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A Tale of Two Lives: Exploring Mortality, a Supernatural Curse and Overriding Ambition in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Mortal Immortal


Sudipta  Gupta

Assistant  Professor 

Department  of  English 

Women’s  College,  Calcutta

West Bengal, India


Mary Shelley is chiefly known for her magnum opus Frankenstein which is often seen as an incipient specimen of science fiction on the one hand, and as a novel which borrows immensely from the gothic romantic genre on the other. The  Romantic  poets  were  strongly  affected  and  influenced  by  the  gothic tradition in  their  own  ways,  specially  by  the  figure  of  the  wanderer,  the  vampire  and  the  solitary  outlaw  who  sought  after  the  forbidden  which  often  provided  them  with  an  insight  into  the  terrifying  yet  beautiful  mysteries  of  life.  Being the daughter of illustrious parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and later the wife of the famous romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary  Shelley  was  no  stranger  to  the  paraphernalia  associated  with  the  gothic  school  of  writing as well as Godwin’s ideas of social reform and both had a major influence on her works  In her short story The Mortal Immortal, she focuses on the mystery of the irrevocability of a Faustian dream, amalgamated with the supernatural elements of alchemy and science, almost as a continuation of Frankenstein. This  paper  attempts  to  focus  on  how  Mary  Shelley  borrows  a  traditional  trope  prevalent  in  the  gothic  novel;  the  figure  of  the  wanderer  or  the  social  outlaw  in  her  short  story  The  Mortal  Immortal  and  how  she deals with the issues of immortality, a curse- in- disguise and overriding ambition vis-à-vis her more illustrious novel.

Keywords:  Social outcast, Science, Faustian dream, Curse

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein remains a unique novel in the history of British literature as it cannot be classified into a single category. While some critics see it as one of the earliest specimen of science fiction, others call it a feminist interrogation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, while to some others it is Mary Shelley’s revision of Rousseau. However, the personal life of the author has sometimes become a more discussed topic than her literary works, specially due to her illustrious parents and her poet husband which has consequently eclipsed her literary productions and their unique characteristics. As Charles E. Robinson says: “But the notoriety Mary Shelley has gained because of her parents, her husband and her science fiction novel has been at the expense of her literary reputation.” (Robinson, intro, xi) Perhaps, this is the reason why Mary Shelley’s other writings, specially her short stories, have not been the subject of much critical debates and discussions.

                 The short story The Mortal Immortal begins with a three hundred and twenty three year old Winzy, the protagonist of the tale, ushering in the readers to the wearisome burden of his life as well as to judge the issue of immortality vis-à-vis earthly mortality. The readers come to know that Winzy, a poor young man was a pupil of the renowned German scholar, alchemist and occultist of the Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa. The very mention of this figure along with the legendary Faust, who had sold his soul to the devil in lieu of infinite knowledge and his consequent destruction at the hand of the dark fiends foreground and prepare the readers for the subsequent Icarian motive of the tale. The fact that Cornelius tempts Winzy with a purse of gold to stay with him as his apprentice after the dire consequence Faust suffered is no less than the Biblical temptation of Eve to him. As Winzy says: “…I felt as if Satan himself tempted me. My teeth clattered---my hair stood on end:-- I ran off as fast as my trembling knees would permit.” (Shelley, 208) This equating one’s mentor with the devil is a subtle technique used by Shelley which marks a distinct parallel between the German scholar Agrippa and the Genevan scholar Victor Frankenstein.

                   It is only because of his undying love for Bertha, his childhood neighbour and playmate that Winzy agrees to the apprenticeship under Cornelius Agrippa. After her parents die of a malignant fever, an old, rich and childless lady adopts her into her mansion. Bertha remains “true to the friend of her humbler days” (Shelley, 208) and often visits Winzy’s parents, though she does not hesitate to reproach Winzy for his poverty and also accuses him of cowardice: “You pretend to love, and you fear to face the Devil for my sake!” (Shelley, 209) Thus, both Winzy and Bertha, directly or indirectly, links Agrippa with the infernal serpent and his scheming allurements. This childhood friendship of Winzy and Bertha bring to mind the character of Elizabeth Lavenza, who was Victor Frankenstein’s playmate from his childhood, whom he eventually married and lost right on their wedding night. Readers of Frankenstein identify the ominous note by which Mary Shelley’s crafty design hints at the idea that this relationship is also doomed and will bring nothing but disaster for both of them.

