Romantic and Gothic Representation in Frankenstein

by Stacy Fox

     Sometimes considered one of the first science fiction novels of supernatural terror, Frankenstein proved itself an instant success when released anonymously in 1818.  The mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and his creation provoke readers with the fear of the unknown and the power of natures forces.  A deeper look into the character of Victor Frankenstein, the role of scientific experimentation and the intricate settings of nature in which the story evolves, prove Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein , a worthy example of both Romantic and Gothic representation in nineteenth century British Literature.
     When Mary Shelley was born (1798), her husband’s famous predecessors, Wordsworth and Coleridge, published Lyrical Ballads With a Few Other Poems which is an early example of  Romantic literature.  According to Wordsworth’s Preface, “The poet considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally a mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature” (Anderson 606).  But, Wordsworth and Coleridge were not the only ones to share this and other Romantic ideas.  Shelley’s father, William Godwin , “was one of the leading political philosophers of the first Romantic generation” (Anderson 741).  And is obvious that Shelley herself showed “admiration for Wordsworth, Coleridge, and in particular The Ancient Mariner” ( Drabble 372), for she included a passage from The Ancient Mariner in her novel Frankenstein.
     It was these poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and others who helped shape the ideas and thoughts known as Romanticism.  “Romantics saw and felt things brilliantly afresh.  They virtually invented certain landscapes . . . had a new intuition for the primal power of the wild landscape, the spiritual correspondence between Man and Nature . . .” (Drabble 853).  As to emotions, Romanticism “expressed an extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience . . .” (Drabble 853).  The Romantics also “sought reassurance in the face of change by thinking about the relationship between the human mind and what is out there . . .” (Anderson 606).  It was within this faith of change that the ideas of the Romantics originated.
     Another area where the thoughts of the Romantics originated, is their understanding of the mysterious forces of nature.  As Robert Anderson puts it,” . . . they prized experiences of the beauty and majesty of nature. . . but they had a strong sense of its mysterious forces, partly because these forces hinted at the cause of change” (606).  “If you do something to nature, even a small part of it, there may be large, unforeseen results like those that threaten us” (Anderson 605).  In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein acknowledges these forces when he says:
      It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn;  and whether it was the outward substance of things,   or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquires were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. (Shelley 28)  
     On the other extreme of Romanticism, Frankenstein can also be considered a gothic novel,“tales of macabre, fantastic . . . usually set in graveyards, ruins, and wild picturesque landscapes”  (Drabble 411).  “Gothic novels were usually set in foreign countries; they took place in mountainous landscapes”  (Ousby 405).  Also in gothic novels, “ the plots hinged on suspense and mystery, involving the fantastic and the supernatural” (Ousby 405).  With these characteristics of horror, Shelley provokes her readers with “a Romantic terror” (Bloom 280) and intrigues them with the ideas of the unknown.
      At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Robert Walton who says for his cause, “There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand . . . a belief in the marvelous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore” (Shelley 10).  On the other hand, Victor makes his declaration of purpose when he says, “ more, far more will I achieve:  treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 40).  On drawing conclusions from these two statements, Walton as well as Victor Frankenstein can be considered Romantic heroes.  “The Romantic hero is either a solitary dreamer, or an egocentric plagued by guilt and remorse, but, in either case, a figure who has kicked the world away from beneath his feet” (Ousby 851).  In Victor’s case, an obsession with the nature of science pushes him to cross the boundary that separates the forces of human power and nature when he decides to construct his creation.  Plagued by his own ambition to do something great and beyond that of his predecessors, Victor dances with the forces that in the end takes everything from him.  
    Along with his own feelings of ambition, Victor also constructs his creation because of the want to bring about change in his society. “ The monster is a ubiquitous symbol of menace, in whom different commentators have seen the hubris of science, the forces of the unconscious, and the emergent industrial working class”  (Magill 575).  This shows the Romantics saw things at a lower class level and were not interested in the “upper” class of the society.  “ And so the Romantic looked into himself and at simple people around him and there the implied model for individual and social action” (Gardner 37).  
    The Romantics were also known for being rebellious against England because of its resistance to political and social change.  So, “ the Romantics turned from the formal, public verse of the eighteenth-century Augustans to a more private, spontaneous, lyric poetry . . . that expressed the Romantics’ belief that imagination, rather than mere reason, was the best response to the forces of change” (Anderson 603).  Shelley’s novel,  Frankenstein, portrays this idea of using imagination.  When Victor creates life from lifeless matter to bring change in his society, readers are forced to use their imagination to give life to this creation themselves.
