Background and Summary

John Ruskin was a leading Victorian critic of both art and society. In the 1850’s, his interests focused on architecture, leading him to write The Stones of Venice. Ruskin was particularly interested in determining what type of society is able to produce masterpieces of architecture. Ruskin was enamored with Gothic architecture. In the section from The Stones of Venice that I’ve decided to focus on, “The Nature of the Gothic,” he argues for a change in society that would cause the production of gothic architecture. The ideal society for Ruskin was one in which workers would express themselves and individuals and actually enjoy their labor. William Morris was clearly a disciple of Ruskin’s, which is on full display in the concept of “work-pleasure” in Morris’s News from Nowhere. According to Ruskin, an industrial and mechanized society would not be able to produce true gothic architecture, but only its empty imitation.

Notes & Quotes

  • I’m interested in the ways that Ruskin’s criticism of gothic architecture intersects with understandings and representations of the gothic mode in 19th century British literature. Richard Edelman’s “Ruskin & Gothic Literature” (2017) helps to begin this conversation. Edelman notes how Ruskin has a distinctly positive view of the gothic.  Ruskin describes the “wolfish life” within the northern builder of Gothic architecture as a positive characteristic, and ties it to democratic ideas of individuality. For Ruskin, the classical style of architecture and the current industrial method both lacked evidence of individuality, unlike the gothic, which occurred in between these two periods of architecture and allowed builders to represent their imperfections and “wolfish life” through that architecture. Edelman connects this to the psychological turn in British gothic literature that happened after Ruskin’s Stones of Venice was published. He cites Dickens’s Bleak House as the first example of a gothic text that placed the gothic within contemporary England (but wouldn’t A String of Pearls claim this honor? Or Wuthering Heights? or some of Gaskell’s short stories?). Edelman then states that this transformation was even more clear in later 19th century British gothic works, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which not only featured gothic elements within contemporary England, but argued that there was a more “free”- yet evil- self lurking beneath the exterior self designed to adhere to normative rules and regulations of society. Stevenson, of course, has a far more negative view of this liberated self, however, it still connects his writing, as well as the gothic writing of other authors of late 19th century England, to the more positive views of Ruskin.


The Stones of Venice (1851-53): “The Nature of the Gothic” by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.