The Conventions of the Gothic Genre

From "Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole to "The Monk" by Matthew Gregory Lewis and "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley

Essay, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: A-


Table of contents


Definition of Sublimity

The passion of astonishment in the Gothic genre

Main characters facing terror in the Gothic genre

Obscurity in the Gothic genre

Power in the Gothic genre

Vastness in the Gothic genre




The conventions of the Gothic genre have always been changing as time goes on. The most notable and central one is the notion of sublimity, which can be further categorized into five aspects, ‘passion, terror, obscurity, power and vastness’(qtd in Roth 57-58). In this essay, I will look into these five aspects of sublimity, using example from Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in order to trace the transformation of the Gothic genre from mid-18th century, when the genre began, to early 19th century, when the most famous novel of the genre is written.

Definition of Sublimity

The sublime is probably the most significant feature of the Gothic genre. The first known person to investigate the concept was Longinus, who described sublimity as “the echo of greatness of spirit” (Gaur and Kuiper, “On the Sublime: Work by Longinus”). In order words, sublimity can be seen in literature if the writer has innate moral and imaginative qualities. The first attempt of defining sublime as based on terror (even before the gothic genre existed), however, was Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful written in 1757 (Court, “Edmund Burke and the Sublime”). When talking about the source of the sublime he wrote:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. (qtd in Court, “Edmund Burke and the Sublime”)

For Burke, our strongest passion is awakened when we feel a strong negative emotion, which suspends all other feelings as well. The elements of sublimity can be subdivided into ‘passion, terror, obscurity, power and vastness’, according to Burke, which typology will be followed by in this essay (qtd in Roth 57-58). Another significant contribution to the definition was made in 1790, when Immanuel Kant further defined sublimity in his Critique of Judgment by contrasting it with beauty. In general, he claims that sublimity is big and uncertain, which is opposed to beauty’s small and definite qualities (qtd. in Tarr, “Sublime Nature in Frankenstein”).

The passion of astonishment in the Gothic genre

In the Castle of Otranto, we can very easily observe the first element of sublimity: passion. Passion, is characterized by astonishment, for example, by the sudden death of Manfred’s son Conrad at the very beginning of the novel, and by the Manfred’s accidental killing of his daughter Matilda. This astonishment is felt very strongly as the reader empathizes with Manfred on how uncontrollable a life can be, despite all the pursuit to achieve the personal goal of one’s life (Roth 61). Astonishment in the Lewis’s The Monk, more or less inspires passion in the same way. Rosario’s inability to control his desire posed by the demon, which led to his crimes of raping and murdering Antonia, his imprisonment and his death, despite his extremely devout character in the past, has led to astonishment in the readers in the same way as in The Castle of Otranto. However, the situation is a bit different in Shelley’s Frankenstein. The astonishment in the novel is not due to inability but the reverse, over-ability. The arduousness of Frankenstein in pursuing scientific success leads to the destruction of his family and the loss of his life when searching for the creature he created. The disaster this time is not due to external uncontrollable forces, as in Castle of Otranto by the falling of the helmet, or as in The Monk the seduction by the demon. From here we see a transition of the Gothic genre in the cause of astonishment by sublimity, from the uncontrollable external forces, to one’s immoral indulgence.

Main characters facing terror in the Gothic genre

Terror, in Castle of Otranto ‘relies heavily upon sight’ (qtd in Roth 57-58). For example, the vastness of the helmet falling down and killing his son is absolutely terror for Manfred. The way to overcome this terror, however, for Manfred, is by forgetting what is lost and fixes it. This can be seen when Manfred told Isabella to “think no more of [Manfred]”, as he adds that “he was as sicky puny child”, and he sees it as a plan for God to solidify his foundation by saying that “heaven has perhaps taken him away that I might not trust the honours of my house on so frail a foundation” (Walpole 23; Smith 25). This is more of less a sour grapes tactic. Of course Manfred would continue to let Conrad to be his successor if he had not died so early, as he is the only male heir of him. But as this wish vanished in a sudden, his let-bygones-be-bygones attitude helped him to overcome the terror that he had encountered, by thinking that maybe if he give birth to another son that son would be much better than Conrad. In other words, he used a calm attitude to motivate him in defending a clear aim he wants to achieve, i.e. continuing his line as nobility.

The same attitude was not seen in The Monk. When Ambrosio was imprisoned by the Inquisition, he did not let it be. Instead of just calmly facing the terror from the questioning of the Inquisition and possible punishment, he was also seduced by the words of Matilda and Satan to sell his soul in order to escape from the prison, giving him a seemingly better choice, but nevertheless a choice of terror. In contrast with the situation in Castle of Otranto, where Manfred was just placed with a terror induced by a clear antagonist (Alfonso and his heir), Ambrosio in The Monk faces terror from two opposite parties (the Inquisition representing God’s judgment and mercy and Satan representing punishment and eternal death), making him quite hesitant on which terror should he face. This kind of uncertainty is explored in the plot of The Monk in 1796, soon after Kant’s claim of uncertainty being an essence of sublimity in 1790, which was not utilized to such a great extent in Castle of Otranto.

