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British Gothic Literature 101: Birth of the Gothic Genre Exploring the Doppelgänger


The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre, in order to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.

British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following table of contents:

  1. British Gothic Literature 101: Birth of the Gothic Genre Exploring the Doppelgänger

  2. British Gothic Literature 101: Aesthetics of Horror & Terror

  3. British Gothic Literature 101: Exploring Sublimity

  4. British Gothic Literature 101: Representations of the Supernatural

  5. British Gothic Literature 101: Female Agency of the Damsel in Distress

  6. British Gothic Literature 101: Emergence of the Elusive Antihero as Social Critique

British Gothic Literature 101: Birth of the Gothic Genre Exploring the Doppelgänger

The influence of ancient Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths on Western civilisation has been vastly underestimated. Although their impact is often relegated to a small portion of world history texts, researchers such as Fischer (2019) strongly assert that the modern world would not be the same without their contributions. Despite their frequent demonisation for their barbaric nature, it is essential to consider the context in which they acted. The Goths were polytheists in a Roman empire that had already converted to Christianity, with an economy based on pillage and piracy. They were most famously known for their invasions of Rome in 238 CE and its Visigoth sacking in 410 CE, which significantly weakened the western Roman Empire and led to its eventual collapse (Fischer, 2019). It can be argued that the Goths acted out of fear, as the Holy Roman Empire and Christianity threatened their way of life, providing insight into the struggles of pagans who fought, and ultimately lost, their right to religious and cultural freedom (Fischer, 2019).

Despite their significant role in history, the term “Gothic” has no direct connection to the art of the Goths. The term was coined after a judgment by Giorgio Vasari, an artist and writer on art, who used the word “Goths” in a derogatory sense to describe all the populations beyond the Alps. Vasari considered European architecture of the 12th and 14th centuries to be “monstrous and barbaric,” and thus incomprehensible and uncivilised from a classicist’s perspective, though, as in Encyclopedia Britannica:

“The term retained its derogatory overtones until the 19th century, at which time a positive critical revaluation of Gothic architecture took place. Although modern scholars have long realised that Gothic art has nothing in truth to do with the Goths, the term Gothic remains a standard one in the study of art history” (“Gothic”, n.d.).

As historian Steven Carver (2003) states in The Gothic Revival, as Germanic invaders, Goths were largely blamed for this culturally catastrophic interregnum. This view was reflected in François Rabelais' use of the term “Gothic” to describe a vulgar literary style. By the early 17th century, the term “German” was discarded in this context as Germany had long since embraced the Classical ideal. Scholars instead employed the adjective “Gothic” in their polemics (Carver, 2003). From the use of the term Gothic in European art, the adjective was introduced in 17th century England, not in aesthetics, but in political discussion (Kliger, 1945), when the multi-faceted effect of the Goths on England became a prominent topic reviving the ancient splendour of the Middle Ages (Carver, 2003). A governor’s council member, Nathaniel Bacon, even claimed that English laws are primarily Gothic in origin:

“Nor can any nation upon Earth shew so much of the ancient Gothique law as this Island hath” (p. 96).

Similarly, English poet Sir William Temple referred to the English as Gothic people, and Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift linked the parliamentary system in England to the Gothic forms of government in Europe. English historian John Oldmixon further assimilated the Gothic to English history, stating, “No nation has preserved their Gothic Constitution better than the English” (p. 25). These statements not only show the lasting impact of the Goths on English culture, but also highlight the evolving perceptions of the term “Gothic” over time.

Figure 1: Goths crossing a river (Évariste Vital Luminais,1822)

Although William Shakespeare first portrayed the Gothic tribes in the tragedy Titus Andronicus, the term Gothic literature first emerged in England in the late 18th century, born from the shadows of Enlightenment's rationality, science, and progress. A time of significant turbulence, where the French Revolution shook the core of European society, and the Industrial Revolution moulded the land and economy. Gothic literature stood as a dark reflection of the changing world in this era of haunting castles and supernatural creatures. The emergence of Gothic literature was also heavily influenced by political turmoil, particularly the English Civil War and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, which occurred just before the first Gothic novel was published in 1764 (Cairney, 1995). The collective memory of these events, and the cultural fears associated with them, likely contributed to the early villains of Gothic literature, who were often portrayed as literary representations of defeated Tory barons or Royalists who rose from their political graves to terrorise the middle-class readers of late 18th-century England (Cairney, 1995).

