Before I started rethinking my curriculum and organizing it by essential questions (more on my revamped curriculum design here), one of my favorite units was always my Gothic short stories unit. I love the Dark Romantics – I even took a whole class devoted to Poe in grad school.
I love these stories because they tap into the darker side of humanity – a side that always seems to resonate more with students. Plus, these stories are ripe for analysis.
If you’re looking for a way to spice up your literature lessons, teaching with Gothic short stories is a great option. These eerie tales are full of literary devices that will engage and challenge your students. Here are 8 devices you can hit with this sub-genre.
Gothic short stories excel at creating a distinct mood. One of the hallmark elements of Gothic literature is the presence of mystery and suspense – two prevalent moods through many of these stories.
Ideas for teaching mood:
- Analyze opening passages, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” to understand the power of descriptive details in setting a chilling atmosphere.
- Compare and contrast the moods created by the different settings (the party versus the catacombs) in “The Cask of Amontillado”.
- Trace how the mood changes as Prince Prospero travels through the various rooms in “The Masque of the Red Death”.
Gothic literature often features descriptive passages that use sensory details to create vivid images in the reader’s mind. For example, the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe describes the decaying mansion in great detail. (Fun fact – there are fifteen prepositional phrases in just the first sentence of this story. Thank you Poe grad school class).
Another great example of imagery in Gothic short stories is that of the room in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Readers can visualize the gnawed furniture, the barred windows, the creepy wallpaper.
These stories are great for a mini-lesson on diction and colorful, purposeful adjectives.
One of the things that make Gothic short stories so fascinating is the intriguing characters. Stories such as “Young Goodman Brown”, ‘The Birthmark”, and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” provide insight into the characters’ personalities and are combined with subtle hints and actions that reveal their true nature. “A Rose for Emily” is another great option to explore not only characterization but suspense and surprise as well.
The next two literary devices – symbolism and allegory – are often among the most difficult to teach. Here’s where Gothic short stories can help.
A couple of ideas:
- The veil in “The Minister’s Black Veil” = a symbol of the priest’s guilt as well as a larger symbol of the figurative mask that so many people wear.
- The cat in “The Black Cat” = a symbol of the narrator’s guilt over killing Pluto (RIP)
- The wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” = the narrator’s deteriorating mental health during her confinement
Have students identify the symbols and trace their appearance throughout the story. Notice how the symbols impact the mood and character development.
Alongside symbolism we have allegory. Students often confuse the two. The best way I know how to explain it is that the symbols are a tool that helps us discover the allegory.
- “Young Goodman Brown” = an allegory about losing your faith and the hidden evil that lurks in all of us
- “The Minister’s Black Veil” = an allegory about the innate depraved nature of man
- “The Masque of the Red Death” = an allegory about the inevitability of death
(All super cheery, right?)
Irony is a prevalent literary device in gothic short stories, introducing unexpected twists and turns. Guide your students in recognizing instances of situational or dramatic irony within these narratives, showcasing how characters’ actions or beliefs lead to unforeseen and often tragic outcomes.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a prime example to explore this device, revealing the chilling consequences of vengeance. This one has it all – verbal, dramatic, and situational irony.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is another good study of irony – what was supposed to “cure” the narrator led to her mental deterioration.
Another tenet of Gothic literature is foreboding and omens, which often take the shape of foreshadowing.
Have students look for subtle clues: omens, curses, dark/supernatural forces, and symbols; note these and make predictions.
Examples of foreshadowing in Gothic short stories:
- the crack in the house in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (also a symbol) – foreshadows the eventual demise of Rodrick and Madeline Usher
- the first line of “The Cask of Amontillado” – the narrator declares that he is seeking revenge on Fortunato
- the mention of leaving Faith behind in “Young Goodman Brown”
The last literary device is that of point of view or perspective.
Many gothic short stories are told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, adding to the sense of mystery and unease. Several of Poe’s stories start with the narrator declaring that he may seem insane, but he’s not really.
Encourage your students to think about the ways the point of view affects the story and the reader’s experience. How would the story be different if it were told from another person’s POV?
- “The Cask of Amontillado” from Fortunato’s perspective
- “The Fall of the House of Usher” from Rodrick or Madeline
This exercise could make for a great writing extension to further practice the skill of analyzing perspectives.
So there you have it – 8 literary devices to teach using Gothic short stories.
Most of the examples mentioned above are more canonical texts, but these same skills can be applied to any text in this genre. To expand your list, check out these blog posts:
What literary devices do you cover with short stories? Leave a comment below and let me know.
And as always, happy teaching 😀
Curious about more of my favorite American Literature units? Check out this post: 7 Units for a Complete American Literature Curriculum.
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