Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime and It's Reflection in Gothic Fiction: Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Seminar Paper, 2011

19 Pages


Table of Contents


2.The Sublime
2.1 Burke’s Theory of the Sublime
2.2 Shelley and the Sublime
2.3 The social dimension of the sublime

3. The Reflection of the Sublime in Frankenstein


Works Cited



Many authors would agree that Frankenstein is one of the most famous Gothic tales of all time. It was first published in 1818 and is famous for its descriptions of landscape and nature, as well as its prophetic dimension. More than 60 years before the novel was published, Edmund Burke set out to analyze the sublime. By doing so, he actually took an important step towards founding the genre Shelley engaged in, in writing Frankenstein . His A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime published in 1757 became a great success.

This term paper sets out to shed light on a number of problem areas concerning the connection between Shelley’s novel and Burke’s theory of the sublime. The paper arose out of the Proseminar ‘Gothic Literatur’ by XY, M.A. in the Summer Semester 2011 at RWTH University Aachen. During the course, different topics concerning the Gothic novel were discussed in combination with four of the most famous novels belonging to the genre. Among them was Frankenstein as a novel and ‘Burke’s Theory of the Sublime and Its Reflection in the Gothic Fiction’ as a topic.

The central question to be examined in this paper is how Burke’s theory of the sublime is reflected in Shelley‘s Gothic novel. Further questions to be dealt with in this term paper are: what is the Burkean sublime? What was new and different about Burke’s concept of the Sublime – as the Sublime itself is by no means a groundbreaking, new concept. Does Shelley intentionally incorporate sublime features in her novel or comment on the use of Burke’s theory? Is there a social dimension to Burke’s theory? In what way does the novel reflect the sublime? Is a sense of the sublime only conveyed through descriptions of nature? Or, are there studies that suggest a sublime that goes beyond this surface? Finally, to what way is the monster important with regard to Burke’s theory?

The paper presented here is based on Edmund Burke’s 1757 published A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime and, of course, on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Or, The Modern Prometheus . In addition, it takes into account James Sambrooks chapter “Aesthetics” published in Sambrook’s The Eighteenth Century. The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1700 – 1789 , which, in general, draws together Burke’s main ideas on the sublime. The same does Alison Milbank’s article “The Sublime”, Sage’s article on the “Gothic Novel” and Ingeborg Weber’s Edmund Burkes Ästhetik des Erhabenen als Gattungspoetik des englischen Schauerromans . Also, Paola Giacomoni’s argumentation in “Mountain landscape and the aesthetics of the sublime in Romantic narration”, published in Romantic prose fiction and Frederick’s in On the Sublime and Beautiful in Shelley’s Frankenstein are part of the paper presented here.

The first part of the term paper presents Burke’s theory of the sublime, an analysis of the connection between Shelley and the sublime and an analysis of the social dimension of the sublime. The next part is going to shed light on how Frankenstein as a Gothic novel reflects elements of Burke’s theory of the sublime. A fuller discussion including an analysis of all scenes displaying sublime elements would go beyond the range of the paper. In this matter only five scenes were chosen. Those scenes are significant for the plot development, as well as they help to support the line of argumentation. Eventually, a conclusion will be drawn.

The analysis of the text abstracts will, hopefully, help to exemplify how a sense of the sublime, as described in Burke’s Inquiry , is conveyed in Shelley’s Gothic novel.

2.The Sublime

2.1 Burke’s Theory of the Sublime

The concept of the Sublime dates back to ancient Greek, to be more specific to Longinus’s[1] Peri Hypsous . But did – despite several translations and reprints from the 16th century on – not in particular gain interest until Boileau’s translation into French in 1674. (cf. Lamb 1997: 394) In Britain the concept finally established after Welsted’s translation in 1712 and Smith’s Dionysius Longinus on the Sublime in 1739. The theory widened and diversified over time and especially in the lively aesthetic debate in Europe in the 18th century. And when Burke in 1757 published his twist on the Sublime – A Philosophical Inquiry into the origins of the Beautiful and Sublime – he was one among many to deal with the theory of the Sublime. (cf. ibid., 394)

Burke, as literature widely agrees, may well be seen as the father of Gothic Sublimity or as Ingeborg Weber puts it, he was a “Gattungspoetiker[s]”[2] (Weber 1983: 23). (cf. ibid., 23) Alison Milbank agrees in her article on the sublime and states that “Burke provides a psychological justification for the Gothic tale of terror” (Milbank 1998: 227) by basing it on Locke’s psychology and by provoking man’s natural instinct to preserve his own existence. (cf. Weber 1983: 23; cf. Milbank 1998: 227) As shown, it can be indubitably stated that Burke's work has had a profound influence on the conception of Gothic Fiction. As Ingeborg Weber declare’s, Burke’s sublime is “eine Manifestation des ästhetischen Paradigmenwechsels vom Klassizismus zur Romantik, in dessen Konsequenz der englische Schauerroman entstand [.]” (Weber 1983: 20) Burke’s theory builds a jumping-off point for the development of the 18th century Gothic fiction.