Professor John Mullan, a specialist in 18th-century literature, examined the origins of the Gothic in great detail. In his article on the origins of the Gothic genre (2014), Mullan explains how it became one of the most popular of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and identifies which elements were later incorporated into mainstream Victorian fiction. According to Mullan:

“Gothic fiction began as a sophisticated joke. Horace Walpole first applied the word ‘Gothic’ to a novel in the subtitle – ‘A Gothic Story’ – of The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. When he used the word, it meant something like ‘barbarous’, as well as ‘deriving from the Middle Ages’” (Mullan, 2014, n.d.).

The Gothic novel, which thus originated from Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto, has a tumultuous history of the celebration, denigration, plagiarism, satire, and censorship. It was often dismissed as cheap and sensationalistic, but reformed critics later recognised it as a profound literary expression of modern anxieties such as metaphysical anguish and existential dread (Davison, 2009, p. 2).

Figure 2: Portrait of Horace Walpole (Reynolds, c. 1756-7)

However, the various elements that would eventually come together to form Gothic literature had a long and complex history before Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, which presented a fabricated medieval manuscript. Early Gothic writers looked to the plays of William Shakespeare as a vital source of inspiration, using them to establish the credibility of their works and to lend legitimacy to the emerging genre as a form of serious literature that would appeal to the public (Wiley, 2015). During the Victorian era, Gothic fiction lost its position as the leading genre for novels in England and was partly replaced by more subdued historical fiction. Nevertheless, Gothic short stories remained popular and were published in magazines or penny dreadful chapbooks. American author Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most notable Gothic writers during this period, who wrote many short stories and poems that reimagined and reworked Gothic literary conventions (Wiley, 2015).

Gothic literature has cast an indelible shadow upon the world of literature and popular culture, its haunting themes and motifs continuing to inspire and captivate writers and filmmakers to this very day. Rooted in the political and cultural upheavals of the 18th century, this genre has bewitched the imagination and left an enduring imprint upon the literary landscape, beckoning the reader to explore its dark and alluring depths.

One of the most recurrent and alluring tropes of the Gothic genre is the theme of the double. Alter ego, clone, evil twin – most of readers are familiar with the denotation of the doppelgänger, showcasing a human being bearing a striking physical resemblance to another human being. The concept of doppelgänger in Gothic literature, however, exceeds far beyond the literal meaning of being the biologically unrelated look-alike of a living person. The nineteenth-century Gothic treatments of the double are based on the idea of “soul and body being conceived as separate entities joined in subtle and indiscernible ways; to separate them through death or to suppress one or the other, is to destroy the essential self” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 101). This article seeks to analyse the symbolic significance of the imagined double in Gothic fiction, as conveyed in various notable literary pieces of the genre. It will consider critics’ views on the psychological dimensions of this conventional element by drawing attention to the importance of the doppelgänger in exploring human duality.

Figure 3: Not to Be Reproduced (Magritte, 1937)

Gothic Stories Featuring the Doppelgänger

The concept of a character “as two joined but separable halves rest upon a certain binary/unitary formulation” became central in nineteenth-century Gothic storytelling (Slethaug, 1994, p. 101). The term doppelgänger was coined about the same time the Gothic genre emerged, mentioned for the first time in Johann Paul Friedrich Richter’s Siebenkäs” (Paul, 1796). In Siebenkäs,” the doppelgänger element is presented as “so heissen sie Leute die sie selbst sehen” (meaning that this is how “people who see themselves are called”) (Paul, 1796, p. 175). The essence of doppelgänger refers to the duality of the Self in which an alter-ego repeatedly presents itself to the original subject. The subject, then, experiences “a simultaneous consciousness of being both his present Self and the external Other observing himself” (Marquette University).

