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Can Frankenstein Be Considered Purely Gothic English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3361 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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To be able to answer this question, we would need to define what a purely Gothic novel is. The similarities between all definitions is that Gothic Novels deal with dramatic supernatural themes, are often set is gloomy and isolated locations and contain horrific and terrifying events. We can instantly associate some of these characteristics with Frankenstein however can Frankenstein be securely placed within the Gothic genre? Mary Shelley’s parents, her father, a political philosopher and her mother, a feminist, were both interested in social issues at the time rather than in escapist fantasy. They would have inspired her to include some of the moral and social issues explored in the novel such as injustice in society, the position of women and the effects of upbringing. Some would consider that the purpose of Gothic Novels is to tell a fantasy however clearly this is not the case in Frankenstein. Thus, I would argue that Mary Shelley uses the Gothic genre to analyse and criticise her own society rather than to simply entertain her readers.

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The supernatural is an important element in any Gothic literature. However, one could argue that the creature itself is not supernatural because although the creature is superhuman, he is ‘flesh and blood’ and shows many human emotions and traits. For example, the creature shows dislike for what he has become and he believes that if Victor provides him with a companion, he could change: “My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal”. The use of the words “children” and “vices” suggests that the sins and evil deed he has committed will be passed down to his offspring, indicating a deep regret for his actions, suggesting that the creature is less evil than we first thought. This is interesting because a huge contrast is presented; the creature is regretful and sorrowful for his evil actions however the supernatural generally do not show any emotions because they exist for one and only purpose, to create fear and terror. Therefore, perhaps, the creature cannot be classified as a supernatural character because of his ‘human-like’ traits as well as the fact that the creature was created through scientific means rather than through rituals and spells. However, by analysing the word “vices” more closely, it actually has religious connotations, in particular to Satan because in Roman Catholicism, the word “vice” refers to betrayal. Both Satan and the creature betrayed and rebelled against their creators. Like Satan, the creature does not exact his revenge directly on his creator but instead attacks the things he loves most. Furthermore, Satan is ejected from heaven by God because of his rebellious nature, and similarly, the creature is abandoned by Victor. The creature’s words: “Evil thenceforth became my good” echo almost exactly Satan’s plea: “Evil be thou my Good.” Thus, there are many connections between the creature and Satan. The significance of this is that the creature is given a ‘god-like’ presence, suggesting that he is supernatural. Since gothic novels rely on supernatural and ghostly characters, it is difficult to consider Frankenstein to be purely gothic because as I have made it clear in this paragraph, the way be interpret the creature can vary considerably. The creature, in a physical view, does not fit the description of supernatural however in a metaphorical sense, the creature could represent Satan and therefore, perhaps the creature is supernatural. In fact, Shelley’s intent was not to give a rational explanation for the creature because this sense of ambiguity is what makes the creature terrifying.

In early Gothic novels, women were presented as stereotypically weak, helpless and prone to threats by powerful and tyrannical male characters. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley does draw on some of the elements of the traditional Gothic female for her female characters however Shelley’s female characters have much more of an influential role than their traditional counterparts. For example, Elizabeth demonstrates the level of wisdom that some of the male characters in particular Victor lack. After the death of Justine Moritz, Elizabeth observes how “misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood”. This emphasises how the monstrous can lurk in the hearts of men as the words “thirsting” and “blood” provide a horrific, almost disturbing image of death because “thirsting” suggests a passion for brutality and cruelty. Most important however, Elizabeth’s words dig deep into Victor’s conscience; there is also dramatic irony as the reader is aware of Victor’s guilt for the deaths of both William and Justine. Thus, the high level of intellect and understanding from Elizabeth emphasises the importance of such a character. However, the dramatic language Elizabeth uses in the imagery: “I feel as if I were walking on the edges of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding, and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss” is typical of Gothic fiction. The use of the words “edge”, “precipice” and “abyss” emphasises the narrow line between life and death, safety and danger. The word “precipice” refers to very steep hills where falling down into the “abyss” would almost certainly result in death due to the massive distances. Furthermore, “edge” brings in the idea of closeness, emphasising the fragility of life and the sense of imminent danger. “Abyss”, from Greek, literally means ‘bottomless’. Thus, the word has religious connotations because the “abyss” could refer to the underworld or to hell- this is the link to Gothic genre because in many Gothic texts, references to hell are common as they provide the horror element of the Gothic genre. Therefore, it can also be argued that Elizabeth does represent the traditional Gothic female. Generally in Gothic novels, women are normally threatened however in Frankenstein, the threats to men and women are balanced with the male characters: William, Clerval and Victor’s father falling victim to the creature. Thus, Mary Shelley is clearly supportive of the equalisation of both genders and the position of women in society. Referring to context, Shelley’s parents would have influenced her to include social issues such as position of women in her novel because they were radicals, Shelly’s mother in particular having written ‘A vindication of the Rights of Women’. Although the older, traditional Gothic novels portray women as helpless and weak, Shelley wanted to give the female characters in her novel more independence and influence to put forward her view on position of women. Also, Shelley had a deep respect for her father and husband throughout her life. Therefore, it is unlikely that she wanted to present men as dominative and destructive towards females. Thus, the novel cannot be considered to be purely Gothic because of its deviations from the traditional gothic stereotype of women.

