How is Frankenstein a Romantic Novel?
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The term 'romance' and the related adjective, 'romantic', have varied meanings and contexts. These days if we say a story is romantic we generally mean that it’s a love story. Historically, though, the terms have a wider meaning when applied to literature. Romantic literature, with a capital R, refers to writing from towards the end of the eighteenth century into the opening decades of the nineteenth. This is the period of the great English Romantic poets – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron. (The author of Frankenstein was, of course, married to one of them.)
As historical literary terms, 'romance' and 'romantic' (both with or without the capital letter) refer to novels and poetry of stirring adventure, high drama, inflated emotions and passions, strange, far away places, and very often the incursion of the supernatural. Romantic writing can include any one or any combination of these elements.
Romantic texts often feature larger-than-life heroes and villains, or characters who are both; characters who do extraordinary things and often go too far and then get punished for their excess. These characters are meant to be nothing less than awe-inspiring, harbouring grand passions and ambitions, cut off from the ordinary run of people. This kind of grand solitary figure often appears in the work of the English Romantic poets. These poets also use suitably sublime backdrops – mountains, for example - for such towering characters.
Frankenstein includes practically all the elements listed above. Its hero is a hugely ambitious man who goes too far in his attempts to push back the boundaries of human knowledge and achievement and brings retribution down upon himself. He tampers with the very forces of nature, suffers agonies of remorse and shame, sees his loved ones cut down, and in the end, dies far out in the wild, uninhabited polar regions. Even in death he does not lose that nobility of bearing which so impresses Walton. Walton is grieved to see him die:
What comment can I make on the untimely extinction of this glorious spirit? (chapter 24)
Frankenstein, then, remains to the last a striking and admirable figure, who it seems has suffered as much as he has sinned – if not more.
With the depiction of the monster and the deaths that he causes, the story can also be labelled more specifically as a gothic romance – the term ‘gothic’ being used from the later eighteenth century onwards to denote stories featuring grim and frightening characters and events. However, it is true that this effect in Frankenstein is dispelled somewhat by portraying the monster as being intelligent, articulate, and (to begin with) wholly innocent. Mary Shelley thus adds another layer to the gothic romance in this novel, lending it a more poignant touch.
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