Horror, romance, darkness, death and the supernatural are the main elements of the Gothic literature. The main characters are usually maniacal, villainous, extremely idealized and dangerously flawed. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) was a major landmark for the works of famous British novelist and short story writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Her works proves that she truly lived a literary existence. Although Shelley uses these Gothic elements in her work, her novels and short stories explores many thought provoking themes such as the self in relation to society.
Of equal significance was individual weakness, isolation, emotional and internal upheavals caused by supernatural forces. During the 1820’s and 30’s Shelly wrote 21 short stories, many containing supernatural elements. The setting for these stories where times and places far removed from early 19th century England. Her work can be viewed as containing early science fiction elements. Among this collection of short stories about life and the supernatural, was “The Mortal Immortal,” published in 1833. A tale told in flashback, the story is narrated by a 323 year old man called Winzy – the Mortal Immortal. What is the cause of his immortality? He was the former assistant to Cornelius Agrippa a famous German physician, writer, theologian, and alchemist.
In trying to overcome obsessive love, he drinks one of Agrippa’s potions thinking it will cure him or be a love antidote. Instead it is an immortal potion which cannot be reversed. He marries his true love – Bertha. He experiences pain and despair as he must watch her and those he loves eventually age and die. The story begins by the protagonist praising July 16, 1833 as his 323rd. anniversary. He states “This is a memorable anniversary for me; on it I complete my three hundred and twenty-third year! (Shelley).
This praise and happiness dissolves and the protagonist’s internal battle comes to the surface. Instead of enjoying the benefits of everlasting life, his life has only been filled with despair and many unanswered questions. “Am I, then, immortal? This is a question which I have asked myself, by day and night, for now three hundred and three years, and yet cannot answer it… For ever! Can it be? to live for ever! I have heard of enchantments, in which the victims were plunged into a deep sleep, to wake, after a hundred years, as fresh as ever: I have heard of the Seven Sleepers—thus to be immortal would not be so burthensome: but, oh! The weight of never-ending time—the tedious passage of the still-succeeding hours! How happy was the fabled Nourjahad!—But to my task (Shelley).” What is tragedy of immortality? It is time. Time can be viewed perhaps as the common antagonist to all mankind. In this particular case time has a mortal and immortal devastating purpose.
For the protagonist, immortality/ everlasting life and time has become an enemy. For Bertha and others, mortality (susceptibility to death) and lack of time is the adversary. “Where as the latter fears death and aging, the Mortal Immortal yearns for death – it ends his misery. Death! mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? Oh, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness! (Shelley).” Mary Shelley uses time is a significant element in “The Mortal Immortal.” She explores its dualistic and /or pluralistic nature. Can time truly be the healer of all wounds? In the case of the Mortal Immortal, the answer is no.
The Mortal Immortal is physically alive but his soul and spirit is dead because of the perpetual despair he experiences. Is immortality something that can be truly experienced and enjoyed? “The Mortal Immortal” illustrates or seems to suggest that the joy of everlasting life or immortality can only truly be enjoyed when everyone can have the same experience and aging as well as death is finally defeated.