    Although the Romantics of Mary Shelley’s era used their own new and imaginative means of dealing with the situations of change, they kept true to the literal meaning of the word Romantic.  “ The term suggests a look backward and forward in time” (Anderson 603).  Famous Romantic poets such as “ Keats and Shelley, like their immediate predecessors, also looked to Shakespeare and Milton as the greatest of poets” (Anderson 604).  Shelley parallels this idea of the Romantics in her own work.  “ Frankenstein, thus reeducated set out to fulfill the dreams of his heroes using the methods of modern science” (Magill 576).  Victor uses the ideas from his professors at Ingolstadt and the work from Agrippa and Paracelsus to proceed with his creation.  M. Waldman explains to Victor that these scientists of the past have only set the groundwork and that it is the job of the scientists of today to pick up where these men have left off.  This gives Victor a positive outlook on his work and the incentive to proceed with his creation of human life.
    Shelley details the period of time before, during and after Victor’s construction of the creation with many Romantic scenes of nature that give much to the novel’s setting.  According to Sir Walter Scott,  the “descriptions of landscapes have in them the choice requisites of truth, freshness, precision and beauty” (250).  Once again Shelley is found mirroring the ideas of the Romantics by linking nature and man.  “Much of the obvious symbolism within the novel is traditionally Gothic in using landscapes and weather to mirror the existential and emotional circumstances of the characters” (Magill 578).  Shelley does this when “storms come to complement feelings of wrath and terror;  the sun breaks through during the peaceful interludes” (Magill 578).  Numerous examples of this link between nature and its influence on the feelings of man can be found throughout the novel.
    Even from the very beginning of the novel, Romantic ideas are incorporated into Shelley’s work.  “ The icy wilderness in which the novel begins and ends is the barren land of isolation from human warmth and companionship, into which Walton foolishly sails and into which Frankenstein is inexorably led by the monster, whose inescapable destiny is it” (Magill 578).  Later, on the morning after Victor gives life to his creation, he says, “Morning, dismal and wet . . . as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view” (Shelley 53).  When Victor is scared or upset the weather is nasty to complement the way that he is feeling in certain situations.
     On the other hand, the idea of nature providing restoration and happiness is shown when Victor thinks, “ These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving” (Shelley 97).  Victor is not the only one in the novel whose feelings are shadowed by nature.  The creation, in many instances remarks on his feelings tied with nature.  “ When the sun had recovered its warmth, and the earth again began to look green, . . . I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure . . . and I even raised my humid eyes with thankfulness towards the blessed sun which bestowed such joy upon me” (Shelley 148).  In another, the creation remarks, “ my spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature;  the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipation’s of joy” ( Shelley 119).  These feelings of hope arise when the creation decides to confront the Delacey family and ask for their love and support.  The creation’s feelings show Shelley’s is trying to placing spring beside the feeling of rejuvenation and new hope.
      In Frankenstein, Shelley also uses nature as an omnipotent force of foreshadowing.  It is the great force of nature that drive Victor into his scientific pursuit in the first place.  When lightening shreds the tree in front of Victor’s eyes he is doomed for life.  On the night that Victor first gives life to his creation, it is dark and dreary.  Perhaps, this dreariness is a parallel to Victor’s feelings of God’s dismay.  Later, when Victor returns home on receiving word of William’s death, he notes that “ Night closed all around;  and when I could hardly see the dark mountains, I felt still more gloomily.  This picture appeared a vast and dim scene of evil, and I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings” (Shelley 72).  At the end of the novel during Victor’s honeymoon, “the wind, which had fallen in the south, now rose with great violence in the west” (Shelley 210), before Elizabeth is murdered by the creation.  Shelley’s giving nature such power, portrays the Romantic ideas and thoughts in her novel.
     By combining Victor Frankenstein’s character of a Romantic hero, the role of scientific experimentation and the great power of nature, Frankenstein proves itself as a true Romantic and Gothic representation of nineteenth-century literature.  One aspect of the novel that is still being debated today is whether or not Frankenstein is worthy of the title of the first science fiction novel of all time.  Maybe in the near future Shelley’s Frankenstein will be given this classification and title, but for now she is graciously given the recognition that she and her novel deserve.

Works Cited

Abbey, Cherie D., ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism NCLC 14.  Michigan:  Gale Research Company, 1987.

Bloom, Harold.  “Frankenstein; or The New Prometheus”.  Rpt. in Abbey, NCLC 14 280-83.

Scott, Sir Walter.  “Remarks on ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus:  A Novel’”.  Rpt. in  Abbey, NCLC 14 249-50.

Anderson, Robert, et al.  Elements of Literature.  Texas:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1989.

Drabble, Margaret, ed.  The Oxford Companion to English Literature.  New York:  Oxford  University Press, 1995.

Gardner, John.  On Moral Fiction.  New York:  Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1978.

Magill, Frank N., ed.  Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature.  New Jersey:  Salem Press, Inc.,  1983.

Ousby, Ian, ed.  The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English.  New York:  Cambridge  University Press, 1992.

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein.  New York:  Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1993.

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