                   Agrippa’s preoccupation with his scientific and alchemic pursuits keep him busy and Winzy is left with no option other than waiting for his master and keeping vigil over his work, “feeding his furnaces and watching his chemical preparations.” (Shelley, 209) This leads to his inability to meet Bertha like previous times and in turn, works as a catalyst for the changes in their relationship. Feeling neglected and ignored by Winzy’s inability to be in two places simultaneously, a furious Bertha dismisses Winzy in favour of Albert Hoffer, a young man favoured by her benefactress as well. Winzy rants a thousand curses on Bertha’s inconstancy while green- eyed jealousy replaces his love for Bertha even as he continues to attend his duties.

                    It is this overpowering jealousy of Winzy that becomes the crux of the tale. Agrippa asks his apprentice to wake him up when the liquid in the experimental vial changes colour and warns him not to deal with either the liquid or the vial by himself without consulting him. However, jealousy had already overpowered Winzy like the many headed Hydra and hence Agrippa’s last words before falling to a slumber: “it is a philter---a philter to cure love; you would not cease to love your Bertha--“ (Shelley, 210) brings forth new possibilities of punishing both Bertha and himself by consuming the potion and curing himself of love. As Winzy’s wandering thoughts reach Bertha, he is too busy heaping curses on her disloyalty, and forgets everything about waking up the philosopher. It is only when the liquid in the vessel flashes with a bright spark that Winzy is brought back to the present with a start, and he instinctively gulps down half of the vessel’s contents to cure himself of love, in an absolute contrast to the love potion used by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, much to his dismay he finds his love for Bertha ignited with more passion and more zest. The same woman he had been cursing a little while ago, ironically seems to him now as “thousand times more graceful and charming than ever” (Shelley, 212) and Winzy begins to adore and worship her more than ever.

                    Cornelius Agrippa here becomes a figure akin to Victor Frankenstein: both are  learned men like the legendary Faust figure and both possess a Faustian overriding ambition  to conquer the yet unknown and discover the yet undiscovered. Both are classic Icarian figures, who consider themselves to be as powerful as God, defy the rules laid down by him and have an irresistible desire to decipher the hidden secrets of this world and the divine world aspiring “to become greater than his nature will allow.” (Shelley, Frank, 35) While Frankenstein wants to usurp the role of God in creating another being and infusing life into an inanimate body, Agrippa busies himself with his utmost capacity once again in trying to discover the elusive potion for eternal life, “The Elixir of Immortality.” (Shelley, 213) Both men pursue acts which are transgressive in nature, and their unnatural aspirations remind us of Harry Levin’s words: “…science is ruinous without conscience. It cannot but discern its culture- hero in the ancient myth of Icarus…” (Levin, 163)

                   It takes Winzy, now married to Bertha, five long years to know the truth about the potion he had swallowed and “the vanity of human wishes!” (Shelley, 213) With a masterstroke, Mary Shelley turns the tables on Winzy with an ironic twist: Agrippa reveals the truth of the immortal elixir only on his deathbed. For years, he had been seeking this elixir but it had eluded him until his last breath, while Winzy had gained eternal youth since he had consumed the concoction in absolute ignorance. Here, Mary Shelley juxtaposes matters of life and death, mortality and eternity within this duo of master and apprentice as immediately after his master bids adieu to the mortal world, Winzy realises with a start: “But I lived, and was to live for ever!” (Shelley, 214) He remembers the events of that day, examines himself to perceive any changes that speak of time’s ravages on him within these five years and doubts the philosopher’s last words as nothing but figments of his master’s imagination. Failing to find any prevalent signs of aging he consoles himself by reflecting that perhaps he had only drunk a soul- refreshing drink which was inebriating and its medicinal properties had enabled him to lead a hale and hearty life with joyous spirits. Once their powers gave out, he would also follow the natural course of life and death.

