With terror denoting the 'quickening of the heart' effect that Shelley designed, where are the key elements of terror in Frankenstein?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, terror arises in horrific states, be they a state of mind or a state of nature or a situation.

  • State of Mind

The character of Victor Frankenstein generates terror as he entertains horrific ideas. Certainly, he deviates from the natural as he contemplates the creation of a human being over whom he can exert complete control; in other words, he "aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." He admits that he "became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated."

With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being...

When Victor succeeds in infusing life with the electricity generated by a storm, he is horrified by his creation and his irresponsible science, and he flees in terror and afterwards starts from his sleep "in horror." Victor describes the terrifying creature in this way,

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!--Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

In Chapter 23, in yet another example of mental terror, Victor holds in his arms the slain Elizabeth; he turns to the window, and feels a sense of panic.

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. 

In the end, the creature admits that "Evil thenceforth became my good," an inversion of moral values--certainly a state that effects horror in the reader at the creat.

  • State of Nature

In Frankenstein, nature often appears in the extreme, as it threatens human life, and, thus, generates terror. The most apparent of these horrific states of nature is the "dreary night of November" on which Victor imbues life with electricity during a horrific storm.  Another example is the brutal and threatening nature in the Artic where Walton has ventured.  As Victor recounts his pursuit of the creature to Walton, he describes "mountains of ice" with its imminent danger of curshing him and the monster.  The cold is "excessive," but the "feverish fire still glimmers in his [the creature's] eyes...."

  • Situations

The deaths of Victor's little brother and Henry Clerval certainly evoke a sense of horror on the part of the reader at the bizarre twists of plot. What happens to poor Justine who is condemned to die based solely upon circumstantial evidence is also disturbing. Even more terrorizing is the death of Victor's fiancee, Elizabeth, when all along he has felt that the creature has threatened his life, not hers, since the creature has promised that he will be with Victor on his wedding night.

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