Discuss the use of Gothic elements and/or references to Gothic fiction in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 science fiction novel Frankenstein is “gothic” in every sense of the word. Defined as literature (at least, within the context of literature) characterized by the confluence of horrific images and romantic elements, the story of Victor Frankenstein’s efforts at, first, creating and, later, seeking the destruction of the hideous creature that would bear his name for all eternity qualifies as gothic for those images and for the main protagonist, Victor’s, love for his family and for his fiancé and, briefly, bride. In fact, the theme of companionship is present throughout Frankenstein, beginning with Robert Walpole’s affectionate correspondence with his sister, extending to Victor’s relationship to Elizabeth, and concluding with the creature’s determination to have a female mate for himself.
The horrific imagery in Shelley’s novel begins with Walpole’s recitation of a mysterious sighting he and his crew aboard the vessel stranded among ice flows in the frigid Arctic observed:
“. . .strange sight suddenly attracted our attention and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs.”
Narrated by Victor Frankenstein – his weakened but still living person having been brought aboard Walpole’s vessel, following which he relates his story to his would-be savior – the young student’s determination to study and understand the human body leads him down the most macabre of paths. As he describes this transition in Chapter Four of the novel, his single-minded determination begins his journey down the road that will end with the destruction of all he holds dear:
“To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy, but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses.”
The result of these efforts, of course, is the creation of the creature that will haunt him for the remainder of his days. At one point in this chapter, Victor, in an aside that presaged Poe’s demented narrators’ affirmations of their true mental states, declares, “Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman.” He has, though, crossed the rubicon. As he notes in the following passage, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”
As Shelley’s novel progresses, gothic imagery dominates throughout, from the mysterious death of Victor’s younger brother – a death later attributed to the creature – to Victor’s repeated sightings of his murderous creation, including the protracted story related by the creature in an encounter in the cold, wind-swept peaks of the Alps, to the murder of Victor’s closest friend, Henry Clerval, to the absolutely horrific sight of the creature gloating over the corpse of Elizabeth, described in the following passage from Chapter 23:
“While I still hung over her in the agony of despair, I happened to look up. The windows of the room had before been darkened, and I felt a kind of panic on seeing the pale yellow light of the moon illuminate the chamber. The shutters had been thrown back, and with a sensation of horror not to be described, I saw at the open window a figure the most hideous and abhorred. A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer, as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife.”
Victor’s description of his creation’s appearance at the window of the bedroom in which he had only recently lied next to his beloved Elizabeth, and the following passage, which precedes the above description in this chapter, capture the essence of gothic literature in the most profound sense. Having sent Elizabeth alone to bed while he assured himself of their safety from the monster’s grasp, he discovers to his horror that his decision to leave his bride alone has been fatal:
“I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.”
Frankenstein is replete with gothic imagery. It is a tragedy that incorporates elements of horror and romance, and fuses the two in a manner that leaves the reader emotionally drained.
Here is a video about Gothic literature: