Teaching A-Level Gothic

Posted by Hannah Priest on July 26, 2011 in Dr Hannah Priest, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

This post explores some of the frustrations I have had when working with pupils who are sitting a particular A-Level English Literature exam, which contains a module entitled ‘Elements of the Gothic’. It is intended to provoke discussion, but I apologise if it veers towards polemic. I should also note that it is a criticism of a syllabus – not of teaching practice and method.

In 2009, UK exam boards introduced a new set of syllabuses for teaching AS and A-Level English Literature. AQA – who administer the most heavily subscribed GCSE and A-Level English syllabuses – introduced two options (A and B) for English Literature. It is the AQA English Literature B syllabus that interests me today.

As part of the A2 course (i.e. the second year of the ‘A-Level’ qualification taken at age 18), students studying the AQA syllabus take a module entitled ‘Texts and Genres’, and schools choose whether students will learn about ‘Elements of the Pastoral’ or ‘Elements of the Gothic’. I have some experience of teaching and tutoring A-Level students, so was curious to learn the content of AQA’s ‘Gothic module’. The set texts for this course are as follows:

William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus
John Webster, The White Devil
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Books 1 and 2
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale

Post 1800
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

Students are required to study three texts from this list, at least one of which must be taken from the 1300-1800 group. The course specification states that: “Individual texts will be explored and evaluated against some of the commonly accepted principles of the chosen genre, and three texts (or more) will be compared as representatives of that genre.” This, for me, raises some interesting questions. What “commonly accepted principles” of the Gothic are evinced by this selection of texts? And to what extent can we say that these books are “representatives of that genre”?

In answer to the first question, some clue is offered by the module exam papers. To use an example, the June 2010 paper questioned students on the centrality of religion to the Gothic genre, the extent to which women are predators, victims or absent, and the contrast of “nightmarish terrors” and the “civilised mind”. In other exam papers, the question of the “macabre” and the “supernatural” is raised, and students are asked to consider the boundaries between humans and monsters, the role of Satan and Hell, and the problem of excessive violence. While, I think, it’s fair to say that these issues might be described as “commonly accepted principles” of the genre (if we are to define Gothic as a genre at all), there seems to be something rather problematic about the focus of this particular syllabus.


The set texts on ‘Elements of the Gothic’ span the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. And yet, there is something rather strange about the chronology of the course. How appropriate is it to include a medieval text in a course on literary Gothic? Surely one of the “commonly accepted principles” of much Gothic writing is the use of a ‘monstrous’ medieval past which might return to threaten the enlightened present. What can we make of including a text in which the medieval is the threatened present? This further raises the problem of religion, as the medieval text that has been included is one steeped in everyday Catholic practice – as evidenced by its narrator, the mercenary Pardoner. There is, certainly, a rich comparison to be made of the discussion of Catholic practice in The Pardoner’s Tale to that found in, say, Dracula, but sadly I have seen little evidence of this in what I have witnessed of the teaching of this course. Nor is this mentioned specifically in the exam questions or the syllabus. Instead, The Pardoner’s Tale is taught as a story of ‘superstition’ and ‘the macabre’, suggesting that it has been placed on this course as an example of the ‘monstrous’ Catholic past against which the present might be measured. (What is equally disconcerting is the fact that there are no medieval texts on the alternative ‘Elements of the Pastoral’ module for this course.)

The second odd thing about the chronology of the course is that there are no texts from the eighteenth century. This seems to me to be a very unusual omission. For those of us who began our study of the literary Gothic with an undergraduate introductory course (mine, like most, began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), this is rather bizarre. The only novels featured on the course are nineteenth-century, though early in the case of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Indeed, the choice of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and Dracula as the set novels for the course allows for some consideration of how the ‘genre’ might be seen to evolve over the course of the century – except that students are prohibited from writing on those three novels in the exam, as they are required to refer to at least one earlier text.

Modes of Writing

This concern with chronology also touches on the modes of writing discussed. None of the texts in the 1300-1800 group are prose, and all the post-1800 texts are. Is this an accurate representation of Gothic literature? As I said, some of the standard ‘Gothic’ texts on an undergraduate course are pre-1800 novels. Additionally, poetry and drama written after 1800 continues to make good use of the tropes and ‘elements’ of the Gothic.

What the course suggests, then, is a distinct break in the dominant mode of Gothic writing: where once it was verse and drama, now it is prose. I’m sure it’s hard to disagree with this assessment, as the same could be said of fiction in general. However, the date given for this break seems rather arbitrary, and not necessarily representative of the novel’s rise to prominence.

In the syllabus, and in the teaching materials I have seen for this course, little attention is paid to the differences between modes of writing. For example, the performative aspect of the supernatural which is, it could be argued, so key to its presentation in Macbeth is apparently smoothly comparable to the uncanny intertextuality of Angela Carter’s short stories. Of course, I know there are many good A-Level teachers throughout the country who are more than qualified to explore this distinction with their students. My point is, rather, that the syllabus does little to encourage it or allow for it to be addressed in exam answers.

Women Writers

As well as offering a clear (and perhaps misleading) distinction in terms of modes of writing, this course also raises a few issues of gender and the Gothic. The majority of texts, and all the pre-1800 texts, included are written by men. The two nineteenth-century texts written by women were published anonymously and pseudonymously, skewing the place of women writers within the ‘Gothic canon’ further. The exclusion of female writers of early English literature is not limited to this particular course, it should be noted. AQA’s GCSE English Literature A syllabus (examined for the final time in 2011) strikingly includes absolutely no female writers in the pre-1914 section of its course anthology. When I asked an English teacher (who shall remain nameless) how he explains this omission to his pupils, he replied that he tells them that “because of a lack of education, very few women could write in past centuries”. Again, I’m not suggesting that this view is representative of the majority of GCSE English teachers, but rather that the syllabuses to which they must teach are encouraging some sweeping generalizations about the place of women within literature.

This dismissal of early women writers seems most surprising in a course on the Gothic. After all, the Gothic is frequently understood as being a ‘genre’ deeply concerned with women’s writing and reading habits. In my opinion, the AQA ‘Gothic’ syllabus obscures this “commonly accepted principle” almost entirely.


As I said at the beginning, this post reflects some of the frustrations I have had with teaching and assisting pupils with study on this particular A-Level module. These frustrations have been heightened by the fact that I have also taught Frankenstein at undergraduate level to the first batch of students who sat this exam. What struck me was the extent to which students had to ‘unlearn’ things they ‘knew’ about the Gothic in order to follow the lectures on the undergraduate course. This made me question the continuity between A-Level and university teaching.

How important is it that problematic aspects of literature, such as genre definition, are represented in the same way at A-Level and undergraduate? Are there any ‘facts’ of literature that we need to teach consistently through the education system? Is it fair to tell 17-year-old students that Mary Shelley refers to “an earlier Gothic text” in Frankenstein (i.e. Paradise Lost), only to deny this when they turn 18 and enter university?

I’m going to end this post with these questions, as I’m not sure what the answers are. I’d be very interested to see if any readers have comments or suggestions on approaching the AQA syllabus – or the issues it raises – or if any readers of this blog have had experience with this A-Level course.

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