[page 73] Traditionally, the relationship between Realism and the supernatural has been a complicated one. However, through an exploration of selected Realist works of visual art as well as Realist novels, it becomes apparent that Realism, in its insistent focus on the real, cannot escape the unreal and the supernatural, despite that insistence. The Realist novel and visual art–as represented in this article by the works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Collins, John Everett Millais, John Atkinson Grimshaw, Anna Blunden, and Frank Holl–continually express a dark, supernatural mode of Gothicism, combined with a social agenda, through a negative aesthetic of ugliness that is reminiscent of the Gothic monster. Furthermore, it is Mary Shelley’s Gothic monster novel Frankenstein (1818) that sets the stage for the Realist novels of the mid-nineteenth century that typically used the Gothic–and, by extension, the supernatural–as a mode of expression or as an enhancement of their more realistic elements and social agenda. As a Gothic novel that focuses on the real, Frankenstein is a key text that signals a marked reduction in the 1820s and 1830s of the publication of Gothic novels in the vein of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, who used typical Gothic devices such as haunted houses, hidden passages, ancestral curses, and dark familial secrets. It is Frankenstein–through its simultaneous exploration of scientific realism, spiritualism, and a Gothic aesthetic of ugliness–that establishes a link between realism and the Gothic supernatural that becomes a common trait in works of Realism in art and literature later in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Realism is inevitably haunted by supernaturalism, and not just in the fashion of cheap thrills and scare tactics reminiscent of the Gothic novels that enjoyed immense popularity during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Realism’s natural focus on the real certainly seems, at first, incompatible with the questionable reality of the supernatural and its concern with the spiritual, the fantastic, the unreal, the unnatural, the uncanny, and other challenges to the human perception of reality. Such a complicated relationship is clearly evident in Frankenstein, a novel that can be identified as a work of Gothicism, Romanticism, science fiction, and also–as George Levine has often argued–of nascent Realism (“Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism,” “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein,” “The Pattern: Frankenstein and Austen to Conrad”). Frankenstein reveals science as a potential symbol of a Gothic and supernatural sense of fear, in much in the same way as earlier Gothic novelists used the supernatural. Frankenstein, in its efforts at scientific realism, still maintains a sense of the [page 74] supernatural–or at least the spiritual–in its expression of the Gothic, despite the inherent element of secularization that exists within science and realism. As Frederick S. Frank argues, the “non-traditional Gothic of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus […] pointed ominously ahead to the terrors of the scientific future rather than back to the horrors of an imaginary middle ages” (xxviii). Consistent with the role of science in Frankenstein, Levine observes that the “old myths enter nineteenth-century fiction, but they do so in the mode of realism” (“Ambiguous Heritage” 7). Kim Hammond also argues that, as “the first novel in the genre of science fiction stories, Frankenstein marked a departure from traditional ghost stories or tales of the supernatural to stories about the potential horrors of science and technological development” (184). Likewise, David Ketterer argues that “Frankenstein is unlike the gothic romance in that the supernatural is apparently excluded as a causal factor. The pseudo-scientific explanation for the monster’s existence goes beyond the ‘explained gothic’” (9).
