Before venturing further, there is value in addressing the question of “Why Gothic and dystopian fiction?” First, both Gothic and dystopian fiction have, through their wide appeals, made undeniable contributions to literary tradition and popular consciousness. Just glancing at lists of recent commercial and critical successes of the silver screen and television – with The Hunger Games, Divergent, Mad Max: Fury Road, American Horror Story, Black Mirror, and countless others bound to appear – reveals the indebtedness of modern entertainment to Gothic and dystopian fiction. Moreover, although these genres (and many others) are often overlooked by those more interested in a literary tradition of high art and canon (whatever that happens to mean), there is no denying the incredible depth of investigation possible when reading them. Ray Bradbury makes such a claim in Zen in the Art of Writing, arguing that a reticence to engage with forms perceived as inferior prevents readers from gaining a true breadth of perspective: “Sometimes it is a little hard to tell the trash from the treasure, so we hold back, afraid to declare ourselves. But since we are out to give ourselves texture, to collect truths on many levels…we should not fear to be seen in strange companies” (39).
Beginning with Horace Walpole’s 1764 proto-novel The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic has stood the test of time. From the earliest Italian-ruminations of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794) to the most recent vampiric-reimaginings of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Gothic works have compelled readers to contemplate worlds beyond the unknowable, and to come face to face with both unspeakable realities and the psychological fractures they create. On one hand, it is easy to dismiss narratives invested in the supernatural notions of ghosts and castles and supernatural phenomena simply because these are elements that cannot be known and thus escape true definition. On the other hand, a counterargument suggests that this elusive quality is the very element that makes the Gothic so compelling to its readership, especially those in their teenage years. After all, adolescent readers straddle the line between childhood and adulthood, and are therefore susceptible to the charms of the imaginative even as they forge into the unchartered terrain of figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world.
Gothic literature is imbued with qualities that enable youthful readers to think about themselves and their contexts in deep, evocative ways. As detailed by Wendy L. Rodabaugh, adolescents are especially attracted to the Gothic because they identify with five of its most essential qualities: emotional extremes, self-revelatory journeys, individuals being pitted against the unknown, a yearning to rebel against authority, and a sympathizing with outcast-figures (69). But, again, it is not just a superficial ideation of self that makes the Gothic ripe for study, but the intellectual doors its reading can open. The very idea that those five qualities are “common to both adolescence and the Gothic genre, begs a case for introducing Gothic literature… these characteristics as not only an argument for why students may relate to Gothic literature, but as possible vehicles for encouraging discussion and guided writing assignments” (69). In short, the Gothic is particularly adept in speaking to the teenage mind.
The premise that teenage readers are attracted to the Gothic because it contains appealing elements is a wonderful launch pad, but investigating the genre’s heavier implications is equally important. As outlined in Manuel Aguirre’s “Gothic Fiction and Folk-Narrative Structure: The Case of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” one of the most salient features of Gothic texts is the presence of seemingly oppositional, contradictory forces: “[The] Gothic sets up and simultaneously problematizes a number of oppositions (life/death, natural/supernatural, ancient/modern, unconscious/conscious and so on)…” (1). Although these oppositions may be found in various genres, their cohabitations are more deeply rooted in this case, as the Gothic form is equally indebted to two disparate sources, as “beyond its debt to literary and philosophical sources, Gothic derives from myth, legend and folktale” (14). As a result, it can be said that Gothic fiction has a longstanding reputation as a genre that forces readers to grapple with the presence of binary opposites.
As a result, students reading Gothic fiction will be better prepared to critically inspect the reductive “Us vs. Them” mentality pervading modern society. Those skeptical of the societal binary stranglehold need think about just a few scenarios in which only two options are popularly accepted. For instance, how many United States citizens would vote for a Presidential candidate not categorized as Democrat or Republican? Or, as another example, how often are cases of potential police brutality reduced to oversimplified, black and white (pun intended) discussions of racial relations? Or, what is to be made of the fact that recent public discussions about transgender identities that defy the traditional male-female gender schema – such as those inspired by Caitlyn Jenner – have elicited confusion, discomfort, and intolerance from many?
These examples point to a zealous adherence to a “this or that” perspective that ultimately stifles opportunities for individuals and communities. After all, how much progress can be made if citizens get caught up in the across-the-aisle bickering and wheel-spinning endemic in a binary system? More worrisome is the notion that such a system coerces individuals into choosing sides, feeling compelled to choose a team so as to participate in what amounts to societal gamesmanship. But perhaps the most dangerous force at work is the fact that once an individual has aligned herself with a particular perspective, all validity and legitimacy will be ignored if falling on the wrong side of an imagined line in the sand. When this occurs, rigidity and dogma are privileged over reason, compromise, and truth.
What is at stake in the teaching of Gothic literature is the ability to help students think beyond the limits of such binary systems. Students enrolled in The Dark Days of Future Past will engage with literature that requires them to contemplate that which is beyond the oppositional framework most often adopted. By reading and writing about inexplicable supernatural elements (such as the titular figure of Dracula, who is neither alive nor dead), students are thrust into the position of occupying liminal spaces, grappling with paradoxes and the simultaneous presence of elements previously believed to negate one another. Therefore, the student who has taken The Dark Days of Future Past will be more prepared to consider every avenue instead of venturing down one of the paths presented by the highly-trafficked fork in the road. Moreover, this avenue ultimately proves multitudinous, as the scope of the Gothic directs its critical gaze both outward and inward: “Perhaps the Gothic is an entirely serious attempt to get to grips with difficulties in social organization or in the organization of the psyche” (Punter and Byron xix).