                   The plot of The Mortal Immortal takes a de- tour from here with Mary Shelley borrowing the prevalent trope of the social outcast from the paraphernalia of the gothic tradition who is “the symbol of a severance of communication, of wholeness; and at the same time he is the living evidence of the terror at the heart of the world.” (Punter, 74) As Winzy ponders over the truth about his immortality which turns out to be a curse- in- disguise, he becomes a lonely figure belonging to the same league as the Ancient Mariner and the Wandering Jew. Revoking her most famous work, Shelley establishes Winzy as sharing common traits with both Victor Frankenstein and his creation: all three of them inhabit their own secluded worlds, without a soul to whom they can pour out their worries and the anxiety of their existence and the enigma of their lives. Besides, it is almost as if the soul of Agrippa continues to dwell in this world through his assistant as Winzy was the sole recipient of the fruits of his labours. Just as Victor Frankenstein and his creation become altar egos, here Agrippa, who wanted to live forever on this earth proving his might over God’s decrees fulfills his thwarted wish through the curse of eternal life which Winzy has to bear.

                   As Bertha’s beauty fades away, Winzy discovers a freshness in his cheeks, brows, eyes and finds his whole personality as untarnished as a youth of twenty years. Their neighbours began to believe that Winzy possessed powers of sorcery and necromancy and started to call him Scholar bewitched among themselves. While Bertha becomes an old woman of fifty years, “her vivacious spirit became a little allied to ill- temper, and her beauty sadly diminished,” (Shelley, 215) Winzy is still the fresh youth of twenty years, appearing to others as Bertha’s son than her husband. To maintain the gravity of his age, Winzy restrains himself from joining in the celebrations with the young and gay people, with reluctance on his face to please Bertha and enthusiastic alacrity in his heart as his youthful spirit wanted to participate in the celebrations and merry making. This duplicity of maintaining an outward facade to mask his innermost wishes and turmoil lead him to utter his anguish like Victor Frankenstein: “I, a miserable wretch, haunted by a curse that shut up every avenue to enjoyment.” (Shelley, Frank, 122)  Winzy’s youthful hues and outward appearance, in contrast to the natural way of life, become a matter of chief concern for everyone and the entire community shuns them for it is believed that Winzy still maintains close relations with Cornelius Agrippa’s acquaintances and himself is a practitioner of black arts.  While people still sympathise with Bertha, Winzy is regarded with horror and detestation and people scorn his company for fear of the black arts making him realize that this immortality is actually no better than a curse- in- disguise which has rendered him “…a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others, and abhorrent to myself.” (Shelley, Frank, 126)  Even Bertha begins to believe in the rumour of Winzy being a demonic scholar who practiced necromancy and other black arts, begins to argue for the respect and reverence which grey hairs bestow, and requests Winzy to cast off this magic spell of eternal youth which would put an end to their disgraceful, secluded and isolated lives. She fears the worst for both of them and laments that their neighbours might burn “the old- hearted youth” for being a dealer of the black arts and “his antiquated wife” (Shelley, 215) would be stoned to death for being his accomplice.

                    In an extreme move to save themselves from the wrath of the native villagers, Winzy and Bertha emigrate to a remote part of western France, without informing anyone of their departure. Despite financial constraints and the hardships they would face in a different place with its different language and customs, they undertake this flight to take a final challenge of survival. While Bertha resorts to the use of “a thousand feminine arts-- rouge, youthful dresses and assumed juvenility of manner” (Shelley, 216) to mask up the gray hair and withered skin, and the apparent disparity in their ages, Winzy is forced to conceal his true self within the exterior of his youthful gait. Bertha becomes the stereotype of the jealous wife who is the happiest at every small sign of age and decrepitude that manifests itself on Winzy’s outward appearance. While it becomes a painful experience for Winzy, Bertha convinces herself and her acquaintances that Winzy’s youth was a disease which would suddenly pervade his youthful exterior and express itself in him with all the marks of advanced years. Her warnings propel further speculation and confusion in Winzy’s perplexed mind and the pretences of keeping up appearances before the strangers shatter him even more.

