Classic Elements of Gothic Stories

8 literary elements and characteristics of Gothic storytelling.

Reading time
7 min
Published on

February 13, 2024

Blauw Films

Landscape painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Early morning landscape with yellow skies and dark forrests in the background.

Out of pure curiosity and love for the Gothic aesthetic, I researched defining elements of the Gothic literary genre.

As a result, I have compiled a list with eight defining points of the genre.
I also discuss how Gothic tropes relate to the Victorian age, and how that culture influenced the genre. 

My goal with this research: how can I recognize and replicate these storytelling elements in other disciplines, such as film, costume and fine arts? 

The Classic novels that are free to read online are compiled and linked at the end of this blog.

1. The Sublime & Terror

Starting with the most distinctive of tropes, Gothic text is characterised by a heavy focus on the sublime.
When an emotion or moment becomes so overwhelming it exceeds a comprehensible scale, we speak of the sublime.

Sublime nature reminds us of how small and insignificant we are, it exceeds awe and turns into anxiety and terror.

True Gothic horror is terror.

The sublime is used as a story device to turn the story away from thrilling into the heightened emotional state of terror.

“A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful” by Edmund Burke is an insightful essay that describes the origin and function of the sublime —
and is a worthy read if taste and aestheticism are subjects that interest you.

Oil on canvas painting "The Nightmare" by Johann Heinrich Fussli. A sleeping woman in white robes is laying unconciously while a demon sits on her chest. The demon is looking directly to the viewer. There is also a black donkey in the shadowy backgrounds.

2. The Castle

Architecture is an integral part to the Gothic aesthetic, as it is the origin of the art-form.
The mention of castles not only serves the setting, but also reminds us of once powerful civilisations now long gone.
A castle symbolises old aristocratic powers refusing to die, and the ruins of a castle are an ominous reminder that every civilisation will break down some day.
Where castles often refer to aristocracy, churches and covenants refer to ancient religious powers, gods, or beliefs.

“The Castle of Otranto'' by Horace Walpole is considered the first Gothic novel, as he was the first to use the word in a literary context.

In the first edition, Walpole pretended that the book was an original Italian novel from 1529, which added a forlorn atmosphere and sparked the reader's imagination.
In the second edition he admitted to be the author, and added “A Gothic Tale” as subtext to his title.

This cemented the castle into the Gothic, the haunted and icon for ancient history.

Landscape painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Autumn scene with yellow and green light/ There are yellow leaves on the forest floor. In the distance is an grand castle.

3. Confinement

Rooms without doors, the inability to escape or the feeling of being trapped are terrors that live inside every human being. But influenced under the sublime, the Gothic likes to take notions of confinement to the text level. Being buried alive is a trope often used by Edgar Allen Poe.

The feeling of being trapped inside yourself, or the inability to escape your mortal body and mind, are fears that Gothic literature likes to play with.

“Wuthering Heights'' By Emily Brontë is a good example of a story that deals with confined emotions, and the fear of letting those emotions run free.

Repressed emotions that torture us from the inside out are an often reoccurring theme in Gothic text.

Oil painting on canvas. "The Awakening Conscience" by William Holman Hunt. Depicting a young woman jumping up from her seat, as she is staring off-frame into an open window. Her eyes are wide open and full of vigor.  Symbolism in the painting suggests that she is has just realised she wants to be free from her constraining marriage.

4. Wild Nature

The use of uncontrollable nature is a counter reaction to the Romantic period, in which beautiful and serene nature was an integral part.

The Gothic uses nature to emphasise the insignificance of the human in relation to the universe.
Nature can overpower civilizations, and its power is merciless. 

Unusually thick mist shrouds the grounds around Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

Strong winds make doors close and open on their own, and tree branches are tapping against the window.
All this restless nature sets the uneasy tone and is a reminder that no human is truly ever in control of their surroundings.

Landscape painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. It is a sea-side landscape painting by night. The sea is wild and the wind is blowing hard, as even the fire is creeping up high. The people in the painting are silhouetted.

5. Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech similar to a metaphor. But instead of saying “this is that”, metonymy says “this symbolises that”.

Rain symbolises sadness, a cross symbolises christianity, a full moon symbolises werewolves. Metonymy is used to spark subliminal uneasiness, set the tone or signal emotions. 

The final scenes in The Matrix trilogy are marked with endless heavy rain and powerful lightning strikes, creating a wild atmosphere that emphasises the drama of the final battle.
It uses wild nature as a metonymy, to signal the strength and willpower of the characters.

Oil painting "The Scapegoat" by painter William Holman Hunt. The image depicts a goat and a barren landscape. the image represents the painter's personal feelings of guilt and being an outsider. The landscape looks vast and there seem to be skeletons laying around.

6. The Supernatural

Ghosts, hauntings, the undead and prophecies are very important and popular elements of the Gothic.

Often these supernatural happenings are rationalised, and sometimes even have a logical explanation.
The occult is an integral part to Gothic storytelling, as these topics were a taboo during the late 17th and early 18th century.

Christian religion teaches us that some knowledge is not meant for humans, it is taboo to steal knowledge from the Gods.
Gothic literature challenges these taboos, with characters chasing occult or hidden knowledge. 

