The term Gothic refers to a genre that came about in the late eighteenth century. It can be a type of story, clothing, or music nowadays. In this paper it will refer to a style of literature. A very good example of this type of literature is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the whole novel, which is one of the basic necessities of the Gothic. This theme of the Gothic has different characteristics that all fit into the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster and make this one of the first horror stories every told.
The very first characteristic of a Gothic novel is its sinister setting. The opening sentence in Frankenstein sets the mood for the rest of the book. Shelley begins her novel with, “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings” (p. 13). At this point in the novel, Walton is on a ship in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, on his way to the North Pole. He is being blocked from all sides by ice, and can see nothing but ice for miles. The landscape is barren, and all of his crew is in fear of running out of food and fresh water.
This setting is very sinister in lieu of the imminent death that is facing the crew members. When the scene switches to the life of Victor Frankenstein, the reader finds out that everything is wonderful throughout his childhood. Later, when he goes away to college in pursuit of knowledge about alchemy and other sciences, everything gets darker and darker. When construction of the creature begins, Victor describes his workshop as “a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase.
This is where [he] kept [his] workshop of filthy creation” (p. 53). He goes on to describe the “dissecting room” and “slaughter-house” that provided his material (p. 53). This, too, adds to the sinister setting and evil undertones of the novel. The setting also serves the purpose of reflecting the feelings of the characters in the novel. Whenever Frankenstein is upset or someone is going to jail, it is raining. A Gothic novel would not be complete without a lot of rain.
For example, after Victor sees the monster for the first time, he says, “[I] felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky” (p. 58). While flipping through the novel, the reader can be certain of catching a glimpse of the words rain, dark, horror, and tears. The second characteristic of the Gothic theme is the fascination with the unconscious and abnormal psychology. This includes things such as secrets and crime, both of which share the spotlight in Frankenstein.
The main secret in the novel is the existence of the monster, which ultimately leads to the demise of all of Victor’s loved ones. For example, if he had told Elizabeth about the threat made by the monster for their wedding night, she might not have been killed. When Victor finally tells his secret to Walton, it is as if some of the burden has been lifted and he dies soon after. Even Walton is “searching for the secrets of the pole” (Parkin-Gounelas, 216) One of the ways the theme of the unconscious is depicted is the insanity that Victor finds himself stuck in.
After the death of Clerval, he is locked up for some time. He doesn’t remember much of the time that he was in his cell, but he says, “I lay for two months on the point of death: my ravings, as I afterwards heard were frightful; I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval” (p. 171). He goes on in great description about the insanity and terror that he felt. The crime aspect of this characteristic can also be seen through the above quotation. The creature kills four people to get back at Victor, and, in the end, kills himself and his creator.
Victor also committed a crime when he created the monster. He didn’t think about how humanity or the creature would be affected by his evil science. The third characteristic is the atmosphere of evil and horror. This is the most obvious of all the themes present in the novel. The reader gets a good sense of how scared Victor really is of the monster. He’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed, and to top it all off, the creature travels at night. The description of the creature’s “dead eyes” is mentioned many times to emphasize the frightening appearance of the monster.
His entire appearance adds to the horror as Frankenstein describes him: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these… formed a… contrast with his watery eyes” (p. 56). Victor’s fear of the monster is reminiscent of “The Tell Tale Heart”, a story by one of the most distinguished Gothic writers of all time, Edgar Allen Poe. When the creature tells Frankenstein, “I will be with you on your wedding night'”(p. 3), Victor hears it repeating over and over in his head.
In “The Tell Tale Heart,” the main character hears the beating of the heart of a man that he killed and buried in the floor. The repetition of the threat uttered by the monster is much like the heartbeat in that it drives them both quite insane. Victor feels a sense of guilt about creating this hideous being that roams the earth to kill much like the killer in Poe’s story feels guilty about killing the old man. The fourth characteristic of the Gothic is the dramatic events that take place.
These events are often improbable. The creation of the monster is the main supernatural event that takes place. He is made of body parts sewn together and somehow brought to life. His form is gigantic and he is resistant to the elements and to hunger. Parkin-Gounelas states that “the supernatural or marvelous’ aspect is what we remember of the monster, not his rational Enlightenment virtues” (p. 217). She goes on to say that most of the way we perceive him “has to do with his size, which renders him supernatural in spite of his all-too-human parts” (p. 217).
One of the reasons he is so frightening is fact that he’s made out of human parts like everyone else, but his parts are so distorted that he looks hideous. The final characteristic of the Gothic theme in Frankenstein is the air of death and decay throughout the novel. Once again, the monster is the main example of this characteristic. He is built from dead body parts that have been sewn together by Victor to create new life. Victor even becomes a sort of body snatcher to get the parts he needs. The fact that the monster kills people throughout the second half of the novel is proof of the death in this book.
Everyone that has ever been close to Frankenstein ends up dying and even Walton is in danger of being killed if he stays out to sea too long. Death, darkness, rain, and horror are all needed to make a good Gothic novel. Not only did Mary Shelly include all these things, she added a few to make the story even more interesting. Her novel meets all the characteristics for a work of Gothic fiction. As Malamund mentions, “Shelley’s monster [is] at home amid the Gothic, and [is] able to march forward–undaunted by the landscape of terror” (p. 45).