Horror Fiction 101: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Foreword

Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.


Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:


Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley


Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, who was a journalist and a political philosopher. She was brought up surrounded by highly educated men and women. She married the poet Percy B. Shelley and was friends with Lord Byron, and it was on one of their trips where her masterpiece was born. It was a stormy summer night when Lord Byron suggested a contest between his guests to see who could write the most terrifying story. Neither Percy B. Shelley nor Lord Byron finished their stories, but John Polidori, Byron’s physician, wrote The Vampyre, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the masterpiece that became one of the most famous horror stories of all time, as well as the first science-fiction novel ever written.

Boris Karloff from "The Bride of Frankenstein" as Frankenstein's monster.

Frankenstein is a novel that offers many elements to comment on and many possible interpretations, from a feminist analysis of the text to a Marxist one. Furthermore, the culturally rich environment that always surrounded Mary Shelley provided her writing with a considerable amount of intertextuality. However, from a Gothic and Horror Fiction perspective, there are a few motifs that present themselves as particularly interesting: a god or a supernatural force that delivers punishment and judgement, and the sublime.


The concept of a higher power that judges and punishes evil is a constant in Gothic fiction. It is very clear in The Castle of Otranto, where the castle rebels against his usurper, as well as in the controversial novel The Monk by M. G. Lewis, where those who fell to temptation are severely punished. In Frankenstein, this concept is first brought up with its very title: Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan in charge of creating human beings and therefore acted as their father and protector. In an attempt to improve their living conditions, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans. Zeus responded by punishing the humans with Pandora’s Box and sentenced the titan to be chained to a rock for an eagle to eat his liver for all eternity. The connection between Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein lies in several aspects as they both created life, defied a god, and were punished for it; however, there are few key deviations in Victor’s case.

Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, by Dirck van Baburen.

The reasoning behind Victor Frankenstein’s wish to create life falls under two main aspects: his pursuit of scientific glory and his rejection of domesticity. In the scene where the Monster comes to life, Victor’s selfish and egotistical motivation becomes apparent. In a true Gothic manner, “It was on a dreary night of November […], it was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes” (Shelley, 1831, p. 45) when the creature first opened its eyes. At the mere sight of it, horror and disgust filled Victor, who could only think of running away of the monstrosity he had created. He shows shock and confusion because “his limbs were in proportion, and [he] had selected his features as beautiful” (Shelley, 1831, p. 45); but as Antonio Ballesteros argues in Narciso y el doble en la literatura fantástica victoriana, it does not matter if every element is beautiful, if once it is together the whole does not work. While Prometheus acted as a father and protector of the humans, Victor abandoned his creation at the mere sight of it. Therefore, he failed as a father.


Furthermore, not only are Victor’s actions a sin in Catholic eyes, since only God can be the giver of life, but they are also a crime against nature: he created life without a female body. By eliminating the female part in the creation of life, he has condemned himself and everyone that surrounds him. Later in the novel, the Monster asks for a female companion and the doctor reluctantly agrees, but Victor changes his mind last minute and destroys the female monster. Without knowing, Victor has doomed his fiancé to death because the Monster, enraged by the loss of a possible partner, murders her. This becomes the basis for many feminist readings of the novel, Mary Shelley implies that creating life without women comes with devastating consequences; a world without women is therefore condemned. However, it can also be interpreted as an instance where Victor’s rejection of domesticity is shown. Since Victor started his studies at university, he has never visited his family. He seems to wish to cut ties with them and focus on his science. This is a premonitory element since the Monster kills all those close to him. In the same manner, Victor kills the female monster and, in return, the Monster kills Victor's female companion: his fiancé.

Victor Frankenstein in his lab (Frankenstein, 1931).

Regarding the sublime and how it is manifested in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s perspective deviates from the concept introduced by Edmund Burke. He defined the sublime as "the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1757), meaning that only through very intense and extreme emotions one can transcend to the sublime. Gothic fiction, like The Castle of Otranto, combined feelings of intense fear and amazement to drive the reader (and the characters in the stories) to the sublime. Dark corners, gruesome deaths, or ghost apparitions are the most common elements used by a Gothic writer for such purpose. However, Mary Shelley's approach comes from addressing a key element in Romanticism: nature. For the Romantics, nature is sublime since it stimulates the imagination and enables them to transcend everyday life. However, Shelley considered “that the sublime is little more than a culturally (or perhaps intellectually) constructed way of looking at the world” (Smith, 2007, p. 42-43). This is clear when Victor first encounters the creature after abandoning him. After the death of his brother William, killed by the creature, Victor seeks to lighten his grief by travelling to the Alps and seeking the sublime in nature. However, as Smith explains in Gothic Literature, that scene is an obvious example of Victor's egotism; he uses the imagination to construct an idea of the nature surrounding him so that he is at the centre of it: “They congregated around me; the unstained snowy mountain-top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine, the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds – they all gathered round me and bade me be at peace” (Shelley, 1831, p. 75).


Shelley argues that nature can be considered as sublime, but that perception is culturally tainted. This scene with Victor shows the reader very little about the landscape itself, but reveals a great deal about him. She goes one step farther by questioning Burke’s concept of the sublime through terror. As explained in Horror Fiction 101: The Castle of Otranto, Burke believed that extreme feelings of thrill and fear would help transcend to the sublime. However, Frankenstein argues that the creature should be judged by his speech, but if one follows Burke’s concept of the sublime through terror, that judgement is tainted by the creature’s appearance. Shelley suggests that the sublime is a subjective concept which depends on the one who sees since sight plays a key role in transcending to the sublime. For the creature, sight drives the rest of the characters in the novel to consider him as just a terrifying monster and nothing more.

Colin Clive (left) and Boris Karloff (right) in Frankenstein (1931).

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus started as a game but quickly became a masterpiece of world literature. Its intricate structure allows critics to analyse the text from a myriad of perspectives keeping the novel a constant in literature studies. From a Gothic perspective, Shelley applies many of the genre’s main elements in such a manner that it challenges the reader to question the way they have been previously used by other authors. Victor's pursuit of scientific glory is severely punished, as it often happens in many Gothic novels, but Mary Shelley constructs the story in such a manner that new interpretations can be found in every new reading of the novel. She also offers a very particular perspective for the sublime, a key concept in Gothic stories, and questions its very nature. There is no wondering why such a novel has become a basic text for Horror Fiction and a constant in pop culture centuries after its publication.



References:

  • Ballesteros, A. (1998). Narciso y el doble en la literatura fantástica victoriana. Colección Monografías. Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha.

  • Burke, E. (1757). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm#A_PHILOSOPHICAL_INQUIRY

  • Shelley, M. (1831). Frankenstein. Wordsworth Editions Limited. Hertfordshire.

  • Smith, A. (2007). Gothic Literature. Edinburgh University Press Ltd. George Square, Edinburgh.


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Isabel Panadero

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