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Gothic Elements in Frankenstein

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  • 0:04 Gothic Elements
  • 0:41 The Secret Gone Wild
  • 1:29 The Shadow
  • 3:00 A Family Affair
  • 4:17 The Dark Frontier
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the use of Gothic elements in Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, 'Frankenstein.' Though Gothic literature was a popular genre at this time, Shelley's ingenious use of these elements is what makes her novel a timeless classic.

Gothic Elements

When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, Gothic literature, or literature that explores the exotic, mysterious, and supernatural, was enjoying an unprecedented popularity. Now, nearly 200 years later, it is still talked about, studied, and debated. It continues to captivate and creep us out. The monster's image appears everywhere, from television to film to cereal boxes.

So what makes Frankenstein so enduring? A look at Shelley's brilliant use of Gothic elements might provide some clues.

The Secret Gone Wild

Gothic novels are all about secrets, who has one, and why are they hiding it. The secret is always powerful, a matter of life or death, joy or despair, or hanging in the balance. In Shelley's novel, the secret is tinged with shame and fear. Victor is not trying to uncover another's falsehood, sin, or mistake. As the monster's creator, Victor is the author of his own fate.

His secret is run amok. It's not buried in some ancient castle, nor is it hidden in the depths of a tomb, another Gothic convention. Victor has quite literally resurrected his secret from the grave and breathed life into it. It is an active agent able to seek out and destroy everyone Victor most wants to shield from it: his friends and family.

The Shadow

One of the most prominent characteristics of Gothic literature is the constant threat, real or imagined, that the characters must suffer. Danger lurks at every corner. Shadows menace, populated by evils that have no face or name.

Victor's shadow has a name and an agenda. The monster is an agent of rage, an instrument of revenge. He loathes his creator for rejecting him at birth then abandoning him to the cruelty of the human race. He blames Victor for subjecting him to loneliness and isolation when he was born with a heart craving love. He also begrudges Victor for failing to give him the one thing that would quiet his pain and prevent his war on humanity: a mate.

The monster becomes Victor's imminent doom. His superhuman strength and speed make him seem to be everywhere Victor goes, waiting, watching, and threatening. This monster has a name and a face. He is not some dusky fear that is less terrible than the imagination could conjure. He is far worse than any imagining, comprehension, or articulation.

Victor knows the form his doom will take: to watch the destruction of his loved ones before being destroyed himself. For Shelley, the Gothic is not wondering what the terror will be. It is wondering when the terror will come. It is in the awful anticipation of the inevitable.

A Family Affair

Gothic literature is often just a family drama infused with supernatural elements. Gothic literature usually revolves around some kind of ancient secret or age-old curse that threatens to destroy the family's happiness, its unity, or its existence for generations to come.

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