Gothic elements in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Seminar Paper, 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Basics

3Ǥ Gothic elements in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
3.1. Incest
3.2. Science
3.3. Doppelgänger
3.4. Body Horror: The Monster
3.5. The Sublime
3.6. Setting
3.7. The Victim and The Villain

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

Gothic elements and their function in Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus

1. Introduction

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. I was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated it limbs.1

Passages like this make one shudder at the very thought. At the same time they arouse curiosity and a delightful feeling of danger and fear. In fact, horror presents to be one of the most intense feelings man can perceive. Murder, monstrous brutality, supernatural and mysterious happenings, unsafe and creepy places, scientific experiments and weird beings like split selves, monsters, vampires and ghosts depict only few of the things that disturb the situation of natural order and typify imaginative and realistic threats.

Horror fiction combines such scary cases that generate a sense of the unknown, fear and a state of disorder. As in this type of narration the natural order is being rebuilt after a period of horror and distress, this literary genre evokes several feelings in the reader, including fear, stress and anxiety as well as sympathy, delight and relief. This composition of positive and negative feelings produces a mechanical craving for more. Hence, during the period of emergence, more precisely in the late 18th and early 19th century, Horror fiction is perceived as appealing and entertaining and therefore enjoys wide reception.2

With Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818) Mary Shelley succeeds to create a milestone in Horror fiction, which enjoys popularity to this day. Mary, the daughter of the famous writer William Godwin and the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of one of the major English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, lived from 1797 to 1851. She accomplishes her masterpiece before the age of 20.3 Its prominent elements are supernatural incidents, scientific danger, persecution, distorted human beings, the sublime and terror. It is the fruit of a horror romance writing competition with her friends and a threatening nightmare…4

2. Basics

From the initiation of the so-called English Gothic novel with Horace Walpole‟s Castle of Otranto (1774) and the climax of Horror fiction with Ann Radcliffe‟s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) to Charles Maturin‟s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) the genre of Horror fiction stands in the conflict between Romanticism and the period of Enlightenment. Romantic sensitivity, the awareness of the supernatural and the experience of sublimity accompany the trust in a divine rationality until finally the Gothic novel acquits itself of the Enlightenment thinking.5

The first horror tales mirror the ideas of rational understanding, sense of morality and order of the period of Enlightenment. The supernatural and the marvelous are looked upon as superstition. Transparency of reality, neo-classical aesthetics, beauty, harmony, symmetry and unity determine the thinking of the whole society and the tendency of the period‟s literature. The tale‟s villain never crows over the innocent victim, instead he is punished in the end and the victim gets off lightly. Everything happens against the background of a transparent, moral and predictable world order.6

However, poetic imagination resists this attitude. By and by miraculous incidents occur in gothic novels, though still quite trivial. Eventually the Middle Ages experience a revival and mediaeval, gothic dark and gloomy settings and themes find their place in Horror fiction, whereas Gothic represents a term for the barbarous traditions and practices of the Middle Ages. The typical gothic tale at that time contains a villain who persecutes an innocent victim, mediaeval haunted and ruined castles, labyrinths and supernatural events.

As the genre turns completely Romantic, the relationship between the villain and the victim blurs and gets reversible. Obsolete superstitious and supernatural thoughts just as the psychology of the human mind become the main issues to write about. Split selves, the dark side of the human soul and scientific experiments predominate in Gothic novels. 19th century Gothic fiction can also be seen as a reaction against the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the progressing scientific technology, urbanization and social changes as well as new sprouting theories, such as the evolution theory of Charles Darwin, the theory of the sublime and beautiful by Edmund Burke or later the psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud.

Mary Shelley‟s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus can be placed somewhere in between the ideas of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, directed towards the Romantic movement. As mentioned above Frankenstein contains numerous Gothic elements, in the following some of which are going to be discussed further.

3Ǥ Gothic elements in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus

3.1. Incest

The fear of incest comes from its being a scandalous crime against culture and the social and natural order. Incestuous actions and thoughts are also the expression of secret and forbidden desires. Formerly a concealed and unspoken taboo, it becomes a very common theme in Horror fiction. Mary Shelley also uses this topic in several different forms and correlations to create a sense of the forbidden and the abnormal and thus to evoke this mentioned fear. The incest topic in Frankenstein occurs right from the start of Victor Frankenstein‟s narration. His purposed wife Elizabeth is raised as the daughter of his parents, consequently his sister, but labeled as his cousin. As he tells about the history of his family he describes how close they are and how she is the “beautiful and adored companion of all [his] occupations and pleasures”. Finally he himself states that “No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to [him] - [his] more than sister, since till death she was to be [his] only.”7

Later on, after Victor Frankenstein finalizes his experiments at the University of Ingolstadt and animates the dead body to life, he falls asleep while trying to forget for a few moments the hideous monster he has just created. In doing so he has incestuous dreams. Victor dreams of himself that he kisses his beloved fiancée and quasi-sister Elizabeth as suddenly “her features appeared to change, and [he] thought that [he] held the corpse of [his] dead mother in [his] arms”.8

