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Beauty is Terror: A brief exploration of the sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein, the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, is acclaimed as one of the most influential pieces of gothic literature ever. Written as a frame narrative, a story within a story, Frankenstein mainly encompasses the ventures and discoveries of Victor Frankenstein as his search for knowledge takes a dark descent into the intricacies of obsession, corruption, and ambition. Gothic literature, as a whole, has a bustling set of distinctive features including plays on space and time, isolation, suspense, the supernatural, and more. Gothic horror, more specifically, has long dealt with themes of morality, philosophy, and conflicts between humanity and abnormal, often supernatural, evils. In Frankenstein, this ‘evil’ initially appears to be Victor’s creature, however, as its story unfolds, the roles are reversed and the reader is forced to reflect on who we really call “the monster” of the story.

All these themes are strengthened in the novel through Shelley’s portrayal of nature. Ranging from lovely scenic descriptions similar to those of Romanticism to foreboding and dangerous settings, she presents nature as something sublime: both beautiful and terrifying. While it can be said that it alternates between the two throughout the novel, the notion that most of these features persist simultaneously is also tangible. This contrast goes to lengths to enhance the tensions in the novel, as well as the underlying messages of the larger work.

Several characters in the novel seek to take control, or simply advantage, of nature. This is seen with Walton as he hopes to discover the secrets of magnetism in the Arctic, and, of course, Victor’s rupture of the bounds of death. Both cases are presented with an initial sense of naïvety and innocence, only Walton is at the beginning of his journey when he meets Victor, who can now speak from experience of the dangers of such curiosity and ambition. Meanwhile, both regard nature with respectable esteem, describing it with passion and livelihood. This naïve adoration is one that leads to their fallibility, notably that of Victor, whose passion turns into an obsession, shutting him out from the rest of the world as he strives to create his creature. In all of his admiration for nature, he soon longed to take control of it, manipulate it to fulfil his own desires of grandiosity, of being the creator of a new race of beings. During this time, in the first Volume, he even claims that “No father should claim the gratitude of their child so completely as [he] should deserve theirs”. His sense of entitlement toward control, glory, and esteem leads to the line between humanity and nature. As man becomes closer to what he believes to be ‘control’ of nature in the novel, nature fights back.

The sublime appears in fascinating descriptions of lightning, raging storms, and blizzards, as alluring as they are threatening. The idea that there is beauty in terrifying things seems almost folly, as nature appears to be an immovable force, one that we can see, feel, and hear, but never seize. For every moment in which it appears harmless and a mere object of appreciation, another follows in which nature, often in the form of the weather, rages on humanity, a push-and-pull successful at conveying the tension and unease often attributed to the genre. Furthermore, nature begins to appear like a character of its own. Accompanying the unfolding of events in the form of pathetic fallacy, it offers insights into the progressing states and situations of the characters, mainly Victor and his creature, it is given personality and spirit.

Moreover, it becomes evident that, contrary to Victor’s initial goals, nature is not something to be played with, a tool with which one can shape society in their favour. Rather, Shelley’s portrayal of the sublime brings the reader back to the themes of humanity and nature, and how individuals interact with the world around them. The work becomes, among many things, a cautionary tale of getting in over your head and overstepping your limits and power in the face of something so unimaginably powerful and unchangeable. This theme becomes all the more relevant to the modern reader. In a time when humans consistently take advantage of nature, its resources, and its boundless possibilities, Frankenstein raises concern in regards to when our consequences will arrive, and when we will be faced with a similar fate to that of Victor: one riddled with guilt, regret, and darkness.



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