Romantic Elements in Frankenstein and the Fall of the House of Usher

Published: 2021-09-26 15:50:02
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Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, although published in different periods, on different continents, have in common many of the main ideas that stood behind the literary movement of Romanticism (the sublime, the Romantic hero, imagination, isolation), combined with elements of the Gothic (the mysterious and remote setting dominated by a gloomy atmosphere, death, sin, pain, exotic elements, supernatural).
One of the main elements that is integrated into the Romantic movement is the sublime. In his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful , Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. In Burke’s view, the typical qualities that characterize a sublime landscape are vastness of dimensions (especially in contrast with the limitations of the human body and mind), obscurity (that blurs the definition of boundaries), deep darkness or intense light. Through the impact that magnificent landscapes and violent storms produce, and in the midst of the terrors that nature creates, the characters experience the sublime, are overflown with dread, fear and a sense of astonishment, which eventually allows them to sense the divine.
In Frankenstein, nature is a very powerful entity that can soothe and punish; this duality is especially obvious in the connection between Victor and nature that Shelly cultivates throughout the novel. More often than not, Victor takes sustenance from nature, which provides him with what could be described as personal therapy when he is subjected to stress or torment. When he falls ill, it is not the constant care and attention of his closest friends that ensure his recovery, but the beneficial influence of the fresh ir that he breathes: “We passed a fortnight in these perambulations: my health and spirits had long been restored, and they gained additional strength from the salubrious air I breathed, the natural incidents of our progress . . . I became the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loved and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care. When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me with ecstasy. “

After his brother William is brutally murdered by the Creature, Victor falls into a deep state of despair, unable to find solace in the company of the rest of his family, or his best friend Henry. Once again, it is nature that heals him and allows him to maintain his sanity: «I remained two days at Lausanne, in this painful state of mind. I contemplated the lake: the waters were placid; all around was calm, and the snowy mountains, "the palaces of nature," were not changed. By degrees the calm and heavenly scene restored me, and I continued my journey towards Geneva.
The road ran by the side of the lake, which became narrower as I approached my native town. I discovered more distinctly the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc. I wept like a child: "Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace or to mock at my unhappiness? ” » Aside from providing Victor with restoration and happiness when needed, nature prove to also be an omnipotent force of foreshadowing.
The lightning shredding the tree in front of Victor’s eyes is a warning that his endeavors will ultimately bring destruction. When he is notified about William’s death, nature reflects his feelings of despair and suggests dark prospects of the future: “Night also closed around; and when I could hardly see the dark mountains, I felt still more gloomily. The picture appeared a vast and dim scene of evil, and I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings. The night that Victor gives life to his creations is “a dreary night of November”, with rain patting “dismally against the panes”. This is similar with the gloomy nature described at the beginning of The Fall of the House of Usher, where the imminent destruction of this ancient family is foreshadowed by the atmosphere of melancholy and decay and the eerie semblance of the house, covered by minute fungi and weakened by the fissure that extends from the roof to the foundations:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. ” Poe’s description of the unearthly storm that takes place on the dreadful night that brings the ultimate destruction to the ancient House of Usher is strikingly similar with the ones described in Frankestein: It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. ”
Although both works present an overwhelmingly powerful nature, that can foreshadow future events, the nature in The Fall of the House of Usher lacks the vast landscapes that are often depicted in Frankenstein; the prevailing feeling that dominates Poe’s story is confinement, narrowness to the point of claustrophobia: the Usher estate is shut off from light and the initial description of the house, reflected by the tarn which is in turn mirrored by the windows creates the illusion of an enclosed space, from which escape is almost impossible.
The house eventually becomes the tomb of Roderick and Madeline, collapsing onto itself and sinking into the reflecting pool. Supernatural, supported by the dark themes that are prevailing in both literary works, plays an important part in the plot development, both authors dwelling on the blurred boundary between the living and the dead, with an emphasis on the mysteries of life and the mysteries of existence.
In Poe’s story, Madeline’s condition causing her to fall into a coma-like state that will lead to her being buried alive is highly unbelievable, especially in combination with the account of her incredible escape from the vault, which is presented in parallel with the plot of The Mad Trist. In addition to this, the destruction of the house in the storm on the night Madeline returns to the living only to be crushed together with her brother, thus ending the Usher bloodline is just as unrealistic, yet with a great artistic effect on the reader. As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell -- the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust -- but then without those doors there DID stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.
