Romantic and Gothic Representation in Frankenstein
by Stacy Fox
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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