From the wise words of Dracula, “I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things which I dare not confess to my own soul” (Stoker, 19). A gothic novel is a work of fiction from the 18th and early 19th centuries, Romantic and Victorian eras, that is characterized by mystery and horror, along with the occasional romance plotline. It frequently has a psuedomedieval setting, one that resembles medieval times, but is in fact inaccurate. Examples include “old buildings (particularly castles or rooms with secret passageways), dungeons, or towers that serve as a backdrop for the mysterious circumstances” (“Frankenstein”). In our British Literature 2 class, there are two novels we’ve read that contain gothic elements, which are Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
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Frankenstein is full of gothic elements, and it is said that Mary Shelley’s life contributed to these aspects of the book. Leading up to the writing of Frankenstein, Mary was impacted by death due to the deaths of her mother, half-sister Fanny, and three of her children. She also used to secretly meet up with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley at her mother’s gravestone at the St. Pancras Church in London, England. Percy was married at the time he was courting Mary, until Percy’s wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Not long after Harriet’s death, Percy and Mary were married. These elements of Mary’s life can be described as gothic because of the eerie setting, gloomy setting in which Percy and Mary would meet up, and the many deaths of close family members. Other things that may have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that can be considered gothic, are the fact that the idea for it came to her in a dream, as well as the Frankenstein Castle that sits on a hilltop in Mühltal, Germany, which overlooks the city of Darmstadt, Germany. The Frankenstein Castle influence stems from the fact that Mary in 1814 was but 10 miles away from the castle in a town called Gernsheim for a few hours when she took a trip down the river Rhine. The castle was where “alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel was said to have experimented on a human body he exhumed while living there” (Miller). There was never any documentation in Mary’s journals of being influenced by this castle, but many have speculated, especially because it is of the same name as her novel. Frankenstein was written during a ghost story challenge that Lord Byron wanted to do one night at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 (aka the year without a summer). However, Frankenstein was not the only story to come forth that night, albeit it was the most renowned. The other being The Vampyre by John Polidori, which was an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s been rumored that upon hearing the story [Frankenstein] for the first time, Lord Byron is said to have run screaming from the room (“Frankenstein”).
Frankenstein is a mystery-riddled novel with many different gothic novel aspects. This is exemplified by examining the novel’s setting. The story takes place in Germany and Switzerland, where many people who would read it, in that time period, had never been to before. Mary Shelley described the setting as lonely, bleak, and frightening, but by using dark settings, low lighting, extreme landscapes and extreme weather. According to Agnes and Archie, a specific example of a gothic setting in the novel comes from a description given by the Monster, who says “the desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge” (Shelley 73). He goes on to describe, “… the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge” (Shelley 73). This description of the setting provides insight into the isolation, alienation, and loneliness the Monster went through. Isolation, alienation, and loneliness are also common concepts found in gothic novels, and are frequently described throughout the story, but are not dependent on the setting. Another theme of gothic novels involves death, decay, darkness, and madness. Frankenstein shows death and madness in different forms. Dr. Frankenstein first becomes involved with death by playing god and creating his creature, who was previously dead. According to Agnes and Archie, the monster is seen as being “mad” by Victor Frankenstein for the first time right after creation. “I never saw a more interesting creature; his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness” (Shelley 27). The creature throughout the novel ends up killing 3 different people, William Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Henry Clerval who have a special attachment to his creator Victor because they are Victor’s brother, his lover, and his best friend. Victor couldn’t love his creation, so the monster took away anyone Victor’s ever loved in order for Victor to be alone like he is. “I grasped his throat to silence him and in a moment he lay dead at my feet” (Shelley 144). Victor at one point wanted to plunge into the lake and commit suicide to escape the misery that was his life. When Frankenstein does finally die, it sends the creature into an abundance of “grief” and he takes Victor’s body with him to his own demise, “I shall quit your vessel on the ice-raft which brought me thither, and shall seek the most northern extremity of the globe; I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame” (Shelley 224). Also, gothic novels include some type of hero/heroine or villain that is passion-driven, willful, needing to be rescued and they faint, and/or their true identity is revealed in the end. It’s almost comical