Up until 1800, literature in general consisted of a spontaneous expression of idyllic images of love – ultimately categorised as “The Romantic Movement.” From this sprouted Romanticism’s antithesis – literary Gothicism.
When it was first introduced in the late 18th century, Gothic literature featured accounts of terrifying experiences set in graveyards or ancient castles, and descriptive motifs such as flickering lamps and ghostly figures. These have now become images of stereotypical horror. As it developed, Gothic literature came to designate everything to do with the macabre, mysterious and supernatural in literature more generally.
Now one of the most recognisable forms of literature, Gothicism gained its popularity due to the stark contrast from anything that preceded it, and the surrounding controversy that shocked and intrigued its audiences. New scientific discovery swept across 18th century civilization, and the need for knowledge had overcome society. To the less educated, Gothic literature, (with its strong themes of science,) was seen as a way to further understand and involve themselves within these interesting developments, while the experienced scientist would be curious of the science mentioned in Gothicism.
Another major theme that Gothicism claimed was religion. The society of mid 1800 looked upon God as an omnipotent figure; he was powerful, judgmental and supreme. However, many opposing and previously untouched views on God were infused in the theme of Gothic literature.
Even today, the difference between science and religion is a topic of great controversy, and entwining these two conflicting subjects within one novel had groundbreaking effects on 18th century society.
Out of the many stories and poems spawned from this new and exciting literary genre, the piece that most distinguished – and later became a symbol – of Gothicism is the novel “Frankenstein”. The author, Mary Shelley, incorporates many of the above-mentioned elements as well as other subtler Gothic conventions in this gruesome but poignant story, making her and her novel the instigators of this whole literary period.
Part of Shelley’s talent could perhaps have derived from her own dark background. Left alone in the world after her mother’s death, and cast out of society by her father, her childhood replicates a sombre fairytale. Mary’s later life was so surrounded by death and turmoil that she became consumed in her own dark imagination. Needing a way to vent her troubled thoughts, “Frankenstein” became a nightmarish reflection of her own turbulent life, and the monster her own misery in flesh. Her own life being a soap opera of marriage, birth and death, topics of love, death, obsession and concluding insanity are prevalent throughout the novel. Chapters 4 and 5 are particularly strong in these subjects.
The first of these two chapters sees Frankenstein becoming more involved in studies at the university, with the aid of Waldman, his newly discovered friend. Without one visit to his family in two years, his experiments at the university take possession of his life, so much so that he begins to venture further into new, and more controversial fields of study. This chapter exemplifies Gothicism’s strong themes of death and decay, as Frankenstein’s surroundings change from a loving home to a charnel house, and he is no longer deterred by darkness or superstition. His excitement at the thought of bringing a lifeless corpse into the world greatly disturbs the reader, preparing him for the climax that follows.
Frankenstein’s realization that his actions were deeply immoral is shown in chapter 5. However, it is too late to change his ways, leaving Frankenstein to lament that the charm of a cherished dream vanished as he beheld the “horrid” sight of the creature. The theme of unpalatable ugliness is introduced in this paragraph, as Frankenst
A powerful and striking sense of Dr Frankenstein’s obsession is clearly communicated in Chapter 4. The immediate reference to his project as his “sole occupation” clearly shows his infatuation with it. The constant mention of Elizabeth and his love for her that were present in previous chapters are now replaced by frenzied rants about science and progress. As the chapter unfolds, the macabre and sinister aspect of the novel begins to emerge. Issues of life – and more importantly death – become more frequently raised, for example in the third paragraph Frankenstein talks about his project;
“To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.”
“I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body.”
The language used in such references to mortality become more brutal, and further on in the chapter, Shelley fully introduces the theme of Gothicism by including the mention of “darkness” and “supernatural horrors”. She pulls the reader fully into the dark theme, setting Frankenstein’s surroundings by describing it as a “dissecting room” and referring to his home as a “slaughterhouse”. From this, it becomes apparent that Dr Frankenstein is slowly being submerged in a world of unhallowed darkness and torment – the encapsulation of Gothicism itself.
After this “introduction”, Shelley ventures deeper into the Gothic theme in chapter 5. Opening with an overriding sense of desolation and despondency, pathetic fallacy is a key literary technique used to conjure both mood and atmosphere. The first line “It was on a dreary night of November” gives a bleak, hopeless aura, which is further reinforced by the melancholy imagery of the rain:
“The rain pattered dismally against the panes…”
While Shelley assigns the desolate weather to Frankenstein’s own despondent sense of mind, (which is described using words like “anxiety” and “agony”,) she uses light to symbolise the morsel of hope also recurrent throughout the pain-stricken story, for example, “…by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light….” The inclusion of such light-related phrases is used in situations where Doctor Frankenstein has regained his hope after a loss. In this case, Frankenstein’s monster begins to move after he had given up all hope of the success of his project.
The theme of Gothicism is further intensified in paragraph 2.A stark contrast between beauty and ugliness is emphasized, with the description of the monsters features: “his hair was a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness” clashing with uncompromising imagery of its form: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath”. Perhaps in reality the creature was beautiful, but Frankenstein looked upon his decision to create it as unpalatable?
As the chapter progresses, another poignant topic is introduced – that of aberrant ungodliness. Unholy, and almost satanic aspects are covered with references to the monster as a “demonical corpse” and “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived”. This coupled with the lurid and revolting description of the monster’s form creates a disturbing concoction.
Previously dismissing his unnatural obsession by declaring, “Remember, I am not recording the visions of a madman…”, punctuation and fragmented sentences now signify a note of hysteria, for example “Beautiful, Great God!”. Other techniques are used to further emphasize this image of lunacy; for example that of insomnia. Frankenstein is “unable to compose his mind to sleep”, and then in broken sleep he is “disturbed by the wildest dreams”. Shelley paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man walking the streets in the night, his face plagued with dejection and fear. This, and the mention of his fragmented and melodramatic outcries to Clerval, (“Oh, save me! Save me!”), creates a stereotypical image of insanity.
At the realisation that his project and his morals were dissolute, and his eventual insanity, Frankenstein – and the reader – becomes fully immersed in the twisted macabre and supernatural horror of the Gothic novel. It dares to shock its audience with taboo subjects, leaving them with the enduring feeling that they have been awoken to a darker side of life. “Frankenstein”, along with the rest of the gothic genre, shattered the tight-knit and perhaps naive society of the 18th century, causing some to shun it out of their lives, but in many others it provoked the hidden fascination with all things to do with the macabre, sinister side to life. As in 1800, this effect is still prevalent in our modern, less bigoted society, and today many elements of Gothicism are featured in stories, and interlaced within the plots of horror films throughout the world.