Consistent with these readings, Frankenstein is often interpreted as a novel that shuns religious doctrine in favor of scientific materialism–an interpretation suggested by David S. Hogsette, and also consistent with interpretations by George Levine, Paul Cantor, Alan Rauch, and many others. This is certainly the case early on in the story. Likely in an acknowledgement of her father and well-known atheist William Godwin, Mary Shelley makes it clear that young Victor Frankenstein was raised as an atheist–or at least as an agnostic–by his own father:
In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. (52)
This form of education would prepare Victor well for a profession in the sciences, especially in medicine, and it would also help him to develop a view of the creation of human life as having nothing to do with something so apparently unscientific as the soul. Despite this theme of atheism/agnosticism that is established early in the novel–and early in Victor’s life as a character–biblical references, and particularly the language of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) indeed do play a strong role in Frankenstein, as Milton’s text was one of the first that the monster is able to decipher, read, and understand. Also, though it would be a stretch to claim that Victor experiences a religious epiphany in the novel, he at least gains a sense of spirituality that is contradictory to his decidedly anti-supernatural belief system in the early sections of the novel. The [page 75] beginnings of this transition to a sense of spirituality can be seen when Victor is traversing the Alps near his home, as he joyfully exclaims “‘Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life’” (101). This growing sense of spirituality becomes even more apparent toward the end of the novel when Victor visits the graveyard containing the remains of William, Elizabeth, and his father. While witnessing a fellow visitor in the graveyard, Victor claims that the “spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but not seen, around the head of the mourner” (206). The scene even prompts Victor to make an emotional appeal to these unseen spirits: “‘I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work. Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me’” (206). Furthermore, while in pursuit of the monster at the end of the novel, Victor claims that “‘I was cursed by some devil, and carried about with me my eternal hell; yet still a spirit of good followed and directed my steps and, when I most murmured, would suddenly extricate me from seemingly insurmountable difficulties’” (207). Also during the pursuit, Victor claims that sometimes, “‘when nature, overcome by hunger, sunk under the exhaustion, a repast was prepared for me in the desert, that restored and inspirited me. The fare was, indeed, course, such as the peasants of the country ate; but I will not doubt that it was set there by the spirits that I had invoked to aid me’” (207). But of course, if those provisions were set there by anyone, it most likely would have been the monster, seeking to string Victor along even further in his hopeless pursuit of the monster’s destruction. Even at the moment of his death, Victor expresses his sense of spirituality to Robert Walton, as “‘[t]he forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms’” (220).
Such a spiritual reading of Frankenstein is contrary to the manner in which the novel has typically been cast as concerned with the more earthly and ethical pitfalls of scientific materialism. David S. Hogsette observes:
Frankenstein is a philosophical nightmare revealing the horrific consequences of methodological naturalism taken to its logical conclusion. Frankenstein explores the ideological vacuum engendered by scientific materialism and examines the spiritual bankruptcy of replacing theism with secular humanism. Victor Frankenstein’s transgressive autonomy, grounded in scientific materialism, results in a reductionism that ultimately leads to existential despair, individual crisis, and communal disintegration. (533)
But one must also add that such despair, crisis, and disintegration apparently lead Victor towards a more spiritual belief system rather than [page 76] nihilism, as evidenced by the above passage. The fact that Victor finally arrives at such a belief system at the end of the novel is consistent with Hogsette’s claim that Shelley “was a theistic vitalist (one who believed in the existence of a created animating spirit or immaterial soul that is different in nature from the material body yet related to it), as evidenced by a cumulative consideration of various journal entries” (537). Hogsette also argues that Shelley “believed in the existence of immaterial reality and spiritual entities” (538).
While the phenomenon of the monster was typically a supernatural being in the early Gothic novel–although exceptions exist with the “explained supernatural” used by Radcliffe–Shelley provides a more humanistic view of the monster through the lens of realism, as rather than depicting her monster as something supernatural or magical, Shelley’s monster is discussed in real, human terms. In a very human manner of representation, Frankenstein depicts a monster that is forced to navigate the social implications of his ugliness. From the moment that the monster first views his own reflection, he becomes fully aware not only of his ugliness but also of its effect of evoking fear and repulsion from the rest of society, as the monster himself “started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (Shelley 116-117). While the monster is indeed a Gothic symbol to be feared in the novel, he is also a character with human depth that must deal with his own fears of loneliness, social ostracization and isolation, abandonment, and the constant threat of physical harm to his well-being that he soon discovers in the angry and likewise frightened reactions of the people whom he encounters.
Frankenstein is a Gothic novel, but it is also a novel of ideas, steeped in realism, and while it is certainly not a Realist novel in itself, it indeed signals an evolution in the Gothic novel that would continue a few years later in the Victorian Realist novel. Speaking to this evolution, Levine claims that Frankenstein is “representative of certain attitudes and techniques that become central to the realist tradition itself” (“Tradition of Realism” 14), and it therefore “provides both a pattern and a metaphor for the very different realist literature that followed” (“The Pattern” 13). Nineteenth-century Realism keeps the Gothic tradition alive, but in an exertion of its own power, expresses Gothicism merely as a mode, kept in a secondary role as Realism’s own Gothic double. The Gothic in Realism illustrates that, in the interest of finding new and more interesting places to cause fear, it becomes clear that the Gothic can exist anywhere, and is therefore all the more frightening in its unpredictability. One of the primary Gothic elements established in Frankenstein that extends to the Realist novel expressing Gothicism as a mode is the humanist take on the [page 77] Gothic double that Shelley’s novel explores. Victor is questioned in terms of his monstrosity, while the monster is questioned in terms of his humanity. Likewise, Victor, as the creator, enjoys an implied level of control and power in that doubled relationship, while the monster soon wrests much of that power away from him. However, the monster cannot bring himself to actively destroy his creator, and Victor was always the monster’s only potential link to humanity, despite their dysfunctional relationship.