As the title A Philosophical Inquiry into the origins of the Beautiful and Sublime suggests, Burke obviously differentiates between “two classes of agreeable sensations” (Sambrook 1986: 121): the beautiful and the sublime. In this section the content of the term paper will be the sublime. The beautiful will be dealt with among other things in the section on the social dimension of the sublime.

When looking at Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the origins of the Beautiful and Sublime , one can see that Burke defines the sublime in general as “productive of strongest emotion, which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke 1757). He furthermore states, “[w]hatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime [.]” (Burke 1757) Burke also says that “[n]o so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. […] Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too [.]” (ibid.). Especially important with regard to fear, Burke states, is obscurity and uncertainty because “[t]o make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.” (ibid.) Sambrook specifies Burke’s idea of terror by saying that it is a “distanced or modified terror” (Sambrook 1986: 121).

Burke takes special interest in the affects pain and pleasure. They build the basis for his theory. Burke argues that there are two independent types of pain and two independent types of pleasure: ‘positive pain’ and ‘positive pleasure’, and ‘pain as removal of pleasure’, also described as ‘grief’, and ‘pleasure as removal of pain’, also called ‘delight’. (cf. Weber 1983: 25 – 26) ‘Positive pain’ and ‘positive pleasure’ differ from ‘grief’ and ‘delight’. ‘Grief’ and ‘delight’ are mixed emotions. For example, ‘delight’ “is that pleasure which arises from the ideas of pain and danger when we are not in actual pain and danger” (ibid., 121), as Sambrook expresses. Burke justifies that ‘delight’ is the source of the sublime as it is essential for the human psyche as it can trigger powerful feelings of both pain and pleasure. (cf. Weber 1983: 26) As Weber states, this phenomenon according to Burke, is called ‘ delightful horror ’. (cf. ibid., 22)

In the Philosophical Inquiry , Burke basically presents an analysis of various characteristics of things that the Sublime can be associated with; these are called stimuli. (cf. Weber 1983: 37; cf. Milbank 1998: 228) Stimuli are triggering ‘delight’. They can be: ‘god’, ‘death’, ‘loneliness’, ‘pain’, ‘strength’, ‘violence’, ‘grandeur’, ‘vastness’, ‘infinity’, ‘terror’, ‘obscurity/uncertainty’, ‘difficulty, disorder’, ‘magnificence’, ‘silence’, ‘vanity’ and ‘succession’. Opposite extremes such as ‘vastness’ and ‘littleness’, ‘excessive loudness’ and ‘utter silence’ and ‘darkness’ and ‘extreme light’ can function as stimuli as well. (cf. ibid. 37; cf. ibid. 228)

Concluding this section, we can say that Burke’s analysis of the sublime is

“founded on an aesthetics of process, foregrounding the affective relationship between reader and text. Burke’s treatise is a blueprint for an aesthetics of terror and horror, laying down a set of conditions for the excitement of the reader’s passions. The writer’s task was to evoke fear, grandeur and awe in the soul of the reader.” (Sage 1998: 82)

2.2 Shelley and the Sublime

Mary Shelley followed these principles in writing Frankenstein . As Mary Shelley puts it in her Introduction to Frankenstein from 1831:

I busied myself to think of a story […][,][o]ne which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. (Shelley 1994: 7 – 8)

Mary Shelly is widely considered a Romantic writer. But as many Romantic writers in this time, Mary Shelley engaged in writing Gothic fiction. (cf. Martin 1998: 197) By writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein , she actually followed the tradition of her parents, who both wrote amongst other things novels influenced by Gothicism. (cf. ibid., 199) In general, it can be added that “Romanticism and Gothicism are inter-related in many ways” (ibid.,196). Therefore it is no coincidence that Romantic writers chose the Gothic Genre to engage writing in.


[1] There is some evidence to suggest that Peri Huospus is falsely accredited to Longinus. In literature it is even referred to the author as Pseudo-Longinus. (cf. Weber 1983: 20; cf. Milbank 1998: 226) But for a lack of alternatives, this paper refers to the author as Longinus.

[2] For lack of a corresponding English literary term, the German term is used here.

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Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime and It's Reflection in Gothic Fiction: Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
RWTH Aachen University
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edmund, burke, theory, sublime, reflection, gothic, fiction-, mary, shelley, frankenstein
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Alexandra Koch (Author), 2011, Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime and It's Reflection in Gothic Fiction: Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/198423


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