Identifying the Gothic: The Seven Gothic Signs

It seems rather apt that the sun is absent today, as the Southern Spell fades and a new season is welcomed in. This month is Of Monsters and Men – it is an exploration of the monstrous in gothic fictions and realities.

Before I reveal The Seven Gothic Signs you can use to easily identify the gothic, I have a quick announcement.
I am hosting two readalongs this month:
• Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and
• Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Jekyll and Hyde will run for one week, beginning today. Frankenstein will begin directly afterwards, and will run to the end of the month. If you click through the titles above you will be able to read the complete texts free online, thanks to the ever-giving Project Gutenberg. If you need any help finding eReader compatible files on their site, or have any other questions, just let me know.

I will likely round up my thoughts on both texts here once the group discussions, which will be hosted on Instagram, have concluded. In the meantime, I thought it was about time I had a more direct stab at answering the most commonly asked generally gothic question: what is gothic?

© Generally Gothic

For many other genres, this would be a simple question, but the thing is, there’s no consensus on whether the gothic even is a genre… Many consider it more so a ‘mode’ of literature. This classification is perhaps most common within magical, academic circles (which are the same as regular circles, but gothic and nerdy).

In contrast to the clear categorisation of genre, which is defined below, a mode is cloudy to the core. It is an “unspecific critical term usually designating a broad but identifiable kind of literary method, mood, or manner that is not tied exclusively to a particular form or genre.” (Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms*, Chris Baldick, 2008).

To consider it a mode is to capture the more fluid nature of the gothic, which is also demonstrated by the sometimes uppercase, sometimes lowercase ‘g’ that it wears. Exploring the gothic as mode underpins the entire Generally Gothic endeavour; that is, to uncover the essence of the accepted gothic and discover its presence beyond boundaries.

Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Chris Baldick (2008) | © Generally Gothic

Whilst the Generally Gothic project is an on-going attempt at defining the gothic, you may be pleased to know that there are some reoccurring elements present in many gothic novels – particularly the early classics – that will help you in identifying it.

𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝕾𝖊𝖛𝖊𝖓 𝕲𝖔𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖈 𝕾𝖎𝖌𝖓𝖘

  1. 𝔖𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔫𝔤𝔢 𝔖𝔭𝔞𝔠𝔢𝔰
    Essential in creating gothic atmosphere and unsettling the reader, gothic narratives are traditionally set in the ‘strange’ – places that are unfamiliar and faraway. Think crumbling castles, ancestral homes, religious dwellings, and long ago. Think places distant in time and space.
  2. 𝔖𝔴𝔬𝔬𝔫𝔦𝔫𝔤 𝔖𝔴𝔢𝔢𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔞𝔯𝔱𝔰
    The stereotypical gothic heroine is inquisitive and brave, and voraciously reads. She has beauty and purity and is thus a target. Whether a victim to fashion (those tight-laced corsets) or the female condition (I hope my tone is clear here), her defence in danger is the delicate swoon. Though she is likely to suffer, she is usually saved.
  3. 𝔖𝔲𝔣𝔣𝔢𝔯𝔦𝔫𝔤 𝔖𝔞𝔳𝔦𝔬𝔲𝔯𝔰
    Whether saviour to a swooning heroine (see above) or on adventures all their own, the gothic favours the anti-hero for its male lead. Often intellectual, perhaps academic, for him the human condition is heavy to bear. This long-suffering figure is flawed and doomed and may just reveal the monstrous in man.
  4. 𝔖𝔥𝔞𝔡𝔬𝔴𝔶 𝔖𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔫𝔤𝔢𝔯𝔰
    Though gothic villains are slow to uncloak themselves, their mould has since been truly set. The shadowy stranger epitomises the fear of ‘other’. Often autocrat, aristocrat, male, and undefined ‘foreign’, he is a man out truly for himself.
  5. 𝔖𝔲𝔤𝔤𝔢𝔰𝔱𝔢𝔡 𝔖𝔭𝔢𝔠𝔱𝔯𝔢𝔰
    All sorts of creatures make their home in gothic literature. There are ghosts, spirits, and apparitions; demons, the devil, and the dead returned; vampires, zombies, and apparent monsters. The supernatural may be metaphorical – a tool for subversion. It is frequently suggested as one thing and revealed to be otherwise, if there at all.
  6. 𝔖𝔲𝔯𝔤𝔦𝔫𝔤 𝔖𝔲𝔰𝔭𝔢𝔫𝔰𝔢
    The gothic tone is of fear: terror or horror, and halted breath. It is dread that creeps and suspicion that grows. Suspense builds in uncanny spaces, where everything is unnerving and nothing is as it seems. Often at odds with logic, rational thought is invited to leave as heightened senses are startled by the wind.
  7. 𝔖𝔩𝔢𝔢𝔭𝔩𝔢𝔰𝔰 𝔖𝔬𝔲𝔩𝔰
    Just as the narrative fiction aims to unsettle the mind of the reader, gothic protagonists are similarly disturbed. Nighttime casts shadows on certainty. Sleep, if achieved, is addled with nightmares. Waking hours, in turn, are similarly plagued. The concept of reality is toyed with as sanity and truth can no longer be presumed.

Armed with this list, I hope you are now able to identify the gothic elements of a text. Once a significant number of items has been identified, or – because it’s never that simple – a lesser number with higher frequency or potency, you will likely have grounds to claim it as gothic! With The Seven Gothic Signs in mind, what is the last gothic novel you read? Where have you found the gothic unexpectedly? Let me know below!

You are welcome to define the gothic by The Seven Gothic Signs – you will find citations in various forms ready for you to copy below if you do.
If you found this work useful, please consider making a small contribution to my tea fund – to the hours of unpaid, caffeinated time I pour into this project.

Keep reading:
Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’
Race and Regionalism: ‘Drenched in Light’
The American Civil War: ‘A Rose for Emily’
Into the Abstract: ‘The Paperhanger’

*I did look ‘gothic’ up in the Dictionary of Literary Terms. It referred only to the ‘Gothic Novel’ and ‘Gothic Romance’, and avoided all mention of both genre and mode!

© Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Emadian, H. S. (2020, August 05). Identifying the Gothic: The Seven Gothic Signs. Generally Gothic. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “Identifying the Gothic: The Seven Gothic Signs.” Generally Gothic. 2020.

MLA Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “Identifying the Gothic: The Seven Gothic Signs” Generally Gothic. Generally Gothic, 05 Aug 2020. Web. [Date Accessed]

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