Such a construct of a mutual Gothicization, a dysfunctionality, a struggle for power, and yet an inherently symbiotic relationship is reiterated time after time in the Realist novels that express Gothicism as a mode, particularly through the Gothic doubling of the relationship between the upper classes and the poor and working class. Within the environment of the Gothic darkness of industry, the Gothic Other becomes the social Other, as Realism connects social and class issues directly to the Gothic. Such a view of class relations is also consistent with Ketterer’s discussion of the doppelgänger relationship between Victor and the monster, as the “monster is both a psychological double and an independent character leading a realistic existence” (56). For Ketterer, the “dilemma exists in the context of the relationship between egotistic perversion and communal affection. From one point of view, the monster is different from Frankenstein, from another, he is the same person. From one point of view, egotistic perversion is very different from communal affection, from another, it amounts to the same thing” (56-57). Consistent with Ketterer’s reading of Victor and the monster, class relations in the middle of the nineteenth century, in particular, are dependent upon point of view, as the Gothic othering between the classes is rooted in a subjective, egotistical perversion of the perceived opposing class, but is also simultaneously complicated by an objective, human, communal affection (or at least connection), oftentimes facilitated by a sense of social conscience. As the monster in Frankenstein is simultaneously human and inhuman, the poor and the working class are often viewed in a similar manner in the Realist novel and Realist works of visual art. They are often feared in a monstrous, supernatural, Gothic sense in these works, but are also oftentimes depicted as human, which, as a result of the social agenda in Realism, forces one to come to terms with one’s own reflected monstrosity as a result of the plight of the poor and working class.
The use of ugliness in Gothic Realism creates an emotional appeal on the basis of that social agenda, and it also confronts society’s inherent fear of that which is ugly. The ugliness of Gothic Realism calls upon the upper classes to confront their fears related to a perceived ugliness in the poor and working class. Therefore, the Gothic is used not just as an entertainment device, but as a way to essentially scare society into a social epiphany, as they are confronted with a reflection of their social [page 78] monstrosity in the novels and paintings of Gothic Realism, and it is a social monster or haunting specter of their own creation. But of course, that reflection is one that is warped, like a Hall of Mirrors, enhanced and manipulated to accentuate a reflected image of monstrosity. This enhancement, or manipulation, is therefore a trait common to Gothicism as well as to Realism. While Glen Cavaliero argues that the supernatural in Gothicism can be used to enhance “the ordinary exchanges and individual experience of human life” (242), and might also, as Levine argues, “focus on recognizable people in recognizable situations and then intrude something monstrous upon them” (Darwin and the Novelists 135), Realism typically enhances or manipulates its depiction of reality with a social and/or ethical agenda in mind.
For example, an enhancement of the visual on the basis of a socio-ethical agenda is at stake in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in its study and exposition of the oftentimes dark and Gothic nature of the lives of the London poor and working class. Mayhew observes of street art, specifically composed for purchase on the street and often depicting rather sensationalized subject matter (figs. 1 and 2), that “it is not often that illustrations are prepared expressly for anything but what I have described as ‘Gallows literature’” (301). Mayhew also observes that the “artist who works especially for the street trade–as in the case of the man who paints the patterers’ boards–must address his art plainly to the eye of the spectator. He must use the most striking colors, be profuse in the application of scarlet, light blue, orange–not yellow I was told, it ain’t a good candlelight colour–and must leave nothing to the imagination. Perspective and back-grounds are things of but minor consideration. Everything must be sacrificed for effect” (301). As the street artist must cater to the aesthetic taste of potential customers, as well as to a sufficient level of functionality in relation to how the purchased pieces might be viewed, such street art geared more towards the language and program for perception of the poor and working-class. This perception was as manipulated by the sensational as many Realist novels and works of art were manipulated by the sentimental and even the supernatural. [page 79]