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The daughter of an active feminist, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley eloped with the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 15, and after was continually and profoundly influenced by his words and writings. Her novel Frankenstein is named among the best written and most meaningful of the gothic works, and is one of the few still popularly read today. A precursor to the Romantic trend in art and intellect, gothic novels rejected of the precepts of order, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. The gothic tradition grew out of disillusionment with the Enlightenment and 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism. Romanticism as a whole emphasized the individual, the irrational, the imaginative, the spontaneous, the emotional, and the transcendental. Shelley herself defines “gothic” as a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our Nature, and would awaken thrilling horror–one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.” By infusing moral and social concerns into the gothic style, Shelley achieves more than a simple horror story, however. The universal societal and psychoanalytical questions raised in Frankenstein secure its place in world literature and promise decades of similarly fashioned gothic writings.
As stated above, the gothic genre developed as a harsh reaction to the predominant Neoclassic ideals of the time; the emphasis shifted from the whole to the solitary, and from society to nature. The “Graveyard Poets,” one of whom is Thomas Gray, are attributed with having ushered in the new philosophy and are often termed “Pre-Romantics.” Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” has all the elements of the gothic: graves, overtones of death, a rural setting, and a desire for return to a more simplistic, natural time. Simultaneously, Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached a similar creed which presented society as evil, and called for a “natural state of man.” Shelley was schooled in both writers, and took their words to heart. In 1776 and 1789 Revolutions swept America and France, indicating that the Neoclassic ideals were not as stable as was previously thought. News of these revolutions infected the English with fears about similar occurrences in their own country, and much of this trepidation is manifested through devices such as the senseless mob violence in Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley took fragments of histories and a legend surrounding the castle Frankenstein (which she may or may not have visited) she had heard and developed them into her novel. The castle was once inhabited by a doctor Conrad Dipple, an alchemist who claimed to have the elixir of life, and was known for graverobbing and signing his name “Frankenstiena.” She came across this information while vacationing with her husband and Lord Byron in Geneva in the summer of 1816. Mary writes in notes for an edition of her late husband’s poetry that they read that summer the New Testament, Paradise Lost, Spenser’s Faery Queene, Montaigne’s Essays, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus, among numerous others (The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley 575). One evening the three, along with Dr. John Polidori and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, were trapped in Byron’s castle as a storm raged outside. For a change from reading Coleridge’s vampiric poem “Christabel,” Byron suggested a ghost story competition. Out of this competition came Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Byron’s “Manfred,” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the idea for which came to her in a nightmare.
The setting under which the story was devised was perfect for the story itself; Frankenstein takes place in the Swiss Alps and in Ingolstadt, where Victor Frankenstein is schooled and creates his monster. The novel swims in gloom and decadent expanses of castle and lecture hall, and all the confrontation scenes between Victor and his creation take place in harsh natural settings such as the cliffs and the ice floes. This reinforces Shelley’s belief in both the destructive and beautiful properties inherent in nature, and heightens the conflict between the two characters.
The setting, in turn, helps create the mood which permeates the novel. The tone is melancholy, and has an almost destructive sense about it. Due to the instability of the entire society, and Victor in particular, the mood shifts much like the emotions of a manic-depressive would; Victor seems wholly disconsolate yet notices flashes of beauty, such as in the spring during which he recovered with Clerval’s assistance. The tone also reveals the social prejudices of the time during the scenes in which the monster is attacked though he has done nothing to provoke such action. This mob mentality is used to illustrate the dangers of a society thinking as a whole; one mistake, and all is lost. The attacks are depicted violently and seem almost mechanical as one shout of fear and misunderstanding leads to an uncontrollable mass of angry bodies without any real reason for their ire. The truly frightening aspect of the mob scenes is the fact that no one questions the purpose behind the attack, but simply follows.