There was blood upon her every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and from upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated. ”
In Frankenstein, the major supernatural event (the creation of new life) is disguised under the appearance of a scientific experiment: Frankenstein manipulates nature in a bizarre and outlandish way, he uses electricity to animate a corpse composed of body parts collected from different cadavers. The result of his work is a creature so grotesque and uncanny, that it makes him run in fear and hide in his chamber: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. The characters in both Frankenstein and The Fall of the House of Usher are deeply Romantic characters, with a strong propensity towards the Gothic. Roderick Usher is a strange figure, excessively reserved and somewhat mysterious, he lives isolated in a decrepit, dark and scary house. His physical appearance is quite shocking to the outside visitor, he looks dead even though he is still alive: A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. ”
He suffers from a mysterious “nervous affection”, with bizarre symptoms (his senses are incredibly heightened, he can only bear to wear certain types of fabric, he cannot stand light or the smell of flowers, and all music, with the exception of some stringed instruments inspire him with horror). He often oscillates between vivacity and sullenness, between reason and incoherence, between amazement and dread. Roderick’s interests lie within the field of Arts, he is skilled at music and at painting, and the narrator compares him with a real artist, Fuseli, stating that “If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher”.
Roderick’s artistic creations reflect his state of mind, his obsession with death, the one painting of his that is described by the narrator is that of a tomb, “an immense long and rectangular vault or tunnel”, while one of the songs he plays at his guitar is The Haunted Palace. Roderick shows signs of other intellectual pursuits, he develops the idea of sentience of all vegetables and even inanimate things, like “the gray stones of the home of his forefathers”, giving as proof of their sentience “the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls”.
Unlike Roderick, who is portrayed as an artist, Victor Frankenstein is depicted as a scientist. He is animated with a “thirst for knowledge”, a passionate desire to learn the secrets of heaven and earth; however, these feelings, noble at first are distorted into a morbid obsession, a dark hope of becoming god-like, of being liberated of earthly law and limitations, obsession that will ultimately lead to his demise. In his quest to discover the “principle of life”, Victor undergoes the study of its inevitable counterpart, death, and immerses himself in midnight labors, pillaging cemeteries and charnel houses and torturing living creatures.
His ambition to create new life affects his entire being in such a way, that he undergoes intense emotional and mental changes, and manages to transcend the limited condition of an ordinary mortal, achieving a status similar to that of Dr. Faustus: “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. (…)No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success.
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source (…) I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? ” Although not typical, the Creature is also a Romantic figure, a troubled soul forced into self-isolation, that strives to overcome his own limitations and possesses surprising depth and sensitivity.
He has a dual nature, both inherently good and capable of evil, and is compared to both Adam (the creature that has been forsaken by his creator) and Satan (the fallen angel turned deviant in the absence of his god, capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty). He is torn between compassion and vengefulness, between the desire to be integrated into human society and the desire to destroy humans for rejecting and shunning him based on his grotesque appearance.
He proves his benevolence when he saves a little girl from drowning and when he helps the De Laceys by providing them with firewood, but he is also a “wretched” creature that lets himself overtaken by the thirst for revenge and kills all the members of Victor’s family, including his best friend, Henry Clerval. The destinies of creator and creation are inextricably connected, they are viewed as doubles of each other: they both suffer from an impenetrable solitude, feeling like a “miserable wretch” unfit for human society, they both continually oscillate between good and evil, between elation and despair.
Their identities are intricately intermingled, at one point the creature calls Victor his slave, reminding him that :”You are my creator, but I am your master”. Moreover, the reader is not able to discern who the real monster is between these two characters: Frankenstein, that out of purely selfish reasons brings the Creature into this world and abandons it, refusing to assume any type of responsibility for his actions, or the abominably-looking creature that succumbs to the dark dimension of his spirit and seeks to achieve revenge for his sufferings, thus destroying many innocent lives in the process.