In Frankenstein, the terror transcended from being induced by the antagonist, or being induced by both parties of possible antagonist, to being induced by one’s self. Frankenstein, produced all the terror that he had to face later on because he pursued scientific success so arduously to reverse the law of physical death. The creature, as a reflection of Victor himself (both murdered their relationship with their family, the former physically and the latter figuratively by not going home after studies), created the scenes of terror by murdering Victor’s family members, not to mention that Victor also created the ugly creature which itself is a scene of terror (Smith 47). Shelley here seems to be condemning the progress of the Industrial Revolution, which have created much social problems in Britain in early 19th century, such as overcrowding of cities, outbreak of infectious diseases and child labour, which are scenes of terror created by Britons themselves (Rafferty, “The Rise of the Machines: Pros and Cons of the Industrial Revolution”). In short, from these three texts, we can see a transition of the Gothic genre from posing terror from the antagonist, posing terror two opposing parties at the simultaneously, to posing terror by one’s self unto him.

Obscurity in the Gothic genre

The notion of obscurity or uncertainty in the Gothic genre are commonly expressed by scary images such as the ‘dimly-lit passageways and dark galleries’ in the Castle of Otranto (qtd. in Roth 61), the ‘faint beams of the Lamp’ in the Monk (Lewis 178) and the ‘dim and yellow light of the moon’ under which the creature finds his way out of Victor’s laboratory (Shelley 31-32). Despite these Gothic conventions, we can see the transformation of the issue of obscurity in the Gothic genre by looking on the question that the literature of each period intended to explore, as questions aims to give uncertainties a definite answer through such exploration. In Castle of Otranto, for example, the central question is to figure out the mysterious force behind the death of Manfred’s son and the obstruction in letting Manfred’s inheritance line to continue. We see only the blood of Alfonso, the helmet of Alfonso, the portrait of Alfonso, and the ancient prophecy of his revenge on the stolen line of nobility, before Alfonso’s ghost finally appeared near the end of the novel and substantialized the situation. The situation in the Monk is quite similar. The force that led the Monk’s to his ultimate fate was unclear as Satan disguised as Matilda. Not until Satan appeared in front of Ambrosio at the end of the novel has this became clear. The Monk, however, is different from Castle of Otranto in the way that Ambrosio was hesitant in whether signing Satan’s contract, or facing the holy Inquisition, is the better way outlive his days, i.e. whether Satan or God would salvage Ambrosio. This dilemma is never faced by Manfred in Castle of Otranto as he has a clear enemy, Alfonso. From this point we can see that obscurity has changed from blurring the only source of terror to blurring the righteousness of two sources of terror. Compared to these two novels, Frankenstein has the clearest source of terror (the creature, known from the moment it is created), and he seems to be the ‘serial killer’ in the book. Just as in real life, if a city is notified of having a serial killer in the news, its citizens will be posited in terror and the greatest concern would be who is the next victim. This effect has led to the fact that obscurity does not lie in the nature of the antagonist as in the previous two novels, but on what the antagonist will do, i.e. which character the creature is going to kill next. This change seems to reflect the situation in early 1800s England, when the threats of Industrial Revolution has become clear, and the question therefore does not lie in what the threats are, but who are the next victims of child labour, city pollution and epidemics.

Power in the Gothic genre

Whoever has power has the right to scare others off. In Castle of Otranto, the power lies in the ghost of Alfonso. Despite of this, Manfred still thinks that he has the power to control over his fate despite the prophecy that Alfonso will restore his line, for example, by actively forcing to rape Isabella to continue his line. The power struggle is in this story is between the main character and the mysterious antagonist. In the Monk, however, the main character Ambrosio is depicted as a third-party in a power struggle. Satan and God seemed to be fighting for the soul of Ambrosio in the background, although Ambrosio is the person who ultimately chooses who to follow. Ambrosio is depicted as a weak person who cannot reject the temptation given by the evil Satan despite constant reflection and some minor temporary victories against temptation attempts. In that way, the novel is just ‘ambivalent about ascribing blame to Ambrosio’, as he has no power to control the final result of his fate, in the battle between Satan and God (Smith 29). In Frankenstein, the power is laid on the hands of the creature and the main character Victor had to follow suit in whatever demands the creature has requested him, such as forcing Victor to create a partner for him. The power struggle in this novel is similar to that in Castle of Otranto, which is between the main character and the antagonist, but also to a certain extent different from that in Castle of Otranto, as Victor does not think that he has the chance to overpower the creature, and he only tried to find the Monster as an obligation to fix what he has done wrong, not because of his confidence. From these three novels, we can see a transition in how the Gothic genre depicts the issue of power: from depicting the main character’s confident power struggle with the antagonist, to depicting the powerlessness of the main character in the power struggle between two supreme beings or the powerlessness of the main character in its struggle with the antagonist. The Gothic genre, in general, has developed into granting less power to the main character, creating a more terrifying story as the reader substitutes himself as the main character.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Conventions of the Gothic Genre
From "Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole to "The Monk" by Matthew Gregory Lewis and "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
ENGE5950 The Gothic in the Romantic Era
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
castle, shelley, otranto, monk, matthew, mary, lewis, horace, gregory, gothic, genre, from, frankenstein, conventions, walpole
Quote paper
Kwan Lung Chan (Author), 2020, The Conventions of the Gothic Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Conventions of the Gothic Genre

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free