The Mortal Immortal

by Mary Shelley

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born in 1797, was the daughter of William Godwin and influential feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley grew up in an intellectual household and eloped with renowned Romantic poet Percey Bysshe Shelley when she was sixteen. Mary Shelley published her best-known novel Frankenstein in 1823, which became a cultural phenomenon that remains influential to this day. Although best known for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley completed many other works, such as her short story “The Mortal Immortal,” published in 1833. The short story depicts a young man cursed with eternal life: he must watch his loved ones grow old without him, and his body evade the bliss of death he desires.

Plot Summary

The short story “The Mortal Immortal” begins with the main character, Winzy, who has reached his 323rd birthday on July 16, 1833. He explains his predicament in a flashback. As a young man, Winzy is asked to be the apprentice of the infamous and brilliant philosopher Cornelius Agrippa. Winzy at first declines out of fear. However, Winzy is young and very poor, and his love interest, Bertha, is of the noble class. Bertha was adopted into a noble family as a child but kept her friendship with Winzy. Despite their friendship and his love, Bertha refuses to marry him if he does not have money. In an effort to win Bertha, Winzy returns to Cornelius Agrippa, who previously offered him gold in an effort to recruit him as an apprentice. Winzy takes on the apprenticeship and by doing so comes into more money.

Winzy continues courting Bertha. However, his duties as an apprentice take up much of his time. When Winzy is unable to meet with Bertha one night, she becomes angry and spiteful. She blames Winzy and claims that he does not truly love her. Bertha begins to court another suitor, Albert Hoffer, who is of similar wealth and status to her. Bertha goes so far as to pass by Winzy’s workplace with her new suitor, laughing and deriding Winzy as they go by. Winzy becomes heartbroken over her cruel behavior.

Meanwhile, Cornelius Agrippa has been working incessantly on a mysterious elixir. By the time he has finished it he is too tired to watch the elixir to see when it is ready to drink. He asks Winzy to watch it for him and to wake him up when the elixir changes color from rose pink to white. Cornelius warns Winzy to not drink the elixir, as it is a “cure for love.” He assumes that Winzy would not want to fall out of love with Bertha, being unaware of Bertha’s rejection of Winzy. Cornelius falls asleep and Winzy begins to watch the elixir. However, Winzy starts to daydream, lamenting his loss of Bertha. He thinks about how an anti-love elixir would cure his heartache. Winzy is roused from his thoughts by the elixir, which has changed from rose to white and is now emitting golden flashes. The elixir gives off an alluring scent, and Winzy drinks the elixir, driven by the wish to be free from his love for Bertha. Cornelius awakens and sees the potion gone but believes that Winzy dropped it. Cornelius is angry and disappointed to see his life’s work gone and sends Winzy away.

Winzy goes to bed that night feeling wonderful. The elixir appears to have made him more youthful and has made him feel physically and mentally well. He believes that the elixir has worked and that he no longer loves Bertha. The next day, he decides to go to Bertha and show her his newfound indifference to her. He arrives at Bertha’s home and confronts the tyrannical, elderly noblewoman who had adopted Bertha as a child. Winzy’s newfound confidence and gumption attract Bertha. Winzy realizes that he still loves Bertha very much and that the elixir he drank must not have worked. Bertha tells Winzy that she wishes to reject her noble and wealthy life in order to marry him. They marry and live several years together in happiness.

Five years later, Cornelius Agrippa calls Winzy to him. Cornelius has just finished remaking the potion that Winzy had drank years before, but he is now near death. He tells Winzy that the potion is an elixir of immortality. Winzy is stunned by this revelation, and Agrippa passes away before he can drink his potion. With this newfound knowledge, Winzy notices that he does indeed appear younger and heartier than Bertha. He shows no signs of aging after several years, but he continues to deny that the potion truly made him immortal. As Bertha ages and Winzy doesn’t, she becomes bitter. Her vanity makes her petty, and she searches for any signs of aging or flaws in Winzy. The neighbors around Winzy and Bertha notice his lack of aging and believe he is cursed. Winzy and Bertha fall into further poverty since the neighbors do not wish to buy Winzy’s farm products out of superstition.

Eventually, Winzy and Bertha reach an agreement to leave their home village. They go to a remote section of France, where Winzy lives with Bertha until she passes away. After Bertha’s death, Winzy lives without purpose. Many years pass, and Winzy reflects on his immortality. He realizes that he only drank half of the potion, which means he will only live for half of eternity: this makes him a “mortal immortal.” Despite this knowledge, Winzy knows that half of eternity still cannot be measured. He desires to die but is unable to—he contemplates taking his own life or asking another man to kill him, but he does not wish to make another man a murderer. Winzy decides that he must put his immortality to the test with an impossible expedition. Before he goes on his expedition, he ends his story, saying that a “miserable vanity” pushed him to record his life.

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