Gothic Literature Context and Distinctions

"The Ghost Scene from Castle of Otranto". Susanna Duncombe. Retrieved from

“The Ghost Scene from Castle of Otranto”. Susanna Duncombe. Retrieved from

The term “Gothic” normally conjures popular, oftentimes cliché images in one’s mind, namely: the supernatural, darkness, castles, love, or mystery. However, recent scholarship has begun to separate Gothic literature into two distinct, gender-based groups: the male and the female Gothic, each with its own particular stylistic and thematic attributes. The division was first drawn by scholar Ellen Moers in 1976, and, while it isn’t a perfect model (as nothing ever is), it is helpful in understanding the thematic choices in Gothic texts, as well as offering some legitimacy to a genre that is so often dismissed as merely popular, i.e., lacking any literary merit (Smith and Wallace).

A simplistic definition of what divides the male and female Gothic is obvious – that male Gothic is written by men, and female Gothic by women. However, the distinction goes much deeper than this straightforward description, and surpasses simple binary gender definitions, delving into discussions of sexuality, power, and political rights. The female Gothic normally contains victimized, virginal (and usually powerless) women pursued by vilianious men, logical or explained supernatural elements, and couched sexual liberation (Harris). Male Gothic contains disrupted gender patterns, graphic horror, and women as “vehicles for the sexual and emotional over-statements of the male writer” (Nichols). The seminal female Gothic texts are most often cited as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), while the male Gothic works include Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Ontranto (1764). Udolpho and The Monk are frequently pitted against each other as the quintessential texts of the female and male Gothic, respectively. Udolpho contains one of the main thematic tenants of the female Gothic – the belief that the “patriarchal order [is] malignant and in need of replacement” (Milbank) while The Monk reinforces the need for such replacement, as the women in the novel are continuously mistreated – through rape, torture, and murder (Rae).

The second most prevalent implication of Gothic novels present in the female tradition is the idea of literary heroines moving from “innocence to experience” and the woman’s time spent  in nature, castles, and fortresses allow her to “assert her independence as a sexually adult woman” in a medium particularly dominated by woman readership (Rae).  In the male Gothic, however, men are ignoring any political dynamic between the genders, which is so often explored in the female novels, and are instead continuously dominating women, penetrating their castles as an extension of their bodies (Milbank).

One of the major problems facing the divide between the male and female Gothic is that, naturally, differences would arise between the two groups due to patriarchal structures – forcing “men and women to inhabit different spheres and consequently have different experiences and expectations”. Therefore, a more comprehensive model is suggested, one that distinguishes between the two by examining the ways in which the patriarchy is approached in the text (Rae). These novels are often not simple ghost stories meant to terrify and amuse their audiences, but they also function as mouthpieces to voice critiques of their societies and dissatisfaction with gendered and political structures. Gender politics as analyzed by women wouldn’t carry much weight or find as wide of an audience in anything but the popular and sensational novels of the time.

“The Female Gothic: An Introduction.” Saylor Foundation, Apr. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>.

Harris, Katherine D. “Female/Male Gothic.” San Jose State University, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>.

Milbank, Alison. Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1992. Print.

Rae, Angela L. The Haunted Bedroom: Female Sexual Identity in Gothic Literature, 1790-1820. Diss. Rhodes University, 1999. N.p.: n.p., n.d. EPrints. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>.

Smith, Andrew, and Diana Wallace. “The Female Gothic: Then and Now.” Thesis. University of Glamorgan, 2004. 25 Aug. 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>.