The story makes use of a frame, a structure typical of the genre. The events are retold from a first-person narrative to a secondary audience who is unfamiliar with the happenings. This allows justification of expository information and also allows the audience (now the narrator) to voice thematic and moral assumptions derived from the content of the tale. Frankenstein begins as a seaman’s journal, but, upon the beginning of Victor’s experience, drops almost entirely the presence of Robert Walton (the seaman) and presents the tale through the Doctor’s eyes. Walton is necessary for practical reasons as well: since Frankenstein dies, there must be someone to relate his life, and it would be unfeasible for the story to be told through a personal journal for the simple fact that Frankenstein had more important things to do than keep a diary.
Shelley drew from two Classical sources, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for the creation of Frankenstein. From Metamorphosis came the Prometheus legend, which appears in the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” One of the Titans in Greek mythology, Prometheus returned fire from Mount Olympus to the humans after it had been taken from them by Zeus, and so was imprisoned on a peak where an eagle each day ate his liver, which grew again each morning. The Prometheus legend applies to Frankenstein in the instance of Victor, who obtains forbidden knowledge (that which humans should not have, like the fire) and then is punished for its misuse, however unintentional.
Adam and Eve’s “Fall from Grace,” as related in Milton’s epic poem, is very similar to the Prometheus legend, but with obvious Christian overtones. Victor Frankenstein is the ignorant humans in the Garden who are overcome by the temptation of the snake’s (Satan’s) poisoned fruit of forbidden knowledge. Victor truly believes his efforts will help humanity, and “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 52). In the end, however, nature refuses his sway over its secrets and hands him an abomination; his failure is absolute and he suffers dearly his grand illusions. He has “fallen,” and all he holds in his heart is destroyed as a result of his seemingly benevolent search for things beyond his capacity and place.
Percy Shelley was a devout atheist (if such a thing is possible), and he doubtless challenged the validity of Mary’s proper Christian upbringing. Despite his abhorrence for organised religion, both Shelleys read Paradise Lost twice for its literature between 1816 and the publishing of Frankenstein in 1818, and the influence of Milton is obvious. On the title page Shelley quotes Milton,
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
In the context of her novel, the passage reads as the monster questioning Victor, to whom he gives scornful god-like attributes. Victor’s irresponsibility in creating the innocent being from severed corpses and then refusing him and leaving him to die speaks of a distant, uncaring god whose qualities mirror Satan’s more closely than Christ’s. Shelley’s novel is a clear message warning the unbridled destructive power of aggravated Nature, and the realms into which man should not meddle.
Just as Victor’s character is a composite of Adam’s, God’s, and Satan’s attributes, the monster is faced with the same confusion of identity. This quality stems from Shelley’s concern over the identity of her society as a whole, which was slowly disintegrating into smaller hostile factions. Paradise Lost is one of the works from which the monster masters language (another being Frankenstein’s journal, which fans his rage), and so he becomes learned in Christianity. The monster, being of above-average stature and strength, also displays a highly intellectual and logical power of reasoning. He extends his personal condition into the novel and declares, “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no other link to any other human beingI was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition” (Shelley 135-136).
The monster, while conceived of the discarded parts of criminals, was originally quite kind and sought only companionship, one of the primary quests of man. God saw this and bestowed Eve upon Adam. His unnaturally born and unlearned character served as a foil for the misguided and overly scientific Frankenstein. However, after a string of unfounded and brutal refusals by both his maker and society, his once benevolent character turns to anger and the pursuit of revenge. The creature tells Frankenstein that, “The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone” (Shelley 240). Since he is rejected as another “Adam,” the monster assumes the role of Satan, where at least he is able to vent and does get some attention and respect. His rationale is that, “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fearif I have no ties and affections, hatred and vice must be my portion” (Shelley 125-126). Denied of love and companionship, the monster reasons that the only option left him is its opposite: evil and destruction.
Like Satan, the monster is effectively isolated from society due to the perception of him as hostile and evil, and this only serves to increase his hostility. Well before he had committed a single act against society, they fled from him or pursued him with weapons and cries. He saved a young girl from drowning and was shot; he helped a destitute family through a winter they would not have survived and, when he finally amasses the courage to reveal himself to them, they beat him and chase him from their land. He relates that Felix (the young man of the family) “struck me violently with a stick. I could have torn him limb from limbBut my heart sank within me as with bitter sickness, and I refrained” (Shelley 117). Even when attacked the monster is too upset by this refusal of his company to defend himself; companionship and understanding are of primary and singular importance to him. After several such disheartening failures, the creature resigns himself to a solitary life and devotes his energies towards the destruction of his absentee creator. Had he been accepted by only one individual, he might have endured the hostility of all others.
