" Discuss how a sense of the Gothic is expressed in Shelly's Frankenstein." The term 'Gothic' has many forms. Its origins go back to the medieval period and can be seen in architecture such as Westminster Abbey in London and the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It can also be applied to art in the works of Hieronymus Bosch who's grotesque and haunting imagery depicted ugly distorted humans who are morally degenerate and depraved, and to William Blake who visualized Dante's Divine Comedy. In literature, the Gothic novel is credited as starting with Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, (1764) which characterised most of what would become the essential ingredients in the Gothic genre.
I will for the purpose of this assignment discuss what constitutes 'Gothic' in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein novel. Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was first published in London in 1818 and again with an edited edition in 1831. It was a novel of its time in respect to its romantic style of flamboyant and extravagant characters, which are placed in mysterious, remote and exotic settings. Shelly's 'hideous progeny' of a novel was largely inspired by her own tragic personal circumstances which saw the untimely death of her mother, half-sister who committed suicide and the death of two of her daughters, one of which died two weeks after a premature birth. Shelly's nightmarish vision during a tremendous thunderstorm while on vacation at the villa Dio dati at Lake Geneva had a profound effect on the eighteen year old as she embarked on a ghost competition with her fellow guest Percy Shelly, John Poli dori and Lord Byron, who instigated the competition after reading Fantasmagoriana (an anthology of German ghost stories).
One of the essential components in gothic literature is its reliance on solitary and isolated locations. The ice baron landscape of the art ic circle is where the two anti-heroes - Victor Frankenstein and Captain Robert Walton first encounter each other in a state of near paralysis. The frozen wilderness represents the desolation and unknown, creating a foreboding mood and atmosphere. It may also act as a metaphor for the cold-hearted detached egocentric nature of both characters. This is juxtaposed to the serene and sublime Edenic surrounding landscapes of Victor's home, which is reflective of Milton's Paradise Lost.
As the epistolary tale unfolds it relates the abject horror and madness that consumes Victor after creating his abomination. This is another important gothic element of Frankenstein. The deterioration of Victor's state of mind becomes evident as the story unfolds. He becomes more deranged and delirious as the creature wreaks havoc in his revenge against his creator.
Describing the creature on the night of its birth, Victor tells of his repugnance and abhorrence at the monstrosity that stood before him. 'I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated his limbs'. Following the abandonment of his creation Frankenstein flees in revulsion and terror. In a state of exhaustion he sleeps and dreams of his Elizabeth in which she metamorphosed into a worm ridden corpse of his dead mother. Here we as the reader get a glimpse into the deep recess of Victor's sub-consciousness, which reveals the chaotic and traumatic sensibilities he now has to live with. The supernatural and crudity reflected in this dream state has replaced the organised world in which Victor once inhabited.
David Punter demonstrates this by stating 'fear is at its fiercest when it is seen to invade the everyday contemporary world... .' One aspect of Shelly's sensationalist story is based on the mythology of Prometheus who stole the fire from Zeus to give to man thus creating the spark of life. He also moulded clay images of man in order to fool Zeus. Similarly the 'unhallowed arts' is also present in the story of Golem who was an animated man made from clay by a Jewish rabbi to carry out menial tasks. 'But he hadn't made a full man, and it was animated by some sort of vegetable half-life'. In the age of scientific discovery Priestly had discovered oxygen and Galvani had discovered electricity, the vital spark of life.
Mankind felt it was only a matter of time before the origins of life itself would be revealed. It was in this period of 'Enlightenment' during the 'Age of Reason' that Victor Frankenstein is trying to obtain forbidden knowledge, by making a concerted attempt to usurp the role of God (and woman) as the giver and bringer of life. This is where Mary Shelly departs from the traditional forms of literary gothic. She did not ignore the changes and major social upheavals heralded in by the Industrial and French revolutions. Rather than ignoring the implications of what they potentially symbolized, Shelly uses these world-changing events to bring 'realism' to her work. During the time of Shelly's writing Victoria England was fascinated with the pseudo-sciences such as 'phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism' in an attempt to understand the world now turned upside down.
Scientists and physicians of her era, tantalized by the elusive boundary between life and death, probed it through experiments with 'human anatomical studies, attempts to resuscitate drowning victims, and experiments using electricity to restore life to the recently dead'. Here Shelly took the modern scientific pursuits of her day and wrapped them up in a tale of terror in order to issue a stark warning about the dangers of going beyond the unknown. Victor is therefore not a gothic medieval necromancer dabbling in black magic whilst hiding in a ruined old castle, but a scientist riding the cusp of technological breakthroughs and innovations that could lead to new age discoveries, personal glory and eternal fame.