Elements of a Gothic Novel

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SWBAT identify the elements of a gothic novel

Big Idea

What contributes to the genre of gothic novel?


This lesson is part of another lesson about gothic literature and style.  In this lesson the students review a PowerPoint that analyzes gothic style and literature.  They then test their analytical abilities in a passage from  Frankenstein. In the next lesson they will write a timed, in-class essay on Mary Shelley's gothic style. 


Defining Gothic

20 minutes

I use a PowerPoint presentation from SlideShare for this next class. 


Slide 1 – Discuss the different connotations of the word “gothic” from a fashion style to a type of architecture.  Encourage students to use mobile devices to look the word up as soon as it comes on the screen.  Have students pair up and discuss the different meanings, then share the most surprising meanings.

Slide 2 – Discuss the anxiety of the industrial revolution and the mechanization of work.  Review Romantic themes of distrust of civilization and its confining rules as a comparison to the wilds of nature. Discuss some of the more common gothic symbols:  wild, lonely places; heavy, empty or decaying castles or ruins; supernatural creatures; darkness; lone figures.  Explain how the gothic style is a reaction to man’s sense of isolation and fear at the mechanization and revolution of the Industrial Age.

Slides 3 & 4 - Reflect back on the earlier Romanticist definition of “sublime” and its connection to nature. How could confronting one’s fears also lead to a sense of freedom? How can an exploration of what is dark and fearful lead to a rejection of constraints and limits?  How did the Romantics test the boundaries of forbidden or taboo subject matter? Explain how these abstract ideas are personified in the settings of gothic novels and poems.

Slide 5 – Discuss how settings can serve as symbols for contemporary crisis and concerns of the audiences reading those stories.  Point out that while an author might not be able to come right out and make a statement about a specific religious or ethnic group, by setting the stories in a particular place they implicate characteristics and create stereotypes about those people.  Contrast this with popular action movies today who often make the villains from countries the U.S. might be in conflict with.

Slide 6 –  Discuss how settings and characters are often highly symbolic in gothic novels, representing fears and concerns of the contemporary audience.  Explain that gothic authors are purposefully over exaggerating character’s responses and actions to make a clear point. Address the prevalence of supernatural elements as a way for audiences to work through certain fears they might have about religion, science, industry, etc.  Often nature is both comforting and ominous, a mirror of the inner landscape of the protagonist or antagonist.

Slide 7 – Discuss the clear delineation between  protagonist and antagonist in the stories.  Audiences wanted a firm idea of who was good or bad.  Authors rarely left characters morally ambiguous.  There are some notable exceptions (like Frankenstein). Women are often depicted as helpless and at the mercy of nature or the supernatural elements. Quite often there is a good vs. evil feel to the main conflict in the novel.

Slide 8 – Language is very rich often ornamental with plenty of clues as to who is good and who is evil.  Authors often put a lot of detail into the setting, again, to reflect the inner life of the characters; lots of foreshadowing and symbolic detail.

Slides 9 & 10 – Discuss the most common novels attributed with a gothic style.

 The Castle of Otranto  - This novel’s conflict centers around a family curse and the untimely deaths of the heir through an accident. An ancient family curse causes all kinds of high drama, and bloodlines and secret identities revealed in between sword fights and horse chases.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – A young girl ends up prisoner of her uncle’s evil plot to marry her off and control her inheritance. With the help of a mysterious prisoner of Udolpho, Emily escapes and is reunited with her true love.

The Monk – A corrupt priest seduces a young woman who enters his monastery disguised as a boy. Not able to stop there, the priest engages in increasingly depraved acts of murder, sorcery and incest. 

Finding Gothic

30 minutes

Next I have my students look at the first two paragraphs from chapter 10 of Frankenstein.  We pay close attention to those elements that would be able to clue us into the style of the passage.  

Who is speaking?  What frame of mind is he in? What evidence in the text points to this?

What is the setting of this passage?  How does Shelley connect the setting to the narrator's frame of mind?

Does the setting create a sense of foreboding or terror in the readers?  What about the narrator?

What strong adjectives and adverbs does Shelley use in this passage? What do they describe?


As we work through these questions I encourage the students to take notes. I then have them write down the specific steps these questions point to when writing about style.

1. Determine the point of view of the story. What is the overriding emotional mood of the narrator. 

2. Determine setting.  How important is the setting in the novel?  If it's very important and seems to mirror other aspects of the novel like character or conflict, it's probably a gothic novel.  Find at least two examples to support this idea. 

3. What is the overall mood of the important passages? If it's dark and foreboding with hints of the supernatural, it's probably a gothic novel. 

4. What kind of language does the author use? Is is heavy on adjectives and adverbs, does it use the words in the list from the PowerPoint?  It's probably a gothic novel. 


Students are then instructed to write an in-class essay the next day determining whether or not Frankenstein meets the qualities of a gothic novel.




In-Class Timed Essay

55 minutes

Students come into class and write about the topic: Is Frankenstein a gothic novel? before we begin I briefly explain that they are writing a literary analysis of genre, and to use the steps I outline form them earlier.  I encourage them to write an outline, and to find their quotes before they start writing their essay. To save them time, I suggest they use evidence from chapters 5, 10, 12, 20 and 23.

This is the first time all year we've had an in-class, timed, writing assignment and for the most part, students make good use of their time, using their notes from the previous day, and their books to find examples. 

Most students finish on time and hand in essays that are of similar quality to other timed writing exercises.