American Gothic

The gargoyle, a feature of medieval Gothic architecture, has come to represent the concept of Gothic overall. Used to ward off evil spirits (and as a run-off for rainwater), gargoyles are grotesque, fantastical beasts shrouded in mystery. Despite their architectural nature, gargoyles are good mascots for Gothic literature, especially American Gothic literature, given that there are several similarities between the two.

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Table of contents

    American Gothic meaning analysis StudySmarterThe gargoyle is a representative figure of all things Gothic, Pixabay.

    American Gothic: Meaning and Background

    To understand the American Gothic genre, we must first also understand Romanticism, a literary movement that began in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century.

    Romanticism was a reaction against the Age of Reason, which was an era of scientific inquiry, intellectual pursuits, and the turning away from the mysticism and religious dogma of the Middle Ages. Romanticism focused on the imagination, the sublime, and the inherent goodness of humanity. It emphasized subjective experience, exalted nature, and was suspicious of science.

    Unlike Romanticism, which favored imagination, sensibility, and idealization of nature, Gothic turned its focus toward the horror and evils of the dark side of humanity and perversions of nature.

    By the nineteenth century, American writers had created their own brand of Gothic. American issues and concepts mingled with classic European Gothic elements and a new literary genre was born.

    Common themes in American Gothic literature include Puritanical ideals and the effects of its strict moral code on individuals and society; expansion of the westward frontier and subsequent conflicts; and mounting racial tensions between White, Black, and Native American people.

    Puritan: A member of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century religious group that espoused stricter moral codes.

    Although it reached its peak between 1820 and 1900, the genre of American Gothic has continued to be popular even today. Much of Stephen King's work, including Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), and Misery (1987), feature prominent Gothic elements. Silvia Moreno-Garcia's novel Mexican Gothic, which was published in 2020, received high praise and comparisons to early Gothic writers.

    American Gothic Literature Characteristics

    American Gothic literature is more than just blood, death, and fear – although these are common elements of American Gothic literature!

    Other American Gothic literature characteristics include the macabre, the supernatural, psychological trauma and terror, and a fear of the unknown.


    Macabre: involvement with or depiction of death or injury, typically to a disturbing and horrifying extent.

    One of the chief hallmarks of American Gothic literature is its central theme of the macabre. Typically, death or injury is imminent, which is terrifying and horrific. Likewise, works of American Gothic may deal with the repercussions of a grotesque death or injury from the past.


    Because American Gothic literature stems from American-centric fears of religion, isolation, and wild frontiers, it often has supernatural, occult, or other non-human elements. American Gothic short stories, novels, and poetry contain demons, ghosts, monsters, witchcraft, omens, or other irrational elements that torment and wreak havoc on characters and settings.

    Psychological Trauma and Terror

    The demons in American Gothic are not always external, however. Many characters in American Gothic literature deal with insanity, guilt, or other forms of psychological tension. Whether from past or current trauma, the mind becomes a labyrinth, vulnerable to madness, perversions, and personal torment.

    Fear of the Unknown

    In American Gothic literature, the unknown is a cause of fear and anxiety. Dark and confusing physical settings, such as caves, corridors, catacombs, cellars, and castles, help depict the sense of terror that comes with the unknown.

    American Gothic characteristics differences between European American StudySmarterA dark corridor in a stone cathedral, a common setting in American Gothic stories, Pixabay.

    American Gothic Literature and Authors

    Who are the major American Gothic authors, and what did they write?

    "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

    First published in 1820, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (1783–1859) is considered one of the earliest forms of American Gothic literature. It features ghosts, supernatural hauntings, and mystery – all quintessential American Gothic characteristics.

    The inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow believe that the town is haunted by the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a soldier who died in battle. The Headless Horseman, legend has it, rides through the woods, head detached from the neck, launching it at passers-by. Ichabod Crane, the story's protagonist, mysteriously disappears in the forest one night, leaving the town to suspect the Headless Horseman struck again.

    Edgar Allan Poe

    The quintessential American Gothic writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49), wrote haunting tales of madness, misery, and the macabre. His poetry and short stories feature characters who descend into the depths of insanity or wrestle with the grotesque.

    Having been through early loss and trauma, Poe frequently wrote about death, with premature burial, reanimation after death, and corpse decomposition as recurring themes. Some of his most famous short stories include "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846).

    "The Haunted Mind" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) wrote short stories and novels about religion, morality, and history. His works often included the dark side of Puritan society, including the impact that repression had on individuals. His short story, "The Haunted Mind" (1835), is a classic example of American Gothic. The narrator, who awakes from a midnight slumber, describes the brief period between sleep and wakefulness. Despite its relatively short timeframe, the narrator depicts powerful emotions that are personified: Fear, Guilt, Shame, and Sorrow arise to the surface and taunt the narrator.

    "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore

    "The Yellow Wallpaper," written by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore in 1892, is considered both a central piece of American Gothic and feminist literature. The story is about a young woman who is confined to a room to rest from a nervous breakdown. The more isolated she becomes, the more she descends into madness and powerlessness. Both a critique on the treatment of women in the nineteenth century and a commentary on the mind's ability to lose touch with reality, the story suggests that insanity isn't too far away.

