Five things I’ve learned about Gothic literature

I’ve you’ve only recently happened across this blog, you likely don’t know I’m taking a short class on Gothic literature.  I’ve had my first class, finished several short stories, and knocked off about 150 pages of The Monk.  It’s about time for an update on what I’ve learned.

I now know who the Goths were.

Several weeks ago, if you told me there were a bunch of goths on my lawn, I’d look for a group of moody, hyper-romantic, trench coat-wearing kids.  But now I know that the Goths were a  Germanic tribe who, among other things, hassled the Roman empire.  Duh.  Now I remember that once we got out of Greece, I started skipping a few too many meetings of Professor Ryan’s Ancient History class.  Sorry.  How did I forget about Visigoths and Ostrogoths?  I learned about them in middle school.  Sorry, Mrs. Kilroy.

Michelangelo's "Pieta." (Stanislav Traykov / Wikimedia / CC-A-SA)

Gothic arises from conflict.

Conflict drives great art and literature, and Gothic wouldn’t be possible without it.  The Goths saw the world one way, the Greco-Romans another.  When the two traditions mingled, some cool stuff happened.  It’s controlled vs. natural; subtle vs. exaggerated.  The same piece of art, executed by artists from different traditions, tells the story.

15th c. German Pieta

15th c. German "Pieta" from Cologne. Note the painful detail. (Hans Peter-Schaefer/Wikimedia/CC-A-SA)

How you define Gothic says more about you than about Gothic.

Where does Gothic begin?  Depends on who you ask.  One camp of scholars will tell you that Gothic can only be applied to a specific set of European literary texts from the 18th century, beginning with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and ending with Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).  Others argue that Gothic is a collection of elements and styles which can be applied to other texts, including but not limited to an “American Gothic” tradition.  I’m guessing these folks don’t spend too much time together at the bar during conferences.  If they do, I bet there are some good arguments.

Stuck writing your Gothic novel?  Have your character tell a story.

Granted I’m only 150 pages into The Monk, and I’ve only read a few stories. But it sure seems to me that a never-fail plot device for Gothic is to include a story within a story.  I’m leaving Mr. Lewis’ novel for a separate piece, but I’m not even sure what story I’m reading right now.  Where did the monk go?  There are so many stories, poems, and side tracks within the story, I’m begging for a set of SparkNotes.

It also seems like later writers play off this idea of storytelling in interesting ways.  Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Giant Wisteria,” as well as “The Yellow Wall-Paper” are all about who’s allowed to tell a story.  Wharton’s story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” makes you try to figure out the story — and denies you any clear answers.

I kind of like this stuff.

Surprised?  So am I.  I’ll admit reading this stuff is keeping me from my usual diet of news, biography and general non-fiction.  But these stories are quite entertaining, and a nice change of pace.

Now if I can just finish The Monk

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