Numerous reputable Gothic literary compositions have incorporated various shades of the theme of the double. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde,” (1886) Mr Hyde is the grotesque “Other” haunting the rational “Self” of Dr Jekyll while being its psychic counterpart, because in his own words: “It was Mr Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 63). As Dr Jekyll loses control of the transformation and Mr Hyde starts intruding into Dr Jekyll's public sphere, the annihilation of Mr Hyde becomes imperative. However, both characters are two sides of the same coin, with the elimination of one part meaning the elimination of the other. Dr Jekyll was left with no choice but to “bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 74).

Figure 4: A theatrical adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde's transformation (National Printing & Engraving Company, ca. 1880)

Similarly, in Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray” (1890), Dorian sacrifices his sense of self. By gradually becoming absorbed by his own image depicted in his portrait, he essentially generates his own psychological double. In contrast to what Dorian thought, the segregation of body and soul is not straightforward. The portrait records and manifests both Dorian’s internal and external reality, pointing to the fact that “doppelgängers traditionally haunt and torment each other whilst providing a sense of fascination, their dual nature providing an unstable but inescapable relationship” (Dunning, n.d., p. 3).

The double also recurs as a motif in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818). Victor Frankenstein creates the monster as he aims to create a being that transgresses nature’s creation rules. However, the creature is so hideous that he ends up escaping from it rather than nurturing it. The usurpation of Frankenstein results in devastation. The monster, in this regard, becomes the psychic projection of the human being and “the evil effects of the monster are the externalisation of Frankenstein’s psychic instincts” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104).

In these Gothic stories, the doppelgänger is simultaneously duplicate and opposite. It exhibits how contradictory forces can coexist within a single being. In this way, it forces one to confront their divided selves by tapping into “the notion of irreconcilable dualistic oppositions” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). The recognition of seeing oneself from an external position is accompanied by a horrific realisation: the distressed figure the main character had been observing is, in reality, his own. It becomes evident, then, that “the persistence of doppelgänger brings into question the reliance upon a concept of an indivisible and unified identity that is continuous and fixed over time” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 100).

Figure 5: Victor Frankenstein meets his Creature (Universal Pictures, 1931)

Psychological Interpretations of the Double

The unsettling drive to comprehend the depths and complications of the human psyche led Gothic writers to vehemently “explore disruptions of the delicate balance between the id and the ego, the conscious and the unconscious, or what has recently been referred to as Self and Other” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). Heavily influenced by speculations in Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919) and Otto Rank’s “The Double” (1914), nineteenth-century Gothic writing contains by no means “predictable outcomes which argued implicitly for social responsibility over individual drives” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). Instead, Gothic stories acknowledged “the power of the unconscious and the tragic consequences of ignoring or attempting to suppress it” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102).

With an extensive analysis of the doppelgänger concept, one can extract complex psychological undertones intertwined with notions of “psychic duplication and division, psychological decomposition, disintegration, regression, progression, repression, and primary narcissism” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). By breaking down the symbolic connotations of the duplicate personas that characterise Gothic storytelling, it becomes evident that the Freudian and Rankian psychological theories of the double are aptly infused and incarnated in Gothic tales.

In Otto Rank’s “The Double”, one can draw psychological insights that resonate more closely with Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” In this Gothic story, the double of Dorian Gray, represented by its painting, constitutes “both a narcissistic fantasy of youthful immortality and the corresponding fear of the alienated self to which this irrational wish gives rise” (Fritz, 2013, p. 299). Rank believes that the double was “originally, created as a wish-defence against a dreaded eternal destruction” (Rank, 1971, p. 18) and situates Dorian Gray in the context of the “doppelgänger tales which involve a deal with the devil” (Fritz, 2013, p. 299).

Figure 6: Dorian Gray facing his portrait (Alliance Films, 2009)

In “The Uncanny” (unhomelike), Freud describes the Uncanny as "a complex psychological experience wherein something encountered is simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and terrifying, that is, at once familiar and alien” (Posadas, 2018, p. 7). When the familiar thing turns out to be unfamiliar, it creates the uncanny, resulting in “a strange experience that the words cannot relate, but just makes one feels awe” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104).