The theme of man’s fall from grace is attributed to the sin of pride and the danger of delusions of grandeur. If man would accept and remain confined to his place in the scheme of life, nature would do as should be done, and man could live in harmony. The balance between the natural world and the newly industrialised, scientific world of man is delicate and unstable. Shelley believes that scientific advances must be employed with extreme caution, and man must never forget his roots.
Another struggle between poles is the ubiquitous battle between darkness and light. Metaphorically, darkness seeps into the light of knowledge much like the ever-present gloom in the gothic atmosphere. This ignorant darkness threatens “progress” and knowledge, but is natural and permanent; never will light overcome darkness, but the opposite is plausible. Occasional flashes of light, such as Victor’s discovery of the secret of life, are quickly obscured by the unforgiving and impenetrable blackness of nature.
This impossibility of the permanence of scientific knowledge (which is the most dynamic branch of knowledge) questions the validity of a society based upon reason in a natural, malevolent world. The gothic is based upon the realisation that the former intellectual structures were collapsing, and Shelley is doubtful of the coming of a newer, better philosophy. The cycle of philosophies is again drifting towards nature as the key to harmonious and godly life, and Frankenstein illustrates the triumph of nature over science.
Frankenstein’s monster is the embodiment of science and reason twisted to reality by the whims of Nature under which he was schooled. Science unleashed and unmonitored (as all science ultimately becomes) offers far more serious consequences than nature itself could ever inflict upon man. More than a caution on the dangers of science, Frankenstein calls for a united band of tolerant and democratic individuals to comprise the new culture. Ironically, the monster embodies this ideal: “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred fold; for that one creature’s sake, I would make peace with the whole kind” (Shelley 125). The monster wishes for peace and understanding while Frankenstein himself is caught in a web of reason and intellectualism; the creature is the embodiment of nature while Victor serves as an illustration of the failing Neoclassic philosophies.
The violence of this breaking social structure manifests itself with a distaste for the aristocracy (symbolically, the castles) and their comfort in their abused powers. Romanticism places importance on the individual and on democracy, denouncing hierarchical and inherited rule. The mob mentality and general loss of identity is derived directly from the disintegration of such a long-standing system; the culture is drowned in a torrent of questions and confusion. Finally, the omnipotence of nature again overrides the futile attempts of man at order and reason.
Though Frankenstein is said to have marked the end of the gothic period in 18th century literature, its model still is emulated and admired. The novel had great influence upon the middle and late Romantic works, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drama Prometheus Unbound of 1819. Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism was a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature, an exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect, a focus on man’s passions and inner struggles. The movement also emphasized imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth, an interest in the medieval era, and a predilection for the mysterious and the monstrous. These attributes evolved directly from the gothic genre, but became more refined and less grotesque in the process. The Victorian era saw a resurgence in the ghost story, though their style tends to be more subliminal and domesticated than the blatantly evil tone of the gothic. American Romanticism had its base in this period of English literature as well. Poe’s “Ligea” and “Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” use many gothic conventions and themes, such as the ominous tone, dream-like or surreal sequences, and warnings about interdependency and the manipulation of one’s mind.
The gothic novel revolves as part of the literary cycle, periodically returning for a brief period in the public’s eye and then again disappearing into obscure circles of its few disciples. In this scientific age, the gothic is viewed as being overly sentimental, predictable, and implausible. As the ages change, readers, like Victor, are forced to “exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur” which the gothic inspires for “realities of little worth” (Shelley 46). The gothic, the fantastic, is a necessary balance for logic and reason as much as light is to dark, and good to evil. Without one, the other is undefined and therefore has no purpose in its existence. Frankenstein will live on as a brilliant insight into both the political environment of the 18th century and the eternal condition of man as an extension of nature.
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