The American Gothic: Madness and Death


PRESENTED BY: Caitlin C., Indrani S., & Sean L.

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”                              -Edgar Allan Poe

1: Elements of Gothic Fiction

Gothic literature, which is both characterized as, as well as a reaction against, Romantic literature, is defined by its uniquely “Gothic” settings, plots, characterizations, and themes.

Gothic settings consist usually of supernatural and dark imagery (e.g. haunted mansions, imprisoning rooms, and foreboding forests) that breaks from the logic of reality. The use of metonymy such as “rain clouds” and “lightning” in Gothic fiction casts a gloomy and eerie mood over the narrative, foreshadowing the downfall of the protagonist.

Gothic plots focus on deranged perspectives that mirror the “real” world. Supernatural and unexplainable phenomena are common within the Gothic narrative.

Gothic literature is commonly centred around characters who descend into madness as the story progresses, and thus is often driven by the inner monologue. The Gothic protagonist is often depicted as trying to make sense of a corrupt world, but is limited by the setting, in which he/she is a prisoner. The genre is, likewise, a sharp deviation from conventional Romantic literature, as it contemplates the dark and the unknown.

Gothic themes often deal with questions of life after death and conflicts with sanity.

We have selected Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville as our representatives for the American Gothic in the 19thCentury, as many of these elements are evident in their writing.

Further Reading:

David De Vore , Anne Domenic , Alexandra Kwan, Nicole Reidy

The Gothic Novel

This website ventures into the main components of the Gothic novel, and how they make the genre unique. Looks at Gothic fiction through plot, setting, characterization, and genre.

The Gothic Novel

Middle Tennessee State University

Typical Elements of American Gothic Fiction

This web page lists different components of Gothic fiction, but specifies on its use among American authors. It is a very succinct breakdown of Gothic fiction.

American Gothic

2: A Reaction Against American Exceptionalism

After America secured its independence from Britain, there was an attempt by several American writers (e.g. James Fenimore Cooper), poets (e.g. Thomas Cole), etc, to establish and broadcast an image of a strong, autonomous, and unique America. American Exceptionalism, which refers “to the special character of the United States as an uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty,” was the result.

However, although American Exceptionalism encouraged a strong sense of American pride, it was also excessively optimistic, in that it ignored the various societal evils present in America, focusing instead on the positive and regenerative powers of the American landscape, and the ideals of democracy and freedom upon which America was founded.

But this freedom was not available to everyone, and “the slaughter of the Indians,” “the abominations of the slave trade” (Vieth 2), the Mexican war, the persistent subjugation of women, were all evidence of this fact. But American Exceptionalism glossed over these issues, leading to an overwhelming but repressed guilt. This guilt was the “propelling force of American Gothic” (Vieth 2), and is often explicitly expressed as a theme (as inThe Tell-Tale Heart). Through its exploration of sin, guilt, and the macabre, Gothic exposed the anxieties and evils that Exceptionalism had suppressed.

“The Gothic novel, and especially the Frontier Gothic, is a means of confronting our demons and rewriting our origin myth” (Vieth 3).

Further reading:
Ian Tyrell
What is American Exceptionalism?

A concise and informative blog entry on exceptionalism.

Ronja Vieth
A Frontier Myth turns Gothic: Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West

Vieth plays specific attention to The Blood Meridian, which we have not read in this class, but she also shares a lot of insight about how the “frontier myth” of American exceptionalism was challenged by the Gothic.

3: Guilty Anxieties of 19th Century America

The guilty demons being released by writers through the American Gothic genre were not easy ones, such as the destruction of the Native American Indians, the horrors of slavery, the subjugation of women.

History news Network ( quotes a University of Hawaii historian, David E. Stannard, as saying that the destruction of the Native American Indians “worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed [. . .] consuming the lives of [. . .] millions of people.” And there is no way to deny this, as the Native American Indian population went from around nearly 12 million in 1500, when European settlers were coming to America, to barely 237,000 in 1900.

Add to that the horrors of the North American slave trade, and you’ve got a lot of guilt building up. Men and women were ripped away from their families, from their children and their spouses and their parents, either by being taken from Africa or by being sold from one master to another all over the country. Black men and women were considered to be animals, less than human—to be property. In fact, the Southern states had a legal clause passed that said each black slave only counted for three-fifths of a person. Slaves were “chattel property—human beings with no human rights recognized in law” (

To an extent, women faced a similar kind of subjugation. As John Stuart Mill said in his work, The Subjection of Women, “That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes–the legal subordination of one sex to the other–is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” Women could not vote, could not inherit property, or even sometimes hold more than a specific amount of money at one time; it must all be regulated through the men in her life. While not as brutal as slavery, it is still subjugation of human beings, in this case disguised as the patterns and trends of acceptable society.

While these topics themselves are not American Gothic literary topics, the guilt they created by being buried under the excessive optimism of American Exceptionalism came through as a main theme of American Gothic literature; guilt of some sort is almost always a feature in such stories.

Further Reading:

History News Network

Overview of slavery in America

Full text of John Stuart Mill’s work, The Subjection of Women

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