Frankly Romantic and Gothic
Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, is a brilliant story that has stood the test of time, and is still very relevant today, just about two centuries after it was originally written. Shelley gets her message across in a rather unique way, starting and ending the novel with letters of an outsider to the story and devoting multiple consecutive chapters to a monologue from a monster. The book also contains many themes. It delves into the contrast of hero to anti-hero, Byronic hero, creator to creation, and even switches from a Romantic style to a Gothic tone, and then arguably back to Romantic again.
The novel begins with a recognizably Romantic tone. Victor Frankenstein’s life is an exceptional one, and his future is extremely bright. He has parents that love each other, and him, very much. His mother’s history leads her to adopt a child named Elizabeth from a poor family, and she only brightens Victor’s world. He is wealthy, has a family that loves him, and has a driving motivation in his life, which is to pursue knowledge in the field of natural philosophy. Everything about the beginning of the novel is optimistic, all the way down to the setting.
Victor Frankenstein describes his environment saying, “in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home — the sublime shapes of the mountains; the changes of the seasons; tempest and calm; the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers — she found ample scope for admiration and delight” (24). This is a very idealistic description of the setting which sets the Romantic tone early on in the novel. Victor Frankenstein’s upbringing was also described in a very Romantic manner.
Victor himself states, “No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindess and indulgence. We felt that they were… the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed” (25). Victor loved his parents and his childhood, and remembered it fondly even after disaster stuck. His early life set him up to be very optimistic of his future, and this quote makes it abundantly clear how Romantic the beginning of the novel was.
The Romanic beginning of Frankenstein is enough to make the reader envy Victor Frankenstein’s life and share in his happiness, however Shelley implements a drastic shift in tone from Romantic to despairingly Gothic. Gothic fiction is characterized by the elements of fear, horror, the supernatural and darkness, as well as by characters such as monsters, demons, heroes, heroines and villains, and the novel covers all of these elements. Victor Frankenstein had everything he could’ve wanted, but when his dad encouraged him to get an education abroad everything began to unravel from poor Frankenstein.
In Ingolstadt for college, Victor slaves over his work to such an extent that he loses his health, and when he finally creates life in an inanimate form, the rest of his life is spent in fear and misery. One way in which the gothic nature of the middle part of the novel is illustrated is through Victor’s constant depression and fear. After the monster that he created murders his innocent little brother, and in turn leads to the hanging of Justine, the whole Frankenstein household is plunged deeper into mourning, but Victor, who feels responsibility for both deaths, is even more stricken with grief than the rest.
After Justine is hanged Victor thinks to himself, “Now all that was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe” (76). This illustrates the horror and sadness Victor feels as a result of his creation, and is a clear contrast of darkness from the Romantic beginning.
Another gothic element of the middle part of Frankenstein is the supernatural and hero versus villain aspect of the novel, and the sadness that seems to follow both of these characteristics. It is quite obvious that the gothic section of the novel is full of supernatural characteristic, reanimating a dead body being the main instance of this, but the hero versus villain aspect of the novel is much more ambiguous. From Victor Frankenstein’s point of view the monster is the clear villain who has ruined his whole life, but he may also consider himself a bad person as he created this plague on his family.
Victor says, “Cursed be the hands that formed you! ” (87), which implies that he himself may also be a wretched character in his mind. While, from the monster’s point of view Victor is the villain. Victor created him and then left him to fend for himself in an awful world, in which everyone hates him for his appearance. On page 121, the monster says, “ Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge.
This quote shows the hatred that the monster has for Victor, clearly illustrating that from the monsters point of view Victor is the villain of this story. Finally, at the end of the novel the tone arguably switches back to Romantic. In the very last chapter, “Walton, In Continuation”, the letter Walton writes is rather Romantic, save the monster’s final monologue. Walton writes, “ There is something terribly appalling in our situation, yet my courage and hopes do not desert me” (197). Even as Walton and his crew are stranded among mountains of ice, he is optimistic and hopeful.
His positivity and belief that his human will can beat these terrible conditions show an evolution of the novel back towards a Romantic tone. Walton even describes that Victor Frankenstein, a man who has been totally beaten down by life, “endeavors to fill me with hope. ” These two instances show that the novel has come full circle, from Romantic to gothic and back to Romantic again. In conclusion, Shelley uses language, setting, actions, and imagery to shift the tone of the story from Romantic to Gothic, and finally back to Romantic.
The moments in the book with a picturesque setting, optimistic characters, and light language make up the Romantic sections. While, those parts of the story with dark, dreary, and cold setting, with depressed characters, and spiteful language construct the Gothic parts of the story. It is the mixture of these tones that makes Frankenstein such an excellent novel, and maybe why the story is almost universally know today, nearly two hundred years after Shelley wrote it.