The Creation of Terror in Mary Shelley’s „Frankenstein“

Term Paper 2011 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Frankenstein as Gothic story

3. Terror
3.1 The Term „Terror“

4. Sublime and Obscurity
4.1 Edmund Burke on the Sublime
4.2 Obscurity

5. Terror in Frankenstein
5.1 Terror within the Story Itself
5.2 Terror Achieved through Other Features

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

During the last two centuries, Frankenstein gained the reputation of a modern myth. Every generation gets to know Frankenstein within a new historical and social context. So it has to be said that the reception of Shelley’s masterpiece changed over the years. The creature of Victor Frankenstein became the archetype of a monster, a model for many specters that followed.

Mary Shelley was born on 30 August 1797 and died on 1 February 1851 at the age of 53. She was the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who was known as a philosopher and feminist. Both her parents had talents in writing and this talent should be inherited to their daughter as well. In 1816 she married her lover, the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In the summer of 1816 the famous couple went on a journey to Switzerland,[1] accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Claire, who arranged for them a meeting with her lover Lord Byron. During their stay at the Villa Diodati in Geneva the group talked about science and inspired by some German ghost tales decided to have a ghost-story contest, which led to the initial draft of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s tale is the only one of those stories which has been completed. The first edition of Frankenstein was released in 1818, another one in 1831, changed and corrected by Mary Shelley herself.

The romantic period was among other things also the time of an enormous paradigm shift in science. The Frankenstein novel has this shift as a basis and combines scientific horror with elements of traditional Gothic fiction. The turn of the century also brought a growing interest in landscape and nature. In 1757 the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke released “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, which became the most important treatise on the concept of the sublime.

This seminar paper shall examine the way in which Mary Shelley creates an atmosphere of terror in her novel. Therefore both the preface of the 1818 version of Frankenstein, written by Percy B. Shelley, as well as the 1831 introduction by Mary Shelley shall be analyzed on the author’s original intention and the idea behind Frankenstein. Then a definition of the term “terror” will be given, followed by a chapter on the concept of the sublime as seen by Edmund Burke and Ann Radcliffe. The last chapter examines “terror” within the story itself, as well as the terror achieved through other features, for example the sublime.

2. Frankenstein as Gothic story

In the year of its release Frankenstein was immediately identified as a Gothic novel. The dark and gloomy setting and usage of traditional elements were conducive for this reception. Strictly speaking Frankenstein does not correspond with the traditional features of Gothic fiction. Stephen Boyd explains further:

Mary Shelley’s novel is not set in a ruined Gothic abbey, nor does it involve spectral apparitions, but part of its purpose is to frighten us and it has some fairly gruesome descriptions of Victor Frankenstein’s use of the spare parts of dead human beings. It also explores the terrible psychological hell into which Victor is plunged, and in her descriptions of this state Mary Shelley shows the typical Gothic stylistic trait of stressing the inadequacy of language to convey the full horror of the experience.[2]

Important sources for the original intention of Mary Shelley are the two prefaces that were written for both versions of Frankenstein. The 1818 version was published anonymously and its preface was in fact written by Mary’s husband Percy B. Shelley. He first notes that the event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment.”[3] Shelley here draws a line to other works belonging to the tradition of popular Gothic fiction and seeks to enrich his wife’s work with a more sophisticated background. Her work, in contrast to other ghost stories, combines fantastic imaginations with a mimesis of everyday life. He continues that the plot “was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes [sic!]”, even if it is “impossible as a physical fact, [it] affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.”[4] P. B. Shelley here refers to Mary Shelley’s concern to show the motivations and desires of realistically drawn characters who act in imaginative situations. So Frankenstein can be seen as kind of a thought experiment: how would a man react in such circumstances? Mary Shelley’s interest in the psychology of man can be seen as one theme of Frankenstein.

The preface then introduces a second theme, the sublime. Percy B. Shelley writes: “It is a subject also of additional interest to the author that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid […]”. This remark gives a hint of the major role the landscape plays in Shelley’s work.

