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Allison Saft

The Cruel Optimism of the Gothic: Wealth, Class, and Villainy in YA Fiction

Villains institutionalizing heroines, crumbling, sentient houses, and a decadent social scene with a festering core: the Gothic is back in young adult fantasy, and with book deals slated into 2022, it shows no signs of going anywhere. It’s tempting, I think, to explain this Gothic resurgence as a symptom of YA fantasy leaning Darker & Edgier. The aesthetic conventions of the genre—crumbling manors, flickering candelabras, and brooding lords—certainly lend themselves well to that end. But this explanation hardly gets to the bottom of things.

The question still remains: why has this set of images become so alluring to us? Why this 18th- and 19th-century form, and why does it so capture the hearts of 21st-century readers? Given my own role in perpetuating the Gothic trend, I’ve wrestled with these questions for the better part of a year. I believe that to understand the genre’s popularity now, we need to understand first what it is—as well as the historical and economic conditions that led to its popularity throughout the 19th century.

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