The same motif of the double (Doppelganger) can be found in Poe’s story, where there is a strong connection between Roderick and Madeline Usher, the last descendents of the Usher clan, the twins that mirror each other as Poe places an emphasis on the “striking similitude between brother and sister…”. The siblings share an inexplicable state of illness, they are both affected by a malady for which no remedy has been found: In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence -- an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy -- an excessive nervous agitation. (…)It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy -- a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. » «The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians.
A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affectations of a partially cataleptical character were the unusual diagnosis. » “Roderick and Madeline are not just brother and sister but twins who share “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” which connect his mental disintegration with her physical decline. ” (Martha Womak, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Moreover, according to Edward H. Davidson in his book Poe: A Critical Study, the fissure in the decaying mansion represents “an irreconcilable fracture in the individual’s personality”.
Roderick represents the mind, the intellect, the conscious, while Madeline is the unconscious, the embodiment of the senses (hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling). One of the conceptions that Gothic cultivated was that man was born basically evil, and that humans have to struggle throughout their entire lives in order to prevent their evil nature from overtaking them. In Poe’s story the two brothers visibly struggle against their psychological issues, the mental illnesses brought on by centuries of intermarriage in the family. He uses these characters to explore the human psychology, with a special mphasis on the perverse and self-destructive nature of the conscious and subconscious mind. In Frankenstein, the Creature seems to have been born evil based on his abominable appearance, yet later on his account of his first memories reveal his innocent nature, that is distorted by the hardships and constant rejections he is subjected to. Symbols play a significant role. The House of Usher refers both to the actual mansion and the last of the “all time-honoured Usher race…” and becomes an actual character, being presented with a humanized description, with “vacant eye-like windows”.
The house seems to be an extension of the siblings’ souls, mirroring their state of mind, and Roderick develops a theory that the stones of the house have “sentience” and that they embody the fate of the Usher family . The fissure that is barely visible on its facade and the fungi that cover it are symbolic of the decay of the Usher bloodline. The collapsing of the house straight down into the tarn symbolizes the linearity of the Usher’s family tree, bereft of branches, and its inevitable collapse.
The two main symbols in Frankenstein are light and fire. Walton expects to unveil the secrets of the universe in the North Pole, described as “a country of eternal light. ” Nearly all of Victor’s epiphanies are under the sign of light. When he becomes interested in natural philosophy, he says that “A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind”, and when his ceaseless endeavors finally lead him to the discovery of the secret to creating new life, he describes his feelings as if “a sudden light broke in upon me. He compares the creation of a new species to pouring a “torrent of light into our dark world”. However, both Victor and Walton fail to understand that light that’s too bright is also blinding and they disregard the dangerous consequences of their quests for enlightenment. The importance of fire as a symbol is prefigured by the novel’s full title: Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan who gave the knowledge of fire to humanity and for his generous action he was severely punished by the Gods.
In Frankenstein, Victor attempts to give the gift of the secret of life to humanity, but ends up suffering grave punishment as a result of defying God: his creation kills his entire family and destroys his life. Throughout the novel, fire is depicted as a powerful yet dangerous force that can be used both for sustenance (the discovery of the wonders of fire by the monster) as well as for punishment (the description of demons suffering in the lake of fire in hell).
Concerning narrative techniques and point of view, both stories are told using first person point of view, but with significant differences. The narrator of The Fall of the House of usher is a character of whom we know very little, highly unreliable, as we have no proof of his sanity; moreover, he is called “madman” by Roderick twice at the end of the story. He is submerged into the underworld of the human mind, where irrationality prevails over reason, where fantasy suppresses reality, and he is the only one that manages to escape and tell the story of what had happened.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also written using the first person narrative, but from multiple perspectives, using a complex narrative structure, that combines the form of an epistolary novel with that of a frame story: the plot is completely encased in Robert Waldon’s letters, who he relates his encounter with Victor Frankenstein, who in turn gives an account of his terrible life story, including the confessions and lamentations of the creature.
Each shift of perspective provides the reader with new insight regarding the facts of the story and the distinctive traits of the characters involved. In conclusion, both Frankenstein and The Fall of the House of Usher can be considered landmarks of Romantic and Gothic literature, the authors managing to combine standard and specific elements in a unique and captivating manner that has kept them relevant even almost two hundred years after they were first published.

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