More about the conditions that led to the creation of Frankenstein is revealed in the introduction of 1831, which stands preliminary to the preface of P.B. Shelley and which was written by Mary Shelley herself. In this introduction Mary describes the creative process behind Frankenstein. She writes:

I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.[5]

This clearly indicates Mary Shelley’s aim to evoke terror in the reader. Again, she brings up the “mysterious fears of our nature”, once more a note towards the inscrutable mind of man mentioned already in the preface of 1818. She then continues to tell how she came up with the story, how she went to sleep and suddenly in her mind’s eye saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”. In her dream Mary Shelley already came up – or at least claims she did - with the first key scene of Frankenstein: the awakening of the monster. The author then, too, “opens her eyes in terror” and a “thrill of fear ran through [her]”[6]: like Frankenstein, Mary Shelley finds herself haunted by her own dreadful creation, because the spark of a terrifying idea lit up a fire and would not let her sleep again. Here, again, a remark on the sublime setting in which she was located at the moment, can be found: “I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.” Mary Shelley realized that she had found her ghost story:

O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night! Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.”[7]

The introduction of 1831 shows clearly that provoking terror was one of Mary Shelley’s main intentions in writing Frankenstein. That implies that she was endeavoured to provoke reactions of fear and horror in the reader and the more powerful those reactions were, the better – or in Shelley’s words: the more worth its genre – the story would be. Throughout the novel, although the power of the imagination is emphasized, its uses or effects are as much challenged as they are celebrated. Stephen Boys observes: “[…] It may be seen that Frankenstein is at times horrible and disgusting, but […] Mary Shelley uses such horror not merely for its own sake, but to reveal fascinating psychological insight.”[8] Stephen Boys concludes that “trueful terror is to be found not in ghostly apparitions but in the human psyche that the real horrors are within us.”[9]

3. Terror

3.1 The Term „Terror“

The term „terror“ derives from the Latin verb “terrere” which means “to frighten” and describes an extreme form of fear.[10] The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is mostly known for his treatise on the sublime, “A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful” from the year 1759. The concept of the sublime will be discussed in chapter four of this paper. This part is going to concentrate on Burke’s understanding of terror.

Burke writes that there are three types of affecting ideas, each of them poignant on a different level.[11] Pure pleasure, according to Burke, is the simplest of those ideas, whereas pain and death have a greater effect on body and mind and are therefore more powerful. That’s because, estated by Burke, the passions of self-preservation are the strongest of all passions. Death, which Burke calls the “king of terrors”[12], is the strongest of all ideas.

Burke says that pain and danger are the most impressive feelings for man. Even the most pleasant sensation is blurred by some painful feeling. Burke here refers to the force of contrast:

Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments […].[13]

The second section of part two of his enquiry Burke dedicates to the idea of terror: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”[14] Burke defines fear as “apprehension of pain or death”[15]: the tense expectation of something that is going to threaten one’s life. So, for Burke, on the one hand fear (or terror) “operates in a manner that resembles actual pain”[16], and pain – as said before – has the strongest impact on men. And on the other hand this fear challenges the strongest of the human passions: those of self-preservation. Terror thereby is able to release the most powerful passions within the people (and also the reader).

British writer Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was among the first who drew a distinction between the word ‘terror’ and its often synonymously used equivalent ‘horror’. In her famous essay “On the Supernatural of Poetry” from the year 1826 she sets up a dialogue between two travelers, one an enthusiastic supporter of Shakespearean writing, the other a dissenting Philistine. First, she states that objects of terror are more frightening if they occur in scenes of happiness, because it is the force of contrast that strikes the reader most.[17] But she adds that this effect, “though sudden and strong, is also transient; [because] it is the thrill of horror and surprise”[18] that appears here, in contrast to the “deep and solemn feelings” which are evoked by terror and that are “left long upon the mind”.[19] She continues: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”[20] This statement can be clarified with the example of someone walking through a forest in the night: all his senses are sharpened, his eyes widened, every little sound convulses his body. He’s afraid of something unknown, all tensed up, anticipating some potential terrifying experience. This would be the long-lasting feeling of terror that Radcliffe describes. A moment of horror in this example would be the sudden and intense shock after some unexpected occurrence, a state of shock that fades immediately after the danger has passed. It can be said that the creation of a true atmosphere of terror is a task more challenging, than the mere stringing together of horrific events.


[1] Morton, Timothy (ed.) “A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. London [et al.]: Routledge, 2002: 13.

[2] boyd, Stephen. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, notes. Ed. by Prof. A.N. Jeffares/Prof. S. Bushrui. Harlow: Longman, 1984: 12.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Shelley 1994: 7f.

[6] ibid.

[7] Shelley 1994: 8f.

[8] Boyd 1984: 61.

[9] Boyd 1984: 12

[10] cf. Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 2010. 28 Sep. 2011. <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terror>.

[11] ashfield, Andrew/Peter de Bolla (ed.) “The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 131-143.

[12] ibid: 131.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid: 133.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] cf. radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. in: New Monthly Magazine 16.1 (1826): 145-152.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.


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Title: The Creation of Terror in Mary Shelley’s „Frankenstein“