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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Mary Shelley and the Birth of Gothic

Earlier this year I was asked to write the lead essay for the BFI's release of Ken Russell's Gothic. Written by Stephen Volk it's a wild and fatastical reimagining of the Summer of 1816 when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, along with her husband-to-be Percy Bysshe Shelley (they would marry in December 1816), their close friend Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont (Mary's stepsister) and John William Polidori (Byron's personal physician) had gathered at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The following text focusing on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was cut for length.

The Blu-Ray is now out and has loads of fabulous extras as well as the booklet which features my essay, Gothic, it might not be your cup of tea! The title was taken from a quote from Natasha Richardson when being interviewed about the film on its release.

Following that initial spark in the summer of 1816, Mary spent the next eighteen months developing the novel, which was anonymously published in January 1818. It was not until 1821 that the second edition, bearing Mary Shelley's name, was published in Paris. Shelley’s intention was to write a story that "... would speak to the mysterious fear of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror - one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart." She achieved this by crafting a novel that blends the marvellous with the mundane. Through references to real places, authors, books, landscapes and the latest advancements in science and engineering, Shelley creates an air of realism. However, she disrupts this realism with the introduction of something strange and otherworldly—the creation of the monster[i].

The story of Frankenstein can be distilled into two lines: Victor Frankenstein creates a monster, and the monster spirals out of control, seeking revenge. This concise summary forms the foundation for countless film adaptations, with very few attempting to replicate Shelley's multi-layered narrative structure, which challenges readers to question the reliability of the characters' accounts. Shelley does not impose her viewpoint through the characters; instead, she leaves it up to readers to weigh the truth and determine whose version of events they believe.

Frankenstein is composed of three layers: the outer layer consists of Robert Walton's letters to his sister, describing his voyage and his encounter with Victor Frankenstein. The central layer is where Victor recounts his life story, detailing his creation of the monster, his subsequent abandonment and the monster's vengeful rampage. In the core of the narrative, the monster tells its own story to Victor, revealing the development of its mind, heart and its side of the tale. This multi-layered framing device unveils the story through various voices, introducing the possibility of bias or exaggeration in the retelling. Both Frankenstein and Walton sought their soul mates and found them in each other. Consequently, Robert Walton's passionate compassion for Victor may lead him to justify Frankenstein's actions to the reader. Although both Frankenstein and Walton exhibit tenderness and love for others, they cannot conceive that the monster is capable of anything beyond hatred and evil.

In the novel's conclusion, as Victor Frankenstein meets his demise and Robert Walton faces the monster, a remarkable shift occurs. The monster finally gains the freedom to express his tangled emotions of love, remorse and hatred towards Victor. Walton's initial loathing and anger give way to pity and acceptance for the monster. Love and loathing, two crucial elements in the novel and in life, converge within this pivotal passage. This sequence unfolds as Walton enters his cabin and encounters the monster for the first time, providing the only detailed description of the monster, “gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions ... face concealed by long locks of ragged hair ... vast hand extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy ... vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness”. Until this moment, readers were left to imagine the monstrosity. Furthermore, it is only during this encounter that Victor's tale is affirmed as true, dispelling any perception that it might have been the ravings of a delirious dying man.

Depicted in this passage, the monster possesses inherent nobility and education, yet Frankenstein's initial rejection and the fear instilled by encounters with others have twisted it into bitterness. It yearned for companionship and acceptance, but its repulsive appearance and exclusion from society prevented anyone from seeing the beauty within. Now, Robert Walton has the chance to comprehend both perspectives. Despite his bias toward Victor, Walton engages with the monster directly and decides against fulfilling Victor's dying wish to execute it. Instead, he grants the monster the autonomy to choose its own fate, either punishment or freedom. The monster claims it will select self-destruction through burning at the North Pole, thereby reconciling the novel's overarching themes of life and death.

Within this passage, the monster initially confesses to its crimes before shifting blame to Victor, only to reclaim responsibility with pride and then shame and grief. This transition of doubt and uncertainty invites readers to contemplate whether Victor Frankenstein or the monster truly embodies horror. The novel's essence lies in Victor's failure to nurture, support, or love his creation—an experiment he initiated but ultimately abandoned, allowing it to spiral out of control. Consequently, our sympathies align with the monster, which experiences profound rejection throughout the book.

As Mary Shelley concludes the novel, she reiterates the recurring themes: the physical appearance of the monster, the crimes committed, the creation of life, the monster's rejection and its conflicting emotions of love, misery, pain, and pity towards Frankenstein. Among these themes, the most poignant is the intertwining of love and loathing the monster feels for its creator. It describes Victor as both "generous and self-devoted" and as "the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments." Mary Shelley ensures that readers cannot simply despise the monster due to its actions and fearsome appearance; she prompts them to feel pity because they can identify with its deep sense of despair, compassion, and the need to find love in a world to which it was forcibly introduced.

[i] I used the word 'monster' throughout as a word count of the names used to describe Frankenstein's creation throughout the novel reveal that the word monster was used 27 times, followed by fiend at 25, daemon at 18, creature at 16, wretch at 15, devil at 8, being at 4 and ogre at 1. (As analysed in In Frankenstein's Shadow by Chris Baldick, Clarendon Press, 1990)


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