenson uses the models of Victorian society, Utterson and Jekyll to demonstrate its fallibility. Its moral is that we cannot completely subdue those parts of us that a proper society sees as troublesome and a menace. Humans are both reasoned and emotional, and to interfere with that balance will lead to a person’s downfall.

Henry Jekyll, a respected scientist wanted to perfect a serum to divide the two parts of human nature, the yin and yang as you will. His ultimate goal is to then eradicate the primitive side, therefore archiving a perfect state of true Victorian gentleman. The more reasoned, civilized persona of Jekyll eventually begins to lose out to the more instinctual and emotional Hyde to the point where he loses total control of the changes.

Utterson, with all the good intention of a friend tries to help Henry. He is sure to speak of his concerns to only their good mutual friend, Dr. Laydon and Jekyll himself. Thought it is made clear Utterson is greatly worried about Mr. Hyde’s connection to his friend, he goes out of his way to not reveal anything that might ruin Dr. Jekyll’s reputation. He does not mention the similarities in Jekyll and Hyde’s handwriting. All letters concerning Jekyll are kept in his office and locked in his safe. It is due to both men’s strict observance of Victorian ideals that lead to the destruction of Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Just as in the Romantic period, the devices used in Gothic literature are still seen used by the writers of today. J.K. Rowling demonstrates this in her Harry Potter series. The seven book series is filled with Gothic Machines, most notably Lord Voldemort. We also have our Byronic hero in the form of the series namesake, Harry Potter. Marketed as children’s fiction, the Harry Potter series explores the very adult topics of war and ethnic cleansing. These subjects are still very much in the European conscious long after World War II ended.

As the world in which this story takes place is magical in nature, the supernatural is present on virtually every page. Besides Lord Voldemort, there are lesser Gothic Machines such as the basilisk and Aragog the spider in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the Inferi in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Lord Voldemort can be viewed as loosely based on the real life historical figure of Adolf Hitler. Starting life as Tom Riddle, he was born to modest means and is only half-wizard. He rises to power, commanding the loyalty of a group of wizards who believe as he does: the only wizards should be of pure blood. He seeks world domination and the destruction of anyone not of a pure blood lineage of wizardry, despite the fact he is a half-blood wizard himself.

Voldemort is strongly linked to the snake, a symbol of evil found in Christianity. His appearance is described as being snakelike in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The wizarding house at Hogwarts is Slytherin, whose mascot is a serpent. He speaks Parseltongue, the language of snakes. His descendant, Salazar Slytherin himself, kept a basilisk in the tombs of Hogwarts. He reflected his ancestor’s choice of pet with is snake Nagini.

Harry Potter displays the aspects of the Byronic Hero. Harry is orphaned at the age of one, something that affects him greatly. He is constantly brooding, even doubting himself. He allows himself to get emotional and rash, which tends to get him and others into trouble. Throughout the series, he is constantly either serving detention, or called the headmaster’s office. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he is charged with underage magic use and stands trial. It is from this book on he is at constant odds with the Ministry of Magic.

Writing stories where the sole purpose to scare people was unheard of until The Castle of Otranto. Since that first venture into the genre of Gothic literature, writers have used it to explore the social, political, and scientific advancement through the monstrous creations both the supernatural and the plausible.

Works Cited

Byron, Lord George. “Fragment of a Novel.” readytogoebooks.com. JGHawaii Publishing Co. 2007. Web. 24 Feb 2013.

Coppola, Frances Ford, dir, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Pref. Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Cary Elwes. Columbia Pictures, 1992. DVD.

Polidori, John William, The Vampyre, gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg. 2013. Web. 24 Feb 2013.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Inc, 1999. Print.

---Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2000. Print.

---Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2003. Print.

---Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2005. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg. 2013. Web. 24 Feb 2013.

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