The use of multiple narrators is frequently used in Gothic literature in order to add a degree of realism to a gothic story so that the events are more believable and more thus horrifying to a reader. The use of multiple narrators also provides different perceptions of events and would keep readers interested. Mary Shelley uses this technique in Frankenstein, the narrators being: Victor himself, Walton and the creature, in order to emphasise how closely related the three characters are. Walton’s narrative is the ‘top level’ of the novel’s events with Victor’s story on the level below. The Gothic element of this narrative form is clear when we look at the creature’s narrative which is at the ‘deepest’ point of the novel. This may suggest a fall into darkness where the creature’s narrative represents the deepest and darkest forces of the novel. Leading on from this, there is also a re-emergence from darkness which is commonly found in Gothic novels. For example, in Dracula, Van Helsing manages to track down and destroy Count Dracula by the end of the novel. Another interpretation of the narrative is that it has created an open-ended conclusion to the novel. This is true to some extent because we are left uncertain as to the creature’s fate. Although “borne away” and “lost in darkness and distance” suggest that the creature becomes powerless and completely gone, the word “lost” preserves the possibility that the creature is still alive. The creature is still ‘out there’ and is in a metaphorical sense still out there today. This idea of uncertainty is also commonly found in the endings of many other Gothic Novels such as The Vampyre. I believe that the use of several narratives in Frankenstein does provide a strong argument for why we should consider the novel to be purely gothic because through interpretation of the narrative, we are made aware of several gothic elements in the novel including that of a descend into darkness and a re-emergence from darkness as well as the use of an open-ended conclusion.

Another key feature of Gothic novels is the use of doppelganger relationships where a good character is followed by a darker, more sinister double. An example of such a relationship in Frankenstein is between Victor and the creature. Shelley creates verbal ties between Victor and the creature in order to emphasise the connections between the creator and creature. For example, Shelley makes use of the word “consummate” with regards to Victor’s wedding night. The word actually has a double meaning in this context because it could refer to the night that the creature ‘accomplishes’ his crime of murdering Elizabeth as well as the night that for the first time Victor and Elizabeth make love. This is interesting because while the creature’s actions destroy the marriage of Victor and Elizabeth, it creates a new ‘marriage’ between Victor and the creature- this ‘marriage’ is not of love but instead of deadly pursuit. This language technique emphasises the connections between Victor and the creature as it shows that they both think and speak in the same terms. It is also interesting how both Victor and the creature do not fully experience companionship; this causes Victor to neglect Elizabeth and this is shown by his misinterpretation of the creature’s words: “I shall be with you on your wedding night”. Victor assumes that the creature will kill him rather than Elizabeth and so by ignoring the creature’s threat, Victor is ironically ensuring the death of the person he claims to love and value most. Therefore, it can be argued that both Victor and the creature are responsible for the death of Elizabeth, suggesting that the two characters are tied to each other inseparably. The creature can therefore be seen as a physical representation of Victor’s ‘hidden’ evil and monstrous personality. Most importantly however, this doppelganger relationship between the two main and crucial characters provides strong evidence for why the novel can be considered gothic.

Throughout the novel, Mary Shelley frequently creates an atmosphere of mystery and suspense to build up fear and tension. This is a common element in Gothic literature. In chapter 5, we are made aware that “it was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishments of my toils”. The word “toils” refers to Victor’s hard work when creating the creature but also brings to mind the idea of a struggle or even unpleasantness. Therefore, we get the impression that the following event (i.e. the birth of the creature) will be an achievement for Victor however “dreary night of November” contrasts this view. The three elements “dreary”, “night” and “November” can be seen as metonymic because the darkness and gloom associated with these words suggest something horrific and perhaps mysterious is about to happen. On a higher level, the three words are an indication of Victor’s move away from rationalisation and reality to follow impulses because something that is ‘mysterious’ has no fixed and set future. This spooky atmosphere is often used in gothic novels because it builds up suspense as well as fear of the unknown. Mary Shelley uses this fear effectively to create tension: “About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end”. The word “ice” indicates that Victor is somewhere in the Arctic. It is interesting to note that the use of physically beautiful but dangerous locations such as the Arctic are commonly used within Gothic genre because they reinforce the key themes of isolation, death and destruction as well as to symbolise the inner turmoil and upheaval of the creature and Victor. “Mist” typically blurs sight; it therefore has connotations of vulnerability and the idea of helplessness because if someone cannot see, then they cannot anticipate what’s coming. The sense of isolation and the idea of there being no escape are reinforced as the words “every direction” and “no end” emphasise the feelings of panic, loneliness and desperation. On the other hand, these clear references to nature are also supportive of the argument for why the novel could also be regarded as part of the Romantic genre. According to Romanticism, nature is defined as ‘a place free from society’s judgement and restrictions’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism). This is seen in Frankenstein because during Victor excursion in the Arctic, he has no control over the hazardous environment and there are no restrictions to what direction he could take. (“Stretched out in every direction”) Furthermore, from the creature’s point of view, he is able to live calmly and more peacefully in nature as there is no one in the Arctic to judge him apart from Victor. Thus, it is clear that Shelley has employed many traditional Gothic devices in her novel including: an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, the build up of tension and the use of extreme locations to reflect characters’ inner states as well as Romantic concepts such as the importance of nature.

The concept of a ‘mad scientist’ as well as the exploration of human psyche are common elements within the science fiction genre. However, the definition of such a character is debatable. The stereotypical view of a ‘Mad Scientist’ is a male character who may be villainous, insane, eccentric, evil, dangerous or simply just obsessive. To some extent, Victor fits this description. From an early age, he was “imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition”. The word “imbued” is generally used to refer to wetting or soaking an object completely. In the context of mental exploration, Victor is actually accusing people, who because of his father’s high position, expected so much of him that they in fact filled his mind with a variety of ideas and thoughts, some of which most appealing triggered his “hopes” and “ambitions”. Perhaps this is what caused Victor’s obsession with the ancient sciences of alchemy. Furthermore, Victor believes that he is “now burning” with the ideas implanted in his mind. This imagery suggests that resisting the dark side of his psyche was excruciatingly painful and torturous to the extent that the more logical part of his psyche gave way. This suggests that Victor has a contrasting and complex mind. However despite Victor’s obsession, he is neither evil nor villainous. I would consider Victor to be an ‘accidental’ villain, someone who because of his internal confusion, does not see through the consequences of his actions, which do turn out to be dangerous. Thus, this view of Victor as a ‘mad scientist’ with a dark and complex psyche is evidence for why the novel could actually be classified as part of the science fiction genre.

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It can be argued that many of the gothic elements in the novel were influenced by important historical events during Mary Shelley’s life. Frankenstein was written against the backdrop of major revolutions including the French Revolution (1789) and the American Revolution (1775). During the French Revolution, King Louis XVI was forcibly removed from power by a new French republic in December 1792. His execution led to a violent and bloody period of history known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ where over 20,000 ‘accused’ enemies were executed by the guillotine. The French revolution, although creating great excitement at first, built up fear among the ruling and aristocratic people in Britain. They had seen their French ‘counterparts’ stripped of their power, wealth and security, and they did not want revolution to spread to Britain. Together with scientific advances and the industrial revolution, deep fears emerged and haunted the people. This idea of ‘revolution’ is reflected in Frankenstein as Victor’s scientific advances in his experiments and Walton’s exploratory advances in the Artic can be considered a kind of revolution. Furthermore, from this interpretation, the creature is therefore the destructive, dark powers that Victor’s revolution has ‘unleashed’ mirroring Robespierre and his ‘Reign of Terror’ in France. The generational repetition of death seen in Frankenstein from Victor’s mother, culminating gradually over the course of the novel, ending with Victor’s own downfall is almost a reminder of the brutal regime of Robespierre and his tyranny. The French revolution is therefore a crucial aspect of historical context for the novel because it would have influenced Mary Shelley’s writing of the dark, more gothic aspects of Frankenstein including the fear of the unknown and the repetition of murder of innocent beings.

In conclusion, to some extent, Frankenstein can be considered to be a Gothic novel but clearly the novel isn’t purely gothic. Referring to Shelley’s background, I believe that she did not intend to write a gothic fantasy tale but instead to use elements of the Gothic genre to criticise moral, social, personal and religious issues in her own society including that of the failings of the justice system, social inequalities, family problems, the effects of upbringing and the position of women. It must not be forgotten that the Gothic genre was losing popularity by the time Shelley was writing the novel in 1816 due to the advancements in scientific research. Although the novel lacks scientific explanation and reasoning, it is certain that Shelley was influenced by these ‘new’ scientific concepts and innovations. Thus, this is why some critics label Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel rather than a simple revitalisation of the Gothic genre. Referring to the essay question, there is some ambiguity because what do we define as a ‘purely’ gothic novel? This is difficult to give a definite response to but what I would say is that the novel fits ‘loosely’ within the Gothic genre employing many Gothic devices to create fear and tension but not just to provide the reader with a fantasy but also to tell the reader something about Shelley’s own society.



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