    Consider the graphic novels, television shows, movies, and video games you enjoy. Where do you find elements of American Gothic?

    Differences between American and European Gothic Literature

    While American Gothic stems from the European Gothic literature tradition, there are several differences between the two.


    In European Gothic literature, the landscape is representative of the "Old World," an era before the founding of the United States. Stories feature misty moors, exotic far-off lands, and ominous seascapes. Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë is a masterful example of how British Gothic literature uses its landscape effectively. The unruly winds, an unfamiliar and remote land, and haunting apparitions evoke madness, irrationality, and personal torment.

    In American Gothic literature, the landscape represents frontier expansion, wilderness exploration, and crossing borders. Nathanial Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), set in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, is about a young man who ventures from his village into the wilderness and encounters a frightening scene. There, he witnesses his wife and fellow townspeople engage in what he believes to be Satanic worship. His understanding of reality unravels as he grapples with the realization that everyone in his town isn't as Christian as they appeared.


    Architecture also plays an important role in the story and character development of Gothic literature. In European Gothic literature, the typical architecture includes castles, cathedrals, haunted buildings, and highly pointed vaults and ceilings. The novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo heavily features Gothic architecture. Set in 15th century France, the Norte Dame cathedral is a central figure in the narrative.

    Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novel The House of Seven Gables (1851) takes place inside the Pyncheon's New England family ancestral home, where ghost hauntings, crime, suspicions, and witchcraft are woven in with tales of romance and family heritage. The house, which became dungeon-like, symbolizes the family's greed, curse, rise to power, and eventual fall.

    American Gothic elements background StudySmarterA house in a gothic story may look like this one, Pixabay.

    Social Structures

    Female British Gothic writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Ann Radcliffe (17641823), Mary Shelley (1797–1851), and Emily Brontë (181848), used their fiction to critique male power at the time.

    Their Gothic novels dealt with repressed sexual desires, confinement to the home, isolation from society, and their general discontent with the domestic sphere. Using gothic tales mixed with supernatural elements allowed women writers to avoid the common marriage plot and, instead, explore the darker side of humanity and the blurred lines between disillusionment and reality.

    Just like female British Gothic writers, writers of American Gothic use social structures as prominent elements in their novels. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a commentary on the tragic effects of religious idealism in his novel The Scarlett Letter (1850). William Faulkner depicted the decline of Southern morals and values in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) exposed the consequences of race and the law being intertwined.

    American Gothic Analysis

    While each novel, poem, or short story in the American Gothic genre will have its own unique meaning, several themes are present in this genre:

    The Rational Cannot Overcome the Irrational

    Despite their best efforts, characters in American Gothic literature are unable to overcome the irrational using logic and reason.

    The speaker in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" (1845) is tormented by a raven who raps on his door, repeating the phrase "nevermore." Despite his efforts to rationalize the bird – or to shoo it away – the bird remains perched, forever haunting the speaker.

    The Past is Alive

    In many works of American Gothic, the past has not passed. It's present, fully alive, and wreaking havoc on present-day characters.

    H. P. Lovecraft's short story, "The Rats in the Walls" (1924), is about a man, Delapore, who moves into an ancestral home. After hearing mysterious scratching sounds from within the walls, he learns of his family's past, who cultivated an underground city and raised "human cattle." As typical in American Gothic literature, Delapore ultimately descends into madness.

    The Blurred Line Between Reality and Fantasy

    Another theme in American Gothic literature is an inability to fully distinguish what's real and what isn't.

    In Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), four characters encounter supernatural events, such as unseen noises, ghosts, and unexplained writing on the walls. One of the characters, Eleanor, begins to lose touch with reality to the point where fellow characters believe she is possessed.

    American Gothic - Key Takeaways

    • American Gothic literature stems from European Gothic literature from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
    • Gothic elements include horror, terror, irrationality, madness, supernatural beings, and the unexplained.
    • American Gothic literature combines Gothic elements with American themes, such as religious and wilderness anxiety, westward expansion, and racial tensions.
    • "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving was the first short story that ignited the American Gothic genre.
    • Common themes in American Gothic literature are: the rational cannot overcome the irrational, the past is alive, and the blurred line between reality and fantasy.
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Gothic

    Why is it called American Gothic?

    The term American Gothic is an American genre that stems from the Gothic literature genre from Europe in the late eighteenth century. 

    Why is American Gothic so important?

    American Gothic literature is important because it speaks to the darker side of humanity.

    What are the elements of American Gothic?

    The elements of American Gothic literature are the supernatural, macabre, psychological trauma and terror, and fear of the unknown. 

    What style is American Gothic?

    Literature in the American Gothic style is typically dark, haunting, mysterious, and pertaining to evil, the supernatural, and the grotesque. 

    Why is American Gothic famous? 

    American Gothic literature is famous because it provides thrilling stories about the human capacity of fear, harm, evil, and madness. 

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