Why Harry Potter is Gothic and Twilight isn’t

There seems to be plenty of discussion on the web about how ‘Gothic’ (or not) Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is; and some discussion about how Gothic (or not) the Harry Potter books are (this relates to the films as well as the books); so I thought I’d offer a few ideas on the matter myself. There are plenty of well-argued articles out there about these areas, for example ‘Harry Potter and the Gothic Novel’ by Elizabeth Murray at http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/features/essays/issue8/gothicnovel (plenty of excellent academic essays on Potter there), although Twilight seems to attract more fan-fic, swoony adoration or venomous bile than academic discussion. But nonetheless there seems to be a general assumption (perhaps as a marketing ploy) that Twilight is ‘Gothic’. Or even ‘Goth’ (a fact disputed by Goths across the web, who sagely point out that ‘Goths don’t sparkle’. True. But teenage girls sometimes do, and presumably they like sparkly boys, too.

Harry Potter, however, perhaps partly because it is ostensibly aimed at younger children, often escapes the label of ‘Gothic’ and is instead seen as a school story, or magic/fantasy. Both of which it is, of course, but in my view it conforms to many of the tropes of traditional Gothic. (For those of you who have not, unlike me, spent the last few years reading academic books on Gothic, let me just point out the distinction here: Gothic as a literary form developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer; re-formed and changed slightly in the mid- to late-nineteenth century with Dracula, and sensation fiction, for example, and eventually became something quite different well into the twentieth century, when the term became much more vague: a straw poll of friends suggested they associate Gothic fiction with fog; darkness; wickedness and romance – quite vague and aesthetic attributes). So Gothic is now more Buffy than swooning heroines, and refers more to ‘atmosphere’ than to anything more concrete or literary. But that still doesn’t make any novel with a few Gothic attributes (vampires, evil, romance) actually Gothic.

Harry Potter conforms with traditional Gothic in one, major aspect: Hogwarts. The Gothic is all about the castle (see Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), for example). Like The Castle of Otranto, Hogwarts is a historic building which represents centuries of tradition, and as such must be defended. It is from Hogwarts that characters such as Harry Potter find their security and their home; it also is the repository of all things magic and important to the life of the wizarding community. It must therefore be defended from attack at all costs, something we see very clearly in the final book and film. However, it also contains evil. Tom Riddle has infiltrated the castle (and indeed lived there as a student) before he became Voldemort; there are things in the castle which offer a threat to Harry and his friends, and, eventually, they also must seek the Horcrux there. The castle is therefore a part of a tradition of evil, which must be destroyed in order for the world to continue as it should. Gothic is concerned both with preserving history and also destroying it; it has been described as a ‘family romance’ in which the family is both good and evil, and this is clearly true in traditional Gothic novels such as those of Ann Radcliffe in the eighteenth century. The battle for good and evil continues throughout the HP series, with figures mostly clearly identified as good or bad. The hero is of course a young boy rather than a woman, but this is perhaps one way in which JK Rowling has brought her Gothic stories into the modern world.

Twilight also features battles between good and evil, but this is not in itself sufficient to make the books Gothic. Nor is the presence of a vampire and a werewolf: these mythical creatures have become associated with the Gothic, but traditionally such bizarre supernatural manifestations would have been a step too far as major characters. The Gothic novel does combine realism with the supernatural, which Meyer’s books do, but the series is too focussed on the relationship of Bella and Edward for it to qualify as Gothic. Perhaps the best term for the books would be ‘fantasy’, which applies on more than one level: it is fantasy in its creation of mythical characters who become real, and the world of vampires and werewolves which subsequently develops; and it is fantasy in that it has clearly tapped into the fantasies of many teenage girls, particularly with its creation of the beautiful vampire boy and the werewolf Jacob. Any hint of Gothic is about aesthetics (‘shopping list Gothic’) rather than the much more serious (ish) stuff of traditional, historical Gothic.

It seems to me that both books have something to offer tweens and teens as readers, hence their enormous popularity (and with adults, too – clearly I have read them as well!) But while Harry Potter seems to be Gothic dressed up as a magical school story (at least at first), Twilight is a romance dressed up as Gothic: it has the trappings of the genre but not the substance. The Potter books offer something deeper than romance: they serve a fairytale function, which Bruno Bettelheim argues, permit children to learn to identify and exorcize the repression which has caused these monsters (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales (London: Penguin, 1991)). The youth of the projected age of Rowling’s readers of course does nothing to change the books’ Gothic status: indeed, it has been suggested that children’s literature in something approximating its modern form ‘emerged as a genre largely in reaction to the popularity of the adult Gothic romance’ (Karen Coats, Anna Jackson, Roderick McGillis, eds., The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders (London: Routledge, 2008)). And early children’s literature is terrifying – designed to scare children into good behaviour: for example, Jeremy Taylor’s description of Hell in 1655 was aimed at child-readers: ‘Horrid Darkness, sad and sore,/And an Eternal Night;/Groans and Shrieks; and Thousand more/In the want of glorious Light/[...]/Every corner hath a Snake/In the accursed Lake,/Seas of Fire, Beds of Snow/Are the best Delights below.

Today, I think, we realise that children like to be a little scared – but in a controlled way, where goodness wins in the end. Harry Potter offers that, though not without casualties; Twilight seems to blur the boundaries too much. But they both offer different things to readers of different tastes and ages; just don’t call Twilight Gothic.

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5 thoughts on “Why Harry Potter is Gothic and Twilight isn’t

  1. I’m not a Gothic specialist by any stretch but had I been asked which set of stories was or was not Gothic before reading your post, my instinctive answer would have been as you have given. It has been fascinating to read your analysis to fill in the gaps in my learning.

  2. Thank you. I’m glad you instinctively agree with me! I think the ways that ‘Gothic’ has been translated in the modern world are fascinating.

  3. An interesting post. Indeed, I’ve read a number of your posts, and found them all to be very informative (particularly the post in which you defined what ‘Gothic’ actually was). I’m only a student, with barely any background knowledge in this area, but I’ve found your posts to be clear and enjoyable to read. Would you happen to know of any other good blogs which deal with the Gothic – whether that be Gothic literature or broader manifestations of it? I’m quite intrigued by the idea of the Gothic as a sensibility, state of mind, or way of looking at the world. Its possibilities for dealing with issues which society wishes to ignore or repress (which I’ve seen you mention a couple of times) are also fascinating.

  4. Thank you, I’m glad you’ve found my posts interesting. I can’t think of any other Gothic blogs, but I expect you’ve come across The Literary Gothic (http://www.litgothic.com/index_fl.html), which is interesting. There’s a book by Coral Ann Howell (I think that’s her name) which is about Gothic ‘feeling’ which you might find helpful. I’ll see if I can think of anything else!

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