It’s that time of year again! I’m still getting used to the idea that I will no longer be heading off to school in the fall, but I can’t help getting into the back-to-school spirit. If you are continuing your formal education for another semester, be sure to check out your English class syllabus to see if you have any great gothic reads coming up. I always loved reading these books in class because you can get a lot more out of them by learning about their literary and temporal context and by engaging in analysis and discussion with others. But for those of you not going back to school, or whose reading lists are lacking in the dark and macabre—not to fear! I’ve made a gothic syllabus of my own for you. Last summer, when I first launched this blog, I made a Gothic Lit 101 list for you in my Gothic Lit Starter Kit post. Consider this Gothic Lit 102 (not necessarily to be taken in order):
1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I first read Jane Eyre my junior year of high school and absolutely loved it. It was one of the first pieces of gothic literature that I felt I could closely relate to, since it follows the story of a young woman from her childhood through her early adulthood. Jane is a complex protagonist who is guided by both her passions and her principles. The book is particularly interesting as a proto-feminist work, though it still contains a number of problematic elements, such as rampant imperialism and the introduction of the “madwoman in the attic” trope. While the story is primarily thought of as a romance, it also has elements of the supernatural, some of which are rationally explained away, while others are not. Jane Eyre is certainly a classic for a reason, and if you have not read it yet, I highly recommend that you do.
2) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I also read Jekyll and Hyde some time in high school, though I’m pretty sure I was first exposed to the story as a young child through a Tweety Bird cartoon. The premise from this story has passed into popular culture through various media incarnations. As with Frankenstein, however, many aspects of the original story are generally left out. The novella presents the account of a Victorian scientist named Dr. Jekyll who invents a serum that allows him to indulge his vices and his repressed malicious streak through an alter ego named Mr. Hyde. As time goes on, Hyde becomes increasingly powerful and Jekyll finds himself transforming against his will. The story is a frightening tale of a man who loses control over his baser nature. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of most popular examples of the evil doppelganger trope. As a novella, it’s a rather quick read, and its dark and suspenseful tone will keep you turning the pages.
3) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Also mentioned in my earlier post on the doppelganger trope is Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I actually never read this one in school, but as with many works of classic literature it is available free as an ebook, so one day while mourning the end of high school English classes I downloaded it onto my Kindle. The story is slow to start, but Wilde’s clever and witty prose will keep you entertained. The Picture of Dorian Gray features an especially attractive young man who makes a Faustian bargain for eternal youth and beauty while his portrait ages in his stead. As Dorian engages in a life of hedonism and vice, the portrait changes to reflect the ugliness of his soul. The novel explores themes of Victorian morality and hypocrisy, and can be even better understood by studying the context of Wilde’s life and the Aesthetic Movement.
4) The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This wouldn’t be a well-rounded curriculum if we only stuck to British literature. The Turn of the Screw is a novella by Henry James, one of the most celebrated American writers of the nineteenth century. James is best known for popularizing the literary realism movement, but The Turn of the Screw is essentially a gothic ghost story. In fact, it is an iconic example of the unreliable narrator trope. Told from the perspective of a nameless governess, the story leaves it open to interpretation whether the children in her care are haunted by malicious spirits or these encounters are merely products of the governess’s disturbed mind. I first read this story in an American Literature class that I took while studying abroad in Ireland, and it turned out to be one of my favorite things I’ve read in a classroom.
5) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
And of course, no American literature class would be complete without delving into that uniquely American genre of the Southern Gothic, especially as exemplified by William Faulkner. I discussed this subgenre briefly in my 4th of July post on the American gothic tradition. Southern Gothic takes the grotesque imagery and pervading sense of uneasiness characteristic of the gothic genre and locates it in settings representative of the American South. As I Lay Dying follows a poor, rural family after the death of their matriarch, Addie Bundren. Chapters are told from a variety of perspectives, including the dead woman’s, as the family struggles to transport her coffin to another town for burial. The book is notable for its stream of consciousness style, as well as for its depiction of rural Southern life. While I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it the first time I read it in my sophomore English class, it certainly left a strong impression on me.
Have you read any of these books in school? If not, do you plan to read them on your own? What other gothic reads would you love to see on a curriculum. Let me know in the comments!