in the sense that Victor is almost feminized because when the creature murdered Clerval Frankenstein fainted seeing Clerval’s dead body. It’s not comical because that was Victor’s best friend and he was murdered. There are a few times when Victor’s true identity is portrayed. According to Agnes and Archie, a first is when Victor is warning Walton about transgression and that he learned from his mistakes, “learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge” (Shelley 54). The other time, mentioned by Agnes and Archie, is in irony, “a thousand times would I have shed my own blood, drop by drop, to have saved their lives” (Shelley 190). It’s ironic because Victor had plenty of chances to save his friends and family, and he just chose not to. Evil deeds leading to the downfall of a character is another element in gothic literature. In the case with Dr. Frankenstein, his downfall was his obsession with knowledge and transgression, which led to his creation of the monster. According to Agnes and Archie, the monster’s downfall is the fact that he relates himself to Satan, so his story is eviler, “but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I was viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (Shelley 132). Mystery and suspense are a key theme/concept in many gothic novels. The mystery can sometimes be seen with some sort of dramatic aftershock and the mysteries tie into supernatural occurrences. One example of mystery is the fact that people from that time era knew very little if anything about laboratories and scientific experiments, and Frankenstein conducted many unorthodox scientific experiments including the creation of his creature/monster. A second example of mystery is William’s death. William was young and there was no reason he should have died. Frankenstein’s reaction to finding out about his brother’s death in a letter was enough to break his short burst of happiness after forgetting all about the monster, “William is dead! – that sweet child” (Shelley 73). The monster foreshadowed his other murders after having killed William and set up Justine for William’s murder ultimately getting her killed as well, “graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts” (Shelley 90). That leads to Elizabeth’s death. There was a scream heard but not seen by Victor, and the reader was left in suspense as to whether or not Elizabeth was dead, “I heard a shrill and dreadful scream” (Shelley 199). Another example, mentioned by Agnes and Archie, of mystery is why the monster has such a gigantic stature and why he is so hideous. It has a dramatic start to the novel in terms of plot because this creature is already being seen as not normal and it has abnormal characteristics, “the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature” (Shelley 25). “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust” (Shelley 133)? That quote is tied to Paradise Lost when Adam is complaining to god. The monster finds solace in Paradise Lost because it seemed to be just like his predicament. It’s sad because he was born innocent and was made to become vengeful and evil due to his interactions with humanity. Nobody would show the monster love. They all hated him, which in turn made the monster hate himself. The monster was also hideous because Victor might have wandered the streets of Ingolstadt or the Orkney Islands after dark in search for body parts, human and/or animal. It also adds to the sense of revulsion purposefully designed to evoke from the reader a feeling of dread for the characters involved in the story (“Frankenstein”). The going around and looking for body parts wasn’t uncommon in that time period because bodysnatching was a real-life issue. Another aspect to gothic novels is that they are to be pleasurably terrifying. That means “thrill the reader with the fantastic and frightening events” (Agnes, Alaina, and Archie). The examples of pleasure terrifying in Frankenstein can be seen as father, Victor Frankenstein, vs. the creature, or will there ever be happiness for creature. The creature just wanted someone to love, so he wasn’t lonely anymore, and he asked Victor to create a companion for him, “my companion must be of the same species, and have the same defects. This being you must create” (Shelley 146). Victor chooses not to create this companion for the creature and thus angering the monster more. The monster decides to make Victor’s life even more hellish and decides “I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (Shelley 173). The fact that creature is planning on sabotaging Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding night is one thing, but Victor thinks that he is the only one in danger, “I had prepared only my own death” (Shelley 195). In reality, it is actually Elizabeth who is in danger because that will bring great suffering to Victor. An example for the father vs son idea is that Frankenstein wanted to kill the monster after finding out he killed his brother and set Justine up to be killed as well, “it was the wretch, the filthy daemon.” (Shelley 77), “and then close with him in mortal combat” (Shelley 101). The thing that would bring pleasure out of that situation is the fact that it “creates anticipation and excitement because we are unsure whether Victor can defeat something that is of ‘gigantic stature’ and extremely strong” (Agnes, Alaina, and Archie). Another concept of gothic literature is that the narration has multiple levels. This is seen in Frankenstein when Victor and the creature tells Walton their stories, Walton is telling the readers those stories, and when the creature tells Victor Frankenstein his story (“How is Frankenstein”).
