Gothic Literature Makes Sociopolitical Statements

Jul 30, 2019

Dr. Heidi Backes

When you think “gothic,” you think about dark, foreboding, mysterious. In literature, it is all of those things. Dr. Heidi Backes says it is often constructed to tell a tale about the underlying sociopolitical environment or economy.

Backes, assistant professor in the modern and classical languages department at Missouri State University, shares about what you can see between the lines of these gothic tales.

"A lot of what I focus on looks primarily at how  contemporary authors - using the Gothic mode, using notions of monstrosity or fear - illustrate the fact that the past, the trauma from the Civil War era is still haunting us in the present," she said. 

One of the authors she studies is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. 

"He writes a whole series of novels revolving around this idea of Gothic monstrosity and the Gothic in Barcelona in the pre and post Civil War era in Spain. His novel, 'The Shadow of the Wind,' became such a tremendous seller worldwide. It's been translated in over 60 languages in multiple countries around the world. Although it deals particularly with the Spanish Civil War, there are elements of the novel that touch upon World War II and other international conflicts that an international audience would be familiar with and can relate to."

"As a collective group in society, we all suffer from past trauma in various ways," she explained. "There's this constant lingering spectral presence where these phantoms of the past, these phantoms of the war, whether it's the Spanish Civil War, or World War II or even World War I, they have affected the entire world profoundly."

Gothic literature is unique, noted Backes, in that it is not limited by time. It has resurfaced in multiple generations – from tales like Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” all the way to “Twilight” in order to work through questions about the environment. One common question, she said: What is more frightening – these monsters or reality itself?

"What's great about teaching Gothic fiction is that it's one of these areas that most students will have some kind of cultural connection to. Pretty much everybody knows what 'The Walking Dead' is, or for better or for worse, they'll know what 'Twilight' is. When students have this cultural competency already as part of their upbringing that they know inherently what some of these Gothic monsters or Gothic motifs are. It's really easy to get them to engage with the text that we're studying in class."

Backes specifically focuses her research and teaching on Spain, and works created by Spanish authors. She believes, though, that the novel “Shadow of the Wind” would be accessible to readers who are interested in taking a taste of great gothic literature.

"At the heart of that novel, you get this lesson that the Gothic inherently strives to teach all of us: We need to exhume these ghosts of the past. We need to give them recognition and acknowledge the trauma that we've been through as a collective society in order to learn from the past and in order to not make those same mistakes moving forward."