Gothic Fiction and 'The Turn of The Screw'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3




2.1. Gothic as a Term
2.1.1. Etymological Origin
2.1.2. Historical Origin
2.1.3. Historical Development
2.2. Gothic as a Style in Literature
2.2.1. Horror Gothic and Terror Gothic
2.2.2. Reasons for the Development of Gothic Fiction in the Mid 18th century
2.2.3. Aspect 1: Gothic Setting
2.2.4. Aspect 2: Gothic Characters and Personnel
2.2.5. Aspect 3: Gothic Essentials

3.1. Basic Elements of Gothic Fiction in The Turn of the Screw



1. Introduction

The focus of this paper is on the tradition of gothic fiction. This popular literary tradition has remarkably transformed since its first officially accepted work The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Still today one can find traces of the gothic tradition in literature, most remarkable The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice or recent TV series like Buffy or Moonlight. Stepping back in time one hundred years, one can find yet another outstanding achievment of gothic literature. In 1908 a The Turn of the Screw by Henry James was published as a one volume book. Before, it had been a weekly installment at the popular weekly magazine Collier’s. This work, which already at the first glance seems to be much more then pure gothic fiction, is to be investigated in its relation to gothic fiction. Can Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw be called gothic fiction? This is the main question of this essay. In order to answer it the following pages will introduce three main apsects of gothic fiction and will try to identify them in the respective novella. This aim will be achieved in three steps: First, the term gothic will be explained in its origins and historical development. Second, the rising popularity and development of gothic fiction in the 18th century and its main aspects are briefly discussed. In a last step the three main aspects of gothic fiction will be identified in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Due to the limited space of an essay the last step will be taken by pure exemplification and thus will only list respective aspects found in the novella by Henry James.

2. What is Gothic Fiction?

2.1. Gothic as a Term

The following paragraphs intend to show the origin of the term gothic and its historical development. First the focus is on the etymological and historical origin of the term Gothic itself. Afterwards, the historical development is briefly discussed.

2.1.1. Etymological Origin

The etymological origin of the term Gothic goes back to the Roman Empire. The Romans referred to the habits and cultural aspects of the Germanic Tribe of the Goths by using the Italian word gotico, meaning uncivilized, barbarian and rude. Thus, the semantics of the term gothic is to be seen as a negative one. (Ellis, 2000, p. 22f)

2.1.2. Historical Origin

The historical origin of the term Gothic goes back to the renaissance. Art critic Giorgio Vasari used the term in the same meaning as the Romans, to express his depreciation towards the art and architecture of the medieval period. By this, he coined a term that was from then on used for the cultural heritage of the Middle Ages.

2.1.3. Historical Development

From the renaissance up to the middle of the 18th century, the term gothic had a negative connotation. It was used to oppose “the old-fashioned to the modern; the barbaric to the civilized; crudity to elegance” (Punter1999, 5). Contemporary aspects were seen more civilized than their respective counterparts of the Middle Ages, which were seen as a period of “brutish architecture and intellectual stagnation” (Mighall, 1999, p. 5). In Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, a Goth is defined, as “one not civilized, one deficient in general knowledge, a barbarian” (Mighall, 1999, p. 5). In the early 18th century, the negative semantics of Gothic was used in a broader sense for “cultures, attitudes, practices, and institutions” (Mighall, 1999, p. XVf).

A fascination for the Middle Ages arose in the middle of the 18th century, due to their “over-abundance of imaginative frenzy, untamed by reason and unrestrained by conventional [18th ct] demands for simplicity, realism or probability” (Botting, 1996, p. 3). A growing interest in the art, architecture, myths, literature, music and nobility of the medieval period developed. In contrast to the contemporary] classical attitude, the gothic culture was “re-valued and found to be superior to the present”(Ellis, 2000, p. 23). Richard Hurd’s contemporary work Letters on Chivalry and Romance 1 associates the “gothic with highly-valued medieval characteristics, like gallantry, loyalty, heroism and chivalry” (Ellis, 2000, p. 23). By this, the term gothic slightly transformed its semantics into a positively connotation.

From the 18th century on, the term Gothic was referred to by this revised and more positive concept. This fascination for the medieval period was the basis for a music genre of the late 70s and early 80s. Out of this music genre a subculture developed, which still exists today.

2.2. Gothic as a Style in Literature

2.2.1. Horror Gothic and Terror Gothic

Gothic fiction can be divided into two branches: terror gothic and horror gothic. The first gothic novel, at least in the consensus of most scientists2, was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. By this novel Walpole established a new literary genre, which observed multiple variations throughout time. Walpole’s novel is the first of numerous terror gothic fictions. Main characteristic of terror gothic is the “anxious suspense about threats to life, safety and sanity” in which characters and readers were continuously held (Hogle, 2002, p. 3). A further feature of this terror gothic is the uncertainty of the origin and the reason for the events taking place. Thus terror gothic “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”, as Ann Radcliffe puts it (Radcliffe, On the Supernatural in Poetry). Horror gothic goes a step further. According to Hogle it is a key aspect of horror gothic that it “confronts … characters with the gross violence of physical or psychological dissolution, explicitly shattering the assumed norms of everyday life with wildly shocking, and even revolting, consequences” (Hogle, 2002, p. 3). This gross violence explained can be witnessed for the first time in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which can be said to be the first of numerous horror gothic fictions. For Ann Radcliffe horror gothic freezes and nearly annihilates the faculties of life (Radcliffe, On the Supernatural in Poetry, 2004). Despite this, terror and horror gothic have certain similarities, which were formulated concisely by Cornwell:

”’classical Gothic’ … will involve dynastic disorders, set at some temporal and spatial distance and in a castle or manorial locale; defence, or usurpation, of an inheritance will threaten (and not infrequently inflict) violence upon hapless (usually feminine) victims amid a supernatural ambience. Often (but not always) the heroine will be saved, the villain unmasked and the supernatural phenomena dispersed” (Cornwell, 2000, p. 29)

2.2.2. Reasons for the Development of Gothic Fiction in the Mid 18th century

Earlier in this paper one reason for the developing gothic fiction was hinted at: Gothic Revival. In the following part this reason and two more will be briefly introduced.


1 Hurd, Richard : Letters on chivalry and romance - 2. ed. London , 1762.

2 It is impossible to go into detail on the debate about Walpole being the first or not. As a fact it can be assumed that Walpole was the first, who published a novel with the subtitle ‘A gothic story’. This subtitle and genre indication he added to the second edition of his work.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Gothic Fiction and 'The Turn of The Screw'
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
Literary Theory in Practice: Henry James' The Turn of the Screw
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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580 KB
Gothic, Fiction, Turn, Screw, Literary, Theory, Practice, Henry, James, Turn, Screw
Quote paper
Tilo Voltz (Author), 2008, Gothic Fiction and 'The Turn of The Screw', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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