A second novel that our British Literature 2 class reads that is a gothic novel is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Some of the gothic elements in Heart of Darkness are mentioned as cannibals, heads/skulls on sticks, and psychological and supernatural thrillers, etc. One of its main gothic concepts is degeneration of the “English” race (“The Imperial Gothic”). Another is the use of intense emotions that are considered gloomy and seen by Marlow during scenes of racism (Ulhaq). According to Suzanne Daly:
“Brantlinger notes that three central themes of late-Victorian imperial Gothic are ‘individual regression or going native; an invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism or demonism; and the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world’” (“The Imperial Gothic”).
Kurtz is a gothic character as he goes through the above three central themes of late-Victorian imperial gothic. His main mission was to go to this place in the Congo, and basically take it over. Marlow is subjected to manipulation by Kurtz in order for him to become as savage as the natives and as savage as Kurtz has become. Kurtz is viewed as a godlike entity to the natives and they worship him, even when he attacks them. While under Kurtz’s manipulation and seeing the world around him in the Congo, it is easy for Marlow to see that he is going down the same path as Kurtz. He knows that he needs to not be fully corrupted by his surroundings. Marlow understands that he is a white man, he is powerless in trying to do anything about the racism and imperialism that is taking place, and he regrets taking this voyage/mission (Ulhaq). The best example from Heart of Darkness that exemplifies gothic is during Kurtz’s death scene, when right before his last breath he speaks, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 112). It’s the best example because it makes a reader have to take in to consideration certain elements of Kurtz’s life in the Congo and the fact that the reader might have to read between the lines to understand what it truly means. That is synonymous for Kurtz because the realization of the horrifying absolute truth of his life was bitter and it came to be known as he saw it flash before his eyes when the life was leaving his body. To go more in depth, “the horror could be the exploitation of Africa, evil practices of humans, his crumbling sanity, or an illusion of understanding and hope. Simply, it conveys what the West did during colonization in the name of progress, and under the guise of civilizing the natives” (“The Horror!”).
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Gothic novels have been around since the 18th and 19th centuries, but they are becoming more recognizable nowadays. They are novels that feature key themes like mystery and horror/supernatural, along with an occasional romance. British Literature 2 showcased two novels that had gothic elements: Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Frankenstein is a gothic novel through and through. Heart of Darkness touches on different elements to gothic novels, but it is not as noticeable as Frankenstein is.
- Agnes, Alaina, and Archie. “Key Gothic Themes & Elements From Frankenstein, Dr Faustus and The Bloody Chamber.” Ask Will Online, 28 July 2017, www.askwillonline.com/2013/04/key-gothic-themes-elements-from.html.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness.
- “Frankenstein Castle.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein_Castle#Alchemist_Dippel,_Mary_Shelley_and_the_monster.
- “Frankenstein.” What Is Anatomy and Physiology?, www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/f/frankenstein/critical-essays/frankenstein-as-a-gothic-novel.
- “Frankenstein: Graveyards, Scientific Experiments and Bodysnatchers.” The British Library, The British Library, 8 Oct. 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/frankenstein-graveyards-scientific-experiments-and-bodysnatchers.
- “How Is Frankenstein a Gothic Novel?” Enotes.com, Enotes.com, www.enotes.com/homework-help/examine-frankenstein-gothic-novel-74027.
- “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Villa Diodati.” The British Library, The British Library, 19 Feb. 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/mary-shelley-frankenstein-and-the-villa-diodati.
- Miller, E. Ce. “15 Surprising Facts That Prove Mary Shelley Was The Queen Of Goth.” Bustle, Bustle, 13 Nov. 2018, www.bustle.com/p/frankenstein-author-mary-shelley-was-goth-before-it-was-cool-these-15-surprising-facts-prove-it-2918285.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein.
- “The Horror! The Horror! – Meaning and Usage.” Literary Devices, Literary Devices, 10 Sept. 2017, literarydevices.net/the-horror-the-horror/.
- “The Imperial Gothic.” The British Library, The British Library, 26 Mar. 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-imperial-gothic.
- Ulhaq, Rhifa Nadya. “Colonialization through Gothic Elements in Heart of Darkness.” Welcome Fellas, 5 Dec. 2017, nadiasong.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/colonialization-through-gothic-elements-in-heart-of-darkness/.
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