“Frankenstein” by Marry Shelley is a perfect example in which the supernatural meets with taboo knowledge and scientific explanations for unnatural events.

The way how Frankenstein creates his monster is of course supernatural, but it is described in a way that makes it seem scientific and logical.
Bringing people back from the dead is a power only reserved for God himself, and so seeking out the power of resurrection is taboo, and challenges the status of God.

Gothic oil painting "the lady of Shalott" by painter Arthur Hughes. depicting the tragic story of the Lady of Shalott. the original story is a poem by Alfred Lord tennynson. We see the frozen Lady Shalott laying on a boat. as she is found by villagers.

7. The Past

In classic Gothic stories, the past has an active influence on the present.

Consequences, prophecies, or repressed emotions can all be devices to signal a haunting past.

Plot structures that are often used are revenge, inheritance or sins of the father.
All of these utilise the past coming back to the present, making the characters pay the price.

The past is also symbolised through the periodical setting of the story.
Many Gothic stories take place in old times. During the Victorian age, a medieval setting was very popular.

The Harry Potter books are a good modern example of the past having an integral role in the present.

Not only is Harry haunted by a curse from the past, the book is filled with ominous prophecies, and the aesthetic of the Wizarding World is medieval-inspired.

Classic gothic oil painting called "Love and the Pilgrim", by painter Edward Burne Jones. The scene depicts an angel or cupid helping a pilgrim out of a bush of thorns.

8. A Powerful Character

Many Gothic novels feature at least one character that exhibits powerful character traits, has strong opinions or is literally overpowering.
The “Byronic” stereotype is a famous powerful character.

Someone who is bad and evil at the core, but is shrouded in confidence, dignity and reputation.

As Gothic stories inherently push taboos, strong characters symbolise these sentiments.
They are characters that do not conform to what it means to be good. Powerful characters challenge authority, social norms, religion and even defy what it means to be human.

Famous oil painting by Sargent Singer; "Lady Agnew". She is looking fiercly into the eyes of the viewer. Her expression is confident and almost daring. She is wearing a lilar robe en chemise.

Victorian Ideologies

Gothic literature arose between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century.
During this time, society experienced a growth of the middle class, and with that the disappearance of the old aristocracy.

Ideas around a new societal structure are all over the Gothic genre.

End of an Era

The Victorians pondered over the end of the medieval age, and the passage of cultures in general.
They felt like they themselves were living through an age of change, but that old conceptions of class refused to hand over their power.

Social Ranks

The Victorian age was an age marked with social rank and responsibilities.
During early Gothic works we can clearly see the role of the female heroine. They are innocent, persecuted and very often on the run.

Around the end of the 18th century, Gothic works featured female heroines that were agents of their own plot.
They explore, question and challenge the status quo.

"Wuthering Heights" and "The Bloody Chamber" are novels with strong female characters. 

Science and Enlightenment

The Victorian age is also the age of enlightenment, and is known for a strongly rising interest in chemistry and science.
New ideas about nature and science scared a lot of commoners, such as the idea that humans came from apes. The very image was unsettling.

Chemistry was considered closer to magic than something else.

Oil painting "Autumn Glory the old mill" by painter John Atkinson Grimshaw. Gothic landscape painting with brown-leaved trees and an abandoned mill in the background.

Defying belief systems

The age of enlightenment is driven by people who question the world around them.

This often defied the wants of the church, which in return encouraged people to question the norms of The Bible itself.

Generally people did not lower their belief in God, but did question the image of the Devil as painted by the church.

In Gothic literature, the Devil is often pictured as an anti-hero.
Although he is evil and bad, his motivations can be understood, even noble. 


Death was a central part of Victorian culture. The church, sickness, death and mourning was a very prominent part of everyone’s life.

With the rise of enlightened thinking, Gothic literature pushed the boundaries of the taboos surrounding death and the afterlife.
Ghosts and men are not supposed to live in the same realm, and the idea that death could be brought back to the world of the living was taboo.

Victorians played with ideas of everlasting life, and that death may not be permanent. They also reasoned that death could be both a blessing and a curse.
Think of the concept of an undead soul, cursed to live, wishing to be laid to sleep. Those types of thoughts are inherently very anti-Christian. 

Repressed Desires

Taboos were also pushed in the area of sexuality and desires.

Christianity states clear rules about marriage and controlling your urges.
A central part to Gothic text is the idea that repressed feelings can come back to haunt you, and you might end up acting out immoral acts.

A famous short story “Carmilla” tells the story of a soon-to-be-wed lady being seduced by a lesbian vampire, and both “A Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Wuthering Heights” tell tales of repressed, taboo emotions and unconventional relationships.

Oil painting "Ophelia" by John Everett millais. Classic gothic painting of the Shakespeare character Ophelia. She is a young noblewoman, who dies young, as depicted in this famous painting. She is floating in a body of water, surrounded by greenery and flowers.


Personally, the Gothic inspires me like nothing else. Gothic tropes perfectly lend themselves for modernisation and appropriation, and its taboo-defying mindset is ever relevant and thought-provoking. Gothic storytelling elements move across time, genres and media.Its aesthetic is ever powerful, imaginative and as of today it still manages to make our human soul tremble to the core.

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