A classic gothic novel emphasises fear and terror. It has the presence of the supernatural, the placements of events within a distant time and an unfamiliar and mysterious setting. Romantic writer Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein conforms to these conventional ‘classic’ Gothic traits as well as to the modern conceptions of what is considered as Gothic. Shelley’s Frankenstein is host to a range of significant gothic elements, evident through Victor’s creation of the gigantic creature, the dark setting of the novel, set in places of gloom and horror, and the disempowered portrayal of females, in which women are threatened by the tyranny of males and are often in distress. Omens and visions are also evident in the novel, further enhancing the Gothicism found in the novel. Frankenstein is defined as a Gothic novel through the many Gothic aspects it features. The connections, and relevance it has to today’s modern society and the lessons that can be learned from it, is what classifies it as being classic.
Shelley uses the supernatural elements of raising the dead to frighten her readers. Through the eyes of Victor the monster is repulsive and altogether unnatural, shocking the reader out of reality, “I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing toward me with superhuman speed.” At a time of great scientific advancement this would have been a topical story that pushed the boundaries, presenting readers with a truly shocking idea removed from reality, but remotely possible. Not only is this topic unknown and mysterious, it is presented in such a frightening way that terror consumes the reader. Victor’s decision to stop making a female monster is driven by fear that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” and this is the very feeling that has already been sparked in the reader during the creation of the first monster.
It could be argued that the “gothic novel is primarily concerned with producing a physiological reaction, a story that chills the spine and curdles the blood”. Victor himself experiences this bodily reaction induced by fear – “Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery.” In this respect, Shelley’s novel clearly meets the criteria of the gothic traditions. These traditions are enhanced by the feeling of suspense that runs through Frankenstein, particularly from the moment the monster threatens Victor with the words, “I will be with you on your wedding-night,” a phrase that remains with the reader through the novel from the moment it is spoken.
Furthermore, nature in the gothic novel is presented as sublime. This is evident in Victor’s journey to the mountains to revive his spirits and the monster’s joy when spring arrives. Nature is often used combined with darkness to construct a feeling of foreboding or evil. This is the case as Victor creates the monster, an attempt that forces him to avoid daylight and lead a solitary life, “the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.” As the novel progresses we would not expect life to be “injected” into the monster on any other night but a “dreary night in November.”
Evidently, through multiple narratives, Shelley forces us to question our sympathy. We are told the story of Frankenstein through Walton, who in turn tells the story of the monster. However, it is not until halfway through the novel that we are subject to the monster’s narrative and by this time we have already been influenced by Victor’s biased account of events. Consequently, we become aware of the complex nature of truth and the power of our own subjectivity. The supernatural becomes closer to natural than we may have first imagined. Although we are terrorised in true gothic manner, we are simultaneously forced to question the source of this terror. However a realist understanding of supernatural events can be identified in the reaction of the magistrate as Victor explains his story to, “He had heard my story with that half kind of belief that is given to a tale of spirits and supernatural events.”
Fundamentally, in the case of Justine and Elizabeth, both women conform to the Gothic aspects of women being in distress. As the result of Justine being wrongly accused of the murder of William, her existence is threatened as she faces death if found guilty. Justine is eventually executed ultimately because of Victor’s selfishness. He created the creature, left it to do what it did and couldn’t come in Justine’s defence when she was on trial. The trial not only caused distress to Justine, but to Elizabeth also. Both women experienced emotional distress, with Elizabeth also pleading in tears to the judges. The act of creating the creature and Victor’s inability to realise the vulnerability of others around him from the creature’s attack also resulted in the violent death of Elizabeth on her wedding night.
Nonetheless the act of creating the creature and the ideas behind it is in itself Gothic. In the pursuit of creating life, Victor was “animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm” to observe the “corruption of the human body” and examining the nature of death. He worked with objects that are viewed as revolting and spent days and nights in churchyards, charnel houses and vaults, collecting remains of dead bodies, in places of dark and ghostly atmosphere, emphasising the fear and terror held within society of the time, ultimately labelling Shelley’s text as a Gothic novel.