Why Is Frankenstein Considered a Gothic Novel and Great Expectations Considered Realist?

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  • Topic: Frankenstein, Gothic fiction, Mary Shelley
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Why is Frankenstein considered a Gothic novel and Great Expectations considered realist?

The Gothic sub-genre takes its name from the medieval or Gothic architecture of the oppressive castles favoured by novelists such as Horace Walpole (Walder, The Realist Novel, p.28). Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually considered the first Gothic novel, introducing familiar elements such as the isolated, atmospheric setting for sinister, supernatural occurrences, the obsessive, solitary hero tortured by a guilty secret, and the pure, innocent heroine. The presence of these elements in Frankenstein (1818), combined with Mary Shelley’s use of other Gothic traditions – like the embedded narrative, with the creature’s tale nesting within Frankenstein’s story, which in turn occurs within the letters from Walton to his sister – may explain why Frankenstein is considered a Gothic novel.

The nineteenth century realist novel, in contrast, seeks to convey the illusion of reality and represent contemporary life and attitudes in a way immediately accessible to the reader. This is usually achieved by demonstrating the moral development of a credible character or set of characters, and often by linking this development to major events and interactions within society. Typical realist conventions include recognisable settings located within a specific time and place, a clearly delineated social and economical world with consequent restrictions, and detailed descriptions in simple, largely referential language (Watt, The Realist Novel, p.222). Charles Dickens’ use of these and other typically realist techniques – such as Pip’s candid, convincing first person narrative – could explain why Great Expectations (1861) is considered realist.

However, it would be reductive to assume either of these novels can be categorised so simplistically. In Frankenstein, Shelley uses typical Gothic language when Frankenstein ominously describes mountain summits as ‘faces of… mighty fiends,’ whose ‘misty veil’ he seeks to ‘penetrate’ (p.96), hinting at the horror of the creature. But Shelley simultaneously provides the realist detail of familiar mountains – ‘Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc,’ (p.98) – to anchor the scene.

Even at the creature’s ‘birth’, Shelley merges genres. The dark, atmospheric setting, suggested by ‘… and my candle nearly burnt out’ (p.57) is Gothic; as is the physical manifestation of Frankenstein’s terror, with ‘the palpitation of every artery’ (p.58) – although trembling sensitivity is more usually attributed to heroine than hero. Equally Gothic, are references to the creature ‘[holding] up the curtain of the bed’ (p.58), representing his outsider status, and the fine line between life and death suggested by ‘infusing life into an inanimate body’ (p.57). However, such elements are juxtaposed with realist details, such as the fact that it is ‘November,’ (p.57) and the reference to the church of Ingolstadt’s ‘white steeple and clock,’ (p.59).

Frankenstein’s eponymous hero demonstrates characteristically Gothic obsessive, solitary tendencies, as does his creation. The phrase, ‘the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent,’ (p.55) highlights Frankenstein’s physical and mental isolation. Frankenstein also epitomises the Gothic torment of the hideous secret – ‘I bore a hell within me’ (p.88). But Frankenstein’s early narrative follows realist traditions, providing a credible, first-person description of his development, with recognisable places (‘the baths near Thonon’ (p.38)), and a coherent timeframe (‘When I had attained the age of seventeen…’ (p.42)).

As well as Gothic and realist conventions, there is also a touch of Romanticism. Nature is used to affect mood: ‘the unstained snowy mountain-top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine…...
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