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Frankenstein > FOTMP: Oh My Goth!

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message 1: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments While we're reading Frankenstein as a work of science fiction, we have to understand that we're backprojecting our modern sensibilities onto a book that was written in a completely different genre. When people picked up the book in 1818, they didn't see at as the start of some new literary tradition, but rather as yet another example of the Gothic novel.

Nowadays we hear the word "Gothic" and we think of all the stuff that the Addams Family was making fun of, but while that is Gothic, there's more to it than that. Gothic novels contained elements of what we now consider mystery and romance as well.

The first Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto in 1764. It was written by Horace Walpole, the son of Britain's first Prime Minister, but he first released it pseudonymously as a "translation" of a medieval manuscript. When the book was a hit, he attached his name to the second edition and revealed that he made it all up. And then everyone hated the book. This was the Age of Enlightenment, and a key tenet of Enlightenment philosophy was that the Catholic Church had kept Europe locked in ignorance and superstition for a thousand years. A medieval book full of ghosts and goblins had fit that worldview perfectly, but somebody in the modern world writing that kinda thing must be sick in the head.

As such, Otranto had very few imitators at first. But by the 1790s there was a generation of people who'd read the book when they were young and impressionable, and they wanted more stuff like it. When they couldn't find anything, they started writing it for themselves. Suddenly the Gothic became a huge genre.

The first big name in Gothic fiction was Ann Radcliffe, who wrote novels about young women who were terrorized by powerful men who wanted to get their hands on the woman's inheritance. There would inevitably be a dashing young hero who would eventually rescue the woman. Radcliffe is also known for inventing the Scooby Doo ending -- in her books, it always turns out that any supernatural element was the work of the evil guy trying to gaslight the heroine.

The other major figure in the Gothic was M.G. Lewis, who imported ideas from the German "Shudder Novel" genre, which was much more gruesome and visceral. His major work, The Monk, is about a man who sells his soul to Satan for the power to rape a woman without her knowing. Prior to Lewis, the supernatural in the Gothic had been confined to the merely ghostly, but after him it became more demonic.

Later Gothics are typically divided into "Masculine" and "Feminine" camps based upon whether they follow Lewis or Radcliffe, though this is misleading since many writers combined aspects of both. Still, Frankenstein is generally a "Masculine" book -- the protagonist is a man who's persecuted by an unrelenting foe, and the women in the story exist mainly to die in a way that provides him motivation. But there is one "Feminine" element -- by ditching alchemy for science, Victor moves the story from the realm of the supernatural to that of the explained, just as Radcliffe always did in her works. But in Radcliffe, things were always explained not just rationally, but mundanely; while Franeknstein's experiment is the work of rational science, the result is anything but mundane.

This, then, is Shelley's major innovation -- the idea that something can be rational and extraordinary at the same time.

message 2: by Trike (new)

Trike | 8500 comments That was an excellent summation.

message 3: by Allison (new)

Allison Hurd | 226 comments Helpful, thank you!!

message 4: by TRP (last edited Jan 03, 2018 02:34PM) (new)

TRP Watson (trpw) | 202 comments I read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe last year and enjoyed it a great deal more than I expected.
Jane Austen satirises the fascination of young women for Gothic fiction (with heavy emphasis on Udolpho) in her book Northanger Abbey. As Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite books it made me approach Udolpho with caution but I needn't have worried.
By some uncanny coincidence Northanger Abbey was published in 1817 (but written between 1796 and 1804). However as Mary Shelley is definitely in the Gothic camp I'm not sure she would have cared to read Jane Austen.

message 5: by Tom, Supreme Laser (new)

Tom Merritt (tommerritt) | 1151 comments Mod
Excellent write up Sean! As I’ve been reading it I’ve been thinking along the same lines that of course Shelley was not intending to write science fiction. It is definitely gothic and it’s also a morality tale. I find some of it reminiscent of Dickens in that it’s hinting at the abuses of the class system.

message 6: by Sean (last edited Jan 06, 2018 01:01PM) (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Well both of Shelley's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, were political radicals who harshly criticized British society. Frankenstein is dedicated to Godwin and mentions his novel Caleb Williams, which is about a servant who discovers his master is a murderer, only for his master to use his power and wealth to persecute him unjustly.

I've been blogging about this history of Frankenstein, and my first two entries are about Wollstonecraft and Godwin.

message 7: by Eric (new)

Eric Mesa (djotaku) | 617 comments This Ted video explains how Goth went from barbarians to people in black

message 8: by Rob Secundus (new)

Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments It's also important not to forget the Romantic lens. Victor and his many emotions are SUPER duper Romantic. Compare with Mary's hubby's Mont Blanc or Byron's Manfred

message 9: by Jenny (new)

Jenny (jennyc89) | 116 comments Thank you Sean for the really cool info.

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