Retreating Towards, and Away From, Outer Darkness: An Overview of the Gothic and Sublime in Frankenstein
If one were to seek through some of the watershed works of fiction of the centuries since the Renaissance for a depiction or evocation of the Gothic and the Sublime, then one would not go wrong to glean through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel which helped to define modern horror fiction for future generations. Two of the most pre-eminent, perceivably-Gothic elements of Frankenstein are the sensations of personal – and interpersonal – retreat and isolation which accompany the leading characters throughout the story. Frankenstein makes use of picturesque imagery to describe the natural world, using it as the backdrop to a fantastical, but innately-human drama of fear, isolation and destructive inevitabilities.
Both Frankenstein and the humanoid monster which he partially constructed from portions of dead bodies spent much of the story fleeing or attempting to escape from their problems or crises. Frankenstein sough to retreat from the death of a loved one, eventually finding himself mired in the creation of a living creature before he realized that taking care of a “monster” was not something that he desired or intended. The monster, who was left to fend for itself, found itself hard-pressed, but unable, to interact for long with human society, and was forced to retreat from the outer periphery of society in which he was permanently confined. However, their paths repeatedly crossed, and every rejection which was visited by Frankenstein upon the monster was returned with a spiteful, proxy gesture against his loved ones.
The primary result of this shared, parallel predilection toward lifelong retreat is sorrow over continuously-dashed self-interests. Frankenstein travels to England with his childhood friend Clerval in order to seek some respite from his troubles before pursuing his ultimately-aborted task, only for Clerval to be murdered. He seeks to be married by his beloved Elizabeth, only for his wife to be brutally murdered by the monster. From the monster’s perspective, it has also endured numerous violent rejections by humans frightened by its visage in spite of its pleadings for humanization and integration into society as well as its rescue of a little girl from drowning. The normalcy and self-esteem which both seek seems to flee from their grasps at every possible chance.
Another result of this sense of continuous retreat is the increasing mental instability which sets the two characters up for spectacular loss. Frankenstein is repeatedly driven away from the possibility of normalcy by both the persistent pursuit by his creation as well as the raw anger over the deaths of his loved ones, but is also mentally driven away from the idea of long life with them and towards the zealous need to protect them from the monster’s clutches. The monster, who repeatedly demands for Frankenstein to fulfill his obligations as creator and is continuously drawn to Frankenstein in an unrequited love, is eventually drawn to the idea of killing Frankenstein’s loved ones as a matter of revenge for his spiteful abandonment. This climaxes in Frankenstein’s crazed pursuit of the monster to the Arctic, a snowy desert of ice which can hardly spare habitation to most human beings.
Finally, two of the most important contributors to the sense of the Gothic in Frankenstein is the ignorance by those who are not “in the know” of what is proceeding in the lives of both Frankenstein and the monster. Frankenstein, as a member of a respected Swiss family, is hardly suspected by members of his family or the general public of being the sort of person who would create such a “monstrosity”, and he allows such a myth to persist, intentionally for his protection, but ultimately contributing to his ruin because of his retreat from society. The life of the monster is by no means held to the same regard, as it is not considered a human being or worth the same life as that of a human being; indeed, as Levine writes, “the monster’s isolation derives not so much from his actions as from his hideousness” (Levine 1979). The non-understanding of the situation by the public is present throughout the novel, and only contributes to the sensation of inner and external isolation on the edge of existence.
This retreat from sanity, from “normalcy”, into the outer darkness or periphery of human existence is a classic Gothic element in modern horror fiction. According to Saliba, “the setting of the gothic story is at some point within impenetrable walls (physical or psychological) to heighten the victim’s sense of hopeless isolation (Saliba 1980).” Such walls, taking the form of the violent misunderstanding of the human public toward the monster, certainly prohibit the monster from reintegrating into human society or ascertaining friendship of any sort, and such walls prohibit Frankenstein, as the creator of the monster, from living in comfort and mental clarity with his family.
The horror which Frankenstein felt in his growing isolation from the world of the living also grew throughout the novel with his retreat from “normalcy”, perhaps looming even larger than Frankenstein’s own more-recognizable horror over the creation of, and his own hatred for, the “daemon” which pursued him relentlessly. This fear of isolation and loneliness, emotions which more readily plagued the monster, also constitutes much of the more sublime qualities of the story; both are eventually engulfed by this sensation of horror at where their lives have led them and lose whatever chance that they may have had at attaining self-worth. This is symbolized best by the two main characters’ flight to the Arctic, the edge of European-explored or inhabited existence whereby Frankenstein tries, in vain, to face his “daemon” for a fight to the death; instead, he meets his sickly and tormented demise on a stranded, ice-logged ship of would-be explorers, and Frankenstein’s monster makes a resolution to end his own life at a place where no humans may find him.
That same horror resulting from growing isolation also intersects with the sublime beauty of sparsely-inhabited environments. The woods which are traversed by the monster away from the most prying of human eyes allow it to perceive and overhear the goings-on of the least of European humanity from a distance. The mountains of the Alps which Frankenstein traverse evoke his growing inner disconcert with his role as creator of a monster. The traversing by the two main characters of the Arctic, a barely-settled ice desert region of the world, reflects the distance away from human society which they had traversed over time: how Frankenstein had been whittled down by fate to a shadow of his former self who only sought to kill his creation, and how the monster had been reduced from an initial attempt at restoration of humanity from the sting of death to a purveyor of death upon living beings.
This intersection of the Gothic element of retreat and isolation with the sublime, harsh beauty of sparsely-inhabited environments such as the forest, mountains or tundra makes for the strengthening of the narrative. It also reflects, in the words of Mishra, “the compulsion toward our own ends (in death) (Mishra 1994)” which characterizes much of the novel: a man and a work of his design ultimately clashing for no other reason than sheer gut instinct and revolt, ultimately wearing each other and each other’s senses of humanity down to nothing, ultimately destroying themselves after all other alternatives and diversions have been ignored, dismissed, exhausted and abandoned in the world of the “truly”-human. Frankenstein, as a novel, is testament to this fusion of the Gothically-tinged human drama with the stark beauty of the natural world’s wonders.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Levine, George. “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein.” Levine and Knoepflmacher (1979): 3–30.
Mishra, Vijay. The Gothic Sublime. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. pp. 255-256.
Saliba, David R. A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe. Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980, pp. 27-28.