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 Frankenstein: A Mix of the Gothic and the Romantic

 by Sean Lowe

            Mary Wollencroft Shelley lived from 1797-1851 and thus wrote during the flowering romantic era of literature.  Shelley is a product of her times, her work reflecting key elements of romantic writing.  For example, romantic literature is often set in exotic and beautiful places, and Shelley sets her novels in such locations.  Shelley also employs elements of Gothicism, focusing on death and the macabre.  One novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, exemplifies Shelley’s use of gothic and romantic conventions.  Shelley uses romantic and gothic conventions in Frankenstein’s settings, characterizations, subject matter, and plot to achieve her artistic ends.

            The romantic settings help to characterize Victor Frankenstein and the monster.  Romantic literature usually entails obscure or unknown places, and Frankenstein is no exception.  The novel takes places in Switzerland , a foreign country.  This location is also Romantic because of its scenic nature.  Victor Frankenstein says, “the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc ….Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake!  Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid” (72), describing how picturesque and beautiful the scenery is.  The setting brings out reactions from Victor that let the reader see how characteristically romantic he is.    Victor “took refuge in the most perfect solitude.  [He] passed whole day on the lake alone in a little boat, watching the clouds, and listening to the rippling waves, silent and listless” (159).  The scenery also helps the reader understand Victor’s despondency because Victor ceases to appreciate nature.  Victor says that although “Clerval observed the scenery with an eye of feeling and delight…I, a miserable wretch, [was] haunted by a curse that shut up every avenue of enjoyment” (164).  The reader knows Victor is at a low point because he ceases to enjoy nature.  Also, the monster’s despondency is revealed by nature in the same way.  Throughout the novel, “the pleasant sunshine, and the pure air of day, restored [the monster] to some degree of tranquility” (144).  The monster’s condition degrades, however, and he is shot after rescuing a young child.  Then, the monster says, “The labours I endured were no longer to be alleviated by the bright sun or gentle breezes of spring” (149).  Nature serves to emphasize how demoralized the creature has become.  Moreover, that the monster was able to appreciate nature in the first place reveals to the reader that he has traces of humanity and goodness within him.  Therefore, Shelley uses the setting to bring out a positive characteristic in the monster. 

Shelley chooses dreary, dark Gothic settings to build suspense.  The night of the monster’s awakening exemplifies Shelley use of the gothic setting.  “It was on a dreary night of November that I behalf the accomplishment of my toils…It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out” (51), Victor describes, painting the gothic scene.  This halloweenish setting is meant to set up a dark and dreary mood, crescendoing towards the monsters awakening.   Another example of Shelley’s use of gothic scenes is when Victor returns to Geneva .  “The darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over [Victor’s] head” (73), foreshadowing Victor’s sighting of the monster.  Clearly, Shelley employs classic, gothic “dark and stormy night” settings to set up the mood of horror.

            Frankenstein’s motif of death and reanimation of the dead is a gothic convention meant to scare the reader.  Gothic pieces are conventionally concerned with bringing the dead back to life.  Shelley centers her novel on a scientist creating a man from dead body parts to invoke an eerie, supernatural feeling in the reader.  Gothic writing also focuses heavily on death itself.  Characters die constantly, mainly members of Victor’s family. His mother dies of scarlet fever, William “is murdered” (68) by the monster, Justine is executed, and Henry Clerval and Elizabeth are also both murdered by the monster.  The description of Elizabeth ’s corpse is particularly gothic.  “Everywhere I turn I see the same figure—her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier” (211), Victor says.  These descriptions of death are horror-filled and thus meant to invoke fear and suspense in the reader.

            Shelley’s characters are also romantic in that they act irrationally, erratically, and emotionally, magnifying the emotional tumult they feel.  The monster, for example, becomes irrationally destructive because his human protectors reject him.  He burns down their cottage after they leave and, “the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche, and produced a kind of insanity in [his] spirit that burst all bound of reason and reflection” (146).  Thus, the monster acts insanely, as he says, because of his emotion.  Through his insane emotion-driven actions, Shelley proves that the monster has been pushed to limit, that he can not tolerate rejection anymore.  Victor also acts erratically and irrationally, and his actions can also be attributed to his emotionalism.  Victor’s abandon of reason is evident when he pursues the monster to the North Pole.  Any reasoning person would realize that he would not survive where no man lives, however “[Victor’s] present situation was one in which all voluntary thought was swallowed up and lost.  [He] was hurried away by fury” (218).    His irrational behavior is explained by his need for revenge.  Therefore, Victor’s emotionalism reveals how he, like the monster, has reached a breaking point.  That he can no longer act rationally proves to the reader that Victor is fully consumed by the need for revenge.   Cleary, the characters erratic behavior and emotionalism reveals much about their mental state.

            Romantic authors often abandons the tight constrains of reality to achieve their artistic ends, and Frankenstein is no exception, with very noticeable lacks of verisimilitude.  Although this lack of realism is rampant everywhere in the novel, the period following the monsters birth exemplifies Shelley’s stretching of reality.  The monster stumbles around, being dejected by humans and eventually runs across a cottage with three rural dwellers.  He finds an old, building with boarded up windows, but “in one of [the boarded up windows] there was a small and almost imperceptible chink, though which the eyes could barely penetrate” (110), quite conveniently allowing him to secretly observe the cottagers.  Then, in answer to the question of how the monster became fully literate, a woman from Turkey arrives, and the monster is able to listen in on French lessons.  The reader also wonders how the monster knows exactly where he originated and how.   So, Shelley conveniently has him wearing Victor’s lab coat containing a “journal of the four months that preceded [his] creation” (136).  In all these instances, Shelley seems to contrive some plot twist to explain how the monster comes across the knowledge he does.  Shelley includes these contrivances to further her plot.  She could not work with an illiterate monster, ignorant of his creator, thus she creates a series of coincidences that educate the monster, albeit improbable that what does happen would actually happen.  This lack of verisimilitude, however, can be excused in the name of romanticism.

            Although the term seems paradoxical in nature, Frankenstein evidently is a gothic romance.  One would believe that a novel could not be filled with such contrasting conventions.  Indeed, Frankenstein seems almost bipolar with its descriptions of majestic mountains on one page and its gloomy graveyards on the next.  The monster itself encapsulates the juxtaposition of Gothicism and Romanticism; he is a reanimated dead body, but at the same time, echoes the romantic ideals of Rousseau.  Frankenstein is thus a token piece of literature notable for its ability to employ the best of two seemingly opposite literary styles, or perhaps, for establishing that these two styles are not as opposing as they seem.


This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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