                    Bertha’s death leaves Winzy all alone in this world, both literally and figuratively. He had been a stranger to the outside world for a long time, but now without anyone to talk to and quarrel with even within the domestic space renders him “a sailor without rudder or compass, tossed on a stormy sea--- a traveler lost on a wide- spread heath, without landmark or star to guide him” (Shelley, 217) Like Faustus repenting for half a drop of Christ’s blood for redemption, in his frenzied yearning for death, Winzy seeks desperate consolation in the fact that he had drunk only half of the contents of that magic potion and therefore he is only half mortal. Yet it is unfathomable to number the years which constitute even half of eternity. His situation establishes a familiarity with both Frankenstein and his creature whom society has deserted and who in a state of self- exile, does not care anymore for the customs, mores and regulations of society. “I felt as if I had committed some great crime, the consciousness of which haunted me. I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime.” (Shelley, Frank, 128) His diseased youth makes him long for death like Tithonus with passionate intensity and crave for the silence of the tomb. He is half in love with easeful death: “Death! Mysterious, ill- visaged friend of weak humanity!” and invokes death as a devoutly wished consummation: “O, for the peace of the grave! The deep silence of the iron- bound tomb!” (Shelley, 217) since for him “The cup of life was poisoned forever” (Shelley, Frank, 145)

                        A deathly atmosphere and an uncanny pre-occupation with death looms large over both the narratives and bring about the catastrophes in the lives of the protagonists respectively. In Frankenstein the cemetery becomes a site of forbidden knowledge where Victor Frankenstein assembles the nameless creature without a history, from fragments of corpses in an attempt to recreate life after death while in The Mortal Immortal, Agrippa devoutly pursues his unrelenting mission to discover a death- defying magic potion. Both the scientist and the alchemist are almost equal contenders in their individual races to defeat death and proclaim their superiority over it. The last place Frankenstein visits before leaving Geneva in search of the monster is the cemetery where his father and wife are buried. Similarly, Agrippa’s laboratory where he creates the death- defying drug becomes no less than a graveyard for Winzy, since it his presence in that fateful place which determines the further catastrophic incidents of his life and is instrumental for his obsession with his own death as the natural conclusion to a mortal life, which constantly eludes him: “O, for the peace of the grave! The deep- silence of the iron bound tomb!” (Shelley, 217)

                          While talking about the gothic novel, Ellen Mores holds that “fantasy dominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural with nocturnal intent; to scare.” (Mores, 77) As he roams over the world bearing the burden of the curse in every bone of his anatomy and every inch of his tired soul, Winzy becomes a source of terror to every other living being; one who has defied death and transgressed the laws of mortality and traverses all over this earth perhaps as a punishment of his transgression. He is seen as one who has dared to defy God and his laws by which this world is governed. To the other living mortals, his name itself is symbolic of a potential threat to the society “and the threat he carries with him is of the wholesale disturbance of the natural order…” (Punter, 74) just as Victor Frankenstein had remarked: “I was cursed by some devil, and carried about with me my eternal hell;…” (Shelley, Frank, 162-163) Even Winzy understands that he has broken the natural cycle of life and death and perhaps is doomed to bear this enormous burden forever without a friend, without a partner or even a kindred soul: “and the more I live, the more I dread death, even while I abhor life.” (Shelley, 218)  Enduring such a life for three centuries with an ardent desire for death, his weary soul in constant conflict with the blessings of mortality and the curses of immortality leads him to interrogate himself whether suicide would still be a crime to such a man as him, for whom it was the only option to put an end to his sufferings and thereby put an end to the burden of immortality which becomes too Herculean a burden for his mortal frame to endure. Hence the solitary mortal immortal, weary of the world, weary of himself, weary of a desperate death wish, yet desirous of death utters a final wish to be consumed by the elemental forces: “I yield this body, too tenacious a cage for a soul which thirsts for freedom, to the destructive elements of air and water” (Shelley, 219)  “…and by scattering and annihilating the atoms that compose my frame, set at liberty the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from soaring from this dim earth to a sphere more congenial to its immortal essence.” (Shelley, 219) In this wish to demolish this corporeal frame, there is an unmistakable Biblical echo of a return to the elements, a return to dust fused with the nightmarish consequences of an over soaring Faustian overreacher, whose unnatural machinations hinders the natural course of life. 