Additionally, Freud argued that the Uncanny could refer to a person’s most hidden desires, which deviate from societal norms. Under this scope, he examined the utopian dimension of the double, which becomes the shadow of “all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which one still likes to cling in fantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all the suppressed acts of volition which nourish in someone the illusion of Free Will” (Freud, 2003, p. 63). Freud, however, considers that this aspect of the doppelgänger’s essence does not explain its origin sufficiently. For him, even though the perception of the double is, on the one hand, intertwined with the emergence of the conscience or superego, on the other hand, it can also be interpreted as an archaic residue from “a time when the ego had not yet marked itself off sharply from the external world and from other people” (Freud, 2003, p. 64).

Figure 7: Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his Vienna office (Princess Eugenie of Greece, 1937)


A common thematic denominator in many Gothic tales is undoubtedly the depiction of their protagonist’s psychological duality. In the above-mentioned novels, the theme of the double is incorporated either in an obvious manner, as in the duality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or in a more suggestive way, as in the case of Frankenstein. What emerges as a pattern in all these stories, however, is the gradual merging of opposing aspects, as their boundaries become gradually blurred. Duality serves as a way for the modern reader to explore the differences in their own public and private selves. Furthermore, it makes them reflect on the opposing powers of evil and good, showcasing that characters are more than black or white. In a way, it proves that they are not either/or but rather both/and. Like most literary conventions, the handling of the doppelgänger is defined by psychological interpretations expressed through an artistic lens. For that reason, both psychoanalytical and philosophical approaches must be considered to clarify the dualism the main characters undergo. These complex perceptions paved the way for the psychological double to become a fundamental theme in Gothic fiction.

Bibliographical References

Bacon, N. (2018). A Historical and Political Discourse of the Laws and Government of England, From the First Times to the end of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. The Fifth Edition. Gale ECCO, Print Editions.

Bhandari, S. R. (2022). The projection of the double in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Pursuits, 6 (1), 102-108.

Cairney, C. (1995). The Villain Character in the Puritan World: An ideological study of Richardson, Radcliffe, Byron and Arnold. [PhD dissertation, Columbia: University of Missouri]. Columbia ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Carver, S. (2003). The Gothic Revival. In C. Murray (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era. Routledge.

Davison, C. M. (2009). History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1764-1824 (1st ed.). University of Wales Press.

Dunning, M. (n.d.) In what ways does the double figure in 'Dorian Gray' and 'Carmilla.'Academia edu.

Ehrenpreis, I. (1952). Swift’s History of England. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 51(2), 177–185.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Gothic. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved on 03/29/2023 at

Fischer, R. K. (2019). The Gothic Aesthetic: From the Ancient Germanic Tribes to the Contemporary Goth Subculture. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 58(3), 143–148.

Freud, S. (2003). The ‘uncanny’. Penguin Classics.

Fritz, M. (2013). Utopian experimentation and Oscar Wilde’s the picture of Dorian Gray. Utopian Studies, 24(2), 283-311.

Kliger, S. (1945). The “Goths” in England: An Introduction to the Gothic Vogue in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Discussion. Modern Philology, 43(2), 107–117. .

Mullan, J. (2014). The origins of the Gothic. British Library.

Oldmixon, J. (1726). The Critical History of England. J. Pemberton.

Paul, J. (1892). Flower, fruit and thorn pieces or, the wedded life, death, and marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, parish advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel. (A genuine thorn piece). George Bell & Sons. University of California, Berkeley.

Posadas, B. T. (2018). Double visions, double fictions: The doppelgänger in Japanese film and literature. The University of Minnesota Press.

Rank, O. (1971). The double: A psychoanalytic study. The University of North Carolina Press. North Carolina.

Raynor Memorial Libraries of Marquette University (n.d). Glossary of the Gothic: Doppelgänger. E-publications Marquette.

Shelley, M. (1998). Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus: The 1818 text. Oxford University Press.

Slethaug, G. E. (1994). Doubles and doubling in the arts. Journal of the fantastic in the arts, 6, 100-106.

Steensma, R. C. (1976). “So ancient and noble a nation”: Sir William Temple’s History of England. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 77(1), 95–107.

Stevenson, R. L. (1886). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Penguin Classics. Penguin Group. London. England.

Temple, W. (2009). Sir William Temple's essays on ancient and modern learning, and on poetry. BiblioBazaar.

Wiley, J. L. (2015). Shakespeare's Influence on the English Gothic, 1791-1834: The Conflicts of Ideologies. University of Arizona.

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