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Why is Frankenstein considered a Gothic novel and Fathers and Sons and Great Expectations considered realist? Discuss in an essay of 2000 words with reference to Frankenstein and either Fathers and Sons or Great Expectations.
Great Expectations and Frankenstein provide us with examples of the nineteenth century English novel frequently labeled ‘realist’ and ‘gothic’ respectively. This essay aims to discuss the characteristics that contribute to these labels and how far this sets the two novels apart.
The realist novel is classified as such by its attempt to represent social types of the time and symbolize the community of a historical era by portraying particular individuals. Consequently, characters within the novel serve as examples of their particular social type. One of the aims of the realist novel was to bring life to history, to add a human viewpoint to a real historical situation. This means that the realist narrative focuses on the everyday concerns, thoughts and feelings of society’s people. Not concerned solely with immediate feelings, the ambitions and desires of a person are also of great interest to the realist writer. As a result we are presented with a picture not just of how the world was, but how different social types imagined it to be.
Great Expectations is set in early Victorian England at a time when great social changes were taking place. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century had transformed the social landscape, enabling capitalists and manufacturers to amass huge fortunes that would otherwise have been unattainable; social class was no longer a status dependent purely on birth. This is the dynamic environment into which Dickens places his protagonist, Pip. Pip’s sudden transformation from country laborer to city gentleman allows Dickens to commentate on the differences between social extremes. Pip’s decisions are constantly influenced by the strict rules and expectations that governed Victorian England at this time. The setting of the novel would have been familiar to its readership and certain aspects can clearly be linked to historical truth. For example, in 1841 there would have been three thousand civilian prisoners held aboard nine ‘hulk’ ships anchored in English waters. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that Magwitch could have escaped from a ship that found itself anchored off the Essex coast.
The moral of the story is clear: social standing is a superficial and insufficient guide to character. Pip swiftly becomes driven by the fantasy of becoming a gentleman, and it is these ‘great expectations’ that form the basic plot of the novel. As a result Dickens is able to satirise the very class system that he is a part of. The consequences of Pip’s actions allow us an insight into Dickens’ social ideals – Pip’s life as a gentleman is no more satisfying or moral than his life as a country laborer. Indeed it is through Joe, Biddy and Magwitch that Pip learns that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to a person’s true worth. Consequently, it must be noted that the realist novel is heavily influenced by the way that the realist novelist sees the world; Dickens focuses firmly on those in the community who have earned their status through commerce and as a result, the post-Industrial revolution class system portrayed largely ignores the nobility and aristocracy by birth. In this respect the realist novel can be read as more subjective social criticism and raises the issue of how reliable one author can be when it comes to presenting an objective view of the world. Characters in the novel naturally present us with conflicting views of society and it is left to Dickens to reconcile these ideas and present us with the ‘answer,’ an answer that is heavily influenced by his own ideals. It can be argued that this technique over-simplifies social issues, in the words of Joe, ‘one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.’ There seems to be little in between and each must be met as they are presented by Dickens.
Other factors may also have come into play when producing this ‘realist’ novel, particularly, the novel’s market. The content of Great Expectations would have been heavily influenced by the requirements of All the Year Round, one of the magazines for which Dickens wrote. Having just published a rather unsuccessful serial by another author, Dickens saw Great Expectations as a means of drawing in readers and getting the magazine back on track financially: an ironic influence considering the moral of the story which condemns the pursuit of financial and social gain.
As mentioned previously, the setting of Great Expectations would have been familiar to its contemporary readers, allowing them to relate to characters. Setting is one factor that sets the realist novel apart from the gothic. The landscape presented in Frankenstein would have been wholly alien to readers of the time. Gothic novels tend to locate narratives in mysterious locations and this convention is clearly adhered to in Frankenstein, with action taking place in continental Europe and Arctic regions – places it is unlikely Shelley’s readers would have ever visited. In the same respect Victor’s experiments take place in an unknown setting as the majority of readers would have been unfamiliar with laboratories and scientific experiments. The use of strange and eerie settings succeeds in creating a mood of suspense and unsettling atmosphere, ‘Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave’
Another characteristic of the gothic novel is the use of the supernatural. Moers writes that, ‘in Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite authorial intent: to scare.’ Shelley uses the supernatural elements of raising the dead to frighten her readers. Through the eyes of Victor the monster is repulsive and altogether unnatural, shocking the reader out of reality, ‘I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing toward me with superhuman speed.’ At a time of great scientific advancement this would have been a topical story that pushed the boundaries, presenting readers with a truly shocking idea removed from reality, but remotely possible. Not only is this topic unknown and mysterious, it is presented in such a macabre manner that terror consumes the reader. Victor’s decision to stop making a female monster is driven by fear that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’ and this is the very feeling that has already been sparked in the reader during the creation of the first monster.
