Frankenstein and the Gothic Tradition

7 years, 4 months ago
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The Ghost Diaries now offers the first in a series of book reviews of classic horror novels: Frankenstein and, soon enough, Dracula. Although, admittedly, this is more about the development of the gothic tradition than the plot or characters. You’ll also notice an emphasis on the importance of science fiction in the development of the modern horror novel.


Not all modern readers have an easy time with Frankenstein. It doesn’t have the sharp, clear dialogue of modern fiction. Much of the narrative is told in the form of letters (what is called the “epistolary method”), which seem to involve us in a confusing number of stories within stories. Also, the language is sometimes archaic and, overall, the book just doesn’t seem “scientific.” Despite these apparent deficits, Frankenstein is an important book, certainly one that you must understand if you are to understand horror, or even science fiction. (Furthermore, once you get started you’ll see that it isn’t so difficult to read.)

Frankenstein, published in 1818, appeared at a time when a great deal that is now important to us had just happened, was happening, or was about to happen. In the period that straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we find the romantic movement in literature, the American and French revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution (growing all the time). It was, in general, the beginning of the end for the ancient (old) regime that had ruled European thought, art, and government for centuries.

And somewhere in that era was Gothic literature, the mode of literature from which Frankenstein emerges. (This is not the modern Gothic romance genre in which young women must make a choice between suitors. This is the Gothic literature of haunted castles, clanking armor, unspeakable sins, and stormy moors.)

The old was waning and the new was stirring. And the new in this case was the new with which we still have a continuity. Coming into being at the time of the modern revolution, horror and science fiction was both part of and endowed with aspects of that revolution. It is there at the beginning of institutionalized individual autonomy, the beginning of individual freedom, the beginning of the obvious collapse of the old classes, the beginning of an expanded external nature. Speculative fiction does not begin with the scientific revolution wrought by Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, et al, but it is there when the social implications of the scientific revolution are becoming obvious.

The first full-fledged example of science fiction grew out of the Gothic novel. At first, this seems an unlikely parent, but let’s consider a few elements of the Gothic novel.


Gothic novels (called Gothic because of typical setting in Gothic castles—and the castles called Gothic due to their German origins) appeared in the second half of the eighteenth century, and they have such titles as The Castle of Otranto (1765) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). It is now easy to see them as a symptom of the change that was sweeping over western civilization. Their heroes are dark, tormented souls, who have committed unspeakable sins, men cut off from the stable values that underlay the Age of Reason. They act out their dramas in dark, mysterious castles that have nothing of the reasonable balance that sane architecture is supposed to have. These castles have secret rooms, hidden passages, lost corridors. The exterior world is not the balanced nature of Alexander Pope—it is nature we see in storms, mountains, moors, forests—a nature that is beyond our reason. In these novels we sense that some great secret is about to be revealed, some apocalyptic change about to sweep all before it.

In some ways Gothic horror novels are science fiction in reverse. They focus on the dying of the old without revealing the vision of the future. But the major conventions of SF grow out of these novels, and Gothic traits mark SF to this day. In SF we see Gothic character, Gothic setting, and Gothic plot. Gothic character we see in the tormented heroes of SF, Gothic setting we see in the vast expanses of time and space, and Gothic plot we see in the promise of apocalyptic change.

(Some scholars would argue that these traits are consistent with the condition of people in the modern world. We brood on the responsibilities we have incurred, we act out our drama in a large universe, and we’ve come to accept the inevitability of change. For this reason, SF, the genre that perpetuates these traits, is an especially appealing form of modern literature.)


We will consider these Gothic traits in connection with Frankenstein. First, though, let’s look briefly at the background of the novel. Mary Shelley (1797-1851) wrote Frankenstein while she was in Geneva, Switzerland, with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (a poet), and some of their friends, including Lord Byron (another poet). Because bad weather kept them indoors, they decided to write ghost stories (meaning Gothic stories) to amuse themselves. But the weather took a turn for the better, and Percy stopped working on his stories. Only Mary Shelley finished what she started, which was Frankenstein.

The finished product wasn’t a typical Gothic tale. It retained the features we have discussed, but it was missing one of the usual features—the role of the supernatural. Yet the fact that it has nothing to do with the supernatural is one of the most significant facts about it. After Victor Frankenstein stitches together the miscellaneous parts from corpses to form the creature to be called the monster (or Frankenstein’s monster), he doesn’t animate it by speaking words of mumbo-jumbo or some other supernatural means. Frankenstein doesn’t speak magical words stolen from the gods. He animates the creature with his knowledge of nature, man’s science. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist, one of the first of a long line of scientists that show up in SF literature.

The monster that Victor Frankenstein creates is, therefore, wholly a responsibility of humankind. The problem is human created, and only a human can solve it. In Mary Shelley’s vision of things, no god steps forth to reestablish the balance of the universe. God is at best a mere spectator of human life, and maybe not present at all. Humankind must balance its own universe.

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