The monster as well represents the thought of incest, even though he does it probably unconsciously. He is feeling lonely as “no Eve soothed [his] sorrows, nor shared [his] thoughts; [he] was alone.” 9 On this account he wants his creator, his father, to create a female being for him with whom he intends to start a family in South America. “[His] companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects.” 10 In fact, this female being would then be his desired wife but also his sister at the same time.11

3.2. Science

In the late 18th and early 19th century, at the time as Horror fiction emerges, scientific technologies are progressing fast and to a great degree. Charles Darwin‟s Evolution Theory is only one of the numerous modern scientific approaches. This progress proceeds in combination with the Industrial Revolution and the newly originated ways of production. With the accompanying societal changes it causes social instability and fear of the unknown sciences and their extents and consequences on humanity and the individual. Therefore it offers another suitable theme for the Gothic novel.12

In Frankenstein science is the origin and cause for the whole plot and supernatural happenings. Victor Frankenstein stands for the “archetypal mad scientist”. He is very interested in physics and physical phenomena. Since childhood he “delighted in investigating [the] causes [of magnificent appearances]. The world was to [him] a secret which [he] desired to 13 divine.”

After studying chemistry in the University of Ingolstadt he applies to physiology.13

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. […] I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm. […] To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. […] I paused, examining and analyzing all […] in the change from life to death, and death to life, until […] a sudden light broke upon me - […] I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” 14

He is so obsessed with accomplishing his aim and creating a human being out of corpses, that he neglects the thought of the possible danger for mankind as with his scientific experiments he ignores all moral and human limits. After months of collecting materials from charnel-houses, dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses Victor “infuse[s] a spark of being into the lifeless thing” 15 and achieves his creation.16

Especially at that time, as science is still in its infancy and common readers do not know much about it the probability to create a monster using electricity, which has enormous dimensions and inhuman powers, seems to be absolutely possible. This prospect of course produces horror in the reader.

The use of electricity also depicts a Gothic element, given that in that period of time electricity is not part of everyday life of many people, even in the context of the Industrialism. Hence it is looked upon as a supernatural, mysterious force. This attitude towards electricity manifests itself in Mary Shelley‟s Frankenstein, where it is even capable of infusing life into a conglomerate corpse.17

3.3. Doppelgänger

With the initiation of the Romanticism psychology of the human mind becomes more and more a discussed topic. In Horror fiction doubles, split selves and other beings whose madness and evil originate from a conflict within themselves are utilized as the typical villain. They mostly have twisted and unnatural, repressed passions and wants and struggle with unsolvable dilemmas in their mind, for which reason they are being regarded as unpredictable, evil and diabolic. Considering that madmen mostly look like everybody else, they distribute a realistic fear among people.

Mary Shelley employs the subject of the Doppelgänger by making Victor Frankenstein a wretched and distressed man, who tries to solve his inner conflict by creating a living and breathing copy of himself. This being symbolizes the evil side of Victor, which he for any reason is not able to live out. Contrary to former Gothic villains he has no typical outer tees, instead of that his creature materializes the ill in its monstrous appearance. However, it is not only Victor‟s villainy that appears in the separate character, but also his virtues and sensitivity.

Actually it is Victor Frankenstein himself who becomes a monster. Obsessed with studying the sciences he isolates himself from the outside world, his family and his own humanity. Not able and willing to acknowledge his suppressed monstrosity, he flees from the monster. Though, throughout the whole chase Victor suspects the true relationship between the monster and himself. This happens for the first time when Justine Moritz, a friend of the Frankensteins‟, is convicted of the murder of the young William Frankenstein, Victor‟s brother, since all evidence militates in favor of her guilt and nobody has the vaguest notion of the true murderer. He suffers from a bad conscience and feels that “[he], not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer” 18 of his brother and Justine.


1 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 45.

2 Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. Continuum studies in literary genre. New York: Continuum, 2005, 9, 147.

3 Bomarito, Jessica. Gothic Literature. A Gale Critical Companion. Volume 1: Topics. Detroit; Munich: Thomson/Gale, 2006, 319.

4 Shater, Safaa el. The Novels of Mary Shelley. Salzburg studies in English literature /

Romantic Reassessment. Salzburg: Inst. für Englische Sprache und Literatur,1977, 4-5.

5 Weber, Ingeborg. Der englische Schauerroman. Eine Einführung. 7th ed. München; Zürich: Artemis-Verlag, 1983, 5-17, 112.

6 Bomarito, Jessica. Gothic Literature. A Gale Critical Companion. Volume 1: Topics. Detroit; Munich: Thomson/Gale, 2006, 331-332.

7 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 29.

8 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 46.

9 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993,101.

10 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 111.

11 Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire. A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985, 141.

12 Botting, Fred. Gothic. The new critical idiom.1.publ., repr.London:Routledge, 2007, 103.

13 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 30.

14 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 41.

15 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 45.

16 Crook, Nora. “Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein”, in: Punter, David. A Companion to The Gothic. 1.publ. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, 58 -70 , 62.

17 MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition In Fiction. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979, 81-85, 100-105.

18 Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993, 72.

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Gothic elements in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
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Dorothea Wolschak (Author), 2009, Gothic elements in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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