The term “setting” can be used for a variety of situations. In order to answer the above question, we must look for geographical locations and the buildings and environments within those locations. We must also look to both the time in history these events took place, so we can ascertain any historical relevance, and also what time of day events are taking place (for example, the brightness of day or the gloom of night). Gothic and realist novels use all of these different forms of setting to accentuate the mood they wish to convey, according to the rules often applied to each genre.
Frankenstein contains a veritable feast of fascinating destinations, taking us on a journey around Europe. There are a plethora of places visited, from beautiful Geneva, Italy and Ingolstadt to the bleakness of the Orkneys, Ireland and the Arctic. Frank Darabont (Screenwriter and Director) makes the point that for contemporary readers of Frankenstein, the “novel was the only way people could go on tours of the world” (TV1, A210, The OU). This would have added to the reader’s sense of amazement during each fantastical event.
These different geographical locations also facilitate the Gothic genre of a story within a story (the monster’s tale, within Frankenstein’s tale, which is within Walton’s tale), as we are taken on a journey through their narratives. Shelley uses a variety of locations within these geographical areas, from courtrooms (a place of suffering in both Frankenstein and Great Expectations) and laboratories to desolate icy terrains and various homes (grand and ramshackle). Nearly all of these places have a sense of horror or impending doom. These settings can also impact on the story, causing difficulties for the characters.
For example, Shelley facilitates icy landscapes for the demise of creator and creature at the conclusion. In this Gothic novel, very rarely are we given a pleasant setting we can enjoy, without any foreboding sense of what is to come. Many of the important events in Frankenstein are nocturnal (for example, the birth of the monster). These gloomy nights are the perfect setting for the Gothic overtones required. Time passes quickly in Frankenstein, which allows the story to progress and the monster to evolve. We are given a Gothic genre scene, within a realist framework, with the marriage and subsequent murder of Elizabeth.
We witness Frankenstein’s last moments of happiness and we can relate to the bride and groom enjoying the magnificent scenery of Mont Sali??ve and Mont Blanc. However, there is an undercurrent of unrest as the “mighty Jura opposing its dark side” as an “almost insurmountable barrier to the invader who should wish to enslave it” (Frankenstein, p. 163). This not only provokes an ominous foreboding of the fatal act to occur (a Gothic setting), but also reminds Shelley’s contemporary reader of the French Republican General’s invasion (realist genre).
The Gothic tone continues as phrases like “execution of… enaces”, “dreadful, very dreadful”, “shrill and dreadful scream” and “agony of despair” (Frankenstein, p. 163-166) pervade the text. We wait in anxious anticipation, as Shelley uses her Gothic setting to build tension, as we literally see the calm before the storm. Elizabeth declares “how happy and serene all nature appears! ” (Frankenstein, p. 163), yet we see the wind rising “with great violence” and a “heavy storm… descending” (Frankenstein, p. 164), as the backdrop echoes the approaching tragedy.
If we are to follow Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick’s Gothic rules (The Realist Novel, p. 3), this particular part of Frankenstein contains evidence of many of those rules. The wild landscape is of course in plain view. We are given a trembling heroine in Elizabeth, who observes in “timid and fearful silence” (Frankenstein, p. 165). The monster is seen as the “tyrannical older man”, as he fiendishly jeers at the bereaved Frankenstein, in Shelley’s Gothic and terrifying setting, heightened by the “pale yellow… moon” (Frankenstein, p. 166), which illuminates the sinister creature. We are also given the suggestion of incest, as we witness the marriage of two cousins, who were brought up as brother and sister.
The idea of “doubles” is also explored, as Frankenstein looks into the face of the monster, it is almost as if he is looking into a mirror, seeing the reflection of his own fiendish characteristics within the monster. The “poisonous effects of guilt” (The Realist Novel, p. 63) can also be witnessed, as Frankenstein is consumed with guilt; the horror of the people at the inn becomes just a “mockery” to Frankenstein, as their horror is a mere “shadow of the feelings that oppressed” him (Frankenstein, p. 165). Shelley uses the inn scene to bring back a small sense of normality, making the contrasting horror of events intensify.
