Gothic Novels vs The Age of Enlightenment

The Gothic Novel Viewed as a Reaction against the Age of Enlightenment and its Prevailing Mode of Rational Thought

The Age of Enlightenment, often called the Age of Reason, was a cultural period of intellectualism prominent in eighteenth century Europe that valued scientific enquiry and reason and a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. This was a move away from an earlier social system built on faith and belief. According to Krauze (1997) the Enlightenment principles were ‘order and progress, confidence in the possibility of controlling nature and history and a trust in commonsense and universal human nature.’

If we look at the canon of literature which developed from this empirical philosophy, and in particular the ‘novel’, we notice that the ‘English incarnation fostered a new type of lengthy narration based on the experiences of a particular individual. These were coherently arranged and embedded in a recognisable and realistic picture of society’ (O’Hara, 2010, p.172). Gothic fiction on the other hand was a mode of literature that combines both elements of horror and romance. Three common and important tropes in this genre are ‘terror’ in both the psychological and physical sense, the ‘supernatural’ including ghosts, curses and haunted houses, and ‘architecture’ which includes castles, dungeons, secret passages, cathedrals, crypts and graveyards. Looking at these three tropes we can say that in one sense Gothic fiction can be seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment as it is an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, and the unknown which invokes excitement and uncertainty. Edmund Burke wrote a seminal essay on this theme titled ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1759) which influenced many significant Gothic novel writers including Ann Radcliffe. He argued that the idea of the sublime ‘is used as a way of talking about the impact on us of certain dramatic or powerful manifestations of nature (mountains, storms, avalanches, etc) or supernatural (demons, angels, ghosts, etc).’

Before we move on to looking at the texts, it may also be worth considering the political climate in Europe during this period. In France there was the Revolution, and a move from absolute monarchy and aristocracy, to Enlightenment principles of citizenship and individual rights. This radical questioning of the social order spread throughout Europe and to the British population who were anxious about the social unrest and the effects of the Revolution on their stability.

In this post I will look at three Gothic novels and consider through close reading of the texts whether they can indeed be seen as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. The three texts are The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, Vathek, by William Beckford and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

I will begin by looking at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) which is generally considered to be the first proper Gothic novel. Walpole claims in the preface to his book that it was a translation of an earlier work printed in Naples in 1529 and that it was recently rediscovered in ‘an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’ (Walpole, 1968, p.39). This is significant as it adds an air of mystery to the novel. It also has a claim to trustworthiness ‘ancient Catholic family’ and a definite hint of the strange ‘printed in Naples’. At this time the Catholic Church was unpopular in Britain. It was considered a dangerous, magical and foreign religion. The Act of Settlement (1701) stated: ‘it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant Kingdom to be governed by a Papist Prince.’

The novel begins on the wedding day of Conrad and Princess Isabella. Conrad is the teenage son of Manfred, the ruler of Otranto. Here we are introduced to a powerful ‘Gothic’ mix of magic and the supernatural. A giant helmet falls from above and kills Conrad. This is interesting as it happens in light of an ancient prophecy that foretells the end of Manfred’s household and rule over Otranto ‘that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’ (Walpole, 1968, p.51). The supernatural elements and the ancient prophecy have no logical basis and as a result can be seen as distinctively against the ideas of empirical truth that was popular during the Enlightenment.

Walpole blends the new and old style romances in this novel. The ‘old’ romance is what is considered pre-novel fiction – that which is fantastic in nature. There are magic and supernatural elements and they are unbelievable. The style of the ‘new’ romance is what the novels of the 18th century, when Walpole was writing, would generally have looked like. These novels were realistic; they depict events and people as they truly were. He introduced many elements that became standard tropes in Gothic texts, including walking portraits, strange sounds in the night, doors open independently (without human interference) and a desperate heroine fleeing from an overpowering tyrant.

Moving on to Vathek (1786), it may first be useful to explore the author’s background.  William Beckford was an extraordinary character. He was considered one of the wealthiest men in Britain ‘with his enormous wealth, he decided to make his Arabian dreams come true. He had built the loftiest domestic residence in the world, had assembled a virtual harem of boys, had his own militia to protect his ‘Gothic Cathedral’ and Fonthill estate of 6,000 acres, had written the first Oriental-Gothic horror novel in English literature, and had become the most scandalous connoisseur of hedonism in the modern world’ (Norton, 1999).  Norton claims that Vathek was a ‘thinly veiled fantasy-autobiography’ and like Beckford with his Fonthill Abbey ‘the caliph is satiated with sensual pleasures and builds a tower so he can penetrate the forbidden secrets of heaven itself’.

During the eighteenth century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution there was a great change to the social and economic norms. This resulted in the middle classes being able to climb the social ladder. Travel became easier and trading in ‘exotic’ goods became a major source of industry. To many in Europe and Great Britain the East symbolised mystery, an unchartered place that was untamed and dangerous. During this period there was a fascination with all things oriental and a fear of the unknown, and this became a popular theme in art and literature. Likewise, Vathek attempts to confront these fears and explores the exotic side of oriental life.

‘Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of Abassides’ (Beckford, 1968, p.151) lives a sumptuous and scandalous lifestyle not unlike Beckford. He has built five palaces, each of which is dedicated to the fulfilment of the five different senses. This sensory experience is an interesting point as it runs contrary to Enlightenment principles of logic and reason. Vathek lives an unashamedly rich and hedonistic lifestyle.