The gothic tradition thrives on the sensational. In her essay on the ‘Female Gothic,’ Moers argues that the gothic novel is primarily concerned with producing a physiological reaction, a story that chills the spine and curdles the blood. Victor himself experiences this bodily reaction induced by fear – ‘Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery.’ In this respect, Shelley’s novel clearly meets the criteria of the gothic traditions, illustrated by Lord Byron who is said to have run from the room screaming on first hearing the story of Frankenstein. Indeed, such sensationalist literature was highly sought after in this period and pandered to by such gothic fiction. These sensations are enhanced by the feeling of suspense that runs through Frankenstein, particularly from the moment the monster threatens Victor with the words, ‘I will be with you on your wedding-night,’ a phrase that echoes through the novel from the moment it is spoken.
Nature in the gothic novel is presented as sublime, a retreat from both physical and emotional strain. This is evident in Victor’s journey to the mountains to revive his spirits and the monster’s joy when spring arrives. Nature is often used in conjunction with darkness to construe a feeling of foreboding or evil. This is the case as Victor creates the monster, an endeavor that forces him to shun daylight and lead a solitary life, ‘the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.’ As the novel progresses we would not expect life to be injected into the monster on any other night but a ‘dreary night in November.’ Nature is used to a similar effect within Great Expectations where the mist that occurs on the nights when Pip visits Magwitch, ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes,’ and subsequently returns when he leaves for London, suggests that all will not run smoothly when he reaches the city.
Through multiple narratives Shelley forces us to question our sympathies. In a ‘Russian doll’ narrative style we are told the story of Frankenstein through Walton, who in turn tells the story of the monster, who in turn tells the story of Safie and the cottagers. However, it is not until halfway through the novel that we are subject to the monster’s narrative and by this time we have already been influenced by Victor’s biased account of events. Consequently, we become aware of the complex nature of truth and the power of our own subjectivity. In the questions that are asked of us, supernatural becomes closer to natural than we may have first imagined. Although we are terrorized in true gothic fashion, we are simultaneously forced to question the source of this terror.
Having said this, the complex narrative structure and the portrayal of the supernatural clearly invites more of a ‘gothic’ reading. In his essay, ‘Reading Frankenstein,’ Richard Allen points to narration as a signifier for narrative form, stating that Pip’s first person narrative ‘makes his presentation in terms of what we might read as ‘gothic’ excess in fact rather plausible, since it can also be understood as the product of a young imagination replete with the monsters and ogres of folk and fairy-tale tradition.’ The realist narrative directs us towards a more sensible and natural explanation, toning down what may be gothic content by presenting it from a realist perspective. This realist understanding of supernatural events can be identified in the reaction of the magistrate to whom Victor explains his story to, ‘He had heard my story with that half kind of belief that is given to a tale of spirits and supernatural events.’
Both Dickens and Shelley draw from their own experiences in writing their respective novels. Dickens would have been extremely familiar with the city of London and the marshes surrounding Kent, and would also have experienced the law system, with his own father spending time in prison. Shelley was also frequently exposed to the ideas expressed in her novel, spending time with radical thinkers through her father and husband. Great Expectations may well be more openly ‘realistic,’ but the subtext of Frankenstein connects to the natural more than a first reading may imply. There is a vast undercurrent of birth and abortion illustrated by a link that is often made between the creation of the monster and Mary’s loss of a child. Her journals explain that the baby died before it was given a name (just as Frankenstein’s monster remained nameless) and that she also experienced a vivid dream in which she was able to bring it back to life.
It must be noted that neither novel can be classified by one single form. Great Expectations for example can also be read as a bildungsroman, another popular nineteenth century novel form which depicts growth and personal development by transition from childhood to adulthood. Much of the gothic novel also draws from the Romantic tradition, Shelley’s portrayal of human feeling, compassions and discontent towards all that is commercial and inhuman is closely aligned with this movement. Walden observes this cross-over of genres, stating that ‘what is especially interesting about Dickens’ writings is the degree to which they anticipate the continuing hybridity of genre expectations,’ a statement that can equally be applied to Shelley.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Everyman’s Library, 1992)
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (Marshall Cavendish, 1986)
The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, Edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (University of California Press, 1979)
The Realist Novel, Edited by Dennis Walder (Routledge, 1995)
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