Gothic Novel, Science Fiction
Frankenstein is a Gothic novel in that it employs mystery, secrecy, and unsettling psychology to tell the story of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed monster. The Gothic emerged as a literary genre in the 1750s, and is characterized by supernatural elements, mysterious and secretive events, settings in ancient and isolated locations, and psychological undercurrents often related to family dynamics and repressed sexuality. In Frankenstein, readers get only vague descriptions of the process Victor uses to construct the monster, and descriptions like “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil” amplify the horror by prompting the reader to actively imagine what Victor must have done. Much of the action takes place at nighttime, and in mysterious circumstances. The novel also hints that Victor’s strange behavior may be rooted in repression. While he claims to love Elizabeth, their relationship has incestuous tones since they grew up together as siblings. He also seems reluctant to marry her and is fixated instead on his friend Henry. His desire to create life outside of typical sexual reproduction might reflect some level of trauma or disgust with heterosexuality, or sexuality in general.
Read more about the Gothic genre in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
At the same time, Frankenstein challenges some of the conventions of Gothic literature. Unlike traditional Gothic supernatural elements such as ghosts or vampires, the monster’s origins are deliberate and not mysterious. We know exactly where he comes from, who created him, and why. There’s never any question about whether the monster actually exists. We know the monster was created on purpose and the havoc he wreaks is the result of a lack of foresight on the part of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, not of unknowable forces. The mystery of the book is not where the monster came from, but what he wants. Frankenstein is also set in approximately the same time period when it was written, whereas traditional Gothic fiction was almost always set in the past. While many Gothic novels imply that in the past people’s lack of knowledge and repressive customs led to horrifying situations, Frankenstein suggests too much knowledge and an emphasis on innovation might also lead to horror.
In addition to the Gothic elements, Frankenstein inaugurates the genre of science fiction, and many critics cite the novel as one of the first examples of the science fiction novel. Science fiction as a genre speculates about possible applications for advances in science and technology. In science fiction novels, the rules governing normal life are transgressed in some way. For example, a popular convention in science fiction is life existing outside of Earth; for Shelley, the idea of humans being able to artificially create new life becomes possible within the space of the novel. In many science fiction novels, the fictional technologies and scientific developments can be read as an implicit criticism of contemporary society. By prompting her readers to think about an extreme example where someone recklessly pursues knowledge, Shelley sheds light on her own era, where a focus on inventing new things and optimizing technology was beginning to threaten established ways of life.