The novel is also full of supernatural elements and focuses on superstition and religion rather than scientific validation. Vathek has abandoned his religion Islam in pursuit of infinite knowledge and power. There is also the important trope of prophecy in the novel. We are told that the stars have communicated to Vathek relating ‘the most marvellous adventures, which were to be accomplished by an extraordinary personage, from a country unknown’ (Beckford, 1968, p. 154). In opposition to this there are supernatural forces working to stop Vathek and this creates suspense for the reader, invoking a sense of terror and uncertainty. These supernatural forces and the overriding prophecy are further examples of a rebellion against Enlightenment ideas of logical and scientific thought.

If we now turn out attention to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) it is useful to introduce the context in which this novel was written. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband went to visit Lord Byron in Switzerland, renting houses in close proximity near Lake Geneva. 1816 was known as ‘the year with no summer’ and one rainy evening sitting around the fire reading ghost stories, Lord Byron challenged the company to write their own ghost stories. In a waking dream, Mary conceived the inspiration for Frankenstein, the tale of a scientist who brings to life a human-like creature with far reaching consequences. Although Frankenstein doesn’t have all the tropes of a Gothic novel, there are perhaps enough elements to classify it as one. Some people view the novel as an early example of science fiction, but whatever Shelley’s intentions the novel is significant for its portrayal of landscapes and ‘dream-like’ qualities. In light of Shelley’s revelation that Frankenstein was conceived in a waking dream, it is interesting in Chapter 23 to read in the narrative

The moon had reached her summit in the heavens and was beginning to descend; the clouds swept across it swifter that the flight of the vultures and dimmed her rays, while the lake reflected the scene of the busy heavens, rendered still busier by the restless waves that were beginning to rise. Suddenly a heavy storm descended (Shelley, 1968, p.466)

The novel is full of examples of natural landscapes that inspire awe in the reader and these are important examples of the sublime ‘that which is of imposing magnitude and greatness’ and ‘that which invokes intense and immensely powerful emotions.’  Burke (2008) say in Part II, Section I of his essay ‘the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror’.

There are many mountainous scenes in Frankenstein, and these can be viewed as ‘evoking’ the sublime in the reader as opposed to ‘instructing’ them with knowledge.’ One is to enjoy the awe and majesty of the scenery. A good example can be found at the start of chapter 2:  ‘she busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers—she found ample scope for admiration and delight (Shelley, 1968, p.295).

This fascination and love for nature was a big part of Romanticism. Writers, artists, and composers during the Romantic period valued intuition over learning and imagination over doctrine. They valued feelings and sensation over scientific facts. In order to evoke these feelings and sensations the Romantics often drew their inspiration from the arts and nature. What is interesting about Frankenstein is the terror felt by the protagonist after his creation of the monster. We are taken on a journey both internally, through Victor Frankenstein’s mind, as well as his physically exhausting journey to locate and destroy his creation. The quick pace, psychological intensity and the suspense in the narrative invokes in the reader the ‘thrill of fearfulness and the joy of extreme emotion.’ These feelings would not be found in novels from the Enlightenment which concentrated on rationalism and reason.

We are given nothing definite in the process of how he created the ‘monster’ only that he ‘collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame’ (Shelley, 1968, p.315). Through a series of scientific experiments using galvanism he was able to create life itself. This is a feat both incredible and fantastic and it would almost certainly have echoed contemporary society’s questions about human limitations and the existence of a God. Electricity was commonly believed to be the source of life and in an age of scientific exploration this novel was a terrifying reminder of possible human achievement, the abuse of power and the danger of creating something out of our understanding that spirals out of all control. In the ‘author’s introduction to the standard edition’ Shelley states this exact point ‘fright must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’

In conclusion, it may be fair to say that the popularity of the Gothic novel was due to a number of factors. As we have seen, they often played on the very real fears of their contemporary readers. With the echo of the French Revolution resonating around Europe and Britain, and the Industrial Revolution gaining momentum there was much worry and uncertainty. By playing on a person’s fears and insecurities, the reader experiences in the novels, a sensation of terror and extreme emotion that would have been effective. In The Castle of Otranto it could have been the genuine belief that the book came from an earlier source. The curse of the ancient prophecy, the intense chase through subterraneous passages, and the themes of murders and incest. From Vathek we find the supernatural elements, the hedonistic lifestyle of the Caliph, the murder of the beautiful boys, and his pursuit of limitless knowledge. All these ideas would have captivated their readers. And in Frankenstein perhaps it was a combination of the breathtaking landscapes, the creation of the monster, and the intense chases that brought feelings of terror and feelings of suspense to those who read them. All these themes, the irrational over the rational, the use of location, and the natural versus the supernatural are all examples of a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. The fear of the unknown and the joys of intense emotion are some of the reasons these books were popular and have remained popular to this day.


BURKE, E. & BOULTON, J.T. 2008. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge

KRAUZE, A. & SPENCER, L. 1997. Introducing the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, p.172

NORTON, R. 1999. William Beckford: The Fool of Fonthill [www] (16th February, 2012)

O’HARA, K. 2010. The Enlightenment. Oxford: One World Publications, p.172

WALPOLE, H., BECKFORD, W., & SHELLEY, M. 1968. Three Gothic Novels. London: Penguin Classics


AUSTEN, J. 1994. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Popular Classics

BALDICK, C. 2009. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

HABERMAS, J. 1981. Modernity versus Postmodernity. New Critique, 22 (Winter 1981)

PUNTER, D. 2001. A Companion to the Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell

Author: Descartes Baker

Graduate in English with Creative Writing. Loves Victorian literature, poetry, watching the clouds go by, travelling, numismatics, and reading long forgotten and obscure novels.

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