Finally, the magistrate can barely believe Frankenstein’s account of events and listens with a “belief that is given to a tale of spirits and supernatural events”, yet another of Sedgewick’s rules. Shelley commences the above episode with a realist setting, with vast descriptions of the beautiful surroundings. We hear a conversation between two lovers and are drawn into their love story, partly through the fearful anticipation of impending events. These characters are realistic because we can relate to two people in love, but who are sidetracked by fear.
The passage then descends into more Gothic scenes, with Elizabeth’s murder. The setting is nocturnal and the darkness and the moon (which illuminates the watching and mocking monster) add to the Gothic effect. The realism then returns, but with an ironic twist; Frankenstein sees again the same landscape as before, but this time it is with horror that he looks about him as “nothing could appear to me as it had done the day before” (Frankenstein, p. 167). However much we may dislike Frankenstein, we can relate to his acute pain. Great Expectations is another realist novel, which also has various Gothic overtones.
As it was set in the early part of the nineteenth century, the first readers of the novel would see the scenes and events of a much more unsophisticated time and would compare it with the advances of their own time. It has a much more realistic setting than Frankenstein, as there is no foreign travel (other than as reported by others, for example the penal colonies). Contemporary readers would mainly only travel small distances within their own country and would relate to Pip’s awe as he is “scared by the immensity of London” (Great Expectations, p. 61).
This is a realist novel in motion, as Dickens uses a rich variety of locations within England, both rural and urban. He takes us to Gothic areas of fear (courtrooms, graveyards, jails) and also to various houses (both rich and poor), theatres and inns; all places that contemporary readers could relate to. Like Frankenstein, Dickens’ story is spread over many years. Its use of a linear timescale is part of the realism genre and allows us to witness Pip’s moral journey from childhood to adulthood.
He uses a variety of time periods, both day and night, to convey the mood he requires. He also uses a Christmas setting, normally a time of happiness, to convey the miserable nature of Pip’s childhood. Dickens went into intense realistic detail with his settings, for example, even drawing up exact tide tables, to confirm the accuracy of his narrative. An example of Dickens employing both Gothic and realist atmospheres, working together beautifully, is the scene in Volume III, Chapter X, when Pip rescues Miss Havisham from the fire.
As Pip walks outside before this actual event, it is a typically Gothic setting of a “wilderness” where everything is “rotting”, “rusty” and “ruined” (Great Expectations, p. 396). As Pip walks around (Dickens using the repetition of “round” to convey that it is not only a walk around the “ruined garden” but also a walk around his childhood memories), we feel the Gothic overtones creeping in as he declares it “so cold, so lonely, so dreary” (Great Expectations, p. 396). This is also a realistic passage, as we can empathise with Pip’s isolation, his shattered dreams and recollections of childhood pain.
Satis House has indeed had a profound effect on the events in his life and we sense that intensity; Dickens has created a location of great importance. The accumulation of detail encourages us to lose ourselves in the novel, forgetting that it is a fictitious piece. Pip then revisits his childhood illusion of Miss Havisham hanging from a beam and the “great terror of this illusion” coupled with “the mournfulness of the place and time” (Great Expectations, p. 396) exemplify a Gothic scenario.
We are then thrust into a Gothic and melodramatic episode of Miss Havisham set ablaze and running at Pip, “shrieking, with a whirl of fire blazing all about her” (Great Expectations, p. 397). The description of Pip putting out the fire is full of violent metaphors as they “struggled like desperate enemies” and he holds her “forcibly down… like a prisoner who might escape” (Great Expectations, p. 397). This is indeed a much darker episode, characterised by the rather disturbing image of the “disturbed beetles and spiders running away over the floor” (Great Expectations, p. 97).
As Dickens uses recurring phrases and echoes such as the repetition of “patches of tinder” which are “alight ” and “floating” (Great Expectations, p. 397 and p. 398), time almost seems to be in slow motion. We are also given a stark contrast to the beautiful bride of Elizabeth, with this rather terrifying woman being thoroughly burned, but still retaining “her old ghastly bridal appearance” (Great Expectations, p. 398).
We can see therefore that a Gothic setting often incorporates darker and more sinister techniques, with scenes often taking place after dark or by moonlight. The setting is often rather fantastical with supernatural overtones. A realist novel would more usually incorporate surroundings that the contemporary reader would have been familiar with and could relate to. Shelley and Dickens have successfully used these techniques, on differing scales, to achieve moments of immense tension, effectively drawing their readers into their story.