The Mortal Immortal Questions and Answers
by Mary Shelley

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How are the themes of industrialism and self-discovery/knowledge during the Romantic Era portrayed in "The Mortal Immortal" by Mary Shelley?

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"The Mortal Immortal" is a short story by Mary Shelley, whose protagonist, Winzy, drank, in his youth, half of a flagon of elixir, believing it to be a cure for love. On his deathbed, Winzy's master, the philosopher, informed him that the elixir had in fact been the elixir of immortality. Outliving his wife and never changing in appearance from a man of twenty, Winzy becomes tormented by his eternal youth and preoccupied with the hope that, having drunk only half of the elixir, he has surely acquired only longevity, rather than immortality. The idea of being truly immortal is anathema to him: he dwells on the fact that he has found a single grey hair on his head, and at the end of the story has set himself to undergo a quest which even a young man could not survive, so that he, the "mortal immortal," can finally be freed.

The Romantic theme of self-discovery and self-knowledge is the core of this story. The protagonist, Winzy, is not the creator of the elixir which has led him into his current sorry state, and yet, importantly, it was not his master who administered the draught. Winzy, feeling lovesick, drank the liquid himself in the hope that it would be an easy solution to a difficult problem, without full knowledge of what he was drinking or the effect it would have. We can see in this situation, then, a ready analogy: Winzy, an ordinary man, hopes that science will provide quick solution for him to an age-old problem. With only minimal knowledge of his own, he trusts that others will have provided him with the answers he needs, but he does not have sufficient self-knowledge to pause and consider the consequences of his actions. In an age of ever-increasing scientific discovery, then, the story implies that it is those ordinary people who come to believe in the god-like power of scientists to fix their problems who will suffer most.

Winzy is not a prideful man—he has not struggled personally to create an elixir which will stave off death. And yet the effects of the philosopher's unnatural endeavors have been widespread. While he himself has not suffered from his art, he and Winzy together, by their own ill-informed choices, have put Winzy into a situation which is too terrifying for the human man to understand. A chief preoccupation of Romanticism and early Gothic is the idea that science should beware of making advances which put man into the territory that should be reserved for God. In this story, we find Winzy struggling with the idea that he must now become his own god, and yet is completely ill-equipped to do so. Throughout his life with his once-beautiful wife, Winzy began increasingly to feel the ill effects of his actions: those around him begin to shun him, believing that he must be a witch. Even his wife becomes "jealous" and obsessed with Winzy's state, living in the hope and expectation that his unnatural youth will one day fall away. Winzy, having made the decision to drink the solution, has no idea of how to handle its effects upon him. Its creator has died, leaving the ordinary man to fend for himself, a situation in which we might find some analogy to the idea of God having left the world alone, and man finding it very difficult to fend for himself.

Winzy's mental state at the end of the story is a sorry one. His body has become "a cage for a soul which thirsts for freedom, to the destructive elements of air and water" and he is resolved either to free himself from it or to find that he is indeed immortal, in which case "my name shall be recorded as one of the most famous among the sons of men." Winzy is about to make another leap without knowing where it will take him. One leap into the unknown, without adequate understanding, then, simply drives us towards another. Having begun to overreach, humans find themselves in a situation from which further overreaching seems the only possible answer, and yet we cannot know where this motion will take us. As in the areas of industry and eighteenth-century science, progress is seemingly becoming closer and closer to magic, and this story suggests that its ultimate outcome may not be what was wished for.

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