How to recognize the Gothic

If you like to be thrilled, scared, intrigued, you should try Gothic literature.  Gothic Literature includes mysterious stories, often with supernatural elements, young women pursued by villains who imprison them to gain their inheritance, people who sell their souls to gain exceptional powers, crime, treachery, threats and plenty of atmospheric darkness from storms, hidden rooms, basements and dungeons. 

Gothic literature includes these conventions

Although many sites offer definitions of the Gothic, they often depend on a narrow definition of the Gothic.  It can be defined as a text filled with various features of the early Gothic novels of the 1760-90s, such as storms and castles, villains and their imprisoned victims, young women with future large inheritances, and optional supernatural elements, ghosts and other monsters.  One key feature of the gothic is the atmosphere of mystery, fear and suspense. Without these elements, the reader will not experience the gothic.

Gothic plots to recognize

Some critics don’t believe in defining the Gothic by the repeated plots of the stories, yet there are many Gothic patterns.

  1. Haunting.  One of the most common plots is the story of a haunted castle or building and the reader’s search to discover why the place is haunted by ghosts or spirits. For example, in The Castle of Otranto, a ghostly presence terrorizes the inhabitants as a means to bring out the truth of a crime.
  2. Persecuted and Imprisoned. A second major plot revolves around a young female protagonist who is heir to a fortune and therefore often victimized and imprisoned in order to make her capitulate. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, once Emily loses her parents, she comes under the control of her evil uncle Montoni, who isolates her in his castle until she signs over her fortune.
  3. The Scientist and the Monster.  A third plot that can be gothic is the story of the mad scientist who unleashes some monster on the world, such as Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even the story of Dracula builds upon these plots with Jonathan Harker playing the role of the innocent ingénue imprisoned in the castle, and Dracula looking to create a new race of beings within the capital of London.

For more information on the early Gothic, see

Project Gothic of UVA

Gothic Literature and the British Library

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Similarities between Caleb Williams and Caleb Williams.

The 18th century character Caleb Williams becomes a fugitive after discovering that his employer is a murderer. As the only one who knows this secret, Caleb Williams is threatened and silenced by Falkland through ongoing surveillance even though he promises to remain silent. As Williams seeks to escape Falkland’s employment and watchful eye, he becomes an expert at eluding Falkland’s hired guards and detectives. He flees the estate, falls in with a band of robbers, is thrown into jail, and plots a dangerous prison break. From that point on, he runs, hoping to settle down in one place, but ultimately being flushed out. His only recourse is to confront Falkland.

Quarterback Caleb Williams possesses some of the same qualities as his namesake. A good strategist, he runs fast when he is flushed out of the pocket, knows how to play the long game, and is ready for confrontation when it happens. And yet unlike, his namesake, he is more confident and willing to face his opponents. While the 18th century Caleb could fashion a disguise, the Heismann trophy winner Caleb is comfortable in the spotlight. GQ calls his fashion sense “quirky,” noting both his tailored suits and painted nails. As a quarterback, Caleb thinks of himself as a “trailblazer” in the era of new brand sponsorship in college. 

The author of the novel Caleb Williams rode a wave of popular Gothic novels; today’s Caleb Williams will be tested next season as an NFL player. Let’s hope that he continues to delight and inspire fans who know how talented he is. 

Related Links

Kirchner, Alex. “Behind the Scenes at Heisman Weekend with Caleb Williams, the Face of the New College Football”, 12 December 2022.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams, (1794 Project Gutenberg.)

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