Gothic literature is obsessed with death, presenting constant portents of death, unnatural deaths, and series of deaths (e.g. Frankenstein), all of which contribute to an atmosphere of horror. Death in Gothic literature is associated with the supernatural. If Gothic literature reflects a wish to overcome one’s mortality, there is also a fear of those who somehow manage to transcend it, as in the case of vampires and Frankenstein’s monster.
In Gothic literature, death is horrific because it is often not quite the end. This thwarts the human wish for certainty. The vampires who are undead occupy a liminal space; they are at once both alive and dead. The vampire hunters in Dracula have to drive a stake into them, to make sure they are really dead. There is also the trope of the dead who return, as in Poe’s Ligeia. These kinds of spectres can also be seen as manifestations of the return of the repressed.
Likewise, the subject of death itself has often been ignored or repressed. It is what is unknown, and poses a threat to the Victorian mind which desires order. The Gothic is interested in what has been glossed over. We don’t really get sentimental scenes like the death of little William in East Lynne; rather, the more gruesome, inexplicable aspects of death are explored. The corporeality of the body is emphasized with gory descriptions of blood and grave worms. Reading about death serves as a reminder of one’s mortality.
There is also a Gothic obsession with the bodies of dead women. Poe said that the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world”. Elizabeth Bronfen’s book Over her Dead Body suggests that Gothic writing itself may be an act of killing off the female as it transmits the animate body into inanimate text. Necrophiliac desire for the dead woman (Heathcliff’s digging of Catherine’s grave) also points to other kinds of transgressions, such as incest.
Courtesy of Khoo Lilin, National University of Singapore
Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body : Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester, UK : Manchester University Press, 1992. Print.
Priory of St. Clair; OR SPECTRE OF THE Murdered Nun. A GOTHIC TALE [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson