What Purpose Do Gothic Conventions Serve in the Works of Romantic Authors?

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‘Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?’ (Mary Shelley). What purpose do Gothic conventions serve in the works of Romantic authors? Discuss with reference to any two authors.

The Romanticism movement and gothic literature both derived from the mid-late eighteenth century, in which these two genres contributed to the rise of poetry and the novel as popular entertainment. It is also known as “dark romanticism with horror and romantic love as the typical characters. This darkness is mainly manifested in two aspects: one is rendering the horror and violence on the plot; the other is revealing evil of the society, politics, church and morality on the subject to explore the dark side of human nature.”[1] Romantic authors often have intertwined these gothic elements, for example the sublime, the use of settings and the supernatural into their works. Most famously Mary Shelley’s 1818 novella Frankenstein is known as one of the greatest gothic novel to be introduced in the Romantic period. Isolation of individuals, such as the monster and the settings of the whole storyline plays on the gothic elements, deliberately presenting a sense of horror and terror across the novel. We also see Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from the Lyrical Ballads (1798) as one of the most famous gothic poems in romantic literature; the poem itself is seen by “many critics as a moral poem- an imaginative adventure with a moral lesson.”[2] It tells the story of an old sailor who kills an albatross, after the death of the sea bird it releases total destruction to the ship and creates supernatural events to occur. Both of these framed narrative texts play on the gothic conventions to install a feeling of fear and develop a sense of uneasiness within the reader. We see this predominantly through the gothic conventions: the use of settings, the sublime and the supernatural.

The use of settings plays a crucial part in a gothic text. Romantic authors tend to use this typical gothic convention to create a sense of horror and terror, as well as reflecting the characters’ psychological state. Mary Shelley uses nature as the setting of Frankenstein, in which nature is one of the key characteristics of romanticism. Shelley uses this to illustrate how the world we live in both structures and imitates us in mind, body and spirit. The protagonist Victor and his creation are prime examples of this. Although we see that the storyline contains many different settings, the Arctic setting used in the novel definitely strengthens the isolation Victor’s monster feels as the Arctic is a hostile and desolated environment. “Unlike its inventor, the creature does not choose to be alienated. Rather it is, in fact, others who isolate it because of its hideous appearance…People are appalled and frightened of the creature and attempt to drive the creature away”[3], once the monster is rejected and not welcomed by the community, the monster escapes to the Arctic wasteland to isolate himself from mankind. Victor describes the Arctic to be “covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness”[4]. The Arctic is used to represent the monster’s internal feelings as he feels empty and alone which links with the environment that he has escaped to. As Shelley wrote this novel in the romantic period, the idea of escapism was known as a spiritual reunion. Though Victor saw the Arctic to be a place of isolation, the character of Robert Walton saw the remote landscape as something beautiful. Nature was seen sacred to Romantic authors like Mary Shelley. They believed that they must preserve nature at all cost as it was divine and sacred. They opposed the advancement of science, which the ‘Enlightenment Age’ represented and Romantics heavily rejected. In addition, we also see in Frankenstein that Victor escapes to large remote landscapes in the time of despair and isolation. “Own vampire, my own spirit let loose”[5], he seeks out his own refuge and guidance through nature. Many critics see that “nature plays an important role with high mountains, storms, thunder, and forests. The scenery and the fantastical elements lead the reader towards a gloomy atmosphere and contain thrilling elements that makes the reader’s sin crawl”[6]. Not only does Shelley use the settings to help her character’s emotions, but also foreshadows the impending doom they will face. Whilst Victor is on his way to Geneva, he comes across darkness and frightening mountains “picture…[of] a vast and dim scene of evil.”[7] He then finds himself forced to travel to the next city as the gates of Geneva are closed. In addition, the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge starts off with the mariner at a wedding, but the tale of his story is set on a ship with sailors in the sea. After the death of the albatross, the sea becomes violent and vicious, however it can also suggests the mariner’s psychological state as he starts to feel remorseful of his actions and accepts his sin. The purpose of settings used in gothic texts is seen crucial to romantic authors, such as Shelley and Coleridge as it exposes the character’s psychological state and it develops a sense of terror within the readers.

The sublime is often embraced and used by romantic authors. The element is usually referred to being something as absolutely beautiful or breath-taking, however this romantic idea is not just limited to beauty as it implies an overwhelming awe. The sublime is frequently linked to nature; which Romantics were deeply fascinated about. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of Ancient Mariner presents the natural world to be beautiful, however terrible sights and events occur, such as the sudden weather change; fog and mist start to appear. A storm develops, which delays the journey of the shipmen and drives them to the South Pole. Yet, at once, it is exceptionally powerful and magnificent to them. Whilst in the pole, the mariner and shipmen encounter snow and giant high-glaciers on their voyage, “And Ice mast-high came floating by/As green as Emerauld.”[8],“And thro’ the drifts the snowy clifts/ Did send a dismal sheen.”[9] Although what they are confronted with is seen as beautiful, it is still dangerous, “The ice was here, the Ice was there/ The Ice was all around/ It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d/ Like noises of a swound.”[10]

We also see in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein the gothic convention; the sublime. The main protagonist Victor feels responsible for the deaths of his youngest brother William and Justine, where he develops the emotions remorse and depression. He heads to the mountains to boost his spirits,  “these sublime and magnificent scenes…although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquilised it”[11]. He describes the natural sights he encounters and the effect it has on his emotions. The scenery itself provides him with great comfort and being able to have the capacity to remove his grief. As well as physically being there with nature, the natural sights reappear in Victor’s dreams,  “I retired to rest at night; my slumbers, as it were…they all gathered round me and bade me at peace.”[12] This is a representative of romanticism as nature can have a deep influence on an individual’s emotions and feelings as Victor is only able to gain freedom from his inner struggle when he is surrounded by nature. Although we see the sublime connected to nature frequently in Frankenstein, Victor speaks of his journey to the cemetery, where he visits the dead bodies and stole body parts for his creation, “I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers”[13], “to collect materials, I went to a graveyard to cut them off…the organs I need off the corpses”[14]. As the sublime is associated with the feeling of an overwhelming awe, which Victor experiences as he is obsessed with his monster, in which he dedicates himself to his work. In one of Victor’s letter’s, he describes “there is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious — painstaking, a workman to execute with perseverance and labour — but besides this there is a love for the marvelous, a belief in the marvelous.”[15] Yet, he feels terrified, this suggests that the purpose of the gothic element in both texts; the sublime is to create a sensation of delight and confusion from terror.

The Romanticism movement believed in the supernatural, such as ghosts, spirits and angels, and was heavily interested in it. Romantic authors use this conventional element of the gothic, the supernatural, to create and build suspense for the reader. Shelley’s novel Frankenstein contains the supernatural elements as it explores the unexplained territory of science that goes against nature’s law of raising the dead. “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein — more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”[16] Victor Frankenstein successfully brings the artificial “lifeless clay”[17] alive, and producing something which is abnormal and supernatural to the world, which is forbidden in the eyes of God and the society they live in. The monster itself is a supernatural being. Also in Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth collaborated work Lyrical Ballads contains supernatural elements as Wordsworth focuses on the natural world and Coleridge turns his attention to the supernatural. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner uses the albatross metaphorically to present the curse as a psychological burden, which the sailor shoots down and results to the albatross’s death. The sea bird is usually seen as a sign of a good omen, yet in the poem, the friendly, now dead sea bird becomes a bad omen for the ship and the men. Fog and mist develops after the death of albatross which turns into a punishment for the shipmen which obstructs their voyage and causes total chaos, “Then all averr’d, I had kill’d the Bird/That brought the fog and mist.”[18] The albatross’s death symbolises animal abuse, which goes against God’s wishes as it disrespects nature, a form of sin. “Apart from it haunting presence at vespers… the albatross seems to have no obvious moral or religious significance…the death of the albatross is a powerful but initially unintelligible event.”[19] The albatross is seen as insignificant in the poem to some, however the supernatural events that occurs makes it harder to understand, which causes fear and confusion within the reader.

Furthermore, the supernatural starts appear even more. The mariner’s ignorance leads to a huge punishment where creatures start to rise in the sea and the ocean becomes violent. Dehydration starts to develop amongst the crew; the shipmen realise that this destruction is caused by the mariner leading them to punish him. “Instead of the Cross the Albatross/About my neck was hung”[20], the dead carcass of the albatross is put around the mariner’s neck. The sea bird’s physical weight is not the ultimate punishment, but the constant reminder of the mariner’s ill deed, the disgrace is far more vigorous than the actual crime. Nature itself becomes supernatural after the killing of the sea bird as the beauty of nature turns into terror. The constant remorse and guilt throughout the gothic poem represents the poet’s own demons. Coleridge’s mental illness and inner struggles with his religious melancholy contributes to his troubled soul which we see in the mariner’s character. Carol Rumens from The Guardian supports this, “the power of the story may well be founded on its symbolic relation to the poet’s own sense of worthlessness and impotence.”[21] This suggests that the author’s own unimportance in the world, reflects through the death of the albatross and the supernatural events occurring after it, showing the inner struggle of both the author and the character of the mariner. As the supernatural is a key defining feature of the gothic, it’s purpose in both Shelley and Coleridge’s text is to therefore build suspense and create special effects for the reader, and also gives an insight into the authors lives.

In conclusion, we see that gothic conventions serves a vital part in the works of romantic authors, which we see in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Frankenstein is in a way, a critique of science and the development of technology as it attempts to illustrate what might happen if a man interferes with nature. This novel shows the clear rejection of romantics against the representation of the ‘Enlightenment Age’ and the author’s fascination with nature, death and the supernatural.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also uses the gothic aspects to showcase human difficulties, such as the mariner’s misery and the downfall of the crew after the killing of the albatross.

Both these writers, “like many, were captivated by printed narratives of the unknown, they were vociferously opposed to unregulated and irresponsible venturing into the unknown in the real world”[22]. Therefore, the purpose of using settings, the sublime and the supernatural are all elements of the gothic that help create a sense of fear within the reader and reveals the characters’ psychological state.

Bibliography

  • Brännström, Carina, ‘An Analysis of the Theme of Alienation’ in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2006)<http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1016264/FULLTEXT01.pdf> (accessed January 4, 2019)
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven parts’ in Lyrical Ballads (2011) <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm> (accessed January 4, 2019)
  • Davies, Lindsay, ‘THE POEM, THE GLOSS AND THE CRITIC: Discourse and Subjectivity in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1990, July 1) in the Oxford Academic :<https://academic.oup.com/fmls/article-abstract/XXVI/3/259/726848?redirectedFrom=PDF> (accessed January 2, 2019)
  • Levy, Michelle, ‘Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley’, Studies in English Literature, 1500- 1900 (2004), Vol. 44, no. 4, p. 693 – 713.
  • Rumens, Carol, ‘Poem of the week: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2009, October 26) in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/oct/26/rime-ancient-mariner> (accessed January 1, 2019)
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  • Stokes, Christopher (2011). “My Soul in Agony”: irrationality and Christianity in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Studies in Romanticism , 50 (1), 26.
  • Yue-ting, Chen, ‘Frankenstein and the Gothic Sublime’, Journal of Literature and Art Studies (2018) , Vol. 8, no. 2, p. 249-256.

[1] Chen Yue-ting, ‘Frankenstein and the Gothic Sublime’, Journal Of Literature And Art Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, (2018), 249-256.

[2] Lindsay Davies, ‘THE POEM, THE GLOSS AND THE CRITIC: Discourse and Subjectivity in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, (1990), 259-271, in <https://academic.oup.com/fmls/article-abstract/XXVI/3/259/726848?redirectedFrom=PDF> [accessed 2 January 2019].

[3] Carina Brännström, An Analysis of the Theme of Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2006) <http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1016264/FULLTEXT01.pdf> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[4] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019]

[5] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019]

[6] Carina Brännström, An Analysis of the Theme of Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2006) <http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1016264/FULLTEXT01.pdf> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[7] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019]

[8] William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts (2011), line 51-52 in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem1> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[9] William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts (2011), line 53-54 in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem1> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[10] William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts (2011), line 57-60 in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem1> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[11] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019].

[12] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019].

[13] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019].

[14] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019].

[15] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019].

[16] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus(2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019]

[17] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus(2008), in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap07> [accessed 3 January 2019]

[18] William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts (2011), line 95-96 in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem1> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[19] Christopher Stokes, ”My soul in agony’: irrationality and Christianity in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ‘, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 50, No.1, (2011), 26 (p. 6). 

[20] William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798, The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts (2011), line 37-38 in, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem1> [accessed 4 January 2019].

[21] Carol Rumens, Poem of the week: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2009) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/oct/26/rime-ancient-mariner> [accessed 1 January 2019].

[22] Michelle Levy, ‘Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 44. no. 4, (2004), 693- 713.

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