                     Both Victor Frankenstein and Cornelius Agrippa as the eminent men of science want to recreate history by reconstructing the story between the creator and creation, by aspiring for personal glory through the use of science beyond the earthly. This ardent desire to achieve personal glory and immortality through the role reversal of creator and creation give rise to this story of the hubris of intellect where the line between life and death, the horizon between mortality and immortality is constantly breached, is transgressed by  the overrider  in the classic manner of Icarus. It is interesting to note that in the process of this transgression of mortal barriers and human capacities, the thin line between humanity and monstrosity also vanishes away: both the over ambitious men, in their zeal to attain immortal personal glory meddle with the natural order of beings, which is no less monstrous than the nameless creature Frankenstein creates and Winzy turns into after consuming Agrippa’s concoction who are exiled from the human race for no fault of their own. This zeal to achieve glory and tread on the sphere of forbidden knowledge ccoupled with their scientific arrogance blinds them to such an extent that they attempt to rival the laws of nature. Both the overreachers bring about their own destructions through their abuse of science where they become usurpers; they usurp the creator’s role as they misuse science with their radical ideas which are completely devoid of emotion. They use their scientific knowledge to penetrate the natural order of beings which jeopardizes the natural harmony between man and nature and ultimately become the instruments of their own destruction (which percolates to the figures of the creator and Winzy as well). Through these two Faustian overriders, Mary Shelley raises pertinent questions about the all pervasive and uninhibited use and abuse of science without emotion, without conscience which leads to a monstrous violation of the natural order of the universe with disastrous and irrevocable consequences, where intellectual hubris leads to isolation, unscrupulous use of science paves the way for extreme alienation.

                  The nameless creature in Frankenstein and Winzy of The Mortal Immortal become parallel figures by a supreme irony. Both are experimental progenies of learned men who manipulate their scientific knowledge ruthlessly for their own personal boundless ambitions.  The creature in his initial days is completely ignorant of the process of his creation and creator and only understands that he is different from the people around him who never extended a friendly touch towards him or associated themselves with him in any way. This segregation and deliberate isolation made him aware of his solitary existence, his hideous and loathsome deformation which gradually led to self interrogation upon the harsher truths of his life: “Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?” (Shelley, Frank, 92) Winzy, on the other hand, experiences a similar kind of isolation and ostracizing after the climax of the short story only when his wife Bertha begins to age and her youthful beauty begins to diminish while he remains the same man of his youth, yet unvanquished by “time’s winged- chariot.” Just as the monster’s grotesque appearance becomes the reason for his social isolation, Winzy’s diseased youth results in his exclusion from mainstream society. The creature’s words of self loathing mirrors Winzy’s disgust for himself and remorse for the human ties which are lost forever, to which he can no longer cling to but only remember as fond memories of a distant past like a rudderless hopeless soldier lost on the stormy seas.

                   In the words of Edmund Burke: “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 sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (Burke, 39) In his earnest wish for death, as well as in life, Winzy is established as a true kin of Frankenstein’s creature by Mary Shelley. The nameless, miserable victim of Frankenstein’s overriding ambitions had also voiced a similar wish for death: “I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been.” (Shelley, Frank, 179) Both these wretched figures, who had faced the consequences of the hellish intentions of their masters and “wandered a friendless outcast over the earth” (Shelley, Frank, 152) express a desire to be consumed by the elements, along with a word of caution for the Victor Frankensteins and Cornelius Agrippas of the future who nurture Faustian dreams and aspire to be Godlike in their ambitions. At the end of the respective narratives, both transcend the burdens of the curses they were compelled to carry within their selves and emerge as humane creatures who suffer for their masters’ overreaching ambitions and Icarian purposes, bringing about a sense of ‘sublime’ which inspires admiration and reverence for both.                          

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Eds. J.T. Boulton. London: 1958. Print

Levin, Harry. “Science Without Conscience.” Doctor Faustus: A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Jump. London: Macmillan, 1975. Print

Mores, Ellen. “Female Gothic.” The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Ed. George Levin and U.C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979. Print

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. London: Longman, 1980. Print

Robinson, Charles E. Eds. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976. Print

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2003. Print

Shelley, Mary. “The Mortal Immortal.” Frankenstein. New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2003. Print