Student Question

How do either Frankenstein or Crime & Punishment fit into the genre of realism and go beyond its definitions as Romanticism or higher realism? How does it differ from Hamlet in style?

Quick answer:

Both Frankenstein and Crime and Punishment contain realistic elements, but neither of these novels is especially representative of what literary specialists identify as the genre of realism. Both of them occupy a middle-ground in which fantasy (especially in Frankenstein) and a kind of proto-existentialist philosophy (in both works) are the dominant features, or are at least an adjunct to the realistic depiction of a very human story.

Expert Answers

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Most readers would probably not think of either of these novels as examples of what has come to be known, specifically, as the genre realism. Frankenstein is a science-fantasy Gothic tale about the creation of a man-made monster, based to some extent on the legend of the Golem and also expressing the typically Romantic idea of man's striving for the impossible, as seen in Mary Shelley's contemporaries (including her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as Goethe, Byron, and others). It is realistic in that the emotion it conveys, expressed both by Frankenstein and the Monster, is human and recognizable as universal, even if the setting and trappings are those of a fantastic morality tale. For example, the observations and reactions of the Creature as he begins to watch and to interact with the De Laceys show a realistic insight into primal human feelings even if the one who expresses them is an artificial, android-like being. Also, consider the way Shelley describes the settings of the novel, and whether the depiction of nature is more fanciful and Romantic, or rather, realistic—or both in tandem.

Crime and Punishment is not a Romantic tale of the supernatural, but it contains Gothic elements, and it is a kind of extension of the Romantic ethos into a realm that anticipates twentieth-century existentialism. Raskolnikov is in a state of heightened emotion, as if a physical as well as emotional frenzy has taken hold of him. He walks the streets of a Saint Petersburg that is both real and surreal. This is a city where in June the sunlight is not totally extinguished at night. It is an unreal place in some sense, even for Russians. The detail with which Dostoevsky describes everything, however, is minutely realistic. But the whole story, including or especially the murder Raskolnikov commits, has the feel of a dream, a nightmare. Look at the section in which Semyon Zakarovich goes on and on, in detail, about his misfortune. It's realistic or naturalistic, but at the same time extended and deliberately overdone and overemphasized by the author. And when Raskolnikov kills the old woman, he is doing this as an assertion of will in a universe where man is forced to create his own values, not unlike a character in Gide or Camus.

To link or compare these novels with Hamlet is unusual but not inappropriate. Shakespeare's play is both realistic and fanciful. The emotions and thoughts animating Hamlet, and the other characters to an extent, are the essence of what is humanly real, but as always in Shakespeare, there is an element of extravagance and exaggeration that paradoxically enhances the realism and causes the story to resonate with readers and audiences in a way no other author's work has done. Like Victor Frankenstein, and like Raskolnikov, Hamlet is in a constantly febrile state. His emotions are a paradigm of humanity but also an overextended form of it, expressed in the ultra-poetic language Shakespeare gives him, and the other characters, to speak.

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